October 29, 2007

Despite FG miss, special teams lead Red

Print More

Under the glaring sun of a lingering Ithaca summer, football head coach Jim Knowles ’87 was asked what the positives were following a long scrimmage and practice with Ithaca College. One of the first things he singled out was an aspect of a team that rarely gets discussed.
“Special-teams wise we were way ahead of the game,” he said at the time.
Roughly two months later, the Red’s special teams are still coming up big for the team. Unfortunately for the squad, however, Princeton’s (3-4, 2-2 Ivy) special teams were equally productive in Cornell’s (4-3, 1-3) 34-31 loss to the Tigers last Friday.
With plenty of offense to go around — 791 yards between the two teams — the Red seemed to move the ball better when the special teams picked them up. Three out of the team’s five scores came after a special team’s play that put the offense in good field position.
Trailing 14-7 midway through the second quarter, the Red defense held firm. It stopped the Tigers on third-and-one to force Princeton to punt from their own 28. After the long snap, however, the middle parted for sophomore receiver Jesse Baker — who had seven catches for 69 yards — who burst through the line and got two hands on the punt. The ball bounced pell-mell toward the Cornell goal line. Junior receiver Horatio Blackman scooped it up at the 18 and pulled tacklers with him to the 12.
One play later, the score was tied at 14 apiece.
“We schemed that out, that punt block play, and I thought special teams did another great job today,” Knowles said. “… We schemed up the punt, did well on it, and executed it.”
As often as special teams can be the unsung heroes of a game, one mistake can turn the tide of the game just as quickly as one punt block or long return can.
After Princeton scored a go-ahead touchdown to make it 20-14, the field goal unit lined up to kick the extra point — usually a given to most sports fans. The snap went high and sailed through the holder’s hands, though. Two quarters and about an hour later, the effects of the botched point were felt as Cornell lined up for a potential game-tying 48-yard field goal instead of being forced to try and bomb it into the endzone.
Princeton would not have won the game, however, had it not been for its field goal unit.
Cornell had just gone ahead 21-20 with 1:15 left in the first half when Princeton engineered a march downfield. The Tigers moved the ball to Cornell’s 22-yard line before two incomplete passes left them with a fourth-and-three decision with 27 seconds remaining. They lined up to go for the field goal, but holder Brendan Circle got up out of his crouch and ran to the left. Senior co-captain Colin Nash closed on him, but Circle slipped his tackle as well as that of senior safety Chi Chi Madu on his way to the sideline and the endzone 22 yards later.
“Sometimes, what goes around, comes around,” Knowles said. “I thought we didn’t do a great job with that, preparing for that.”
The specialized units weren’t done for the Red, however. The return squad had yet to make a significant impact on the game as it had in many games to this point. This changed on the opening kick off of the second half. Walters took the ball at his own 14-yard line.
“[I] got plenty of blocks,” he said afterward.
Walters — who totaled 272 yards of total offense, including 101 on five kick returns — took it 32 yards to just before the midfield marker. The offense took over from there, riding the back of sophomore running back Randy Barbour to the two where junior quarterback Nathan Ford punched it in.
“As an offense going on with a short field, it just changes your whole mindset,” Ford said. “You go out there and you see the endzone’s real close and you just want to score right away. It’s definitely huge for our offense.”
Walters came back right away and did it again when Princeton petered out after five plays totaling 12 yards. Walters fielded the punt at the Cornell 25-yard line, then followed the trajectory of the ball running it right up the middle the opposite way. He brushed off a few tackles, cut right and made it to the outside before being pulled down seven yards into Tiger territory.
“Bryan is another one of our dynamic weapons,” said junior receiver Zac Canty. “We follow him, and as his day goes, our offense goes. He set us up in great position all day, and that’s why we were able to put a lot of points on the board, which was unfortunately not enough.”
On that return, Walters moved quickly, and so did the offense on the ensuing drive. Ford used his dink and dunk approach and Barbour got the squad in a first-and-goal situation before senior Peter Zell booted a 26-yard field goal to increase the Red’s lead to 31-27.
Some of the blockers that Walters singled out in particular were from the teams secondary.
“They have been blocking good all year,” he said. “… It’s so important to have that confidence back there. I have so much confidence in every one of them. The corners are making the blocks all the time. … I always know the corners are going to make their blocks. It just helps so much down there, it gives me confidence.”