Princeton University center Joe Goss ignores the chaos around him in the moments before he triggers the highest-scoring football offense in Ivy League history.
It has gone well enough to put the Tigers on the cusp of their first outright Ivy championship in 18 years.
A four-year starter who will work next year at Barclays Plc in New York, Goss is at the core of a unit that is pushing the sport’s boundaries, 144 years after the school played the first intercollegiate football game. The team sometimes plays with three quarterbacks on the field, shifts players before the snap and freely substitutes linemen around Goss.
“We play a lot of guards and a lot of tackles, and he has to fit with a guy to his left or his right that’s a different guy almost every series,” coach Bob Surace said in an interview after the team’s 59-23 win over Yale last week. “He’s the glue that holds it together. You can’t win without those types of guys.”
The Tigers (8-1, 6-0 Ivy) have secured at least a share of this year’s league title and can take it outright by beating Dartmouth College (5-4, 4-2) in Hanover, New Hampshire, tomorrow. Should Princeton lose and Harvard (8-1, 5-1) wins at Yale in the 130th edition of what’s known as “The Game,” the Tigers and Crimson would share the championship.
Princeton’s offense, which leads the league in points, yards and first downs, has gradually opened its playbook in the last four years under Surace and offensive coordinator James Perry, a former Brown University quarterback. Surace said the team runs three-quarterback sets about 10 times a game.
On Princeton’s first score against Yale, quarterback Quinn Epperly lined up under center before nine players went in motion. The line shifted right, with the left guard becoming the center and Goss moving to right guard. Epperly slid into the backfield, and Connor Michelsen stepped in at quarterback.
Michelsen took the snap and handed off to running back Dre Nelson. Going to the stacked side of the line behind lead blocker Kedric Bostic, another quarterback, Nelson ran 42 yards for a touchdown.
“We call it the three-quarterback, two-center play,” said Surace, 45.
Goss, who makes calls for the offensive line, said he and his linemates trust that quarterbacks, receivers and backs are following assignments as they move around. He said there’s added excitement knowing the confusion could produce an explosive play.
“When you know something is going on in the backfield, you get that little extra itch,” said Goss, 21. “We’re thinking, ‘We need to hold our blocks because this play is going to go.’”
An economics major from Massapequa, New York, Goss interned this summer with Barclays and will join the company next year in their fixed-income financing group. He said that while football and finance pose different challenges, he expects his four seasons with the Tigers to aid him next year.
“I look forward to using this experience to push the boundaries of that one,” Goss said.
The Tigers have set an Ivy League record for points in a season with 413, and are averaging 536.2 yards per game in conference play, on pace to break the mark of 509.4 by Harvard in 2000. Princeton’s defense also leads the league in interceptions, with 14, and sacks, with 32.
In Goss’s freshman and sophomore seasons, the team’s first two under Surace, the team had a combined record of 2-18 overall and 1-14 in the league. After a 4-3 Ivy mark a year ago, the 2013 Tigers are reviving the school’s football fortunes.
Princeton clinched at least a share of the conference title last weekend by beating Yale in front of 14,824 people, the most at a home game since Oct. 6, 2007. A win this weekend would secure the school’s first undefeated Ivy season since 1964, and add to the celebration at the Nov. 24 bonfire, held on campus whenever the team beats Harvard and Yale in the same year.
“Our duty is to leave the program and this university in a better place than when we found it,” said Phillip Bhaya, a senior defensive back and team captain. “Especially for our senior class and this team in particular, I think we’ve done that.”
Princeton lost the first intercollegiate football game played, to Rutgers in 1869. The Tigers have won the Ivy League nine times and claim 28 national titles, most recently in 1950.
Ninety minutes before the kick-off tomorrow at Dartmouth, Yale hosts Harvard in in New Haven, Connecticut. First played on Nov. 13, 1875, the year-end contest trails only Lehigh-Lafayette (148 meetings) and Yale-Princeton (136) as college football’s oldest series.
Surace won a shared Ivy League title as a player with the Tigers in 1989 after Yale lost to Harvard on the final weekend of the season. It’s a gift his current players said they don’t want to award the Crimson this week.
“Everyone is very well aware that we do not want to share this title in any way or form,” Epperly, 20, said. “That’s been the goal since Day 1, to win a championship, and I think it would leave a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth if we had to share that.”