Behind Enemy Lines: Princeton coach Bob Surace
Winning the Ivy League title in football is something that few coaches ever accomplish. For Penn coach Al Bagnoli and Princeton coach Bob Surace, it took less than four years to win their first Ivy titles. On Saturday, the two will go head-to-head as Bagnoli travels to Princeton for the last time as a coach. In preparation for Saturday’s showdown, The Daily Pennsylvanian had the chance to speak with Princeton coach Bob Surace. Though he is the shortest-tenured Ivy League coach, Surace has already left his mark in the Ancient Eight by winning the title in 2011. Now second in the Ivy League race, Surace looks to take down Penn to keep Princeton's title hopes alive.
DP: Princeton has won against the Red and Blue once in the past five contests. How do you think this year’s team will stack up against Penn?
BS: It’s going to be two teams that fighting and scratching and playing as hard as they can and I expect it to be a well-played game on our end. We’ll have to be really good at taking care of the ball and I think some of the things Penn’s doing offensively are really tough to defend.
DP: Last year, Princeton upset Penn during the Quakers’ Homecoming. How important will it be for the team to prevent that from happening this weekend?
BS: We can’t control the opponent and coach Bagnoli has been there 20 years and his team’s played hard every game. They come out fighting and playing hard and playing the game right and everything else but what we can control is playing the best we can play and hopefully making good decisions and taking care of the ball. I played in 1989 and that game had as much relevance as the game five years ago. … Knowing that this year’s out of conference schedule was brutal, that prepares them for these games down the stretch. We’re gonna have to come out, match their intensity, and play hard.
DP: How do you think your defense will handle Penn’s rushing game this year? Princeton has a great run defense but how does going up against a running back by committee affect the gameplan for Saturday?
BS: It’s not only the running back by committee. We struggled against it last year. I know Kyle Wilcox and the rushing attack were terrific against us, Kyle especially. It’s not only the fact that they can run right at you and come right downhill, but their perimeter screen game just spreads the field out so much and it really makes it difficult to defend the width of the field because the second you cheat on a responsibility they’ll throw it out to one of their wide receivers, usually Spencer Kulcsar, and that really extends the field. We’re going to have to do a great job tackling and doing the best we can to hold the line of scrimmage.
DP: Speaking of the running game, Princeton has been outrushing teams all season. How important is it establish the running game early?
BS: I think that is an important part of what we do. Obviously when I came here five years ago, looking at trends Penn’s had the most successful program and being able to run the football in this League is important. That’s easier said then done. They have a terrific defense. Dan Davis, my goodness, it seems like he’s been there forever. He’s just making play after play and they’ve got a terrific group supporting him. We’re going to go out doing our best to get leverage and create a few creases which is very difficult to do against their defense.
DP: There are a couple of key individual matchups going into Saturday. Which matchup has been most emphasized in practice?
BS: Obviously they have terrific football players. Their record is not indicative of how they’ve played. … It’s been a bunch of things that happens on their way. We have to hope that happens one more week. … They have Dan Davis, some returning all-Ivy guys like him. Their quarterback play, [Torgersen's] gotten better. I watched every single week and he continues to get better in his decision-making. He’s a sneaky good athlete and may not get credit for it as much because he can throw the ball down the field on time, accurately, and he has a strong arm, so that really puts stress on the defense.
DP: A little bit on Coach Bagnoli: you didn’t ever play against him as a lineman but you have seen his work in play as a coach. What do you think of Bagnoli as a coach?
BS: You take from a lot of people that you work with as a young coach and I was very fortunate to have some great mentors but when you go into a league, you study the best team and what makes them successful. There’s such great admiration for the type of team that he builds year in and year out, regardless of record. They play hard, they play fast, they play physical, they run to the ball. They’re all legal hits. They represent the Ivy League with distinction, the guys on the team. You say all those things with great admiration. We try to move our program upward in the Ivy League and there are a lot of things that you see that he’s done.
DP: And what do you think of the transition from Bagnoli to Priore?
BS: The defense plays aggressive. Obviously the game changes and you make changes as the game changes. When you hire from the outside, there are usually major changes: when a program has struggled then there is that reason. In Penn’s case, they’ve been such a terrific program over a long period of time and you hire from within, there’s continuity; he knows the Ivy League, he knows the Ivy League recruiting, for him, there’s no big jump. He knows the players on the team, he knows the offseason program. All those areas, he’ll put a stamp on it; every person will. I’m sure he’ll make some minor changes that anybody would but when you’re from within and when you know the guys and the players know you I think there’s that continuity. I can’t imagine when you have the style of defense they play and how aggressive and how detailed and how exact they are in their responsibilities. That’s not going to change one iota. He’s going to continue to have them play physical and hard and all the bedrocks that they’ve hard in terms of building that solid foundation have already been established. They’re going to continue to do that and expand on it.