The only thing longer than some of the plays Princeton gave up last year was its 1-9 season. And when everything goes wrong, the offseason becomes even more interminable.
“We gave them Thanksgiving off but had them in the weight room the following Monday and did not give them a break,” said coach Bob Surace ’90. “We went straight through to spring ball except for a week off for finals.”
And those were just the players who finished the season in any kind of condition to build conditioning. By week two of 2010, six starters already were gone for the season. So are the Tigers ready to kick it off at 6 p.m. Saturday night on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium against 1-1 Lehigh?
Does the Triangle Club show end with a kick line?
“For me, this is the longest time coming since week five,” said quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12, referring to last year’s Brown game, when he was injured and lost for the season. “Some of our guys were out from week one.
“Yeah, I’d say we are ready. I haven’t seen this kind of excitement around here in a long time.”
That’s a good thing, of course, unless an explosive Lehigh team turns it into a bad thing. Composure will be critical.
Princeton’s All-American linebacker, Steve Cody ’12, its best two defensive linemen, Mike Catapano ’12 and Caruan Reid ’13, top offensive lineman, Kevin Mill ’13, and Wornham are hale and hearty again after missing all or huge chunks of 2010. All of them believe the Tigers’ improvement can be more than just incremental.
But with a shortage of returning offensive playmakers – only Wornham and second-string running back Brian Mills ’14 (who is questionable for the opener) scored touchdowns last year – and an inexperienced secondary, beating the Mountain Hawks will be a significant challenge.
“We have looked great [in the secondary] during training camp,” said Surace. “But other than getting some guys cut from NFL teams to practice against, I don’t know how you simulate Lehigh.
“[Quarterback Chris Lum] was good last year against us and has taken it to another level, just been phenomenal. They have two exceptional receivers [Jake Drwal and Ryan Spadola] and a running back [Zach Barket] who has three receiving touchdowns. I don’t know if there are many teams in the country which have this many explosive players. It reminds me of opening against those ranked Holy Cross teams when I was playing.
“We have a lot of experience at linebacker, are much deeper on the defensive line, and I think we’re going to have an opportunistic defense. But our young [offensive] skill guys who are going from 10 plays a game to 50 will have to hang onto the ball. We can’t win a 48-41 game against Lehigh.”
In 2006, Princeton survived a bad first half to win a 10-7 opening game at Lehigh, and the confidence of a Tiger team picked sixth in the Ivy League surged all the way to 9-1 and a share of the championship. Never mind that the Mountain Hawks had already played two games, always the Ivy League teams’ burden in the opener. The 2006 Tigers started to find ways to win from the start of that charmed season.
This year’s team is looking forward to playing Lehigh, ranked No. 19 in the Football Championship Subdivision. “We don’t get to go to a bowl game,” Wornham said, “so this is like a playoff game for us
“Glad to hear he said that,” said Surace. “That’s what I told them last night.”
The coach has been pushing the young players who played significant parts of last season to get stronger and better.
“Because of the experience they got with all the injuries, it’s almost like we now have a second unit on the defensive line almost as good as the first one,” said Catapano.
Even with more depth and some promising freshmen – six members of the Class of 2015 already are first backups on the depth chart – no team can afford to lose its best players. It’s hard to hold a three-point stance with crossed fingers, but after losing Mill last year during camp, this time every projected Tiger starter will be in the lineup Saturday night. Second-string cornerback Kham Brown ’15 and backup tight end Des Smith ’13 will not play, but otherwise the Tigers feel reloaded and reenergized.
“It helps a lot to have a senior quarterback and a Steve Cody who have been through a lot of situations,” said Surace. “And I have told our guys since camp started that Lehigh has had 20 more practices than we get, so we have to get the most out of every one.
“They had a game against Monmouth to get rid of the false starts and those kinds of things. We don’t have that luxury. That’s our disadvantage. But our advantage is we have film of them from two games and they haven’t seen us at all.”
As anxious as the Mountain Hawks might be to see Princeton, they can’t be as amped as the Tigers are to see a new version of themselves after a long, long year.