Hampton may be the fastest team Princeton will face all season, and keeping with that theme, we’ll get to the point quickly:
If the Tigers’ offense stops turning over the ball and committing red-zone penalties, the defense appears strong enough to carry this team back to respectability.
Last Saturday Coach Bob Surace ’90’s squad stopped the critical miscues just long enough to break a school record 10-game losing streak with a 24-21 victory over Columbia.
Princeton held Columbia, whose quarterback Sean Bracket had hit five touchdown passes against the Tigers a year ago, to only two of 15 third-down conversions and made another stop on fourth down. Through three games, including one against Football Championship Subdivision offensive powerhouse Lehigh, Princeton opponents are converting on only 30 percent of third downs.
“We had only five missed tackles last week,” said Surace. “Last year there would have been five in a series.”
Last year, the Tigers lost all Ivy linebacker Steve Cody ’12 and their best interior defensive lineman, Caruan Reid ’13 for the season in week one. Their best pass rusher, Mike Catapano ’12, played only half the season. In the defensive backfield, too, Princeton had little injury luck and not much depth, but underclassmen got the chance to play. Now, upperclassmen are back with a vengeance.
“It’s coming,” said defensive coordinator Jared Backus earlier this week.
This year, the 89 points surrendered in three games are misleading enough to be a Princeton Honor Code violation. Seventeen of the 34 points yielded in the week two loss to Bucknell did not require the Bison getting a first down and seven points scored by Columbia were caused by a second interception runback for a touchdown against the Tigers in two weeks.
Brackett finally conducted an 85-yard drive to get Columbia within three in the fourth quarter. But Princeton twice got stops in the final two minutes, the second on an interception by defensive back Harrison Daniels ’12, and finished the game off impressively.
Reid, already drawing double teams, forced a first-half fumble that was recovered by an increasingly dynamic Andrew Starks ’13, for Princeton’s first defensive turnover of the season. Cody, speedy sideline to sideline for a 235-pound player, appears closer each week to his 2009 form. Linebacker Tim Kingsbury ’13 also is playing well in 2011.
“The way Caraun and Steve get better each week, we have the potential to be a great defense,” said Starks. “I’m so much more instinctive than I was last year.”
The secondary, playing mostly without cornerback Blake Clemons ’12, its most experienced defensive back, and two other starters, safety Jaiye Falusi ’12 and cornerback Phil Bhaya ’14, performed greater than the sum of its parts, every coordinator’s dream.
Both Clemons and Bhaya are expected to play against Hampton, but the valued Bhaya still may not regain his starting position, thanks to an impressive stretch by Khamal Brown ’15.
“Khamal’s jump from the first week has been amazing,” said Surace. “He made mistakes that he hasn’t repeated.”
Backups Ivan Charbonneau ’12 and Mike Zeuli ’15 add depth in the secondary as well. If there is one weakness, it may be at safety, where Surace said the Tigers need to make more plays. “We are in the right spot if you draw it on the blackboard,” he noted; the next step will be taking advantage of that positioning.
Against Hampton (2-2), the defensive backs will have plenty of opportunities. Quarterback David Legree, whom Surace said “has much velocity on the football as I have seen on any quarterback, pro or college,” leads a talented passing offense that often employs four- and five-receiver sets.
“They have a quarterback who transferred from Syracuse, a lineman who transferred from Rutgers, a transfer from Virginia Tech,” said Surace. About a dozen Pirates, he said, “could have gotten an offer from every team in the country.”