Football preview: Princeton at Brown

Princeton leads the Ivy League in rushing with 180 yards per game. Chuck Dibilio ’15 ran for 147 at Hampton last week to become the Ancient Eight’s rookie of the week for the second time in four games and followed Brian Mills ’14 as the second 100-yard-plus gainer for the Tigers in two weeks.
 
“In the last two years, I haven’t seen an offensive front and running backs play as well as ours did against as good a defense as Hampton’s,” said offensive coordinator James Perry. “They really have some athletes.”
 
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The Tigers pounded for 256 ground yards against a Hampton defense believed to have more talent than any in the Ivy League. Saturday afternoon at Brown, the Tigers’ next challenge will be pushing through for the final yards in drives: Princeton has only two rushing touchdowns this season and has converted just five of 19 opportunities inside their opponents’ 20-yard line.
 
Princeton’s red-zone package has been damaged by the loss for the season of Connor Kelley ’14 (knee), a quarterback-turned-receiver who was expected to take some snaps in a Wildcat formation. Another quarterback, Quinn Epperly ’15, ran an end-around option for a first down on Princeton’s one touchdown drive in the 28-23 loss to Hampton and will get further opportunities, as will Isaac Serwanga ’12 , who had his best game with seven catches at Hampton and has the size (6 feet, 3 inches) to come down with balls thrown into the end zone against mostly smaller cornerbacks.
 
Against Columbia, quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12 shook off a second interception return in two weeks to lead the Tigers back to their first win in 10 games. He could have had a better day, however, at Hampton. Wornham (19-for-39 with one interception) warmed up in the second half but still failed to complete a pass into the end zone on Princeton’s final three offensive plays.
 
 “Yeah, [receivers] were open,” Wornham said. “I need to throw the ball harder, make better decisions earlier, put the ball into a better spot.
 
“The routes were there, we had good designs down there. Hampton did play more [man-to-man coverage] in the end, made the windows a little tighter, but I’m a college football player. I need to put those balls in there.”
 
The quarterback’s performance has been up and down, but his confidence remains high, which is reflective of the team. There is a clear vibe that the Tigers feel they are improving.
 

Throw out the thrown-away (six turnovers) loss to Bucknell and there is much to like about the start to this season, despite a 1-3 record. The physical and mental fragility of 2010 seems replaced by the enthusiasm and talent of 25 freshmen and sophomores already in significant roles.
 
“It’s not the same at all as last year. ” said left guard Matt Allen ’12. “Guys can’t wait to get out here [at practice] and get better.”
 
Linebacker Andrew Starks ’13, who is emerging as a difference maker, likely will play only half the snaps Saturday because of a knee injury suffered last week. But a defense that forced two safeties and three turnovers while holding Hampton to just one scoring drive in the second half is rotating eight defensive backs and eight defensive linemen, and is much deeper at those positions than a year ago. And nothing keeps a defense fresher than offensive ball control.
 
As long as the holes continue to open for Dibilio, Mills, and Akil Sharp ’13, there will be opportunities beyond this week for Princeton to show it is headed in the right direction. And, should they seize their immediate chance against 3-1 Brown, a serious Ivy contender that lost its opener to Harvard, the Tigers would be 2-0 in the league for the first time since 2006.