Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 40
 
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
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GAME SAVER: Princeton University star free safety Kevin Kelleher displays the ball after making a key fourth quarter interception that stopped Columbia’s final march of the day and set up an insurance touchdown in the Tigers’ 42-32 win. The win lifted Princeton to 2-1 overall and 1-0 in Ivy League play. The Tigers, who have won two straight, will look to keep on the winning track when they host nationally-ranked Hampton (Va.) in the first-ever meeting between the schools.

Kelleher’s Big Plays Make Difference as PU Football Outlasts Columbia 42-32

Bill Alden

Kevin Kelleher will be the first to tell you that the Princeton University football team’s defense was not at its suffocating best last Saturday against Columbia.

The Tigers gave up 32 points and 396 yards of total offense to the Lions in the Ivy League opener for both teams.

“Obviously when you look at the yardage and points they put up we have a lot to improve on,” said Kelleher, Princeton’s star free safety.

“I guess you could say it was one of those bend but not break days. We would like to bend less.”

But when it counted most, the Tigers held firm as they turned back a feisty Columbia squad in posting a 42-32 win before a crowd of 7,926 at Princeton Stadium.

The victory improved Princeton to 2-1 overall and 1-0 in Ivy play as it took the first step in the defense of its league title.

The 6’1, 205-pound Kelleher lived up to his billing as the big-play man in Princeton’s secondary, coming up with two interceptions, including a fourth quarter pick that set up the Tigers’ final touchdown which put the game out of reach.

Princeton depends on Kelleher to get the defensive backs in the right place at the right time in his role as the quarterback of the secondary.

“I love it; I’m trying to get everybody lined up,” said Kelleher, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich. who had four interceptions last fall.

“I’m talking out certain things that could happen out there; that’s a lot of the fun of the safety position. You do have some responsibility to get everyone in the right place. There are a lot of times when a play is made on the corner and it could be the safety’s fault for not getting them lined up right. You are under a lot of pressure to get the calls right and make sure everything runs the right way.”

Kelleher almost didn’t have the chance to be calling the signals last Saturday, considering that he hurt his foot in Princeton’s opening night loss to Lehigh on September 15 and left the field on crutches that night.

“That was tough coming out of that game because we weren’t playing well and we knew we had more to show,” recalled Kelleher.

“When you get hurt, in that instant the thought is what could this be, are you done? I’ve been lucky enough to play the last couple of weeks. My heel feels a lot better. It didn’t bother me much tonight.”

Princeton head coach Roger Hughes acknowledged that his team was bothered by a feisty Columbia team that never stopped fighting.

“I am very complimentary of Columbia (1-2, 0-1 Ivy) and how they took advantage of our mistakes,” said Hughes.

“I told Norries [Wilson] that his Columbia team flew around and had more fight than has been at that place in a long time. I have great respect for what they have done and how much they have improved as the season has gone on.”

Indeed, the Lions seemed to improve as the game went on. Princeton built a 21-3 lead with 3:51 left in the second quarter and seemed to be headed to a rout. The Tigers had used a strong ground game to seize that advantage as Bill Foran, Rob Toresco, and R.C. Lagomarsino all scored on touchdown gallops.

Columbia, though, struck back with two big plays in a span of less than a minute. Austin Knowlin scored on a 69-yard pass from Craig Hormann and then Andy Shalback picked off a Foran pass and raced 56 yards for a score as the Lions narrowed the Princeton lead to 21-17 heading into halftime.

Building on that momentum after intermission, Columbia took a 24-21 lead with 8:23 left in the third quarter as Hormann hooked up again with Knowlin, this time for an 11-yard scoring strike.

After Foran tossed his second interception of the game late in the third quarter, Princeton turned to back-up quarterback Greg Mroz. The senior provided the Tigers the spark they were looking for as he led them on an 80-yard march which culminated in an eight-yard scoring run by Lagomarsino, leaving Princeton with a 28-24 lead early in the fourth quarter.

After a Columbia fumble gave Princeton possession at the Lions’ 31, Mroz again led the Tigers to a score, hitting Jake Staser with a one-yard touchdown pass to put Princeton in the lead by 35-24.

Columbia, though, kept fighting, marching 68 yards and scoring on a halfback option pass from Jordan Davis to Jamal Russell. The Lions added a two-point conversion to narrow the gap to 35-32.

The Lions forced a Princeton fumble and Hormann hit Knowlin with a 17-yard pass to put the Lions on the Princeton 38. But Kelleher came up big on the next play as he intercepted a Hormann aerial and returned it to 25 yards to the Princeton 42.

Foran, back at quarterback for an injured Mroz, guided the Tigers in for its final score of the day as he scampered in for an eight-yard touchdown jaunt.

While Hughes wasn’t pleased with how his team squandered its early lead, he admired the character it showed in rallying for the win.

“There was a little relaxation when we went ahead 21-3,” acknowledged Hughes.

“Against a team that has a lot of desire, you can’t do that, We have to find ways to be better in all phases of the game at all times. That said, I’m very proud of our team to come back and take control of the game when we had to and the game was on the line.”

Hughes was proud of how both his quarterbacks handled their roles. Foran ended the game passing for 236 yards and rushing for a team-high 84 while Mroz hit on 6-of-8 passes for 67 yards and rushed for 22 before hurting his hand.

“I think Greg has a different style,” said Hughes, whose team piled up 570 yards of total offense on 330 yards passing and 267 yards rushing.

“What happens to a defense is that you get geared up to play Bill and then Greg comes in. He can throw it around pretty well. I think the other thing that Greg showed is that he is a good athlete, he can run with it too. I give Bill a lot of credit, he came back in and got that last score.”

Hughes knows that his defense will need to sharpen up as it hosts nationally-ranked Hampton (Va.) this Saturday in the first-ever game between the programs.

“We can’t give up the big play, let me say that first,” said Hughes. “We’ve got to do a better job coming out in the second half and making a quick stop. They created turnovers when the game was on the line and that’s something we hadn’t done.”

Kelleher, for his part, was confident that the defense would come through when it counted most. “We’ve talked about it in general in this program, creating a culture of success,” asserted Kelleher.

“We expect to win and play with a swagger no matter what the scoreboard says. Defensively, we had a swagger today. We knew we could dig our feet in and come out with a win.”

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