When the Princeton University football team started its season by falling behind 13th-ranked Lehigh 17-0 at halftime last Saturday, it looked like the same old story for a Tiger program that has posted two straight 1-9 campaigns.
Princeton head coach Bob Surace wasn’t pleased as he trudged into the locker room with his team at a sun-splashed Goodman Stadium.
“We did not come out and play well in the first half; we struggled up front and all around,” said Surace, whose team was outgained 285 yards to 40 in the half and managed only two first downs.
“They did a great job of getting off their blocks through the first half and we weren’t really giving ourselves a chance. Defensively we were on the field way too long and we struggled on third down.”
But stunningly, the Tigers ended the afternoon by having a chance to win the game as they scored 14 unanswered points in the second half and had the ball near midfield with 3:15 remaining in regulation and down by three.
Lehigh, though, held the Tigers and was able to maintain possession after that as it hung on for a 17-14 victory before a crowd of 7,346 in improving to 3-0.
Surace credited the team’s seniors with holding things together in the face of the Lehigh onslaught.
“The best thing is that some veteran guys kept this thing where there was no panic,” said Surace.
“I felt in the past that some games that were like this snowballed and there was anxiety and a 17-0 game turned into a blowout. We came out in the second half and did a real good job of getting some control of the football and getting some field position. We have a real good group of seniors on defense. We have such high expectations for those guys and they really did a good job. We talked to them about the word believe before the game but I didn’t feel like we really did and then they came together, it was nice to see. Lehigh is a great team but you know what, we can play football.”
Senior running back Akil Sharp exemplified the progress in the tale of two halves as he ended the afternoon with 79 yards rushing and two touchdowns after getting just 15 yards on 10 carries in the first half.
“I think we were just coming together as a team” said Sharp. “Just like what coach was talking about, we came out in the second half and the team was really believing. From there, as a team we got our blocks down. We started to get on the same page.”
Sophomore quarterback Conner Michelson, who got the starting nod after a preseason battle with classmate Quinn Epperly and freshman Kedric Bostic, acknowledged that the Tiger offense needed to give defense a rest.
“The offense started to click better, we saw from the first half that we needed to get the team going,” said Michelson, who hit on 14-of-30 passes for 103 yards in his first college start.
“We kept the defense on the field way too long. That is on me, I have got to get first downs for this team. I have to get the team rolling.”
One of the leaders of the defense, senior co-captain Mike Catapano, liked the way his unit came up big down the stretch when it had a chance to catch its breath.
“When we came out of the locker room in the second half, you started to see those big plays on third down, the stuffed runs, things like that,” said Catapano. “We just have to be more consistent with the big plays.”
In the early stages of the contest, it looked like the Tigers were going to get run out of the stadium by the two-time defending Patriot League champions. After the teams traded punts in the first four possessions of the contest, Lehigh went on the march. Mixing the run and pass, the Mountain Hawks drove 58 yards and went ahead 7-0 after a five-yard touchdown run by Zach Barket.
Princeton nearly got on the board in the waning minutes of the quarter after recovering a muffed punt deep in Lehigh territory. The Tigers got to the Mountain Hawk seven-yard line but were stymied when they went for it on a fourth and one.
The Mountain Hawks dominated the second quarter, taking a 10-0 lead on a 23-yard field goal by Jake Peery and then going up 17-0 after an 59-yard march that culminated in a two-yard touchdown run by Keith Sherman.
In the third quarter, the Tigers kept Lehigh pinned in their territory as they tried to rally from the 17-0 halftime deficit. After its first three possessions ended with punts, Princeton started moving late in the quarter. With Sharp catching fire, the Tigers marched through the Lehigh defense. Sharp gained 34 yards on the last three plays of the drive, including a 13-yard touchdown gallop, as Princeton narrowed the margin to 17-6. The extra point attempt was blocked
Minutes later, the kicking game helped Princeton as it recovered another mishandled punt. Starting at the Lehigh 28, the Tigers cashed in this time with Sharp scoring on a one-yard plunge. Michelson then hit Roman Wilson in the end zone for a two-point conversion as Princeton narrowed the gap to 17-14.
The Tigers got the ball one more time and were forced to punt. Lehigh took possession with 2:38 left and never relinquished it, converting on a third down and 11 as tight end Dylan Colgate made a 27-yard reception with just over two minutes remaining to seal the deal.
While Surace was heartened by his team’s rally, he made it clear that another loss was not acceptable.
“There is going to be some attaboys and good efforts and everything else,” said Surace.
“For us to improve as a team, that can’t be the case. It’s got to go beyond the great effort from the hanging in there to winning a game that we gave ourselves an opportunity to. We made some mistakes at the end and we couldn’t get the ball back.”
With the Tigers hosting Georgetown (2-1) this Friday in its home opener, Surace is looking for his players to clean up those mistakes.
“The big thing is that I told them in the locker room last year is last year and unfortunately we weren’t able to turn it around,” said Surace, whose team stumbled to a 34-9 loss to Bucknell last fall after playing well in a 34-22 opening day loss to Lehigh.
“We have a short week this week, we play on Friday night. Tomorrow is the day that we start to correct errors. Whether we were able to make one more play at the end of the game and come back or not, there was going to be a lot of corrections. I am sure if you ask coach [Lehigh coach Andy Coen], they made a lot of corrections from week one to week two and they are playing better right now. It’s just the nature of it so we are going to have to do that and do a great job.”
Sharp, for his part, believes that Princeton’s second half effort shows that the program is on the verge of turning things around.
“I think that it is just a tribute to us continuing to work hard and to push toward getting this thing on the right path,” said Sharp.