When the players on the Princeton University football team convened this summer for their preseason camp, they were issued T-shirts saying “Believe.”
But after falling 17-14 at Lehigh and 21-20 to Georgetown in its first two games of the 2012 campaign, it was hard to believe that Princeton was any different from the teams that posted a combined 2-18 record over the last two seasons.
But then the Tigers rolled to a 33-6 rout at Columbia and followed that up with an impressive 35-14 win over Lafayette.
Last Saturday, the growing belief around the program officially turned to swagger as Princeton suffocated Brown 19-0 before a crowd of 6,482 at Princeton Stadium, stamping itself as a bona fide contender for the Ivy League title.
In handing Brown its first shutout since 1996 and snapping its Ivy record 162-game scoring streak, the Tigers improved to 3-2 overall and 2-0 in Ivy play, tied atop the league standings with Harvard (5-0 overall, 2-0 Ivy) and Penn (2-3 overall, 2-0 Ivy). Princeton hosts the defending champion and 22nd-ranked Crimson this Saturday in the program’s biggest game since its 2006 Ivy title campaign.
Senior star defensive lineman Caraun Reid exemplified Princeton’s self-belief as he reflected on the win over Brown.
“We kept the focus all game; there wasn’t a moment where we had to worry about what we were doing,” said Reid, who had a safety to go with six tackles and 2.5 sacks.
“We were confident from the get-go. We’re playing with an extra little bit of oomph today, which was great. That’s what we need to do. I feel like we just played well. This is what we’re supposed to do. At times, we made mistakes in other games that would cost us, but today we just played really well and it showed.”
The win was even sweeter considering that the Tigers had suffered some adversity during the week as star sophomore cornerback Khamal Brown was lost for the season with a head injury on Tuesday. Brown, who is still hospitalized, wore his game jersey in his hospital bed as he watched the NBC Sports Network broadcast of the contest.
Princeton head coach Bob Surace said the team’s support of Brown gave its post-game celebration a special feel.
“It’s just a real fun, emotional locker room,” said Surace, whose team outgained Brown 380 yards to 242 on the day.
“We’ve had a tough week. Khamal’s dad called Coach [Jim] Salgado and asked for his jersey to see if he could wear it in the hospital yesterday. Just to see our guys come together — they do it every day, but sometimes it takes something like adversity to show it to everybody else. I’ve been coaching and playing around my dad’s team, and you’re just so proud of these guys. I’ve never been more proud of a team than how we just came together this week and supported Khamal while at the same time handling our academic and football duties. It’ll be something we’ll all remember for a long time, and we’ll continue our prayers and support for him. I thanked the guys for everything they’d done.”
The Princeton defense certainly handled its business with aplomb, holding Brown to 17 yards rushing, producing six sacks, coming up with interceptions by Anthony Gaffney and Phil Bhaya, and a fumble recovery by Alex Polofsky in addition to the safety by Reid. The Tiger defense is now ranked first in the Ivies in total defense and scoring defense.
Reid, for his part, said the unit planned to pitch a shutout. “We are not really surprised (at shutout); this is what we expect to do,” asserted the 6’2, 305-pound Reid, a first-team All-Ivy performer last fall.
“Last week, we expected a shutout. There were little things we messed up on, but the expectation is to not let them score. We’ll force them to kick a field goal, then block the field goal. We’re not letting them score. This is what we want to do. This is what we’re supposed to do. We’re happy we’re at this point and we’re going to get better.”
A surprise play helped Princeton draw first blood in the contest as left tackle Spenser Huston gathered in a throwback from quarterback Connor Michelson and raced 15 yards for a touchdown with 4:09 remaining in the first quarter to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
Huston, for his part, was thrilled to hit paydirt. “This is my first touchdown at any level,” said the 6’4, 270-pound sophomore.
“I was definitely excited. I had the easiest job on the field. Connor threw a great ball, we blocked it perfectly. When I caught the ball, there was nothing but green grass in front of me, and it was a walk in there.”
After a Nolan Bieck field goal gave Princeton a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, Reid came up with his scoring play. With Brown backed up at its own one-yard line after mishandling the kickoff, Reid swooped in and tackled Mark Kachmer in the end zone for a safety as the Tigers stretched their advantage to 12-0.
“I just got off the ball as fast as possible,” recalled Reid, who was later named the Ivy Defensive Player of the Week and was awarded a helmet sticker honor by ESPN’s College Football Final broadcast.
“That’s a great credit to our punt team (it was a kickoff actually), but the ball was barely on the one. We just knew we had to get there. We were all hungry.”
Starting the second half up 12-0, the Tigers kept up their hungry play. Princeton extended its advantage to 19-0 early in the third quarter after Will Powers ran eight yards for a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, the Tigers kept the Bears at bay, forcing three punts and stopping Brown on downs to put the finishing touches on the shutout.
In Reid’s view, the Tigers made a major statement with the win over the Bears.
“Absolutely we believed that (we were Ivy contenders going into the game); I believe we sent a message, a very physical message, to other teams in the league,” asserted Reid.
“We beat Columbia this year, and it was like, we beat them last year, great. But we have teams we haven’t beaten in my four years here. I haven’t beaten some teams yet. It’s like a checklist — we beat Brown, we’re going to beat Harvard, we’re going for it. I think we sent that message
The Tigers could send quite a message if they could upset Harvard, which is riding a 14-game winning streak and is scoring 41.0 points a game and giving up just 13.4 points per contest.
In order to overcome the Crimson, Princeton will need to rely on its veteran leaders and the confidence they have developed through maintaining their self-belief.
“When I got the job here; you see some things you’re going to emulate,” said Surace.
“I noticed Brown and I loved how their seniors replace seniors. They just have veteran guys. When you see a junior like Phil Bhaya coming on, Mandela Sheaffer coming on, Andrew Starks coming on, Caraun, Cat, Sotereanos, those names you’ve been saying for a long time, and now they’re finally, finally becoming mature men. That’s what we needed. We still have some young guys, but it’s a mixture and those young guys are being led by mature guys. I can’t say enough good things about their leadership.”