Over the past two seasons, Connor Michelson has become the understudy for Quinn Epperly at quarterback on the Princeton University football team.
The two seniors started last fall on equal footing but lefty Epperly emerged as a star, capturing Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year honors as Princeton shared the league title with Harvard.
Michelson, meanwhile, was relegated to a change of pace role in 2013, hitting on 73-of-129 passes for 757 yards while Epperly passed for 2,137 yards and rushed for 570.
The 6’0, 205-pound native of Plano, Texas has been utilized in the same capacity for the first four games this season, passing for 177 yards while Epperly had thrown for 800.
But last Saturday against visiting Brown, Michelson stepped into a leading role as Epperly was sidelined for the contest, due to being banged up after Princeton’s 31-30 loss to Colgate on October 11.
“When you get opportunities, you have to take advantage of them,” said Michelson.
“I was lucky, it was my first game to play the whole game by myself. Any time you get an opportunity, you have to execute.”
Michelsen proceeded to execute very well, hitting on 33-of-45 passes for 367 yards and two touchdowns as Princeton topped the Bears 27-16 before 5,807 at Princeton Stadium, improving to 3-2 overall and 2-0 Ivy League.
“I just felt good throwing the ball,” said Michelsen, who passed for 267 yards in the first half as the Tigers built a 24-6 lead.
“I had Seth [DeValve] out there which is nice. Anybody can throw balls to Seth and throw for a lot of yards. There were still a lot of throws that I missed and some mental errors, especially late in the game. They are unacceptable and you can’t win tight games with some of those missed throws and errors.”
DeValve, for his part, felt comfortable with Michelsen at the control of the Tiger offense.
“I have just as much confidence in Connor as I do in Quinn,” said DeValve. “Both of them have run this offense for a long time, they both bring different things to the table. When the guy at the time goes down, we have other guys who can play football and Connor can sling the ball. I was excited for him to be able to play, he played a helluva game.”
After missing the last three games due to injury, senior DeValve had a big game against Brown, making 10 receptions for 120 yards.
“It was a joy to be back, it was maybe the most fun game I have played in college,” said DeValve.
“When you are out, you realize what you really have and that you sometimes take it for granted. I was just really happy to be able to play today and go out and help my team win. I was very pleased to have the opportunity.”
Princeton head coach Bob Surace was pleased with the intensity his team showed from the start against Brown.
“I showed a clip yesterday of Muhammad Ali fighting Ernie Terrell, just about his identity, saying what’s my name,” said Surace.
“I thought our identity today was how physical we played. I told them in the locker room how proud I am of them. It was really fun to see, some of those effort plays on all three sides of the ball. The finishes were terrific. There are some execution things that we have to work on but when we play that hard, it is very gratifying to see.”
It was gratifying for Surace to see his team’s depth on display as the Tigers prevailed without leading rusher DiAndre Atwater, who was sidelined along with Epperly.
“Will Powers plays every week and it is next man up,” said Surace, referring to senior tailback Powers.
“When Seth is out, other guys had to step up. The beauty of our offense is that we have got a lot of guys playing on any given week. When we have some guys out, it tightens down just a little. Any time we give them any type of role, they just step up to the challenge. We didn’t have some big pow-wow and say my god DiAndre is out, Quinn is out, what are we going to do. Connor has played a lot of football and the football he has played this year, last year and the year before has been terrific so it is not like there is any panic. We just keep playing and it meant he played 70 plays instead of 30 or 40 plays.”
Michelsen started making big plays from the outset on Saturday, completing passes to Matt Costello and Powers to get the Tigers deep in Brown territory on their first possession. The 42-yard drive culminated with a 26-yard field goal by Nolan Bieck as the Tigers took an early 3-0 lead.
Hooking up with DeValve on four completions, Michelsen engineered another scoring march later in the first quarter. The drive went 80 yards and ended with a nine-yard touchdown run by Powers as Princeton increased its advantage to 10-0. The score marked the fourth straight game that Powers has rushed for a touchdown.
Minutes later, Michelsen hit Costello with a 49-yard scoring strike as the Tigers made it 17-0 with 2:14 left in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Michelsen found Costello again in the end zone as the pair combined on a 17-yard touchdown pass to put Princeton on top 24-0. Brown responded with field goals on successive possessions to cut the gap to 24-6 at halftime.
In the second half, the Bears went to the air repeatedly as quarterback Marcus Fuller put up 43 passes, giving him a school-record 71 attempts on the evening. He completed a total of 29 on the evening for 454 yards. Despite the aerial assault, Brown was only able to generate a third quarter field goal and a touchdown pass with 6:13 left in regulation.
The Tiger defense showed its mettle, utilizing a bend-but-not-break mentality to stall the Bears when they were knocking on the door, holding Brown to field goals for the most part.
“One of the things that we have had trouble with the first four games is the red zone defense,” said junior safety Matt Arends, who had eight tackles and two pass breakups in the contest.
“This week, we stepped up and I know that it was a huge confidence boost. Each time it happened, we felt the energy. I think that carried on throughout the entire game.”
Michelsen, for his part, kept chucking the ball. He found DeValve for a 31-yard completion in the third quarter that set up the final Princeton score of the day, a 26-yard field goal by Nolan Bieck with 2:56 left in the quarter.
With powerful Harvard (5-0 overall, 2-0 Ivy) coming to Princeton Stadium on October 25, Surace knows that his team has to display even more intensity and execution.
“We have got to clean some things up obviously,” said Surace. “We talked about getting ready starting tomorrow and we will do that. To play a Brown team, that is extremely tough and physical year in, year out, like that was fun to see.”
But no Tiger had more fun Saturday than Michelsen. “I am always comfortable when I get out into the game because I know the coaches trust me,” said Michelsen.
“You go out on the field with confidence and you play every game with confidence.”