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Vol. LXII, No. 38
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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BRIAN’S SONG: Princeton University football senior quarterback and tri-captain Brian Anderson displays his passing form. After riding the bench most of last fall, Anderson led Princeton to a victory over Dartmouth in the season finale. The Tigers are hoping he will pick up where he left off when they begin their 2008 campaign by playing at The Citadel this Saturday.

PU Football Relying on Chemistry, Efficient Play as It Kicks Off Season With Battle at The Citadel

Bill Alden

One doesn’t have to go beyond the cover of the Princeton University football team’s playbook to learn a major theme of the upcoming season.

“On our playbook we have the quote ‘zero turnovers, we win,’“ said Princeton head coach Roger Hughes at the program’s recent media day. “So we have made a huge emphasis on both sides on cutting down turnovers.”

Last fall, the Tigers’ propensity for miscues turned a promising season into a frustrating 4-6 campaign which saw Princeton go 3-4 in Ivy League play, tying Penn for fourth place in the league standings.

The record was a major disappointment for a proud program which went 9-1 in 2006, tying Yale for the Ivy crown, and posting a solid 7-3 record the season before that.

As Princeton prepares to travel down to South Carolina this Saturday to open its season with its first-ever meeting with The Citadel, Hughes acknowledges that turnovers are just one of the issues his team has to address in order to regain its winning ways.

“When you look at it, three statistics would have changed last season from 4-6 to 8-2 or 9-1,” asserted Hughes, who brings a 39-40 record into his ninth season heading the Tigers.

“No. 1 is turnovers; we were ranked 100th nationally of 124 teams last year. No. 2 is red zone efficiency on both sides of the ball. We didn’t score enough when we got inside the red zone, part of that is turnovers. We need to stop people and hold people to field goals down in the red zone. The third one is third down productivity, offensively and defensively. We have to be better on third down situations.”

In terms of cutting down turnovers offensively, Princeton will be relying on senior quarterback and team tri-captain Brian Anderson, who showed promise as he started the Dartmouth game last year and led Princeton to an overtime victory.

“Brian’s father was a coach so he understands the coaching world and he understands football very well,” said Hughes, whose back-up QB will be talented junior Dan Kopolovich, a star defensive back last season.

“He brings an uncanny work ethic to what he does; he leads by example. Our players love playing for him; he’s gained their respect because of how hard he has worked; not only in the weight room and running but also in the film room. He’s actually a great assistant coach in our meetings.”

Anderson will have some good targets in senior Will Thanheiser (27 catches for 369 yards in 2007) and senior tri-captain Adam Berry (26 catches for 420 yards in 2007).

“Will is in the best physical condition he has ever been in,” said offensive coordinator Dave Rackovan, who is also high on sophomore backup receivers Trey Peacock, Matt Ransom, and Andrew Kerr.

“He is probably having the best spring and fall he’s ever had. We are excited about him. Adam Berry brings an unbelievable work ethic; that’s why he was chosen as captain. No matter what he does, special teams or receiver, he plays at high energy.”

Rackovan is expecting some high level performances from junior tailback Jordan Culbreath.

“I like where Jordan is; Jordan started out as somebody who we didn’t know much about and I think he exploded,” said Rackovan of the 5’11, 195-pound Culbreath, who rushed for 253 yards last season including a 145-yard effort in a win over Cornell.

“He gets better every game and every practice. He’s a kid that rarely misses anything; you have to take Jordan out physically to miss a practice. He had a great spring and he has continued with a great fall. I really like the direction we’re going with him. Hopefully, he’ll be a go-to guy for us.”

The offense, though, isn’t going to go far if the Tigers don’t sort out their offensive line.

“J.P. Makrai and Mark Paski have been around; they are both athletic, we like those guys,” added Rackovan, referring to the team’s starting tackles.

“The problem has been in between the tackles is where we have had the injuries and inexperience. Andrew Hauser has been injured but he has the potential to be just as good a football player as both of those guys. Matt Reynolds started the last game for us last year at center. He has a chance to be a pretty good center but he’s not consistent enough yet.”

There is plenty of consistency along the defensive front with the return of a trio of seniors, tri-captain Matt Koch, Peter Buchignani, and Tom Methvin.

“We have guys who have been there three years,” said defensive coordinator Steve Verbit, who also plans to use sophomore Joel Karacozoff and senior Pat Gallagher, a former Hun School standout, on the line. “You can’t do much better than that, not only experience-wise but they have pretty good size.”

The linebacking unit returns junior John Callahan and senior Collin McCarthy on the outside. Verbit noted that the two have added toughness and competitive fire to go with their speed.

Sophomore Steven Cody and junior Scott Britton have emerged as the starting inside linebackers with Verbit forecasting that the pair will be responsible for a lot of big hits this fall.

“Cody and Britton are both fiery young guys,” asserted Verbit. “They have great attitudes, their enthusiasm is unbelievable.”

The Tigers, though, could take a big hit if their secondary doesn’t come around.

“We are still trying to figure out what our secondary is all about,” said Verbit, who conceded that the unit is the team’s biggest question mark. “We have two guys that are experienced there in safety Wilson Cates and cornerback Cart Kelly. Right now there are a number of guys we are looking at for the other positions.”

Players in the mix include Carlos Roque, Barry Newell, Glenn Wakam, Evan Ayasso, and Peter Ploszek.

Verbit is hoping that his front seven can cover for the defensive backs, at least in the early going.

“With an inexperienced secondary, your best friend is a pass rush,” said a smiling Verbit.

“Those guys up front better find a way to get to the quarterback. If they don’t, then Callahan and McCarthy better find a way to get to him. The front seven has pretty good speed; it’s a matter of turning that good speed into pressuring the quarterback and making him feel uncomfortable on every play.”

The kicking game has the Princeton coaches feeling pretty comfortable. “We return both placekicker Connor Louden and punter Ryan Coyle,” said Hughes.

“Ryan was the All-Ivy punter last year so there are no questions there. We have to find our kickoff guy; we’ve got to be more consistent with that than we were last year. We are still trying to figure out who the returners are going to be.”

While Hughes and his staff have to figure out some personnel issues, they have no qualms that this team has the right mindset to help the program return to the top of the Ivy heap.

“I think this team is a very close-knit team; I think their work ethic has been pretty good,” said Hughes.

“Our goal now is to make sure that they focus on the right things to help us win games. The chemistry reminds me a lot of the teams of ’05 and ’06. I don’t want to put extra pressure on them but that kind of chemistry exists. We don’t have the kind of experience at a couple key positions like we did then but they are really fun to coach because of that work ethic and commitment.”

They will need that commitment this Saturday when they face No. 22 Citadel (1-1), who was last in action when it lost to national power Clemson 45-17 on September 6.

“My hope is that Clemson was so fast that when we get down there, we will be like the human changeup,” said Hughes.

“They are very good. When we signed the contract, the program wasn’t as good as it is now. It is a credit to Kevin Higgins and the job he has done down there the last four years. They are talented, they have a receiver (Andre Roberts) who is big-time, he can play anywhere. They have a couple of defensive linemen who would start for anyone in the Patriot or Ivy League. It is going to be a very difficult game but one the kids are looking forward to.”

In preparing for the trip to sultry South Carolina, Princeton has adjusted its practice schedule. “We have been practicing at mid-day as much as possible,” said Hughes. “We are in the heat and humidity as much as we can. We are doing extra conditioning before team periods so they are used to playing tired.”

While Princeton may be ready for steamy temperatures, it remains to see how the Tigers will respond in the heat of battle.

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