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(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)

AHEAD OF THE FIELD: Princeton junior running back Greg Fields sprints past Lafayette linebacker Justin Stovall last Saturday as the Tigers opened their season with a 35-18 win over the previously undefeated Leopards. Fields had a career night in the victory as he gained 230 all-purpose yards on 35 yards rushing, 30 yards receiving, and 165 yards returning. Princeton will look to improve to 2-0 when it plays at the University of San Diego this Saturday.
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Princeton Football Clicks on All Cylinders In 35-18 Opening Day Rout of Lafayette

By Bill Alden

As the Princeton University football team took the field last Saturday to take on visiting Lafayette in its season opener, the Tiger players bounced around like pogo sticks, eagerly anticipating the first hostilities of the 2004 campaign.

It is unlikely, however, that any Princeton player was more pumped up for battle than senior linebacker Zak Keasey, an All-Ivy performer in 2002 who was returning to action after having been academically ineligible last season.

Displaying his take-no-prisoners, bruising style, Keasey picked up where he left off as he recorded 12 tackles, including two sacks, to help a suffocating Princeton defense shut the door on previously 2-0 Lafayette in an impressive 35-18 rout of the Leopards before 8,691 at Princeton Stadium. Standing in a hallway by the Princeton locker room, Keasey acknowledged that he had some butterflies bouncing around his stomach before kickoff.

"I was a little nervous," said a smiling Keasey, who has his hair in dreadlocks. "I felt a little rusty, a little tentative the whole first half. I was a little hesitant on my reads but once the second half came around I felt pretty comfortable out there. I've been waiting almost two years to get back out there."

The 6'0, 240-pound native of Clarkston, Mich. said that his hiatus from football had given him a new perspective. "I learned just how valuable a chance I have to go to school here and play football here," maintained Keasey, who led the Tigers in tackles in 2002 with 88. "I feel lucky to have a chance to come back this year on a team of this caliber. Hopefully, we can make some special things happen here that haven't happened in a while."

By virtue of topping Lafayette, which had outscored its first two opponents, Marist and Georgetown, by a combined 65-13, Princeton already achieved something special as it won its season opener for the first time since a 6-0 win over Cornell in 1998 in the first game played at Princeton Stadium.

A composed but relieved Princeton head coach Roger Hughes made it clear that the win was a milestone, particularly coming on the heels of the Tigers' nightmare 2-8 campaign last fall

"That was a big win for our program," said Hughes, who is in his fifth year at the helm of the Tigers and now has an overall mark of 15-25 in his Princeton tenure. "That's the first opener we've won here as a staff. We felt our kids were well prepared. All credit to the players, the amount of work they have done showed."

Hughes acknowledged that he had some butterflies himself in the moments leading up to kickoff. "Frankly, before the game I was nervous that they were too hyped up," said Hughes, whose club raced to a 21-6 lead by halftime and built that cushion to 35-6 by early in the fourth quarter.

"We brought them in and calmed them down a little bit. We tried to emphasize no turnovers and we didn't have one until that very last play (a Branden Benson fumble with seconds remaining). I'm very excited for our team and very pleased with how we played."

Hughes was excited with the return of Keasey as well as two other star defenders, Jay McCareins and Brandon Mueller, who were also academically ineligible last year. Having them in the fold led Princeton to change its defensive scheme to a 3-4 from a 4-3.

"It's good to have those guys back on defense," said Hughes, whose club outgained Lafayette 410 yards to 289 and held Leopard star running back Joe McCourt to 53 yards.

"We talked with our defensive staff and decided that with what we have, let's try to get our best athletes on the field. We didn't use that defense against Yale (in a preseason scrimmage) and we closed our intrasquad scrimmage the other night because we didn't want anybody else seeing it. Overall, it gets our best athletes on the field and it gives us a number of blitzes that we can disguise better off it."

Princeton had plenty of good athletes on the field on the offensive side of the ball as well. Senior quarterback Matt Verbit put on a crisp display as he hit on 18-of-26 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Speedy junior scatback Greg Fields was a spark as he gained 230 all-purpose yards on 35 yards rushing, 30 yards receiving, and 165 yards returning.

The one dark note for Princeton came with the likely season-ending knee injury to senior receiver Clinton Wu, who had 7 catches for 108 yards in the first half before going down.

In Hughes' view, Verbit was the pivotal figure in Princeton's potent offensive display. "I can't say enough about Matt's performance," said Hughes of the signal caller who showed his athleticism with a four-yard scoring sprint as time expired in the second quarter. "He didn't miss one check. He was smart with the football. Our guys rallied around him. He put the ball where he needed to."

One of the people who Princeton wanted to have the ball was Fields, who got off to a strong start last fall but then fizzled out as the season unfolded.

"We have certain people we want to get the ball," said Hughes referring to Fields, who recorded 690 all-purpose yards in 2003. "When he touches the ball, things are going to happen. Greg has always had the ability. Last year he just lost some confidence. I'm not surprised by how he played tonight."

As the Tigers fly out to California to play the University of San Diego Toreros this Saturday, they will be bringing a load of confidence with them.

"Coming out with that big of a win made a bit of a statement," asserted Keasey. "It's important for our guys to get that confidence. We're now 1-0 and it's a big confidence boost. We are looking to carry that momentum to California."

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