September 29, 2021

Smith’s Passing, Rushing Helps PU Football Rout Stetson, No. 23 Tigers Primed for Ivy Opener Against Columbia

COLE POWERED: Princeton University quarterback Cole Smith heads upfield against visiting Stetson last Saturday. Senior Smith hit on 15-of-24 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 24 yards and two TDs on five carries as the Tigers rolled to a 63-0 win over the Hatters in their home opener. No. 23 Princeton, now 2-0, will start Ivy League play by hosting Columbia (2-0) on October 2. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Cole Smith realizes that he is shouldering a lot of responsibility stepping into the starting quarterback spot for the Princeton University football team.

“I have pressure upon myself,” said senior Smith. “But we are going to go out here and, just the way we prepare from the coach down during the week, it lifts it off our shoulders.”

In dealing with that pressure, Smith has gotten a lift from his predecessors.

“It is getting into a rhythm of how to prepare with school going on,” said Smith.

“Everybody deals with that, it is a different mindset. I have had previous quarterbacks — John Lovett, Chad Kanoff, Kevin Davidson, and Zach Keller — reaching out to me and just being as helpful as they possibly could. That is just the Princeton brotherhood, it is unbelievable.”

Smith is proving to be a worthy successor to those former Tiger QBs, passing for 412 yards and three touchdowns in a 32-0 win over Lehigh in the opener on September 18 and following that up with another superb performance last Saturday against Stetson in Princeton’s home opener. Smith hit on 15-of-24 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 24 yards and two TDs on five carries as the Tigers rolled to a 63-0 win over the Hatters before 4,449 at Princeton Stadium.

Against Stetson, Smith used his legs to get the Tigers in the lead, running for a nine-yard touchdown as Princeton jumped ahead 7-0. After two field goals from Jeffrey Sexton, Smith ran for another score as the Tigers built a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter and the rout was on.

Finding a groove in the passing game after some early misfires, Smith ended the half with a pair of TD passes hitting Jacob Birmelin for a 30-yard scoring strike and then finding Andrei Iosivas for a 41-yard score as Tigers led 35-0 by halftime.

“Coach was calling shots from the beginning. I missed on a couple of those and it was just staying to it,” said the 6’1, 210-pound Smith, a native of Knoxville, Tenn.

“We practiced every single day this week and it was just talking with the mindset that stuff is going to happen. It is our first home game and we are just trying go through the ups and downs of the game and try to stay level-headed.”

Getting their first home game since November 16, 2019 after last season was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, Smith and his teammates were fired up to be playing at Princeton Stadium.

“It was surreal; it felt good to be back at home, it has been a minute or two,” said Smith. “Overall it was just fun.”

Smith has been having fun guiding the Tiger offense. “The protection up front has been phenomenal the last two games,” said Smith.

“It has been really nice to sit back there and be able to go through reads and what not but then also the run game is looking good too.”

The Princeton defense looked very good in posting its second straight shutout, holding the Hatters to a net 26 yards rushing and 171 yards passing.

Senior linebacker Cole Aubrey, who had one sack in the victory, said the defense fed off its fans. 

“It is good just to play in front of our home crowd and defend the home turf,” said Aubrey, a 6’2, 215-pound native of Laguna Niguel, Calif.

“Emotions were high before the game, we were getting hyped. It is good to have a shutout and defend the house.”

The Tigers were particularly strong against the run,  stifling a Stetson team that came into the game averaging 262.5 yards rushing as it got off to a 2-0 start.

“We just had to play physical up front,” said Aubrey. “We did our job. We set the edge and all of that. They struggled and we were happy.”

Aubrey is very happy with how the Princeton defense is playing so far this year.

“I think we have been playing fast to the ball,” said Aubrey.

“You can’t complain with the results with the shutouts. We are going to try to build off of the momentum.”

Princeton head coach Bob Surace was fired up to see his team finally getting to play again at home.

“It was such an energy, you feed off the kids when they are happy and joyful,” said Surace. “The chemistry is really awesome, you feel great for them.”

Surace credited Smith with getting off to great start as he has stepped into the starting QB role.

“His command operationally had just been terrific, literally right from the start,” said Surace.

“He has been really accurate. We have to clean up some stuff. Our receivers have been great. He has been such a poised leader; it has been fun to see his maturation.”

The team’s group of receivers has been showing its maturity.

“They have all played a lot with Kevin [Davidson] and played a little bit with Johnny [Lovett] in the undefeated season [in 2018] so you have veteran guys,” said Surace, who got five catches for 67 yards from senior Birmelin, one catch for 41 yards from junior Iosivas, four catches for 67 yards and a TD from senior Dylan Classi, and two catches for 29 yards from senior tight end Carson Bobo.

“It is not just that they are catching the ball,” said Surace. “Classi and Bobo had some great catches, but they also block for each other. On Classi’s touchdown, it wasn’t just Dylan, it was guys blocking. They all support each other.”

The Tiger defense is supporting the offense. “We are really running to the ball and tackling well. I thought they tempoed us a couple of times and we adjusted,” said Surace.

“The first time they did it, we were a little sloppy. I thought we got better with that. They are playing hard, they are playing with energy. We played a lot of guys today defensively, as many as we could, and they all seem to step up.”

Aubrey has been stepping up at linebacker. “We struggled to block him in camp,” said Surace of Aubrey who had two sacks in the opening day win over Lehigh.

“We have some really good offensive linemen and he was giving us fits. When a guy is doing that, you know it is going to happen in a game.”

The Tigers are girding for a big game this Saturday as they host Columbia (2-0) in the Ivy League opener for both teams.

“I haven’t seen them yet but you know how physical they are,” said Surace, whose team is now ranked No. 23 nationally in the Athlon FCS Top 25 poll.

“You know what Al [Bagnoli] has brought to that program and the players he has recruited. They have been some great battles recently with them. The last time we played here in 2019, it was a 21-10 game. That was an outright fight. You can’t not respect the job he has done at Penn and now Columbia. The buy-in he has there is just tremendous.”

Smith is ready for a big fight against the Lions. “This is what we play for ultimately,” said Smith.

“We love getting two wins early on but ultimately, in a league like ours with no postseason, the regular season is the postseason. We need to have a great week of practice and come out swinging.”