Princeton Football Overcomes Sloppy Start In Opener, Excelling on Both Sides of the Ball to Beat Stetson 39-14
OPEN THROTTLE: Princeton University football player John Volker races upfield in a 2021 game. Last Saturday, sophomore running back Volker rushed for 32 yards and a touchdown as Princeton defeated Stetson 39-14 in its season opener. Princeton is hosting Lehigh (1-2) on September 24 in its home opener. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
It is a tried-and-true principle of football that a team makes its biggest improvement from game one to game two.
As the Princeton University football team opened its 2022 season at Stetson last Saturday in DeLand, Fla., it sped up the process, displaying improvement within the contest.
After a sloppy start which saw the Tigers fall behind 14-7 on a rain-soaked field at Spec Martin Municipal Stadium, the Tigers tightened up on defense and the offense got rolling as they pulled away to a 39-14 win.
Princeton head coach Bob Surace acknowledged that his squad struggled at the outset with the damp conditions.
“It was pouring, there were so many mishandled balls on both sides where they made an error,” said Surace.
“It is Florida, you have to be prepared. They had towels for the balls and you rotate four balls in the first half. By the second half, you are catching medicine balls.”
The emotions of opening day led to some jumpy play by the Tigers with some false starts.
“They were amped up, we had a few too many uncharacteristic penalties,” said Surace.
“We go through camp, we probably run about 10 plays a day in five or six practices during the week and if we have one false start in those 600 plays, that is a lot. I don’t know if we had three false starts in the entire camp and our defense is running blitzes and moves.”
The Tiger defense also got burned in the early going as Stetson scored on touchdown passes of 60 and 49 yards to forge ahead 14-7 early in the second quarter.
“On their second drive, there was a roughing the passer that was avoidable,” said Surace.
“We had a couple of things we could have gotten off the field on and we didn’t. On the third drive, they got the ball back after a turnover and they hit us with a nice play action. We weren’t disciplined on the back end.”
Getting the opening day kinks out from that point on, the defense led the charge as Princeton got into a groove and ended up dominating the Hatters.
“We were in a great mode, we were off the field in three plays,” said Surace.
“They really settled in, they really did a good job with their discipline after the first 15 plays. I was really, really pleased with how we improved. I don’t think they had a longer series until the last series when we let the clock run out when we were playing a soft zone.”
The Tiger defensive line excelled, controlling the trenches as Stetson was held to -10 yards rushing.
“I thought we did a good job, putting their quarterback under pressure,” said Surace.
“I thought those guys really stood out, I thought we were steady across the board. We played a number of guys. Defensively we were rotating almost every series. I thought that helped us with Florida’s humidity and everything else.”
Surace was pleased with how his squad’s inexperienced defensive back seven came together.
“All seven guys were new I thought their communication was great,” said Surace.
“Liam Johnson has played, Joe Bonczek has played but none of them have played a role like they had Saturday. They really, really picked things up well.”
Princeton’s new starting quarterback, junior Blake Stenstrom, played well, hitting on 23-for-33 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
“I thought Blake had a great pocket presence; when the play dictated a deeper throw, we hit a couple of those and he got the ball down the field,” said Surace.
“When the play dictated getting the ball into the flat and letting JoJo [Hawkins], Andrei [Iosivas] and Dylan [Classi] and the running backs run with the ball after a catch, he did that. He was really composed. For any quarterback that is the challenge when you haven’t been hit in practice. He did a really good job with his decision-making.”
Senior star receiver Iosivas, a preseason All-American, lived up to his billing with six receptions for 84 yards and two touchdowns.
“What I was impressed with Andrei is how he has developed,” said Surace.
“He did a really good job in the passing game. When the opportunities came his way, he did a tremendous job. Watching the video, his blocking has improved tremendously. There were some things we did, getting the ball to the running backs and the receivers and he really sprung some good plays. In the game, I am not watching his blocking, I am watching the touchdowns. You are drawn to the ball. I am watching the film when we got in last night and it was, whoa, this was a big step for him.”
At running back, freshman Ryan Butler, a Bergen Catholic product, made a memorable debut, rushing for 67 yards and two TDs on seven carries and making two receptions for 20 yards.
“Ryan is coming from an elite program, he is polished,” said Surace of Butler who was later named the Ivy League Rookie of the Week.
“The guys that come from there are very polished with their maturity, knowing how to practice. It wasn’t just the runs, he blocked well, he caught the ball well. His all-around game was strong. Ryan is a strong guy and he is very deceptive. On the 25-yard touchdown run, they didn’t catch him. Once he got a little bit of space, he outran the pursuit angles.”
Despite some of the early miscues, the offensive line got in synch as the game went on.
“I thought Carson Bobo’s blocking sets us apart on some touchdown runs,” said Surace of the senior tight end.
“He had a really good day. Our offensive line had five penalties, we have got to clean that up. We can’t have five or we are going to have a long season. Besides that, I thought that was as good as we have blocked in an opener.”
Although Princeton showed progress over the course of the opener, there are several areas of concern as the Tigers prepare to host Lehigh on September 24 in their home opener.
“I can’t just say it is the rain or the wet balls, we have to improve our ball handling,” said Surace.
“We have to cut down on the unnecessary penalties. In football there are going to be some collisions that lead to penalties but all eight of them were unnecessary. There are things we can handle better, like false starts and roughing the passer. It is the worst kickoff coverage overall we have had (as Stetson returned six kickoffs for 147 yards). Our kickoff coverage has led the nation or has been second for like the last six years. For us to get ripped in kickoff coverage was tough.”
Looking ahead to the clash with the Mountain Hawks (1-2) this Saturday, Surace knows that the Tigers are facing a tough test.
“The final scores aren’t indicative of how well they played,” said Surace of Lehigh.
“I have been following their head guy (Tom Gilmore) for a long time, I don’t think he has ever had a team that wasn’t physical. They are always going to be strong-minded, they are always going to be tough. I don’t think there is any team that coach Gilmore has coached that didn’t play hard.”