September 28, 2022

With QB Stenstrom, LB Johnson Emerging as Standouts, PU Football Tops Lehigh, Primed for Ivy Opener at Columbia

STANDING TALL: Princeton University quarterback Blake Stenstrom gets ready to fire a pass last Saturday against visiting Lehigh. Senior Stenstrom hit 25-of-34 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown as Princeton defeated Lehigh 29-17 in its home opener. The Tigers, now 2-0, open Ivy League action by playing at Columbia (2-0) on October 1. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Last fall, Blake Stenstrom and Liam Johnson were part of the supporting cast as the Princeton University football team rolled to a share of the Ivy League title.

This season, senior quarterback Stenstrom and junior linebacker Johnson have earned leading roles for the Tigers and are emerging as stars.

Last Saturday as Princeton defeated visiting Lehigh 29-17 in its home opener to improve to 2-0, Stenstrom hit on 25-of-34 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown while Johnson made a team-high 10 tackles.

After a bit of a shaky start against the Mountain Hawks, Stenstrom got into a groove.

“There were some challenges that we faced and mistakes we made in the first half,” said Stenstrom who was the backup quarterback in 2021, appearing in five games, completing five passes for 44 yards along with 68 yards rushing and two touchdowns. “Some things didn’t go our way. In the end, we figured it out a little bit and came back with a stronger second half.”

Utilizing Princeton’s crew of skill players, Stenstrom spread the ball around. Senior receiver Andrei Iosivas made seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown while senior Dylan Classi had seven receptions for 110 yards, junior JoJo Hawkins made five catches for 34 yards, and senior tight end Carson Bobo had four receptions for 22 yards.

“We are blessed to have a lot of talent all over the field on this team,” said Stenstrom. “Whether it is tight ends, receivers or running backs, I don’t feel any doubt when I throw the ball to these guys. It is fantastic.”

In getting ready for his starring role, Stenstrom put in a lot of time over the offseason.

“There is a lot of preparation we did all summer, all winter, and spring ball too,” said Stenstrom. “I felt like it was my team for sure. I was grateful to have a lot of supportive guys around me too. We practiced hard and we got ready.”

With two starts under his belt, Stenstrom is ready to keep improving.

“Game experience is something you can’t replicate,” said Stenstrom. “In practice, you are not taking live shots, you are not getting tackled, and the looks are a little different. It is great to just get some experience. That is probably the biggest thing I will improve on week to week.”

Stenstrom took an unusual path to Princeton, having transferred from the University of Colorado in 2020 after spending two seasons with the Buffaloes.

“Princeton recruited me pretty heavily after high school, but I got offered to go to the University of Colorado,” said Stenstrom, a 6’5, 220-pound resident of Highlands Ranch, Colo.

“I had a great time there, some things were out of my control. There were a lot of coaching changes, and a lot of factors went into transferring when I transferred. Princeton was able to reach out and I was very blessed to come here.”

For Johnson, working his way into the starting lineup has been a family affair as his brothers, Tom (’19) and James (’21), who were both star linebackers for the Tigers.

“I have followed my brothers’ footsteps in high school too,” said Johnson, who attended his first Princeton football game in 2015 at age 13. “They are very good with helping me. They are calling me before the game and just telling me to stay calm.”

The Tiger defense was very good in the third quarter, making two interceptions and recovering a fumble in the third quarter to help Princeton seize control of the contest after the foes were tied 10-10 at halftime.

“It is a lot to come home here, we are a young team,” said Johnson. “I think we settled in pretty well and started getting the calls right. We started bluffing more, getting the quarterback on his heels a little bit. They started carrying the ball loose and we harp on it in all of our meetings, getting the ball, winning the turnover margin.”

Johnson got after the Mountain Hawks, making a team-high 10 tackles.

“The nose guard and the three technique positions are pretty underrated, and they carried a lot of the blocks for me,” said Johnson, a 6’0, 220-pound native of Moorestown. “There were just wide open gaps because of my guys — they worked hard this week. We watched a ton of film this week. We just played our game and it showed.”

After playing mainly on special teams last year, Johnson is excited to be seeing more playing time but is quick to point out that it is a team effort.

“Going from seventh string to getting a majority of the reps is pretty difficult,” said Johnson. “We have this thing, it is the next man up. It was huge for us to just get this win today. I had a big role in that, it is about the other guys. It is continuing to play our game, especially heading into Ivy League play.”

Princeton head coach Bob Surace acknowledged that the Tigers were choppy in the early going of the game.

“That is kind of who we are right now, we have got to get off to better starts,” said Surace of the Tigers, who went up 7-0 in a Ryan Butler touchdown run but then gave up 10 unanswered points to Lehigh and knotted the game at 10-10 on a 44-yard field goal by Jeffrey Sexton.

“I don’t want to be sitting here, getting into league play, and saying the same thing, like ‘hey we are a little sloppy at the beginning.’ I thought the first drive on offense was terrific and then we got into this sloppiness.”

The defense helped turn the tide by getting the three turnovers in the third quarter as the Tigers outscored the Mountain Hawks 13-0 in the period on two field goals from Sexton and a two-yard TD run by John Volker.

“We got off blocks better, we did a really good job with our eyes and our coverages,” said Surace. “I thought we were really sharp. Our rush picked up as well. We did a good job forcing some throws under duress. We had a couple of nice interceptions and a fumble when that guy was running. We punched it and knocked it out, that was a nice play.

Surace acknowledged that Princeton didn’t cash in enough on the good work by the defense.

“We should have scored more points. We had three turnovers in a row and a blocked punt,” said Surace whose team got its final score of the day when Iosivas got loose for a 65-yard TD reception down the sideline early in the fourth quarter. “We have got to grow.”

Seeing Johnson grow into a star like his brothers before him is heartening for Surace.

“His mom and dad make me mad, we need more,” said Surace with a chuckle. “They all have incredible leadership motors and physical play and they just love football. You can’t get enough guys like that on your team. I really thought Ozzie Nicholas played well, as did Joe Bonczek and Anthony Corbin. We have a great mix in there right now. As they get experience, they are going to be a pretty good crew.”

While Stenstrom had his ups and downs against Lehigh, Surace believes that gaining experience will be key to his improvement.

“I think when things got a little bit confusing, that is where a young quarterback has to get better,” said Surace. “We have seen that with all of the new guys and man did Blake hang in there and make some good throws. He has talent from a throwing standpoint. He just runs the offense, and he is really smart with the ball. He utilizes those guys.”

In addition, Stenstrom brings a smart mental approach to the game.

“Mind-wise, he is very much in with what the coordinator and quarterback coach want,” added Surace. “He doesn’t get rattled, he has got this really even temperament and maturity to him that is really good.”

Surace is hopeful that his squad will keep maturing collectively.

“We have some definite strengths, and they are playing to those strengths,” said Surace. “We have got some areas that I think by the time we are talking again, they are going to take another step and that will be good.”

Looking ahead to the Ivy opener at Columbia (2-0) this Saturday, Surace knows that the Tigers are going to have to step up physically to prevail.

“That is always a great game; Al (Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli) has done a terrific job wherever he had been from Union to Penn to Columbia,” said Surace. “I haven’t watched them on film, but this game is a great preparation for us because Lehigh is a physical team. Columbia is a very physical team. I have no doubt when I watch the film that I will say this is a physical team.”

Stenstrom, for his part, is ready for a scrap with the Lions.

“Columbia is a great opponent; I remember last year, they played us pretty tough,” said Stenstrom, referring to a 24-7 win by Princeton which saw it leading by just 10-7 entering the fourth quarter. “We are going to watch film tomorrow, fix some of the stuff we did on the field today and then get ready and focused for that.”