October 12, 2022

Producing Sharp Performance from Opening Whistle, PU Football Defeats Lafayette 23-2, Improving to 4-0

CRUNCH TIME: Princeton University defensive lineman Nate Martey, left, helps knock a Lehigh ball carrier to the ground in recent action. Last Saturday, sophomore Martey and the Princeton defense stifled Lafayette as the Tigers defeated the Leopards 23-2. Princeton, now 4-0 overall, 1-0 Ivy League, and ranked 23rd nationally, hosts Brown (2-2 overall, 0-1 Ivy) this Friday evening. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Despite getting off to a 3-0 start this fall, the Princeton University football team had been plagued by some choppy execution in the early going.

Princeton fell behind Stetson 14-7 in its season opener on September 17, was knotted in a 10-10 tie at halftime against Lehigh a week later, and then spent most of the first half of its Ivy League opener at Columbia on October 1 clinging to a 7-6 lead.

But last Saturday at Lafayette, the Tigers produced some sharp play from the opening whistle, going on scoring marches of nine plays, 54 yards, 12 plays, 62 yards and 10 plays, 63 yards in building a 20-2 halftime lead on the way to a 23-2 win over the Leopards before 3,303 at Fisher Stadium in Easton, Pa.

Princeton head coach Bob Surace liked what he saw from the Tigers as they improved to 4-0.

“We only had nine drives and we scored on four,” said Surace, whose team is now ranked 23rd nationally in the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) FCS Coaches’ Poll. “We missed what should have been a high percentage field goal and we had a touchdown called back on a mistake in alignment. We were off the ball — we should have been on, so we ended up losing that drive. We drove it for the last nine minutes and we were putting backups in and we ended up getting stuck on the one-yard line.”

Tiger senior quarterback Blake Stenstrom capably led those scoring drives, continuing to show progress as he made his fourth career start.

“That was a really challenging defense and they have a terrific D-line,” said Surace of Stenstrom, who connected on 30-of-40 passes for 290 yards. “It doesn’t matter who they have played, they are going to put you under duress. He handled it extremely well. He was accurate, the numbers don’t even reflect how well he played. We had a 70-yard touchdown pass called back. We were really successful running it down in the tight red zone so he did not end up with any touchdown passes. He is playing at a really high level.”

Producing some high level play, senior receiver Andrei Iosivas made 10 receptions for 150 yards last Saturday, both career-highs.

“He and Dylan [Classi] are flip-flopping,” said Surace. “If you put attention on Andrei, it opens things up for Dylan and Carson [Bobo]. When Andrei can get opportunities, he makes the most of them.”

Freshman running back Ryan Butler continued to impress, rushing for 49 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Leopards.

“Ryan just runs hard,” said Surace. “He is really mature — there were a couple of blitz pickups that he made. He is pretty high level on that. He is really playing well, he is playing with a lot of force.”

The Tiger defense has emerged as a force this fall and it produced another strong effort last Saturday, holding Lafayette to 206 yards total offense and coming up with an interception and a fumble recovery.

“I thought we played with much better discipline for the majority of the game,” said Surace, whose defensive unit has not allowed a touchdown in the last two games as the score in the Columbia contest came on a fumble recovered in the end zone. “They threatened a lot of things you do responsibility-wise. It is a tougher game, they are not taking a lot of five-step drops. The quarterback is not holding the ball. It is out quickly, it is a lot of screens. It is a really hard team to effect in the pass rush that way. I thought we did a really good job of getting off the field. We stopped them three or four times on fourth down.”

Princeton’s linebackers spearheaded the defense as Liam Johnson made a team-high eight tackles with Ozzie Nicholas making six stops, Joe Bonczek getting six tackles, Will Perez making four, and Anthony Corbin making two.

“Because of the nature of their offense, the way they were going to run it and how they were throwing it, our linebackers were going to make a lot of tackles,” said Surace.

“All four of inside backers — Liam, Ozzie, Joe and Anthony —played between 20 and 30 snaps. We weren’t on the field for a lot of plays because our offense controlled the clock and they did not run the ball as much because they were behind. They combined for something like 26 or 28 tackles. Literally every play, it seemed like they were in on a tackle.”

Senior defensive back Michael Ruttlen Jr. made one of the big defensive plays of the game with an interception early in the fourth quarter that halted a Lafayette drive at the Princeton 21-yard line.

“His interception was great,” said Surace. “It was his acceleration and then he cut underneath the throw after a scramble to the right and kind of toe-tapped it. He looked like a wide receiver. It was a really  good interception, He is just a steady leader back there, always in the right spot.”

With Princeton bringing that 4-0 record into the Ivy League stretch drive, Surace is pleased with the steady intensity he has seen from his squad as it heads into six straight league contests.

“We have played 240 minutes and our effort has been outstanding,” said Surace, whose team is 1-0 in Ivy play. “We are finding the ball, we forced two more turnovers on Saturday. We were pretty clean with it on offense. Those things are really important. If we can continue to be good in those areas, that is a good step. Our situational football has been good. We were really good Saturday on third downs and fourth downs on offense. We were really good getting off the field on defense. That is going to be a key as we get into these Ivy games.”

This Friday evening, Princeton will need to produce another superb effort as it hosts high-powered Brown (2-2 overall, 0-1 Ivy), which has been averaging 27.25 points and 365.3 yards a game under the guidance of head coach James Perry, a former Tiger offensive coordinator.

“You can see the physical strength; their linemen are tremendously improved,” said Surace. “Their offensive and defensive lines are stronger. The athleticism that James is recruiting is really building a team. You can see those pieces coming into place. Offensively, he has done a great job everywhere he has been. Now you are seeing the special teams and defensive improvements and the stamp he is putting on that. This is by far the best team I have seen this year in terms of the pitch and catch part. They are making dynamic catches, back shoulder and toe-tapping. It is a real challenge for the D-backs.”

With the game being televised by ESPNU, Surace sees it as an opportunity for Princeton to showcase its excellence before a nationwide audience.

“Our league was able to get the ESPN deal, it is not just football, it is for a lot of different sports,” said Surace. “For football specifically, we only play 10 games so it is making sure that every team in the league is on there once. We have been pretty fortunate to be on there twice. I think there is value. As a football program, we recruit nationally. There are kids from regions of the country that just can’t get out and watch us if we are not on TV. There are families that can’t make every game.”