Ndukwe, Barber Step Up as PU Football Edges Dartmouth; Undefeated Tigers Now Primed for Ivy Showdown at Yale
CLOSE SHAVE: Princeton University football player A.J. Barber runs upfield in a game earlier this season. Last Saturday, sophomore receiver Barber made a career-high seven receptions for 50 yards to help Princeton edge Dartmouth 17-14 to remain undefeated. The No. 16 Tigers, now 8-0 overall and 5-0 Ivy League, play at Yale (6-2 overall, 4-1 Ivy) on November 12. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
As one of the captains for the Princeton University football team, Uche Ndukwe looks to fire up his teammates.
“I am just another cog in the machine; we have a lot of great players on this defense and a lot of guys I respect so much and make me feel so much more confident,” said senior defensive lineman Ndukwe, a 6’4, 270- pound native of Dedham, Mass. “When I am playing, I just try to rally the troops and get everyone excited to come out.”
Sophomore receiver A.J Barber, for his part, has emerged as an important cog for the Princeton offense after stepping in for the injured Jo Jo Hawkins in a 35-19 win over Brown on October 14.
“Jo Jo Hawkins went down and it was that next man up mentality,” said the 5’8, 170-pound Barber, who hails from Old Greenwich, Conn. “When my name was called, I was ready because of all the preparation we do.”
Showing that he was ready to perform, Barber made an 8-yard touchdown catch against the Bears.
“Getting a touchdown at this level is much different than what it is in high school and what not,” said Barber.
“Catching my first varsity touchdown as a Princeton Tiger was really meaningful for me. It gave me the confidence to step up and fill the role I need to fulfill.”
Last Saturday, both Barber and Ndukwe stepped up as the Tigers outlasted Dartmouth 17-14 before a crowd of 6,413 at Princeton Stadium to improve to 8-0 overall and 5-0 Ivy League.
Barber helped spark Princeton to an early 14-0 lead, making several key receptions, including a 21-yard catch that got the Tigers to the Dartmouth 4-yard line on their first scoring march.
“I am starting to see the ball; with the scheme that coach Willis (offensive coordinator Mike Willis) puts in, there is not really any time that you know if you are going to get the ball or not,” said Barber, who had five receptions in the first half. “The ball just happened to find me in the first half. I just had to execute and focus on the fundamentals.”
On the 21-yard play, Barber showed some elusiveness to go with his execution.
“From watching their film, we knew their safeties weren’t the greatest of tacklers,” said Barber. “So it was one move and live with it and it happened to work for me.”
In working to get on the field for the Tigers, Barber has benefitted from advice he has received from his father, former NFL star running back Tiki Barber.
“He gives me little snippets before the game, little words of encouragement but at the end of the day, he knows that I am my own person,” said Barber. “The biggest tip is probably ball security. In my first game as a returner, I had two fumbles. He was at the game, he pulled me aside and said A.J., when you have the ball in your hand and you are about to take a hit, hold it high and tight. It has been working for me since then.”
Barber has also received encouragement from Princeton senior star receivers Andrei Iosivas and Dylan Classi.
“They are really good guys to look up to with their work habits,” said Barber, who ended up with a career-high seven catches for 50 yards against the Big Green. “The way that they execute everything, on the field and off the field, is really a role model for me.”
Ndukwe, for his part, liked the way the Tiger defense executed as it contained Dartmouth’s running game, holding the Big Green to 66 yards rushing on 24 carries.
“I think we have a really great run-stopping defense overall,” said Ndukwe. “It is just about consistency for us. We have a lot of respect for the opponents. They have some good running backs, good o-linemen but I think we just found a way to get the job done.”
Dartmouth did a good job getting back into the contest, scoring a touchdown in the second quarter to narrow the Princeton lead to 14-7. A 23-yard field goal by Jeffrey Sexton in the waning seconds of the half gave Princeton a 17-7 lead at intermission. Neither team scored in the third although Dartmouth had the best chance, missing a 32-yard field goal attempt. The Big Green put together a late drive in the fourth quarter, scoring a TD with 17 seconds left in regulation. Dartmouth then attempted an onside kickoff, which was recovered by Princeton to seal the deal.
“I don’t think we were ever concerned — I trust our guys,” said Ndukwe, reflecting on the Big Green rally. “We are a Division I football program, we have had a lot of success over the years. We don’t expect to just beat everybody and wipe them out. I think the score proves who is a better team at the end of the day.”
Ndukwe made a big sack in the fourth quarter to end one Dartmouth drive.
“The tackle came down on me, I was coming off one of my other teammates and I hit a stiff arm and just tried to see what would open up,” said Ndukwe, recalling the play which came with 11:42 left in the fourth quarter. “I just wrapped around.”
Although the Princeton defense held the fort when it counted against Dartmouth, Ndukwe believes the unit can play much better.
“We love winning that takeaway battle, we were looking forward to that,” said Ndukwe, who had four tackles to go along with his sack. “You are always playing Division I opponents. They played a tight game, they didn’t throw the ball away. We still won this game but there are so many things we can work on. Takeaways are just one of them.”
For Princeton head coach Bob Surace, winning ugly against the Big Green was just fine.
“I told the team at the end that, No. 1, you never apologize for a win, especially against those guys,” said Surace. “No. 2 you feel they were playing such deep coverage and it forced you to go six yards, four yards, be patient, be patient. I thought we did that, we should have done better. They got us in the red zone a couple of times, that hurt us. We were great between the 20s. The time of possession was 36-23 minutes for us. That was pretty awesome and we did it without two starting offensive linemen.”
Surace credited Barber with doing well as he has taken on a greater role in the Tiger passing attack.
“It is kind of a pick your poison with those guys,” said Surace “Dylan had a great game (8 catches for 107 yards), A.J. had a great game. Andrei was bracketed a lot. It was harder to get him the ball but that is OK if you have other weapons.”
The Tiger defense played hard as it stifled Dartmouth for much of the game.
“They had that one big run, a 20-yarder that Zack Bair had,” said Surace. “Other than that, we did a really good job of containing them. Uche had a sack, [Matt] Jester had a big one early. [Cole] Aubrey had one late. We had pressure on them.”
Despite missing the two starters, the Princeton offensive line withstood the pressure coming from the Big Green defense, helping to spring a four-yard TD run by tailback Ja’Derris Carr and a six-yard scoring jaunt by quarterback Blake Stenstrom.
“I was really impressed with how well they played,” said Surace. “Nick [Basten] comes in, not having started even though he played every game. He was terrific. We rotate centers but Blake [Feigenspan] was down and Tommy Matheson was excellent. Henry Byrd has been steady Eddie all year playing high level football.”
The Tigers will be facing a high-level opponent this weekend as they head up to New Haven, Conn., to play at Yale (6-2 overall, 4-1 Ivy) on November 12.
“I haven’t watched them to prepare but what you see is a very athletic team,” said Surace of the Bulldogs, who thrashed Brown 69-17 last Saturday. “The QB (Nolan Grooms) is outstanding. They are playing really well defensively up front, they rush the passer. There is a reason there are two games left and there are a few teams still in the hunt.”
While Princeton has customarily been in the hunt recently, having won two league titles in the last three seasons played, Surace believes it is daily diligence that has made the difference for this year’s squad.
“The experience this year of going to work every day helps more than anything,” said Surace, whose team is now is now ranked No. 16 nationally in the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) FCS Coaches’ Poll.
“The experience of preparation that our guys have showed this year, we just have to keep doing that part of it. We have to come up with good game plans, prepare them on those, the players do the work and then execute them. You do that, it doesn’t mean you are going to win, it means that maybe you will win.”
Ndukwe is ready to work hard this week to prepare for the showdown with Yale.
“I have seen their d-line, they have a good edge out there, a good interior,” said Ndukwe.
“I respect their o-line, it is has been playing well. I have to really dive into the film this week.”