September 20, 2023

Overcoming Some Sloppy Play in Season Opener, Tiger Football Grinds Out 23-12 Win at San Diego

TOUGHING IT OUT: Princeton University running back John Volker battles for some extra yardage in a 2022 game. Last Saturday, senior Volker rushed for a game-high 91 yards and a touchdown as Princeton defeated the University of San Diego 23-12 in its season opener. The Tigers are hosting Bryant (1-2) on September 23 in their home opener. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

By some metrics, it would appear that the Princeton University football team endured a long afternoon when it opened its 2023 season by playing at the University of San Diego last Saturday afternoon.

“If I check with the analytics people, we lost the turnover battle 2-0, we lost the penalty battle, I think we had 40 more yards in penalties, and we didn’t finish drives,” said Princeton head coach Bob Surace. “All of those are things the analytics people say you have got to focus on. They would have said we lost the game by 20 points.”

But playing with intensity and executing when it counted, Princeton was able to grind out a 23-12 win over the Toreros before  a crowd of 1,191 at Torero Stadium.

“I was just saying to Mike Willis (Tiger offensive coordinator), ‘If you watch the film, most of the plays were really good,’” said Surace. “That is very encouraging. You watch it play to play and there are so many good things that you would have thought you have won by 20 points.”

Heading to California last week, the Tigers were chomping at the bit to get started after going through an arduous fall camp.

“Camp is four weeks and the first two weeks, there is a lot of learning and excitement because you are starting up,” said Surace. “In the third week everybody in the world played except for us. That fourth week I feel like I am a referee because the guys are tired of hitting each other. Towards the end of the week when we move towards the opening game, it picks up again. Camp is hard, it is really grueling when there is no light at the end of the tunnel and everybody else has it.”

The Tigers got off to an exciting start Saturday, jumping out to a 7-0 lead on their first possession, driving 75 yards in eight plays, culminating the march with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Blake Stenstrom to Tamatoa Falatea.

“I would love to say that we were all sharp, but I think we had three penalties in that series and that was frustrating,” said Surace. “Blake was sharp. We came out and I thought that was a really good way to start.”

Senior star Stenstrom threw a 32-yard TD pass to Luke Colella in the second quarter as Princeton went ahead 14-6 and ended up competing 23 of 38 passes for two TDs and one interception on the day. He completed at least one pass to 11 different players with JoJo Hawkins, A.J. Barber, and Tyler Picinic each making four receptions.

“Every team is different. Back when Quinn Epperly was throwing to all of these guys — like Connor Kelley, Roman Wilson — it would be the same thing,” said Surace. “It was a strength in numbers and they were all really good players. The last few years, we had [Andrei] Iosivas and [Dylan] Classi or [Jesper] Horsted and [Stephen] Carlson and I don’t think we have been quite as liberal subbing guys. Hopefully that will pay some dividends down the stretch keeping our guys fresh. You want NFL players, but it is OK if you have a really deep group of guys who are playing together.”

Senior John Volker led the ground attack, rushing for 91 yards on 16 carries and one TD. He was a one-man show on Princeton’s first drive of the second half, gaining 58 yards on the three plays of the march, scoring on a two-yard touchdown run.

“I thought we finished our runs and John was such a big part of that, he ran really well,” said Surace of Volker, who had a 51-yard run on that march. “John’s touchdown run was just a real physical run. He got himself out in the open field on the long run and he is fast. He barely stepped on the sideline; he was a couple of inches away from a touchdown on that and he got it the next play.”

The Tigers defense was dominant, holding the Toreros to -15 yards rushing. Sophomore defensive back Nasir Hill was a standout with a team-high five tackles while the team’s trio of senior linebackers, Ozzie Nicholas, Liam Johnson, and Will Perez along with sophomore defensive lineman Bakari Edwards controlled things in the trenches.

“I thought the defense played really well. The tackling was outstanding — there were very few mental errors,” said Surace. “We played really well physically. Other than a couple of big pass plays, we really held our ground. Nasir is settling in, he has been really good. He is such a great kid but he is quiet, we have got to push him to be assertive. Ozzie was terrific, he played one of his best games. I think Ozzie and Perez had sacks. Liam affected three or four throws. They played a really composed, smart game. Bakari Edwards had a safety and two sacks.”

In addition to coming away with a victory, the Tigers enjoyed a  valuable bonding experience on their
California trip.

“We made a decision on Friday — we weren’t going to do the per diem and let 60 guys go to 60 different restaurants,” said Surace. “We did it by position, where like I went with the D-Line — we went to PF Chang’s with Steve Verbit. The tight ends went to the Cheesecake Factory, other guys went to different restaurants. Each position group got a chance to bond.”

A throng of Princeton alumni from the Golden State relished  the chance to see the Tigers up close.

“On a trip like this, the other piece is the alumni in California and you saw it with basketball this past year,” said Surace, referring to the large group of alums that cheered on the Tiger men’s basketball team as it played the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento. “It is such a group that has bonded with Princeton, even though they can’t get back here. They had this long walk up a hill to get the concourse where we had a locker room. There were so many alumni, I couldn’t get up the hill. I was like the last guy to get into the shower, I didn’t want the guys to be waiting on me. There were so many of them there, it was really nice.”

With the Tigers hosting Bryant (1-2) in their home opener on September 23, they will need to produce another nice effort to stay undefeated.

“I watched a little bit of them, they opened up with UNLV which is a tough matchup,” said Surace of the Bulldogs, who fell 44-14 in their opener before topping Long Island 21-10 and then falling 29-25 to Brown last Saturday.

“They moved the ball really well, they did a lot of good things in that game. The score was deceptive. They gave up a kick return for a touchdown and a long punt return. The punter dropped a snap. It was like a weird special teams day where four of the scores were directly impacted by that. That gave them an opportunity to clean some stuff up. They had the lead on Brown on Saturday. They scored with about a minute to go and Brown came down the field and won the game.”