Thursday, September 28, 2006

Scouting the Tigers

Princeton surprised a lot of people last year with a 7-3 record, including a thrilling win over Harvard in Cambridge. But with every starting member of their big offensive line graduating, and the loss of superstar Jay McCareins also to graduation, it seemed like a safe bet to predict the Tigers would fall back towards the bottom of the Ivy League.

But it's not looking like that's going to happen so far. The new offensive line has played extremely well, and the Princeton defense has been fantastic. In fact, it's hard to put a finger on any glaring weaknesses on this team, and that has to be a scary problem facing the Columbia coaches right now.

On offense, Princeton is led by senior quarterback Jeff Terrell, who can run as well as pass. With Brown's Joe DiGiacomo failing to impress in his first two games, Terrell has a great chance to make 1st team all-Ivy. He does have a tendency to throw interceptions, as he already has four this season, but otherwise he seems solid.

One key to Terrell's success is he has only been sacked once all season. The Lions will need to put pressure on him to see if he is the same player with defenders bearing down on him. But if they do manage to flush Terrell out of the pocket, Columbia will have to be ready for him to scramble. In both the Fordham and Georgetown games, the Lions were burned by QB scrambles out of what seemed like sure sack situations. And Terrell seems to have more scrambling ability than the Fordham and Georgetown signal-callers.

Terrell mainly throws to senior WR Brian Brigham and junior WR Brendan Circle. They're both talented and they will test the Lion secondary that hasn't really taken on a team with multiple receiving weapons yet this season. I will be surprised if the Tigers don't throw the ball 30 or more times on Saturday.

The running game also features multiple weapons, but it hasn't been as strong this season as it was last year. Starting fullback Rob Toresco has been inconsistent and no one else is emerging as the go-to back. But the Tigers hand the ball off to a lot of guys, and that could wreak havoc on a Columbia defense that seems to thrive on guessing who is going to get the ball and thrusting toward him. If Terrell mixes his handoffs to three or four backs and spreads his passes around, this could be a long day for the Lions.

The defense has been tough overall, giving up just 24 points in two games. But the strength seems to be in the pass defense, where the secondary has intercepted four passes and held opponents to an average of just 168 yards per game. Cornerback J.J. Artis and free safety Tim Strickland have already each been named Ivy League Defensive Players of the Week in this young season. That said, the Tigers are giving up a less impressive 129 yards on the ground per game, and that may be an area where the much-improved Lion running game can make a dent. But 129 yards a game is still a solid average, and nothing to be ashamed of.

Princeton's special teams are solid, and the Tigers are coping with the graduation of their excellent plackicker Derek Javarone with sophomore Conner Louden. Louden seems to be pretty reliable from 35 yards in, and he has only missed one attempt so far. But without McCareins, the Princeton return game has visibly suffered. Columbia has shown a few weaknesses in its return coverage so far this season and this might be a week where those weaknesses aren't exploited. Tiger punter Colin McDonough is one of the best in the league.

Princeton looks a little less disciplined so far this year than it has in the past. The Tigers have already been penalized 12 times for a big 154 yards in two games. And the five turnovers lost has them dealing with a negative turnover ratio of 4:5. Columbia must force some turnovers in this game to win, as this is one area where Princeton seems vulnerable.

I'll have a more complete game analysis and prediction tomorrow.

Homecoming Ceremonies

This year's homecoming at Wien Stadium will take time out to honor the 10th anniversary of the 1996 team that went 8-2 and the 45th anniversary of the 1961 team that won the Ivy League title. I also expect there to be a special moment to honor the memory of '96 team captain Randy Murff, who went on to join the Air Force and died in a training flight in the summer of 2001.

Randy was the 315-pound leader of yet another undersized Columbia offensive line on a 1996 team that relied on a powerful defense and an opportunistic offense to post the best season for the Lions since 1961. He needed to lose well over 100 pounds to qualify for the Air Force officer's training program after graduation, and he did it. You can read more of Murff's inspiring story here: Murff's Story

Memories of 1996

I was living in Cleveland in 1996, but that didn't stop me from getting to three Columbia games in that magical season. The best game was at Penn, when the Lions pulled out a 20-19 overtime win when it seemed like they were going to lose several times during the game. Columbia won it on a miracle TD pass in OT after Penn had scored an easy touchdown but missed the extra point. Fighting extreme fatigue during the drive back to Cleveland that night was well worth it.

The next game I attended was the Homecoming washout against Lafayette. In near monsoon conditions, the Lions managed to eke out a 3-0 win. The weather robbed Columbia of what could have been a wonderful Homecoming crowd set to honor its still undefeated team.

But the worst came a couple of weeks later when the Lions fell to a weak Princeton team at home, 14-11. An excessive celebration penalty against future NFL all-pro Marcellus Wiley led to a Tiger touchdown, and a long field goal attempt by the otherwise great Matt Linit to tie the game in the final seconds fell short. To add insult to injury, I was turned down for a job at ABC News in New York the next day and I had to wait another five months to get back to the city.

But more than the individual games, what I really remember about that 1996 team was how it never gave up and won so many games in overtime, or by slim margins. Even after the Princeton loss and the 40-0 thumping by eventual undefeated league champ Dartmouth a week later, Columbia finished out the year with impressive wins over Cornell and Brown at home.

The memory of that '96 team is a little marred by what happened next, as the team sank back first into mediocrity and then became a cellar-dweller once again in the Ivy League. Why the athletic department or the individual recruiters weren't able to seize the momentum from that season and move forward has always been a mystery to me. Perhaps special players like Wiley, Murff, and all-Ivy linebacker Rory Wilfork just come around once in a while and that's the best you can hope for. But I can't help thinking someone dropped the ball after that season and Columbia is still trying to recover.


At Fri Sep 29, 02:19:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Jake. I hope you're wrong about some of Princeton's strengths; otherwise, it will be a long day at my computer.
I still can't get Wiley's antics out of my mind. If there was ever a "play" that turn around a game...

At Fri Sep 29, 02:43:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

It's possible Princeton has been living a charmed life and that Lafayette and Lehigh aren't as good as they usually are. Lehigh lost to Albany and Albany lost at home to Fordham. But the transitive property in our league is usually faulty. If we get some pressure on Terrell and cross up their defense with some throws to Russell and Evangelist early, we'll do okay.

Wiley's penalty was weird, I really didn't see him do much, so I assume he must have said something off-color to the sacked Princeton QB. A few plays later, the Princeton Coach Steve Tosches called a brilliant play where his QB held the ball for a long time looking to his left until everyone moved that way... except for one receiver who drifted right. That play ended in a TD. I always thought Tosches out-coached Tellier that day.

At Fri Sep 29, 06:18:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous said...

Having just watched parts of the Pr-Laf tape, I'm less convinced the Tigers are such a formidable team. They're good but didn't exactly dominate the Leopards.
Pr's numbers are first:
PASSING YARDAGE............... 466 336 (hint)
RUSHING YARDAGE............... 217 259
and they sure threw a lot:
Att-Comp-Int................ 58-36-4 48-25-4

True, the Tigers had many more first downs, and had this edge
TOTAL OFFENSE................. 683 595

But, it wasn't until the middle of the 4th quarter that they took control.

From what I saw, Columbia has to prevent or at least limit the spectacular plays and make one or two of their own to have a good tussle.

At Fri Sep 29, 06:48:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

I think those numbers you quoted are their total stats for both games. But I agree, we may have some opportunities to pass, provided we are careful and don't allow Artis and Strickland to burn us.

At Sat Sep 30, 02:08:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous said...

Of course,you're right. Strange because I took the numbers from the Pr FB stat page. No excuses, though, since the totals were literally too much! Sorry to pollute your site.

the game stats, Laf's first:
NET YARDS RUSHING............. 77 109
NET YARDS PASSING............. 129 261

At Mon Oct 02, 05:17:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Domer '72 said...

You took the stats from the Princeton "Cumulative 2006" page. An easy mistake to make. You have to look close (at the top) to see its for all games played up to the date at the top of the page.

The individual game stats can be found (by link) at each game's write-up on the Princeton Athletics site.

At Mon Oct 02, 05:18:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Domer '72 said...

You took the stats from the Princeton "Cumulative 2006" page. An easy mistake to make. You have to look close (at the top) to see its for all games played up to the date at the top of the page.

The individual game stats can be found (by link) at each game's write-up on the Princeton Athletics site.

At Thu Oct 05, 01:45:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Gym Ratt said...

Let's see if Norris can get our guys up for Iona. What happens this Saturday may prove what will happen the rest of season.

We most certainly have to get our running game going.


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