The Princeton defense gang tackles the QB (CREDIT: Princeton Athletics/BKS)
The Tigers will take the field Saturday as major favorites, (the line was 18 points yesterday, and down to 16 points today --- and please do not take my reporting of the spreads as an endorsement of betting), and while I understand the experts' choosing Princeton as the favorites, the size of the spread is surprising.
Princeton was the best team in the Ivies last season, emphasis on team. They played as a unit and overcame the fact that they really didn't have a dynamic star. And the 2006 Tigers also didn't blow anyone out. Their biggest margin of victory was 14 points in a 17-3 win over Brown that was actually closer than it looked. But Princeton finds a way to win, thanks to their finally comfortable head coach, Roger Hughes and overall defensive team play that often makes 7-point deficit feel like 17-point shortfalls.
This year's club is still led by a great defense, despite the loss of 2006 1st Team All-Ivy defensive backs J.J. Artis and Tim Strickland to graduation. The defense is now led by linebackers John Stem and Tim Boardman, and a number of younger starters are making their mark.
Last week's win on the road against Lafayette has the entire FCS world looking at Princeton with a bit of awe. The 20-14 victory over the Leopards was a perfect mix of offense and defense, run and pass. Lafayette was a 7 1/2 point favorite in a game that really looked like any one of Princeton's textbook wins in 2006.
One big difference is at QB. Last year's IVY MVP Jeff Terrell is gone and Bill Foran is the new man under center. Foran had a disastrous first game against Lehigh, going 7 for 23 with two interceptions. But he was nearly perfect against Lafayette with an 18 for 24 day. Foran is also a talented runner, and the Princeton coaches have put in a number of option plays for him. But so far, he hasn't been totally consistent on the ground, averaging just two yards per carry on 24 carries.
Foran's favorite target seems to be the junior Will Thanheiser, who leads the team with eight catches. But the passing game is spreading things around pretty well with four receivers with five catches or more. The deep threat is still senior Brendan Circle, who has five catches for 131 yards -- a 26.2 yards per catch average. Another receiver is Adam Berry, (twin brother of Harvard's standout defensive back Andrew Berry), and I suspect the Princeton coaches will try to get him more in the mix in the coming weeks.
Columbia's woes against the run will be tested by the 1-2 punch of R.C. Lagomarsino, who runs more like a traditional tailback, and the fullback Rob Toresco. The offensive line isn't huge, but those two Princeton backs are averaging 4.9 yards per carry and neither one has been tackled for a loss.
Getting back to the defense, the Tigers are again looking weaker against the run than the pass. But that's mostly a relative thing, as Princeton is giving up just 45 yards passing per game versus 163 yards on the ground. But unlike Columbia, Princeton's impressive pass defense numbers are not mainly the result of not being able to stop the run. Take away all the Tiger turnovers and the scores they led to for Lehigh game one, and this defense looks even better.
Princeton's kicking game is solid with Connor Louden consistently hitting his field goals and PAT's, (he's perfect on both this year), and the newcomer Ryan Cole performing nicely as the punter, winning the Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week Award this week. Kenny Gunter is looking very good returning kickoffs and he could be a threat.
The big question is which Princeton team will show up on Saturday. Will it be the team that looked sharp in just about every way against Lafayette or the group that couldn't do very much right against Lehigh the week before. Given the rusty way most Ivy teams played in week one, my guess is the more solid Tiger team will be ready to play this time out.