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Know Your 2010 Opponents: Princeton

(Photo courtesy: Associated Press)

New Princeton head football coach Bob Suarce didn't need directions from Bengals' OL Andre Smith to figure out how to get to Princeton, New Jersey. The former assistant coach on the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, after all, knew the area well.

The son of Tony Surace, longtime head football coach at Millville High School, Suarce was a former Tiger offensive lineman and - for good measure - married a four-year Lady Tiger soccer player. To say his New Jersey and Princeton roots run deep would be an understatement.

Taking over for terminated head coach Roger Hughes, Suarce comes back to the land of the Shore and the Sopranos to bring another orange and black team back to prominence, this time in the Ivy League. And which fotball team will be the singular focus of Princeton's new head coach this offseason? Why, Lehigh, of course. That will make this game for Lehigh - a classic "trap game" - incredibly dangerous. (more)

So what will a Surace-coached Princeton team look like?  Like Lehigh head coach Andy Coen, Surace is a former "O" lineman.  With the Bengals, he transformed their dysfunctional "O" line and made it into - well - a dysfunctional "O" line that was pretty darned good: RB Cedric Benson gained 1,200 yards on the ground for Cincinnati, and was by far the best part of that offense.  (Yes, I'm looking at you, WR Chad Johnson.)

The folks over at TigerBlog seem to have the best insights on Surace's possible coaching style:

His comments suggested someone not wedded to one way of coaching, one offensive or defensive philosophy. He saw only one Princeton game on TV last year, the win over Yale, and talked positively about what he was watching. He spoke about building a staff and getting to work.

What about the job in front of him? Well, Princeton's new head football coach is obviously an alum, the first Princeton alum to be the head football coach since Bob Casciola from 1973-77, which makes him the only player in the last 50 years to go on to be head coach. Pretty much everyone who coached at football during the first 100 or so years of the sport was a Princeton alum, with notable exceptions Fritz Crisler (Chicago) and Dick Colman (Middlebury).  
The official release adds more detail as well:

“I’m so excited about coming back to a place that is so special to me,” Surace said. “I was honored to be a player here, including being part of an Ivy League championship team. I look forward to being the head coach and making this a special place for our student-athletes here at the best university in the world.”

“We are sad to see Bob go, but we’re excited for him and his family that he has achieved a career goal, being named head coach at Princeton,” Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis said. “Bob has been a huge part of our staff and of the success we’ve had. We wish him only the very best, and I know he will do a fine job for Princeton.”
Surprisingly for an offensive guy, Surace seems to have a real fondness for defense.  In the first half of his spring football press conference, he spent almost the entire time talking about great defense.  His former life head coaching seems to bear this out, too: at Division III Western Connecticut, the strength of his teams was clearly the defense.  In the 2001 season - his final year with the Colonials - his team went 8-2 and won a postseason game, by the telling score of 8-7.

Once in place, Surace didn't waste any time assembling a staff to put Princeton back on top.  Offensively, he hired his offensive coordinator, the all-time passing leader in Ivy League history James Perry, away from Brown.  On defense, he nabbed a local guy, but someone who has plenty of experience in the Patriot League ranks: Jared Backus, who rose through the ranks to become defensive coordinator at Bucknell before spending a year at Temple.

"We're going to have a tremendous level of toughness and finish as a unit," Backus said in an interview on Princeton's website.  "All eleven will need to pay attention to the details of the game, disrupting the ball, tackling, and being really good in the red zone.  We're going to work on making this team tougher, smarter, more disciplined, and better conditioned."

And Princeton certainly has some returning talent on defense to watch.  Senior LB Stephen Cody led the Ivy League in tackles last year - Backus already has a nickname for him, the "Alpha Dog", and thinks he has a shot to play on Sundays if he continues to improve - and Cody promises to be a central pillar of the Princeton defense in 2010.  (Lehigh fans are already quite familiar with the Alpha Dog - last year against the Mountain Hawks he notched eleven tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown in a 17-14 victory for the Tigers.) "There's a leadership he brings to the table through his efforts, through his energy," Surace added.

However, Cody's role is changing somewhat: from inside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive alignment to either middle or outside weakside linebacker in a 4-3 alignment, reflecting Surace's view of NFL coaches like Marvin Lewis and coordinators like Dick LeBeau's that vastly prefer the 4-3 defense.  That's the defense Lehigh will most likely be facing when they face off against the Tigers.

On offense, Perry thinks of football as a game where coaches sometimes try to make the game too complicated.  "What we're trying to do here offensively is to make sure the guys understand that our role is to score touchdowns, and don't overcomplicate it," he said.  "We need to play fast, we need to play physically, and I think we have all the tools here to be a tremendous offense."

The centerpiece of that offense may be hard-working junior QB Tommy Wornham, who had a modest 2009 (1,624 yards passing, 7 passing TDs), but beat Lehigh despite an awful day throwing the football.  But he'll be taking on a very different offensive philosophy as well: a no-huddle offense that may remind some folks of the Air Lehigh days.  "When I went on interview, I wanted to be the football version of  what [legendary Lehigh and Princeton basketball coach] Pete Carril did.  You want to take advantage of the smartest, hard-working athletes.  In football, that [translates] to the reverse of what Carril did in basketball, taking a bunch of shots with three seconds left on the clock.  In football, that's playing high-tempo.  Taking advantage that our guys, hopefully, can process the information so quickly that the defense is getting reactive and forcing their players to play at our tempo.  The tempo we're playing is 'fast-break'."

That's a sea change from Hughes' offensive style, which involved clock control, dinks and dunks, and rigorous offensive machine that shunned individual glory and simply dissected other team's defenses like a CSI investigator picking apart a corpse.  When it worked, it was really a sight to behold (esepcially with QB Jeff Terrell running the show) - but more often than not, it didn't work as designed, which is why Hughes was terminated.

Wornham and the receiving corps - senior WR Jeb Heavenrich, senior WR Trey Peacock and senior WR Andrew Kerr - have to be licking their chops hearing Surace speak about eighty-five plays a game and their "fast-break" offense.  And Lehigh won't be entering this game with a lot to work with in terms of game film.  They will be facing a team that has some very good talent at the skill positions, and an entirely new look.

Facing Princeton won't be easy for Lehigh in Week Three.  Princeton always plays Lehigh tough, for starters.  The Tigers will be extra motivated to give Surace his first win.  They'll be chomping at the bit to showcase their brand-new offense and defense, which won't be documented on a lot of game film for Lehigh to study.  And it will come on the heels of Lehigh's home opener against last year's National Champions, and before a trip to perennial FCS power New Hampshire.

Time will tell if the Tigers will be tamed - or a "trap" game for Lehigh.


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