Who are these Mystery Men, anyway?
You used to pretty much know exactly what you were getting from the Princeton Tigers when Roger Hughes was the head guy. You had a multiple 3-4 defense. An athletic QB that would, for the most part, dink and dunk and use a balanced attack to grind out the clock and advance the football.
Now, with Hughes terminated after the 2009 season, new head coach Bob Surace brings in a whole lot of "new" and "mystery" to the Tigers. Don't expect Blue Raja, Shoveler, or Invisible Boy to be suiting up for the Tigers - but expect a whole lot of difference from the team that beat Lehigh 17-14 at Murray Goodman last year. (more)
Before the season, I took aim at this game and called it a classic "trap" game for the Mountain Hawks. New head coach, new systems - but a possible NFL player leading the defense, and - unusual for a new head coach - an athletic returning starting QB that led the Tigers to one of their few wins last year.
After last weekend's 35-0 loss to Villanova, however, this feels less like a "trap" game and now seems like a really good opportunity to re-establish themselves. Losing to the No. 1 team in the nation in the Wildcats was a tough game to swallow - Head Coach Andy Coen said right after the game, "I don't care if you're playing Alabama at home - you don't want to lose to anyone 35-0" - but then again, this loss to the defending national champions seems like it could easily be put in the rear view mirror with two good performances in their next two games.
And it sure seems like the Mountain Hawk players got the message loud and clear.
But it won't be easy this weekend - because so little appears to be known about the Tigers. They've completely cleaned house in their coaching staff and gotten a brand-new head man, of course, but also a brand-new offensive and defensive staff as well.
Senior CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs, so talkative when he was talking to his fellow teammates about the new Lehigh uniforms in the preseason, said that they knew "little to nothing about what [Princeton] is going to do this weekend" in the pregame media luncheon. Senior OL Ricky Clerge said that the focus this week was not so much about what Princeton is going to do, but more about going "back to basics" - eerily similar to last year's "back to basics" mantra after the Villanova game. Even head coach Coen said that, in some ways, they will be making "educated guesses" as to what Princeton is going to be doing this Saturday - unlike the last four years, when Hughes' offensive and defensive philosophy was pretty much an open book.
Also worth mentioning was the lesson from the game with the defending national champs where big plays were the nails that really closed the coffin on the Mountain Hawks. A year ago versus Princeton - where Lehigh's dominating defense held the Tigers to six first downs and one trip to the red zone - big plays resulted in two touchdowns and a 17-14 defeat to the 4-6 Tigers.
For Lehigh, getting caught up in what Princeton did or what the Tigers are or aren't going to do is probably counterproductive. For the Mountain Hawks the Princeton game is a chance to establish what Lehigh will be doing the rest of the year, not Princeton. It's going to be about establishing the identity of the Lehigh offense and defense, and what Mountain Hawk football is.
In some ways, Princeton is probably as baffled as to what to expect from Lehigh, too. Will the Tigers see the pinpoint offense that was present in the first half of the Drake game? The opportunistic defense that created a whole bunch of turnovers against Villanova? The penalties in the second half of the Drake game? The ineffectual offense against Villanova? The Wildcats did a fantastic job disrupting the Mountain Hawk offense - unsurprisingly, as we'll probably learn during the course of the year they will be causing everybody problems - but it's likely Princeton's new coaching staff won't know that much, either, about Lehigh's capabilities in that area.
In both games we've seen flashes of what this Lehigh team can be, but in no way did we see what we can realistically expect the rest of the way. The "Lehigh Way", much like the "Princeton Way", has been far from established.
The team that finds their identity first this Saturday should win the game.
The game notes don't show any significant injuries from last week to this week. Sophomore TE Jamel Haggins is still out, and junior TE Mark Wickware still fills his spot on the depth chart this weekend.
One interesting note, while not technically not on the depth chart, is that while senior RB Jay Campbell and sophomore RB Zach Barket are 1-2 on the running back depth chart, a highly touted underclassman - freshman RB Keith Sherman - has been seeing touches and even made the trip out to Des Moines. He might find his way more into the running back mix as the weeks go along. While it's technically a "two deep", at RB it feels more like a "three deep". That's something that bears watching this Saturday.
Last weekend, Murray Goodman stadium had almost perfect weather in the mid-80s, no humidity, and the national champions in the house. You'd think that Lehigh would bring, what, 12,000 fans to the party? Try a modest 8,168, including a tiny contingent from Villanova. (These guys are hoping to be a Big East football program? They have a long, long, way to go if their latest group was any indication.) To be fair, there were more folks there than that, including a pretty significant student turnout (who get into the games for free). But it was disappointing to be sure.
This weekend offers another golden opportunity for a fantastic football game, with a forecast in the upper 70s and partly cloudy skies. Add to this that it's going to be "Kid's Day", with an appearance by Clutch the Mountain Hawk and tons of fun activities for kids, it should be a fantastic day once again at Murray Goodman. Let's hope more than 8,168 show up to see a Lehigh victory.
Who Is Bob Surace, Anyway?
Coming from the NFL's Cincinatti Bengals, he's the son of Tony Surace, longtime head football coach at Millville High School. Suarce the junior 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.
Surace has brought an NFL-style training camp that "is no different than the one Marv Levy set up," Surace told Princeton Town Topics. He has had most of his coaching experience in the NFL. In his last job, with the NFL's Cincinnati 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 last year, and was (and still is) by far the best part of that offense. (Yes, I'm looking at you, WR Chad Johnson and WR Terrell "Next question!" Owens, the most famous football alumnus of Chattanooga) .
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."
LFN's Drink of the Week
For the second straight weekend, it's going to be beautiful weather, with a high in the mid-70s. Think ahead; you'll want nice, cold drinks that go well with burgers, bratwurst, hoagies, meatball sandwiches: the tailgate fare of choice on a sunny day at Goodman stadium. A margarita sounds great - but how, praytell, do you get a blender to work in the parking lot? (A margarita machine? Forget it!)
Easy. With the Boat Blender and a cordless power drill, you can make fantastic mixed drinks in the parking lot - and trust me, your tailgating buddies will thank you! A cooler full of ice, some pre-made Margarita Mix (my favorite: one with agave and key lime, like Tres Agave's Margarita Mix), some high-quality tequila, and voila - a tailgate that delights your friends and makes the others jealous with rage!
As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that. (And, Mr. Jose Cuervo, this could have been you, had you sent me a case of your Tequila. Call me.)
Breaking Down the Tigers
Just because we don't know a lot about Surace and Perry's new offense doesn't mean we know squat about the Tigers. Unusually for a rebuilding effort from the ground up, the Tigers will not only be welcoming a returning starter at QB, but a former player that led the Ivy League in rushing.
The early returns show that coach Surace seems to want to go to a no-huddle offensive approach, and to instill a philosophy that "we're smarter than you, and we will react so fast that your defense won't be able to catch up". Perry has been quoted as a coach who 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."
In the center of these converging forces is junior QB Tommy Wornham, who really grew quite a bit from the player who got his start in last year's 17-14 win over the Mountain Hawks. Wornham only had seven touchdown passes last year, but his completion percentage and poise really improved over the second half of the season. He also can take off with the ball at any time.
By all accounts, it seemed like senior RB Jordan Culbreath's playing career was over last year when, shortly after the Lehigh game, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a disorder where one's bone marrow does not create enough white blood cells. A potentially life-threatening disease, Culbreath was cleared by doctors to play his final season at Princeton. Unusually, he did not receive a bone marrow transplant, but instead is controlling his condition with medication and blood transfusions. (Talk about a tough, inspiring kid.)
Stepping away from the personal side of the story for a moment, how much Culbreath will be able to contribute is a huge X-factor this weekend. In the Ivy League coaches' teleconference, Surace said that Culbreath will play (and, in fact, start), and when he was healthy he was clearly one of the Ivy League's best. If Culbreath is unable to be the workhorse, however, senior RB Meko McCray (239 yards rushing) was the player who was Princeton's top returning back from last year. The Tigers didn't have a potent rushing attack last year, and with the new "fast break", no-huddle offense, it's unclear how much they'll rely on running the football.
The three guys who had to be drooling about the new offense are Princeton's wideouts. Senior WR Trey Peacock, senior WR Andrew Kerr, and senior WR Jeb Heavenrich are all over 6 feet tall and all were a big part of the offense last year, and when you add senior TE Harry Flaherty and senior FB Matt Zimmerman to the party, all five of Princeton's top receivers will play this Saturday. You can bet that the gameplan will be to play hurry-up and fast break, spreading the ball around to all of these tall targets.
Where Lehigh may have a big advantage is that Princeton's "O" line, which only boasts one senior in senior OL Andrew Mills, will be relatively young and inexperienced. Former head coach Roger Hughes never really looked too much at size when recruiting "O" linemen - and it shows, with only four 300 lb jumbos on their fall roster, all of whom are underclassmen - but the Tiger "O" line were always known to be athletic and technically sound to make up for the lack of size.
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 the 17-14 victory.) "Steven is the captain of the defense, a 240 lb linebacker who runs very well, has the energy, toughness, effort and toughness that you want all eleven players to have on every play.," Surace added in this week's Ivy League coaches' teleconference.
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.
Like their "O" line, the Princeton "D" line will be relatively young - but not totally inexperienced. Notably, the Tigers bring a couple of huge defensive tackles in sophomore DT Caraun Reid (32 tackles) and the only senior on the defensive line, senior DT Matt Boyer (40 tackles, 2 sacks). Interior running will not be easy with these 290 and 300 lb tackles, respectively, not to mention with the "Alpha Dog" backing them up. Junior DE Mike Catupano, a reserve last year, will be starting at defensive end, while converted defensive back sophomore LB Andrew Starks will also be a featured player in Princeton's retooled front seven.
Historically, Princeton has had a seemingly never-ending supply of speedy defensive backs at their disposal. Having said that, only senior CB Glenn Wakam (30 tackles, 1 INT) returns a lot of experience in the secondary, with junior FS Matt Wakulchik, a player who rotated at the position last year, takes over.
While almost the entire squad doesn't have a lot of experience, save for junior P Otavio Fleury and sophomore P Joe Cloud (who rotated punting duties last year), the Tigers have a history of having solid kickers and it's safe to assume that the dynamic duo at punter and junior PK Patrick Jacob will continue that tradition.
Last year, a small army returned kicks in one form or another for the Tigers, but junior WR Ivan Charbonneau (15 returns, 243 yards) remains the top return man with senior RB Meko McCray next to him. Senior WR Andrew Kerr will return punts - he didn't return a single one last year.
Keys to a Lehigh Victory
1. Dominating the Line of Scrimmage. If I see Lehigh managing to get significant yardage running the ball, I'm going to feel really good about the chances for a Mountain Hawk victory - because I'll know that senior OL Will "Big Daddy" Rackley, senior OL Ricky Clerge and the "Nasty Boys" of Lehigh's "O" line will have done their job in a big way against a tough Tiger front seven. Similarly, on the defensive side with senior LB Al Pierce and junior LB Colin Newton, stuffing the run and putting massive pressure on Wornham could really help put this in the win column for Lehigh.
2. Preventing Big Plays. Last year against Princeton and last week against Villanova, the defense played great - most of the time. But it was the Big Play that really nailed us in both games. Key for the whole secondary, including senior CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs and senior CB John "Prez" Kennedy will by preventing those big plays from happening.
3. The Electric Company. Special teams can really put a charge into a football game; and this week gives Lehigh a chance to really bring a jolt to the Lehigh home crowd with a big return. If Lehigh returns one for a touchdown, I really like Lehigh's chances a lot in this game.
Sure, we don't totally know that Princeton will bring this Saturday. But we do know if Lehigh plays Lehigh football this weekend to the peak of their abilities they can come away with a victory.
In years past, the Princeton game was a classic trap game since it generally followed Villanova, was generally Princeton's first or second game, and usually was sandwiched in between a matchup against an early conference game, or a tilt against nationally-ranked Harvard. There doesn't seem to be any indication that Princeton will be taken lightly this time around.
But the Tigers will have a wave of emotion behind them - looking to get their head coach his first Division I victory, to have their senior RB play for them after his life was in jeopardy - that's powerful stuff, and the Tigers will play with an incredible amount of spirit.
But I keep going back to this Lehigh team, who seems to have realized the mistakes they made against Villanova and the importance of coming out big this Saturday. It won't be an easy road to hoe, but I think the lessons of the Wildcat shutout will serve them well this Saturday.
Lehigh 28, Princeton 17