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Know Your 2011 Opponents: Princeton

No matter how you look at it, it was a rough year for the Princeton Tigers in 2010.

In head coach Bob Surace's first season at the helm of the Tigers, the senior-laden team collapsed to a 1-9 record, and got swept in Ivy League play for the first time since 1973.

It wasn't all his fault - his NFL-caliber linebacker got injured in the 35-22 defeat to Lehigh, and a slew of different injuries afflicted Princeton during the course of the year - but by any measure, it was an incredibly rough rookie campaign for the former assistant coach on the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals.

The Tigers, though, will be more dangerous in 2011 than last season's record might suggest.  That's because that NFL-caliber linebacker, senior LB Stephen Cody, took a medical redshirt year and will get one more crack at beating Lehigh. All of a sudden, this game doesn't look like such a cakewalk. (more)

"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 mentioned in the Ivy League coaches' teleconference in the run-up to the Lehigh game last year. "There's a leadership he brings to the table through his efforts, through his energy."

And for sure, Cody has been nothing short of a serious pest against the Mountain Hawks.

Two years ago, his eleven-tackle effort against Lehigh was in effect decided by his interception return for a touchdown in a 17-14 victory for the Tigers. In a game where the Princeton offense only managed six first downs and only made it to the red zone once, his pick six was the ultimate backbreaker.

And last year - before his serious leg injury, late in the game, that would sideline him for the entire year - Cody was a beast, with 12 tackles and 1 tackle for loss in Lehigh's 35-22 win over Princeton.

Seeing Cody on the other sideline in 2011 once again will make nobody on the Lehigh offense happy. The heart and soul of the Tiger defense will certainly have a large impact.

And Cody is not the only wounded Tiger that will be returning to provide a lift to Princeton's defense.

Senior DE Mike Catapano (37 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles in limited action) and junior S Matt Wakulchik (20 tackles, 1 forced fumble in 3 games) will be returning as well, giving the Tigers even more productive veterans on defense.

And add to that the return of experienced defensemen like junior LB Andrew Starks (89 tackles, 2 INTs) and senior CB Blake Clemons (47 tackles, 2 INTs) and all signs point to Princeton's 4-3 defense being light years ahead of where it was last year in terms of both talent and confidence.

"We'll need to focus on playing fast and playing within our assignments," Clemons mentioned in the run-up to the Tiger's spring game. "I think we've worked hard enough to the point where we won't have to think at all between the whistles. We know everything we need to know pre-snap. So for us on Saturday it'll just be about playing fast, tackling well, and making plays on the ball."

That should be considered a real warning shot to Mountain Hawks that think they can be complacent against a 1-9 team. This defense will not resemble the young, inexperienced unit they met in 2010.

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On offense, the Tigers will welcome back senior QB Tommy Wornham, who had his best passing day of the season against Lehigh last year (392 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs).

The good news for Tiger fans is that he'll have a whole season under his belt of running Surace's no-huddle, "fast break" offense (that's a little bit similar to the old Air Lehigh offense), and he'll have a very experienced offensive line, led by senior C Mike Muha, to protect him.

The bad news for Princetonians is that they lose their top two running threats (RB Jordan Culbreath and FB Matt Zimmerman) and their top four receiving threats (WR Jeb Heavenrich, WR Trey Peacock, WR Andrew Kerr and TE Harry Flaherty). They will have to replace almost their entire offensive production from 2010.

The top preseason candidate to get rushing yards is sophomore RB Brian Mills, a speedy back who will be looking to break out after a freshman campaign where he gained 131 yards and 1 TD. For more between-the-tackles running, junior RB Akili Sharp (124 yards rushing) looks like he will be getting the nod.

The most experienced receiver returning on the roster is senior WR Issac Serwanga (160 yards), who is tall (6'3) and speedy, while junior WR Shane Wilkinson (144 yards) would seem to be the top candidate for new possession receiver over the middle.

But - like last year - Princeton's offense will probably have its fair share of surprises, simple because most of the personnel is so new.

Will it be enough for the Tigers to get a win against Lehigh at home, in the Mountain Hawks' only night game of the season?

One thing's for sure: it's never a good idea to underestimate Princeton in their first game of the year at their place.

Ask Lafayette - the only team that Princeton beat last year, 36-33, in double overtime at Princeton Stadium.

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