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Game Preview, Week Three: Lehigh at Princeton, 9/17/2011

As a head football coach, you always have to be looking for potential "traps" in the schedule for your team.

Traps are generally, for example, games on the road.

They can be games sandwiched in between "big-emotion" games - like, say, last weekend's 48-41 overtime defeat against nationally-ranked new Hampshire and next weekend's home game against nationally-ranked Liberty.

They can also be games that are the home opener for the team involved, where the home team is playing to get the season under way to "defend their house".

By any of these three criteria, the game at 6:00PM at Princeton Stadium this weekend would be considered: trap, trap, and trap.  And if there's such a thing as a five-alarm trap game, this game is it for the Mountain Hawks.  (more)

Of course, I've called "trap" before on the Lehigh/Princeton game - a game that, while a tiny bit short of being considered a rivalry, has been waged thirteen times since 1992, and every year since head coach Andy Coen has been head coach of the Mountain Hawks.

If you judge by the talk coming out of Lehigh this week, everyone seems keenly aware that the Tigers will be more of a challenge than their 1-9 record last year might suggest.

"Princeton's going to be a battle, it really is," senior OL Troy McKenna said in Lehigh's video preview this week.  "They're always a great opponent of ours, we've had some great games, they have some great players.

"Their QB is very good," junior CB Gabe Johnson added. "When we played against him last year, he played very well against us, and we know he'll be strong."

"It's always a challenge to play Princeton because we always get them in their first game," Coen told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "Last year was really tough because they had a brand new coach. This year, they have a lot of new names on their two-deep. It comes down to how you adjust."

But even with all the right words being said, there's still plenty to be concerned with this game if you're a Lehigh fan.

Start with the fact that Princeton will have a very good idea as to what offensive looks the Mountain Hawks will be running.  Before last year's game, Lehigh was a team looking for an offensive identity, and had not yet developed any consistency on offense, so Princeton might have had little idea on what to expect.  This year, with two games with offensive fireworks, including one that got tons of serious looks from around the country, Princeton head coach Bob Surace will be ready with a gameplan.

Next, consider the rush of emotion for Princeton in this game.  Not only will they be eager to bury their horrible lost season last year, they're boasting the return of two all-league caliber players on defense - one who is certainly an NFL prospect - and they will be eager to hit anybody in an opposing jersey.

And finally, consider this: while they boast the return of their athletic, mobile quarterback from last year - who also had a season-ending injury in the middle of their season - aside from that key position, there's not a lot of data about the other key members of this offense. 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) might seem at first to be a plus for Lehigh, but it could instead lead to a whole lot more unpleasant surprises than you might expect.

Princeton is a dangerous combination of talent, mystery, and emotion.  Add to this the fact that it's their home opener, that the Mountain Hawks and Tigers frequently recruit the same kids, and that there's some potential NFL-caliber talent on this team, and you have much more critical game than you might think.

Game Notes
The game notes show something great: that senior OL Troy McKenna is back at 100% and will make his first start of the season.  What that means, though, is that Lehigh's "O" line, who lost junior OL Mike Vuono to injury last week, will have their third different "O" line combination in three games.  Senior OL Keith Schauder, as a matter of fact, will be playing his third position in three games: midway through last weekend's game, he shifted from starting at left tackle to fill in at right tackle.  This weekend, he'll be slotted again at right guard, with mammoth, promising sophomore OL A.J. Hood sliding into the right tackle position.

Also, interestingly, sophomore P/K Tim Divers, who was my special teams player of the week last week, is listed atop the depth chart at kicker, after his day punting where the Wayne, New Jersey native averaged over 42 yards per punt.  He'll be starting at placekicker for the first time in his career.

Weather Report
While the Lehigh Valley is going through a surprising cold spell at night, the weather forecast for Princeton at 6:00PM calls for a comfortable, if somewhat cool, night, with a low of 52 overnight and a possible gametime temperature in the low to mid 60s.  If you're wearing a button-down shirt, might be time to button up that top button.  (If you're from Princeton, that is.)

A Word on Princeton
Lehigh has played Princeton five times in the Coen era.  During that time, they've gone 2-3 against the Tigers - so there's some historical precedent to the "trap"-like nature of this game every year.

Furthermore, with the exception of a turnover-laden affair in 2007 where Lehigh won, 32-21, every game has been competitive well into the second half.  It hasn't mattered if Princeton was 9-1 (which they were in 2006, under former head coach Roger Hughes) or 1-9 (which they were last year, under first-time head coach Bob Surace).

There's also been a common Lehigh theme in all five games - sloppiness, and struggle.

"We're obviously happy to get the win, but it wasn't a clean football game by any stretch of the imagination," coach Coen said in the postgame press conference of the 2007 win. "We did well on the first two drives of the game, but then our offense kind of sputtered, and I wasn't pleased with the overall execution offensively. In the second half, defensively we gave up some big plays and let Princeton back into the game, but I've very pleased that we found that 'finishing mentality' on the 13-play drive to seal the game."

In last year's injury-filled gamesenior QB Chris Lum struggled, going 3-of-11 before a foot injury pressed junior QB Michael Colvin into service. It took a spirited, four quarter defensive effort - holding Princeton to 5 field goals every time they made it to the red zone - to keep this game in the win column for Lehigh.

And that was the performance during the wins.

There's the game in 2009 where Princeton won 17-14 - despite gaining just six first downs the entire game. "You look at the box score, and it defies belief," I incredulously noted. "Princeton won a game with only six first downs? A game where they punted the ball nine times? A game where their top two running backs combined for 41 net yards? A game where the Tigers made it into the red zone once? Once?"

And there's the game in 2008 where Princeton prevented Lehigh from getting half a yard - and then drove the length of the field in four plays to kick the game-winning field goal, 10-7.

As losses go, frustration didn't even begin to describe them.

But as hard luck goes, it's hard to beat last year's Princeton Tigers, who lost their two best players on defense for the season against Lehigh last year.  Their 1-9 season was memorable for Lehigh fans in only one way: their sole victory was an improbable, overtime, 36-33 victory over Lafayette.  It would be the only game all year where the Princeton offense, who would lose their quarterback midway through the season due to injury, would score more than 30 points.

LFN's Drink of the Week
This one's real easy: at Princeton, you, of course, drink a Princeton Cocktail.

A layered drink involving chilled port wine on the bottom and sweetened gin on top, this drink was one of several Ivy League-themed drinks made famous in the late 19th century, according to "The Princeton is best made with a sweet type of gin called "Old Tom", which was impossible to find until just a couple of years ago," it also says.  Sounds like a great part of your tailgate!  (The cocktail, I mean, not Old Tom.)

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.

Breaking Down the Tigers
Offensive coordinator James Perry in his second year in the position, implemented a no-huddle type of offense at Princeton last season.  But last year, it would have been incorrect to think of this team as a run-n-shoot, pass-happy offense.  In their final game of the season, they actually ran the ball more than they threw it.  It's more unpredictable than you might think.

Certainly the return of Ted McGinley lookalike, senior QB Tommy Wornham, will mean a return to more of what Mr. Perry wishes to achieve on offense. Last year, he shredded Lehigh's pass defense for 392 yards, and he's an experienced, strong-armed multiple threat that is recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in Week 5 last year.

"After having a different quarterback coach each of his first three seasons, he finally feels comfortable both physically and mentally, and he has the absolute respect of his offensive teammates," Princeton's website reports. “He came back and just looked terrific,” Surace said of his tri-captain. “It’s a lot of stress for a quarterback to know what all of your responsibilities are. He has seen it all now, and he is just reacting to things. The game is slowing down for him.”

The big question, though, is exactly who will be at the receiving end of his passes, as almost all of the wideouts from last years' team graduated last year.

Senior WR Issac Serwanga, who is the lone remaining Tiger with any experience catching the ball, looks like he is going to be the primary option for the Tigers receiving. "A tall, lanky and extremely fast option, Serwanga has shown flashes of brilliance in the fall," Princeton athletics says.

The other receiving options are as inexperienced a unit as you might see: oft-injured junior WR Shane Wilkinson, sophomore WR Connor Kelley (a converted quarterback), junior TE Mark Hayes in his first varsity start, and true freshman WR Matt Costello.  Notably, though, all are taller than 6 feet, with Hayes at a worrying 6'5, and Kelley seems like he also could be a possession receiver complement to Serwanga's pure speed.

Running the ball will be 5'9 junior RB Akili Sharp - who, despite only having 124 yards rushing last year, got valuable experience in Princeton's last three games last year and will be lining up for his first career start as well this weekend.  Sophomore FB Jason Ray, a converted fullback, rounds out an extremely green set of skill position players.

One area, though, that isn't so green on the Tiger offense is the "O" line.  All have been starters, including junior OL Kevin Mill returning this year after an injury kept him out of the 2010 season.  They're an experienced unit that should have learned a lot from the lumps they took last year.

The superstar of the Tigers' 4-3 defense is poised to be the "Alpha Dog", senior LB Stephen Cody.  Historically, he has been a thorn in the side of Lehigh, getting 12 tackles in last year's game before carried off the field in a stretcher, and returning an interception for a touchdown two years ago in Lehigh's 17-14 loss.

As good as the 6'1, 245 lb linebacker is as an athlete, it's his leadership qualities in the huddle that his coaches rave about. “He makes you a pretty good coach,” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jared Backus told the Daily Princetonian. “When you have a guy like that in the middle of your defense that has that ability and those leadership qualities, that’s great. He’s had a strong training camp; he’s worked real hard, so it’s great to have him back and we’re really excited to watch him play.”

And the guys lining up next to him this year, junior LB Tim Kinsgbury (72 tackles) and sophmomore LB Andrew Starks (89 tackles, 2 interceptions), are not exactly pushovers, having got plenty of experience after Cody's injury last year.  Starks is not only a power rusher, getting 7 tackles for loss last year, but also notching 2 interceptions.  He's also a tough guy to handle.

The front four also has one extremely talented 290 lb lineman coming back from injury (junior DT Caraun Reid) and a fantastic all-Ivy bull rusher (senior DE Mike Catapano) that make for an extremely daunting front seven, combined with the tough linebacking corps.  As a matter of fact, this front seven does not look like the front seven of a 1-9 team.  They will be tough to handle Saturday night.

Also a concern is that three members of Princeton's starting secondary also return: senior CB Blake Clemons, junior SS Mandela Scheffer, and senior SS Jayie Falusi  who combined for 3 interceptions last year, too.  If the offense gets a lead for this crew, they are quite capable of punishing a team and holding the lead for them.

Special Teams
The kicking game at Princeton seems to always be exceptional, and both kickers are returning guys who have produced for the Tigers.  Senior PK Patrick Jacob was a first-team all-Ivy kicker last year - and he was 5-for-5 on field goals vs. Lehigh last year, too.  Junior P Joe Cloud is also an extremely good punter, averaging 42.7 yards per punt.

Three new faces will be appearing for Princeton returning punts and kicks: junior RB Akili Sharp and sophomore RB Brian Mills will return kickoffs, and sophomore DB Phillip Bhaya will return kicks.  "Both have run track for Princeton", the game notes helpfully tell us.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Tenacious "D".  In the first two weeks, the name of Lehigh's game has been offense.  But this week, I think it's going to have to be up to the defense, led by senior LB Mike Groome, to really put the pressure on the inexperienced Tiger offense into making drops and turnovers.  It might be time to lean on the defense to make this offense come from behind in order to win this game.
2. Improved Special Teams.  Special teams were not so special for Lehigh last weekend; this game with Princeton's strong kicking game and speedy returners, it will be a challenge for the Mountain Hawks to out-perform the Tiger special teams.  The special teams units need to embrace the challenge, and improve.
3. Using the Run to Set up the Pass.  Sometimes, you just need to go right at the strength of another team, in an effort to establish a strong offensive day.  I'd liberally test this monster front seven with some strong running from junior RB Zach Barket - and make them stop that.  Once they do, there will be some real opportunities for senior QB Chris Lum to make the Tigers pay dearly.

Fearless Prediction
It can be a trap for Lehigh, playing Princeton.  In many ways, they have the pieces to be a scary team, and don't look like a team that will be finishing 7th out of 8 Ivy League teams this year.  It's especially hard to count them out, considering the solidity of the leadership on both offense and defense of the Tigers.

But this Lehigh team seems poised to be a special team.  Special teams find ways to win these games - even if the game ends up being a lot scarier than you think.  Lehigh should win - but it may not be a cakewalk.

Lehigh 27, Princeton 21


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