Haley, who used to work for Princeton, made a bold prediction: that the Tigers would climb out of the Ivy League cellar after a 1-9 season, saying, for good measure, that "it seems time for the Tigers program to win more often. At least that's what everybody thinks."
Like some people, I chuckled to myself. Princeton? Out of the cellar? Really? (Jake Novak, of the Roar Lions blog, noted about his prediction: "Actually, NO ONE thinks that. Princeton is picked last in every other poll.")
As it turns out, Haley's prediction came out looking pretty good, making me very glad that I didn't put my own reservations about Princeton's chances in writing. (Or put Haley's face with the caption, "What's he smoking?" underneath it, like Roar Lions did.)
The Tigers confounded their last-place expectations and instead finished with an extremely satisfying 5-5 record, showing, for the first time, glimmers of hope that the Prince Town Tigers will finally be back in competition for the Ivy League title in 2013.
"Once you have some positive things going, you start saying, 'Wow, I know Lehigh is a great team'," Princeton head coach Bob Surace said after their game against Lehigh last season. "We started playing football, and it was nice to see. After this game, there's going to be some 'attaboys', 'good efforts' and everything else, but for us to improve as a team it's got to go beyond the great effort, the good effort, the hanging in there. It's not enough. It can't be the case. It needs to be winning a game that we gave ourselves an opportunity to win."
Last year, Princeton traveled to Murray Goodman stadium, the Tigers' first game of the Ivy League season, thanks to the Ivy League's quirky rules meaning all Ivy teams play ten-game schedules with no bye week, starting in mid-September and ending the week before Thanksgiving. (This year, Lehigh will be both Princeton's home opener and season opener.)
Princeton ended up losing to the Mountain Hawks 17-14, but in their "strong effort", as Surace mentioned, the Tigers showed signs that they weren't going to be the same doormat they were in 2011.
After falling behind 17-0 in the first half, the Princeton defense, led by senior DT Caraun Reid, would shut out the Mountain Hawk offense in the second half, holding Lehigh to one first down in five consecutive offensive drives.
That amazing defensive effort, along with some great play on special teams, would give their team a real chance to win the game against nationally-ranked Lehigh.
After a fumble on a punt return recovered by sophomore CB Anthony Gaffney, the Tigers would see RB Akil Sharp punch in end zone the ensuing drive to make it 17-14, making what seemed to be a laugher in the preseason to a nail-biter to the finish.
One person that wasn't surprised that Princeton nearly upset the Mountain Hawks was Lehigh head coach Andy Coen.
"For fifteen years I've competed against Princeton, and I know the level of personnel that is always playing for the Tigers," he said, "so it's not a surprise that they play us so tough. We're finding ways to win. Winning helps you find ways to win. We've been tested here, and our kids have answered those tests."
Princeton would follow their narrow loss to Lehigh by losing one of the more bizarre FCS games in 2012 - a 21-20 loss on national television to Georgetown, where the Hoyas would be reduced to their third-string quarterback and would score their only touchdown near the of the first half, a muffed snap by Princeton's center that would be recovered in the end zone by Hoya CB Jeremy Moore in between the Tigers' quarterback and running back. A sloppy, defensive game would be won by Hoya PK Matt MacZura's 33 yard FG near the end of regulation to win the game.
After starting 0-2, though, Princeton finally figured out how to win.
They would fire off four straight victories, starting out by dispatching Columbia 33-6 and dismembering Lafayette 35-14.
More surprisingly, though, they would follow those wins up by beating two perennial Ivy League contenders back to back, first topping Brown 19-0, the Bears' first offensive goose egg since 1996, and defeating Harvard 39-34 in another bizarre game, an amazing come-from-behind win:
Up 34-10 two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Harvard football team seemed to be on its way to a 15th straight win. 29 unanswered Princeton points later, the Crimson’s streak had come to an end as the Tigers faithful stormed the field at Princeton Stadium following the Tigers' improbable 39-34 comeback victory.
With under a minute to go, Princeton starting QB Connor Michelsen was knocked out of the game with the Tigers down two points. But backup QB Quinn Epperly threw up a prayer to the back corner of the end zone on a third and two from the 36-yard line, and Roman Wilson came down with the ball to put the Tigers up five with 13 seconds to go. After accruing 634 total yards of offense in the game, the Crimson didn’t have anything left after that, suffering its first Ivy loss since 2010.
It took a strong kickoff return, a blocked punt and a blocked field goal attempt - unsurprisingly, it was Reid behind the blocked field goal - but the Tigers put themselves in position to have the coveted campus bonfire allowed for the winner of the Harvard-Yale-Princeton series.
Princeton's special teams, led by Reid, were truly feast-or-famine in 2012. Reid himself would have 3 blocked kicks and the Tigers would have 6 overall, but the Tigers also had four kicks blocked themselves and had mighty struggles in the kicking game all season. Sophomore PK Nolan Bieck only went 6 for10 on field goals all season, and only was able to convert 1 more than 30 yards.
But despite those challenger in mid-November, they would still be able to have the traditional bonfire on Cannon Green their 29-7 win over Yale, making it their first bonfire since 2006 when head coach Roger Hughes took QB Jeff Terrell and a solid, fundamental Ivy League championship team with few weaknesses.
They didn't take the Ivy League title this season, instead finishing at 5-5 and losing the rest of their Ivy League schedule after the Harvard win, but you can bet Princeton, after being picked last and surprisingly celebrating with a bonfire in mid-November, that Princetonians called this season a rousing success.
Can they turn around and build on that success in 2013? With a slew of upperclassmen, as well as two critical players that return as 5th year seniors thanks to medical redshirt season, there's plenty of reason for hope across the Delaware river.
While the Tigers see DE Mike Catapano gone, who was drafted in the 7th round by the Kansas City Chiefs, 5th year senior DT Caraun Reid returns as captain and linchpin of the defense, while sophomore CB/KR Anthony Gaffney will seek to replicate his incredible freshman campaign on defense. While Catapano's loss will be felt, the Tigers will probably still stuff the run effectively, perhaps building on their 17th-ranked rush defense from last season.
Gaffney is the real deal, as detailed by Roar Lions earlier this month:
Gaffney comes in to this season with lots of high expectations as a returner and defensive back. He’s been named to the College Football Performance Award watch list and the Beyond Sports Network watch list.
If all goes according to plan in Old Nassau, Gaffney will follow in the footsteps of the great CB Jay McCareins, who was also a dual threat in the secondary [in 2006] and as a kickoff returner.
Gaffney has a long way to go to get into that territory, but remember that he's only a sophomore now and he really couldn't have done more in his freshman season than he actually did.Where Princeton's season will turn, though, is offensively, where neither junior QB Connor Michaelsen (1,634 yards passing, 6 TDs, 9 INTS) nor junior QB Quinn Epperley (480 yards passing, 384 yards rushing, 6 rushing TDs, 6 passing TDs, 2 INTs) really ran away with the starting nod.
They could be pushed in the preseason by a very highly touted freshman quarterback out of Harvard Westlake high school out of Los Angeles, California, freshman QB Chad Kanoff. Tellingly, Princeton has 8 players on their roster with "QB" next to their name.
Encouragingly for the Tigers, too, their top receiver returns, senior WR Roman Wilson (756 all-purpose yards, 7 TDs) and their top rusher, junior RB Will Powers (578 yards, 3 TDs), so whomever emerges as the starter will have experience at the skill positions, too.
What's abundantly clear is that Princeton, when they face Lehigh this season, won't be the doormat that almost everyone, save Craig Haley, predicted last season.