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Game 3 Breakdown: Lehigh at Princeton, 9/21/2013

(Photo Credit: Keith A. Muccilli/Trenton Times)

We break down the Princeton game - and we give our fearless prediction below the flip.

Though I didn't get much help from the Ivy League website, doing the Princeton preview is always pleasant because I have a network of people that make it that way.

The Big Green Alert and Roar Lions writers gave me a huge assist in making this week's preview.  They are always huge assets when it comes to anything about the Ivy League, and neither disappointed.

And Princeton's game notes themselves are also, as expected, top notch.  It's a pleasure to read lead-ins like this:
There is a reason why mid-terms are in October and finals are at the end of the semester. Students do the work class after class, week after week, and then get challenged afterwards. 
Imagine getting your syllabus, having a couple weeks to do some reading, and then taking a major test during your first class. 
That’s what you, as well as a nationwide audience on the NBC Sports Network, will see Saturday night at 6 pm. The Princeton football team is walking into the classroom for the first time, and it may see the highest-ranked opponent it will see in all of 2013. 
But that is the way head coach Bob Surace wants it. After a big step forward last season, he wants to see just how far his team has come in nine months. After all, the next 10 weeks have the potential to be something pretty special. 
Princeton has waited long enough. So have you. Let’s go.
Indeed.  Let's go.

Breaking Down Princeton
Offense
If there's one calling card of Surace and offensive coordinator James Perry's offense at Princeton, it's "up-tempo".  With both Lehigh and Princeton playing up-tempo, quickening sort of football games, you might want to set your DVR to record the game an extra hour or so.  It wouldn't stun me to see over 160 offensive plays on Saturday night.

That's not to say, however, that the Tigers play a fancy spread or a pass-happy attack.  It may be surprising, but Princeton plays a very balanced attack, out of a very conventional-looking pro set.  They just play very quickly, kind of like a certain team that wears gold helmets and calls themselves Mountain Hawks.

Troublingly for the Mountain Hawks, the Tigers return virtually all of the key parts to their offense from last season.

Last season the Tigers had a full-blown quarterback question going into the game vs. Lehigh.  Would they start junior QB Quinn Epperly, junior QB Connor Michaelsen, or sophomore QB Kedric Bostic?  Surace's answer, which persisted throughout the entire 2012 season, was to play both Epperly and Michaelsen during the course of the game, and if one (or both) get hurt, to bring Bostic in to replace them.

All three quarterbacks, all highly touted prospects coming out of high school. bring something different to the table.

Epperly is a strong, all-purpose runner that is hard to bring down (314 yards rushing, 6 TDs), but his original knock was that he wasn't the most accurate of passers.  He showed a lot of improvement last season, though, ending up with a 58.4 completion percentage, 6 TDs and only 2 interceptions.  He also showcased his arm against Harvard, hurling the 36 yard touchdown pass to upset the Crimson.

But Michaelsen, a pure pocket passer, took the majority of snaps last season for the Tigers, completing 61.3 % of his passes and adding 1,634 passing yards and 6 TD passes of his own - but also adding 9 interceptions.  Michaelsen's arm is clearly better and more accurate than Epperley's, but not good enough to keep Epperly on the bench, either.

Surace, in the preseason Ivy League conference call, implied he could decide to continue this two-headed QB approach, or even work QB Kedric Bostic in the mix too, a 6'3, 215 lb quarterback who got time in the final game of the season when Michaelsen got hurt.  Bostic, still a somewhat unknown quantity, seems to be a hybrid of the two, yet not greater than the sum of their parts, i.e., Epperly's running prowess and Michaelsen's accurate arm.

One thing's for sure, though - Princeton has depth and talent at the position.  Surace certainly feels comfortable going with any one of the three quarterbacks.

At running back the Tigers have a variety of different "speed" backs, led by junior RB Will Powers, the Tigers lead returning ballcarier with 455 yards and 3 TDs. 5'10 senior RB Brian Mills returns to the offense after switching to defense last season, while returning junior FB Joe Bonura was asked to block and didn't even get a rushing attempt last season.

It's interesting that Surace has gone "all-in" to the concept of speed backs over power running.  They pose a problem with their low center-of-gravity and the potential for big breakaways is there at all times.  Lehigh will need to tackle very, very well to contain them and keep them away from big plays.

The Tigers also, in a recurring theme, have a host of experienced guys returning at receiver, too.  Speedy 5'11 senior WR Roman Wilson let Princeton in receiving (649 yards, 7 TDs) as does 6'0 senior WR Matt Costello (316 yards, 2 TDs), who is more of a possession receiver.  Junior WR Connor Kelley (242 yards) and junior WR Seth DeValve (219 yards, 1 TD), the No. 3 and No. 4 receivers, also return.  6'5 senior TE Des Smith, surprisingly, wasn't really involved much in last year's passing attack, but he's a returning starter, too.

Princeton's starting "O" line boasts the most experience they've had there in a whole, notably senior C Joe Goss and senior OL Max Coale.  But the line is, and has been, on the smallish side, and did give up 22 sacks in 10 games last season.  Will they give whichever of the Princeton QBs better protection in 2013?

Defense
Last season, Princeton played a 4-3 defense with an incredible defensive front.  This season the Tigers have shifted to a 3-4, the first 3-4 that Lehigh has faced all season, and it will be interesting to see how Princeton's adjustment on defense will affect their game this weekend.

It won't change the fact, however, that NFL scouts will be crawling around the Princeton press box watching the Tigers' defensive front.

6'2, 305 lb senior DT Caraun Reid is literally everything NFL scouts look for in a defensive tackle: a guy with size, yet still blessed with speed, and the ability to fly to the football.  Last season was a tiny step down from a couple years ago (40 tackles, 9 1/2 tackles for loss), but much of that can be explained by the fact that he absorbed a lot of double teams, allowing DE Mike Catapano, now a Kansas City Chief, to have a bust-out season.

Catapano is gone, but 285 senior NG Greg Sotereanos returns, and  6'3, 255 senior DT Matt Landry rounds out the front three and will try to step into Catapano's shoes.  Without even getting into the linebacking unit, this is a large, strong run-stopping unit.

It's unclear as to why the Tigers switched to a 3-4.  It could be personnel with the graduation of Catapano, or it could be, as Jay Greenburg of Princeton athletics noted, that they are looking to force more turnovers.  Whatever the reason, it's fair to think there will be an adjustment period, and it's something Lehigh can possibly exploit.

Senior LB Alex Polofsky (67 tackles) is the leading returning tackler, and senior LB Jason Ray (28 tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for loss) returns at outside linebacker.  The Princetonians seem extremely excited about junior LB Mike Zeuli (34 tackles) heading to the linebacking unit from the safety position, while junior LB Garrit Leight, who got more time in the second half of the season last year, steps into the final linebacking spot.

Adding to this group is a very promising secondary, which returns experience and a potential superstar. 6'3 sophomore CB Anthony Gaffney had a great freshman season (34 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries) and will be counted on to build on that in 2013, while senior FS Phillip Bhaya (52 tackles, 3 interceptions) also returns.  Sophomore SS Matt Arends moves from linebacker, where he started six games last season, while junior CB Jakobi Johnson, who saw limited time in 2012, fills out the unit.

Special Teams
Sophomore PK Nolan Bieck finished the season at kicker for the Tigers last year, making 6 of 7 field goals with a long of 34.  Freshman P Tyler Roth makes his first-ever start for Princeton, marking an extremely young, inexperienced kicking game.

Junior WR Matt Costello will once again return punts, while junior RB Will Powers and sophomore CB Anthony Gaffney will be returning kickoffs.  Gaffney, with 517 return yards and 1 TD last season, is especially dangerous.

It's also worth mentioning that senior DE Caraun Reid is very dangerous on special teams, too.  Last season alone he blocked 3 kicks, including a critical Harvard field goal that set up their tremendous comeback.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Lehigh's Secret Weapon.  It may not seem like it, but one underappreciated part of Lehigh's game is freshman PK Ryan Pandy's touchbacks on kickoffs.  For two straight weeks his touchbacks have taken a critical part of opponent's games away - kickoff returns.  For the third straight week, a Mountain Hawk opponent has a dangerous return game.  For a third straight week, touchbacks need to be had to make that a non-factor.
2. Build on Last Weeks' Stop.  The talk after the Monmouth game was all about the punt block and senior WR Lee Kurfis' record-breaking day, but went somewhat unnoticed was a huge defensive stop on the next drive, with a couple sacks and a heady play to stop a chaotic lateral-fest that could have resulted in a Lehigh loss.  The defense, after some early struggles, played with pride last week.  That positive momentum needs to continue into this week.
3. Quick Start.  I mentioned this last week, and it bears repeating this week.  With Princeton in their first game, a quick strike from senior QB Brandon Bialkowski before the Tigers' legs are completely underneath them might really help pave the way towards a win.

Fearless Prediction
Playing Princeton is tough.  Playing Princeton on national television is tougher.  Playing Princeton on national television in their home opener is tougher still.  And playing Princeton on national television in their home opener after a strange week of adversity is even tougher than that.

Yet it also has some advantages, too.  They face a bunch of Tigers that are still feeling each other out as teammates.  Lehigh, with two games under their belt, have a timing on offense that will be different than Princeton's timing on offense.

In so many ways, this game is filled with mystery.  How will Lehigh react to the events of this week?  Will Princeton's switch to a 3-4 multiple scheme be seamless, or an issue?  Will missing names on defense for Lehigh lead to an offensive explosion for Princeton?  Will the stage - a nationally-televised game - be a factor?

Most importantly for Lehigh fans, is is the weekend that the pixie dust runs out?  The week that they encounter the right amount of adversity?  The perfect storm of a talented, solid team, against which they won't be able to call upon another miracle?

Those that think that this Lehigh team will come apart at the seams because of the adversity, I feel, is mistaken.

Lehigh 37, Princeton 31

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