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Gameday Preview: Princeton at Lehigh

Gameday Preview: Princeton (0-0) at Lehigh (0-2)

By Craig Sachson

The last time we were in gameday mode, Princeton football was being honored for being one of the original college football teams. Now it feels like we haven’t played a game in 150 years.


Tomorrow, that changes.


Princeton heads to Goodman Stadium in Easton, Pa., tomorrow for a noon showdown with the Lehigh Mountain Hawks (0-2). All links to watch, listen and follow along online are available on the weekly preview.


Week 1 Notes


Quick Start? • It was always an uneven start when Princeton would play its opener outside of the league. One coach would bemoan a lack of gameday experience, the other would bemoan a lack of video to use for preparation. That happened during normal circumstances.


This weekend is as far from normal as you get. Not only has Lehigh played twice this season, but the Mountain Hawks already played another (partial) season during the spring of 2021. Princeton hasn’t played a game this decade, much less this month.


For the Princeton coaching staff and returning players, they are used to a later start than other teams, but they’ve never experienced this level of gameday rust. Factor in a new starting quarterback — whoever it might be — and it’s at least reasonable to expect a choppy start for the Tiger offense.


You can take it a step further. Lehigh is 0-2 this season, but both losses have come to Top-25 teams (#15 Villanova, #22 Richmond). While both games eventually got out of hand, neither team scored a touchdown in the first quarter, and Richmond didn’t score at all. Lehigh will be well-prepared for the start of this game, and Princeton can’t dig itself an early hole with bad turnovers.


Run Away • While the Princeton quarterback may be making his first start, the key players in the run game bring back plenty of experience. Collin Eaddy is flirting with the 2,000-yard milestone, and head coach Bob Surace thinks this offensive line could compare with any of his Tiger tenure if it can stay healthy. Perhaps that is the way to settle this offense during the early moments of the game — snap, handoff, repeat.


Lehigh’s defense has struggled so far against the run game, albeit against ranked competition. The Mountain Hawks have allowed more than 240 rushing yards per game this season, and both Villanova and Richmond gained more first downs by rush than pass, which indicates solid production on early downs. Princeton will look to avoid third-and-long at all costs early in its opener, so a heavy dose of efficient running early is crucial.


The ranked competition is an important factor to keep in mind. During the spring 2021 season, Lehigh posted Top-10 national rankings in both total defense (252.7 yards/game) and scoring defense (15.3 points/game).


Sixth Sense • Princeton has won six straight games against the Patriot League, though its last loss was also its last game at Goodman Stadium (a 42-28 loss in 2016 that memorably concluded with quarterback Chad Kanoff accepting responsibility for the loss, promising to fix his mistakes, and leading the Tigers to a record-setting run to an Ivy League title). It is also looking for its sixth straight win in a season opener, which would be its longest run since the 1960s.


Bob Surace is 5-5 in Princeton season openers. He started 0-5, including two losses at Goodman Stadium, but his teams have put up pretty dominant performances for the most part since 2015. Outside of an ugly effort in San Diego in 2014, his teams have been pretty competent in openers since 2012. Expect the Tigers to be rusty, but don’t expect them to be unprepared.


Ground Attack • Lehigh has yet to score a touchdown this season, but the Mountain Hawks likely showed how they want to play offense last week. In the opener at Villanova, a game they basically trailed from the start, Lehigh threw 32 passes and had four interceptions. Last week against Richmond, Lehigh grabbed an early lead and actually had 35 rushes to only 22 passes (with two interceptions).


Princeton returns a ton of experience in the defensive backfield (including Delan Stallworth, Trevor Forbes and Christian Brown), so you have to think that Lehigh would much prefer to attack on the ground and try to wear Princeton down in its first game of the season. The Mountain Hawks had four players attempt at least six rushes last weekend, with two averaging at least 6.5 yards per carry (Gaige Garcia averaged 7.2).


Facing big halftime deficits in its first two games, Lehigh hasn’t been able to run its base offense much in the second half this season. If Princeton can’t get an early lead Saturday — and especially if early offensive miscues put the Tigers in a deficit — Lehigh could approach much bigger ground numbers.


Who To Watch From Lehigh • Senior quarterback Alec Beesmer opted out of the 2021 spring season, and he only carried the ball once in the opener, but he took over quarterback duties before halftime against Richmond and provided a dual threat at the position. Junior Cross Wilkinson is still listed as the starting quarterback on the Lehigh depth chart, but he has thrown four interceptions already this season, and likely wouldn’t have a long leash (if he’s the starter at all). A dual threat quarterback can be a nightmare to deal with, especially for a defense that lacks gameday experience this season.


That being said, Jeremiah Tyler could be a problem for either quarterback. He brings the type of pass rush to force early throws, a danger to any pass game, but he has the speed to disrupt mobile quarterbacks. He has waited a long time to follow up a brilliant 2019 season which ended with him as a Bushnell Cup finalist, and he will be primed to make an early statement Saturday.


Princeton Does Well If … • Make Lehigh work for everything. Maybe its offense is better than its stats show against two ranked opponents, or maybe it has made adjustments following both games. If the Mountain Hawks can drive 80 yards against a Princeton defense facing opening-day jitters, so be it. That’s the price of playing in a league that starts two week later than everybody else. But this defense, even without experience, should hold up well against a team seemingly lacking a true gamebreaker.


If the run game is going early, and the quarterback faces more 3rd-and-3 than 3rd-and-8, this offense should be fine.


Princeton Struggles If … • Early turnovers or defensive breakdowns would be absolute gifts to a Lehigh team that hasn’t scored a touchdown this season. Maybe one touchdown is all it needs to find some confidence, so handing it to them could be disastrous. Punts, especially early, aren’t terrible results for Princeton. Maybe it will take 3-4 offensive series to find some rhythm. There’s nothing wrong with that. But keep the Lehigh offense on its side of the field and make them drive 70 yards, not 30.


Defensively, especially if Beesmer makes an early showing, you simply can’t forget your role. Dual threat quarterbacks typically aren’t the most dangerous passers, but they do force you to be disciplined. Put your eyes in the wrong place, and a potential 4-yard scramble easily becomes a 70-yard touchdown pass. Discipline is tough on opening day, but it needs to be there.


september, 2023