Gameday Preview: Stetson (2-0) at Princeton (1-0)
By Craig Sachson
If there is a feeling of normalcy this week, that’s OK. When Princeton traveled to Lehigh last weekend, the Tigers were preparing to play their first game in 20 months. Now, it’s your standard Week 2 game, and the Princeton players can focus on cleaning up mistakes from a victorious season opener while trying to win their seventh straight home opener.
Princeton will take on a new opponent, Stetson, this Saturday at 1 pm on Powers Field. Tickets are available, and the game will be streamed live on ESPN+. All links are available on GoPrincetonTigers.com.
Week 2 Notes
Shut Down • The Princeton defense STILL hasn’t allowed a point since 2019. The Tigers shut out Lehigh last weekend in a 32-0 opening-day victory; it marked their first season-opening shutout since the first game ever played at Princeton Stadium, a 6-0 win over Cornell that opened the 1998 season.
It was a defense-by-committee effort, as nobody made more than four tackles in the game. Princeton recorded five sacks (two by junior Cole Aubrey) and limited Lehigh to -25 yards rushing. The lack of a rushing game left the Mountain Hawks in several tough third-down situations, and they ended the game with a 1-for-11 success rate.
Player Of The Week • The Princeton offense was led by senior quarterback Cole Smith, who completed 30 of 41 passes for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad for a first career start, right?
Bob Surace has a history of removing the training wheels immediately for his quarterbacks. Kevin Davidson threw for 341 yards and two touchdowns in his first game as QB No. 1 (2019), while John Lovett threw for 177 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for two other touchdowns in his first start. If Surace believes in his quarterback, he isn’t going to ease him into the system. With only 10 games, there isn’t time for that.
That should be a good sign for this offense, which also returns a veteran offensive line, an All-Ivy running back in Collin Eaddy, and three upperclassman receivers with experience. There are strong pieces in place around the quarterback. If Surace believes Smith is ready, and it certainly looked like that last weekend, then this offense should continue to flourish.
In The Slot • When Princeton won the 2013 Ivy League championship, its top receiving threat was Roman Wilson, a terrifying slot receiver who had 37 more catches, 385 more yards and five touchdown catches more than ANY other receiver in the offense. He may be best remembered for his long, game-winning touchdown catch against Harvard in 2012, but his versatility in the slot was vital in Princeton’s run to the Ivy League title the following year.
Since then, Princeton’s top receivers on championship-level teams have been big, outside threats — several of whom continued their careers in the NFL. Everybody remembers the work of Jesper Horsted and Stephen Carlson in 2018, but the top two targets in the 2016 championship run were also tall, outside threats in Isaiah Barnes and Horsted (66 combined catches).
It’s still early, but Jacob Birmelin may remind Princeton fans of Roman Wilson this season. After leading Princeton with 60 catches and 767 yards last year, he posted an Ivy League-best eight catches for 139 yards and one touchdown in the win over Lehigh. Andrei Iosivas had two touchdown catches, both over 30 yards, but Birmelin looks like the first option in the passing game after one week.
When you average 17.4 yards per catch, that’s a dangerous first option, and a reliable slot receiver can quickly become an inexperienced quarterback’s best friend.
Scouting Stetson • Besides being Princeton’s first home opener in two years, there was excitement for this game due to the return of former Princeton head coach Roger Hughes, who revived the Stetson football program in 2011. Hughes coached at Princeton from 2000-2009, and would have been on the sidelines for the 15-year anniversary of a memorable march to the 2006 Ivy League championship.
Hughes left Stetson over the summer to become president of his alma mater, Doane University, but former assistant coach Brian Young has the Hatters off to a 2-0 start. While it’s tough to learn much from wins over lesser-known programs like Warner and Ave Maria, you can look at the statistics and gather a few things about this team:
1) It has posted balanced offensive numbers. Stetson has 550 passing yards and 525 rushing yards on the season, and it has the same number (7) of passing and rushing touchdowns. The Hatters have far more rushing attempts than passing attempts this season, but part of that could be due to having big leads in both games.
2) There is no fear on fourth down. Between the 2018-2019 seasons, Princeton attempted 52 fourth downs, an average of 2.6 per game. In the first two games of this season, Stetson has already attempted 11 fourth downs (5.5 per game). An analytics-friendly decision in many cases, it is easier to attempt fourth downs when you have an early lead and the type of offense that creates fourth-and-short situations. If Princeton can be efficient on early defensive downs, it could eliminate that aggressiveness from Stetson quickly.
3) The defense gets off the field on third downs. Stetson is allowing under 30% success on third downs this season. How do you manufacture that kind of rate? Like we discussed earlier, you do it by winning the early downs, especially in the run game. Stetson is allowing 1.5 yards per rush this season. It should face its best competition by far this season in the senior-laden Princeton offensive line and Collin Eaddy, but if that run defense remains steady, it has proven strong on third downs.
4) It hasn’t given the ball away. Stetson drives have ended with scores or punts this season. The Hatters don’t have any turnovers this year. Especially with a new coaching staff in place, that’s a very impressive stat, and a good way to put yourself in position to win.