Week 3 Preview: Columbia (2-0, 0-0 Ivy) at Princeton (2-0, 0-0 Ivy)
By Craig Sachson
There was a special charm for Princeton players two weeks ago when they played their first game in 665 days. There was an excitement when they finally took Powers Field for a home gameday last weekend. The Tigers made the most of those experiences, winning by a combined 95-0 score to move back into the FCS Top 25.
This weekend is different. Sure, the Ivy League opener is special and exciting, but it’s also the start of a mission. The upperclassmen experienced Ivy perfection in 2018, something no other Princeton team could claim in more than 50 years. The returners from 2019 felt the agony of falling one game short of a repeat title.
The nuance of returning to the field is gone. Princeton, winner of three Ivy League titles in the last seven seasons, has set the highest standard possible for itself. Step 1 of the 2021 mission takes place Saturday at 1 pm, in front of several regional television networks (NBC Sports Philly, SNY, NBC Sports California, NBC Sports Chicago, ESPN+) and a home crowd that is ready to celebrate both its football team and its Hometown Heroes on a special day at Princeton Stadium.
Week 3 Notes
Historic Rivals • The Princeton-Columbia rivalry dates back to 1874, and the Tigers hold an all-time 72-16-1 edge in the series. Princeton has won eight of the last nine meetings, though there have been several close games since Columbia introduced Al Bagnoli as its head coach. Ironically, the Princeton home games have produced the most excitement during that stretch:
2015: Princeton 10, Columbia 5
One of the craziest games of this century, Princeton grabbed the first-quarter lead on a Trevor Osborne touchdown, then held on through one of the worst weather games in recent memory. Wind gusts of 20 MPH+ and heavy rain beat up both offenses, and the early touchdown would be enough for the home team.
2017: Columbia 28, Princeton 24
Princeton had more yards and first downs, but it also had three more turnovers, including one in the final minute of a comeback attempt. Ronald Smith broke away for a 63-yard touchdown reception — his second of the game — with 1:13 remaining to stun the reigning Ivy League champion.
2019: Princeton 21, Columbia 10
Ronald Smith, who clearly enjoyed playing on Powers Field, scored a touchdown just before halftime to give Columbia a 10-7 lead. Princeton didn’t generate a ton of offense throughout, but the Tigers pitched a second-half shutout and went on to win 21-10.
Third Time’s A Charm? • The Princeton defense still hasn’t allowed a score since 2019, as it posted back-to-back shutouts to open a season for the first time since Fritz Crisler was head coach in 1933 (Princeton shut out the first SEVEN opponents that season). This has been the ultimate team effort so far, as no player has double-digit tackles or more than one takeaway this season. Big leads have allowed the coaching staff to go deep into the rotation, which is great for playing experience, but not as helpful for seeing how the team handles an important second-half drive.
So far the coaching staff has liked what it has seen at all three levels, though. Lehigh and Stetson combined for a grand total of one rushing yard against the Tigers this season, and the two teams combined to convert on less than 19% of third-down attempts (and none of the six fourth-down attempts). Pressure up front, consistent tackling and elimination of big plays has forced opponents to put together long drives, and neither team could manage one for a score so far.
If Columbia can provide Princeton’s first defensive test, there is a good chance that running back Dante Miller will be a key reason why. One of three Ivy backs averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game, Miller is picking up over eight yards per carry. The Lions would like nothing more than to control field position and the clock with an effective run game, and it will be up to the Princeton front seven to contain that.
Getting Offensive • Of course, another way to keep Columbia out of a run-heavy offensive attack is to jump out early and force the Lions into a shootout. Princeton enters the weekend with the fifth-ranked scoring offense (47.5 points/game) and the 10th-ranked total offense (487 yards/game).
While there has been plenty of offense-by-committee based on the significant margins, the two standouts early this season have been quarterback Cole Smith and wide receiver Jacob Birmelin. Smith is completing just under 70% of his passes and averaging 318.5 yards per game, while Birmelin averages 6.5 catches, 103 yards and a TD per game. This might be a new connection on gamedays because it is Smith’s first season as a starter, but they have been throwing together since they were freshmen together in the fall of 2017.
What will that duo see this coming weekend? Columbia is 2-0 on the season, with home wins over both Marist (37-14) and Georgetown (35-24). The Lion defense has limited its opponents to an average of 68.5 rushing yards per game, but it’s allowing over 290 passing yards per game.
Arguably Columbia’s most impressive defensive statistic is points allowed in the second half. Coming off the missed 2020 season, every Ivy League team likely worried about game fitness, and being able to execute late in games. The Lions have answered the bell, giving up only one third-quarter touchdown this season, and no points at all in the fourth quarter. Senior linebacker Justin Woodley is a player to watch; he leads the team with 14 tackles, including 2.5 for losses, a sack and a quarterback hurry. Players like that cause turnovers and change momentum. The veteran Princeton offensive line will need to account for him at all times.
Excelling On, Off The Field • Congratulations to co-captain James Johnson, a 2021 semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which “recognizes an individual as the absolute best football scholar-athlete in the nation for his combined academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership.”
Johnson leads Princeton with eight tackles this season, though you can expect many more opportunities upcoming now that Ivy League play will begin. Johnson is one of a handful of Tiger defenders with multiple years of rotational experience in Ivy play, which should help overcome any nerves associated with the higher stakes coming Saturday.