Princeton’s strong safety says there is absolutely no safety in having one more tune-up before the Ivy League portion of the Tigers’ football schedule begins.
“It’s imperative to win this week,” said Mandela Sheaffer ’13.
In the looking glass, the Tigers liked some things they saw in their 34-22 opening loss to high-powered Lehigh. But as your side-view mirror says: “Objects are closer than they appear.” And the Tigers’ 1-9 season in 2010 will continue to tailgate them until they win some games.
The next one, 6 p.m. Saturday on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium against 2-1 Bucknell, certainly seems winnable enough that the consequences of losing are potentially unsettling.
“It is very important, especially since we haven’t had one in a while,” said coach Bob Surace ’90.
Indeed nothing succeeds like success, which the Tigers last enjoyed in week two of 2010 against Lafayette. That victory, inspirational as it seemed when Jordan Culbreath ’11, coming back from aplastic anemia, scored in overtime, turned out to be a springboard to nothing but the doctor’s office as key player after key player went down.
This Saturday, the Tigers will be missing only one starter, wideout Connor Kelley ’14. (Cornerback Phillip Bhaya ’14 is questionable.) That makes them much more hale and hearty at this point of this season than they were in 2010. But nobody wants to find out about their mental health should they be 0-2 headed into Columbia, which has mauled Princeton in successive seasons.
Against Lehigh, a likely playoff team with an unstoppable receiver in Ryan Spadola, the Tigers tackled well, unveiled an exciting running back in Chuck Dibilio ’15, got exceptional special teams play, and gave themselves a chance deep into the fourth quarter.
This was more than they were capable of doing as the 2010 season played out. But in their failure to score a touchdown in four red-zone opportunities or create a single turnover against Lehigh, Princeton continued to play like a team doomed to come out on the wrong side of the score.
“To get it going, we can’t over-think it,” said quarterback Tommy Wornham ’12 of the failure to finish drives. “We’ve got to run the plays that are called down there and just keep executing.”
Meanwhile, on defense, the Tigers have to continue to hurry to the ball as they do in practice and knock it loose at key junctures of games. “We had two almost-interceptions and one strip that we didn’t pick up,” said linebacker Steve Cody ’12. “Get those, [and] the game would have been a lot different.”
Get those and this season could be very different, so defensive coordinator Jared Backus never lets up in practice, demanding the next turnover.
Surace believes the defense has the ball-hawks to give his offense some short fields. “We swarm all around the ball in practice,” he said. “Now just have to do it in a game.”
Bucknell, coming off a 24-13 loss at Cornell after home wins against Duquesne and Marist, runs some inventive blitzes and has a formidable pass rusher in Josh Eden and a capable quarterback in Brandon Wesley – but no threat in the class of Spadola.
“I’d say they’re about at the same level of development that we are, although more upperclassmen-oriented,” said Surace. “Of course we have a senior quarterback.”
Who admits he needs to make more plays.
“There were some [unseen] guys open, I need to clean that up a little bit and make some deeper throws,” said Wornham. “Stand in the pocket a little longer.”
And end a losing streak that doesn’t dare go any longer.
“I don’t know,” said Wornham, asked if he feared the Tigers’ self esteem taking a hit at 0-2. “I don’t want to think about that.
“I want to get a win in this game and see where that takes us, because our confidence is pretty high right now.”