After stumbling in ’07, football seniors think they can contend for the Ivy title

Beverly Schaefer

Senior defensive linemen Pete Buchignani, Matt Koch, and Tom Methvin have played together in Princeton’s starting lineup for two years and worked together in practice for three. They got to know each other even better last spring when the coaching staff assigned each player to watch game tapes and critique a teammate’s performance.

It wasn’t easy, said Buchignani, who studied tape of both Koch and Methvin. But it could pay off for the Tigers this fall. “It was really helpful to hear from our own teammates what they saw from us, rather than just what the coaches say,” he said. “It hits home when one of your teammates says, ‘Listen, this is what you do.’” 

Self-evaluation was one of the off-season themes for a Princeton football team that followed its 2006 Ivy League championship with a subpar 4–6 record last year. Turnovers and inconsistent play plagued the offense, and the normally stout Tiger defense slipped to the middle of the Ivy pack, surrendering averages of 365 yards (fifth in the league) and 26.5 points (fourth).

Koch, one of three team captains this year, said that the defensive line was partly to blame. “We needed to get a better pass rush, and that’s one of the big things we’re working on this season,” he said. 

A healthy Methvin should help. He led all Princeton linemen with 2.5 sacks last year, despite missing nearly half the season with a high-ankle sprain, and had a team-high four sacks in 2006. The Tigers return pass-rushing linebackers John Callahan ’10 and Collin McCarthy ’09 as well. More pressure on the quarterback could help the unproven defensive secondary’s pass coverage.

 On offense, the preseason forecast was a bit hazy, with two inexperienced candidates vying for the starting quarterback job. Front-runner Brian Anderson ’09 looked sharp in his only start, an overtime win at Dartmouth last year. His top challenger, Dan Kopolovich ’10, excelled as a high school quarterback in western Pennsylvania, but he spent his first two seasons at Princeton as a starting defensive back and has never thrown a pass in a college game.

The new quarterback will work behind an experienced offensive line — four of five starters return — and throw to two veteran receivers, Adam Berry ’09 and Will Thanheiser ’09. Princeton’s running game likely will divide carries between tailbacks Jordan Culbreath ’10 and R.C. Lagomarsino ’09. Culbreath’s 145-yard, two-touchdown game against Cornell last October was the most memorable individual performance of the season.

The Tigers, who opened at The Citadel Sept. 20 and face Lehigh at home Sept. 27, would love a strong start, but the most important games of the year begin Oct. 18 when Princeton hosts Brown. That starts a five-week stretch in which the Tigers play the top four teams in this year’s Ivy preseason media poll: Brown, Harvard, Penn, and Yale.

Buchignani and his senior classmates are looking forward to a fresh start and hoping for a strong finish. “We’ve been through the good times and the bad times, and we know what it takes to win,” he said. “I think we’re more hungry this year.”

Ivy preview: Power couple

Harvard and Yale dominated Ivy League football last season, with a combined 13–1 record in league games, and 2008 may bring more of the same. The defending-champion Crimson return eight starters from a dominant defense, while the Bulldogs feature star tailback Mike McLeod, the unanimous choice for Ivy Player of the Year in 2007. Brown’s high-octane offense, which averaged 424 yards per game last year, could make the Bears a contender as well. Princeton ranked fifth in the Ivy preseason media poll.

PRINCETON AGAINST THE IVIES

Oct. 4        at Columbia        1:30 p.m.    

Oct. 18        BROWN             1 p.m.    

Oct. 25        HARVARD        1 p.m.    

Nov. 1        at Cornell           1 p.m.    

Nov. 7        PENN                  7 p.m.

Nov. 15       at Yale                 noon    

Nov. 22       DARTMOUTH    1 p.m.