PRINCETON, NJ – There are few stadiums in the world of FCS as well suited for big crowds as Princeton Stadium. It’s a venue that can hold more than 27,000 fans and feels, when enough fans show up, better than a lot of venues at schools that call themselves FBS.
It’s been a place I’ve been to a lot. (In fact, I first met my future wife here as a Lehigh fan, walking towards the stadium at dusk, at the first-ever night game hosted there.)
Football-wise, I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve seen ecstasy, and agony.
I do not know whether in this game (slated to kick off at 3pm), in this 62nd meeting of the series, Lehigh (1-0, 1-2) will experience a win or a loss against Princeton (1-0, 0-0). What I do know is there is enough of a rivalry between the two schools that I can tell you a little bit about the ecstasy and agony of these matchups.
It’s the type of game where the Marching 97 makes the trip, the tailgate lots are open a little longer, and the imposing venue and the, well, Ivy League feel of the eating clubs and on-campus stadium make for a unique experience.
And lately, it’s become a yardstick game for the Mountain Hawks. For a long time, the matchup between Princeton and Lehigh was a competitive match against equals. But lately, it hasn’t felt that way.
I’ve been to Princeton stadium many times, and seen a lot of games where Princeton is involved.
Princeton and Lehigh have played each other 61 times, making this the 62nd meeting between the two schools. It has not been a rivalry of equals – in the pre-forward pass Lehigh era, from 1884 to 1906, Princeton won 25 straight against Lehigh, and it was largely expected by the fans that the Brown and White would not have a chance to win those games. (In fact, when Lehigh was able, in a rare instance, score a touchdown against the Tigers, it was the cause for headlines in the school paper and celebrations.)
For a brief period in the 1930s Lehigh and Princeton also played one another, but it wasn’t until the formation of what would eventually be the Patriot League in 1986 when the rivalry between the nearby schools would be rekindled.
When it comes to my personal favorite, of course, am quite partial to Lehigh’s victory over Princeton on September 25th, 1999, a 31-0 drubbing that certainly wasn’t the celebration the Tigers had in mind when it came to the first-ever night game at Princeton Stadium. The problem is I don’t remember the game as much as the girl. (I still have the program.)
Football-wise, my personal favorite was probably Lehigh’s utterly shocking 29-28 win over the Tigers in 2013, in Princeton head coach Bob Surace’s first season at Old Nassau. After jumping out to a 22-3 lead at halftime, Lehigh pulled out a magical, near-perfect half of football to escape with the one point victory. It was but one of many thrilling come-from-behind victories of that Lehigh squad that season, with a cardiac offense headlined by WR Lee Kurfis, RB Keith Sherman, and QB Brandon Bialkowski.
“Our drives were longer in the second half, and that kept our defense off the field longer,” then-Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said after the game. “That didn’t happen in the first half. By the end of the game, we were the tougher team.”
That victory, I think, is something head coach Bob Surace learned about Lehigh early on in his coaching tenure, right after he had replaced Roger Hughes as head coach at Old Nassau.
“They are always physical,” Surace explained, previewing the game this week. “Even last year with all the injuries, it was a physical game that way. The way they play offense, the way they play defense, the way they play special teams, it is going to be a very physical game.”
Each time Princeton and Lehigh have played one another, it’s followed a certain pattern – it’s a natural for both teams, since they’re so close to one another, and the teams have been competitive with one another, as long as they broadly followed the same rules. Then Princeton decided they would change the rules in order to become a national powerhouse, and Lehigh would either suffer the losses, or the rivalry would end.
One would hope that isn’t the case now, but the last two meetings between Lehigh and Princeton have taken on that flavor, one a 37-0 shutout at home last year, and the worst, most agonizing loss I’ve ever seen Lehigh endure, a 66-7 evisceration in Andy Coen’s final year as head football coach.
In the last five years in particular, Princeton has made it a priority to have a great football program, following the NCAA rules and Ivy League rules, to be sure, but also using their resources to do things all other FCS football programs cannot do. I’ve talked about this in detail before, but the fact is that Princeton is devoting time and resources to football, and it shows.
It really showed in the 66-7 game in 2018.
“The Mountain Hawk defense yielded 773 yards of offense to the Tigers – a Princeton record – allowing starting QB John Lovett to rush for 111 yards and pass for 288 more, making him responsible for 4 touchdowns, three through the air and one on the ground,” was one of the few things I could say about the game from the Lehigh perspective. “Lovett alone outgained the entire Lehigh offense, who only managed 234 yards as a team,” I added.
I remember interviewing Andy Coen after the game, heavily redacting most of what he actually said to me, most of it not fit to publish. He did say “They clearly are the better team,” which I did publish, stating the truth.
It was a real low point, with Lehigh not able to find much in the way of answers to the Princeton machine in any area. Yet to Princeton’s credit, they truly had built their program into one that should be considered Top 25 quality every year until they prove otherwise.
The question is if Lehigh, and the rest of the Patriot League, can make these games competitive again. If not, it won’t feel like much of a rivalry, and there will be little need for either side to schedule the games.
“The message will stay the same,” Surace added. “But, there’s always an extra excitement playing in front of your people. Princeton students, Princeton staff, alumni, people in your community. There’s always an extra vibe in the stadium and that’s been really big for us.”
LFN’s Drink of the Week
One of my favorite themed specialty tailgate drinks, this is derived from Slate’s “Princeton Cocktail #1“, which I renamed the Old Nassau Tiger Tail. It’s a beautiful layered drink that brings to mind Old Nassau’s Main Street and maybe an eating club or two. Chill the martini glasses before the pour. You can find the full recipe here.
LFN’s Tailgate Dish of the Week
Inspired by Donkey’s Place Steaks, the original New Jersey style cheesesteak mecca, it truly is worth it sometimes to venture outside of the comfort zone. It’s amazing! You can find the full recipe here.
Lehigh Game Notes and Injury Report
Lehigh’s game notes this week don’t really reveal any new injuries of note, but it does show that head coach Tom Gilmore has been trying out different things in the secondary, moving DB LaTreil Wimberly, DB Spencer Roof, DB Donovan Lassiter, DB D.J. Lawrence, DB Logan Jones, and DB Donovan Thomas around.
With leading tackler S TyGee Leach entrenched in one of the safety positions, this week it’s Wimberly and Lawrence at the corners, and Jones and Roof as the other starters. It’s the same starting lineup that Gilmore had in Week 2 vs. Georgetown.
Last week against Richmond, it was tough sledding as Lehigh lost 30-6 after Richmond QB Reese Udinski completed his first 17 passes and never really looked back. In front of Lehigh’s homecoming crowd, Richmond put Lehigh at 1-2 on the season.
An area of strength that has emerged for the Mountain Hawks so far in this season has been “The Stable”, the three-headed running back combination of RB Zaythan Hill, RB Jack DiPietro, and RB Gaige Garcia. Not only have the trio combined for three touchdowns, it’s worthy of mention that they’ve managed to grind out as a unit 118 yards per game – which may not sound impressive until you consider that they’ve done so against two of the three top rushing defenses of FCS (Georgetown at 42, Richmond at 43). It’s worth getting excited about what they might do against other opponents this year.
Head coach Tom Gilmore had one simple thing to say about Princeton on the LV Fox Sports Happy Hour this week: “They’ve reloaded.” Their game notes bear this out.
For a lot of reasons, Princeton is able to do that, but it does go to show the magnitude of the challenge Princeton has become for Lehigh over the last five years. They’ve developed into a power FCS program, no matter what anyone else will tell you or whatever Top 25 you look at.
Junior QB Blake Stenstrom, a 6’4. 225 lb signalcaller out of Colorado (and in fact an FBS transfer from the University of Colorado), was anointed the starter at QB in Princeton’s trip to DeLand, Florida this past weekend to take on Stetson. After a brief scare, going down 14-7 early, he’d help guide the Tigers to 30 unanswered points on offense to allow the Tigers a comfortable 39-14 win.
As has been the case with Princeton over the years, Stenstrom is an athletic QB that can run the ball, not only throwing for 233 yards against the Hatters but also running for 56 positive yards last week, the second-highest rushing total on the week. He, RB John Volker and RB Ryan Butler are the version of Princeton’s “stable” (who combined for Princeton’s 5 TDs last week), and it seems likely they’ll all share carries again this week.
WR Andrei Iosivas ended up being Stenstrom’s top target last week with 6 catches, 84 yards and 2 TDs, but WR JoJo Hawkins (6 catches, 70 yards) was equally productive on that rainy afternoon in Florida too. Iosivas is widely seen as a player who might end up on an NFL roster next year, but Princeton generally spreads the ball around to a lot of different receivers, though, so it’s hard to say whether one or both will continue to be the Tigers’ go-to guys this week, too.
“I’d say it feels like the culmination of a lot of hard work,” Stenstrom said of last weeks win. “It has been a long road to get here, both for myself and my teammates. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to run out on the field with on Saturday.”
I don’t suspect Princeton will change a lot of what they do on offense. They are an RPO team that plays fast, distributes the ball well, and are extremely deep. “They don’t have a lot of weaknesses,” Gilmore noted.
Defensively Lehigh will encounter a unit that got a lot of momentum from last week. After giving up 178 yards on their first three drives, Stetson managed just 65 more on the Princeton defense the rest of the way, notching a safety and two turnovers to go along with 0 points. In addition, the Tigers notched 10 tackles for loss, 5 of them sacks.
DE Uche Ndukwe (2 tackles, 1 sack) headlines the strength of the Princeton defense, the defensive line. Ndukwe was out last season, but he returns to anchor a very, very deep and talented group. Since Princeton is playing at home and has an expanded roster, they’ll be able to possibly go to a three-deep against Lehigh (i.e dress 15 D linemen), something no other team in FCS, including national championship contenders like North Dakota State, can credibly do.
If there’s a possible dent in Princeton’s armor, it’s in the secondary, but as I see it, there’s still a lot more returning talent than meets the eye. CB C.J. Wall is a former Ivy League honorable mention at corner, and S Payton Tally is another player that impress Surace during the preseason. The Tigers are even loaded at punter – P Will Powers has appeared on multiple preseason all-America lists this season.
LFN’s Keys to the Game
- Gotta force a turnover. In three games this season, Lehigh hasn’t forced a single turnover. Granted, Lehigh has played some very tough teams to start the year, but it’s going to have to happen soon in order to have a chance the rest of the way. Winning the turnover battle will be critical to having a chance to win this game, but you can’t win the turnover battle with no turnovers.
- Patience. Lehigh will have a chance to win this game if they have patience on offense, and take yardages in chunks and moving the sticks. I think some positive early momentum early by QB Dante Perri and the offense will be important, and hopefully getting the Tiger defense on the back foot a little bit.
- Time Of Possession. Sustained drives will be critical to giving Lehigh a chance. Against Georgetown and Richmond, Lehigh lost the time of possession battle (and thus made the game against the Hoyas more interesting). They’ll need to hold onto the ball – and in the process, keep the defense fresher.
I love games at Princeton, for obvious reasons. I love the stadium. I love the press box, which always, without fail, has some of the best food around FCS. (Really.) It has a beautiful area for tailgating. Though there’s no risk of a sellout, it’s a great place to watch a game, and if it ever could sell out on a regular basis, it would instantly rival the greatest venues in the subdivision.
The game against Princeton lately has become, for better or worse, a “yardstick game” instead of a “rivalry game” for the Mountain Hawks. It is Lehigh’s mission, more than anything else, to prove to FCS Nation, and Lehigh Nation, that they can go toe to toe with Princeton and compete.
Fearless Prediction: Princeton 31, Lehigh 14
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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