BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The football team came into its season opener with a host of unanswered questions. How would it replace reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Chuck Dibilio? Who would start under center? Could they manage to beat heavily-favored Lehigh?
The answer to the final question was no — the Tigers fell to the Mountain Hawks, 17-14 — but they put on a solid performance despite those uncertainties. Princeton improved dramatically throughout the game, turning a potential blowout into a close contest decided by a few plays at the end.
“Early in the game, we looked like a team that hadn’t played, and they looked like a team that’s a playoff team,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said. “It took us some time.”
Princeton had not named a starting quarterback before the game, so the official announcement came only when sophomore Connor Michelsen stepped on the field to take the first snap. Surace took his time in deciding on who would start under center, and after making his decision on Monday he continued to keep Lehigh, as well as the general public and the media, in the dark.
Still, Michelsen — who was informed of the decision when it was made Monday — felt ready. “You always have to be prepared,” he said. “You always expect yourself to start.”
Michelsen got off to a shaky start in the first half. Overthrowing several receivers, he completed five passes for only 29 yards and took two third-down sacks. Meanwhile, Lehigh got things going early — on his second possession, veteran quarterback Mike Colvin completed a 37-yard bomb to wide receiver Lee Kurfis, and Zach Barket then ran through a dazed Tiger defense for the first score of the game.
After another Princeton three-and-out, Lehigh’s Jason Suggs muffed a punt and junior fullback Dan Freund fell on it inside the red zone, giving the Tigers their first scoring opportunity. Senior running back Akil Sharp, Dibilio's primary replacement this year, carried the ball to the seven-yard line, bringing up fourth-and-1. Surace decided to go for it, but Sharp was stopped for no gain.
Sophomore quarterback Quinn Epperly, who got plenty of playing time late in 2011, replaced Michelsen for the first drive of the second quarter, but he was not any more effective. Epperly played a few more series throughout the game, using his legs to throw a wrench into Lehigh’s defensive gameplan; the left-hander finished with 13 rushing yards but only one completion.
Despite starting at its own 11-yard line thanks to a deep boot by senior punter Joe Cloud — one of Cloud's 12 kicks, four of which ended inside the red zone — Lehigh added to its lead in the second quarter. Though Princeton put more pressure on Colvin, the quarterback made the most of his little time in the pocket, completing consecutive passes of 45 and 31 yards before the Mountain Hawks settled for a field goal.
They didn’t stop there. After escaping from a second-and-15 situation on their own 36, the hosts charged back into the Tigers’ red zone with a bullet from Colvin to Kurfis. Princeton stopped two plays inside its two-yard line, but the third was a touchdown run by Keith Sherman, making the score 17-0.
The first ray of hope came when Michelsen completed an accurate throw under pressure to senior wide receiver Shane Wilkinson for the first Princeton first down of the game. Despite signs of life from the passing game, Cloud was soon called on to punt again; Suggs committed another fumble on the kick, but he managed to recover it.
After coming out of halftime with a 17-0 lead, the Mountain Hawks shot themselves in the talons with several third-quarter penalties, which caused two Lehigh drives to stall in their own red zone. After the second, which gave Princeton favorable field position, Sharp found his groove. Early in the fourth quarter, he dragged several defenders along with him on a 15-yard run, then finished the drive with a nearly identical 13-yard touchdown. The extra point was blocked, keeping the hosts' lead at 11.
Longer offensive drives also gave the Tigers' defense more rest — “It helps when you get to drink Gatorade before you have to go back out,” Surace said — allowing it to dominate late in the game. Facing third-and-1 in the fourth quarter, Colvin tried to run, but he met a wall of Tigers and was brought down for a loss by senior defensive lineman Brad Megay. The next series also ended in only three plays, as sophomore cornerback Khamal Brown put a big hit on receiver Ryan Spadola just shy of the first-down marker.
Princeton didn't convert either time, but midway through the period, Suggs muffed his third punt of the day, giving the Tigers the ball in enemy territory. A 12-yard third-down pass from Michelsen to junior wide receiver Roman Wilson moved Princeton to the one-yard line, setting up another touchdown run by Sharp.
“It’s just nice to see him getting stronger as the game went on,” Surace said of Sharp, who gained 64 of his 79 yards after halftime.
The Tigers went for two, and Michelsen, comfortable in the pocket, completed the conversion with a pass to Wilson. Princeton trailed the No. 13 Mountain Hawks by just a field goal with five minutes left to play.
The defense continued to frustrate the Mountain Hawks. After another impressive stop by senior linebacker Andrew Starks, who had a team-high 11 tackles, senior defensive lineman Caraun Reid swatted Colvin’s third-down pass back in the quarterback’s face, forcing Lehigh to punt with about three-and-a-half minutes remaining.
The Tigers, however, could not finish their comeback attempt. Facing third-and-7 from their own 41, Michelsen overthrew Wilkinson and the Tigers elected to punt, hoping to get a quick stop and one more shot.
After two fruitless rushing attempts, it looked like that would happen, as the hosts faced third-and-11 on their own 19. But Colvin found Kurfis wide open for a 27-yard gain. Two plays later, a nimble run by Colvin earned another new set of downs, giving Lehigh enough cushion to run out the clock.
The air of disappointment that comes with any loss was dissipated, slightly, by the feeling that the Tigers were only a catch or two away from winning what was expected to be a more lopsided game.
“I think we’re just coming together as a team,” Sharp said. “We came back in the second half and seemed to really believe."
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/15/31114/