When the Princeton football team took the field at Princeton Stadium for the final time last fall, the Tigers defeated Dartmouth and left as Ivy League Champions for the 11th time in school history. Returning last Saturday, Sept. 16, the team began this year’s campaign to defend their title with a resounding 27-17 nonconference win against San Diego. Facing a solid opponent that won an FCS playoff game last season, Princeton combined a stout defense, a productive offense, and an opportunistic special teams unit to earn the win in convincing fashion, scoring early and never relinquishing the lead.
Of particular note during Saturday’s game was the emergence of a high-powered passing attack for Princeton. Despite losing 2016 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year senior quarterback John Lovett to offseason surgery and receivers responsible for 53 percent of receptions from last season to graduation, Princeton racked up 352 yards passing and three passing touchdowns. Senior quarterback Chad Kanoff, who shared a platoon with Lovett last season, shone in the elevated role and junior receiver Stephen Carlson hauled in all three touchdown passes. “I think we have five or six great receivers,” said Kanoff. “For the time being, we’re without one of our best players (Lovett), but we have other great players too.” Head Coach Bob Surace added, “I think [Kanoff] is comfortable with the guys around him, and as a QB that’s a very good feeling… if we continue to protect him and catch the ball, he’s going to have a big year.”
Princeton’s offensive line will also be a powerful asset for the team this season. The unit returns four of five starters, including senior Mitchell Sweigart, the first team All-Ivy Left Tackle who has been drawing the attention of NFL scouts.
Defensively, Princeton appears poised for another stellar season. The defensive line returns senior Kurt Holuba, 2016 finalist for Ivy League Defensive Player of the year; senior Kurt Holuba; and several other experienced players. The defensive backfield, however, remains an unknown, with several players featured in expanded roles. Senior Chance Melancon returns after starting the final eight games last season, and he will be playing cornerback alongside sophomore Will Johnson, who switched to the position from receiver just this offseason. Junior Ben Ellis also made his first career start at safety this Saturday. As a whole, the defense struggled to stop the San Diego offense from gaining yards in the first half, but it tightened its play in the second, holding the opponent to merely 17 points. “We got a better pass rush,” said Surace, explaining the defense’s second-half improvement.
Another theme from Saturday’s game was Princeton’s aggressiveness with fourth down attempts. Surace elected, rather unconventionally, to go for it on fourth and two from the opponent’s five-yard line with a 10-point lead late in the final quarter. Such a decision reflects the Princeton coaching staff’s attention to analytics, demonstrating the benefits of attempting fourth down conversions much more frequently than most coaches choose to do.
“If I feel we’re doing well on offense, we’re going to go for it,” said Surace. “If you’re playing Blackjack, you play the odds... I’m not a gambler, but I’d play the odds if I was.”
The Tigers will travel to Pennsylvania next Saturday, Sept. 23, to conclude their nonconference schedule at Lafayette before returning home the following weekend and beginning Ivy League play with a matchup against Columbia. Princeton fans are likely to witness a great deal of quality football throughout the season. The Ivy League is filled with quality players, and Princeton alone has had three players selected to be in the NFL Draft over the past three years.
While it may seem ironic to suggest that this Princeton football team would prefer an improved result from last season’s Ivy League Champion campaign, the scenario certainly seems likely. The team would undoubtedly like to avenge its only Ivy League defeat last year, an overtime heartbreaker against Harvard, and sweep Harvard and Yale for the first time since 2013. Additionally, of course, the only thing sweeter than becoming Ivy League co-champions, as was the case for last year’s Tigers (who shared the title with Penn), would be to win the championship outright. If the season opener is any indication, this team certainly has the talent and drive to accomplish these lofty goals.