Princeton football (1–0 overall, 0–0 Ivy League) returned victoriously to the gridiron on Saturday in San Diego with a 23–12 win over the University of San Diego Toreros. After finishing tied for second place in the Ivy League last year, the Tigers started the 2023 season with high hopes of reclaiming the Ivy League title.
Tigers head coach Bob Surace does not want any memories of last year's final two losses to sit with the team.
"The day after the season, whether we were winless or undefeated, the first powerpoint slide has the upcoming year and the record of 0-0 on it," Surace told the Daily Princetonian. "I want to make sure our team knows that the transition from one year to the next happens immediately after Thanksgiving, and any success or disappointment that happened in the past does not carry over. So our energy was put into starting the 2023 season strong and I thought our team gave a terrific effort."
Princeton led wire-to-wire, as senior quarterback Blake Stenstrom commanded an eight play, 75-yard drive after the Tigers received the opening kickoff. The first play of the Tiger season was a nine-yard, play-action pass to junior tight end Tyler Picinic that kept the Tigers rolling.
Junior wide receiver Luke Colella hauled in a 32-yard circus catch while tightrope walking down the left sideline. The Tigers quickly made their way into the red zone after two short checkdowns from Stenstrom. After a procedural flag for too many players in the backfield negated a Princeton touchdown, the Tigers responded with a 20-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Tamatoa Falatea on a jump ball in the endzone for a 7–0 Tiger lead.
The Tiger defense held the Toreros to a three-and-out as senior linebacker Ozzie Nicholas tackled Torero running back Isaiah Williams short of the line to gain. The Tiger defense kept the Torero ball carriers in front of them and swarmed to the ball, preventing any easy yards.
Miscues from the offense forced the Tigers into a punt on their next drive. A short punt gave the Toreros very good field position right at the 50-yard line, which they capitalized on with their only touchdown of the game, a one-yard dive from Williams.
The Tigers special teams then showed their teeth, blocking the San Diego extra point to keep the Tigers in the lead 7–6.
The two teams traded punts before Stenstrom broke loose a 15-yard scramble to bring the Tigers into Torero territory. Junior running back John Volker powered the Tigers down to the San Diego ten-yard line with a couple of strong runs but the Torero defense stuffed Volker on a fourth and short attempt to force a turnover on downs.
The Princeton defense forced a quick three-and-out, and the offense wasted no time getting back on the board. Stenstrom, who led the Ivy League in passing yards last year, hit Colella on a deep cross for a 32-yard touchdown. Junior kicker Jeffrey Sexton sailed the extra point through the uprights for a 14–6 Tiger lead.
Aggressive play from the Tiger front seven continued to stymie the Torero offense. Junior defensive lineman Collin Taylor surged through for a tackle for loss and Nicholas batted a pass to force another Torero punt.
A long field goal from the Toreros right before the half sent the Tigers into the locker room with a 14–9 lead.
The Princeton defense, which led the FCS in points allowed last year, forced yet another Torero punt to start the third quarter. A 51-yard scamper down the sideline by Volker, who finished the day with 91 rushing yards on 16 carries, brought the Tigers down to the San Diego two-yard line. The Princeton coaches rewarded Volker for his effort, handing him the ball again for a short touchdown run. The Tigers led 21–9 after the Sexton extra point.
The rest of the third quarter was dominated by defense. Both teams forced punts and stunted any offense progress. The Toreros had the only points of the third quarter after the Princeton touchdown on a booming 55-yard field goal from kicker Aidan Lehman.
The Tiger defense was the driving force behind the win, making play after play in the second half to maintain the lead. Big hits from Nicholas and sophomore linebacker Marco Scarano kept the Toreros from any chance at a comeback.
"There are elements of football we don’t do much or at all anymore in training camp," said Surace. "One of those is tackling to the ground. We spend a lot of time simulating that and teaching that, but gameday is often the only opportunity we get to do it. I was very impressed with how well our defense and special teams tackled throughout the game."
With 3:08 left in the fourth quarter, the Tigers had the Toreros pinned on the two-yard line after a great punt. Sophomore defensive lineman Bakari Edwards put an exclamation mark on the Tiger’s 23-12 victory, sacking Torero quarterback Dominic Nankil in the endzone for a safety.
Stenstrom finished the game with 240 passing yards and two touchdown passes as well as 27 rushing yards. Volker and sophomore running back Dareion Murphy combined for 118 rushing yards to power the Tiger ground game. Colella led the receivers with 62 yards on three catches and the second quarter touchdown.
The Tigers offense did not miss a step after losing their star wideout from last season, Andrei Iosivas, who is now on the Cincinnati Bengals' 53-man roster.
"My background prior to Princeton was coaching in the NFL," said Surace. "There is a lot of roster movement on what seemed like a weekly basis, and I learned quickly in 2002 the importance of preparing and developing the entire roster. Our assistant coaches and performance staff are phenomenal in that area, and, as we get a larger sample size, we do our best to put our players in the best position to succeed."
On the defensive end, Edwards had two sacks, leading the dominant Tiger front seven. Sophomore defensive back Nasir Hill had the high tackle number for the team at five.
Princeton football will return to the East Coast for their home opener against the Bryant University Bulldogs (1–2 overall, 0–0 Big South) at Powers Field, next Saturday at 3 p.m. The Tigers will look to continue strong through their non-conference schedule and hit Ivy League play with lots of momentum.
Harrison Blank is a contributor to the Sports section for the ‘Prince.’
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