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Princeton football falls 12–9 in first loss to Lafayette since 2004

Man in black and orange holds football, looks to field, with people in white uniforms in background.
Senior quarterback Blake Stenstrom surveying the field against Lafayette. 
Photo courtesy of Alex Beverton-Smith/The Daily Princetonian.

On Saturday afternoon, Princeton football (2–2 overall, 1–0 Ivy League) played their final non-conference game in their 53rd-ever matchup against the Lafayette Leopards (5–1 overall, 1–0 Patriot League). After a nine-point first quarter for the Tigers, Princeton struggled to put together anything offensively for the remainder of the game, notably missing two kicks, and eventually lost, 12–9. 

This loss shattered a 12-game winning streak by Princeton against the Leopards that stretched back to 2004. The last time Lafayette beat Princeton at home happened when the Tigers still played in the old Palmer Stadium. 

“Lafayette is a great team,” junior wide receiver AJ Barber told The Daily Princetonian. “Probably one of the better defenses we’ll play all year, so there’s lots to take away from this game.”

Following the win, Lafayette started the season 5–1 for the first time since 2009 and already eclipsed their win total from 2022. This strength is characterized by quarterback Dean DeNobile and running back Jamar Curtis, who have led Lafayette this season in passing and rushing yards respectively.

After trading a drive and a field goal each, Lafayette and Princeton were tied 3–3 heading towards the end of the first quarter. With 2:52 to go in the quarter, Princeton found themselves with the ball at their 26-yard-line. 

On a third down play, a pass by senior quarterback Blake Stenstrom found Barber, who rushed 57 yards up the field to the Lafayette 11-yard-line for a first down. Two plays later, Princeton managed to complete the drive with Stenstrom running out of the pocket towards the right touchline before he fired into the hands of junior wide receiver Luke Colella, who planted one foot on the ground in the top right corner of the end-zone.

A missed extra point, however, saw the score remain 9–3 Tigers at the end of the first quarter. 

For Barber, the 57-yard reception was part of an impressive individual performance, as the wide receiver brought in a career-high 156 yards, with an average of 22.3 yards per catch. 

“I feel like it’s been a little like receiver by committee,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace ’90 said to the ‘Prince’ about Barber’s game. “But it was really fun to see him get the ball in space, see him on the returns, and he does such a good job.”

Barber’s support system extends beyond just Surace, however, as his father Tiki Barber played NFL football for 10 seasons with the New York Giants as a running back and retired as the Giants’ all-time rushing leader. The effect of Tiki’s presence would be best highlighted by this game and, if AJ Barber continues in this form, he will have an excellent season.

“Every single game he texts me saying good luck, I love you,” Barber told the ‘Prince’ about his father. “I really appreciate that, I know he believes in me.”

However, the Tigers had a tougher time in the second quarter offensively, as both teams traded six plays back and forth before Lafayette held the ball at Princeton’s 46-yard-line with 2:56 before halftime. 

Princeton struggled to contain the Leopards’ drive up the field with 34 seconds left in the half. A replay review called back a Lafayette first down, giving them a third-and-one at the Princeton 11. A huge tackle by senior linebacker Nicholas Sanker pushed Lafayette back to the 15-yard-line for a fourth-and-5.

On a gutsy fourth down play, a man in motion ran across Lafayette’s offensive line out left before the snap. That man in motion, tight end Mason Gilbert, was picked out by DeNobile in the top left corner of the end-zone for the Lafayette touchdown and a 10–9 lead. 

The second half saw Princeton struggle to make any progress on the scoreboard with a fumble on the first long drive and a missed field goal kick, emblematic of a tough day for the Tigers.

“Right now it’s the story of our season,” Surace told the ‘Prince’ about the small mistakes. “There’s so much good and these little pieces are hurting us that way and we’ve got to be better in terms of that … The games where we’ve been a little bit tighter with what we’re doing, we come out on top.”

A punt by Lafayette in the fourth quarter saw them pin Princeton all the way back to their 4-yard-line, which immediately created issues for the Tigers. After one incomplete pass, a second-and-10 saw Stenstrom sacked in the Princeton endzone for a safety and the final score of 12–9 Lafayette. 

The game as a whole, however, presented another solid showing by the Princeton defense. Prior to this game, Princeton had allowed just two touchdowns in three games — the lowest mark in the NCAA. Another positive to take away moving forward for the Tigers is that they have recorded 10 sacks already, compared to the 19 they recorded for the entirety of last season.

“As I said, we’re doing everything right but one thing,” Surace noted about the Princeton defense. “That one thing, we can talk about it, we can practice it, but until we get that ball back, the field position has been really tough.”

“We just have to get to the ball more,” Surace continued. “We have four games and zero interceptions, with the pressure we’re getting, that’s a hard stat. That’s something we really have to continue at.”

This was the fourth game this year in which Princeton allowed just one touchdown by the opposition, after previous strong defensive showings against San Diego and Columbia. 

In particular, senior linebacker Ozzie Nicholas had another excellent game with 12 tackles, adding to the 31 he’s accumulated over the previous three games. The accomplishment of 43 tackles across four games is the most by a player since Tom Johnson ’18, who recorded a combined 49 in 2017.

“The strength of both teams is the linebackers,” Surace said about Nicholas and the Princeton defense. “They are two of the most productive groups in the country, and our guys are playing so fast, so hard, working their tails off.”

Offensively, Princeton still showed their gameplan, with a very heavy focus on passing evident throughout the game. Princeton recorded 313 total yards, 310 of which came from passing. The pass-heavy offense is seemingly beginning to take shape.

“I would definitely say that,” Barber noted about his connection with Stenstrom. “The way we practice we throw the ball a lot, so Blake’s connection with me and the rest of the receivers is coming up. I think that showed today with 300 or something yards passing.”

Looking forward, Princeton will hope to build both offensively and defensively on the glimmers of brilliance that the team has shown so far this season. Next Saturday, the Tigers play away at Brown (2–2 overall, 0–1 Ivy League) as they look to win their second Ivy League game. 

“Yeah, I’m very motivated for Brown,” Barber said about Saturday’s game. “My brother [Chason Barber] plays on that team so I’m looking forward to that.”

The rest of the season will be conference games only for the Tigers. Even with Princeton at 2–2, there is everything to play for in the Ivy League. After Brown, Princeton has the Homecoming game against Harvard (4–0 overall, 2–0 Ivy League) to look forward to — a game they hope to go into with momentum. 

Alex Beverton-Smith is a contributor to the Sports section of the ‘Prince.’

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