BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Princeton football coach Roger Hughes believed in his team’s talent and character, but he just didn’t know how it would react in game conditions. With 15 new starters, Hughes just didn’t know how his squad would react when it got punched in the mouth.
In front of 8,667 excited fans at Goodman Stadium, the Lehigh football team helped Hughes find that answer early. The Mountain Hawks, coming off a thrilling win at Villanova, punched Princeton early. Then they punched the Tigers again.
Hughes saw a Princeton team that never backed down. It composed itself, wound up and threw a couple punches of its own. And then it walked away from Lehigh with its first win since 1992.
Touchdowns by Rob Toresco and Adam Berry, along with a pair of interceptions from Tim Strickland and an overall brilliant effort by the Tiger defense, led Princeton to a 14-10 win at Lehigh. The win, Princeton’s third straight in a season opener and second straight on the road, improves Princeton to 1-0, while Lehigh falls to 1-2.
“I’m really proud of the way we played as a team,” head coach Roger Hughes said afterwards. “As a staff, we went around yesterday and tried to figure out what would happen, and we all agreed that we just didn’t know. We hadn’t seen them in game conditions yet, and I really like the way they responded.”
Senior quarterback Jeff Terrell threw for 205 yards and a touchdown to improve to 8-3 as a starter. Toresco led Princeton with 40 yards rushing, and just as he did last season at Lafayette, he was able to gain the critical late first downs to keep the dangerous Lehigh offense off the field. Seven Tigers caught at least one pass, with starters Brendan Circle and Brian Brigham leading the way with four apiece.
Strickland and fellow defensive back Kevin Kelleher led the defense with seven tackles apiece, but it was junior Doori Song who had arguably the two biggest tackles of the game. He had a stop on 4th-and-1 late in the first half and another on 3rd-and-goal after Princeton cut the deficit to 10-7.
Both teams started the game with scoreless drives, but Lehigh broke through first on its second drive of the game. It began with a 69-yard pass from Threatt to Frank Trovato, who found an opening deep on a post pattern. Senior defensive back Tim Strickland saved a touchdown by forcing him out of bounds at the 11-yard-line, and the Tiger defense kept the Mountain Hawks out of the end zone. Jason Leo kicked a 23-yard field goal to open the scoring, but the Princeton defense could feel good that it was only seven points.
After stopping Princeton in three plays on its next drive, Lehigh began another march to points. As they moved towards midfield, the Mountain Hawks faced a 3rd-and-2 and handed off to Matt McGowan, who went up the middle for the conversion. Unfortunately for the Tigers, who had tackling issues throughout the early part of the game, McGowan went 33 yards further down the field. His 35-yard run set Lehigh up inside the red zone, and Threatt would capitalize with a 3-yard touchdown run. With 2:13 remaining in the first quarter, the Tigers were staring at the wrong end of a 10-0 score.
Princeton started to move on its third drive, including a 26-yard pass to Brendan Circle on third down, but the drive was thwarted inside the Lehigh 20-yard-line when Ernest Moore picked off a Terrell pass intended for Adam Berry. The Princeton defense responded with a quick 3-and-out, giving Terrell an opportunity to get back on the field quickly.
A long pass to Shields along the left sideline got the drive to midfield, and despite a holding call that forced a 1st-and-20, Terrell threw a slant to Brigham for 13 yards and snuck for another six. A third-down conversion failed, but Hughes decided to go for it since it would have been a 43-yard field goal. A quick pass to Circle gained the first down, and another short pass to Circle with a facemask call gave Princeton a 2nd-and-3 at the 13-yard-line. Toresco gained one on a run, and Lagomarsino gained the other two by fighting off a tackle on an option right. While the movement of the offense was a positive sign for Princeton, a missed field goal kept the score at 10-0.
Lehigh missed an opportunity of its own late in the half; the Mountain Hawks drove inside the Princeton red zone but was stopped on a 4th-and-1 with less than 30 seconds remaining.
Princeton made its adjustments at halftime and came out crisp. Starting at its own 42-yard-line, thanks to a good return by Shields and a 15-yard face mask call, Terrell completed passes to Billy Mitchell, Shields and Adam Berry to get to the Lehigh 7-yard-line. Toresco took the ball up the middle and carried a Lehigh defender into the end zone for Princeton’s first score of the season.
Lehigh went down the field on its first drive of the second half and got inside the Princeton red zone, but Threatt made his first big mistake of the game to give Princeton back the ball. Looking for tight end Troy Healion in the end zone, Threatt lofted a ball that Strickland broke on and picked off at the goal line. The senior defensive back returned the ball to the Tiger 32-yard-line, and the confident Princeton defense took over.
“I didn’t even see the quarterback on the play, I was just watching the two receivers in my area,” Strickland said. “I don’t think he saw me either, and I just saw the ball in the air and went after it.”
Princeton went 68 yards on seven plays, including a 27-yard sprint down the left sidelines by Lagomarsino, and Terrell lofted a third down pass to Berry in the front left corner of the end zone to stun the Lehigh faithful and give Princeton a 14-10 lead.
Lehigh moved down the field once again, but for the second straight time it left emptyhanded. A stuffed run by Doori Song inside the 5-yard-line and an incomplete pass on third down set by Leo with a 23-yard field goal attempt, by Leo hit the right upright and Princeton maintained its 14-10 lead.
Lehigh got a stop to open the fourth quarter and got the ball back, but Strickland came up with another big play. This time, Threatt overthrew a pass down the middle of the field and Strickland was there to make the interception. The defenses were beginning to take over, as three plays later Lehigh would come up with a long interception of its own to start at its own 28-yard-line.
A third down sack by Jon Stem halted Lehigh’s second possession of the fourth quarter, but the Mountain Hawk defense came up with an interception in its own territory to take over on the 37-yard-line.
Threatt converted on one third down with a 5-yard run, and Thompson followed with a 21-yard run to get the ball deep into Princeton territory. A terrific defensive play by cornerback Dan Kopolovich forced a Lehigh receiver to earn an offensive pass interference call, putting Lehigh in a 2nd-and-22 situation. Threatt got 12 yards back on the next two plays and tried to run for it on 4th-and-10, but Kelleher came up with his final tackle of the game two yards behind the first down marker.
“I’m so proud of those guys,” Terrell says. “Rob ran the ball so hard, and the holes were there. We know how to win games late. We have the experience from last year to know how to win in the fourth quarter.”
Toresco rushed six straight times on the next drive, picking up two first downs on consecutive 10-yard runs. The Tigers were forced to punt on the final play of the game, and Bill Foran officially ended the game with another special teams tackle.
Princeton will play its home opener next Saturday, Sept. 23, at 6 p.m. against Lafayette. The Leopards are the two-time defending Patriot League champion, although Princeton claimed wins both seasons against Lafayette. In the 2005 season opener, the Tigers left Easton, Pa., with a 23-21 victory, thanks in part to a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown by Jay McCareins.
Tickets are still available for Saturday’s home opener, which will also be the first game played on the new FieldTurf, which was installed following the completion of the 2005 season.