When its 2011 season opened Saturday night, Princeton showed plenty of signs that it was heading in the right direction. It showed that it was working towards being a very good football team. Unfortunately, it did so against Lehigh, which is already a very good team; the result was a 34-22 home loss that went from bleak to thrilling in a wild fourth quarter.
Trailing 27-9 early in the fourth quarter, Princeton senior Ivan Charbonneau, a member on the Ivy League champion track & field team, took the kickoff down the middle, cut towards the Lehigh sideline and sprinted past two final defenders. The 92-yard touchdown was both Princeton's first touchdown of the season and its first on a kickoff return since Jay McCareins went for 93 yards for the winning points in a 27-24 win at Harvard.
Freshman Brendan Sofen came on and stunned Lehigh with a brilliant, high-bouncing onsides kick that was recovered by senior Jaiye Falusi. That started an eight-play, 70-yard drive that ended with senior quarterback Tommy Wornham hitting freshman tailback Chuck Dibilio on a shovel pass for a 26-yard touchdown.
Just like that, it was 27-22. But the Lehigh offense, which came into the game averaging 45 points per contest, answered with a 10-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that put the game away.
"There are no moral victories in this game," said head coach Bob Surace '90. "But there were encouraging things. We tackled better. We played the run better. We were more physical on offense. We saw some young guys run the ball hard. Our special teams was really a key factor in keeping us close."
The story of the game, and potentially the 2011 Patriot League season, was the explosive Lehigh offense. Quarterback Chris Lum completed 28 of 38 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns. A trio of those scores went to Ryan Spadola, who caught nine passes for 214 yards. His third touchdown was a Princeton dagger; a 46-yard catch on Lehigh's first play of the second half turned a one-possession game into a 20-6 deficit.
Princeton, which has now lost eight of its last 11 season openers, showed promise on both sides of the ball. Wornham, in his return from a season-ending injury midway through the 2010 campaign, completed 23 of 41 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown. Junior Shane Wilkinson caught six passes for 47 yards, while senior Isaac Serwanga caught five passes for 42 yards.
Surace left the game feeling even more pleased about the depth in his backfield. While sophomore Brian Mills missed the game with an injury, Surace was encouraged by the play of both Dibilio and junior Akil Sharp. Dibilio led the team with 86 yards on 14 carries, while Sharp started the game and rushed for 53 yards on 12 carries.
Junior safety Mandela Sheaffer led the defense with 12 tackles, including one for loss, and a pass breakup. Senior linebacker Steven Cody, playing his first game since breaking his leg against Lehigh last season, added eight tackles. Junior Caraun Reid was also playing his first game since getting injured at Lehigh last season; he recorded six tackles, including one for loss, and blocked a field goal.
Senior Patrick Jacob had another strong start to his season with three field goals, though Surace was disappointed that they were three-point drives, as opposed to seven. Each of the three field goals were from inside 30 yards, including a 25-yard kick to cap a successful opening drive of the Princeton season.
The Tigers will return to the field next Saturday night when they host Bucknell for the first time since 1996. The Bison, led by former Princeton offensive coordinator Joe Susan, got off to a 2-0 start this season before falling 24-13 at Cornell Saturday night.