What a difference a year makes.
This time last season, the Princeton football team was 1-4 and on its way to a second-straight 1-9 finish. Over the course of the year, the Tigers gave up the second-most points in the Ivy League and scored the fewest.
But that Princeton team shares little in common with the Tigers squad that has come to play in the first five games of 2012. Princeton brings its first three-game winning streak since 2006 (the last year they won an Ivy crown) and an unblemished conference record into Saturday’s home contest against Harvard.
“This is what I expected, absolutely positively,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy said. “We expected them to bust out, it was just a matter of time.”
Predicted to finish last in the preseason Ivy League poll, the Tigers started the season with a three-point loss to Lehigh, which is currently ranked seventh in the FCS. In Week Two, Princeton lost to Georgetown on a field goal with 14 seconds to play after the Hoyas got into field goal range thanks to a third-down roughing-the-passer penalty on the Tigers and a fourth down conversion.
But then things changed radically.
Princeton finally ended its losing streak the following week with a 33-6 romping of Columbia. That win started a three-game winning streak that is more indicative of the talent the Tigers put on the field, according to a coach who knows a thing or two about winning streaks.
“It’s just mind-boggling that they could go 2-18 with the incredible talent they’ve had on that team,” Murphy said. “In my 18 years here, they’ve had more talent than anybody, including Harvard, so this is what I expected.”
Much of Princeton’s success can be attributed to a dominant defense that gave up just 20 points during its three-game winning streak, including a shutout of Brown last week.
“They are huge and athletic, and they now are in sync,” Murphy said. “They understand what they are supposed to do in that defense; it’s just all come together, and now they believe.”
Princeton’s D is led by a pair of defensive ends in their 3-4 scheme that wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.
“You start with the two bookends,” Murphy said, “300-pound NFL prospect Caraun Reid, easily the best defensive lineman in our league, [and Mike] Catapano—probably the second best defensive linemen in the league on the other end.”
Those two are third and first in the conference in sacks, respectively, but they are far from the only gifted defensive players on the Tigers’ roster.
“You don’t even talk about the 290-pound nose guard,” Murphy said. “They don’t talk about the 6’4”, 260-pound [strongside] linebacker, the 6’2”, 240-pound [weakside] linebacker. They are just huge and athletic.”
Senior quarterback Colton Chapple will need to maintain his recent level of play, but his coach said he will also need a consistent running game to help him a week after senior running back Treavor Scales gained just 2.7 yards per rush against Bucknell.