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The last time Princeton junior wide receiver B. J. Szymanski took the field against Harvard, it was his ability to put the ball in play and not his knack for hauling in passes lofted deep down the field that doomed the Crimson to defeat.
In the third and deciding game of the 2003 Ivy League baseball championship series, Szymanski—an All-Ivy centerfielder last season—chopped a hard ground ball off of first baseman Mike Dukovich, before beating out Zak Farkes’ throw to the bag. In the ensuing mayhem, two Tigers’ runners crossed the plate, expanding the Harvard deficit to the game’s final three run margin.
Off the diamond, Princeton’s star receiver hasn’t fared quite as well against the Crimson, recording just two receptions for 38 yards in the first two times he’s taken to the gridiron against Harvard (5-0, 2-0 Ivy).
But the change in the Tigers’ (1-4, 1-1) team dynamic over the past season, dating back to the last contest between these two squads, has thrust Szymanski into the offensive spotlight.
In the fourth quarter of last season’s face-off in New Jersey, then-junior quarterback David Splithoff went down to a shoulder injury on a brutal hit, which has prevented him from returning as signal caller since. Splithoff, with skills not unlike those of hurt Crimson quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, was capable of scrambling out of the pocket for long gains behind unaware defenses and decreasing his reliability on finding an open receiver.
Splithoff’s replacement, junior Matt Verbit, is not nearly so diverse in his talents, tending to stay in the pocket until the last moment, elevating his receivers’ separation speed and route-running skills to priority number one.
So it isn’t at all surprising that Szymanski has risen to the top of the Tigers’ wideout depth chart.
With a 6’5” frame and blazing speed, the rising star will present Harvard’s much-smaller defensive backfield with the largest target it has seen so far this season.
“I think it certainly causes some concerns,” Harvard football coach Tim Murphy said. “He’s not only a big receiver but a fast receiver.”
And those are two qualities that he has exploited throughout the season, reeling in 22 passes for 403 yards—18.3 yards per catch and 80.6 per game—with two trips to pay dirt and one touchdown toss.
“He’s a big receiver but he’s also got a lot of talent,” freshman quarterback Danny Tanner said. “He makes some big plays.”
And while the six-point throw was just a single yard, both the touchdown receptions highlighted Syzmanski’s explosive game-breaking potential, coming on passes over 70 yards apiece.
“We’ve run into some good receivers and some big receivers,” Murphy said. “But you’ve got to keep changing things up on him. If they know exactly how we’re going to defense them, they’ll come up with a way to get around it.”
With so much of Szymanski’s offensive production coming on just those two eruptions, the defensive backfield will need to ensure that the speedster does not slip too far behind them. If he does, there will certainly be trouble.
Instead, by keeping him in front and limiting the length of his routes, the defensive corps will rely on Verbit making mistakes under pressure and throwing into tight coverage.
“I think it’ll be a very big and deciding [factor in] how the game comes out,” Tanner said. “If we’re getting pressure on him early and get him rattled, we’ll do well. If we let him get into a rhythm with Szymanski and some of his other guys, it’ll be a long day.
With junior cornerback Gary Sonkur listed as doubtful for Saturday’s game due to a high-ankle sprain, the task of containing Szymanski falls to Tanner and senior Benny Butler.
Tanner has filled in admirably since Sonkur’s injury and Murphy does not suspect that Szymanski will present too many additional coverage problems.
“He’s not going to match up alone,” Murphy said. “When he does one-on-one cover Szymanski, he’ll be able to get the job done, but it’s not something we want him to do the whole game.”
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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