PU football drops opener, 31-24

Tigers blow 24-7 fourth-quarter lead against No. 2 Lehigh

By: Justin Feil
BETHLEHEM – The Princeton University football team trailed the No. 2 team in the country, Lehigh, for only 13 seconds. Unfortunately, they were the final 13 seconds of the game.
   After bolting to a 24-7 halftime lead by mixing aggressive defense with the gutsy play-making of David Splithoff, the Tigers found themselves in a familiar nightmare as they surrendered 24 points in the fourth quarter to fall, 31-24, to the Mountain Hawks.
   The win was Lehigh’s 26th straight regular-season victory, and it was every bit as close as it’s 20-18 win over Princeton two years ago that had previously been its narrowest regular-season win in the past three seasons. It also marked the 25th straight win at Goodman Stadium, which held 12,176 fans Saturday.
   They saw two completely different halves of football. In the first half, the Tiger defense dominated Lehigh. It held the nation’s top-ranked scoring offense to just 111 yards of total offense and one score, a 52-yard bomb to dynamic receiver and return man Michael Sutton. That score was Lehigh’s lone offensive highlight of the first half.
   In the meantime, Splithoff, the Tigers’ junior quarterback could do no wrong. He finished the first half 11-for-15 for 209 yards and two touchdowns. But in the second half, Splithoff managed just 43 net yards of passing offense as the Mountain Hawks increased their defensive pressure. Offensively, Lehigh used better second-half field position and Princeton miscues for its four fourth-quarter scores.
   Lehigh’s David Wilson scored on a 1-yard run just six seconds into the final quarter, and Princeton’s Zak Keasey blocked the extra point to keep the Tigers in control, 24-13. But after Princeton went three plays and out, Lehigh took over at the Princeton 47 after a 10-yard Tiger penalty and proceeded to add a 47-yard field goal to make it 24-16 with still 9:58 to play.
   On third-and-10 on the Tigers’ next possession, Splithoff made his first bad play of the day when he threw an interception that Matt Salvaterra returned 26 yards for a touchdown. A pass from Chad Schwenk to Sutton gave Lehigh two points and tied the score, 24-24, with 8:52 left.
   Princeton appeared to regain its lost momentum on the next drive when it marched 31 yards into Lehigh territory only to lose the ball on a fumble by running back Jon Veach.
   Princeton’s defense made the stop, but the Lehigh punt and a holding penalty drove the Tigers back to their own 8, and they could do nothing. A short punt gave the Mountain Hawks the ball at the Princeton 39 and they drove to the 12 before scoring the winning touchdown on a swing pass to Justin Barrasso with just 13 seconds left in regulation. Princeton’s last-chance Hail Mary fell harmlessly to the ground.
   In the first half, it was Princeton that looked to be one of the top teams in the country and Lehigh that perhaps was playing its first game. In reality, it was the Mountain Hawks’ third game of the season, while it was the season opener for the Tigers. In the first half, Princeton showed no signs of opening day jitters.
   On their second possession, the Tigers drove 85 yards in 13 plays, the last 11 on a pass from Splithoff to a leaping B.J. Szymanski in the back of the end zone. After Lehigh missed a 48-yard field goal, Splithoff answered with a 66-yard pass to Szymanski to put the Tigers at the Lehigh 3. Brendan Benson did the rest on a sweep to the left side for the score. Princeton’s Dereck Javarone made his second extra point of the day for a 14-0 lead with 48 seconds left in the first quarter.
   Lehigh came back with the 52-yard touchdown toss from Shwenk to the Sutton to cut the lead to 14-7 with 14:49 left in the first half. Princeton answered right back with a score to make it 24-7, but it took a magical play by Splithoff. Facing first-and-20, Splithoff dropped back to pass, started to scramble when he fumbled the ball. Splithoff retained is composure, slipped a tackle and found Opara wide open 10 yards behind the nearest defender for a 54-yard touchdown. Princeton added a 19-yard field goal by Javarone with 5:19 left and took a 17-point lead into the locker room. In what was also a problem last year, the Tigers couldn’t hold the lead in the second half.
   Splithoff finished the day 18-for-30 for 251 yards. He also rushed for a team-best 50 yards on 14 carries. Cameron Atkinson led Princeton running backs with 12 rushes for 43 yards. The Tigers gained 142 yards on the ground. Szymanski caught seven of those passes for 111 yards. Opara caught four balls for 88 yards. The Tigers were penalized nine times for 60 yards. Lehigh had just two penalties.
   Princeton will host Lafayette next Saturday 7:30 p.m. at Princeton Stadium.