PU football picks up another win

McCareins late interceptions seal 16-14 victory over Brown

By: Justin Feil
They say that defense wins championships, and if the Princeton University football team is to win its first Ivy League title since 1995, it will be due in large part to the defense.
    The Tigers’ Jay McCareins kept alive those title hopes when he ended the final two Brown drives with leaping interceptions in front of All-American Bears receiver Chas Gessner to seal Princeton’s 16-14 win Saturday at Princeton Stadium.
    "Defensively, I can’t say enough about how our players stepped up," said PU head coach Roger Hughes. "They stopped an unbelievably strong offense. The plan was good. We had some major big plays by Jay McCareins as well as some other defensive backs. To hold this team to 14 points is remarkable and my hat goes off to them.
    "The thing we preached all week was: ‘Everyone’s talking about how good Brown’s offense is. When they leave this stadium, they better talk about what a good team Princeton has.’ Sometimes it’s offense, sometimes it’s defense, sometimes it’s special teams. Today, our defense held up when our offense sputtered."
    Princeton’s offense looked brilliant in the first half when it scored all 16 of its points, and the defense played remarkably consistent all game to hold the Bears, who came into the game averaging 404 of passing offense per game, to just 222 yards through the air.
    The result was the Tigers’ fourth win of the season, eclipsing its win total in each of the last three seasons. The Tigers remain tied for the Ivy League lead at 2-0 with Harvard and Penn. Princeton hosts Harvard 1 p.m. next Saturday. Brown fell to 0-5, 0-2 in Ivy play.
    "The thing with this team," said Brown head coach Phil Estes, "is we have a lot of injuries. There are a lot of freshmen playing. And we have to play a full game. We didn’t do that."
    Princeton is 4-1 overall after winning their fourth straight game for the first time since the 1997 season, and for the fourth straight game, Cameron Atkinson rushed for more than 100 yards. The senior running back ran 21 times for 174 yards and a history-making touchdown. His 82-yard score in the first quarter was the longest play in Princeton Stadium history. His classmate Chisom Opara caught 11 passes for 152 yards and one touchdown. Quarterback David Splithoff was 18-for-32 for 217 yards and a touchdown. He was intercepted once. Princeton had 435 yards of total offense, though 307 of it came in the first half.
    "First half, offensively, we did a nice job of controlling the clock," said Hughes, whose squad held an 18:07 to 11:53 time of possession advantage for the half. "But we didn’t come up with as many points as we needed to."
    Princeton scored on the first three of its four possessions – its fourth ended only after a sack forced a 49-yard field goal attempt as time expired – to take a 16-0 half-time lead over the Bears.
    After the Tiger defense stopped Joe Rackley on fourth-and-6 from the Princeton 9, Atkinson dashed 82 yards on the fourth play from scrimmage for a 6-0 Princeton lead with 8:54 left in the first quarter.
    "I was pretty sure I was going to get tackled," said Atkinson, whose 174 yards rushing was a new career high. "I was shocked I didn’t get tackled. I just kept running."
    The Princeton senior took the pitch and broke outside around Brown’s contain, cut back on Bears linebacker Jeremiah Watts who seemed to have him targeted just as he hit the left sideline, and had a clear track to the score. A bad snap resulted in a missed extra point by Derek Javarone, who had been perfect all season.
    On the Tigers’ next possession, Javarone added a 36-yard field goal with 21 seconds left in the first quarter. The big play to sustain the drive was a 15-yard completion to Opara on third-and-three at the Brown 32.
    The next possession had a heavy dose of the co-captain receiver. Opara’s fourth catch on a 10-play drive went for a seven-yard touchdown to increase the Princeton lead to 16-0 with 7:35 left in the second quarter. Opara, who had receptions that went for 14 yards on a reverse pass from Blair Morrison, 16 yards on a screen play and 29 yards on third-and-8, was wide open for the score after Splithoff rolled out to his right on third-and-goal.
    Despite a missed 49-yard field goal that felt like 60 with a strong wind in Javarone’s face, the Tigers had all the momentum heading into the locker room. It’s where the momentum stayed.
    The Tigers went three-and-out on their first possession, Splithoff was intercepted on their second possession and their third possession ended with a failed fake punt in which Pat Schottel was stopped two yard short to give the Bears the ball at the Princeton 30.
    "Our defense had been playing really, really well," Hughes said of his call. "I kind of sensed that we were a little flat offensively. I was trying to find something to spark us, to get us going. The fake looked very good in practice that week. It’s one of those things that if it works, you’re a genius and if it doesn’t, you look like an idiot. I was certainly feeling like an idiot when it didn’t work. But the other thing we talk about all the time is we play to win."
    Within one play, however, that was suddenly in question. On Brown’s first play after the change of possession, Nate Poole, who replaced starting quarterback Kyle Slager after halftime, connected with Brandon Buchanan for the Bears’ first points of the game. The 30-yard strike over Nick Brown’s outstretched hands and extra point cut the Tiger lead to 16-7 with 2:14 to play in the third quarter.
    Brown had life and the Bears scored on their next possession as well to cut further into the Princeton lead. Joe Rackley fought in from three yards out to make it 16-14 just 3:17 into the fourth quarter. Princeton held the Bears
    "I felt good at that point," Rackley said. "With the way our defense was playing, I felt good about our chances."
    And with the way the Princeton defense has been playing, so did Roger Hughes. The third-year coach saw his defense hold the Bears in their final three possessions, the last two ending with McCareins interceptions.
    "The big players make big plays in big games," Hughes said. "I thought Jay did that."
    And he did it against Gessner, who three weeks ago caught 24 passes in one game. He had nine Saturday.
    "To get the opportunity to play against an All-American was fun," McCareins said. "And it was a challenge. I may never get to do that again in my life. I enjoyed it the best I could. I did the best I could."
    McCareins’ best means Princeton is still in the Ivy race, and it’s still making a case for other teams to say after playing them: "They’re the best."