PU football turns over opener to Lehigh

Late rally can’t overcome early mistakes by Tigers

By: Justin Feil
   The play of Princeton University looked frequently like that of a football team in its season opener, while the Lehigh football team looked deserving of its No. 20 Division I-AA ranking often enough for a 28-13 win Saturday night at Princeton Stadium.
   The Mountain Hawks jumped to a 28-0 lead after three quarters and held off a fourth-quarter surge from the Tigers to improve to 3-0. The Tigers fell to 0-1, and they have plenty to work on in preparation for its next Patriot League opponent, Lafayette next Saturday.
   "We had scoring opportunities in the red zone tonight and I threw an interception and had two fumbles," said PU quarterback Matt Verbit. "You can’t win like that."
   The turnovers cost Verbit an otherwise promising start to his year. The junior completed 16 of 36 passes for a career-high 296 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted once. He was also the Tigers’ leading rusher, with a career-high 70 yards on 13 carries, however, he lost three fumbles.
   Princeton, already playing behind in terms of game experience against twice-tested Lehigh, were behind from the outset against the Mountain Hawks.
   The Tigers didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter. Verbit hit B.J. Szymanski for a 75-yard touchdown, but almost fittingly, the extra point bounced off the left post to make it 28-6. On the Tigers’ next possession, Blair Morrison fought off contact at the goal-line for a leaping 19-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-11 to bring Princeton within two scores at 28-13. With still 10:37 left at that point, Princeton couldn’t inch closer. It never made up its 14-0 first-quarter deficit.
   Jermaine Pugh, who Princeton’s defense held to 64 yards rushing on 23 carries, scored the first of his touchdown receptions from 19 yards out when he took a pass from Chad Schwenk in the left flat, evaded one tackler, and broke two more tackles before scampering into the end zone on the Mountain Hawks’ first possession for a 7-0 lead. It was the start of a big day for Schwenk, who tied a career high with four touchdowns and ended just one yard shy of his career best passing day of 302 yards, set two weeks before in a win over Holy Cross.
   Mistakes and missed opportunities cost the Tigers seemingly every chance to come back. Princeton’s first possession, and its first chance to answer, ended when Derek Javarone’s 45-yard field goal had the distance but drifted wide right.
   On the Tigers’ second possession of the game, Matt Verbit’s pass was intercepted by Tom McGeoy at the Princeton 40 and returned to the 25. It took Lehigh just one play to stretch its lead to 14-0 as Schwenk hit Adam Bergen in stride. Bergen stepped through one tackle and dove in to finish off the 25-yard touchdown play with 5:02 left in the first quarter. Bergen finished the game with 12 catches for 173 yards and the score. He was a consistent third-down target, one that the Tigers had difficulty stopping.
   "Defensively, we have some issues with covering the tight end," said Princeton head coach Roger Hughes. "Bergen looked like an All-America tonight. We have to get that straightened out."
   Two possessions after Bergen’s score, on third-and-4, Verbit scrambled 32 yards to move Princeton to the Lehigh 21. But the Tigers turned the ball over on their best first-half drive when on third-and-1 at the Lehigh 12, Verbit and fullback Tim Bowden weren’t on the same page on the hand-off. Again, Lehigh’s McGeoy came up with the turnover.
   "I thought he got a little jittery at times," Hughes said of Verbit. "That comes with experience, knowing who your dump-off receiver is. But again I’m making that assessment without having watched the film. There may have been more pressure on him than I felt. Certainly, he has to do a better job of taking care of the ball when he runs with it. There was a fumble downfield and there was a mishandling of a hand-off, and we have to clean those things up."
   Princeton senior co-captain Tim Kirby’s first sack of the season kept Lehigh from taking advantage of the second of those turnovers as the Tigers proved they could hold off Lehigh’s strong offensive attack at times. But another mistake — an illegal block — brought back an apparent 60-yard return for a touchdown by Greg Fields on the ensuing Lehigh punt.
   "It’s obvious where we need some work," said Hughes. "There were a lot of first-game mistakes. It seemed like in the first half, offensively when we got things going, we found a way to shoot ourselves in the foot."
   The second half started forebodingly with a Verbit fumble that Lehigh’s Royce Morgan recovered on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage. The Tiger defense again held the Mountain Hawks after that turnover, but Lehigh did drive 80 yards in six plays on its next possession, the final 23 on a Schwenk to Adam Kovacs touchdown pass that gave them a 21-0 lead with 8:09 to go in the third quarter.
   Lehigh added another touchdown to its lead when Schwenk bought just enough time to flip a short pass to Pugh for a 10-yard touchdown completion to make it 28-0 with 2:44 remaining in the third quarter.
   Lehigh appeared to have the game well in hand with a 28-0 lead before clutch Princeton plays by Verbit, Szymanski and Morrison, along with some questionable Mountain Hawk decisions, gave the Tigers hope. Lehigh went three-and-out on three straight possessions and used little clock while trying to complete long passes. They even failed on a fake punt with more than five minutes left to play, but Princeton couldn’t take advantage.
   "I told the team after the game setbacks pave the way for comebacks," Hughes said. "You have nine left and I saw a lot of good things out there. Tim Strickland, they tried to beat him three times in a row and he made the play every time. Certainly we have a weapon in B.J. Szymanski. I think Greg Fields has a chance to help us on special teams. I thought overall our kicking game was better with the exception of missing the extra point. So there’s a lot of bright spots. The other thing was I was proud of how the kids hung in there and fought until the final gun."