Last year in Bethlehem, PA, the football team’s first half effort against Lehigh was not encouraging. That was not surprising, but then Princeton came out firing in the second half, mounting a comeback that fell just short at 17-14. A year later, flip the stadiums and flip the script – just not the result. Despite a stellar first half from the Tigers (0-1) where they dominated both sides of the ball and went up 22-3, the No. 22 Mountain Hawks (3-0) returned to the field in the third quarter strong. After mounting its comeback, Lehigh eked out a 29-28 victory on the road.
While Princeton was not able to close out the victory and suffered from multiple self-inflicted mistakes, the Tigers have reason to be encouraged. Princeton, in its first showing, hung with perhaps the best team it will play all year.
“There are positives you can take from [playing well] against a team like Lehigh, but the bottom line is we had a chance to make a statement and we didn’t,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said.
The third quarter saw the Mountain Hawks offense finally heat up, cutting the Tigers’ lead to only 22-16, with a five-yard touchdown run from tailback Keith Sherman and a 15-yard touchdown pass from Lehigh quarterback Brandon Bialkowski to fullback Zach Hayden. Then, at the start of the fourth, Bialkowski hit receiver Josh Parris for a 48-yard reception to set the Mountain Hawks up on the goal line. Bialkowski then completed a touchdown to tight end Dylan Colgate for Lehigh’s first lead of the game, 23-22.
Princeton did not shut down in response to 20 unanswered points. All of the Tigers’ major contributors featured in a scoring drive that heated up with a 17-yard pass from junior quarterback Connor Michelsen to senior wide receiver Roman Wilson and was capped off with a 17-yard rush from sophomore tailback DiAndre Atwater. Princeton led once again, 28-22 with 8:03 left in the game, after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
“We would have liked to have the two point conversion there just to finish them, but I thought it was a really good drive,” Surace said. “We showed a lot of heart on that drive.”
The Mountain Hawks, however, are nationally ranked for a reason. Bialkowski and his unit responded with a 75-yard drive that ate up more than five minutes of clock and ended in a one-yard touchdown run from tailback Sean Farrell. After the Mountain Hawks had their own failed two-point conversion attempt, the Tigers had 2:45 left for a comeback scoring drive, but Lehigh linebacker Isaiah Campbell picked off Michelsen. The Mountain Hawks ran out the clock and held on for the 29-28 win.
“I thought Connor, a couple times, got antsy, and maybe his decisions could have been a little better for a guy who’s played so much, but he’s trying to make plays,” Surace said.
The first few plays of the game were reminiscent of Princeton-Lehigh games of old: Bialkowski marched Lehigh down the field, carving up the Tigers’ secondary. But in a twist to the usual script, senior free safety Philip Bhaya caught a tipped ball to pick off Bialkowski.
Princeton then proceeded to march down the field, with sharp passes from Michelsen – who finished the day with 210 passing yards – to wide receivers senior Roman Wilson and junior Matt Costello and even his fellow junior quarterback Quinn Epperly, who was in the backfield with him on many plays. Atwater capped off the drive with a 18-yard touchdown run. The Tigers ran their usual pre-extra point shift, an oddity of the Surace era, but this time turned it into something extra, as senior linebacker Jason Ray, formerly a fullback, punched through into the endzone for a two-point conversion.
Wilson had a fantastic day, hauling in nine passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. Likewise, Atwater picked up where he left off last season, running for 111 yards and two touchdowns.
“I thought our backs in general ran real hard, including Quinn at quarterback,” Surace said. “We finished our runs forward, which was a good sign.”
The Tigers’ defense, setting up a theme for the rest of the first half, forced a quick three-and-out when the Mountain Hawks took back over on offense. However, Michelsen, attempting a long pass, threw an interception on the ensuing first down.
Despite the turnover, Princeton forced another short possession, highlighted by Ray’s sack of Bialkowski on second down. One possession later, Princeton’s defense rose to the challenge again, forcing fourth down with sophomore defensive lineman Evan Kappatos’ sack. The Tigers’ defensive resilience was rewarded when Lehigh kicker Ryan Pandy missed a 37-yard field goal, keeping the score at 8-0.
After the Tigers stalled in the redzone and kicker Nolan Bieck’s field goal attempt was blocked Mountain Hawks defensive lineman Rickey Layton. Lehigh took over and eventually punted, setting Princeton up at its own nine-yard line. The Tigers put together one of their most impressive offensive drives in recent memory, with Epperly providing a spark under center, completing consecutive passes to Wilson complemented by good runs from Atwater and sophomore tailback Dre Nelson. Epperly punched the ball into the endzone himself from the four-yard line and an empty backfield, and Princeton went up 15-0 after the extra point with 6:40 left in the first half.
The Mountain Hawks finally got on the board with a field goal, but the Tigers were not done in the half. Michelsen found Wilson multiple times for big completions, including a 23-yard pass on third down. This set up a 5-yard end-around pitch by Epperly to Wilson to put the Tigers up 22-3 after the extra point. The Mountain Hawks kneed the ball to run out the remaining 31 seconds in the half and head to the locked room to regroup.
When they came back out, however, Bialkowski’s offense tore up the Tigers.
“We got a lot of veteran guys out there, myself included, who shouldn’t be making those mistakes,” said Bhaya, who had 10 tackles in addition to his interception.
Bialkowski ended up putting on a show, throwing for 430 yards and two touchdowns as Princeton reeled, offensively and defensively.
“We just didn’t finish, as you can see,” Wilson said. “We showed flashes, but it doesn’t matter – we didn’t finish.”