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September 10, 2003:

Phil Thune '92's Positional and Game by Game Analysis for the Tigers 2003-04 season

Quarterback: As the 2002 season began, Princeton coach Roger Hughes made it clear there was no quarterback controversy, choosing David Splithoff '04 as the starter even though Matt Verbit '05 had performed well in spring practices. Splithoff started every game until being injured against Harvard. However, after Verbit's performance as the understudy, plus another strong spring, Hughes sounds as if he has to give both players a shot to be the starter: "I think both guys can be productive, and the guy who is being most productive is going to get the start. Both kids deserve to play and they will both play." Splithoff is more apt to scramble and create plays, while Verbit has the stronger arm; the use of both could force opposing defenses to prepare two different game plans.

Running Backs: Jon Veach '05 will try to fill the speedy shoes of the departed Cameron Atkinson '03, a track star and the third leading rusher in school history. Both Veach (45 attempts, 180 yards, 2 TDs) and junior Branden Benson (40, 134, 3) delivered touchdown runs in critical situations last year. Benson is more physical and complements Veach's speed. Joel Mancl '05 and Kyle Wenski both got starts at fullback last season, but need to add more than blocking to their skill sets.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Although Chism Opara '03 graduated as the Tigers' third leading career receiver, wideout is one of Princeton's strengths again this year. B.J. Szymanski '05 (33 receptions, 567 yards, 2 TDs) is a deep threat, and Blair Morrison '04 (22, 255, 2) should start in place of Opara. Senior Mike Chiusano (14, 91, 2 in 2001), who has both size and soft hands, returns at tight end after missing 2002 with a shoulder injury.

Offensive Line: An experienced offensive line makes a huge difference in the Ivies, allowing coaches to take game plans to another level. Unfortunately, the Tigers graduated four starters, and will have to make up for inexperience with what Hughes says is the most athletic group of linemen he has had at Princeton. Kevin Manning '04 does return at left tackle as a two-year starter, but the rest of the line will consist of sophomores and juniors with far less seasoning.

Defensive Line: While Princeton will struggle in the trenches on offense, the defensive line should occupy the high ground. The Tigers return all four starters, including All-Ivy senior ends Joe Weiss (62 tackles, 8 sacks) and Tim Kirby (46, 4), who have been forces on the line since their freshman year. Tackles Jeff Micsky '04 and George Pilcher '04 are each about 235 pounds (40 pounds lighter than Weiss and Kirby), but both started all ten games last year and contributed a combined 61 tackles and seven sacks.

Linebackers: There may be more candidates in the California governor's race than in Hughes's competition for starting linebacker, but the experience level is about the same. Princeton may turn to a trio of sophomores, Abi Fadeyi, Justin Stull, and Alan Borelli, to help fill the void. "We have some young kids who will be very good players, I just wish they didn't have to play until they were juniors," says Hughes. "For those guys it's going to have to be a baptism by fire." Zak Keasey '04 (88 tackles, 5 sacks), who has been ruled academically ineligible for 2003, was the fifth leading tackler in the league last year, and his loss is a major blow not just to the linebacking corps, but the entire defense.

Defensive Backs: Last season was a phenomenal one for Ivy League receivers, with Opara and his counterparts from Brown, Harvard, and Penn all finishing their careers as some of the leading wideouts in their respective school histories. Yet Princeton's secondary was up to the task, leading the league in fewest pass yards allowed and lowest completion percentage, and finishing second in interceptions and touchdowns allowed. The secondary should have been even better in 2003, with three All-Ivy players returning, but with Brandon Mueller '04 and Jay McCareins '05 also ruled academically ineligible, only Blake Perry '04 will be in the line-up this year. Fortunately, the league's talent level at receiver has dropped, but the talent in the Tigers defensive backfield has dropped more, which may lead to too many big pass plays by opponents.

Special Teams: Princeton's kicking game needs to improve, although Hughes will start the same kicker and punter as last year. Derek Javarone '06 has a strong leg, but his longest made field goal last year was just 39 yards. Eliott Bishop '06 won the role of starting punter in the spring (he shared starts with Joe Nardello '05 in 2002), but Bishop only managed 32.6 yards per punt last year. Hughes hopes both will improve in their sophomore seasons. Veach is the only player on the roster with significant experience returning kicks. GAME BY GAME

Lehigh (7 offensive starters returning, 7 defensive starters returning): Over the last five years, Lehigh is 50-5 in the regular season, which includes five wins over Princeton. The Mountain Hawks (8-4) were less dominant last season, and Princeton had a 24-7 lead at halftime before surrendering 24 unanswered points in the second half. A Tiger victory in 2003 would be a surprise, as Lehigh returns its top offensive skill players and four All-Patriot Leaguers on defense.

at Lafayette (9 offensive, 10 defensive): Until last season, Lafayette football was in a deeper funk than Princeton, going eight years without a winning record. Both programs have rebounded, and the Leopards (7-5) return every key player, including standouts at quarterback, tailback, and wideout. The Tigers would do well to enter Ivy play with a record of 1-1.

Columbia (7 offensive, 7 defensive): After just five wins in the last four seasons, it was time for Columbia coach Ray Tellier to move on. New coach Bob Shoop has some talent to work with, especially in the Lions' passing attack and their defensive front seven. If all else fails, he has the league's top returning punter in Nick Rudd. Interestingly, Princeton has scored 44 points in each of its last three home games against Columbia (1-9, 0-7 Ivy), and that total is a realistic goal again this year.

Colgate (5 offensive, 6 defensive): Princeton QB David Splithoff '04 threw TD passes of 62 and 73 yards against Colgate in 2002, leading to a major upset. Colgate (9-3) went on to win the Patriot League, and is a leading contender again this year. The Red Raiders return six All-league players, including the 2003 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, linebacker Tem Lukabu. Colgate's secondary is still suspect, so deep passes should be the strategy again this year.

at Brown (5 offensive, 7 defensive): In 2002, Brown (2-8, 2-5 Ivy) had its worst season in years, and graduation was not kind. The Bruins' Chas Gessner, who was the nation's leading receiver, has moved on to the NFL. QB Kyle Slager is solid, but the Bruins can't run the ball or stop the run. After scoring at least 20 points against Brown for 14 straight years, the Tigers eked out a 14-10 victory a year ago - expect the fireworks to return this fall, especially if the Tigers' inexperienced offensive line has jelled by mid-season.

at Harvard (6 offensive; 6 defensive): Harvard (7-3, 6-1 Ivy), which had success last year with a quarterback rotation, gives Princeton coach Roger Hughes hope that his plans to rotate Splithoff and Matt Verbit '05 at QB can work. Both Neil Rose, who graduated, and junior Ryan Fitzpatrick earned All-Ivy honorable mention in 2002. Of course, it helped being able to throw to two-time Ivy Player of the Year Carl Morris, who now is pursuing an NFL career. If the Tigers can avoid the ghosts floating around Harvard Stadium, which is celebrating its 100th year, and upset the Crimson, an Ivy title would start to look like a possibility.

Cornell (9 offensive; 5 defensive): In seven of the last eight years, the Cornell-Princeton game has been decided by a touchdown or less, including the Tigers' overtime victory last season. The Big Red (4-6, 3-4 Ivy) probably will not rise out of the bottom half of the league, but they will give Princeton a fight. Their offense is better than their defense, although the special teams is better than both, and that can make a difference in a close contest.

at Pennsylvania (8 offensive; 7 defensive): Penn (9-1, 7-0 Ivy) had a dream season last year, winning its third title in the last five years, and becoming the first team in Ivy history to win by an average margin of more than 30 points per game in Ivy play. Of the Quakers' 24 starters (including their kicker and punter), 18 earned All-Ivy accolades. While seven of those 18 graduated, that is still more returning firepower than even the NRA would need. The battle at the line of scrimmage will be intriguing, as Penn's decorated offensive line and Princeton's strong defensive line both return intact. However, even if the Tigers win in the trenches, the Quakers probably have too much talent on the rest of the field.

Yale (11 offensive; 9 defensive): Yale (6-4, 4-3 Ivy) actually has more returning starters than Penn, although the Bulldogs' talent level is not quite as high. The Elis' experience and depth led the media to pick them third in the pre-season poll, and even if the Tigers have somehow overcome Harvard and Penn at this point in the season, they could not afford to look past Yale.

at Dartmouth (9 offensive; 8 defensive): Dartmouth (3-7, 2-5 Ivy) is yet another team with a lot of experience looking to make an impact on the Ivy race. On offense, the Big Green have the league's best fullback and tight end, and a promising replacement for QB Brian Mann, who graduated. On defense, they are solid from back to front, including the Ivy Rookies of the Year the last two years.