The excitement of two straight wins to open the season has been tempered by the loss of four games in a row for the Princeton Tigers.
Another Mountain State Athletic Conference road trip awaits Princeton as the Tigers (2-4) travel to St. Albans (1-4) tonight in hopes of winning for the first time since a 32-29 win against rival Bluefield 35 days ago.
It will be homecoming, the second time the Tigers have been guests on this special night, including a 41-21 setback to Hurricane early in the season.
“It seems like we play a lot of homecomings, but our kids want to spoil their homecoming,” said Princeton head coach Randy Peak, whose Tigers will host Riverside for their own homecoming next Friday. “They know their homecoming is coming up also.”
While Princeton has lost four in a row, including a 40-14 decision to Class AAA second ranked George Washington last Friday, the Red Dragons were beaten 42-13 on the same night by previously winless Riverside.
Two of Princeton’s losses have been close, a 29-28 overtime loss at Capital, and a 21-14 home setback with Spring Valley.
However, the Tigers were soundly beaten by George Washington, with the Patriots’ Draven Rife running for 353 yards for an offense that churned out more than 550 yards on that side of the ball.
“We have to go up there and play football. I was more disappointed last week than any other week,” Peek said. “I just felt like we didn’t play fundamental football, we didn’t wrap up, we missed lots of tackles, the effort was just not there.”
St. Albans hasn’t had close games. The Dragons — whose lone win was 43-19 against Nitro — lost its opening three games by huge margins, 41-14 (Spring Valley), 75-16 (South Charleston) and 55-13 (George Washington).
While the schedule may appear to be more manageable from here on out, Peek has warned his Tigers not to look ahead.
“We feel a lot better, but they have played a tough schedule too,” Peek said. “They have struggled, they are like 1-4, but Coach (Steve) Stoeffel does a good job with those guys. It is homecoming so I know they will be prepared for us.”
Princeton’s run-oriented offense have been led by senior Tahj Sho-Johnson, who has run for 624 yards — for a 9.8 yard per carry average — and 11 touchdowns.
“He is working hard. He is doing everything we have asked of him,” Peek said. “He doesn’t come off the field. He is in there on every play. We try to give him spells on defense because we have another talented back in Devin Allen that does a good job also.”
Jay Palmer is still learning the ropes at quarterback, having completed just 12-of-37 pass attempts for 309 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Meanwhile, the Princeton offensive line has been able to have success, even during the four-game slide, led by center Christian Marshall, seniors Corey Harsanyi and Nick Wood, and freshman left tackle Garrison Hartwell.
“Christian has done a heck of a job at center, he has been able to be a force up front and has done everything we have asked,” Peek said. “Corey has been playing well, and Garrison has done a good job for a freshman.
“What I worried about the most in those four games was injuries, but we came through those four games with no injuries. That goes back to the offseason. We were prepared for it. I think the offseason paid off with the injury bug also.”
The Red Dragons have been paced by strong-armed signal-caller Noah Reed, who has completed 64 percent (64-100) of his passes for 700 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven picks. He had 249 yards last week against Riverside, but also have four interceptions. He also ran for 51 yards.
“They are a passing team. They are going to spread the field so we have got to get some pass rush on him,” Peek said. “We have worked hard on coverages and have mixed up our coverages some.”
Princeton was beaten by Hurricane through the air, with Austin Hensley throwing for 301 yards and four touchdowns.
“Hurricane threw the ball all over the field on us for all four quarters,” Peek said. “(St. Albans’) quarterback is not as good as Hensley, that kid is a special kid, he is getting a lot of Division I looks.
“The kid at St. Albans does a good job. We have got to put some pressure on him. I think the schemes we are trying to do this week will get that done.”
Kevic Watkins leads St. Albans on the ground with 265 yards and two scores. The Dragons had 470 yards on offense in last week’s loss to previous winless Riverside, but managed just 13 points.
Princeton has been able to move the football, even doing it against George Washington, but simply couldn’t slow down the Patriots.
“We moved the ball on them, but we just couldn’t stop them,” Peek said. “On the positive side, we have had a good week of practice. The kids seem prepared. Defensively we have made some personnel changes and changed some of the schemes we are doing...
“Offensively we have to win the time of possession and move the football.”
While Princeton is only focused on getting back on the winning track against the Red Dragons, the Tigers still have postseason hopes, with their final four opponents having posted a combined mark of 5-17.
“I think it would be slim, but you never know,” Peek said. “Mathematically we are still in it. I have been telling our kids that if we win out, a 6-4 record a lot of times will get you in the AAA playoffs.
“If we can get in, maybe we could make some noise because we have played with some of the best.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
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