With its two losses coming against teams with a combined 9-1 record, Newman welcomes another undefeated foe this week in Princeton, which visits Roscoe Eades Stadium on Friday night.
While Newman knew it was in for a challenge against both Rockridge and St. Bede, the Tigers are even more formidable than the two teams that have topped the Comets this season.
“I think they’re going to be the toughest team we’ve gone against this year, definitely,” Newman senior Blayke Holbrook said. “You can see it in all their past games. They play hard, they’re tough, and they’re really good.”
It all starts with quarterback Teegan Davis, an Eastern Illinois commit. He is a true dual threat, passing for 696 yards and nine touchdowns, and rushing for 526 yards and 10 scores. He’s the spark plug for a potent offense that has averaged 56.4 points per game while outscoring opponents 282-90.
The closest margin of victory for Princeton is 19 points in a 41-22 win over Rockridge in Week 1. Since then, the Tigers have won by 40, 35, and 49 twice.
“They’ve got one of the best players in the state, there’s no doubt about it. He’s a dynamic athlete, dynamic kid,” Newman coach Mike LeMay said. “You see them, they’re very fundamentally sound. Their run game is fairly basic in what they do, but they do it really well. They block hard, everyone’s accounted for, they’ve got some big guys up front that can move. They line up in different formations but run a lot of the same looks. So it’s a lot of prep trying to get the formations down and make sure we’re aligned correctly.
“That’s the big issue defensively is always are we aligned correctly, are we in the right spots. They’re dynamic in a lot of places, and it’s not just with the quarterback, either. They’ve got the guys at the skill positions as well. They’re the complete package, they’re a solid team.”
The Comets have faced some strong offenses before, but none look quite like Princeton’s. The Tigers will run more than they pass, but the minute an opponent tries to load up against the run, Davis is more than happy to hit one of his receivers downfield.
“Really just attack. I wouldn’t say they’re not a passing team, but they do like to run the ball more than pass it. So really, just attack that rush and just be physical,” Newman junior Brady Grennan said about how to try to contain the Tigers.
It’s also the different formations and plays out of those formations that cause problems for teams. Princeton will give a defense plenty of different looks, then run the same plays out of all of them with equal effectiveness.
“They have a lot to throw at us, they show something new in every game, and it’s going to be hard to adjust to that,” Holbrook said. “We have a lot going on, but our coaches and our team are pretty confident that we can adjust to what they’re going to do to us. If they throw in something new, we’re just going to keep our same keys, we’re going to keep playing how we’re training.”
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers will line up with three linemen and three linebackers in the middle of the formation, and attack from different places within that scheme.
It will look a lot like the defense the Comets saw last week from Bureau Valley, but the Tigers bring more speed and athleticism to the table.
“They line up in that 3-3 stack, which now we’ve seen a little bit, and they really execute out of it really well. It’s a matter of us just making sure of our assignments, who we’re picking up, things along those lines,” LeMay said. “I feel that we made some strides last week, and our kids felt that way against a Bureau Valley team that gave us some fits in the same look. I think if we can just come together on that and understand how to move the ball, I think we can have some success.”
The BV game should be a bit of a help to Newman’s players, as they won’t be completely unfamiliar with the look the Tigers will give them defensively – but the Comets know it won’t be the same thing they saw last week.
“I think it’ll help. It’ll be pretty much the same, but tougher, with more talented guys on the field,” Grennan said. “We just have to be physical. Hold onto the ball, cover the points, run with a purpose.”
It’s not just the familiarity with the defensive scheme that has LeMay and the coaching staff feeling good about where the team is at. After installing a new offense when he was hired in the offseason, the Newman alum feels like he and his players are finally starting to figure out how all the pieces fit together in the style he wants to play.
And he’s happy with the steps he’s seen the team take each week to get better.
“We kind of found out what our niche is in the new scheme, wishbone-wise, we kind of figured out what’s working for us,” LeMay said. “We’re finding that, and once we get that, we’re going to be able to expand that a little bit, which is exactly what we’re looking for is trying to create that and give ourselves a different look so teams have to prep for us the way we’re prepping for Princeton.”
The Tigers have won the last two games to tie the all-time series 7-7, but the Comets won six of the first seven games after Princeton joined the Three Rivers Conference in 2013. That being said, it’s become a rivalry between two programs with strong foundations and traditions, and both teams are always eager to fight it out on the field.
“I feel like this week has been physical at practice, more locked in, because we really want to win this game,” Grennan said.
And win or lose, Holbrook said the Comets will welcome the lessons they can learn Friday night, as the challenge of playing a top-tier team can only make them better down the road.
“Playing good teams is really good for you,” Holbrook said. “It shows how much you’ve improved, it shows how strong you really are, and how you can defend against what they bring at you. It’s fun to have a challenge like that, and it makes you better, even if you do happen to lose. It makes you a better team, gives you more training for the next game, and helps you for the rest of the season.”