Since the inception of the Neuse 6 2-A Conference in 2021, Princeton has been the unquestioned “king of the mountain.”
The Bulldogs have won all 10 of their conference games while winning back-to-back conference championships. Princeton’s margin of victory in those first 10 conference games is a staggering 51.6 points.
A 28-6 win at Eastern Wayne in 2021 is the Bulldogs’ only Neuse 6 2-A conference victory decided by fewer than 30 points.
Princeton (3-2) enters tonight’s conference opener at Eastern Wayne in the midst of its first two-game losing streak since 2017. The game can be heard locally on FM 98.3 WGBR, or online at Goldsborodailynews.com, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
The Bulldogs gave up 418 yards of offense in a 40-14 loss at Clinton. The Dark Horses, currently ranked No. 1 in the state in the 2-A classification, took advantage of their athleticism to the tune of 247 passing yards and four touchdowns against a Bulldogs’ secondary that has struggled against the pass.
Princeton’s first five opponents have combined to throw for over 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“I imagine (Eastern Wayne) is smiling pretty big, kind of licking their chops and ready to go,” Bulldogs’ head coach Travis Gaster said. “They’ve got a great quarterback in (Izeiah) Oates, who throws a great deep ball, and they’ve got multiple guys who can go get it. I would assume they see an opportunity there. For us, scheme wise, we continue to learn and I do think we’re improving in our secondary. We’re asking guys that aren’t necessarily made to play those positions, but they’re our best option right now.”
Offensively, having success on first and second down, and living in manageable third down situations will be key for Princeton. Clinton routinely limited the Bulldogs to short gains on early downs, and forced Princeton’s run-oriented offense into uncomfortable third-and-long predicaments.
The Dark Horses held Princeton to just 180 yards rushing, exactly half of what the Bulldogs’ were averaging per game on the ground entering the contest.
Sophomore Austin Lewallen leads Princeton with 980 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Bulldogs have rushed for 1,620 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Eastern Wayne appears to have turned a corner after starting the season 0-3. The Warriors have won their last two contests, with wins over Greene Central and Washington County. During that span, Eastern Wayne has given up a total of just 183 yards, while surrendering an average of 13 points a game.
The combination of getting healthier and asking some offensive players to also play the other side of the ball, has bolstered the Warriors’ defense.
“I was keeping some guys from playing defense,” Eastern Wayne head coach Leander Oates said. “Trying that platoon thing, and trying to keep guys having the energy to play one side of the ball, I had to make the decision to say, ‘hey, you’ve got to play both sides of the ball. That made a difference, we were able to have some guys step up over there.”
The Warriors have scored 78 points over the last two weeks, and senior quarterback Izeiah Oates has thrown for 925 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Junior receiver Trondel Smith leads Eastern Wayne with 14 receptions for 325 yards and two touchdowns.
“We’re known to have some skilled guys,” Leander Oates said. “Even though we lost some guys to graduation that were very productive for us, we were able to get some young guys to step up. And it helps to have a quarterback return that was young for us, and that also puts in a great position with some match-ups (against Princeton). If they decide to play man-to-man (coverage) I think that will benefit us. However, we always still practice against some zone to have an honest practice just in case.”
Regardless of what challenges Princeton encounters versus Eastern Wayne or for the duration of the regular season, Gaster is confident the difficulty of the Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule will have his team ready for whatever may come. Princeton’s first four games were all decided by eight points or fewer, before going on the road and facing one of the top 2-A teams in the state in Clinton.
“You sure hope that they know that they’re battle-tested,” Gaster said. “That’s the reason that you make the schedule like you do. I don’t want to play people that aren’t going to challenge us. I want to play people that can expose us, that we can have a chance to get better against. Our goal is to be a champion, and in order to be a champion, you have to step up and play people outside of your comfort zone. And I sure hope being in those close games, lets our kids know that it’s possible that we can play with bigger schools, we can play with folks that have more athletes than we have. We just have to do what we do very well, in order to have those chances to win those ballgames.”