Saturday, September 24, 2005

The great escape: Lehigh 28, VMI 26

We should have lost this game.

VMI would have deserved the win, too.

Don't get me wrong, I'm quite happy - relieved? - with Julian Austin's game-saving interception with time expiring. But the Mountain Hawks did not play well at all. So many penalties - some which extended key Keydet drives - were killers. The interception return for a TD.

This game is a huge wake-up call. There's no sleeping against anyone on our schedule. VMI was 0-11 last year? You had better throw that out, or you're going to get your butt handed to you.

VMI was hard-working and never gave up. We gave them opportunities to beat us, and they should have. We simply got lucky to escape with the win.

Defensively, we have to get better. I haven't seen any stats, but VMI in the first have was moving at will against our "D" in the first half. Up 28-13, we couldn't stop the Keydets and allowed them to score making it a 1-score game. Top 25 teams don't do that against VMI.

I am releived, concerned, and frustrated with this win. Next week againt Harvard, we make these mistakes, we're dead. Dead.

More thoughts tomorrow.

Predictions of Other Games

Here's my weekly picks of other games around the I-AA world. With all the Thursday games, and the games cancelled to the impending Hurricane Rita, it's a much thinner schedule than usual. Here they are.

Patriot League:
Fordham at Lafayette. The first league game for both teams, it's of course a must-win game for both teams as well. Lafayette has shown a lot of talent against Richmond in an up-and-down September, while the Rams have struggled against everybody they've played. Whatever happens, we will learn a lot about both these teams going forward. I like the Leopards here, though. Lafayette 28, Fordham 14.

Georgetown at Stony Brook. After a drubbing by a very good Brown team, the Hoyas look to right the ship against another (dangerous?) NEC team. I think the Hoyas, while suffering from a lot of high expectations, will win this game in pretty easy fashion. GU 31, SB 12.

Holy Cross at #4 Delaware. When you saw this game in May, you thought "Delaware blowout", just like me, right? This ain't your brother's Holy Cross team, however, with convincing wins against Georgetown and Sacred Heart, while losing to nationally-ranked Harvard last week. Whatever the score, the Crusaders will be looking to prove to the world that they are Patriot League contenders. With nothing to lose, they will fall; but not by much. Delaware 35, Holy Cross 28.

Top 25:
#1 Western Kentucky at Auburn (I-A). No upset here as the Hilltoppers get spanked. Auburn 56, WKU 3.

#2 Eastern Washington at Idaho St. Interesting league matchup in a tough place to play. I think this one will be surprisingly close before the Eagles finally squeak it out. EWU 28, ISU 26.

Dartmouth at #3 New Hampshire. On paper, it's not even close. But I think Dartmouth will surprisingly keep this "Granite Bowl" game close. It's the battle of New Hampshire; Dartmouth has more talent than you think, and Buddy Teevens is a good I-AA coach. Trust me here. UNH 35, Dartmouth 30.

#7 North Dakota St. at #20 Montana St. No team has been more impressive in the early going than the Bison, while Montana St. was creamed at home by Cal Poly last week. I don't know why, but I just get the feeling that the Bobcats will assert themselves and find a way to beat the Bison. MSU 28, NDSU 26.

#17 Hofstra at #10 Furman. Another intriguing matchup of ranked teams, we have the unproven (3-0 Hofstra, against Sister Mary Elephant and her sisters), and the inconsistent (2-1 Furman, who struggled in every single game this year). They're both a little light on the defense, so I'm going with Furman and Ingle Martin at home, in an old-fashioned shootout. Furman 52, Hofstra 45.

#11 Cal Poly at South Dakota St. Cal Poly is on a mission, and I don't think the Jackrabbits are going to stand in their way this week. Cal Poly 30, SDSU 14.

Brown at #13 Harvard. It's sad that the Ivy Champion could be determined in Week 2 of their season, but you could make a case. Both teams played an absolute stormer in a 35-34 Harvard win last year, and the Bears are looking for revenge. Harvard looked a little shaky against Holy Cross, and Brown has the veteran leadership. Plus, the Crimson must be under a lot of pressure to keep the longest D-I football winning streak alive. Here is where it goes down. Brown 32, Harvard 24.

#14 Hampton at Morgan St. Playing in East Rutherford, NJ as part of the "New York Urban League Classic", Hampton hasn't impressed me very much, but they've continued to pull out wins against completely overmatched opponents. Enter Morgan St., who won't put up much of a fight either. The Pirates continue to win, but will still fail to impress. Hampton 31, Morgan St. 17.

#15 Appalachian St. at The Citadel. This is the game I was sweating out all week. I want so bad to take The Citadel, as the Mountaineers are a completely different team on the road. But it's hard to judge how good the Bulldogs are with only a 28-14 win over pitiful Charleston Southern and a 62-10 drubbing by I-A Florida State. My guess is that App St. pulls it off. Reluctantly. App St. 28, The Citadel 21.

Liberty at #18 William & Mary. Exposed last week versus Rhode Island, Liberty at first glance may seem to be able to match up -- if this were last year. With such a young offense, the Tribe regain their footing. W&M 42, Liberty 10.

#22 Youngstown St. at Pittsburgh (I-A). The I-A Panthers are 0-3 and struggling mightily. The Penguins are 3-0 against Cupcake and Cupcake State. Upset? I just can't see it. Pitt 35, YSU 21.

Rhode Island at #23 UMass. If UMass loses here, they're probably finished when it comes to the Atlantic 10 title. Rhody, on the other hand, is fresh of a great upset win against Bill & Mary. All signs point to the Minutemen bringing the hammer to Rhode Island's title hopes. UMass 24, URI 7.

Friday, September 23, 2005

"Second Season" Starts Tomorrow

You can tell from the Lehigh player press comments that this week's theme is the "second season" and putting the first two games of the year behind them. Every press report is dotted with references to putting Delaware behind them and getting going for the rest of the way. It's a hackneyed expression to say "take them one game at a time", but it's true.

It seems clear the VMI has much to fear tomorrow. Not only does Lehigh seem focused and ready, but VMI had some bad news in that their leading rusher, senior RB Sean Mizzer, is gone for the year with leg surgery, further depleting the Keydet's attack. Keydet Coach Cal McCombs on Tuesday was going on and on about how Lehigh is always a sound football team; how they don't beat themselves; how they execute well on offense; and how on defense they don't allow themselves to get out of position. It's not clear if he's trying to pump Lehigh up to set them up for a fall, but his tone was clearly one of a coach who was still looking for answers. If you add that to Lehigh's apparent dedication to their mission, it looks like it could be a real long day for the Keydets.

Here's your press roundup. Hope that everyone's confidence will translate into a big "W" this week.

Oh, one more thing. In my I-AA.org diary on Lafayette/Richmond, I said, and I quote, "[A]bout facing teams from the Ivy League: "They're like a box chocolates - you never know what you're going to get." Coach Lembo, on Wednesday, quote: " "It just goes to show that polls are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get."

Coincidence? I think not!

Easton Express-Times:
Frenzied Hawks Set For Action

Allentown Morning Call:
Lehigh's Nine-Week Mission Starts With VMI

Brown & White:
Coming Off Bye Week, Hawks Set To Battle VMI

Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Keydet's Kicker Adds To Lexington Tradition

Your digest:

Lehigh's early-schedule break came at a good time... coming after a physically and emotionally draining 34-33 overtime loss at Delaware on Sept. 10 in a battle of top-20 I-AA programs.

But the Mountain Hawks (1-1) are eager to turn the page, eager to stop answering questions about what happened in the fourth quarter and in overtime in Newark and eager to show they can deliver a complete effort.

"We played extremely well on defense for three quarters and then got worn down a little bit with injuries,'' Lembo said. ''We also began to press. When the pressure is on, you need to stay totally disciplined and remember the fundamentals. We lost some of that."

"As a unit, we had a whole week to think about a lot of opportunities we left on the field," said Walker, Lehigh's super-smooth wide receiver and kick returner and the nation's leader in all-purpose yards at 204.5 per game. "We're just ready to get that out of our heads this week."

"We need to have more depth and more in the tank late in games," Lembo said.

...

This time, the Mountain Hawks plan to leave an impression in victory.

“Having to sit out a week makes it harder to forget it [the loss] and move on,” Selmasska said. “But that’s another thing we did this week at practice. Play hard and forget about the Delaware game.”

"Coming out of our bye, we feel like it's the second part of the season," Walker said. "Hopefully, this second season, we can end up 9-0."

"A football season is 11 games," Stinson said. "We still have nine games left. Our goals are still the same. We're not changing our goals because of one loss. We might not have an undefeated season anymore.

"But we still want to make a run at a national championship."

...

"The quarterback is so good," said seventh-year VMI coach Cal McCombs... "He's got a reliable arm and a quick release. It's hard to get any pressure on him. I'm real impressed with that football team."

“Mark Borda and Gerran Walker are playing at an all-league level right now,” Lembo said. “I hope they continue to improve each day in practice.”

...

"I've been telling our guys for two weeks that whether you're playing Army, Navy, Air Force, the Merchant Marine Academy, Coast Guard or any of the service academics, it's different," Lembo said. ''What these guys do from 3 to 6 daily at practice or from 1 to 4 on Saturday game days may seem like vacation to them. It's the easy part of their day.

"So, you know they are going to be very passionate, very physical and they will play you to the final whistle whether they're up 14 or down 14. Our guys need to understand that and respond."

“VMI is a much-improved team from a year ago,” Lembo said. “They are a full-scholarship program with great tradition and they play a tough schedule.”

“They are a very tough, talented team,” Selmasska said. “All of the players they field could start for the teams in the Patriot League.”

“On defense the Keydets have good team speed and a lot of experience,” Lembo said. “They have done a good job creating turnovers this year.”

[VMI K Barrett Way] stepped into the starting role last season and made quite an impression. He converted all 15 PAT attempts and was 8 of 12 on field goal tries, including a 53-yarder against Liberty that was a record for Alumni Memorial Field and the second-longest in school history.

"The last two teams we played were bigger and stronger up front than we were and decided they were going to line up in an 'I' and run it right at us," VMI coach Cal McCombs said.

“They like to line up and run the ball to open up other options,” [senior LB Anthony] Graziani said. “For us to stop them, we have to play physical and within the defense. Each person has to do their job and do it at full speed. We’ll need to improve our tackling and limit the mistakes we have made thus far.”

...

“Almost all of our defensive schemes have been working when we run them correctly,” Graziani said. “It’s the breakdowns, missed assignments and missed tackles that have hurt us. We know we need to get better each week.”

"I wouldn't say they're in trouble," Lehigh linebacker Travis Stinson said. "But we'll go down and prepare to play a tough game against them."

"They will be seeing," Gerran Walker promised, "a pretty motivated Lehigh team this weekend."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Preview of Lehigh/VMI

After a seemingly-endless week off after the bye week, Lehigh resumes play this weekend down in Lexington, VA against VMI. The only broadcast of the game will be on AM 1230 and AM 1320 in the Lehigh Valley, and on the internet through Yahoo! Broadcast or lehighsports.com. I'll be listening to the game in dibs and dabs over the internet, as we've got company over that day.

Lehigh Injury Report
DB Daynin Blake (Ribs, Questionable)
FS Courtney Elder (Shoulder, Questionable)
CB Andrew Nelson (Hand, Questionable)
DB Brendan VanAckeran (Knee, Questionable)

Although Lehigh seems to have healed up well from the hard-hitting Delaware game, it seems like all our injuries are still concentrated in the secondary. Nelson is the only starter who is hurt, however, and sophomore DB Aaron Gilliard will get the nod once again as the starter. Should Blake, Elder, or VanAckeran be unable to go, junior DB Devin Dobson, sophomore DB Julian Ahye, and junior DB Calvin LaMont will be on the field.

10 Things You Didn't Know About VMI
1. Founded in 1839, the Virginia Military Institute is the first state-based military college founded in America. It occupied a former arsenal used in the War of 1812, and provided a place for the students defending our military assets to also get an education.
2. The school nickname "Keydet" is derived from a southern drawl pronunciation of the word "cadet," which puts VMI on the cutting edge of misspelled and mispronounced school nicknames. Using this vernacular, Lehigh's "Mountain Hawks" could instead be called the "Mahntun Hacks".
3. Confederate Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson did not attend VMI as a student (he instead was near the top of his class at West Point), but he did teach classes at VMI from 1851 to 1861. He was not a beloved teacher - aloof and dour, he was frequently the subject of student pranks. Only when he was on the battlefield did his mastery of motivation and tactics highlight his military brilliance.
4. Along with "Stonewall" Jackson, many VMI graduates ended up serving the Confederate army as officers and generals. One general who served under Jackson, James A. Walker, was a former student of Jackson's at VMI and was expelled from the school after insubordination in his class. When he was in confinement, he challenged Jackson to a duel.
5. VMI's biggest game of the year is the "Military Classic of the South" versus the Citadel Bulldogs. This year they will be competing for the "Silver Shako" trophy against a team coached by former Lehigh coach Kevin Higgins.
6. The last time VMI had a winning record, incredibly, was in 1981, when the Keydets compiled a 6-3-1 record. It's hard to picture being a VMI fan with that sort of New Orleans Saints-esque lack of winning tradition. What do you root for? "Let's get closer to .500 this year!"
7. VMI's most famous football alumnus would have to be former Super Bowl head coach and current Army coach Bobby Ross. As a QB and DB in 1959, he captained the Keydets to a 8-1-1 record and a SoCon championship. That year, along with a win over Virginia Tech 37-12, the Keydets beat Lehigh 7-6 at Taylor Stadium.
8. VMI's last win over Lehigh came in Lexington in 1960, beating the Engineers 18-14. That year Lehigh was 4-5, including wins over Delaware and Lafayette, but also including losses to Tufts and Davidson.
9. The VMI Mascot is a kangaroo. There's no really good reason why it is a kangaroo, being that Lexington, VA is about as kangaroo-free as you can get. Apparently some cheerleaders thought it would be a cool idea, and then proceeded to "procure" one to roam their sidelines.
10. There's no evidence that Citadel fans taunt VMI fans by singing "Tie me Kangaroo Down, Sport", but dammit, they should.

Overall
VMI, out of the Big South, is a team that has struggled to win for quite a while. But they are methodical, disciplined, and don't kill themselves with penalties - a source of pride for the Keydets. They are also in the midst of trying to bring back the winning ways to Lexington, and they would like nothing better to start that tradition by knocking off nationally-ranked Lehigh. Let's see whay the Keydets have to offer.

Offensive Breakdown
Junior QB Jonathan Wilson is an extremely accurate short-range pocket passer, completing 69.2% of his passes for 2 TDs. He doesn't appear to air it out too much, when he does pass it tend to be underneath - no receiver has a catch for more than 25 yards this year. He also doesn't seem very mobile, which could be a problem for the Keydets.

His favorite target is senior WR Zohn Burden, who already has 16 receptions in 3 games for 142 yards. Senior WR Gary Price is on the other side, who has 9 receptions for 65 yards. TE John Fox seems primarily to be a blocker.

VMI appears to try to balance the run and pass fairly well, and the three-headed RB of senior Sean Mizzer, sophomore Nate Jackson, and junior Colby Hollingsworth are the guys who get all the yards. They combine for more than 100% of the Keydets' rushing yards - yes, you heard right - as all their other backs net negative yadage.

Compared to Lehigh's "O" line, VMI's line is a bit undersized, averaging only 277 lbs across. Senior LG Jeremy Ward is 300 lbs, and is probably the best on the line.

Defensive Breakdown
The Keydets play a strange defense with 3 safeties and a mix of roving linebackers and linemen. Similar to Albany's strange defensive alignment, you could call the Keydet defense a variation of the "Big Nickel" defense where there are almost always 5 DBs on the field at one time. As a result, the Keydets have lacked a consistent pass rush. That also could open the way for a big day running for Lehigh should our gameplan choose to exploit it.

The "D" Line's best athlete is senior DT Vichael Foxx, their biggest lineman at 6'4, 280 lbs. Behind him are the strength of the team, the linebackers. Most impressive is senior LB Justin Huggard, who is averaging 10 yards a game. Not far behind is senior LB Todd Baldwin with 7 tackles per game.

The defensive backfield has held teams to less than 200 yards passing a game, so this would appear to be a position of strength for VMI. Senior SS Kamau Hull is averaging 9 tackles a game and also has an interception this year.

Special Teams Breakdown
Sophomore PK Barrett Way hasn't been really proven under pressure, but junior P Adam Peters is decent with a 41 yard average. Senior CB Titus Green is averaging over 21 yards a return, so he will have to be covered well on kicks.

Keys To The Game
1.Stick to the plan. It looks like Lehigh should be able to establish their gameplan on top of the Keydet defensive plan. Plugging away with a balance of rush and pass should be able to be effective.
2.Key on the RB. They are balanced, but shutting down the running game and forcing Wilson to pass deep should keep VMI grounded.
3.Keep mistakes down. VMI does not kill themselves with stupid penalties. Giving the game away with stupid mistakes and penalties could absolutely spell an upset possibility.

Fearless Prediction
Lehigh rolls. A focused and balanced Lehigh team, still mad about the Delaware defeat, goes to Lexington and shows I-AA nation that it means business for a Patriot League title.

Lehigh 46, VMI 14

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

My Top 25 Ballot

Here's my Any Given Saturday ballot for this week.

1. Delaware
2. Eastern Washington
3. Western Kentucky
4. Harvard
5. North Dakota St
6. James Madison
7. Montana
8. Furman
9. New Hampshire
10. Cal Poly
11. Southern Illinois
12. Montana St
13. Lehigh
14. Northern Iowa
15. Hampton
16. William & Mary
17. South Carolina St
18. Penn
19. Western Carolina
20. Northwestern St
21. Appalachian St
22. Coastal Car
23. Grambling
24. Lafayette
25. Jacksonville St

Lafayette's still in your Top 25? Yes, they are. As disappointing as their loss was Saturday, I still believe they deserve to be in the Top 25. They are a good team, and we don't know how good Princeton is quite yet.

No UMass in your list? UMass is 2-1 and have beaten 2 awful teams, and lost to a mediocre team in Colgate. Hofstra hasn't beat any significant team, but they're 3-0. It pained me to take a fifth A-10 team, but I just didn't see any other good option except Hofstra. I don't belieive in Rhode Island yet, either.

Jacksonville State is 0-3, yet they're in your Top 25? Yep. They played I-A UAB tough, and were 2 plays away from beating Furman and Chattanooga. I think they will take the OVC this year and will get the autobid - and they will deserve that Top 25 ranking.

What's your love affair with Grambling? They're 2-1 and have only lost to a I-A, dog. The Top 25 isn't only supposed to be I-AA playoff teams. Grambling's good. They're in.

Only one Southland team - Northwestern St. - and at #20? Yep. The Southland, granted, are playing lots of I-A's, but too many of them are 1-2 and have problems. The only one that has proven anything to this point is the Demons, who at least toppled I-A Louisiana-Monroe. Texas State has played nobody, I don't beleieve in Sam Houston St., and McNeese St. needs to show me a good win as well.

Tomorrow is my Lehigh/VMI preview. Be there!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Bad Day for the Patriot; Weekend Predictions

It was a good thing Lehigh didn't play this weekend, as the Patriot League got spanked in all 6 contests. It's the first time that I remember it ever happening. I went to see Lafayette lose a heartbreaker to a team which is forecast to be a middle-of-the-pack Ivy team in Princeton. Colgate got "upset" by a middle-of-the-pack (I'm being generous) Dartmouth team, 26-21. (How do you beat UMass, yet lose to Dartmouth and Central Connecticut State?) Bottom-feeder Columbia put Fordham at 0-3. Brown spanked Georgetown. Cornell spanked Bucknell. Holy Cross surprised most by playing nationally-ranked Harvard tough, but they still lost 31-21.

From this surprising development, Lehigh now has to have an even bigger target on their backs. With all these losses, it is highly unlikely that any Patriot League team other than Lehigh would qualify as an at-large team for the I-AA playoffs unless one of them takes the Patriot league championship - which would require thay they beat Lehigh.

Surprisingly for a bye week, Lehigh jumped in the national polls. At #13 in the Sports Network and ESPN/USA Today polls, and #12 in the Any Given Saturday poll, clearly voters think Lehigh is still one of the best teams at the national level. Every opponent from now on will think of us as "nationally-ranked Lehigh". That means, no rest; no weeks off. This coming week we go to scholarship school VMI, as they take a shot at us.

Last week I went a respectable 17-7. This includes going 3-3 in "Patriot League Black Saturday", and having 4 suprising losses in the I-AA Top 25, so overall I'm not too disappointed.

Really Right: James Madison 65, Delaware St. 7. Real score: JMU 63, Delaware St 10. 5 points off - I can live with that.

Should Have Been Right: Columbia 23, Fordham 17. Fordham has four - FOUR - chances to tie it up, including 2 shots in the last 4 minutes. Three turnovers, and one missed execution on a fake punt, and they blow it. These guys had ample chances to get it to overtime. If so, Fordham 31, Columbia 28, doesn't look too bad.

Was I Ever Wrong!: Rhode Island 49, William & Mary 28. Obviously I was surprised, as was the rest of I-AA nation, that the Tribe couldn't hold the hitherto anemic Rams to less than 7 TDs. It's not really missing the game, which I predicted to be W&M 27, URI 17. It's missing the scope of the loss, the skill of URI, and the poor defense of W&M.

Look for my Lehigh/VMI preview this Wednesday.
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