Friday, November 25, 2005

Predictions: I-AA playoffs

There are 6 other I-AA playoff games being played this weekend. Here's my fearless predictions for all these games this weekend:

Richmond at Hampton. Congratulations on Hampton with their 11-0 season, and congratulations on Richmond's 8-3 year. This is an intriguing first-round matchup. Hampton has plenty to prove, but I think the difference will be the inability of the Pirates to score on Richmond's defense. Give Tutt a big play or three, and I think the Spiders get through. Richmond 17, Hampton 6.

Southern Illinois at Eastern Illinois. The Panthers surprised most of I-AA nation by hosting a first-round game. I think the Salukis, first-round doormats in '03 and '04, reverse the trend this time, even on the road. SIU 38, EIU 3.

Nicholls St. at Furman. The surprise winner of the Southland takes on a grateful first-round host in Furman. Beating Furman at home seems like a tall order for a team who may just "be happy to be here", but the triple-option and a surprisingly tough defense may cause the Colonels to ground the Paladins better than some people think. Still, looks like a Furman win here. Furman 34, Nicholls St. 28.

Eastern Wasington at Northern Iowa. Too bad there's no TV crews in the dome to carry what promises to be a barn-burner. It's actually a shame, too, since this could be the best for the first-round games and features a couple teams that could make a surprising run at Chattanooga. The Eagles' Meyer and the Panthers' Sanders are two elite I-AA quarterbacks who are playing red-hot right now, and who both have willed their respective teams into the I-AA playoffs by the skin of their teeth. I'd love to take the Panthers at home here, but I sense something special from the Eagles right now after barely making the playoffs. The Eagles are playing better defense, and I think that carries them through. EWU 41, UNI 33.

Georgia Southern at Texas State. Sure the Bobcats got in the I-AA playoffs for the first time. Their reward? Just take out, oh, the premier I-AA playoff team EVER who is 1) angry about being stiffed for a home game, and 2) angry about letting New Hampshire beating them in the first round. As strong as Texas St. can be, a Georgia Southern win looks like too good a possibility. GSU 40, TSU 21.

Cal Poly at Montana. The 'Stangs got in (finally) this year, and are rewarded by playing the Griz in Washington-Grizzly stadium, one of the toughest places to play in I-AA. The playoffs are tough in even the best of circumstances, and a team that has struggled at times offensively playing one of the best teams in the Big Sky doesn't seem like a good matchup. Looks to be low-scoring, but it's hard to pick against the Griz at home. Montana 10, Cal Poly 3.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Mini Patriot League Previews

As promised, here's a mini-breakdown of the Lafayette/Appalachian St. and Colgate/New Hampshire games.

Colgate/New Hampshire:
On Colgate's offense: QB Mike Saraceno and RB Jordan Scott have been the engine that has made this Raider team go. WR DeWayne Long is a great target on the outside, but the key to Colgate's game is not turning the ball over. On offense, when they've held onto the ball, they've won games.

On Colgate's defense: LB Jared Nepa anchors a Raider team with a tough secondary and solid overall defense. With 18 takeaways, Colgate's secondary was the best in the Patriot League in 2005, while the defensive front held most opponents to under 100 yards rushing.

On New Hampshire's offense: QB Ricky Santos and WR David Ball are "cover boys", and there's a reason for that. Santos is a tough customer who can run well, while Ball is one of the more amazing WR's I've seen with lots of acrobatic grabs, even in double-teams. TE Jon Williams shouldn't be ignored either - a real pass-catching threat, as well as RB Lee McCoy out of the backfield. Contrary to their prolific offensive output, this is not a finesse offense, and Santos spreads the ball around well. Disrupting their gameplan is a challenge, but a good solid pass rush could do the trick.

On New Hampshire's defense: New Hampshire plays a base 4-3-4 that has given up a lot of points this year - including 47 to Maine last weekend. Their front seven isn't overly scary, led by LB E. J.DeWitt, while CB Etienne Boulay is probably their best corner.

Maybe you didn't know: Colgate is 1-3 lifetime against New Hampshire, their last win coming in Durham by a 27-23 score in 1986. More recently, they played in men's ice hockey in 2000, with Colgate falling by a 7-3 score.

Fearless Prediction: If Colgate can hold onto the ball, not turn over the ball, and keep Santos-to-Ball in check, they have a shot. However, they just seem like the type of team that doesn't match up very well with the Wildcats. Colgate should keep them under their average, but I don't think it will be enough. UNH 34, Colgate 17.

Lafayette/Appalachian St.:
On Lafayette's offense: With starting QB Brad Maurer presumably out with a separated shoulder, all indications are QB/LS Pat Davis will be the starter. RB Jonathan Hurt came of age at the end of the season to shoulder most of the load offensively, while Davis should spread the ball around a lot with his receiving corps. Is Lafayette's offensive resurgence enough to give the Mountaineers a game?

On Lafayette's defense: LB's Dion Witherspoon, Blake Costanzo and Buck Buchanan nominee Maurice Bennett could be the best trio of linebackers ever to emerge from the Patriot League. They mask a smallish front pretty well, but also bring a pretty formidable pass rush. The secondary is also strong, with CB Torian Johnson nabbing 3 INTs.

On Appalachian State's offense: Mountaineer fans are ga-ga over Payton Award candidate QB Richie Williams' talents running and passing abilities. Running a no-huddle spread-type offense, Williams generaly gets the outside runs while RB Kevin Richardson gets in-between the tackles. Richardson and TE Daniel Bettis are popular passing targets as well, which will test Lafayette's linebacking corps' pass defense.

On Appalachian State's defense: CB Corey Lynch's 5 INTs highlight a pretty strong secondary, while they bring a decent pass rush. Through the middle they are smallish, which could work to Lafayette's advantage.

Maybe You Didn't Know: Lafayette coach Frank Tavani, on his off week, watched his son play at Wofford, where they were playing... Appalachian State, so "GQ" has seen firsthand what he's dealing with.

Fearless Prediction: I'll do it. I think Lafayette will win this game. First of all, Lafayette is playing their best football of the season right now. Second, App St. has not seen a trio of linebackers at the I-AA level better that Lafayette's "fearsome threesome", which should deprive Williams of his regular passing options. Third, if this game stays close as the game goes along, the bigger the pressure gets with losing to "little Lafayette from the little Patriot League". Fourth, I think Appalachian State is underestimating Lafayette, and they will see that the Leopards may have one of the sharpest coaching staffs in all of I-AA. Smell that upset! Lafayette 29, App St. 26.

Tune in tomorrow for the rest of my I-AA playoff predictions.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

It Still Hurts, But Let's Face Facts

"The loss" still hurts.

If you read the comments on the other Lehigh/Lafayette posts below, it's clear that the rest of Lehigh Nation feels the same way. Fans are mad, they're filled with regret, and frustration. But the loss still hurts, more than any other Lehigh football loss that I can remember.

It hurts, and I think I know why.

At the turn of the 19th century, Lafayette had some revolutionary football teams that changed the way the game was played. Lafayette's only year where they were recognized as national champions was in 1896 - a year where Lehigh refused to play Lafayette due to the fact that they felt that "Babe" Reinhardt was ineligible to play college ball.

Through the 20th century, most Lehigh/Lafayette games were about Lehigh Valley pride and bragging rights. Sure, sometimes Lafayette would have a great team, or Lehigh would be in the Division II playoffs, but never at the same time. Although a beloved tradition during NCAA's "Rivalry Week", just like Ole Miss/Mississippi St., most of the time there was nothing extra riding on the game - just the fact that one team would be able to say "we went out winners" for the rest of the year.

With the advent of the Patriot League, a new goal arose - a Patriot League championship, which racheted up the pressure another notch. When Lehigh won the Patriot League championship for the first time in 1993, it was a huge deal. The bar had been raised.

With the I-AA playoffs and the Patriot League's success in them, however, all that has changed. It's no longer just bragging rights or Patriot League titles (though that's still a big part of it). It's competing for I-AA championships. Colgate just two short years ago were playing in Chattanooga. Just last year Lafayette and Lehigh were taking the best teams the Atlantic 10 had to offer and playing them down to the wire.

Last year, Lehigh and Lafayette earned a co-Patriot League championship, and Lehigh slunk off the field feeling as if they had lost everything. To that team, a co-championship didn't mean much without a I-AA playoff invite. Any look at the Lehigh and Lafayette players after that game makes that abundantly clear. That game felt like a playoff game, but ended up being a game where there was no loser - both teams got to play after Thanksgiving.

This year, once again, a I-AA playoff berth was on the line - but it was undeclared. For the first time ever, Lehigh/Lafayette really was a playoff game for both teams. As much as Lehigh/Lafayette means normally, this time the emotion was also wrapped up in the I-AA playoffs, and all the glory, prestige, and respect that it commands around the nation. Lehigh/Lafayette was not just a Lehigh Valley phenomenon. Folks around the country were watching this game. Closely.

No Lehigh/Lafayette game ever had more riding on it.

This year's team seemed built for I-AA playoff success. A speedy and deep WR corps. Athleticism and talent up and down the roster. Mark Borda. Eric Rath. At times, on paper it looked like we would just overwhelm most of our opponents just by showing up. It seemed sometimes like the games - yes, even Lehigh/Lafayette - were just a formality to our real season, the playoffs. For a very good stretch, that's how it was for Lehigh. Just beat Colgate, and you're home free.

But something else happened, too. The rest of the Patriot League improved immensely, and no team improved more than Lafayette. Lehigh is still good enough to contend for Patriot League titles every year, but the road has never been so difficult with Lafayette and Colgate appearing to have staying power year in and year out. We can't just show up and win anymore - even with great talent.

Where do we go from here? I think we have to focus on the Patriot League championship first. Next year, we need an outright invitation to the I-AA playoffs that allows for no error. I think that is how Lafayette has beaten us the last two years. They have put value in that trophy Lehigh players and fans have nearly ignored - the Patriot League Championship trophy - and that's why they're playing this weekend. The Leopards thought of the Championship Trophy as their goal, and they got it. We thought of the I-AA playoffs as our goal, and we didn't.

For now, I'm still hurting for Lehigh's season. I will try to pull together a little Playoff Preview for Colgate and Lafayette on the blog this week, probably late tomorrow. But here's as much press as I could round up concerning "The Loss". Included is my diary entry that has an abrupt end, which pretty much symbolizes Lehigh's season this year. (There's also a lot of great pictures of the tailgates, and game.)

I-AA Diary: Lehigh Hosts Lafayette

Morning Call:
Lafayette's Hurt Breaks Lehigh's Heart
Bitter Taste Is All That's Left For Lehigh
Down To The Wire Again - Lafayette Makes Playoffs

I bring up the last article for one reason. When Stephen Miller says, "Even after Lafayette's win Saturday, several national I-AA football writers projected the Leopards would miss the postseason.", he's including me. I gave the Leopards no shot at the playoffs, and like many around I-AA Nation, I had penciled in Youngstown St. in my bracket.

Late tomorrow, you can read my mini-preview of the Colgate/New Hampshire and Lafayette/App St. I-AA playoff games. And hopefully more of the hurt will go away.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Lehigh's season is over; Lafayette's and Colgate's are still on

Don't know if you know, but both Colgate and Lafayette are in the I-AA playoffs today.

Lafayette will be travelling to Boone, NC to play Appalachian St.

Colgate will be travelling to Durham, NH to play New Hampshire.

Lehigh's "bubble" is officially burst. I didn't think Lehigh would make it, but until the picks are actually made, there was always some hope. It's now officially time to wait for next year.

"The Game" still hurts. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. If I took away from Lafayette's determination to put themselves in a position to win, I apoligize. Let me be the first to say that Lafayette deserved the win. They put themselves in a position to make a play to win the game, and they did. Lehigh did not. And two things stand out on Lafayette's team on their play this Saturday. Jonathan Hurt played a whale of a game - he deserved the MVP probably before the miracle catch, but he stepped up in an huge way.

Second, the Lafayette linebacking corps played like champions. Witherspoon, Bennett, and Costanzo are great linebackers, and they gave Lehigh's offense fits all day. Full credit to them. They brought it to our offense, averaging 40 points a game, and held us to a paltry 19, including 4 FGs.

That out to answer some critics that are saying that I'm not giving Lafayette their props. They do. They won, and they get a huge reward - they play in the I-AA playoffs, and Lehigh will be sitting at home.

It will take some time, but ultimately I'll get to recapping the season, celebrating the seniors, and maybe even talking about the I-AA playoffs. But for the next few days, it's time to mourn. It just hurts a lot right now.
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