Saturday, September 02, 2006

Albany 17, Lehigh 16, final

I cannot recall a Lehigh game, ever, where special teams gave away the game the way this Lehigh team did today.

Two long snaps sailed over P Jason Leo's head today. One resulted in a safety, the other landed on the Lehigh 1 where the Albany offense gladly punched the ball in for the TD. 8 points off special teams, and you can add the 9 points on FGs to make up the Danes 17 points.

We managed one FG, but blew two others. In addition, a blown extra-point ultimately was the difference in the game. So you can almost add a 9th point to Albany's total, gift-wrapped to them by Lehigh.

Blame the weather all you want, but I didn't see Albany's snappers and kickers have that happen to them.

What's especially sad is that without senior LB Micah Greene's fumble return for a TD on the defense's first play from scrimmage, this game could have been worse. The offense managed one TD on the day, in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. After that, the offense could simply not get it done in the second. They played better, but have an awful lot to work on. For all of coach Coen's work on getting the job done in bad weather and in the end of close games, this script today was sadly familiar. Let a team with less talent hang around, give them a couple breaks, and then try to get it all back with a desperation drive. Again, it wasn't to be.

I was worried about playing Albany. I knew we needed to establish ourselves and we needed to work out lots of kinks. But I didn't predict that Lehigh's special teams would break down. I didn't think our offense could only manage 9 lousy points, even in bad weather. What's especially frustrating is that the two-minute drill at the end of the first half showed a tantalizing look at what the Lehigh offense could be, where Threatt and Thomas made mincemeat of the Albany secondary to get a big TD. After that, we saw glimpses of that drive, but unfortunately only glimpses. In key situations, it was Lehigh/Holy Cross all over again. Fumbles, dropped passes, bad snaps, followed by the opposing team celebrating in the mud - our mud.

Generally I like to credit the opposing team for a job well done. I do give them credit that they were our equals offensively and defensively, though. The offense controlled the ball and the clock, and the Albany defense forced the mistakes. They then played better than us on special teams -- just like Holy Cross last year -- and that was the difference in the game. A NEC team, starting three freshmen returning kicks, was better than Lehigh's special teams.

It doesn't get any easier from here. Villanova of the A-10 looms next week, who is a better team than Albany in just about every way. Although not expected to win the A-10 this year, every A-10 team is pretty tough, and this week Lehigh didn't look like they could beat anybody.

The season is not over. Colgate proved that last year, after surviving an embarassing loss to Central Connecticut State in the first game of the year, they still went on to win the Patriot League and play in the I-AA playoffs. That team, though, went to UMass the following week and made a statement with a 17-14 win. If Lehigh ends up with their first 0-2 start since 1982, though, we won't be thinking titles. We'll be thinking survival.

Tomorrow I'll tell you what I REALLY think.

Albany 17, Lehigh 16, :15 left.

A 48 yd FG attempt

Albany 17, Lehigh 16, 1:30 to play

Nervous... Nervous... We're at least getting the ball back.

Here comes Albany's punt.

Albany 17, Lehigh 16, 4:30 left

Oh boy. Punt out the end zone. This sucks.

We NEED another 3-and-out.

Albany 17, Lehigh 16, mid-4th

We got the 3-and-out. Got the ball at midfield. Time for the offense to play big. 7:44 to play.

Albany 17, Lehigh 16, mid-4th

FG good. Yes, fans, we NEED a good 3-and-out here.

Lehigh 13, Albany 11, end 3rd

Albany, 2nd and goal on 1-foot line... set up by, you guessed it, another ball that went sailing over P Jason Leo's head.

Did I say the special teams need work? Do they ever. A quarter where the defense has just done enough to keep the Danes away from any play that could damage us, Lehigh's offense has stalled at key points, and special teams have killed us. Soph WR Sekou Yansane was called for a "low block" (yeah right), every punt an adventure, while Albany special teams have outplayed us. I repeat: a NEC team has outplayed us on special teams.

Brace yourselves for a nervewracking 4th.

Lehigh 13, Albany 11

A weird-as-all-get-out score at half, as Lehigh narrowly averts a disasterous first half.

Down 11-7 and under two minutes to play, Threatt decided to play pitch-and-catch to senior WR Lee Thomas, who -- basically -- took over on the drive and caught a nice streak down the right side for a big gainer, and got free down the middle for a nice TD.

Under two minutes, Lehigh's offense did not go to sleep - they effeciently went down the field and got the job done. Unfortunately, it was the only time during the game that the offense was effective at all. Seeing 3rd-and-5 over and over in the early going, fumbles and broken plays were happening way too often. But you feel the composure returning at the end of the half.

Defensively, at first Lehigh got the freaky TD by Greene and have for the most part held fast inside the 20, but the bigger Albany line has been pushing the Lehigh "D" line around, especially in the second quarter. The offense's lack of production, though, could be the culprit here.

Special teams need work, no question. Kicks out of bounds, the muffed extra-point (hopefully that won't come back to haunt us), the high snaps, the poor position after the kickoffs - these need to be fixed up.

I must say that I see the rust coming off. I'll be looking for a crisper second half for Lehigh. I sense that it's getting better, not worse.

Lehigh 7, Albany 5, end 1st

Aside from sounding like Lehigh's playing ALbany in baseball, it's been a crazy first half. We are lucky to be ahead with LB Greene's fumble return for a TD to be ahead. On the bright side, we're going to have the wind at our backs in the 2nd quarter and Albany should struggle.

Hard to judge the Lehigh "O" and "D". There are obvious problems holding onto the ball and bad snaps in the rain. "D" has done a fantastic job so far for the most part, and they're why we're up right now.

Looking for some sort of offensive drive. Two hands on the ball, please!

Lehigh 7, Albany 2, early 1st

A strange turn of events. A Threatt fumble, followed by a high snap on the punt, caused P Jason Leo to huck the ball out of the end zone to give up a safety instead of a short drive for a TD. Then, after the free kick to the Lehigh 45, Albany fumbled the ball, and senior LB Micah Greene (a surprise starter) picked up the ball and rumbled for the TD! A great, heady play!

It is WET and it is WINDY. Both absolutely are a big factor out there. We are kicking into the wind in the 1st quarter, but it's going to be a ball-control game today. No better time to test the new ball control offense than today.

Tune in later.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Friday Water-Cooler: Lehigh/Albany

This year, I'm going to change my format a little and call this the "Friday Water Cooler". Let's all get real - Friday before gameday, is anyone really working, attending meetings, or being productive? No, they're around the water cooler, talking about the weekend. At the "Lehigh Football Nation" water cooler, well, the talk is I-AA football predictions and this week's press mash-ups. So, for the first time, here it is.

Did you know?
Lehigh, Lafayette and Colgate are all ranked in the USA Today rankings. It's always been my policy to use these rankings for my picks (since it makes my lookup of the games on Yahoo! that much easier), so it's nice to see Lehigh with a ranking of #25 next to their name. Hopefully AGS and the Sports Network will catch up with the USA Today next week and put Lehigh in their rankings as well.

Can't make it to Goodman?
The game will be on Service Electric 2 in the Lehigh Valley, AM 1230 and 1320, and available on the initenet through Yahoo! Broadcast. On Wednesday the Lehigh game will be played on Fox College Sports Atlantic.

Hopefully the torrential rain will have blown out of Goodman by gametime, but bring hot chocolate, rain tarps, and ponchos tomorrow. (Hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps is an LFN favorite.) It's also "Kid's Day" with lots of activities for the little ones starting at 11:30AM outside of Goodman. Again, hope the weather holds up for that - last year we brought our 1 1/2 year old to Kid's Day and he loved it.

Water Cooler Patriot Picks:
#22 UMass over #21 Colgate: As much as I'd love Biddle and company to give the Patriot respect, like '13 I believe in the Raider first-game jinx in a big way. It just seems like a tall order to be able to contain RB Baylark, QB Coen and company with a completely untested defense, though a monsoon could help the Raiders. Nonetheless, I see UMass exacting revenge for last year. UMass 21, Colgate 14.

Holy Cross over Georgetown: In this "Holy War" between Jesuit schools, who do you take? The school with the new option offense and the solid defense? Or the school with the young, developing offense and the defense with the third defensive coordinator in three years? I've got a hunch the Crusaders will be fired up and win this game. It won't be without a battle, but they will -- just -- get it done. HC 17, G'Town 14.

#20 Lafayette over Sacred Heart: The Leopards have historically started slow in September, and will probably again not look like world beaters, but somewhere in the middle of the 3rd quarter they will get this game done in the rain. Lafayette 26, SHU 10.

Monmouth over Fordham: The trap game of the week is right here. Monmouth saw some good players graduate from last year, but QB Brian Boland is still a Hawk, the same guy that put up 26 points against Lehigh's "D" last year. Has QB Derric Daniels regained the touch, and -- more importantly -- if the Rams get behind, can they win the game? I don't think so. Here's your upset. Momnouth 20, Fordham 14.

Bucknell over Duquesne: Duquesne is a good non-scholarship MAAC team, no doubt about it. But Bucknell has a lot to prove and should be fired up beyond belief after last year's 1-10 debacle. With navy transfer QB Andrew Lair running the show, watch "the team who needs it more" get the "W" - that's the Bison. Bucknell 27, Duquesne 21.

Water Cooler I-AA Picks:

I-A North Carolina State over #1 Appalachian State: I'm pretty much always rooting for I-AA's to beat I-A's, but I think that a game Appalachian State team won't be all that close with a brand-new QB at the helm. NC St. 44, App St. 10.

#3 Furman over Jacksonville State: Last year the Gamecocks proved they belonged with Furman, but this year they are rebuilding, and Furman is still a powerful team. The Paladins roll this time. Furman 28, JSU 10.

#4 Texas State over D-II Tarleton State: Not much to say here except that D-II Delta State put the fear of God in the Bobcats last year. Doubt that it will happen again... could it? Texas St. 49, TTU 0.

#6 Cal Poly over D-II Fort Lewis: Do I really need a pithy comment for this game? Cal Poly 55, Fort Lewis 3.

#8 Richmond over I-A Duke: Yes, I'm taking the trendy I-A upset of the week here. Richmond is a solid team defensively, and Duke's starting offense should not stretch them immensely. This should be a defensive battle where a late FG ices it. Give me the Spiders. Richmond 17, Duke 14.

#10 Hampton over #12 Grambling State: The best I-AA game this week (on ESPN2 no less), this could be the "Black College National Championship" in 2006 if the preseason rankings play out perfectly. Both sides are fighting to replace key elements lost to graduation, and Grambling State is looking to prove themselves, but I think the Pirates are just too tough in a game that will be an intensely hard battle. Hampton 41, GSU 21.

I-A Iowa over #11 Montana: I'd love to see a Griz win, but with star RB Lex Hilliard gone, there's pretty much no shot here. Iowa 56, Montana 13.

I-A Illinois over #15 Eastern Illinois: Take the points. Illinois 28, EIU 27.

I-A Colorado over #17 Montana State: Don't take the points. Colorado 56, MSU 12.

Wofford over #19 South Carolina State: It just seems like every year the Bulldogs come in with high expectations that don't pan out, and always seem to lose to a Coastal Carolina or Wofford to put them out of the Top 25 until November. Looks like a good candidate for an upset. Wofford 20, SC St. 10.

Elon over #23 Coastal Carolina: A nod to Coach Lembo's first game as Elon's head coach, I absolutely think he can win over an overrated Coastal squad. Elon 29, CCU 28.

I-A Kansas State over #24 Illinois State: It'll be pretty close, but I think K-State will find a way to win this. Take the points. KSU 31, ISU 27.

Press Mash-Up
Without a credible writeup from the local Albany newspaper (all I could find is some bozo columnist denigrating his own local team), it's a leaner, meaner press mash-up this week.

Morning Call: Ready To Get It On and Get It Over; Threatt, Lehigh Set Lofty Goals
Easton Express-Times: QB Will Take It From the Top

Albany, returning 17 starters from a 5-6 squad, may not have the depth to stay with Lehigh for 60 minutes, but its frontline players will test the Mountain Hawks and probe for potential weaknesses, especially up front.

"This is a good team and the more I watch them on film I see some neat things," Coen said. "They have a really good quarterback [Daniel Bocanegra] and have a really big offensive line that averages well over 300 pounds.

"We're a little undersized on our defensive line, so I'm sure that's a matchup they feel good about. They may try to pound the ball at us and run some option with their quarterback. And they have a really talented defensive front that will be the biggest challenge for our offense, because we want to be able to establish a running game against some real sturdy guys."

But the real intrigue will be on defense where the 3-4 scheme gets its unveiling under new coordinator David Kotulski, the much traveled, much respected coaching veteran who comes to Lehigh after spending last year at Holy Cross. "He was a key hire for me," Coen said. "I wanted a guy who had a lot of experience, a guy who I knew and who had the type of personality the kids would respond to, and I hit the nail on the head with David.

"I have very little involvement with what goes on over there. I have turned it over to him and I have all the confidence in the world in him, Gerard Wilcher, Donnie Roberts and the rest of the defensive coaches. The kids have been playing very hard and that's what you need to have on defense."

"It will be a challenge to see how our defensive line rushes the quarterback," Coen said. "I'd love to see us be able to rush only three or four guys and get to the quuarterback, because that would put us in the driver's seat. If we can't do that, we have an extensive pressure package that we can use to get after people.

"Even though I'm an offensive guy, I believe the defense has to set the tempo. Every good football team I've ever been on has had the defense set the tone. I want them to be crazed dogs, and have a lot of fun and knock people down."

Senior strong safety Julian Austin, one of the team's three captains, is ready to comply with Coen's wishes. "We're buying into the new 3-4 and love it a lot because it gets more speed on the field,'' said Austin. "The biggest problem was learning the terminology. The concepts are basically the same."

"We're changing the mentality, especially up front," Coen said. "We want the linemen going forward rather than retreating all of the time. We're not going to be in a two-back, two-tight end set for 80 snaps per game, but the kids are buying into the physical approach we want to have, especially at critical times."

"I try not to think about it," said Coen, "but the last few days, as the game's getting closer, the mantle just become a little more apparent. I am the head coach, and we do have a game coming up and there are very high expectations.

"Nobody's expectations are higher for this team than mine."

"Coach Coen is such a competitor," Threatt said. "We want to win the game for Lehigh. Coach Coen is that figurehead of Lehigh football right now. We want it just as much as he wants it... It's very important for us."

"Sedale is obviously a great athlete who will make plays with his feet," Coen said. "But I'm more impressed with how hard he has worked on his overall game, whether it's his drop, his reads, his checks. He takes a lot of pride in all that he does."

"One of the telltale signs is everybody perceives him as a leader," Coen said of his quarterback. "He's kind of infectious with the other kids. They have such confidence in his ability."

"I think the offense is going to go as he goes," said defensive back Julian Austin, who joins Threatt and center John Reese as the captains. "And I wouldn't have it any other way."

"That's why you play the game, that's why you love it," Threatt said. "I started playing Pop Warner football when I was 9 years old and I've always had fun. You can't play the game without having fun. But I will admit when you win, you have more fun."

"I enjoy the spotlight, but that's not why I am here," Threatt said. "I'm here to play football. I understand the media is going to say this and say that, but what matters is right here — sideline-to-sideline, and end zone-to-end zone.

"I've handled pressure all my life. My dad played sports [professional basketball] and my mom played sports [track and basketball] and I was raised around competitors. I got my chance last year and this year I want to open it up. There's really no additional pressure. I set my goals high and so has the team."

"I'm a better quarterback than I was," Threatt said. "I'm better prepared mentally and physically. My team elected me captain and I am honored by that, being only a junior. That alone makes me want to elevate my game.

"We worked hard all spring, all summer. I wanted to work on the total package, fine-tune things. Last year, I was just getting my feet wet. Now, entering a full season, I'm much more confident, much more comfortable. Last year, Lafayette and Colgate were where we want to be [this year]. I want the ring they have."

Sedale, the nickname is just waiting.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Lehigh/Albany Preview

I’m sitting down to write the first Lehigh game preview of the year, and as a Lehigh fan, I keep seeing not necessarily Patriot League championships, but challenges to be overcome.

I suppose could be looking at all the beaming predictions and fawning newsprint talking about the upcoming season. There are lots of excited fans out there for coach Coen and the Lehigh program. Sure, that and the piece on Sedale Threatt is great stuff, but a few days before the season is starting, and I can’t remember when I’ve had so many questions about our football team.

Has there been a Lehigh season in the past twenty years that has seen this much change? A complete, radical overhaul of the offense? A brand-new formation on defense? No dominating defender who has asserted themselves as a defensive leader (as of yet)? TE Pete Morelli becoming a guard? DB Brannan Thomas listed as a WR? Guys going from nowhere on the radar screen to become starters? DT Royce Morgan, arguably one of the linchpins on defense, going from “penciled in at DT” to “we have no idea when he’ll be back”?

I’m not a pessimist about this season at all – I just feel the need to point out the challenges that this season could entail to those fans whom have already anointed Lehigh as Patriot League champs. I’ve heard of optimism before, but this level of expectation from unproven quantities is something I’d expect from Georgia Southern fans, not Lehigh fans.

We’ll know soon enough how the whole story will sort itself out. But I’d be lying if I said that it puts me completely at ease going into this weekend. There’s just an awful lot that just isn’t known about this team yet, and going about proving it starts this weekend.

Injury Report and Weather Report
OL Ben Harden
OL Ben Caffery
WR Brannan Thomas
DB Courtney Elder
DL Paul Bode
DT Royce Morgan (not on roster)

Of course, the biggest surprise was seeing senior Brannan Thomas with a “WR” next to his name instead of a “DB”, though we're pretty set at WR anyway in my humble opinion. DL Paul Bode’s absence will be missed almost as much as Morgan, depriving the “D” line of depth. Filling in at Morgan's sport is sophomore DT Brian Jackson, a Coen favorite from the summer practices, while a couple more sophs in Jon Warren and Keith Johnson will provide the depth at NT and DE. DB Elder will be replaced by the ever-reliable junior DB Ernie Moore.

As for the weather, this Saturday gives us a prediction of rain and thunder in an already-drenched Lehigh Valley. Hopefully it will be nothing like the monsoon from last year’s Holy Cross game. (Actually, let’s hope it’s 75 degrees and sunny, while we’re at it.) Bring your rain gear, and tarps for the tailgates.

A Few Words on Albany
Lehigh last hosted the Great Danes in 2004, and in that preview, I talked a lot about SUNY-Albany being a big party school as posted by the Princeton Review while Lehigh was conspicuously absent. This year, I'm very happy to report that Lehigh recently cruised past Albany in the party-school department. Finally, those Princeton Review folks have finally understood the wonderful benefits of "The Hill" over the hopping Albany bar scene. (Of course, Albany is so boring you'd probably have to drink to get through your time there... but I digress.)With #5 Albany looking up at #3 Lehigh, the Danes will just have to try to party harder next year to attain Lehigh's stature.

Football-wise, Albany has been coached by the same head man since their inception - the legendary Bob Ford, former mentor of many current I-AA coaches including ex-Lehigh head coach Pete Lembo. I like to call him the "old Cat" since has mixed odd formations and trick plays in order to win football games. In 2004, his trick plays kept the opening score deceptively close until Lehigh pulled away in a 44-14 victory.

Albany is in the Northeast Conference or NEC, who has recently become a limited-scholarship conference. What this means is that they will now be allowed to offer up to 30 scholarships on their team starting this year. The NEC has been improving in leaps and bounds, even before offering scholarships. Last year, fellow NEC member Central Connecticut State pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the NEC by upsetting Colgate on their home turf 24-22 on opening day. And Albany didn't just beat Fordham in the last game of 2005 - they absolutely crushed them 41-0. Anyone who thinks that a NEC team is a cakewalk had better revise their thinking. These guys are getting better by leaps and bounds, and a sleepwalking Lehigh team could easily become a victim.

Bob Ford's Albany team plays a multiple-option scheme, which (in layman's terms) is an offense with lots of inside and outside running, misdirections, and trick plays. It will be different than the 2004 version -- there have been scheme changes, and there will be a better, more experienced staff running it this year.

Sophomore QB -- or should I say athlete -- Daniel Bocanegra was the revelation of the Fordham game last year. A "jack of all trades that features in multiple phases of the game", he's not just a runner - he also has good speed and can throw the ball surprisingly effectively as well. Forcing him in the pocket to me is extremely important.

Along with Bocanegra (who could be considered a running back too in his own right), the RB tandem of senior Marcus Allen and junior Omar Johnson should be the feature of this offense. As much as we fear backs named "Omar" (see: Delaware RB Omar Cuff's game against us last year), Johnson appears to be more the "bruiser" while Allen and Bocanegra do more of the outside running. Allen is a bit of a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, as is junior FB Dan Biegel. Biegel mostly blocks, but sometimes can surprise you.

They will be running behind a BIG offensive line - one that could be the biggest line we face all year (yes, Virginia, even bigger than Villanova's line). Boasting three 300 pounders, the Danes truly have bookend tackles in two 300 lb seniors: T Jacob Hobbs and T Jacob Anderson. This line is what truly scares me, especially against a completely unproven 3-4 defense with our best "D" linemen out. Just in case you didn't understand, I'll repeat, I'm very scared of this line. This is not a line I think our guys can push around.

In the spread sets that Albany has, a wide variety of receivers are their targets. Their best receiver is junior Mike Wall, but fortunately for us is fairly inexperienced.

The Albany defense varies their sets with a 3-5-3 or 3-4. Their strength is their linebacking unit, led by the preseason mid-major player of the year. They are agressive, but this hopefully can be exploited.

Senior DE Andre Coleman is the leader of the Albany "D" line, and at 290 lbs should be the biggest "D" lineman on the field on Saturday. Matter of fact the entire Albany line outweighs ours quite significantly. Yet even so the Dane's line is not the strength of the team.

It's the linebacking unit, led by junior LB Colin Disch, is the strength of the team. Coming off a 100 tackle year last year, Disch leads a defense that was among the leaders in rushing defense last year - and whose front seven (or eight) are all returning from last year's team. This is no "mid-major" defense, and I'd be as surprised as anybody if Lehigh will be able to run right at them.

The secondary boasts experience with three seniors, but one key face that returns is senior CB Ryan Chrobak who is a very solid defender with five career picks. It will be interesting to see how our guys handle them.

Special Teams
The placekicking and punting teams of Albany are quite ordinary, though experienced. Junior PK Jason Fralicker was a very ordiary 8 for 16 in FGs last year, and sophomore P Chris Lynch's 33.8 punting average is OK at best. A slew of unproven freshmen and redshirt freshmen will have the punt and kickoff return duties.

Keys To The Game
1. Play 50 lbs bigger. Did I mention enough that these "O" and "D" lines scare me? The trench guys won't have much time to work out the kinks especially if they come in here expecting to coast to a "W". The lines will have to work extra-hard to battle bigger linemen and win these battles in the trenches. If we do that, then this game will be no problem. If we don't...
2. Speed and variance to the outside. There's a reason that senior RB Marques Thompson had a career day in 2004 against the Danes - his forte, the "screen pass to the outside", is a great way to bait overagressive LBs and get big yardage. That and soft passes over the zone could be a good source of production on offense.
3.Eight in the Box? It's no secret that Albany's strength is with their running game, but it's debatable whether you want to force them inside or outside. Perhaps bottling up the middle and shutting down the interior run is the best choice, stretching the Danes on the outside all game.
4."The Total Package" I so want to give Sedale the nickname "The Total Package", and he's come very close to earning it, though it was hard last year with Mark Borda's team. This year, against Albany, it's his team, and coming out with a huge impact game will be a big part of earning his nickname.

Fearless Prediction
The first game of the season is all about getting the kinks out, and this year there are more kinks than in any season than I can remember. I will be looking to see if Sedale can run the offense crisply. I will see if these different "O" and "D" lines can really smash a team that is bigger than them in the front seven. I will see if the 3-4 can shut down Albany's defense more effectively than the old 4-3. I will see if we can run the ball against an effective run defense.

You know what this spells? A close, low-scoring affair. I really hope I couldn't be more wrong, but I think that this game will be much more of a challenge than people think.

Lehigh 24, Albany 14
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