Saturday, September 06, 2008

Lehigh 19, Drake 0, Final

Coach Coen finally got his season-opening win. In a game that featured torrential rain and Lehigh's brand-new grass and drainage system almost as much as Lehigh's stifling defense, the Mountain Hawks scored 13 early points and didn't look back in cruising to a 19-0 victory. (My photo album will hopefully be up sometime in the next couple of days.)

With so much talk in the offseason about quarterbacks, how's this for a debut: sophomore QB J.B. Clark's first two pass attempts as a starting QB were completions for touchdowns. His stat sheet was modest, but efficient - 9-for-12 for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns. One of those was a beautiful streak by senior WR Sekou "Stunt Man" Yansane down the right side of the field where he "beat his man like a rented mule" as another famous Pennsylvania sports announcer once uttered.

Senior RB Matt McGowan erased any lingering doubts about his injuries from last year after posting his best-ever day rushing in a Mountain Hawk uniform. His 39 rushes for 172 yards were 60% of the offensive Lehigh plays for the Mountain Hawks on the afternoon, and McGowan played his style of running. "I'm not going to try to run around you - I'm going to try to run you over first," he said, and on many of his runs he basically did just that. "We had seven guys trying to block nine or ten guys [in the second half]," coach Coen said. "[Even so,] I thought Matt a couple times was going to turn one of those 10 or 12 yard runs into 60 yarders."

Defensively, Lehigh had an outstanding day disrupting Drake's offensive system. The Mountain Hawk "D" held the Bulldogs to only 7 yards rushing, forced the duo of quarterbacks to go 12-32 for 118 yards and 2 interceptions while also pouncing on a fumble (although he wasn't given credit for it, from my angle on the field it looked like senior LB Tim Diamond forced the fumble from Drake QB Cole Ingle). Statistically, senior DL Brian Jackson had the best day with 7 tackles, at 1 tackle for loss.

Special teams had their troubles at times with the conditions, but one player that did impress on special teams (and defense) is junior LB Troy Taylor with two nice tackles on kickoffs and an absolute bone-crusher hit on a busted running play in the second quarter.

All that, and Lehigh shut out another opponent at Goodman Stadium: their first shutout at Goodman since last year (a 45-0 defeat of Georgetown) and their first shutout of an opponent at Goodman not named Georgetown since 1998 (when Lehigh shut out Wofford 26-0). What's not to like about the defensive effort?

It's great to get a "W" this early. Having said that, it's difficult to see what we've learned about this Lehigh team at this point in time with this victory. Drake, part of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, is on their third head coach in three years and had what looked to be a pretty thin travel team on the other sideline from Des Moines, Iowa. The Bulldogs played their guts out - coach Coen said Drake "played very, very physical" and gave them lots of credit in the postgame press conference - and did hold us without a touchdown after the 1st quarter of the game. On special teams, there were (predictably) mistakes that needed correction.

The old saying is that teams see the most improvement from Week One to Week Two, and Lehigh will need to show that improvement next week if they hope to have a chance to knock down nationally-ranked Villanova.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Patriot League Offseason 2008: Lehigh

We're on the eve of the season, and even an impending storm isn't putting out my enthusiasm about tomorrow. To kick off the season, I'm hoping to post two more items: first, the conclusion of my yearly review of the Patriot League offseason with Lehigh, and second, my media day interview with coach Coen.

Lehigh's athletics website released a video clip of the Copperhead Grille luncheon, and it's incredibly cool.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot: Lehigh also has an official iTunes store where they put audio shows and clips from Lehigh athletics last year - they were a treasure trove last year. As of this afternoon there was only one show on there: the weekend preview for this weekend (9/4). Happily, on that podcast is a good, long preview about the Lehigh football season and the upcoming Drake game.

LEHIGH
Coaching Changes: Much of the same staff from last year's squad remain, with a few changes: defensive line coach Donnie Roberts was elevated to assistant coach, running backs coach Mike Kapusta left for private business, and coach Coen hired two new faces: new running backs coach Scott Brisson (from Franklin & Marshall) and new outside linebackers coach Matt Sanders (a player and graduate student assistant at Louisville). Another key development is the revamping of the strength and conditioning program on South Mountain, which affects all sports.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: There are not one, but two: and it's not who you think. C John Reese and OL Jimmy Kehs were two big guys you could just pencil in on the "O" line and both who got multiple all-Patriot League accolades during their time on South Mountain. Lehigh will have different big bodies to anchor the "O" line in 2008, but it won't be easy to replace these multiple letter-winners.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: With an offseason of uncertainty at quarterback, QB Chris Lum generated a lot of buzz, making fans wonder if he is the next coming of Phil Stambaugh. A star at Lake Orion high school in Michigan his junior year, he ripped their league apart (64.2 completion percentage, 1,902 yards passing, 28 TDs), folks wonder if maybe Lum might get into the starting mix sooner rather than later.

Incoming Class Grade: A-. I know, I know. Take this with a grain of salt since I'm a Lehigh fan. But if the two receivers coming to the program are indeed the playmakers they appear to be, this class once again grades out exceptionally well (I think) by any yardstick. Five big "O" linemen, four defensive backs - and best of all, only one is below 6'! Maybe this class could have used a pure fullback to replace senior FB Adam Watson when the time comes, but if depth at fullback is the biggest concern that's got to be a good class.

Spring Game: For those of us who thought that the offensive woes would be gone with a new quarterback in the spring, we were dead wrong. The defense (Brown) showed exactly how much further along they were in a 52-24 victory over the offense (White). Worringly for Lehigh, neither quarterback, junior QB Chris Bokosky (9-16, 65 yards) and sophomore QB J. B. Clark (5-16, 80 yards) established themselves. On defense, however, junior LB Al Pierce sure did - he had two interceptions, including one he returned 80 yards for a TD.

Preseason So Far: Quarterback battles can be contentious, with a lot of bruised egos and ill will. But the battle was civil and appeared to be very good to help develop this offense in this preseason, where sophomore QB J. B. Clark was the ultimate winner in the QB sweepstakes. For what it's worth, there appeared to be a real culture of quiet, hard work this offseason - this team appeared to be quite humbled by what happened last year, and it's clear that they've been working hard and getting stronger to try to recify that this year.

One thing they did rectify from last year to this year: the number of injuries were significantly less than last year, where Lehigh saw most of their top receivers go down to injury, as well as senior RB Matt McGowan.

Fan Base: When Lehigh was having the best of times, Lehigh football fans were actually not as insufferable as they've become now (well, maybe not to Lafayette fans). Yet Lehigh fans are still stuck in the past - specifically, November 19th, 2005.

At that time, Lehigh was coached by Pete Lembo, who inherited the Mountain Hawk football program from "Saint" Kevin Higgins in early 2001, who left a team that expected to beat Lafayette every year, beat teams from the A-10 (now the CAA) every year, and maybe even win a national championship. Coach Higgins could do no wrong, and when he left for the NFL's Detroit Lions in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, nobody begrudged him his decision.

Promoted from within was head coach Pete Lembo. During his coaching tenure, Lembo, too, had a lot of success at Lehigh. He won the Eddie Robinson award as coach of the year in 2001, and the Mountain Hawks - for the first time since 1980 - had the opportunity to host not one, but two, home playoff games. He amassed an incredible 44-14 record as Mountain Hawk head coach - and beat Hofstra, 27-24, in a playoff game at Goodman I will never forget.

But for all his incredible success on South Mountain, he never was loved by a significant portion of fans at Lehigh. Why? To this day it's difficult to say Was it personality? Aloofness? That he wasn't the biggest rah-rah guy? It certainly wasn't due to performance on the field. It might have been because Lehigh was quietly starting to lose to Lafayette - which, by the way, had risen from the ashes and become a very good program. This wasn't your mama's Leopards.

On November 19th 2005, with under a minute to play, Lehigh was facing off against Lafayette at home. Backup Lafayette QB Pat Davis was drilled on 4th down. The ball went up.. up.. and floated into the hands of RB Jonathan Hurt to send Lehigh to defeat. That catch denied Lehigh a conference title and another trip to the playoffs - and a short month later, coach Lembo would be the head coach at Elon University.

Three years later, Lehigh fans are still getting into virtual fistfights about Lembo's legacy. We loved Lembo! battles with We hated Lembo! It hasn't helped that Lehigh has had two subpar seasons in a row, either, meaning Lehigh fans are doing even more bickering and fingerpointing. It's dominated the conversations the past two years. Did fans drive him to Elon? Did we, the fans, subconsciously want Coen - and we got him - and we haven't been back to the playoffs? Is it our fault?

Worse, while you'd think this might make Lehigh fans a bit more agreeable while talking to their fellow leaguemates, it hasn't. If anything, it's made us more arrogant than ever.

Overall Offseason: This team certainly feels different than the one from the past two years. There's less talk, and by all accounts focus during the preseason has been great and has brought the team together. However, part of this is because there feels like there's less expectations of winning - Lehigh, after all, was picked to finish fifth in the league this year at Patriot League Media Day. There's real, genuine hope this year that things will be better this year. I feel it too.

The fans, however, need to get over the drama from '05. What's done is done. Lembo is doing well at Elon - argue about his legacy if you must, but wish him well. This year, coach Andy Coen - with a team that is completely his, now - will do well at Lehigh. I feel it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Preview of Drake vs. Lehigh


Change of plans. I decided it would be cruel to start a preview and, well, not finish it. So I decided to finish that first before finishing up the Patriot League offseason with Lehigh.

Normally, I'll put the Press Links on Friday, but I'll put them after my prediction this week so tomorrow will be dedicated to my "Patriot League Offseason" special on Lehigh.

Weather Update
It's looking more and more like it's going to be a wet home opener. Yahoo! Weather right now reports it like this: "
Rain showers early with a wind driven heavy rain developing later in the day. Chance of rain 80%." Looks like Goodman's new turf and drainage system will be tested right off the bat.

Breaking Down Drake
Offense
Only four starters return from last year's offense from a team that went 6-5. Head coach Chris Creighton has instituted a multiple spread offense in place that the Bulldogs are still trying to click into, but he has two important veteran players to lean on. He'll aim for a variety of passing targets to make his offense go.

Senior QB Cole Ingle will be the triggerman, a nearly pure dropback passer who tossed for 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. While he has experience, his role in the offense has changed: before, he was a passer that was a second option compared to the run. This year, he will be expected to be the focal point for opposing defenses. Against D-II Upper Iowa, he had a good day: 18-for-31 passing for 149 yards and a TD.

The rushing game saw the departure of four-year starter RB Scott Phaydavong to graduation. The Bulldogs will line up a slew of different running backs and use them extensively as rushing and receiving threats out of the backfield. Last week, sophomore RB Michael Lahart seemed to be the one to grind the rushing yards - he had 58 yards rushing last week. Junior RB Steve Platek is a receiving threat out of the backfield (2 receptions for 29 yards last week) as is junior RB Gus Olofsson (2 receptions, 25 yards).

His big receiving targets will be two 6'2 seniors: senior WR Zach Brower (5 receptions, 25 yards, 1 TD) and senior WR Spencer Cady (4 receptions, 47 yards). Brower seems to be the possession guy, while Cady is the guy that will stretch the defense.

The "O" line, who is led by senior C Quinn McVey, is larger than you might think, averaging 6'4 and 281 across the main line. The tight end spot, manned by senior TE Travis Klatt, appears to be primary blocker as well.

Defense
Drake is implementing a new 4-2-5 defensive scheme, what I like to call a "big nickel" scheme that (happily) is similar to the defense Villanova has liked to play in the past. The fifth defensive back is called a "rover" and slides seamlessly between the defensive backfield and the linebackers area, and is generally a hard-hitter, half free safety, half linebacker.

The Bulldog "D" line is small compared to Patriot League standards, and it doesn't boast a lot of experience. Junior DE Josh Walkup, a converted LB at 6'1, 235, had a solid day last week with 4 tackles, 1/2 a sack and a forced fumble.

At linebacker, last week's star was senior LB Cale Hunt with 13 tackles and 1/2 a sack. When healthy, he's a star: against Illinois State last year he had 10 tackles and an interception return for a touchdown. Tellingly, when he was lost for the season with a broken hand, Drake struggled the rest of the way.

The star on the defense is definitely senior S Andy Green, an all-American and the hero that saved the season-opening win for Drake last week with his last-second interception. Tall and fast, you don't want to test him too often.

Special Teams
Senior K Logan Rees takes up placekicking duties for the Bulldogs. In 2007 he converted 9 of 12 field goals, and he has quite a leg too: he converted 40 and 45 yard field goals and also converted 11 touchbacks on kickoffs. Senior P Brandon Wubs, on the other hand, struggled in 2007: he only had a 33.8 punting average.

Senior WR Zach Brower handles kickoff returns and punt returns, while sophomore DB Richard Courtney joins him on kickoffs. Courtney (2 returns, 31 yards) did slightly better than Brower (4 returns, 32 yards) last week in returns.

Keys To The Game
1. Relax. It's the first game of the year. It counts, but if mistakes do happen, put it behind you and work hard for the next play.
2. Establishing that running game.With possible bad weather, we'll need to count on our "O" line to dominate Drake's smallish defensive front. It may be the sort of day when we'll need to run it an awful lot, so establishing this to get everything else set up will be critical.
3. Spy those running backs. Drake spreads the field and uses a lot of backs, so it will be important for teh linebacking crew to shut down that part of the Drake offense. If the backs can't get anything going - rushing or receiving - Ingle could be a sitting duck for pressure.

Fearless Prediction
It's a new season. A new quarterback, a new offense, and some new, young faces all along this team. And I like how these guys have sounded - in the preseason. Keith Groller of the Morning Call called it "quiet confidence", and I agree with him.

In other years, the threat of rain would have been a problem for Lehigh grounding the powerful Mountain Hawk passing attack. This year? I think the rain might work to our advantage in establishing the running game. The rain might slow down a Drake passing attack and give our defense a chance to show the world what it can be.

Lehigh also needs to bring along a young starting QB, and nurture wht is basically a brand-new offense from last year. But most importantly, Lehigh has to make a statement that they are better than the fifth-place team in the Patriot League. I think they do, and give coach Coen his first-ever win in a Lehigh home opener.

Lehigh 37, Drake 6

Press Links
Morning Call: Lehigh wants to avoid stormy start

''In their first game, [Drake] threw the ball a lot more than they ran it [31 passes to 25 carries] and when [Creighton] was at Wabash, they had a 60-40, pass-to-run ratio,'' Coen said. ''They have an experienced quarterback, Cole Ingle, and they'll look to spread the field and throw it.''

''I'm sure J.B. is going to be very excited and probably a little nervous,'' Coen said. ''Quarterback is the hardest position in all of sports, especially in this era when you do so many different things defensively and give the quarterback so many different looks. There are going to be some mistakes, but it's going to be important for us to keep him from feeling he has to win the game by himself.''
Groller's Corner: Five Things To Take From Lehigh's Football Luncheon

Other than injuries to fullback Adam Watson and a season-ending shoulder injury to huge defensive tackle Phil Winnett, the Mountain Hawks are much healthier starting this season than they were a year ago. At the same time, they are still relying on more sophomores and more inexperienced players than at any time I can remember and this is my eighth season covering the team.
Easton Express-Times: Michael Lore Talks With Coach Coen (audio)

"For the first game, the biggest thing for us is to take care of ourselves. We have to execute what we're doing, we have to react, adjust on the fly in the first football game.

"I think it's always an advantage to have a game under your belt. You make a lot of mistakes in any first game. Those things tend to get corrected in your second game."
Brown & White: Football Team To Take On Bulldogs In Opener

"Every year really is a new year so you always have to adjust too many things. We have had the best off season in three years," Coen said. "Our kids were dedicated and did a very good job in the weight room and with our summer program."

Senior receiver Nick Johnson said Lehigh's offense will need to avoid season opening jitters and perform against a physical Drake defense. "During the off-season and preseason camp, our coaches have really stressed execution and consistency with making plays," Johnson said. "Drake will already have played a game and gotten a chance to get their first game jitters and mistakes out of the way. But we're preparing and working hard to be ready on Saturday to come out and execute with consistency right from kick-off."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Peek at Drake

We are a mere 3 days away from Lehigh's season opener versus Drake. This year, I'm planning to do the following: I'm going to break my game previews in two parts thi year: part one, on Wednesday, will involve taking out first look - our "peek" at Drake, if you will. On Fridays I'll get down to the nitty-gritty: listening to the weekly press conference (which is carried by Lehighsports.com, incidentally), looking at our opposition position-by-position - and delivering my prediction for this game and the Patriot League, too.

Oh yeah - if you're active on Facebook, you may want to enlist as a fan on Lehigh Football Nation's page on Facebook. It's neat because it has a messageboard (today's topic: the Drake game), it lets you know when the blog has been updated with new material... and it allows you to connect with other fans, too.

Let's get right to it.

(Photo Credit: Drake Athletics)

Coach Coen has has two season openers in his two seasons at Lehigh. In both years, he has lost the home opener: losing 17-16 in a rainstorm to Albany in 2006, and getting outlasted 30-20 by Villanova in 2007. In this important year for coach Coen, it feels like the Mountain Hawks - more than in other years - need to get started this year with a "W". A convincing win would be even better.

It's going to be a game of firsts for Lehigh. Our first look at the brand-new turf that was laid down at Murray Goodman stadium in the offseason. The first look at the new Rust Pavillion. The first 12:30 p.m. gametime in Spetember (before game times in September were generally at 1:00 p.m.). Our first look at sophomore QB J.B. Clark and his first game as a starter, as well as the debuts of junior FB Anthony Fossati, junior LB Al Pierce and sophomore CB John "Fear Itself" Kennedy. It's out first peek at an "Andy Coen offense", without the shadow of QB Sedale Threatt (and, by extension, former head coach Pete Lembo) hanging over it. It's also our first look at what could be a very good defense in 2008 - or at least that's what Mountain Hawk fans hope.

Last year, Lehigh suffered through more firsts they would rather forget about. Their first losing season since 1997. Their first losing record in the Patriot League since 1997. The first class to have a losing record at Murray Goodman statium since 1997. The first class to graduate from Lehigh going winless against "that school in Easton" since 1949.

With a game of "firsts", and especially with a first-time quarterback, there's bound to be first-game mistakes. But too many of them can kill you, and that's exactly what Lehigh cannot afford in their opener. Just ask Illinois State of the Missouri Valley Football Conference (nee Gateway) - who lost to (you guessed it) Drake last year 27-24.

Game Notes
Lehigh's game notes show Lehigh's two deep, and it's got a few surprises.

The first surprise: junior FB Anthony Fossati starting for senior FB Adam Watson at fullback with sophomore TE Andrew Wojdoski backling him up. Watson appears to be injured (more details as I get them). Fossati and Watson are the only two fullbacks on the roster: however, I'm not that concerned since Fossati has been a workout warrior in the offseason and is one of the strongest players on the team.

The next suprise is an "O" line full of sophomores: sophomore OL Ricky Clerge, sophomore OL William Rackley, and sophomore C Keith Schauder on the depth chart. Add to this freshman C Jim Liebler backing up at center, and that's a lot of youth to go with senior OL Kevin Bayani and senior OL Chris Tiefenthal starting on the line.

The final surprise is the presence of sophomore WR Craig Zurn on the depth chart at wideout. He impressed coach Coen in the preseason, and as promised he'll get a chance to show some stuff on opening day.

Drake had some game notes posted at this link.

Weather Report
The weather report - as it stands right now - calls for wind and rain with highs in the mid-70s. The remnants of Hurricane Hanna are the reason for the dour forecast - which gives Lehigh fans a bitter reminder of the wet 17-16 loss to Albany two years ago. However, all is not lost: the forecast is changing daily - and imporving. Let's hope Hanna waits to douse the Valley with rain until Sunday, shall we?

The Opening Peek at Drake
Drake comes from the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, or PFL for short. Some folks seem to think that "non-scholarship" means "no good". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Drake (founded in 1881: enrollment 3,164 undergraduates) is a private school based in Des Moines, Iowa. It is home to one of the top law schools in the country. They are a member of the extremely powerful Missouri Valley Conference in basketball, and won an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament last year. They also host one of the preeminent track events in the nation: the Drake Relays, which have been a part of April in Des Moines since 1910.

As you might imagine, Drake attracts speed - track stars of course. However, athletes that might get a scholarship for track are also permitted to walk-on to the non-scholarship football team - which is fully within the rules. For example, last year's hero for the Bulldogs against Illinois State, wide receiver Augustine Ageyi from Aurora, Colorado, also ran hurdles for Drake’s track team. (Ageyi is no longer with the football team, however.)

Drake is coached by first-year head coach Chris Creighton, who is the Bulldogs' third coach in three seasons. No, it's not what you think: in 2006, coach Rob Ash got hired by Montana State out of the Big Sky to clean up the mess in that program, and in 2007 Steve Loney was designated the interim coach since the Ash hiring was so late in the year. Still, that much disruption can't have been good for Drake.

Last Time Out for Drake
Drake has one game under their belt: the Bulldogs held on for a 17-13 win versus Upper Iowa (D-II). They struggled in the first 20 minutes of the game: they only had two first downs in the first 20 minutes, and only amassed 218 total offensive yards in the game. In both Drake touchdowns, turnovers were the key: an interception by junior CB Tim Harvey set up a two play scoring drive, and the the second touchdown came on a fumble return by junior DT Andrew Asbell. Senior QB Cole Ingle went 18-for-31 for 149 yards passing, 1 TD, and 1 interception.

Fan Base
Copycats? Or simply an imitator? You decide... but Drake Nation has the latest talk about their game against Upper Iowa, and color them unimpressed.

LFN's Drink of the Week
It's not exactly politically correct to have this on the blog, but what the heck: I don't care. In honor of the new Rust Pavillion, why not partake in a "Rusty Nail"? Over ice, pour 1 1/2 oz. Scotch and then pour 1/2 oz. Drambuie (a liqueur from France). Always pour the Drambuie last to allow it to mix with the lighter Scotch.

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in tailgates, but please drink responsibly and please be of legal drinking age.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Patriot League Offseason 2008: Lafayette

I'm not feeling well today. Is is because I know I have to do a preview of "that school in Easton"'s offseason today? Or am I just taking advantage of my ill-feeling to review the Leopards today? You'll have to decide as I continue with the sixth of seven Patriot League previews today.

LAFAYETTE
Coaching Changes: With the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Faragalli to take those same duties at Richmond of the CAA, the Leopard coaching staff was shuffled a little bit this offseason. Unfortunately for Lehigh fans, assistant coach Bob Heffner simply slides into the role of offensive coordinator where he will start his eighth consecutive year on Lafayette's coaching staff. The Leopards did hire a new quarterbacks coach (Mickey Fein, out of Murray State of the OVC) and switched the responsibilities of Phil Hallahan (now runningback coach) and Joe Dougherty (wide receivers).

The Hardest Guy To Replace: It’s definitely the guy with the mohawk. As a Lehigh fan, the Leopard I'm the happiest to no longer see suited up is DT Kyle Sprenkle, a lineman who simply was a terror to contain, especially in the big games: (read: in "The Rivalry"). Last year, the big mobile "D" lineman amassed 59 tackles, 6 1/2 tackles for loss, and 5 QB hurries.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: Tavani himself appeared to have a favorite that he was talking about right after signing day: 5'11, 200 lb LB Corey Watts. “The Watts kid is just an unbelievable player; it’s great for us to have a Big 33 selection,” Tavani told the Express-Times. “I think the linebacker group is a real impressive group, maybe the most impressive as a group in a while.” As for Watts, major colleges appear to sniffing around this North Allegenhy star (Pitt, West Virginia, Penn State) and was a first-team defensive selection in the "Northern Five" All-Conference team last year.

Incoming Class Grade: B. In the Patriot League and the FCS in general, part of the idea is to get great incoming talent that perhaps might be Penn State or West Virginia players if they had just one or two more inches of height. But ten of twenty-eight recruits clocking in under 6 feet tall? Isn't that, well, a bit much? Importantly, though, the Leopards got what they needed on their "O" linemen (4) and "D" linemen (6) in spades in terms of size. On defense, it looks like Lafayette will always get what they need. But did they get the parts of the offense they need as well?

Spring Game: The spring scrimmage wasn't really notable for its 28-22 score so much as who was actually playing in the game. Junior RB Maurice White (who technically is a senior, but is planning to apply for a 5th year of eligibility) didn't play, nor did senior LB Andy Romans and a host of other starters. Potential starters that did play, however, were senior CB Marvin Clecidor who had a good day on defense, and sophomore WR Nathan Padia, the receiver from Kansas who looks like he's really rising through the ranks.

Preseason So Far: Some very interesting tidbits have been trickling out of preseason camp this year - most notably the introduction of the 40-second play clock and its potential effect on the Leopards grind-it-out, ball control offense. At Lafayette Media Day there was talk of "streamlining the playbook" - a curious statement keeping in mind the presence of Heffner as the new offensive coordinator (is he "cleaning out" the plays of the former coordinator?) and/or the supposed lock that junior QB Rob Curley has on the starting job - if he's executing it so well, why "streamline"? Add to this intrigue an injury to junior RB Matt Ferber that might keep him out for the Marist game and beyond, and you have a very intriguing offseason - to a Lehigh fan, that is.

Finally, coach Frank Tavani always seems to have something up his sleeve to keep his Leopards focused on the prize. This year, it's countdown clocks that point the hours/days/minutes/seconds to their next opponent... and to "The Rivalry" with Lehigh.

Fan Base: The Leopard base is happy. Sure, they still couldn't beat Ivy League teams on a regular basis if their lives depended on it. Sure, they've reverted to not being able to beat Colgate (and now Fordham) in big spots. But coach Tavani, the Leopards and their fans know what's really important: beating Lehigh in "The Rivalry", and with four straight wins, they are fat cats, and they know it.

Lafayette fans and Lehigh fans are similar, to be sure, yet fans of the Evil Ones differ from the side that Roots For All That Is Good And Pure in two key respects: One, the Evil Ones root for, well, the Leopards. Two, "The Rivalry" defines Lafayette fans much more than it does Lehigh fans.

When Lehigh was pounding the living tar out of Lafayette on a regular basis in the late 1990s, it was coupled with interesting runs in the FCS playoffs. Lehigh fans loved beating Lafayette, of course, but they also had an eye on the World too: beating a Delaware, say, or a Western Illinois or a Hofstra - maybe even making it all the way to Chattanooga. Many of those years, Lehigh fans saw Lafayette as an annoying stepping stone to the real games: the playoffs.

This stretch defined - ironically - Lafayette fans. Seeing Lehigh fans sample from the Bacchinalian buffet of FCS football made Leopard fans seethe with rage, and when Lafayette finally reversed a series of seven straight losses to Lehigh in 2002 it didn't matter that the Leopards didn't get to the playoffs: they simply wanted to deny Lehigh a taste of victory in everything else they had done: a Patriot League title and a potential spot in the playoffs that year. Pandemomium ensued. The spell had been broken.

Now the tables have turned. Lafayette fans have throttled Lehigh in four straight contests, but the Leopards didn't have the same success in the playoffs that Lehigh did. Sure, they played a bunch of close games against the best the CAA had to offer. But it wasn't the same. Lafayette never really had those expectations of FCS titles, and strangely, they still don't seem to be there.

Lafayette fans still seem to be defined by one game in November. Not games versus the Ivy League, not important league games versus Fordham and Colgate. And that appears to be completely OK with them.

I probably would be too if Lehigh had won four straight.

Overall Offseason: The team appears to be a hard-working bunch that is extremely focused on the season ahead. On defense, the Leopards seem completely ready and as ferocious as ever. It's on offense that there appears to still be some major questions - and the questions, it appears, will be continuing up until Marist and beyond. Will the 40 second clock disrupt the flow of the Leopard defense? Will the RBs stay healthy this season? What will the effect of Faragalli's departure have on the offense? Either way, expect Leopard fans to be OK - as long as they beat Lehigh in November.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday's Word: Canary

It's that time of year again. Although Lehigh isn't playing this week, every week during the season I always end the week with "Sunday's Word", one of my favorite parts of doing this blog. This week's word is "Canary".

When people think of a "Canary", they think of the color yellow, birds or maybe about mobsters turning state's evidence. But I'm thinking of it in terms of a "Canary" in the coal mine - the miners who brought canaries down with them into the caves to test for oxygen. If the canaries died, it was time to exit fast.

It seems to apply in a bunch of areas this weekend.

A lot of hopes of FCS teams died this weekend with some really big blowout games with the best teams in FBS. Appalachian State - the team who, let's get real, put FCS on the map for most of the college football world -- played LSU, the first game on Saturday due to the looming evacuation of much of Louisiana later that evening. The Mountaineers started the game, actually, with a pretty good drive - moving the ball effectively before turning the ball over on downs.

Then the guys with the "Canary"-colored helmets stomped on the throats of Appalachian State. Two plays. The first, a hole through the Mountaineers' line that I could have taken for five yards but LSU RB Charles Scott took for 56. The next play, Scott is in the end zone. Game over - the rest of the game was a formality. (For the record, LSU would romp 41-13.)

FBS teams took out most FCS teams with surprising ease. Georgia smacked Georgia Southern 45-21. Jacksonville State started former LSU QB Ryan Perriloux, but it didn't matter against Georgia Tech - the Yellowjackets romped 41-13. Eastern Washington ultimately was spanked by Texas Tech 49-21. Northern Iowa got hammered by BYU 41-17. The Maine jut flat-out got sunk 46-3. Even Duke - Duke, for God's sakes! - won with shocking ease over James Madison 31-7.

(Hard to see what Lehigh might have learned about Villanova in their game: they got throttled by #8 ranked West Virginia 48-21. )

Goliath never looked better than it did on Saturday. And "Canaries" were dying on FBS fields all day, most times early in the game. Not only that, it was against the best teams in FCS, too. Twelve of the Top 25 teams fell to FBS teams; most over early, most ending in romps.

As FCS fans, haven't we been fooling ourselves? Thinking that James Madison might just be Georgia with a few fewer scholarships? Let's get real: Appalachian State's win last year over Michigan was one for the ages because they simply don't happen very often. Let's get real. A focused Texas Tech can cream out National Champion every year. Let's not pretend that it's any more than that.

The FBS payday bonanza, of course, has been completely absent for Patriot League teams. The reason for this is the fact that in order for a FBS win over an FCS team to count for bowl eligibility, a school needs to offer the equivalent of 56 1/2 scholarships over a span of two years to qualify - and currently, no Patriot League team fits this criteria.

Most of the Patriot League was off this week. However Colgate was not - they faced the Seawolves of Stony Brook in their opener at Kenneth LaValle stadium.

Not all that long ago, Stony Brook just moved into Division I athletics in 2000. In 2005, in their first year eligible for the FCS playoffs, they left the NEC and jumped (starting this year) to the Big South conference. Clearly a marriage of convenience, this transition period as an independent has allowed them to get to the maximum 63 scholarships allowed by FCS this year.

And what's the result of this? Stony Brook 42, Colgate 26 in Week One.

I can hear people now. It's just one game. Colgate's star, senior RB Jordan Scott, wasn't playing. Senior QB Alex Relph got hurt early. Scholarships didn't win the game for Stony Brook, they were simply a better team on this day.

But the impact of this loss cannot be overestimated. Just last year, Stony Brook struggled to put away 1-10 Georgetown. Stony Brook is better than they were recently, but let's not sugarcoat this: it wasn't just a loss, it was a beatdown. This game was 42-6 and had Colgate fans beating their heads on their keyboards through three quarters. The Seawolves put up 444 yards of total offense on the Raiders. Stony Brook scored four straight touchdowns on their first four possessions. Like the "Canaries" from LSU, it was "game over" from minute one.

And this is Colgate! The Raiders, the dark horse pick for the Patriot League title! Colgate, that a few years ago was in the championship game in Chattanooga! With an offensive line that is supposed to make Jordan Scott break rushing records!

Is this loss a "canary" for the rest of the Patriot League season? Have we, in clinging to the old financial aid formulas, lost competitiveness with the rest of FCS? I sure hope not. But the Stony Brook loss by Colgate has made me pause.
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