Saturday, November 08, 2008

Lehigh 33, Colgate 34, final

In a season with excruciating losses, it was certainly fitting that Lehigh would have the ball under two minutes to go with yet another chance to win a game just to fall short.

Yet just like the other four excruciating close losses this year, the nuts and bolts of the defeat came long before the fateful moment.

"It just came down to that we made too many mistakes," coach Coen said after the game. "Obviously extra points, you've got to start right there. That obviously hurts; that changes the flow of the football game. Penalties in the first half, turnovers in the first half, giving them the ball on a short field. You can't make mistakes like that, and we've been making too many of them during the course of the season. You add them up in one point games, and it's tough."

What was equally as frustrating - if not more so - was that for four quarters, Lehigh hung strong with the 24th-ranked team in the country.

Rallying from a 21-6 second-quarter deficit, the Mountain Hawks showed a lot of toughness after rattling off 27 straight points to take a 33-21 lead. Keeping in mind that senior RB Matt McGowan was on the sideline in street clothes with an ankle injury, sophomore QB J.B. Clark found senior WR Sekou Yansane for a 27 yard touchdown pass over the middle and threaded the needle for another 58 yard completion that set up a 6 yard touchdown run by senior FB Adam Watson to cut the deficit to one by halftime.

Coming out from halftime, Lehigh played their best football of the year. After stuffing Colgate on their first drive with senior DL Brian Jackson and senior DB Brendan VanAckeren stopping Colgate QB Greg Sullivan six yards short of the sticks, Clark, Watson and the Lehigh offense went right at the Raider defense, keeping them off balance with big runs and setting up two big touchdown passes to senior WR Mike "Cris Carter" Fitzgerald, one of 23 yards and another of 39 yards where he beat his man perfectly and came down with the grab.

"When they had [Watson] running, that's when I thought they really had us off balance," Colgate head coach Dick Biddle said. "That's what concerns me more than anything when people can run the ball against us."

After the second Fitzgerald TD, Colgate responded with what could have been a championship-saving drive. Starting on their own 27, the Raiders kept after the run and used the ground game to embark on a 9 play, 73 yard drive. Sullivan threw a ball up for grabs in the end zone between two defenders, and 6'6 WR Pat Simonds found a way to come down with the ball in a play where it looked like senior DB Quadir Carter may have come down with the ball at the same time.

"We felt like if we could get it to one score that we'd have a chance," Biddle said. "We've done that a lot. We've won four or five games on the last drive. Our kids believe they can do it. This is a tough football team that hangs in there."

Lehigh wouldn't score a point the rest of the way. Lehigh's best chance to score came after their first drive of the 4th quarter stalled on the 25 yard line and senior P/K Jason Leo's 45 yard kick would have plenty of leg, but would sail wide right.

The defense would hold Colgate to a punt, but rather than let a Jacob Stein punt dribble into the end zone, an attempted return was muffed. Lehigh recovered, but started a drive at the 5 yard line that went nowhere.

After Lehigh's punt to the 47 yard line, Colgate again embarked on the type of drive they've been thriving with all year. Sticking with the gameplan that got them there, they mixed the pass and run well. With a 3rd-and-5 from the Lehigh 7 yard line, Sullivan found Simonds in the end zone on an inside slant, getting the ball past the one-on-one pass coverage by a Lehigh linebacker.

If there was ever a game to sum up a frustrating 2008 for the Mountain Hawks, it would be without a doubt this one, the sixth loss on the Lehigh football season in nine games.

A boatload of young talent, clearly able to play sixty minutes with some of the best teams in the country.

But not consistent enough to clean up the mistakes that championship teams - and Rivarly-winning teams - don't make. If there's one thing I'm hoping for, it's that in the last two important games of the year, this team will learn how to do clean up those mistakes.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Preview of Colgate at Lehigh: "Hate the 'Gate"

Call it "Family Weekend", "Hate the 'Gate" weekend (a term coined by former Lehigh LB Matt Mohler), or what you will: meaningful November football is back in Bethlehem this weekend. And not even a trip to Disney could keep me away from Murray Goodman stadium at 12:30PM this Saturday.

Last year, Lehigh had already amassed two league losses and was out of the title race when they travelled up to Hamilton. Lehigh's side didn't appear to have a lot of juice as they lost 21-7. This year, however, there's a tantalizing glimpse of a game that could be in the mold of the exciting Lehigh/Colgate games that used to determine the Patriot League champion on a regular basis.

Start with the fact that Colgate, who knocked out the Leopards' starting QB last weekend before scoring three second-half touchdowns in a 21-13 victory, found the 24th position in the Sports Network Top 25 last week.

Add to that the fact that Lehigh, with one league loss, has to beat the 7-2 Raiders in order to stay alive in the race for the Patriot League title.

In this mix comes something extremely intriguing as well: a potential matchup between two local hero RBs from the Hazelton area. You can bet the Hazelton area football followers will be out in force to watch this one.

That is, if senior RB Matt McGowan even plays.

Last week versus Georgetown, what every Lehigh fan this year had dreaded finally happened - McGowan came out in the second quarter with a badly sprained ankle, and his backup sophomore RB Jay Campbell and senior FB Adam Watson had to finish out the game.

Whether McGowan comes back at all - never mind at 100% - his sprained ankle might loom large in Lehigh's chances of staying alive for a Patriot League title.

Mickey can wait.

Game Notes
If you believe the official releases, there is not a single change from last week's two deep to this week's - never mind that senior WR Sekou Yansane and senior OL Kevin Bayani, among others, didn't make the trip to Georgetown due to injuries.

While their backups, junior OL Frank Giacalone by all accounts filled in admirably, as did junior WR Brien Ruyak - you have to wonder if Yansane, Bayani and McGowan are all truly at 100% going into this game. As a Lehigh fan, this makes me nervous to the Nth degree.

It's looking like senior DL Paul Bode is still out of the lineup after his season (and possibly career-ending) injury at Harvard, and senior DL Jon Warren remains as the starter. Warren has done a great job, and I've been pretty impressed with him all year.

Weather Report
Simply put, it's typical November football weather out there. Well, OK, with a high of about 60 it will be warmer than usual. (Granted, I am coming from 81 degree weather in Orlando.) Just ignore the cloudy weather with 40% chance of rain and go to the game.

A Word on Colgate
The rivalry between Lehigh and Colgate has come a long way from the first game in 1922, which was played in Johnson City near Binghamton, NY. It was set up by William Fisher, the athletics director of the Endicott-Johnson corporation, and Lehigh's athletics director at the time, H.R. Reiter. The New York Times reported that the game "will be of great interest to all Central New York and Pennsylvania, and will probably result in an annual contest in Johnson City."

Although the yearly meeting in Johnson City wasn't meant to be, both national powers at that time battled fiercely, by account of the New York Times. Lehigh center "Wild Bill" Springsteen recovered a fumble for a touchdown to go up 6-0, but the Maroons (as they were then called) piled up 35 unanswered points to win that inaugural game 35-6.

In the modern era, former Lehigh head football coach Fred Dunlap, who was a star football player at Colgate, helped get the Raiders and Mountain Hawks together in the Patriot League. He saw how similar Colgate and Lehigh were in terms of academics and athletics. And when the Patriot League formed in 1987, it was natural that Lehigh's northern rival be included along with Holy Cross, Lafayette, Bucknell, Lehigh and Davidson.

More recently, this game has generally featured prominently in the battle for the Patriot League title, which has brought this historic rivalry into sharper focus. Since 1997, Lehigh or Colgate have been either outright or co-champions in every Patriot League title. One of those games featured another sophomore quarterback: QB Sedale Threatt, in his second start in relief of injured starter Mark Borda, who helped drop 50 on the Raiders in a wild 50-34 victory in 2005.

LFN's Drink of the Week
What is Lehigh going to need to win this game this week? Endurance. Toughness. Power. Strength. What drink typefies that? Red Bull, of course (and apropos for a game versus the former Red Raiders of Colgate). And what sort of drinks go with tailgating? Well, what about Jager Bombs? Also apropos - if sophomore QB J.B. Clark can "bomb away" against the Raider secondary. Enjoy!

As always, Drinks of the week have a place in responsible tailgates: that means being over 21 and drinking responsibly. Please do that.

Breaking Down Colgate
Offense
Subtlety is not head coach Dick Biddle's calling card on offense. Biddle, now in his 13th year at Colgate, likes to line up a huge offensive line and pound you until you can't get up again, lulling the pass defense to sleep and then striking right at it for huge gains. They don't always jump on you early, but few teams are as devastaing as Colgate can be in the 4th quarter.

Colgate has one back - senior RB Jordan Scott - that might be playing on Sundays when all is said and done. With 5,445 career rushing yards, he's simply the all-time Patriot League rushing leader and the all-time FCS carries leader with 1,191 (not to mention having 972 rushing yards and 11 TDs this year). When he's not ready - and with him sitting out the last three games with an ankle injury - it's the true freshman from McGowan's high school Hazleton Area who has been a dominating presence: freshman RB/LB Nate Eachus (pictured) with 651 yards and 8 TDs in his own right.

Eachus and McGowan are very similar backs - not shying away from contact at all, more than willing to run people over. When healthy, Scott isn't exactly elusive but he's even better at reading defenses and finding the daylight. Both are extremely tough to bring down in the open field by the secondary. The scary thought - as coach Biddle raised this week - is having both Scott and Eachus in the backfield at the same time.

It will take everything our defense has to stop these two offensive weapons - whose great running starts from the awesome "O" line play. Pro scouts have been taking a lot of looks at the Raider's two 300 lb bookend tackles: senior OL Steve Jonas and 6'6 senior OL Nick Hennessey. Add to this senior C Justin Snyder, senior OL Rich Rosabella and junior OL Zach Posey, you have what has to be considered one of the finest "O" lines in all of FCS, who have only given up 11 sacks all year to go with the great rushing yardage. (Don't forget to include senior FB Eric Tupta and junior TE Adrien Scriefer to the list of "linemen", too, players who don't usually touch the ball but are devastating in the blocking department.)

The quarterback situation, unsettled at the beginning of the year, has been settled by the steady hand of sophomore QB Greg Sullivan. In a way, he's kind of like a "Jordan Scott who oh-by-the-way can throw": he's actually the second-leading rusher on the team with 708 yards and 6 rushing TDs to go with his 1,180 yards passing and 6 passing TDs. Also like Scott and Eachus, he has the ability to hit open rushing lanes and is not easy to bring down in the open field.

When Sullivan does pass, more often than not the target is to 6'6 junior WR Pat Simonds, who has 812 yards receiving and 3 TDs to lead the Raiders. While generally used as a counterpoint to defenses overemphasizing the run, he has also been a go-to guy in key late-game situations as well. He certainly has the tools to break your heart in a close game, especially deceptive speed; he must be watched, too. Behind him is sophomore WR Doug Rosnick and senior WR Sam Breslin.

Defense
Colgate basically plays a straight-up 4-3 defense. This year it's been a solid unit, but not the same dominating unit it was in, say, 2003 when they went to the championship game. Colgate fans may say, "Tem Lukabu, where are you?". but truth be known this is a defense that has started to jell.

The beefy "D" line is anchored by 287 lb junior NT Paul Mancuso, while statistically junior DE Austin Douglas (31 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks) has stood out. In the linebacking unit, junior LB Stephen Hadley leads the team in tackles (55) with another freshman, freshman LB Mike Carbone, not far behind (51).

This front seven hasn't dominated games: they average giving up 177 yards on the ground, and are averaging a little more than 2 sacks a game. But they are agressive and force turnovers at an alarming rate: they've forced 11 fumbles on the year so far, more than one a game.

In the secondary, senior S Chris Ekpo (47 tackles, 1 INT) and junior CB Wayne Moten (32 tackles, 2 INTs) headline a shortish unit which only has 5 interceptions on the year. All year, it seems like teams have been able to make hay against this unit.

Special Teams
Senior P/K Jacob Stein has been an outstanding field goal kicker for the Raiders, going 8-for-10 on his limited attempts this year including a 40 yarder to go with 31/33 on extra points. As a punter, he's an above-average 37.8 yards per punt. His kickoffs don't usually make the end zone, however.

The Raider return game has left something to be desired this year. Sophomore QB/RB Charles Babb and freshman WR Noah Jackson have been returning kickoffs, but with their longest returns being 31 and 37 yards they haven't broken any yet. Senior WR Pat Simonds retuns punts, but only averages a paltry 3 yards per return.

Keys to the Game
1. Protect the ball. More than ever, whomever is running the ball back there, ball protection will be crucial towards a Lehigh victory. Two hands! Two hands! If we don't allow any stripped balls to be recovered, we will have an excellent chance to come away with victory.
2. Best defense is ball-control offense. The best way to keep our defense fresh is to keep them off the field with long sustained Lehigh offensive drives ending in touchdowns.
3. Under 100 yards. Our safeties will have a tough job in run support hitting gaps and bringing down Colgate's huge backs, but they'll have to get it done in order to help contain the rushing game. My defensive goal for this game would be to keep Sullivan, Eachus and/or Scott under 100 yards each for the game. Make it happen.

Fearless Prediction
A huge game for Lehigh; a huge league rival, a big crowd in all probability, and a meaningful game in November. This game will tell whether Lehigh is a Patriot League contender this year, or if we already need to be looking more at "The Rivalry" and next year instead.

It could happen. Lehigh could put it all together and play their best game of the year. The inconsistency could be gone. Lehigh's defense could come together and we could play turnover-free ball and jump out to a quick lead that Colgate cannot overcome.

But I don't think so.

Colgate 31, Lehigh 20

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Player of the Week, Lehigh/Georgetown?

I'm away from the blog now, but if you want to nominate someone for Player of the Week vs. Georgetown, you can nominate them by adding a comment to this post.

[EDIT] It's a little late, but I did read all the comments and its senior FB/RB Adam Watson who gets LFN Player of the Week honors this week. When senior RB Matt McGowan went down with a bad ankle injury, Watson took over with 38 yards on seven tough carries, including five on Lehigh's final drive to ice the game for the Mountain Hawks. It's hard to underestimate the effect that a big injury has on the offensive gameplan, and Watson made sure that the gameplan never suffered.

Other honorees this week:

Reader's Choice: Senior FB/RB Adam Watson

Offense: Junior WR Brien Ruyak (6 catches, 86 yards, 1 TD, all career highs)

Defense: Junior LB Al Pierce (7 tackles, first play of second half was a 37 yard interception for a TD)

Special Teams: Sophomore WR Craig "Braveheart" Zurn (2 kickoff returns for 68 yards, including one of 42 yards)

Congratulations to all the winners!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Lambert Power Rankings, 11/4/2008

Here's the Lambert Power Rankings for this week:

1. (1) James Madison (CAA, 8-1, 98.5 points)
2. (3) New Hampshire (CAA, 7-1, 82.5 points)
3. (2) Richmond (CAA, 6-3, 73 points)
4. (10) Colgate (Patriot, 6-2, 69 points)
5T. (6T) William & Mary (CAA, 6-2, 67.5 points)
5T. (6T) UMass (CAA, 6-3, 67.5 points)
7. (9) Villanova (CAA, 6-2, 66 points)
8T. (5) Maine (CAA, 6-3, 63 points)
8T. (NR) Albany (NEC, 6-3, 63 points)
10. (4) Lafayette (Patriot, 6-2, 61 points)

In the official ECAC release, Harvard (7T) and Holy Cross (10), make an appearance, replacing Albany (since there was a tie for 10th place, actually 11 teams made up the rankings this week).

The 2008 Election: Obama Barely Wins Thanks to Pennsylvania and Ohio

Note: This blog posting was written days before the 2008 election. And yes, we voted early! Below is my prediction for what happens on this very important election day, 2008.

Fearless Prediction
It was a lot closer than the polls stated in the run-up to the election, but ultimately Obama ended up winning the presidency. Not the blowout some folks expected, but ultimately McCain couldn't get Ohio or Pennsylvania in the win column, and that was the difference. With a 307 to 231 electoral vote advantage, it was Pennsylvania and Ohio going blue that made the difference. It sounds like a huge win, but in reality it was a squeaker.

New Hampshire and Missouri going to McCain was a real surprise, but Obama's wins in Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada were huge. The idea that Indiana, North Carolina and Georgia were going to be targets for Obama ended up being a pipe dream. Florida, once again, was close, but ultimately it was McCain that won them over - in a surprise to many people.

African-Americans, unsurprisingly, busted records in turnout everywhere. What was really surprising, though, was the members of the Bush coalition that ended up voting for the McCain ticket when everyone counted them out. That allowed New Hampshire - who has never really stopped loving McCain - to stay red, Missouri to go red, and allowed McCain to close in a bunch of states that nobody thought he might be able to get.

Congratulations to Senator Obama - allowing Americans their first election-night's sleep since 1996. And congratulations to McCain - who fought hard, but ultimately lost due to the meltdown in Wall Street, not due to his campaign.

My prediction of how the electoral votes turn out:

Alabama (9): McCain
Alaska (3): McCain
Arizona (10): McCain
Arkansas (6): McCain
California (55): Obama
Colorado (9): Obama
Connecticut (7): Obama
Delaware (3): Obama
Florida (27): McCain
Georgia (15): McCain
Hawaii (4): Obama
Idaho (4): McCain
Illinois (21): Obama
Indiana (11): McCain
Iowa (7): Obama
Kansas (6): McCain
Kentucky (8): McCain
Louisiana (9): McCain
Maine (4): Obama
Maryland (10): Obama
Massachusetts (12): Obama
Michigan (17): Obama
Minnesota (10): Obama
Mississippi (6): McCain
Missouri (11): McCain
Montana (3): McCain
Nebraska (5): McCain
Nevada (5): Obama
New Hampshire (4): McCain
New Jersey (15): Obama
New Mexico (5): Obama
New York (31): Obama
North Carolina (15): McCain
North Dakota (3): McCain
Ohio (20): Obama
Oklahoma (7): McCain
Oregon (7): Obama
Pennsylvania (21): Obama
Rhode Island (4): Obama
South Carolina (8): McCain
South Dakota (3): McCain
Tennessee (11): McCain
Texas (34): McCain
Utah (5): McCain
Vermont (3): Obama
Virginia (13): Obama
Washington (11): Obama
Washington DC (3): Obama
West Virginia (5): McCain
Wisconsin (10): Obama
Wyoming (3): McCain

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Sunday's Word(s): A.I.

As you may or may not know, I'm on vacation this week and I wrote this blog posting sometime last week. By now we will know a clearer vision of the Patriot League title race. Either Colgate or Lafayette will have one loss. Bucknell will either be effectively reduced to the role of spoiler by Holy Cross - or Holy Cross will have been shockingly upset by the Bison, adding another team to the playoff mix. And Georgetown will either wreck Lehigh's season, or Lehigh will win this week and move on to "Hate the 'Gate" weekend on South Mountain.

But I still wanted to get out a "Sunday's Word" this week, and so I am doing so now. It's a familiar topic, the "academic index", or A.I. But the changes to the academic index haven't been really explained in any sort of media outlet. I talked with the Patriot League commissioner this week about the changes that are in effect for football (and basketball) as of this incoming recruiting class.

Here's the changes for football as they were explained to me.

First of all, one of the things that sets the Patriot League (and Ivy League) apart from other athletic leagues is that they implement an "Academic Index" (or "A.I." for short) to ensure that the makeup of their teams is broadly representative of the academic qualifications of the rest of the incoming class. Each prospective athlete is given a score, and the A.I. for the team has to "fit" in with the A.I. for the rest of the class.

(It's important to remember that this only reflects their high school scores when entering a Patriot League school. Once you're in, even if you earn a 4.0 average, you're still reflective of your AI score when you entered school.)

The Patriot League adopted this mechanism in football in 1987, the first year of the league, but as the executive director of the Patriot League Carolyn Schlie Femovich told me, it was due for some tweaking. “It was the first review of the AI since it was put into place in the 1980’s," she told me. "Presidents, athletic directors and admissions directors [were involved], as well as coaches’ groups. I think it was a positive step for the league to review how it was working."

Standardization
The first major change to the AI involved making it a standard calculation for all its member schools.

The index for the Patriot League has always been 50% test scores and 50% high-school performance, and this will not change. However, in the past a school would have been able to figure out “high-school performance” any way they desired: for example, one school might use GPA, and another class rank. Now, only GPA will be used to measure high-school performance.

This is not as minor a change as it sounds. “Getting a rank in class is becoming increasingly difficult since your better high schools prefer not to rank their students,” Ms. Femovich said. “The methodology is being changed to make sure all the schools are calculating their indexes in the same way.”

In addition, the method used for computing the “academic index” for transfer students were also standardized.

Hard Floor & Bands
Standardizing the computations for incoming freshmen and transfers across the Patriot League enables the league office to implement the second part of their AI reform: a “banding system” and a league-wide AI number that will be considered the “floor” of the League.

This “banding system” involves grouping series of athletes with similar AI scores. In these “bands” each school can only recruit up to a certain number of players in a certain incoming class, and no Patriot League school will be able to recruit athletes below a certain league-wide AI number. The idea is that it forces a distribution of athletes with a variety of scores. (The implementation is somewhat similar to how the Ivy League implements their academic index, though their AI number is different than the Patriot League's number.)

The league-wide AI floor is 168. Under that number, you cannot gain admittance to a Patriot League school. From the perfect AI score of 200 down to 168, your distribution will be fanned out in be four "bands", or AI ranges, determined by the standard deviation of your incoming class.

Without dusting off your statistics textbook from college, here's the net of it.

Let's say your entire incoming class has, on average, a 3.6 grade point average, or a B+ average. An AI number of the class will be able to be calculated - in this case, call it 187.

From that, one can statistically determine the standard deviation for the entire class. It's not impossible to do, but for the sake of this example and to make it easy, we'll call it 6.

From a recruiting class of 32 kids in a particular year, this school's bands for football would then be:

Band I: AI of 187 and above: 5 athletes
Band II: AI between 181 and 187: 10 athletes
Band III: AI between 174 and 180: 14 athletes
Band IV: AI between 168 and 173: 3 athletes

If you chose not to recruit the maximum number of athletes in one band, you could bump up the number of athletes in the band above it. For example, if you recruited only two athletes in Band IV, you could recruit up to fifteen athletes in Band III.

It also is based on a rolling four-year average. If you only get one Band IV athlete one year, the next year you could recruit five Band IV athletes the following year if you wanted to. (Of course, the class AI average might increase.)

"The floor allows all Patriot League schools to have access to the same pool of athletes," Ms. Femovich said. "We're trying to encourage coaches to recruit a variety of student-athletes but certainly ones that all fit within the academic profile of the institution - and the profile of the league as a whole. It's also to create internal equity and partiy in terms of admissions standards, but also to make sure there's enough flexibility in our system to allow our schools to be competitive with other conferences.

"It gives admissions offices flexibility if they determine that the individual can do the work. It doesn't say, however, that they will make those decisions. The final decision will continue to rest with the admissions office (not the athletics office)."

What does it mean?
The new system looks and feels a lot like the Ivy League system. The numbers are different - the computed AI for the Ivy League is different from that of the Patriot League - but functionally, with its use of bands, it's extremely similar.

Hovever, compared to the bands of the Ivy League, more athletes are allowed at the "floor", not least because of the extra band. In theory, this would allow a wide variety of Patriot League schools to get more athletes between one and two standard deviations below the class average than before.

Should the athletics department in conjunction with the admissions office choose to avail themselves of it, no school would benefit more than Georgetown (whose incoming classes always have the highest AI numbers in the Patriot League) from these changes.

Fordham would benefit the least simply because their average AI numbers are lower than the others. Though I don't have their Patriot League AI numbers, my feeling is that the incoming classes they already get should fit fine in the existing framework. The possibility does exist that the AI could act as a "reverse straitjacket", forcing the football team to have a higher AI than the incoming class, but with Band III being so large I don't see that as a problem upon first view.

The upshot for the league is that this system appears to increase the pool af athletes available to play football at more Patriot League schools.

It also would communicate a clear, league-wide formula to the outside world - and may show a potential high-academics university expansion target that their school would not have to worry about their school being squeezed academically. In football, the index is flexible, and the standards are the same for everyone.

Add football scholarships to that mix, and it gets even more interesting.
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