Saturday, September 05, 2009

Lehigh 21, CCSU 28, Final

At the time, I didn't think this picture I took would be the story of the game. Unfortunately it was.

Tied at 21 after an ugly first half, Lehigh had only their second red zone opportunity of the game. Second and goal at the CCSU 4 yard line. Junior TE Alex Wojdowski starts the play and is wide open. Junior QB J.B. Clark hesitates, and then tries to fire it in - but CCSU DB Nick Delgado stepped in front of the outstretched arms of Wojdowski and stuffed the drive.

It would have given Lehigh their first lead of the day. It also would have negated what was an extremely sloppy first half, with an anemic offensive performance by the Mountain Hawks which was only mitigated by the fact that the Blue Devils turned over the ball twice in the red zone, and that junior DB John "Fear Itself" Kennedy turned a kickoff into a 93 yard touchdown. Also, on Lehigh's only sustained drive of the day (and I mean that), Clark found Wojdowski on a 7 yard TD strike to tie the game at 14. It was like the UFC: ugly slug. Counterpunch. Ugly slug. Counterpunch. Both locker rooms had to have been lit up with obscenity with the poor quality of play; only Lehigh's defense kept them in it.

Looking at the drive chart after the interception, the defense - who, remember, had injuries mounting on this hot day, were on the field nearly 30 minutes and were working their way down to the freshmen on the defensive depth chart - fell apart. The worst thing about the drive was that Lehigh had CCSU stuck on a 3rd and 5 - then tried to get a late personnel change while CCSU QB Hunter Wanket quickly snapped the ball. It was a 15 yard "illegal participation" penalty - which kept the drive alive and what ultimately ended with a 40 yard screen pass to CCSU WR Josue Paul for a TD. That TD would end up being the difference.

The genesis of this debacle was the offense. Clark's numbers defy belief. 7 for 29 for 122 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs. Take away the TD pass to the wide-open sophomore WR Jake Drwal for a 58 yard strike and you have only six more completions on the afternoon for 64 yards. There were only 18 rushes on the afternoon for a whopping 62 yards. Their longest drive of the game was four minutes, and only twice out of fourteen drives did an offensive drive go over two minutes.

As a result, the crowd was taken out of the game early. It was eerily quiet in the stands as CCSU would mount yet another drive after a Lehigh 3-and-out. The fourth quarter, Lehigh got the ball on offense for 2:12 out of a 15 minute half. There were ten incompletions, and only one first down as a result of one positive play from scrimmage. How can fans get into the game when they can't see any positive offensive progress? You can only cheer great hits and stuffs for so long.

One thing really gets my goat about this game.

I did not think that deep passing would win this game (because of CCSU's very solid secondary), and unfortunately I was right. Let's say that a steady diet of deep passing to set up everything was the gameplan; I can accept that. But why in Good Heavens would you keep going to it? Even a cursory look at CCSU would show that their great strength is running the ball, winning the time of possession game, and wearing down a defense: they were one of the top rushing teams in all of FCS last year. (And in this game, did they ever win that time of possession battle: they had possession 43 of 60 minutes in the game. Almost three straight quarters worth of CCSU offense.)

If you pass and you're not effective, all you're going to do is turn the ball back to that running offense. Did they think we would outlast them on defense, going down to the third string defenders? At the beginning of the game, you might want to establish the tone of the game as a track meet; again, I may not agree, but I can accept that. But when the tone is set and it's not how you want it, you can't just keep going to what doesn't work over and over again. When was someone going to try something different?

And what was infuriating was that on the one drive where Lehigh DID do well, they mixed up the run with junior RB Jay Campbell and junior RB Jaren Walker effectively. Why not at least try it again - just once - in the second half? At worst it might have given the defense a breather. Lehigh's running backs only had 12 rushes the entire game. CCSU's fullback had 13.

The sad thing is that Lehigh's defense played heroically. Backups like junior LB Ben Flizack and sophomore LB Devin Greene made some big stops to give Lehigh's offense a shot, and senior DT B.J. Benning, senior LB Matt Cohen, junior SS John Venerio, senior LB Heath Brickner and senior LB Tobi Showunmi had very good games. Yes, they did give up a lot of offensive yards to the Blue Devils, but considering they were on the field for 43 minutes and only gave up 28 points the effort was fairly amazing.

Give CCSU credit. They came to Lehigh to play Central Connecticut State football. And they did. Well. And Lehigh was unable - or unwilling - to play CCSU football. And as a result, Lehigh lost.

All that's left to ponder is if Lehigh will get any offensive yards against Villanova next weekend - who has one of the best defenses in all of FCS and who just uset FBS Temple this Thursday, 27-24. An 0-2 start seems likely.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Game Preview: Central Connecticut State at Lehigh

(Photo Credit: CCSU Athletics)

It's funny; when you start the football season, it feels like you team could simply play anybody and you'd be ecstatic. I'm not saying Central Connecticut State is just anybody, of course - you'll find that out soon enough - but that feeling is invading every college football fan going into this weekend.

As a result of this euphoria, it's tempting to just revel in the fact that it's here - football season is here, and we're still undefeated against Lafayette since last November.

That's probably the gensis as to why teams get "overlooked" on the schedule on Week One. You think Michigan was looking to be upended by Appalachian State two years ago? Michigan was reveling - in the new season, in their No. 5 preseason ranking, in their, well, Michigan-ness. Before the day was out, the "Miracle in Michgan" was complete, Michigan would plummet out of the Top 25, and their season would be in a shambles.

Granted, Lehigh fans had been starving for an offseason with some euphoria. It's been a while since we've had a Patriot League championship and FCS playoff games. The win last November was the first bit of real, genuine euphoria we've had for a long time. And we can be forgiven for revelling in it a little.

But you can bet that CCSU is counting on just that. This is not the team we beat 58-10 a few years ago: that will be clear after the opening kickoff. This is FCS football. Every game counts. And CCSU will not be anyone's patsy. You can take that to the bank.

Time to get excited about opening-day football.

Game Notes
This week's game notes from Lehigh - the first of the year - featured some genuine surprises, especially on the offensive side.

Start with junior RB Jay Campbell getting the starting nod over junior RB Jaren Walker, for starters. Coach Coen had raved about Campbell in traning camp, and he appears for now to have won the starting nod. I wouldn't be surprised to see coach Coen rotate in Walker in spots - maybe rotating them all year, possibly, given them all ample opportunities to make plays - but Campbell's rise on the depth chart clearly came from hard practice time and hard work in the offseason. Campbell earned the shot this weekend.

In another surprise, sophomore WR De'Vaughn Gordon and sophomore WR Jake Drwal get the start in their first significant action with the first team offense. Junior WR Craig Zurn will also certainly get a lot of spots - he's clearly expected to make big-time plays this year - but it will be interesting to see how Gordon does in his first start.

On the injury front, it's not too surprising that senior LB Al Pierce is not ready to go as he returns from a pull hamstring in preseason practice. Taking his place is senior LB Tobi Showunmi - another guy who has worked hard to get the starting nod. Senior LB Troy Taylor - an LFN favorite from last year who was a monster on special teams - also gets the start as he promises to potentially be a special LB for the Mountain Hawks.

Another unfortunate injury in the week leading to the CCSU game is senior DT Phil Winett, who is dinged up and won't play. In his place will be sophomore DE Cody Connare - who plans to make the most of his shot.

It looks like this is still a young team. On the two-deep is two freshmen (OL Ryan Weitz and K/P Jake Peery), eleven sophomores and eighteen juniors. Only ten seniors dot the list.

CCSUs game notes can be found here.

Weather Report
A more perfect day for football could not be imagined. Try a high of 84, abundant sunshine, and light and variable winds. Get there early to enjoy the sun, and perfect tailgating weather.

This has been a stark contrast some home openers: last year versus Drake out of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, the game was played in a driving rainstorm and ended in a 19-0 victory. Three years ago - playing CCSU's leaguemate in the NEC, Albany - another rainstorm ruined head coach Andy Coen's coaching debut in a 17-16 upset win.

A Word On Central Connecticut State
Lehigh last played the Blue Devils in 2001 to the tune of a 58-10 win. The temptation is to think that in 2009 we'll see a replay of this tune. But like a song from Enrique Iglesias or N'Sync, that song is history. CCSU, and the NEC, is totally different in 2009.

In 2001, the NEC offered need-based scholarships similar to what the Patriot League currently offers - and the amount they could offer was limited to boot. Back then, they were more similar to Drake than Delaware.

But something happened: in 2005, NEC member schools petitioned successfully to the league leadership to start allowing a limited number of scholarships that were not "need-based" in nature. In a nutshell, they were now allowed to offer a number of football scholarships as they're commonly defined everywhere else in FCS.

Despite the fact that most teams' scholarship players were barely freshmen, the impact on the NEC was almost immediate. In 2006 Albany upset Lehigh 17-16 - but it was CCSU who went to Georgia Southern, one of the hallowed temples of FCS, and beat the Eagles under their six FCS championship banners in a game-changing 17-13 victory.

The NEC's splash on the national scene ultimately led the former commissioner, the late Ms. Brenda Weare, to ask the FCS playoff subcommittee to give the NEC a path to the playoffs. She (accurately) argued that in every other NCAA sport, every eligible conference that has asked for a playoff autobid got one. Her argument was: why deny us? The arugument worked, and starting in 2010 the NEC will get their first-ever autobid.

CCSU head coach Jeff McInerney has given the former "Teacher's College of Connecticut" unprecedented success as head coach: he's the first head coach of the Blue Devils to ever post a winning record in his first three seasons. It's also a homecoming of sorts for coach McInerney: he went to college at Slippery Rock.

Last Time Out
The Blue Devils ended last season with a bang, crushing Sacred Heart 49-14 in a blowout win. CCSU scored on their first two drives and never looked back, racking up a 28-0 lead and added three second-half touchdowns. They knocked out the 2007 NEC Freshman of the year, sophomore QB Dale Fink, out of the game in the second quarter and the rout was on.

LFN's Drink Of The Week
It's 80 degrees. It's the home opener. It's Central Connecticut State. So what drink is approrpiate to serve at your tailgate in abundant sunshine? Clearly something on ice, but not a frou-frou frozen drink. What should the discriminating Lehigh fan drink?

It's tempting to serve this "cool drink", but might I suggest a blue CCSU twist, if you will:

6 cups cold water
1/4 cup quality vodka (suggestion: Smirnoff Red Label)
1 cup fresh lime juice (about 6 limes)
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup Blue Curacao
20 lime slices (optional)

Call it "Cool Blue." Enjoy!

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

Breaking Down Central Connecticut State
In the past, CCSU ran a variant of a triple-option attack with two quarterbacks splitting time on offense. But this year's game notes adds an ominous note: one of the quarterbacks will be lining up at running back and wide receiver too. It looks like Lehigh might be seeing the "Wildcat Formation", which is gaining popularity these days. (If you watched the Philadelphia Eagles' third preseason game when Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb were on the field at the same time, you saw what we might see on Saturday.) It involves two QBs, with one going in motion, some direct snap runs, and other quirks.

The reason Jeff McInerney is going to the "Wildcat" is that he feels he has two outstanding quarterbacks. They are senior QB Aubrey Norris and senior QB Hunter Wanket. While Wanket is the better passer of the two, both are mobile and can take off running with the ball with ease - a good choice for the "Wildcat" formation. On the plus side, Wanket didn't throw the ball all that much last year - so Lehigh might still see a skew towards running and screen passing. Look for them to alternate, or sometimes be on the field together.

Adding to defensive coordinator David Kotulski's worries is the presence of a very strong running back. Senior RB James Mallory (1,575 yards rushing, 15 TDs) was a brutally effective 5'10, 200 lb with good strength and good speed as well. In conjunction to Norris and Wanket and change of pace junior FB Eric Richardson, this is a multi-dimensional running threat that will be a challenge for our front seven to contain.

When Wanket or Norris do throw the ball, usually the target is 5'11 speedster senior WR Nick Colagiovanni (361 yards, 5 TDs) or 6'1 junior WR Josue Paul (272 yards, 1 TD). On rushing-first offenses, though, they also have value as decoys or downfield blockers. Colagiovanni also has the speed to stretch a defense, too.

In recent years, CCSU has been known for big guys in the trenches. This year they have five returning lettermen, and boast a couple big boys: 6'6, 300 lb sophomore OT Mike Allison and 300 lb junior OG Jesse Castillo. They were extremely effective last year in helping CCSU be the No. 1 rushing offense in the NEC - and that's over two teams with great runners like Albany senior RB David McCarty and Monmouth senior RB David Sinisi.

The Blue Devils sport a base 4-3 - similar to "that school in Easton". They boast an experienced defense that will pose the Lehigh offense a stern test. Like Fordham and Lafayette last year, their "D" line is aggressive and will attack the line of scimmage, getting good disruption of opposing offenses. They also take pride in creating turnovers - they've created one in 12 consecutive games.

For CCSU, it all starts up front with a pair of (unrelated as far as I know) defensive tackles. Senior DT Danny Rodriguez and senior DT Roberto Rodriguez combined for 57 tackles and 8 1/2 tackles for loss last years. They shouldleave gaps, though, when they attack the line of scrimmage - something, potentially, to look out for.

The top returning linebacker is sophomore LB Jeff Marino, who logged 83 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and 3 interceptions last year. Rounded out by junior LB Tim Pratt and one LB getting his first start (sophomore LB Isaiah Boddie), Lehigh shouldn't be afraid to run up the middle if necessary against this squad.

The secondary features junior FS Alondre Rush, who most definitely acts as a second linebacker and "enforcer" on this team (70 tackles, 2 interceptions). Senior CB Marcus Dorsey (2 INTs) and junior CB Dominique Rose (4 INTs) demonstrate that this is a secondary that has some playmakers. I'd go as far as to say this is a secondary that should be feared.

Special Teams
Junior PK Joe Izzo is CCSU's kicker, who went 42 for 45 in PATs last year and connected on 4 of 5 FGs. His leg strength might be a question mark with only five FG attempts last year. Freshman P Greg Midal will be the Blue Devils punter in his first-ever varsity action.

Senior WR Nick Colagiovanni returns punts, and junior WR Josue Paul and sophomore CB London Lomax return kickoffs. Punt returns were an issue last year - Colagiovanni only averaged 3.1 yards per return last year - but Paul averaged 20.3 yards per return on kickoffs with 1 TD.

Coverage units, on the other hand, were a bright spot last year. Junior FS Alondre Rush blocked 2 of CCSU's seven blocked picks last year, and only allowed 6 yards per kick return.

Keys to the Game
1. Trenches, trenches, trenches. It's an old saw - especially from me - but these trench battles might be where this game is won or lost. On defense, establishing a stout run defense will be crucial - a few early 3rd-down stops could do wonders. On offense, getting a solid running game going could be important - and that means the "O" line hogs will be doing their job.
2. Short passes. I'll be blunt: this secondary scares me. While it's worthwhile to test the waters deep, the bread and butter on Saturday through the air should be the dinks and dunks in the soft areas in the middle of the field. That means junior QB J.B. Clark will need to be accurate - and keep mistakes to a minimum.
3. Big return game. While a return touchdown from junior CB John "Fear Itself" Kennedy or senior CB Jarard Cribbs would be nice, that key difference in field position could play a big part in getting Lehigh's engine going. Outgaining CCSU's returnunits would mean that Lehigh's firing on all cylinders - which is what Lehigh needs to win this game.

Fearless Prediction
In many ways this is a scary home opener. Central Connecticut State is hardly the pushover they were in 2001. They have football players, especially in their secondary. Their rushing attack was great in 2008 - and it seems like there could be even more wrinkles on offense opening day that will be hard to prepare for. If Lehigh comes out flat, or falls behind early, this game could be trouble - something that can happen, especially with so many underclassmen on the roster.

It comes down to this: Do you beleive Lehigh has turned the corner? Are all the happy feelings meaningless, or was the Lafayette win really the start of special times once again for Lehigh?

This will come down to Lehigh's rushing "D". Can they slow down the CCSU rushing machine? I think they will. Can the Lehigh offense make hay against the Blue Devil "D"? I'm less sure. Will a loud, partisan crowd be the difference? I think it will be.

Lehigh 21, Central Connecticut State 17

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Three Days to Kickoff: The Media Blitz

It's three days until Lehigh's season opener against Central Connecticut State, and before I finish my preview of this weekend's action it's worth detailing the volumes of coverage in the lead-up to the Big Day.

First of all, Lehigh Athletics released their broadcast schedule for 2009 - and we see nine out of eleven games broadcast on local and national outlets. Locally, three games will be broadcast on WFMZ Allentown (Villanova, Colgate, Lafayette) while the other six (CCSU, Princeton, Harvard, Georgetown, Yale, Holy Cross) will be broadcast on Service Electric 2. Better yet, many cable subscribers will be able to see the games on Fox College Sports Atlantic either live or on tape-delay (which, happily, I get at home).

Also worthy of mention is that the Lehigh Sports Magazine will also be broadcast on WFMZ Allentown and FCS Atlantic - of which you can see the latest installment online, where (20 minutes or so in coach Coen talks about the 2009 Mountain Hawks and also talks a bit about Central Connecticut State.

Lehigh's athletic department also released their preview for 2009 as well, including a video practice report. It's a comprehensive view of the entire team, starting with the defense and working their way all the way through special teams.

In the press, Keith Groller of the Morning Call released a piece about senior LB Matt Cohen, who came locally from Central Catholic and who - just maybe - might be looking to see if he can get a chance in the NFL.

Lehigh, which had just hired Andy Coen as its head coach and Donnie Roberts -- Cohen's high school coach at Central -- as a defensive assistant, saw his potential on the tackling side of the ball.

''Even when he was 14 and a freshman at Central, we could see certain things,'' Roberts said. ''We could see he could run. In fact, we had him at wide receiver. But we also saw him on the kickoff team and he wasn't afraid to hit people.

''He played tough through injuries. He had the determination even back them to be a good football player.''
Finally, speaking of hanging tough through injuries, there's a story about "Rango" - the heroic dog who came back from tearing his ACL to win the Lehigh Valley Hunting and Fishing extravaganza. What's the link to Lehigh football, you ask? Rango's owner is John Kucher, who works statistics at Lehigh games.

Look out for my preview of the CCSU game tomorrow. I can't wait.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Patriot League Offseason 2009: Lehigh

Of all my installments concerning the Patriot League offseason, this one is my favorite (which you probably guessed). Aside from the obvious fact that I'm a crazy Lehigh fan, it also means when I complete this installment it means that college football season is right there - I can taste it. Only four more days until I can go to Goodman stadium and see Lehigh open up a can of whoopass against Central Connecticut State. For me, completing this finalizes the fact: it's football season.

Nation, I bring you *yours* - and mine - the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.

Coaching Changes: Usually you hear of assistant coaches leaving a program, but rarely do you hear those same guys coming back. But that's what R.J. Ryan did (Franklin & Marshall; Special Teams) after last year's special teams coordinator Adam Scheier left to join former Lehigh coach Dave Clawson over at Bowling Green. Coen is very happy to have Ryan back. Aside from that change, almost his entire original staff remains, including offensive coordinator Trey Brown and defensive coordinator David Kotulski, who return for their fourth consecutive years at those positions. Add to them Sal DeWalt (Moravian; Offensive Line assistant) to round it out, and you have great stability in this year's coaching staff.

The Hardest Guy To Replace: Lehigh lost a lot more than you might think from last year - almost the entire receiving staff, both starting safeties, an all-league defensive lineman. But the player that will be the toughest to replace is clearly RB Matt McGowan, who was a hard-nosed, quick, physical, runner that - at times - could dominate a game. Injuries limited his production his entire time as a Mountain Hawk, but when he was in there he was called the "heart and soul" of the offense - which now needs another.

Big Name in the Incoming Class: It's all about the Bark. Freshman RB Zach Barket (Schuykill Haven HS, PA) comes to South Mountain with the sort of numbers that just pop off the page, including two Pennsylvania High School single-season records: 4,195 yards rushing and 66 TDs. (That's not a typo - they are indeed single-season records.) The 5'9, 200 lb freshman may have been looked over by some other programs because of his size - but it seems like Coen got steel - er, a steal - from the Anthracite.

Incoming Class Grade: B+. Keep in mind that I'm rating this as a Lehigh homer, but once again I'm thrilled at the talent represented in this incoming class. Coen keeps stockpiling huge linemen (300 lb freshman OL Ryan Weitz; 265 lb freshman DL Lex Utt), two running backs with huge upside (Barket and freshman RB Tony Kablan out of Minnesota), a speedster from California (freshman WR James Flynn) - brother, what's not to like? In an ideal world I'd have liked another linebacker or two to replace the five seniors on the roster this year, but once again this group on paper seems like a great one.

Preseason So Far: Overall, Coen seems to have a bit of a spring in his step he hasn't had in previous offseasons. Beating Lafayette, no doubt, has something to do with that, but it's clear from the official reports that he especially likes what he sees for the 2009 Mountain Hawks. Certainly the emergence of a solid "D" line with some depth (senior DT B.J. Benning, junior DT Phil Winett, junior NG David Brown) helps, as is the emergence of junior RB Jay Campbell on first-team duties running the ball.

There is a concern, however, involving injuires. Senior LB Al Pierce's leg injury sounds like the type of hurt that will keep him out for a while - if not the entire season - while the final preseason practice saw many starters sit out with some injuries. How healthy will Lehigh be going into the year?

Fan Base: It's one thing to be talking smack and predicting Patriot League championships when your team has been racking up FCS playoff bids for years. It's quite another to be doing so after finishing a 5-6 season - which is where Lehigh fans appear to be at this point in time. For the first time as far back as I can remember, Lehigh fans are optimists.

Historically, this is a very odd place for Lehigh fans to be - who in the past have seen dark clouds and criticism in seemingly every game, including two-touchdown wins, never mind losses. Optimism? Lehigh fans? Really?

Part of it has to be that Lehigh fans' mood, after suffering though so much to Lafayette in "The Rivalry" before last year's 31-15 victory over the Leopards, have nowhere to go but up. But there's more to it than that. Lehigh fans have to be asking, is there that much farther to go, really, for Lehigh to sit atop the Patriot League once again?

Most Lehigh fans seem to point to the fact that in four of their six losses, they lost in the final two minutes - in two of those games, on the final play. Just fix that - they say - and then we're 9-2 and waiting to see if we're traveling to Appalachian State on Thanksgiving. So little separates the top teams of the Patriot League these days - it feels like one play, one game, can be the difference between a Colgate, Holy Cross, Fordham, Lehigh, or Lafayette championship.

Could it really be that Lehigh is this close to the Patriot League championship once again? One thing's for sure: Lehigh fans really do believe it. Fans the League over better watch out: the arrogant, insufferable Lehigh fan is making a comeback.

Overall Offseason: There's continuity in the coaching staff. There's talent in the trenches. There's young talent. Big talent. Far-away talent. Coach Coen seems as happy as he's ever been as Lehigh's head football coach. And there is genuine optimism on South Mountain for the first time in a while. Beating Lafayette certainly is a huge part of that, but there does seem to be some something more behind it all - injuries be damned.

But is the optimism premature? Was Lehigh really that close to 9-2 last year? Have two straight 5-6 teams addled Lehigh fans' brains so much that they're deluding ourselves in thinking this is the team that will get over the hump? (A fair number of fans around the Patriot League are wondering this very question - bank on it.) Does 5-6 deserve optimism? Can they really beat senior QB Dominic Randolph and Holy Cross if their season depends on it?

One way or another, we're going to start finding out the answers to those questions in four days. And I can't wait.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Patriot League Offseason 2009: Lafayette

We're in the home stretch now in my "Patriot League offseason" series: a mere six days before the start of the football season. Last year's edition held a dubious honor: it caused a lot of grief with the Evil Empire. So much so, in fact, that the post was used in the game notes for "The Rivalry" at the end of the year as a method of firing up the troops. I'd be lying if I said I was unconcerned that my words would cause a Lafayette win at the end of the year; happily for the Team That Represents Everything that is Good, that wasn't the case.

In any event, here's my profile of the team Lehigh fans love to hate.

Coaching Changes: Bob Heffner, the giant presence in the Leopards locker room as offensive coordinator, finally took his dream job at Northwestern this offseason, leaving behind his eight year tenure at Lafayette (making most Lehigh fans rejoice). His departure, however, probably won't affect the staff much: the Leopards' second year quarterbacks coach (Mickey Fein, out of Murray State of the OVC) slides right into the offensive coordinator duties - which seemed like it might have been the plan all along. Meanwhile, one of the top defenses in the nation still has defensive coordinator John Loose leading their unit. After that, however, there are many new assistants on the staff: Stan Clayton (Toledo; Offensive Line), Doug McFadden (Fort Hays State; Defensive Backs), and a pair of former Lafayette players we had hoped to see the last of: Marcel Quarterman (wide receivers) and Chad Walker (Carlstad Crusaders (Sweden), Tight Ends).

The Hardest Guys To Replace: Too easy. Let's make it two: WR Shaun Adair won't be easy to replace since his ability to stretch the field was crucial in the two of the last three "Rivalry" games where the Leopards prevailed - as a Lehigh fan, I'm happy to see the last of him. And you can't forget LB Andy Romans, who was the tough, hard-nosed sort of player (96 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 blocked kick returned for touchdown) that I'm extremely happy to see away from Fisher Field. (The late hit against junior QB J.B. Clark to end last year's game, though, may be the gift that keeps on giving.)

Big Name in the Incoming Class: Eagles fans will know this name: the son of the former Philadelphia Eagle, freshman RB Vaughn Hebron, is a Lafayette Leopard. The father was a prototypical speed back/kick returner (and helped the Broncos win the Super Bowl), and the son promises to also bring the same sort of speed he brought to Dover HS as a junior (before he moved to Georgia his senior year). When he left PA the first time, Vaughn left as the all-time leading rusher and point scorer at Dover - exactly what I don't like to hear as a Lehigh fan.

Incoming Class Grade: B. It's clear what coach Tavani valued in this class: trench warfare. Almost half the incoming class were either "O" or "D" linemen - and he got some great ones, like freshman DL Jason Marshalek, freshman DL Tahir Basil, and freshman OL Tyler Swoyer (who blocked for Lehigh's incoming freshman RB Zach Barket at Schuykill Haven HS). Yet there were holes that didn't seem to get filled. With four graduating linebackers this year (including the preseason Patriot League defensive player of the year, senior LB Mark Leggerio), will the fact that Tavani didn't get a single linebacker come back to hurt him? Might another quarterback have been a good idea - with only four on the roster this year, and senior QB Marc Quilling ready to graduate? Still, don't underestimate those trenches - Lafayette got some great ones in there.

Preseason So Far: As a Lehigh fan, when you see the words "Leopards" and "alarm" in the same article - as it was in a recent preseason update in the Easton Express-Times - let's face it, you pay attention. A fair amount of starters apparently were held out of the final preseason scrimmage with nicks and such - but after learning the complete story of senior RB Maurice White (who was out in mid-October last year with a very bad "turf toe" injury) and senior QB Rob Curley (who suffered a concussion in the Colgate game), it's easy to see why perhaps coach Tavani is taking it a bit easy on his team. Especially since the bye week comes in Week 1 for the Leopards - giving them eleven straight games.

All the running backs - who at one time or another had injuries befall them all the past couple of years - have been packing on the weight, too, according to Paul Reinhard of the Morning Call, in order to prepare for a long, physical season. They even have some snappy nicknames, too: "Boom" (senior RB Maurice White), "Zoom" (senior RB DeAndre Morrow) and "Coon" (senior RB Tyrell Coon). One of the big questions for the Leopards this offseason is how durable this senior trio will be.

Fan Base: I'll start this out by saying I was wrong. Last year, I said that Lafayette fans were much more defined by "The Rivalry" than Lehigh fans. That's not true: "The Rivalry" is as much a part of Lehigh as it is part of Lafayette. Last year's 31-15 win by Lehigh - finally! - over the Leopards probably was as sweet a win I've experienced as a Mountain Hawk fan - only because it stopped an excruciating four-game losing streak to Lafayette. It took that win to make me remember that a championship win, playoffs and the like without a win over "that school in Easton" is pretty hollow. (Maybe Lehigh fans really are arrogant, huh?)

By most measures, Lafayette had a great season last year. They finished 7-4. Came within a whisker of beating Holy Cross, which would have put them in line for a Patriot League championship chance. They had the Patriot League's best out-of-conference win, a 35-21 touching of the nationally-ranked Liberty Flames - on the road in Lynchburg, VA, no less. They spent time in the Sports Network Top 25. But Leopard fans would have traded it all in a second for a win over Lehigh in "The Rivalry".

There are other reasons lately why there is less joy in Leopardville, too, which have nothing to do with "The Rivalry". Over at the Lafayette board, the legendary carney2 notices that 25% of the sophomore class is gone - including LB Corey Watts, who I (and coach Tavani) tagged for big things last year. The scholarship issue is also causing consternation among the Leopard faithful - there are doubts as to Lafayette's ability to eventually offer football scholarships and still stay in compliance with Title IX. (My take is Lafayette will do what it takes to get compliant - they will have no choice. Falling behind to Lehigh is not an option.)

It's tempting to put too much stock into this. In the end, Leopard fans still are willing to give coach Tavani the benefit of the doubt - they have to. There's those Patriot League titles, those wins over Lehigh, those appearances in the FCS playoffs - they're still too recent, too glorious, to want to turf Tavani out of town after two losses last November. But there are signs that the Tavani show is starting to get a little old on Leopardville. They'll put up with it as long as the wins keep coming. But another loss to Lehigh next year, and all bets are off.

Overall Offseason: Eight games into the 2008 season, Lafayette looked like the frontrunner for the Patriot League title. They had drilled a Top 25 team and had just pounded last year's Patriot League Champions 48-13. Then senior QB Rob Curley got his concussion against Colgate, and it was the one injury that broke the Leopards' back. They had enough to beat Bucknell - and almost had enough to beat Holy Cross - but once they lost to the Crusaders, it felt like the season came apart in the fourth quarter in the loss to Lehigh. Despite the fact that the Lafayette defense was one of the best in the country at the end of the 2008 season, it must not have felt like much to crow about.

Coach Tavani seems to have attributed at least part of the late-season swoon to injury. He and the players are focused on health this year - to get through the season to be healthy for the final game. They'll survive the loss of Bob Heffner from their coaching staff, but a lot of that swagger is gone - and it could very well be exactly where coach Tavani wants his team to be, with a gigantic chip on their shoulder ("we were picked to finish fifth! Fifth!!!!!!") and seemingly "disrespected" by the rest of the League. If there's one thing I've learned about coach Tavani, it's that he makes "disrespect" into wins. He could very well make an already-dangerous Lafayette team even more dangerous.

It would not be at all surprising to see Lafayette to be playing for a Patriot League championship in late November - Tavani has done it before.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday's Word: Marathon

It's officially less than six days until the beginning of the Lehigh football season. The twelve-week "marathon" begins next Saturday against Central Connecticut State at Murray Goodman stadium, and the excitement is similar to the beginning of a race like this: everyone starts out even at the start, with the anticipation that anyone can win it.

For me, football season is also becoming a "marathon" of a different sort. As you may or may not know, not only do I write content for this wonderful blog you're reading right now, I also do a lot of other projects as well (including - it may surprise some folks to learn - a day job).

I also write the CSN Way column at the College Sporting News during the college football regular season. In my latest article there, I talk about my 27 fearless predictions for the world of FCS in 2009. (And with Indiana State state losing in the first FCS game of the year, 26-20 to NAIA Quincy, my predictions are off to a humbling start.)

This offseason, I deployed a brand new web app called College Sports Source that attempts to be a portal to all the links anyone could ever need about Division I schools. (Here's Lehigh's team page on there). It's a work-in-progress, but the entire Patriot League is set up as is most of the schools of FCS. (The rest should be done sometime this week.)

In addition to team information, College Sports Source also provides a comprehensive list of all the Division I games on TV and online. For all the FCS and FBS games on TV or online for Week One, click here.

You may have noticed the blog widget which shows Lehigh's schedule on the left hand side. I've also been developing that - and you'll be seeing the schedule blog widget popping up on other blogs as well, which pull from the same source that College Sports Source pulls its information from. There are plans for other widgets as well, including one for standings and a current week game schedule.

But more than that, this year's "marathon" for the football players of the Patriot League seems like it's going to be a very special one indeed.

Two quarterbacks - Fordham senior QB John Skelton and Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph - are NFL prospects, with Skelton most recently showing up in the New York Times as such. (And with a nickname, to boot: "Franchise".)

Nobody discounts Lehigh, Colgate or Lafayette's chances to take the Patriot League title either: the Sports Network' s Patriot League preview has them not very far behind the Rams and Crusaders, and some also a whispering that Bucknell might even be in the discussion as well. The College Sporting News also released their 2009 FCS Yearbook with an entire section on the Patriot League - with strikingly similar conclusions to the Sports Network.

All seven coaching staffs have been in place for the last four years - the only league without any head coaching turnover in the last four years. All seven teams also seem to be poised to have the same starting QBs from last year starting this year - another first. The experience on offense and on each coaching staff could mean that the quality of play in the Patriot League will be something special.

It's going to be a fun time to be a Patriot League fan this year. All this points to a very, very interesting regular-season "marathon" for the Patriot League next weekend.

And for myself, too.
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