Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lehigh 17, Villanova 38, Final

The 38-17 defeat was not a surprise to a lot of people, but it was striking to see the Mountain Hawks line up against what we want to be someday.

Lehigh got to look up close at a team that could very well win the national championship in FCS this year. The Wildcats didn't play the cleanest game in the world, but it was more than enough to put away the Mountain Hawks who fall to 0-2.

Villanova never trailed, but the complexion of the game changed in the second quarter when, down 17-7, junior RB Jaren Walker appeared to be down before hurting his left ankle and dropping the football. But the play wasn't whistled dead - and Villanova freshman DE Marlon Johnson picked up the loose ball and returned it for a crushing touchdown to go up 24-7. It was eerily similar to the play last year against Villanova when, up 13-7, senior LB Osayi Osunde stripped the ball from junior QB J.B. Clark to be returned for a TD and take a 20-7 lead they would never relinquish. (Replays appear to bear this out.)

Oddly enough, the team who lined up the most in the "Wildcat" formation wasn't the team that is currently making it famous. It was the guys in Brown & White doing it the most, lining up freshman QB Michael Colvin in the Wildcat and getting 26 yards, or 4.3 yards per carry in his 6 rushes.

Junior QB J.B. Clark largely put his accuracy problems from the first game behind him, going 20 for 31 in almost exclusively short-and-mid range passes. And sophomore QB Chris Lum came in during mop-up time and got his first action of his young career, getting a late touchdown.

Unlike last week, Lehigh held onto the ball longer than Villanova, but that was more due to the fact that the defense had their hands full with the large array of offensive weapons the Wildcats had at their disposal. Wildcat senior WR Matt Sczcur went over 100 yards rushing on 5 carries, most coming on one a 75 yard scamper that set up their first FG on the night. (Sczcur's performance reminded me of Marlon Brando in The Godfather - he didn't show up in too many frames of the movie, but when he did, boy, did you remember him.)

Junior QB Chris Whitney also ran every which way on offense for Villanova, too, to the tune of 130 yards. And worryingly for the Mountain Hawks, it's the second 300+ yard rushing team against Lehigh already this year.

Villanova was very impressive up close. They are big. They know their systems down cold, even if they were a little sloppy in execution. And they have a lot of answers to a lot of questions of both sides of the ball. They most certainly have the capability to win it all.

They're going to cause a lot more pain to teams all over FCS when all is said and done. But even while realizing that, it wasn't a very fun evening to be a Mountain Hawk fan in the wet confines of Villanova stadium tonight. Lehigh is (putting it mildly) not where the Wildcats are at this juncture. Lehigh is a work-in-progress - trying to learn from what the Wildcats already have.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Water Cooler: It's Official: Lehigh Doesn't Stand a Chance

It's just over 24 hours to gametime, and Lehigh's being given no chance to win by, well anyone else in the media.

Of course I'm no exception to this rule, predicting a 40-10 Villanova victory here and here. But I'm not even the only blogger who predicted a whitewash: Fact over at the Nova Facts Blog has as one of his keys to the Lehigh game as "showing up":

As long as the 'Cats bring their B-Game, they should beat Lehigh and if they bring their A-Game, you might see a bunch of people dressed in brown heading to their cars early. It is worth noting that Villanova destroyed the Auto Bid from the Patriot League in the playoffs last year.
The Sports Network also predicts a double-digit blowout:

These two Pennsylvania teams couldn't have had more opposite first weeks. Lehigh couldn't get its offense going in a loss against Central Connecticut State, while the Wildcats defeated FBS opponent Temple with a last-play field goal.

VILLANOVA 42, LEHIGH 13
And, as I mentioned in my preview, the student paper, the Villanovan, thinks the Lehigh game will be a nice "tuneup" for Villanova:

"I'm sure that our players are thinking 'well, we just beat Temple and Lehigh is 0-1,' but you can't get lulled to sleep," Villanova Head Coach Andy Talley said. "You can't fall asleep at the switch and look past this game. You got to be ready to go."

...

Although Lehigh does not have a ton of fire power, they have several key players returning this season.

...

There is a disparity in talent between the two teams, and Talley is leaving it to the older players to show leadership and maturity to motivate the Wildcats.

...

The game against Lehigh will provide Villanova the chance to tune up before their tough upcoming conference games.

While the local press didn't make any predictions (though I'm still waiting for Keith Groller's pick on his blog), the Morning Call, Express-Times, and Brown & White made it very clear about the challenge of the task at hand (as did coach Coen and senior DT B.J. Benning):

This Villanova team, coming off a win over Temple, is much better than the '06 version.

''We all like to make the comparison to 2006, but this is a much better team we're seeing,'' said Lehigh coach Andy Coen, who got his first win in charge of the Mountain Hawks in that 2006 visit. ''This is a veteran team, more seasoned.

''They're all back from last year when they only lost to West Virginia and James Madison, including one on the last play of the game,'' Coen said. ''Of course, having gone down there a couple of years ago and having beaten them probably works against us, too, because we're not going to sneak up on them.''

"Obviously, we need to be more balanced on the offense, and that's going to be a huge challenge given the opponent we're playing this week from a physical standpoint," Coen said. "We did create some big plays at times and I think we'll have that capability all season long, but we need to be more consistent in what we're doing."

...

"They have a sound kicking game," Coen said. "Even though they have a young placekicker (freshman PK Nick Yako) and new punter (sophomore P Dominic Scarnecchia), their cover people are very physical. That's an area we really need to win to have a chance in this game."

Junior QB Chris Whitney leads Villanova's offense. The junior enjoyed a career day against Temple. He went 24-for-35 for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Senior WR Brandyn Harvey caught nine passes for 142 yards and a TD.

"He makes the offense go," Coen said of Whitney. "When they made the change at QB a year ago, that's when they started to play well. He is a good decision-maker and can make plays with his feet -- not only running the ball but keeping the plays alive to find receivers open downfield."

...

Senior DT B.J. Benning, who was named last week's Patriot League defensive player of the week after making a career-high 12 tackles against CCSU, said the team is going to have to play much better this time if it wants to win.

"Last year we played well in the first half, but in the second half we made too many mistakes and lost the game," Benning said. "This year we're going to have to play hard all four quarters if we want to win."
Finally, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer says for the Wildcats to avoid a letdown:

The home opener has all the ingredients for a Villanova letdown.

The third-ranked Wildcats (1-0) are coming off Thursday's last-second 27-24 victory over Temple in the inaugural Mayor's Cup game. And on Sept. 19, they face Penn, another Philadelphia rival.

In between, Villanova will host Lehigh this Saturday at Villanova Stadium.

Will the Wildcats look past the Mountain Hawks? Villanova coach Andy Talley doesn't think so.

"The only thing that you can do is look at history," Talley said Monday. Three years ago, "we watched Lehigh lose to Albany" in a season opener.

Back then, the Mountain Hawks looked pitiful, fumbling six times. Most people expected Villanova to beat Lehigh easily the next week.

"They came into our game and looked great," Talley said, recalling the 31-28 loss.
What I wouldn't give to see a repeat of that scenario... I'd even be happy with a hard-fought close defeat, with the team representing Lehigh like winners.

The Marquee FCS Game on TV Nationally

Interestingly, with the McNeese State/Appalachian State game only being televised in the North Carolina area, and many local stations getting blacked out of the Richmond/Delaware tilt (on the Comcast Network) and the Montana/UC Davis game (on Comcast West), the Lehigh/Villanova game is the only FCS game which will be carried on a true national level tonight at 7:00 PM on Fox College Sports.

Illinois State and Illinois play on the Big 10 Network and North Carolina Central takes on Liberty on FamilyNet - but neither of them involve a Top 25 schoo. Meanwhile, "that school in Easton"'s game against Georgetown will be carried locally on a variety of local stations that carry the Lafayette Sports Network - but it's not a national game.

You could almost call this game the national FCS "Game of the Week".

(For a full list of tonight's TV listings - and a full list of the games being streamed online across the country, click here.)

Weather Update
There's a sun break in the middle of the afternoon, but it's still looking like a 40% chance of rain at the stadium tonight. Wind might also be a factor - 5 to 10 mph.

Go Lehigh... make us proud.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Game Preview: Lehigh at Villanova

(Photo Credit: Villanova Athletics)

The No. 3 ranked team in the nation. It promises to be the toughest game on Lehigh's schedule, and the toughest opponent any Patriot League school will face in the regular season this year.

Villanova fans can smell a blowout win. And they don't care who knows it.

The Villanovan, Nova Nation's student newspaper stated this week that there "is a disparity in talent between the two teams." If that weren't enough bulletin board fodder for the Mountain Hawks, the student paper then proceeded to state that the game would "provide Villanova the chance to tune up before their tough upcoming conference games."

It seems like a lifetime ago for both teams that QB Sedale Threatt in 2006 travelled to Villanova and upset the Wildcats 31-28 in their home opener. That year, Lehigh had designs on another Patriot League title run, while Villanova struggled to a 6-5 season and failed to make the FCS playoffs yet again.

Since that upset, Nova Nation is back. They went 9-2 in the regular season last year, only losing to FBS West Virginia and losing on a hail mary to James Madison. They throttled the Patriot League champ, Colgate, 55-28, before losing 31-27 to James Madison again, this time in the playoffs. And now they're No. 3 in the nation, fresh off an upset over an FBS squad.

It's hard to beleive that Villanova at one time was considered a possible leaguemate for Lehigh in the Patriot League. Now, it appears, the games between the two schools have become jokes - tuneups for Villanova, who face more worthy competition in the CAA.

It will be up to Lehigh - win or lose - to change Villanova fans' impression of their team.

Game Notes
Lehigh's game notes show little different from last week. Coen hopes to get back senior LB Heath Brickner and senior LB Troy Taylor - both who had dings in last week's game versus Central Connecticut State. Senior LB Al Pierce and senior DT Phil Winett will be out for the second consecutive week.

One small chage was sophomore DT Andrew Knapp gets the start on a banged-up front line, with sophomore DE Cody Connare getting a fair number of reps as well. Overall, though, not much changes from last week.

Villanova's game notes are listed at this link.

Weather Report
It's going to be a soggy Friday, but there's hope that the downpours will be gone by the time the 7:00 PM kickoff rolls around. From "heavy showers" to "showers possible", here's hoping that the clouds will clear. Right now the forecast calls for a 40% chance of showers and a high of 71 degrees.

If it rains, winds of 10 to 20 mph are expected on Friday. I'm assuming there might be high winds on Saturday, too.

A Word on Villanova
Villanova (6,335 undergraduates: Villanova, PA) has known only one head coach since resuming football in 1985 after a five-year hiatus: Andy Talley, well-known in the Philadelphia area and something of a legend. Ask any reporter about coach Talley and generally speaking they love the guy.

There are a lot of links between Lehigh, Villanova, coach Talley, and coach Coen. In 2002, 2004 and 2005 Coen was Penn's offensive coordinator, and the Quakers gave Villanova some true battles as that "Big 5"-inspired football rivalry was rekindled by the Wildcats. The last two games were nailbiting games going down to the final seconds that Penn barely lost (16-13 in 2004, 28-24 in 2005).

In 2004, Lehigh barely lost to Villanova by a 22-16 score in a game with some controversy. Early in the second half of that game, a Villanova player chop-blocked junior DT Royce Morgan and ended his season. There was also some controversy in the post game press conference when there was mention of stealing Lehigh's offensive signals as well.

In 2006, Lehigh started the year with a 17-16 loss to Albany, and it didn't look like coach Coen's first-ever coaching victory would come against the Wildcats - on the road, no less. But in what was undoubtedly QB Sedale Threatt's greatest moment as a Mountain Hawk, he would lead Lehigh to their best overall game, a 31-28 game that was an entire team effort. Threatt had 300 total yards on the day and 2 TDs. Coach Talley said the following year: “They outplayed us completely. Luck had nothing to do with the game last year. They just knocked us off the field.”

The last two years, Lehigh has struggled against the Wildcats. In 2007 at Murray Goodman, Villanova, down a bunch of starters from the heat and with injuries from their loss to FBS Maryland the week before, prevailed 30-20. In a scenario that would replay itself way too often in 2006 for the Mountain Hawks, Lehigh's mental errors (including missed kicks and not converting in the red zone) would play large in the final result. In 2008, a big fumble return for touchdown would spark a 33-14 romp by the Wildcats.

No wonder why Villanova thinks they're our daddy.

Last Time Out for Villanova
After falling behind 10-0 at halftime, the Wildcats would take advantage of a multitude of Temple turnovers (5) to get back in the game. The final Temple interception - with under two minutes to play - was all the Wildcats needed to pull the upset. They would drive to the Temple 10 yard line and boot through the game-winning FG for a 27-24 victory.

Villanova's FBS win was only one of three on the weekend for FCS school. Two other schools from the CAA: Richmond (24-19 over FBS Duke) and William & Mary (26-14 over FBS Virginia) also provided upsets.

LFN's Drink of the Week
In honor of the Villanovan's reference to Lehigh as a tune-up game, might I suggest a drink - the tune-up - in honor of their assessment. You'll need cranberry, Apple Schnapps, Vodka, Apple Cider, ice cream and a cherry. Perhaps Villanova tailgaters might be under the table after one, but for Lehigh folks such a drink could be considered, well, a tune-up.

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

Breaking Down Villanova
Offense
Villanova runs a spread-style offense and also runs a fair amount of plays in the "Wildcat" formation. (No word if it's Villanova where it was invented, but I beleive it is.) In the "Wildcat", there are different types of splits and formations involving direct snaps to the running back, backfield motion, and sometimes even putting two quarterbacks on the field and sending one in motion. It's the craze right now since it's unpredictable and difficult to key on.

Last time Lehigh played Villanova, senior QB Antawn Young was the statring QB, but it was junior QB Chris Whitney that won the job the following week against Penn and started the Wildcats on their magical run last year. Whitney epitomizes guts and determination as a QB - he's not always the prettiest passer or the fastest runner, but when he needs to get a ball somewhere he gets it there. Young is more athletic, and sometimes he has shown up in the Wildcat with Whitney - something to keep in mind.

Part of the genius of Villanova's offense is their versatility of targets, which includes rushing yardage. Two 5'9 juniors, junior RB Aaron Ball and junior RB Angelo Babbaro are the "running backs", but more accurately Whitney, Ball, Babbaro, junior WR Matt Szczur or freshman WR Dorian Wells might take off with the ball, sometimes off a reverse or misdirection but also from a direct snap. While this crew only got 64 yards rushing against Temple's big "D" line, they are tough and you can't key on one guy.

Similarly, Villanova's passing offense doesn't focus on one player either, though senior WR Brandyn Harvey was the Owl-killer last weekend to the tune of 142 yards and 1 touchdown. Harvey is more their possesion receiver: junior WR Matt Szczur and freshman WR Dorian Wells both get into the act, too - both could be some of the fastest players Lehigh will see this year.

The Wildcat "O" line did a fine job in pass protection against an FBS defense, and have some awfully big boys on it. Senior LT Jonathan Bugli is the leader of this mammoth line that averages 6'3 and nearly 300 lbs across. This line - with 300 lb linemen behind them on the two deep and 6'5 junior TE Chris Farmer on the same line, trust me when I say we will not wear this "O" line down easily.

Defense
Villanova one again brings the 3-3-5 stack defense that is also employed at FBS West Virginia. The stack defense is used to leverage speed and to use it to combat the spread offenses that are springing up around college football these days. They require a boatload of speed and sound tackling, and Villanova has it.

The "D" line has a different role to play in the 3-3-5 stack than on most "D" lines. Senior DE Tim Kukucka gets rotated into the "D" line, but is a scary foce underneath in terms of pass rushing and tackles for loss. Also an important person in this scheme - and is sometimes forgotten - is senior NG Phil Matusz, the prototypical big "D" lineman this scheme calls for. (He's bulked up to 300 lbs.)

The stack defense allows the linebacking unit to use its speed to blitz from, well, all angles. Senior LB Osayi Osunde used that speed to devastating effect against Lehigh last year when he stripped the ball from junior QB J.B. Clark and returned the fumble for a big defensive TD. Junior LB Terrence Thomas is also a devastating force in the middle.

In the stack, the safeties take on special meaning since they tend to take on linebacker responsibilites often, and one Villanova's best athletes on defense is there: senior FS Ross Ventrone, who had the fumble recovery against Temple last Thursday. On the plus side, there are four underclassmen in this key unit, though they've all got a lot of speed to burn. Worthy of note is junior SS John Dempsey intercepted Temple's final drive to set up the late game-winning field goal.

A big part of Villanova's game, as you can see, is turnovers. They are fast, agressive, and create mistakes.

Special Teams
Not a bad way to start your first-ever college football game: freshman PK Nick Yako's 32 and 27 yard boots were the difference in last week's game. Sophomore P Dominic Scarnecchia also performed will in his debut: 5 punts averaging 37 yards per punt..

Junior RB Angelo Babbaro and
junior WR Matt Szczur are very good return men, combining to return 5 kickoffs for 147 yards last week. Senior WR Brandyn Harvey is the punt return man, but he didn't have any returns for yardage last week.

I'll say it again: this could be one of the best units Lehigh faces all year, as well, in the return department.

Keys To The Game
1. Minimizing mistakes. With a Top 25 team like this, keeping mistakes to a minimum will be huge. It's not just turnovers: penalties, missed assignments on defense, even extra points will need to be in mid-season form. IT may not need to be a perfect game, but it may need to be close..
2. Time of possession. The offense needs to play some ball control and keep the chains moving - the best defense against the spread is to make sure it doesn't get on the field. A balanced attack - with junior QB J.B. Clark and junior RB Jay Campbell - will be crucial.
3. Aggressive "D". Villanova is a team that cannot be allowed to get in offensive rhythm. Lehigh's defense will need to be at their disruptive best - with senior LB Matt Cohen patrolling the field - to have a chance.
4.Don't Get Knocked Around. While Villanova has power in the trench, their skill players can be worn down. Don't be afraid to play physical on offense and defense - and bring the pain every single play.

Fearless Prediction
I've seen quite a few Lehigh games in my time, but I haven't seen a challenge like this for the Mountain Hawks in years. Villanova is the real deal: powerful in the trench, speedy with the skill players, and play an offense and defense that is difficult to crack.

I think Lehigh will improve over last week's game, but it won't nearly be enough. They'll fight hard - maybe even impressing some of Nova Nation along the way with some guts and determination - but asking Lehigh to beat the No. 3 team in the nation is too tall an order. Villanova wins handily, and the Mountain Hawks go into the bye week 0-2.

Lehigh 10, Villanova 40

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

LFN's Players of the Week, Week 1 vs. CCSU

Every year, I try to come up with a "LFN Players of the Week" survey that you, members of the Lehigh nation, can vote on for who deserves to be honored online. This week I was unable to put up the survey because 1) I was pretty disappointed with the results of the first game and 2) because this week has been a mess for me.

I'm still going to issue "Players of the week" - and hopefully I'll have a survey set up next week, either on the blog itself or the Facebook Page - but for this week, it's pretty easy to determine the "Players of the Week" as they were honored by the league as well. For good measure, I'll also add one more very deserving player on his debut.

Offensive Hawk of the Week:
*None*

Defensive Hawks of the Week (tie):
Senior DT B.J. Benning (12 tackles, 1 1/2TFL, including one 3rd down stop that sent the back end over end)
Junior SS John Venerio (10 tackles, 1 INT in end zone in debut as starter)

Special Teams Hawk of the Week:
Junior CB/RS John "Fear Itself" Kennedy (93 yard KO return for TD, 2 tackles, 1 29 yard fumble return)

Tomorrow: Villanova preview. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

FCS East Wrapup: Nova Beats Temple... Again

Every week, I try to go through the rest of FCS Eastern football and highlight some of the other goings-on in FCS that have an impact on the subdivision in which Lehigh plays. This week saw three different FCS teams - all at one time rumored as expansion targets for the Patriot League - upset FBS teams. It seems inconceivable now that any of them would accept a place in a league with need-based scholarships.

But first, let's look a bit more at the Patriot League's wins - and losses - in Week One.

  • Holy Cross' 20-7 win over Georgetown may have been somewhat underwhelming by my account - but senior QB Dominic Randolph's 36-for-56 414 yard performance earned him the Sports Network's Offensive Player of the Week honors anyway as well as the Gridiron Club of Boston's "Golden Helmet" award. It probably wasn't the way Randolph wanted to break the Patriot League's all-time passing yardage mark - trailing 7-6 to Georgetown entering the fourth quarter, with 2 interceptions - but it was still a record-breaker, and the most impressive offensive performance on the weekend. The "close call" also didn't hurt the Crusaders' Sports Network Top 25 ranking, either, as Holy Cross held on to the No. 25 spot. But certainly head coach Tom Gilmore will want to see more than 20 points to show for the offense against Sacred Heart at home last week - after the Pioneers were shocked 31-12 by non-scholarship Marist last week.
  • Georgetown, who were widely expected to get creamed by Holy Cross, played up the "moral victory" of the 20-7 loss. Senior DE Chidi Obinawu and sophmore DB Wayne Heimuli shined, with 10 tackles and 5 tackles for loss between them in a good defensive effort that couldn't survive Georgetown's offensive woes. With Lafayette (coming off a bye week) next week, it underscores the fact that Georgetown may have the worst schedule in all of D-I: with two tough league contests in the first two weeks (and, for good measure, the defending FCS champions Richmond the second to last week of the season), the Hoyas may be out of the Patriot League title race by next weekend.
  • In a rough week for the Patriot League, evne what should have been the best win on the weekend - Colgate's 35-23 over a title contender in the NEC, Monmouth - ended up on a downer. After the game, sophomore RB Nate Eachus - who ran for 139 yards and 3 TDs in the game - came up with broken ribs after the third touchdown. Senior RB Mark Colon took his place in the Monmouth game, but didn't exactly light it up with 33 yards rushing and a 2.5 average. Will junior QB Greg Sullivan be able to pick up the slack for the Raiders against Stony Brook next week? The Seawolves are eager to put a 17-10 loss to Hofstra behind them and still have last year's 42-26 domination of Colgate fresh on their minds, too. If Colgate suffers another loss to the Seawolves, the chants of Patriot League impotence in the face of teams with "full scholarships" will grow louder.
  • On paper, Fordham looked like it could hang with a team like Rhode Island. Forham had senior QB John Skelton, they had a surprising number of seniors on both sides of the ball, and looked to be ahead of Rhode Island, whose third head coach in the last three years was making his head coaching debut on Saturday in Kingston, RI. Instead, Rhode Island's new offense ran roughshod over Fordham, racking up a 41-7 lead before Skelton and the offense scored late to make the score a bit more "respectable" 41-28 win. The stat sheet for Fordham - heading into a bye week this week - isn't pretty at all: five turnovers, including four fumbles. 125 yards return yards allowed. 455 yards of total offense allowed. Head coach Tom Masella will have a lot to discuss with his veteran team before they face crosstown rival Columbia in a couple of weeks.
  • Bucknell hadn't beaten Duquesne since 2002 - but the Bison ceased to be the Dukes' daddy in 2009 after their 24-19 loss. Once again - here's those dreaded words again - "full scholarships" could be a major factor in the Dukes' resurgence, as senior QB Connor Dixon, a transfer from Michigan State, was one of the key ingredients in Duquesne's win. Once again, a Patriot League school would give up over 400+ yards of offense to a team with "full scholarships", albeit Duquense does not appear at this time to be carrying the FCS limit of 63. With Colgate "only" giving up 300 to Monmouth (including a 100 yard rusher in senior RB David Sinisi), Patriot League teams not named Holy Cross gave up mammoth numbers of yards.
  • Meanwhile, around the CAA, teams that once were bandied about as expansion targets for football knocked off FBS school. The biggest - and arguably the most surprising - was William & Mary's 26-14 shocker over Virginia of the ACC. Rather than an App State-over-Michigan affair, though, it was mostly a story of Virginia's self-destruction - seven turnovers, including Tribe PK Brian Pate making 3-of-6 FG attempts from six of those gifts and the seventh being returned by freshman DB B.W. Webb for the game-clinching TD with 2:39 left. Time will tell, but it may have been more a story of Virginia sucking in the ACC rather than the Tribe's dominance in the CAA. Still, William & Mary jumped to No. 7 in the country with the win.
  • Another not-exactly-a-surprise was the defending FCS national champions Richmond beating an outmatched Duke team 24-16. Unlike the William & Mary game, the Spiders' domination of the Blue Devils was more dominating, their "stonewall defense" holding Duke to 19 yards rushing and leading the game almost the entire way. Senior QB Eric Ward didn't exactly light up the scoreboard either, going 12-for-23 for 143 yards passing, but it was enough - and more impressively, the Spiders didn't turn over the ball once. They rode that win to the No. 1 ranking in the country, and face off next against 1-0 Delaware (who throttled D-II West Chester 35-0).
  • As if Lehigh needed any more bad news, Lehigh learned that they will be facing the No. 3 team in the nation as Villanova was one of three FCS teams that upset an FBS team last week with their 27-24 "upset" over Temple. After Villanova failed to score in the first half, falling behind 10-0, senior FS Ross Ventrone opened up the second half with a 59 yard fumble return for a touchdown that changed the momentum in the game. Temple would turn over the ball five times - the final one which set up Villanova's game-winning FG with no time left on the clock.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Sunday's Word: Expectations

This morning, I got up, in as foul a mood as I was yesterday evening after watching Lehigh's awful offensive day against Central Connecticut State. As is often the case, I started breakfast and searched for the right Sunday "Word". It didn't take me long to find it.

The first full weekend of the Division I football season is always chock-full of "expectations". Before a single uniform gets dirty, every college football fan has higher hopes for their teams - sometimes just to be a little bit better than last year. Others hope to win a league title, and (in FCS, anyway) even compete for a true national championship.

We Lehigh fans in particular had extremely high "expectations" for our team after an unusually optimistic offseason. Despite ending last year with a 5-6 record, the Mountain Hawks won the game that counted - the one against "that school in Easton". Somewhere along the line, the good feelings about the win started to moprh into something not seen among Lehigh fans as long as I can remember: optimism. We have the QB. We have the defense. I mean, is our team really that far away from Colgate and Holy Cross?

*****

Meanwhile, something else was happening around the Patriot League as well - other teams were undergoing a sudden surge of optimism of their own. Everyone knows about Fordham starting to offer scholarhips starting in the next recruiting class, but probably most of Fordham was also surprised to know that senior QB John Skelton, at the helm of last year's 5-6 Ram team, was a bona-fide NFL prospect. Scholarships, plus Skelton, equals optimism on Rose Hill.

Similarly, at Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph chose to return for a fifth year to (most likely) break all the remaining Patriot League passing records he doesn't have already - and almost every all-American team on the planet had him on their preseason all-American list. Cumulating with Holy Cross' first Top 25 Network ranking since 2002, all of a sudden optimism of a Patriot League championship - and a resurgence of the Crusader program - came to be in Worcester.

Somewhere along the way, this optimism became "expectations" for the entire league. While everyone "expected" Georgetown to roll over against Holy Cross, a Patriot League sweep over their opening-day opponents didn't seem so outlandish.

CCSU? The third-placed team in the NEC? Lehigh will crush them - don't you remember, they beat "that school in Easton"? After all Lehigh is a Patriot League title contender... that was 5-6 last year... and they were picked.... oh, tied for third in the Patriot League. But didn't Lehigh beat them 58-10 the last time they played? They can't be that much better than that team in.... 2001... could they?

Rhode Island? Don't you know - Fordham is offering scholarships (next year, but hey,) and they have an NFL prospect for a quarterback. Rhode Island has another new head coach - don't mind they play in the same league that brought you Richmond (last year's FCS National Champions, don't you know) and Villanova (oh yeah, who beat FBS Temple this Thursday). Did I mention that the New York Post wrote up that Skelton is an NFL prospect? Fordham will take them... won't they?

Duquesne? Bucknell may be picked to finish sixth, and their best player, junior WR Shaun Pasternak, has his foot in a cast - but hey, they've always beaten Duquesne, right? Never mind that the Dukes have more football scholarships than they've ever had, including a transfer quarterback from Michigan State. The Bison will still find a way to win that game... right?

By the time the games of the Patriot League kicked off at 12:30 PM on Saturday, optimism - and, by extension, "expectations" - couldn't have been higher.

Capping it all off, it was the height of irony: all offseason, Patriot League fans were whining that the League needed football scholarships because they could no longer compete with the other big dogs of FCS. These same fans - of course, this includes me - now had "expectations" that the Patriot League would do some damage against these same teams we had suddenly fallen behind.

*****

And one by one each "expectation" was crushed. And the reality of what really exists in the Patriot League right here, right now stares fans squarely in the face.

Lehigh fans' vision of a Patriot League title-caliber defense and a powerful offense were laid in tatters by the end of the afternoon, the victims of a 28-21 butt-whoopin' by CCSU. While Lehigh defense was on the field 44 minutes, they still gave up over 400 yards to CCSU, and the "powerful" Mountain Hawk offense had a whopping seven pass completions on the day.

Holy Cross and Dom Randolph, offensive juggernaut and anointed savior of the Crusader football program, trailed Georgetown 7-6 going into the 4th quarter before finally scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns for an underwhelming 20-7 victory. The Patriot League's member of the Top 25 trailed for three quarters to a team who has exactly one Patriot League win in the last three years.

Fordham and their NFL prospect quarterback trailed 41-7 to Rhode Island after the first play of the second half - before scoring three times thereafter on the second-team defense to cut the final bloodshed to 41-28. (In a related story, Richmond upended FBS Duke 24-16 and William & Mary slammed FBS Virginia 26-14, making the CAA the only FCS conference in America to have wins over FBS programs this year.)

And the final insult would be that Duquesne would never trail against Bucknell, finally outlasting the Bison 24-19 after recovering an onside kick to seal the victory. It would be their first win against Bucknell since 2002.

Curiously, the one exception to this game of Patriot League "expectations" was Colgate. In retrospect, coach Biddle seems like a genius for ramping down any optimism for his team: mentioning in the Utica Observer-Dispatch that his "O" line had not yet gelled, that first team all-Patriot League CB Wayne Moten had left the team. Most Patriot League fans felt that Colgate was vulnerable to an early season "upset" by Monmouth - based on historically being slow starters, despite the presence of much of their offensive output from last year: senior WR Pat Simonds, junior QB Greg Sullivan, and sophomore RB Nate Eachus. They would never trail in a 35-23 win at home under the lights in Hamilton. (When the town of Hamilton wasn't made dark by a power outage, that is.)

*****

It wasn't a clean sweep, but it took all of one week for Patriot League fans to wonder about "expectations" for the league going forward. If Rhode Island could do that to Fordham, and CCSU could do that to Lehigh, what could fans possibly expect for this year? Could the Patriot League be the weakest playoff conference in FCS? And can we even expect for Holy Cross to be a dominant force in the league?

It's still to early to say if the NEC has bypassed the Patriot League competitively - too much relies on the weeks to come - but it's quite possible that folks will look back at this weekend and see this as the week the Patriot League fell behind the NEC due to fact that they started offering scholarships. As for the CAA, unless Holy Cross beats Northeastern later in the year it's looking like a mortal lock that the Patriot League will go 0-fer against them - more evidence that the Patriot League is falling even further behind the big dogs of FCS. (Which will help not one bit any "expectations" that the Patriot League will expand any time soon.)

*****

More locally, Lehigh fan's "expectations" went, in the span of three hours, from a Patriot League title contender to wondering if the Mountain Hawks can get a first down against Villanova. And even looking ahead, even the rest of Lehigh's out-of- conference schedule - Princeton, Harvard, and Yale - don't seem like easy wins at all. As a matter of fact, the last time Lehigh played all three of these schools they lost.

Yes, Virginia - Lehigh fans have gone from thinking about winning the Patriot League title to wondering if they'll win any of the out-of-conference games on the schedule. (Such is the life of a Lehigh fan.)

There is a silver lining, though. Lehigh enters the Villanova game with about the same "expectations" that George W. Bush had in any international summit - any positive gain could almost be seen as a moral victory. Maybe after the probable 0-2 start to the year we'll then be in the seat Colgate occupied before the start of the season.
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