Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lehigh 14, Princeton 17, Final

"Excruciating" has to be a strong candidate for "Sunday's Word" after watching this game - a game that was winnable.

Want proof? Just look at the box score. Princeton only gained 163 yards of total offense. Sounds great - until you realize that sophomore QB Tommy Wornham got 68 of those yards on one play, a fake to junior RB Jordan Culbreath which instead was a designed run in which he went into the end zone untouched.

Lehigh got 224 yards passing - great in comparison to Princeton's total of 47 yards, right? Unless you factor in interceptions - one returned by junior LB Stephen Cody for a 77 yard pick six. The other was grabbed by senior DB Wilson Cates in Lehigh territory might have been harmless - but Princeton converted one of their two third-down conversions on the afternoon (and for good measure their only fourth-down conversion) which resulted in a 31 yard field goal by senior PK Ben Bologna.

You look at the box score, and it defies belief. Princetion won a game with only six first downs? A game where they punted the ball nine times? A game where their top two running backs combined for 41 net yards? A game where the Tigers made it into the red zone once? Once?

If you're a Princeton fan, you have to be looking at the box score and wondering how on Earth they won. But they did. They won on two big plays - two more big plays than Lehigh was able to convert against Princeton. They won on big Lehigh mistakes, on both offense and defense - mistakes that eclipsed the rest of the offensive and defensive efforts.

Princeton kills you by getting the lead and killing you on mistakes. And that's how they won today. I'd go as far as to say that all seventeen Tiger points were a direct result of Lehigh mistakes.

To take nothing away from Princeton's defense - Cody's pick six wasn't from a bad throw, it was from a superb individual play. Senior FS Dan Koplovich did a good job shutting down Lehigh's passing game, and senior LB Scott Britton also had a great game for the Tigers.

And the big mistakes obscured some very good individual efforts by Lehigh, too. Junior RB Jay Campbell had a carrer-high 88 rushing yards on 22 carries. Senior LB Matt Cohen make his mark felt on defense with 8 tackles and 3 tackles for loss with 2 sacks. Sophomore WR Jake Drwal had a great game with 6 catches for 58 yards and a TD. Junior DB/RS John Kennedy had 100 yards on returns, including one of 40 yards.

After junior QB J.B. Clark was benched in the 3rd quarter, sophomore QB Chris Lum gave the offense an undeniable lift, going 6-for-7 on his opening drive. After a miscommunication on 4th down turned over the ball to Princeton deep in his own territory, in his next drive he went 3-for-4 (including a 30 yard pass to senior WR Jimmy Potocnie) and ending with a 5 yard TD run from Lum where Lehigh's "O" line just got some momentum, and just bowled over Princeton's defensive front.

Yet after the Mountain Hawk defense gave Lehigh a chance to turn a loss into a win, Lum and the offense couldn't ultimately make it happen. Lehigh could win the battles in the box score, but they couldn't win the one statistic that counts: points.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Water Cooler: 10 Years Today

(Graphic courtesy WKYC)

Ten years ago today, I was late to a football game.

It was a picture-perfect night for football. While I wasn't a blogger about Lehigh football at that time, I still was a crazy Lehigh fan, and despite the fact I lived in Connecticut I had somehow convinced my friend Matt to go to the first night game at Palmer Stadium in Princeton with me. He was coming back from the Yankee game earlier that day, and I drove down to meet him in central New Jersey to pick him up to head to Princeton.

That day the Yankee game fatefully ran later than usual, and we got to Princeton after dark. So we found ourselves wandering around the Princeton campus, after listening to the first quarter on the radio.

It's then when we met Kim and a friend of hers. Kim wasn't a Princeton alumna, nor had she ever seen a college football game before that day. She had been volunteering for the Red Cross and was helping recovery efforts from Hurricane Floyd that had passed through earlier that week. She got a bunch of complimentary tickets from the Red Cross, and at the last minute decided to go to the game.

We bumped into each other struggling to find the biggest landmark on campus. She and her friend needed help finding the stadium. Out of the blue, she asked the guy with the sideburns and Lehigh T-shirt where the stadium was. I said we didn't know, but we walked and ultimately found it.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Serendipity is a word thrown around way to much these days, but after being married for eight years it's something I often think about. Two of the choices I made - going to Lehigh instead of another school, and getting to the Princeton game late - changed my life forever. Had I gone to Drexel, we may never have met. Had I made sure to get to Palmer Stadium on time - a game where Lehigh blanked Princeton, 31-0, incidentally - we may never have met. There are an awful lot of scenarios I can paint where we never meet.

But I remain very happy that it did happen. And Kim puts up with a lot from me that most other wives don't need to endure - some late nights writing previews, Saturdays at the game, post-game press conferences that sometimes drag on too long. She also puts up with a lot of chatter about Lehigh from me, too: either crooning on incessantly when they win, or endless kvetching when they lose.

That's why there's no one better. And I have a day ten years ago to thank for that.

****

This weekend ends a month-long drive to collect 5,000 books to support Reading Rocks!, a joint program between St. Luke's Hospital and Lehigh. If you're going to the game, you're encouraged by Lehigh Athletics to bring new or gently used children's books for donation. As a thank-you, you'll receive a voucher for a complimentary Lehigh University Men's or Women's basketball game. (Pretty good deal for children's books that you were going to bring to the yard sale anyway!)

The books will be collected at the St. Luke's vehicle near the Kids Day activity area, so don't forget!

****

Also, in support of the American Football Coaches Association's national charity project, Coach for the Cure MD, Coach Coen will be sporting an armband with their insignia. Coaches around the country this weekend will be raising awareness of the disorder Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

****

During the bye week, there were a host of interesting pieces on Lehigh football players that came out that I didn't compile. Here they are:

The Morning Call: Jim Thorpe's WR Craig Zurn an old-school player for Lehigh
Lehigh Athletics: SS Jesse Sanchez is Pursuing His Passion

****

Finally, here are my weekly Patriot League picks, partially compiled from my weekly column at the College Sporting News.

Fordham at Colgate.
The question is: which Colgate running back will get 200 yards this week? Sophomore Jordan McCord? Sophomore Nate Eachus? The third waterboy from the left? The only way qaurterback John Skelton and the rest of the Rams have a chance is if they keep the turnovers down and play much more disciplined ball they showed in their first two games. Don’t count on it.

‘Retched Raiders 41, Lovable Lambies 21

Penn at Lafayette. Hope you like defense: in the last three meetings between these two local rivals, no team has scored more than 24 points. Look for a lot of punts, hard-hitting, and maybe even a defensive touchdown: and a win for head coach Frank Tavani, linebacker Mark Leggerio, and the Leopards.

Tavani’s Blunt Objects 11, Bagnoli’s Raw Meat 9

Towson at Morgan State and Howard at Georgetown. With 0-3 FBS Maryland struggling so bad, Maryland and DC have an opportunity to showcase their FCS teams this week in interesting regional rivalries. At Morgan State, look for Towson defensive lineman Yaky Ibia to build on his sack totals, and at Georgetown look for the Hoyas to score their first offensive touchdown on the year. Running back Charlie Houghton might even score two.

Fightin’ Unitases 24, Fightin’ Roosevelt Browns 16
Hoyas Score-A 17, Georgia Brown’s Bison Burgers 6

BONUS GAME:

Marist at Bucknell. The Red Foxes come to Lewisburg at a good time for the Bison: they desperately need to develop some more offense and some more depth. The Red Foxes, who stunned Sacred Heart 31-12 on opening weekend but haven't scored much since, won against the Pioneers in a very Bucknell-esque way: through interception returns for touchdowns. Count on coach Landis to keep the ball on the ground more - and win the games.

Runnin' Bison 27, Flattened Foxes 12

BONUS EASTERN LEAGUE PICKS OF INTEREST:

Northeastern at No. 2 Villanova. You’ve got to figure that the Huskies will pull off an impressive upset against a CAA squad sometime this year. Could they do it against Villanova, ready to show up on national TV next week in an obvious letdown situation? While it’s tempting to pick against quarterback Chris Whitney and company, common sense prevails.

Wildcats Don’t Stumble 27, Don’t Try to Out-Rocky A Philadelphia Team 13

Delaware at No. 5 William & Mary. If Blue Hen quarterback Pat Devlin had problems with Delaware State’s pass rush at home last week (in a 27-17 win in the “First State” Cup), just imagine what trouble he might have against Tribe defesive lineman Adrian Tracy.

Yo, Adrians 24, Devlin’s Devils 0

Dartmouth at No. 6 New Hampshire. A good policy when picking games is to never pick the team that wants to cancel a series because in their minds it has become uncompetitive. In this “Granite Bowl", go with the nationally-ranked home team.

Granite Wildcat Gridders 56, “Play UNH Or Die?” 0

Stony Brook at No. 15 UMass. No disrespect to the Seawolves, who’s impressive last-second 28-27 win over Brown earned them a deserved first victory, but UMass, behind the efforts of defensive lineman Michael Hanson (16 tackles, 2 sacks), have been the class of CAA North this early part of the season and it’s hard to picture the tide stopping right now.

Roll Minutemen 40, Bowled-Over Fictional Sea Creatures 3

Brown at Harvard. Last year, this game catapulted wideout Buddy Farnham and the Bears to a share of the Ivy league title. This year, both the Crimson and Bears are coming back from late closes losses to Holy Cross and Stony Brook respectively. Look for a spirited battle between teams desperate to avoid an 0-2 start - and also look for Crimson quarterback Collier Winters to build on his solid week one performance and allow the Crimson to enact some revenge.

Red Shelly Winters’ 28, Brown Buddy Boys 27

Finally, I think Central Connecticut State will beat Columbia 27-21 this weekend. But I'll be rooting for the Lions.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Game Preview: Princeton at Lehigh

Before last year's Princeton game, I said that contest would be a " litmus test to see if Lehigh fans deserve to be excited about this football team."

A year later, nothing has changed, except maybe the urgency. The Mountain Hawks need to avoid an 0-3 start in the worst way possible.

It might be too early to call this a must-win game - after all, the schedule has been brutal (with a visit to the No. 2 ranked team in the nation, Villanova), and key players have been out with injury. There's historic precedence: "that school in Easton" dropped five tough games in the middle of 2007, yet roared into league play and took the Patriot League title, so it certainly is possible to recover from an 0-3 start.

But it feels like this team needs a win - any win will do - to open up this four-game homestand and to send the fans home happy. Something to show for the hard work the team has put in.

The big win - and the "big things" that DL Brian Jackson alluded to in the post-game press conference after the big win in "The Rivalry" - seem so far away now. It's not just that Lehigh lost their first two games. It's that they were dominated statistically. CCSU held the ball for nearly three quarters. Villanova had two 100 yard rushers against us. CCSU shut down our passing offense. We made some improvement on offense against Villanova, but not enough to score more than one touchdown when the game's outcome was in doubt. Lehigh has allowed on average 269 yards rushing per game - last in the Patriot League.

These stats cannot stand, or it's going to be a long year.

The coaching staff mentioned multiple times this week that the team went "back to basics" to improve during the bye. They'll need to execute the basics better - like tackling and positioning - if they hope to beat Princeton, who beat them 10-7 last year in a game where Lehigh failed to score an offensive touchdown.

The good part about football season is that an awful lot is forgotten after a "W". And that's what's most important about this week's game: Lehigh needs the fans to forget the performance from the first two games and to focus on some positives after a win.

While it's not technically a "must win", a win certainly would take a lot of pressure off - and start some home-field advantage and re-establish some dominace over Princeton, who have now split their last four games against the Mountain Hawks. Lehigh really needs the salve a win can provide.

Game Notes
The game notes show Lehigh's leading rusher, junior RB Jaren Walker, is off the depth chart as his ankle injury from the Villanova game hasn't healed yet. In his place is sophomore RB Matt Fitz, who carried the ball a handful of times against Villanova. You wonder if maybe one or more of the freshmen - freshman RB Zach Barket or freshman RB Tony Kablan - also might get some time to try to prove themselves.

Happily, the bye week sees a host of important defenders return: junior NG David Brown, senior LB Troy Taylor, senior LB Al Pierce and senior LB Heath Brickner - who was also moved from an inside to an outside linebacker position. Pierce is second on the depth chart: sophomore LB Devin Greene, who saw action in the first two games this year, starts in his place. Unfortunately senior DL Phil Winett still is out with a foot injury.

Princeton's game notes, some of the best in the business, can be found here.

Weather Report
It looks like a picture perfect day - in the early afternoon, anyway. The weather report currently is calling for a partly cloudy day with a high of 65, there is a 30% chance that showers might come in late. Stay tuned.

A Word on Princeton
Last year, Princeton fans wondered if their team had the ability to close out games. While they did manage to close out Lehigh last year after Lehigh couldn't convert a 4th-and-1 at the Princeton 45 yard line, they didn't close out many more in 2008, ending with a 4-6 record.

Princeton's record in 2007 and 2008, hovering close to .500, is more of head coach Roger Hughes' legacy as head coach of the Tigers, though it hasn't always seemed that way. Led by speedy and accurate QB Jeff Terrell and lockdown corner CB J.J. Artis in 2006 the Tigers were Ivy League co-champions basking in a 9-1 record.

That year, the Tigers were ridiculously good at holding onto the football and doing the "little things" like hitting gaps and blocking downfield. That team did play 60 minutes every week in tune to an 9-1 record, their only blemish being a tough loss at Cornell. I saw them up close: they were a tough team that did all the little things right. Their level of execution was remarkable.

But since then, Princeton has gone through several quarterbacks looking for Terrell's replacement, none who were able to deliver the Tigers a title run. And while Princeton has had some standout defenders, they haven't had the same type of athlete Artis was either. Sometimes that's the difference between 9-1 and 4-6.

Last Time Out for Princeton
Look at the scoreboard, and you'd think Princeton might have gotten humiliated by The Citadel in a 38-7 defeat. Look closer, though, and you see a team that was only down 10-7 at the half and still in it in the 3rd quarter. Only two disastrous interceptions, and two missed field goals, made the scoreline look worse. There's plenty of indication that Princeton's offense and defense will be tough this year.

LFN's Drink of the Week
Lehigh fans don't really need an excuse to drink a refreshing beverage, but it's time to really enjoy oneself with something extra-refreshing to help dull the memory of the 0-2 start. No, no, not Zima - I'm thinking of a Biermischgetränke. You heard right: a German-style lemonade drink (my suggestion: half Sprite, half soda water) and a medium-hop beer (my suggestion: Yuengling Lager) and perhaps a dash of Vodka to give it extra "kick". Extra-refreshing: and should prepare you for a warm afternoon at Goodman.

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

Breaking Down Princeton
Offense
Head coach Roger Hughes, now in his 9th year, has an offense that doesn't have any one dominating star but doesn't have any one glaring weakness either. From week to week, it's wickedly hard to look at the Tigers and see exactly what their gameplan will be against you because they will look at your team and go to your weakness. One week they will pass their first seven plays, the other they'll run it, and - despite what people might claim - they don't depend on a marquee player.

Having said that, their offense is very similar to Fordham's with multi-purpose "X" and "Z" receivers that are a threat to run as well as catch the ball.

Last week saw sophomore QB Tommy Wornham take the reins of the offense for the first time, and after a crisp opening drive (where he went 5-for-5) he came apart a little, throwing two interceptions to let the game get away from him. He's got speed he can use to take off with the ball, but it's clear that the Citadel tried to see if he could beat them through the air, and he couldn't last week.

The reason the Bulldogs did that was that junior RB Jordan Culbreath was the Ivy League's leading rusher last year, and he ran for 276 yards in the final game of 2008 vs. Dartmouth. He's a tough runner but also has that second gear to the outside as well, which makes him a dangerous back. If unchecked, he could be a huge problem for the Mountain Hawks.

When Wornham throws the ball, it will be to a bevy of different receivers that can do a lot more than receive. Junior FB Matt Zimmerman was a frequent target for him last week, with 5 receptions for 42 yards, and so was junior WR Jeb Heavenrich (3 receptions, 13 yards, 1 TD) and junior WR Trey Peacock. Even junior TE Harry Flaherty will get in the act - Princeton has a lot of passing targets, and Hughes will use them all.

Princeton's "O" line is loaded with senior talent - and boasts a pair of 300 pound linemen, senior C Hauser and senior OL D.P. Makrai. Unlike previous Tiger linemen, who were undersized but hit the gaps well, these guys could be bigger and better than that group.

Defense
Like Lehigh, Princeton plays a 3-4 defense with a lot of rotation in the lines to keep guys healthy. Like Lehigh, their strength is in the linebacking unit.

On the "D" line, senior DE Joel Karacozoff is the only returning starter from last year. Last week he had 4 tackles and 1/2 a tackle for loss. Princeton's "D" line is comparable size-wise to Lehigh's, averaging 270 lbs across.

At linebacker, there are a multitude of all-Ivy performers, headlined by senior LB Scott Britton (9 tackles 1/2 tackle for loss). On this week's depth chart are junior LB Steve Cody, an all-Ivy League member last year, and senior LB John Callahan, who returns after mising all last year with a torn ACL. Add to this senior LB Brad Settler, and you may have a very daunting linebacking unit. The Tigers are strong tacklers, and will definitely play physical as well.

Princeton also boasts a lot of experience in the secondary, too. Senior FS Dan Koplovich returns to the defense in 2009 after a brief stint on offense last year, returning to the position where he was an all-Ivy player in the secondary. Add to this 6'0 senior CB Cart Kelly and there's a talented unit back there with a tall shutdown corner and a talented punisher on run defense.

Special Teams
Sophomore P Otavio Fleury averaged an amazing 47.3 yards per punt last week, making his punting debut one to remember for the Tigers. Also memorable - but for all the wrong reasons was senior PK Ben Bologna's afternoon, with two missed field goals, including one blocked 32 yard attempt.

Senior CB Cart Kelly returned punts last week, but didn't get much in terms of yardage, while junior WR Jeb Heavenrich and junior DB Meko McCray share kick return duties. Nother returned kickoffs last weekend.

Keys to the Game
1.Stuff the run. No matter what league you're in, you need to stop the run in order to win games. Whatever it takes - eight men in the box to stop Culbreath, sounder tackling, whatever, find a way to stop the run this weekend.
2.Small Gains, Big Results. Picking Princeton's defense apart - and keeping their offense out-of-sync and on the sidelines - will be crucial. I'd try to establish a short passing game and then establish some mixed running, perhaps working one or more of the freshmen in.
3.Set Your Identity. How do you want to be remembered? That's the challenge I'd bring to this team, to give them an identity on offense and defense. What does the team want to accomplish? What do I want to accomplish? How do I want to be known on this team the rest of this year?
4.Don't Lose the Battle of Special Teams. If Fleury is a dominating punting force, he could pose a problem for the Mountain Hawks getting pinned deep in their own territory if this becomes a game of field position. Junior PR Jarard Cribbs will need to keep Fleury's net down - and the coverage units cannot be flagged with senseless penalties - in order to keep the game of field position even in this game.

Fearless Prediction
I don't know who came up with the cliche that "there are no gimmes on the schedule", but that person could have been looking at Lehigh's schedule this year. Princeton is no pushover, nor is Harvard the following week. Lehigh could go 2-2 - or 0-4 - way too easily for my taste.

Having said that, I don't think we've seen the team that Lehigh can be so far, and I think this week is the week where we might start to see that team emerge. A defensive battle seems certain - with, perhaps, field position playing a big part - but I think Lehigh, who needs this game just a little bit more, will find a way to win this game and finally start cleansing some of the bad vibes from the first two games.

Lehigh 17, Princeton 14

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Threats From The Ivy League?

It's unusual that scheduling enters into my thinking during the course of a regular season, but with Fordham's decision to offer scholarships there seems to be something afoot that needs to be discussed.

This week, there have been no less than three matters of Patriot League scheduling that have come up in papers around the Northeast. All three point towards a possible shift towards individual Patriot League teams scheduling more non-Ivy League teams in the future.

The first comes from the Hampton Roads Daily Press, where colunmist David Teel talks about the fact that William & Mary seems to be abandoning local rivalries in favor of FBS games and others. Teel has his own feelings about Patriot League competition that he doesn't bother to hide:

Hampton Roads is home to four Division I college football programs [William & Mary, Old Dominion, Norfolk State, Hampton] hailing from two conferences [the CAA and MEAC]. Which logic says would create natural, interleague, regional rivalries.

Were only scheduling so paint-by-numbers simple. The hurdle for all concerned is balancing the financial, recruiting, and yes, academic elements of the scheduling equation.

...

William and Mary has three non-conference dates to fill, and two of the three are booked indefinitely. One is reserved for a Bowl Subdivision opponent, last season North Carolina State, this year Virginia. Future dates, through 2016, are set against North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, West Virginia and Virginia (twice). The games not only allow Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock to test his squad against the big pups, but also to net the athletic department six-figure paydays.

Another non-league contest is saved for Virginia Military Institute. The programs met for 65 consecutive seasons before agreeing to a one-year respite in 2009, in part because the Keydets wanted to play a money game of their own, against Army. "I was told when I got here that we have a special relationship with VMI," said William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll, who arrived at William and Mary in 1996. That leaves Driscoll with one game to rotate.

In 2012 and '13, William and Mary is contracted to play the University of Pennsylvania. "I've been trying for a long time to get an Ivy League (opponent)," Driscoll said. "We were close with Princeton but couldn't (coordinate) the dates."

Penn is ideal for William and Mary on several fronts. Laycock and his staff recruit extensively in the region — the Tribe roster has 11 players from Pennsylvania and 13 from New Jersey — and appreciate the history of venerable Franklin Field, the Quakers' home stadium.

Also, William and Mary and Penn are comparable academically, with the Quakers providing credible but not intimidating football opposition.

If not the Ivy League, Driscoll would like to arrange games against Patriot League programs such as Bucknell, Lehigh and Lafayette. Again, academic heavyweights and football, at best, middleweights.

"The goal is to spread out (geographically)," Driscoll said, "but obviously we'd like to stay on the ground (not fly) if we can for expenses."

Clearly William & Mary value one local relationship beyond all others (VMI), desire one FBS "money game" for their books - but also want to schedule a like-minded institution like an Ivy League or Patriot League school. While a need-based scholarship Patriot League is considered a "middleweight" at best, you wonder if a Lehigh, Lafayette or Colgate with scholarships might pose a better out-of-conference opponent for them.

William & Mary isn't the only CAA school looking for Patriot League competition. With Dartmouth backing off from their annual slaughter against New Hampshire in the "Granite Bowl", the Laconia Citizen (NH) reports that two Patriot League opponents - Colgate and Lehigh - are being looked at as replacements:

The teams played close games in 2001 and 2002 with UNH prevailing by scores of 42-38 and 29-26. Since then, however, the smallest margin of victory has been 21 points in 2004 (45-24) and 2007 (52-31). Dartmouth hasn't beaten the Wildcats since 1976.

UNH went 8-3 that season, won the Yankee Conference title, and lost at Montana State in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs, 17-16, when McDonnell was a sophomore defensive back for the Wildcats.

"It's a rivalry that I really didn't understand until I came to school here," said [UNH head coach] McDonnell, a native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "It's a rivalry that I've become very fond of as a coach because you get the bragging rights for the state.

"I like the rivalry," McDonnell added. "I like the game. I think our state embraces it and I know our alumni embrace it. I want to see the thing continued as much as possible. At the same time you understand that people have to make decisions based on what's best for their football program."

In the meantime, to fill openings in the schedule, UNH has turned to the Patriot League and according to Scarano the school is close to working something out with Colgate and Lehigh.

With the Ivy League starting to schedule opponents that they have a chance at beating, there certainly still seems like there's an opportunity there that Lehigh is jumping at taking. New Hampshire, who has been nationally-ranked for the last four years, would provide a great one for Lehigh, scholarships or not.

As one door opens, though, there seems to be the threat of another shutting. As Harvard head football coach Tim Murphy intimated in an interview with the Harvard Crimson last week, it seems like Harvard may very well start to walk away from scheduling some Patriot League teams as well:

Fordham’s decision in June to begin awarding football scholarships starting with this year’s recruiting class piqued the interest of a lot of people in the Ivy League football community. The move shows a changing mentality in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division 1-AA), which includes the Ancient Eight.

“It’s something we’re definitely keeping an eye on because if they go scholarships—we’re talking about the league now—it will change dramatically,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy says. “The last time any Patriot League school had scholarships in that league was Holy Cross in the ’80s and ’90s. They dominated Eastern football at this level in a way that wasn’t seen before and hasn’t been seen since.”

...

So with its sister conference seemingly headed down a path towards athletic scholarships, is the Ivy League close behind?

“It will never happen in our league, and it shouldn’t,” Murphy says. “It’s not appropriate, because every kid here has something a little bit special about them. I think while in a certain world you might think that might be great for Harvard football, I think anything you do to try to distinguish athletes as being different from other students would not be a good thing.”

...

But if the Patriot League does step up the quality of its recruits, then necessary alterations will inevitably have to be made to Harvard’s non-conference schedule.

“We’ll have to adjust for sure,” Murphy admits, adding that the decision to schedule Fordham in an upcoming season was made “before we knew they were going to scholarships.”

Despite not being a viable candidate for any FBS opposition, Harvard is looking to make the most of its non-conference schedule.

Realizing the nationwide clout that the Harvard name carries, Murphy is looking to expand the field of competition beyond the Northeast for alumni- and recruiting-related reasons. The University of San Diego is just one of the many new names on the Crimson’s upcoming schedule.

“Southern California’s become such a big Ivy League recruiting area,” Murphy says. “California in general—and not just for football, but for all sports, for the general student body. We’re also going to be down in D.C. against Georgetown. Those are games that make sense to us, even though they might cost a little more in terms of travel.”
No word if Harvard will be dropping Fordham from their future schedule over the scholarship issue, but it's hard to see this as anything but a veiled threat to the Patriot League: offer scholarships, and Harvard will start to go in "another direction" - like San Diego of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League - as out-of-conference opponents.

Could the threat of playing non-scholarship and limited-scholarship schools one that Harvard could actually carry out? The Crimson don't have one problem that plagues many schools - they're still the richest school on the planet, despite the economic downturn - so they certainly could schedule who they want.

But the Crimson will find that nearly all of the schools that pass the ideological test are either state schools they have hesitated to play in the past (Central Connecticut State, Wagner, Bryant) or non-scholarship schools that for the most part are located way outside the Northeast. If they want to pay to charter planes to San Diego and Buies Creek, North Carolina (home of the Campbell Camels, for your information), it's their prerogative - but it will be expensive, and it will most likely be with schools with which they don't share a common academic bond.

If they don't what to schedule FCS teams, there's always the D-III NESCAC teams such as Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, and others. But while academically they may be peas in a pod, athletically they have nothing in common - and that would most likely reflect in some very lopsided scrimmages in Harvard's favor. I certainly wouldn't be interested in watching such butt-whoopings.

If they choose FCS-only competition, don't want to travel very far and still want to avoid the Patriot League and CAA, there's always the NEC and Big South, home to Central Connecticut State, Stony Brook, Albany and Wagner. But these schools are not the limited-need-based aid schools they once were. In 2010 and beyond they will have even more scholarships and will be competing in the FCS playoffs. All of these teams will look a lot more like CAA teams than Ivy League ones - and unlike the Patriot League these schools won't be an "academic index", or AI, to ensure that the players are academically qualified.

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The more I look this over, the more it sounds like fear from Murphy that the Patriot League will now be able to compete with Harvard - and that maybe Dartmouth, Cornell, and others might be very eager to level the playing field with the richest schools in the Ivy League by - perhaps - offering scholarships. Unsurprisingly, he likes holding all the cards and not allowing any other Patriot League (or maybe Ivy League) teams to get in on the fun.

More importantly for Harvard, however, is that it makes zero sense to do this at any level. Many D-I schools, and all D-III schools, cannot compete with Harvard. With their aid package - that offers a free education if your family income is less that $180,000 a year, and you can make it through admissions - they make a mockery of the D-III idea of need-based aid, never mind Harvard's facilities for Olympic sports, and other perks of Division I schools.

If you thought Dayton had an unfair advantage over D-III schools, just wait until you look objectively at Harvard. It's conceivable in a few years that every spot on Harvard's roster will be populated with someone getting a "scholarship" - while it's aid that is available for anyone whose family is making $180,000 or less a year, that doesn't make the "scholarship" any less paid for. How does Bowdoin compete with that - never mind the Harvard name and D-I facilities?

Harvard should want to schedule the best and beat the best, and the alignment with the Patriot League, filled with high-academic institutions, is still the best match out there for them. They should be finding a way to have the Patriot League and add Stanford, Duke and Army to their OOC schedules in the next ten years, not looking at removing the Patriot League and adding San Diego, Amherst and Union (NJ) instead.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

FCS East Wrapup: The Cross Passes Their First Test

(Photo courtesy the Worcester Telegram-Gazette)

It was the FCS Game of the Week last week - and unless you were prepared to pay Stretch Internet to watch the game or lived in the Worcester area, you couldn't watch the game - but Holy Cross' 27-20 victory over Harvard was not only the only matchup between nationally-ranked teams, it was one of the best games of the weekend. (Don't take my word for it: just click on Crusader Vision on the Holy Cross football website and see for yourself the report filed by NESN.)

There was more going on that just the Holy Cross/Harvard game, but the Crusader's big win was the Patriot League's best win of the year in a year where the League desperately needed one.

  • Despite the best efforts of Harvard's student newspaper to paint this game as a "David vs. Goliath" story, Holy Cross' 27-20 win in this game was anything but. "This was a marquee game in the early part of our season," head coach (and former Lehigh defensive coordinator) Tom Gilmore said after the game. "Most people were looking at this from outside the program and saying, 'This is [Holy Cross'] first big challenge." While Holy Cross never trailed, Harvard was right in it until the end, driving for the game-winning score when a fumble by Crimson junior QB Collier Winters was recovered by senior LB Andrew Ciliano for the victory. Senior QB Dominic Randolph was the do-everything quarterback Crusader fans hoped for in this game, not only racking up another 293 yard passing performance (with 2 TDs and 0 interceptions) but also leading the team in rushing with 41 yards and another TD. With this game - a big win against a Top 25 team and last year's Ivy league co-champion - Holy Cross has squarely established themselves as the team to beat in the Patriot League.
  • Lehigh will be facing Holy Cross later in the year, but also Harvard - and while (chuckle) "David" in the matchup with "Goliath" came out on the short end, the Crimson showed plenty to worry about for Lehigh in preparation next week. Start with senior DL Carl Elrich, with 4 tackles and 2 tackles for loss for a defensive line that held Holy Cross to 79 net rushing yards. On offense, junior QB Collier Winters went the whole way and had an efficient 22-for-37 day with 195 yards and 2 TDs, while adding 40 yards rushing. And save the final turnover, Harvard played fairly efficiently on offense, gaining 327 yards. Lehigh fans can start worrying already about the Crimson.
  • While you can read my own game report about Liberty beating Lafayette 19-13 this weekend, "that school in Easton's" opponent next week was busy giving Villanova fits on offense. Penn battled gamely on defense, but ultimately fell 14-3 to crown Villanova as the undisputed "Big 5 Football Champions". Villanova senior WR Matt Szczur returned the opening kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown, while the Wildcat defense, led by junior LB Terence Thomas' 10 tackles at 2 sacks, held the Quakers to 54 yards rushing or an anemic 1.6 yards per carry to make the early lead hold for Villanova. In a reversal of fortunes from last year's Penn game, where junior QB Chris Whitney came in for senior QB Antwon Young to win the game, it was Young who came in for an ineffective Whitney to loft a 5 yard TD pass to senior WR Brandyn Harvey to add an insurmountable 11 point cushion. (Villanova head football coach Andy Talley assured folks in the CAA conference call this week that there was no quarterback controversy.) The Quakers have a lot to be proud of, especially on defense, where senior LB Jake Lewko (13 tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for loss) spearheaded the effort against the No. 2 team in the nation only allowing 6 completions for 59 yards from both Whitney and Young.
  • Almost lost in these two great matchups was a shocker: that Stony Brook, who lost earlier in the year to Hofstra and Colgate, upset last year's Ivy League co-champion Brown 21-20 with a missed extra point being the difference. Surprisingly, the Seawolves ended up winning the game through the air, with sophomore QB Michael Coulter ending a cool 10-for-12 passing for 137 yards and the game-winning pass to junior WR Donald Porter with 47 seconds left in the game. Stony Brook ruined junior QB Kyle Newhall's debut - 29-of-45 for 267 yards passing and 3 touchdowns, but two interceptions. Brown will take on Harvard next weekend in an intriguing game next weekend.
  • In an early season injury list that would give anyone pause, Colgate just keeps churning out backs who rush for 200 yards or more. Sophomore RB Jordan McCord ran 44 times for 212 yards as the Raiders survived an early scare from Dartmouth to win 34-15. The Big Green actually held a brief 15-13 advantage before Colgate settled down and ground out an 8-play, 60 yard touchdown drive to retake the lead. On the ensuing drive, sophomore SS Vinnie Nicosia crushed Dartmouth senior QB Alex Jenny to force a fumble, which the Colgate offense promptly turned into McCord's second TD on the afternoon.
  • Colgate will take on Fordham this week, a team which looks like it's in disarray after a sloppy 40-28 defeat in the "Liberty Cup" to crosstown rival Columbia. While Fordham head coach Masella - with characteristic understatement - said that his team "need to make some adjustments and play more consistently" next week versus Colgate, the box score says the real story: 3 interceptions, 1 fumble. A mind-boggling 14 penalties for 164 yards. Return units that gave up 14 yards per punt return and 21 yards per kickoff return. While Ram senior QB John Skelton did torch the Columbia secondary for 383 yards and 4 touchdowns, it was Fordham's porous run defense that allowed Columbia senior RB Ray Rangel (118 yards, 1 TD) and senior QB M.A. Olawale (40 yards, 2 TDs) to have big days running the ball. If Fordham hopes to pull off another upset in Hamilton, they need to clean up their act - fast.
  • Cornell found a big weakness to exploit in Bucknell's secondary - they had given up the big play, allowing 5 touchdowns over 30 yards in their first two games. Saturday, the Big Red exploited it perfectly for a comfortable 33-9 win over Bucknell. Senior QB Ben Gantner connected on two 30+ yard pass plays for touchdowns, while senior WR Stephen Liuzza added a 65 yard TD run for good measure. "I thought we were just the faster team; the better team from top to bottom," Cornell head football coach Knowles said. "I just thought we were in great shape and we looked sharp with what we did." Ouch.
  • With Yale's 31-10 win over Georgetown, the Ivy League's only wins in the first weekend of their football season came over Patriot League schools. While Hoya junior DB Paul Sant'Ambrogio's 38 yard fumble return for a touchdown cut the deficit to 17-10 right befor halftime, Yale head coach Tom Williams wasn't much threatened after that by the Hoya offense as he got his first-ever victory as a head football coach. For Yale, sophomore QB Patrick Witt went 22-for-29 for 216 yards and 2 TDs. The Hoyas did have a decent passing attack behind freshman QB Isaiah Kempf's 332 yards passing, but two interceptions - and a dismal 1-for-4 in the red zone - meant for the third straight week Georgetown failed to score an offensive TD.
  • Finally, Lehigh's opponent this coming week started out of the gate well, getting a TD on their opening drive against a SoCon school led by a former Lehigh head football coach. But Princeton highlights ended there as head coach Kevin Higgins' return to the area was a happy one in a 38-7 blowout over the Tigers. "I’m not sure they are 31 points better then us,", Princeton head coach Roger Hughes said after the game, "but we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we had. I thought overall we moved the ball pretty effectively and the defense did a great job at times. There were glimpses of what I think this team can become.’’ Only trailing 10-7 at halftime, Higgins took advantage of two missed field goals and two late interceptions by Tiger sophmore QB Tommy Wornham to the tune of 28 unanswered points by freshman RB Van Dyke Jones, sophomore RB Terrell Dallas and backup freshman QB Miguel Starks. Lehigh fans will certainly be hoping that Princeton will keep the momentum of the Citadel game going at Goodman Stadium this Saturday.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Saints Almost Half A Century, Eagles Not Nearly Enough

(Photo courtesy WWL)

I'm becoming convinced: every sports reporter ought to spend at least one game a year in the cheap seats. That was the conclusion this fan came to at the Saints/Eagles game this weekend.

***

It had been more than a decade since I had been to a pro football game in person. There was a time when I traveled hither an yon to see the Saints play, making frequent trips to the Meadowlands, New England, and even Pittsburgh to see "my" Saints play. I even traveled down to New Orleans to enjoy gumbo, po' boys, and to watch my Saints led by (ech) QB Jim "Chris" Everett to beat the Giants one year. (I think it was a few weeks after Jim Rome basically invented the link between entertainment and sports by goading Everett to deck him. Deadspin has him to thank.)

While I've never lived in New Orleans, my time overseas as a young man gave me an opportunity to latch on to a different NFL team than the team closest to the place in America that I grew up. The Saints were a perfect match: my dad is a jazz musician, food was (and still is) revered in the house I grew up in, and the Saints play perfectly to my contrarian instincts: rather than root for the Giants (a team etched with history and Super Bowl titles, and a team who won the second most important pro football game ever played) or Jets (who won the most important pro football game ever played), I would take the hapless Saints, firmly putting me in the mental pantheon somewhere between "deeply eccentric" and "bat-sh*t crazy".

In 1987, being a Red Sox fan was to constantly expect doom. Being a Red Sox fan and Saints fan in 1987 was clearly tempting the Gods. Even in their great 12-3 season in 1987, they somehow blew a home game against the Minnesota Vikings (and finishing behind the hated 49ers). In 1992, the Saints held a 13 point lead at home to DT Reggie White's Eagles - and promptly blew the game 36-20 with 26 points in the 4th quarter. By the late 1990s, Mike Ditka was busy putting a torch to the Saints' future by risking it all for RB Ricky "Because I Got..." Williams and the Red Sox signed P Jamie Moyer. It was clearly a dark time.

***

Yet somehow, the pain of the 1990s ended up worth it in the new millennium. And this weekend, in the 200 level of Lincoln Financial Field, it all came together.

When covering college football games for College Sporting News, I get a pass for the press box. Generally, it's a fun place to watch the game. You get food. You sometimes can forget what it's like to suffer with the fans that pay for their tickets. When you're a fan like that, it changes the way you look at the game in a fundamental way.

When I found my friend Eric, his brother Wayne, and the kids, it was in line to the Link. In what has to be an architectural disaster equivalent to London's "Millenium Dome", the geniuses who designed the Link created two entrances to the place - requiring us to wait 45 minutes in line to get it as each and every fan was frisked. (As awful as the Vet was, there were at least a dozen entrances to the place.)

Without priority media access to white-glove service in the Link's press box, we then trudged up to the 200 level where we promptly missed the first two touchdowns of the game: QB Drew Brees' first TD pass to the pride of Hofstra, WR Marques Colston, and QB Kevin Kolb's 71 yard bomb to WR DeSean Jackson. While I tried to keep my rooting for the Saints on the down-low, as soon as I sit down a guy who could have snapped my arms off like matchsticks gruffly asks me how I'm a Saints fan, noticing my Saints shirt. Apparently I showed the requisite
amount of fear, since I wasn't confronted again.

It was hot up there in the 200 level. The 80 degree weather, the high altitude and the constant glare of the sun gave me an industrial-strength sunburn. At halftime, with the score 20-13, I put in money to get food and drinks, but fifteen minutes later my friends came back with nothing, saying the lines were so long that it wasn't worth waiting. My lunch consisted of peanuts. Literally.

Meanwhile, at the start of the 3rd quarter a game that was very much within the Eagles' reach spiraled out of control. A forced fumble on the kickoff resulted in a Brees tochdown to FB Heath Evans. Boom, 27-13. LB Scott Shanle reads Kolb's eyes, and returns the interception deep in Eagles territory. RB Mike Bell leaps into the end zone. Boom, 34-13. With an offense like the Saints', turnovers deep in your own territory are like giving them candy. And the Saints' offense is relentless, too: head coach Sean Payton will show no mercy as he piles on the points. (I'm convinced that he drove Bill Parcells out of coaching forever in 2006 after their 42-17 humiliation of his Cowboys.)

As the Saints' rout was on, and QB Kevin Kolb's humiliation complete after DB Darren Sharper returned Kolb's third interception past his outstretched hands and a 97 yard pick six - the Eagles fans, already uneasy at the prospect of Kolb before kickoff, started to unload on their quarterback like so many unruly Jets fans on Bubby Brister so many years ago. Multiple fans started mentioning QB Jeff Garcia's name.

When there wasn't anger, there was just stunned silence. While many secretly expected Kolb to struggle or fail, they had never seen the Eagles give up 48 points anywhere - but at home, unthinkable. Strangely, despite the fact that the Saints were responsible for scoring two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter - and gave away two points as a safety rather than punt at their 1 foot line - Eagles fans didn't have any hatred towards Payton, the Saints, or their fans. They hated Kolb. They hated their own defense for giving up so many points. But to the Saints and their fans, they were just in shock.

***

It was a really good time at the Link. The seats were comfortable. Seeing my friends again and talking Saints and Eagles was a great time. The other fans are great: the waves of emotion (and swearing) pouring out of the 200 level was genuine, and the fans knew their stuff. We all cursed the beer vendors, Kevin Kolb, the long lines at concessions, Kevin Kolb, the heat, and of course Kevin Kolb. After the game for good measure, Kevin Kolb came up on conversation, as did QB Michael Vick. Would he get the start next weekend? If it were up to the 200 level, the answer would be a resounding "yes". (Though I think many would secretly prefer QB Donovan McNabb to strap it up instead.)

The NFL season is only two weekends old, but you get the feeling that this chapter isn't over. The 2-0 Saints are riding high this weekend, but you wonder if Payton's gambling style won't bite him in the cheeks one -or more - weeks during the rest of this season. The 1-1 Eagles might struggle if they had to rely on Kolb - but with McNabb and Vick not back yet, their loss feels more like an "incomplete" rather than the death knell of the season. Would it be impossible for these two teams to meet again in the postseason? Hardly - and when they do, neither will be the same teams I saw this weekend. Bank on that.

(And right on queue, RB Mike Bell apparently is out with an injured right knee, his return uncertain.)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday's Word: Quarter

Hard to believe, isn't it? College football is a twelve weekend season, and we've just gotten through the third weekend of the year. That means the season is - you guessed it - a "quarter" of the way through.

So what have we discovered in the Patriot League so far, with 25% of the season finished?

We've discovered that 3-0 Holy Cross is still the team to beat so far - they beat nationally-ranked Harvard (No. 25) 27-20 in a thriller at Fitton field this weekend. But 3-0 Colgate has definitely also established themselves as a heavyweight contender with wins over Monmouth in Week 1, Stony Brook in Week 2, and surviving an early struggle to put away Dartmouth 34-15.

When you look at the rest of the league, however, the glass doesn't seem half full - it's more like three-"quarter"s empty.

0-3 Georgetown's struggles on offense are becoming the stuff of legend. The poor Hoyas haven't scored a single offensive touchdown in three games - think about that a second - in their losses to Holy Cross, Lafayette, and Yale. They're averaging 26 yards a game rushing, 115th/118 in all of FCS. They're only scoring 6.67 points per game - mostly on defense - bad enough for 111th in all of FCS.

1-2 Bucknell's offensive numbers aren't much better. Total offense: 260 yards per game (90th). Pass defense: 255 yards per game (99th). Sacks allowed: 3 per game (102nd). On offense, the Bison have only scored 4 touchdowns all year. And their opponents - Duquesne, Robert Morris, and Cornell - haven't exactly been a murderer's row in year's past.

0-2 Fordham's passing offense has been one of the better ones in FCS in their first two games - thanks to senior QB John Skelton - but their team appears to have come apart, giving up more than 30 points to Rhode Island and Columbia. It gets worse: they're giving up more than 200 yards per game on the ground (100th), giving up a passer efficiency of 155.51 (108th), and ending with a turnover margin of -4 (118th, or worst in FCS).

In fact, take away Colgate at Holy Cross, the rest of the league is a combined 2-10 - one of those wins Lafayette's over Georgetown, and the other a freaky 26-23 win by Bucknell over Robert Morris with two interception returns for touchdowns.

Having said that, "that school in Easton"'s and Lehigh's report cards are, for the most part, filled in as "incomplete" by most fans at this point. Lafayette dominated Georgetown, 28-3, and came oh-so-close against Liberty - a team ranked No. 24 in some polls. Lehigh - as you probably know - struggled against Central Connecticut State 28-21 in game one, and played better but was still swamped by the No. 2 team in the nation, Villanova, by a 38-17 score.

This coming week for sure is a "show-me" week for the entire league (save Holy Cross, who enters their bye week).

The biggest game is Fordham at Colgate, where the Rams' success this season could very well be do-or-die, while Colgate will need to continue to establish themselves atop the league. Bucknell and Georgetown have winnable games against Marist and Howard, respectively, and need desperately to get better consistency in the areas I've pointed out.

But I'd argue that it's Lehigh and Lafayette - even more than Colgate or Fordham - that have the most to show this coming week. Lafayette desperately needs to beat Penn, and Lehigh needs to beat Princeton to prove themselves relevant in the Patriot League race. A 1-2 Leopard squad and an 0-3 Lehigh squad - could they really be taken seriously as Patriot League title contenders in the case of a loss next week?

With the Patriot League season a "quarter" complete, there are a lot of teams in the lower "quartile" in a lot of categories - not to mention the one that matters, wins and losses. If the Patriot League doesn't turn things around this coming week, it's going to be a long year for most of the league.
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