Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lehigh 35, Fordham 28, Final

Pretty? Absolutely not. But Lehigh will gleefully take this 35-28 victory at Rose Hill, a game which featured a combined seven turnovers, three missed field goals, and seventeen penalties for 143 yards by both teams.

Starting out, it seemed like Lehigh was trying to give the game away as junior DB/RS John "Prez" Kennedy fumbled a punt return that was recovered by the Rams in the end zone to erase a beautiful 11-play, 66 yard drive ending with an 8 yard pass from junior QB J.B. Clark to sophomore WR Jake Drwal.

It would be the first of four Lehigh turnovers that led directly to touchdowns the other way. Taken in that way, you could say that had Lehigh took care of the ball a bit better, this would have been a laugher.

After a Lehigh fumble ended with a 19 yard strike to Ram sophomore WR David Moore from senior QB John Skelton to fall behind 14-7, Lehigh took advantage of a fumble on special teams, recovered by junior FS John Venerio, to tie the game after Clark's pretty 14 yard TD strike to sophomore WR De'Vaughn Gordon to tie the game at 14.

In the second quarter, an interception led to a one-play drive, a 30 yard Skelton-to-Moore TD connection down the left side to give Fordham the lead again at 21-14. At this point it felt like Lehigh simply wasn't going to be able to stop shooting themselves in the foot - but to the Mountain Hawks' credit, they did.

Special teams played a monster part in the resurgence. After a huge 33 yard punt return by junior DB/RS Jarard Cribbs, Clark would find Gordon again for a 39 yard TD pass on the right side this time - tying the game at 21. And later in the quarter, Cribbs ripped off a 60 yard punt return which led to Clark's 15 yard TD run on a busted play to give Lehigh a 28-21 lead.

Right before half, Skelton would find Moore again on a 15 yard strike to knot the score at 28 at halftime. After Clark would find Gordon for his third TD of the day to Gordon - this one a 39 yarder - in the second half, it would be Lehigh's defense and the running of junior RB Jay Campbell that would take over and cement the win.

The defense piled on an amazing nine sacks of Skelton, most coming in the second half where the Mountain Hawks were owning the line of scrimmage. Sophomore LB Devin Greene had 2 1/2 sacks, senior LB Matt Cohen added two sacks and senior LB Troy Taylor (who led the team with 11 tackles) added a big momentum sack which ended with a blocked FG by freshman DB Bryan Andrews.

Meanwhile, Campbell was grinding out the yards, ending the day with 27 carries for 155 yards, helping finish off the win. In a world where Lehigh has lost a lot of games by a touchdown or less, it was gratifying to see the Mountain Hawks pull out a close one.

It always seems like Lehigh pulls out this game before "The Rivalry", and with Lafayette losing a heartbreaker to Holy Cross this weekend, all of a sudden Lehigh finally has a bit of momentum going into the game that the Mountain Hawks have to win. The Yuenglings taste great now - but they'll taste even better if Lehigh can win two games in a row.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Game Preview: Lehigh at Fordham

(Photo courtesy Five Boro Sports)

Winning against sub-.500 teams. A blowout loss to a CAA opponent. Coming up oh-so-close to Holy Cross and Colgate, but falling just short. A description of Lehigh's football season? It could just as easily been a description of Fordham's as well.

Before the season started, Fordham looked like a team that could put things together and make a run at the Patriot League title. They had a QB that was getting NFL looks. Their defensive captain was only two years removed from his pick of Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph to preserve their (near) worst-to-first Patriot League championship in 2007. Like Lehigh, they had horses. They just needed to have them all working together.

The Rams started out the year in disarray, with a 41-28 loss to Rhode Island and a 40-28 loss to their "Liberty Cup" rival Columbia. Turnovers were the name of those games, and seemed to portend a season on struggle rather than a run at the title.

After a tough 20-12 loss to Colgate in a rainstorm, the Rams pulled off three straight wins against Old Dominion, Bryant and Cornell - quite frankly, expected wins against not exactly a murderer's row. Then, two more "moral victory/losses" against Lafayette and Holy Cross - nearly knocking off "that school in Easton", falling 26-21, and hanging tough against the Crusaders 41-27. Only a 21-7 win against Bucknell last week stopped the skid and gave the Rams their first Patriot League win of the year.

Like Lehigh, Fordham is playing for pride at this point - and more NFL interest with their starting quarterback. It's senior day in the Bronx, and they'll be quite interested in avenging their 45-23 loss in last year's game at Murray Goodman.

In a couple weeks, the thoughts on Fordham, football scholarships and graduation of what may be considered Fordham's last football class using the old Patriot League grant-in-aid model will certainly be the topic of conversation. But for now, it's about finishing the year on a winning note, beating an old rival and going into the offseason on a positive note.

That could apply to Lehigh, too.

Game Notes
This week's game notes don't show much change from last week on offense, but of concern is the defensive side of the house. Sophomore LB Colin Newton and senior LB Al Pierce won't make the trip to the Bronx, which means - surprise - more time for the underclasmen. Taking Newton's place on the outside will be sophomore LB Tanner Rivas and junior DB/LB Casey Eldemire, while sophomore LB Devin Greene will plug in for Pierce inside. Lehigh's depth at LB has been amazing this year - even though it's been a M*A*S*H unit, we've been basically intact in the front seven.

Fordham's game notes are available here.

Weather Report
In the Bronx this weekend, prepare for rain. Lots of it. Right now it looks like a high of 56 with rainfall of a quarter inch is in the offing. Pack a poncho.

A Word on Fordham
You would think that playing in the unofficial Media Capital of the World would mean that the Rams would have tons of media coverage. You might think there would be dozens of reporters at their practices, and (like in Philadelphia) there would be a weekly press conference covering all the Division I football teams in the area, perhaps occurring at Dominc's down the street. (no relation to Mr. Randolph, who hails from Ohio.)

If you thought that, though, you'd be wrong. In a media market dominated by two pro baseball teams, two pro football teams, two pro hockey teams and one pro basketball team, Fordham struggles for any sort of coverage even from their own school newspaper. Normally, with a genuine NFL prospect on the team, it would make sense to bring him to Patriot League media day; knowing that none of the NYC media would attend, he didn't show.

Aside from the annual Liberty Cup game versus Columbia (which, admittedly, gets covered by the New York Times and is covered generally by at least one of the bigger daily newspapers in New York), Fordham games generally escape strong media scrutiny. With an NFL prospect in the fold this year it has been only slightly more of an exception. This may work to Fordham's disadvantage at times.

LFN's Drink of the Week
A wet day in the Bronx calls for a "Bronx Iced Tea": rum, cointreau, vodka, tequila, gin, lemon juice & cola. One will make you forget the rain; two, well, I don't know anyone who's been able to polish off two.

As always with LFN's "Drinks of the Week", they're meant to be consumed responsibly, which means be over 21 and don't die drinking them.

Breaking Down Fordham
Offense
Fordham's offense has described as a "run-and-shoot" sort of offense, but I'd call it more of a multiple/spread offense. Strictly speaking, there is no tight end (instead there are "W", "X", "Y" and "Z" receivers), but each have different, multiple functions. The "Y" functions mainly as a tight end, but also doubles up as a running fullback in certain situations. The "W", "X", and "Z" slots can be considered recievers, and ones that spread the field - but, again, they can also be brought back on reverses as well. Generally speaking, this offense won't be afraid to go right at your weakness - and it has the flexibility to attack it either way.

It's a complicated offense, but NFL pro prospect senior QB Josh Skelton (pictured) has been running it for quite some time now. The Texan is mobile in the pocket - making him an effective weapon running out of the spread, with 180 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. He's also been an accurate passer out of this offense, too, throwing at a 64% completion rate - many of which are of the short "bubble screen" variety to good old W, X, and Z. This year Skelton has also been showcasing his incredible physical abilities too, stretching the field with passes. The Fordham offense goes through him.

Junior RB Xavier Martin has been the #1 rushing threat out of the backfield again (664 yards rushing, 6 TDs). At 5'9 180 he's built for speed, and if he gets past the front seven he can be a threat to break one. Sophomore RB Darryl Whiting is the change-of-pace physical back (6'3, 221) that comes in to spell Martin (439 yards, 4 TD). Both have a few receptions out of the backfield, but are mostly asked to run rather than catch.

The go-to guy in this receiving corps is Mr. S, junior WR Jason Caldwell (61 catches, 938 yards, 8 TDs). The "Y/Tight End" is played by the quarterback's brother, junior WR Stephen Skelton, who has really come into his own this year (601 yards, 5 TDs). Skelton at 6'5 causes particular nightmares underneath for defensive coordinators, and any one of the other lettered backs, like senior WR Asa Lucas (521 yards, 2 TDs) and junior WR David Moore (415 yards, 2 TDs) also can pose problems.

The "O" line is way bigger than last year, with three 300 lb big boys on the line: Senior OL Frank Rizzo, senior OL Andrew Tyshovnytsky and freshman OL Robert Kubacki.

Defense
Fordham plays a base 3-4 defense like Lehigh's, but their fronts do a lot more blitzing than our units have done traditionally. This is reflected in their sack totals (10 sacks in 4 games), and their tackles for loss totals (34 for 154 yards lost). They come after you.

In some defensive lines the nose tackle is unsung, but not so Fordham's. Senior NG Darzell Wright is a strong 310 lb behemoth that is a good run stuffer - think William "The Refrigerator" Perry, a player that plugs one and a half gaps. He has 29 tackles on the year - but 5 1/2 of them are tackles for loss.

Fordham's linebacking unit remains formidable, as long as senior LB James Crockett (58 tackles) is patrolling to outside. In the inside, junior LB Clifton Stuckey (51 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery) has emerged as a good inside backer as well. Junior LB Nicholas Mageria (57 tackles) is also a face to watch as well.

The secondary also has some real great athletes.: junior CB Jamal Haruna, senior FS Isiejah Allen (2 pass breakups), and junior Isa Abdul El-Quddus (3 interceptions). It's worthy of note that these defensive backs, with the exception of El-Quddus, are all 6 feet tall or under.

Special Teams
For the second straight yeat, Masella is going with a freshman at punter. Freshman P Patrick Murray has done a simply awesome job far, averaging an eye-popping 45.5 yards per punt on the year. He's a definite weapon for the Rams in the battle of field position.

In contrast, freshman K Kevin Heinowicz has a terrific leg - but is only 5/11 on the year, and is 25/30 on extra points. He's got the sort of leg to stick around a while, but in a close game you have to wonder if he can get that big FG to win the game.

Freshman RS Zach Crosby and junior RS Daryl Hamilton are a solid tandem returning kicks, and senior WR Asa Lucas is a very good punt returner too, though none have broken one for a touchdown yet this year.

Keys to the Game
1.Give Clark time. This Ram defense defines itself by being a disruptive force, so the ability of our "O" line to give Clark the time he needs to make things happen will be crucial. That extra second, I think, will really do wonders.
2.Don't give Skelton time. You can't cover all the offensive receivers every down - but you can pressure Skelton to make tougher throws. If Skelton has time to pick apart the linebackers and secondary in pass coverage, that won't be a good sign.
3.Momentum. A win here for Lehigh shifts the momentum going into "The Rivalry" - erasing the tough stretch of losses that has so far defined the season. Lehigh fans don't care if it's 6-3 or 36-33 - as long as Lehigh puts it in the win column. Style points don't count. Just Win, Baby.

Fearless Prediction
Say what you want about Lehigh, but the Mountain Hawks know the importance of winning the game before "that school in Easton". They've won eleven straight games the second weekend in November (and the game they lost in 1997 wasn't exactly a cakewalk - a 24-19 defeat to Delaware).

Some teams quit after being out of the Patriot League race, but this team doesn't strike me in that way. This team has fought hard through the losses, trying to find answers to questions. And with the biggest game yet to play for, the players know they need to win this one to get to next weekend.

They don't know what they'll get next weekend: either the Leopards will be Patriot League champs, or they'll be 8-2 and will need to beat Lehigh to have a prayer at making the playoffs as an at-large team. But they do know they need to win this weekend to have a chance, and I think the hard work will pay off handsomely with a win here. Win here, and go into "The Rivalry" guns blazing.

Lehigh 31, Fordham 17

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Players of the Week, Holy Cross vs. Lehigh

The Players of the Week were pretty easy choices this time around.

Offensive Hawk of the Week: Junior RB Jay Campbell (131 yards rushing on 21 carries, 18 yard TD pass)

Defensive Hawks of the Week: (tie) Senior LB Troy Taylor (9 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss including 1 sack, 1 key forced fumble) and junior FS John Venerio (7 tackles, 1 interception, 1 pass breakup)

Special Teams Hawk of the Week: Freshman PK Jake Peery (2/2 XP, 2/3 FGs, 23 yards, 38 yards, missed a long 45 yarder)

I've been remiss in reprinting the exclusive pieces that Lehighsports.Com has put out about members of the senior class. Here are two of them:


Also, former Lehigh WR Sekou Yansane was named a winner of the 2009 Academic Momentum Award through the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (NCAS).

Monday, November 09, 2009

Press Roundup: Holy Cross 24, Lehigh 20

(Photo courtesy Denise Sanchez, the Morning Call)

Here are the press links for this weekend's heroic effort versus Holy Cross, but before I get to that I just wanted to reiterate how great it was to see Murray Goodman come to life this weekend. Have I become a sudden fan of moral victories? No; but I still feel like this effort was a step in the right direction. There were lessons in this game for the underclassmen, and I'm hoping those lessons will pay dividends next year.

Morning Call: Late TD Allows Holy Cross to Escape Lehigh

As he tried to come to grips with another agonizingly close loss for his Lehigh football team, coach Andy Coen scanned the stat sheet late Saturday afternoon in a tiny media room at Goodman Stadium and noted the similarities of the final numbers.

Both Lehigh and Holy Cross had run the same number of plays (70), had the same number of penalties (9) and had nearly the same total yards (375-372 Lehigh).

The difference wasn't on the sheet, but rather it was in the person who walked out of the same room about 15 minutes earlier.

'This is what you play for,'' said senior QB Dominic Randolph, who has rewritten the Holy Cross and league passing record book during his storied four-year career. ''A close game like that, coming out on top, it's a lot of fun. You remember wins like this.''

''Our kids played awesome - …they played hard, physical, they did what they needed to do to be right there to beat the No. 13 ranked team in the country,'' Coen said. ''Our defense contained one of the most high-powered offenses in the FCS.

''But the end was disappointing. I just feel bad for our kids. That's how I feel. That's the emotion I have right now.''
Express-Times: Lehigh Eliminated from Patriot League Title Contention

"We did a good job varying the coverages the whole game and we had him rattled for the most part," said senior LB Troy Taylor, who had a team-high nine tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. "We didn't give him what he wanted to do. I think it gives us great confidence.

"The whole year we've been able to get after the QB consistently."

"Our line was getting great pushes up front and making great blocks," said junior RB Jay Campbell, who rushed for a career-high 131 yards on 21 carries. "I was able to read the holes pretty well today and ran a lot of inside zones -- one of my better plays I like to run.

"We had practiced it (the pass) for a couple weeks and today was the first opportunity to use it."

"There's frustration," Coen said. "I'm sure our kids are frustrated. Sometimes I'd love to be hugging them after a win. How they keep coming back I'm so proud of how they keep doing that.

"I've been on the other end of a lot of these games in my career, getting paid back now, maybe. I want to keep being positive it's just happening a lot. It's tough."
Brown & White: Lehigh Football Fall to No. 14 Crusaders at Home

Sophomore WR Jake Drwal said the amount of penalties was the only negative thing he observed.

"We knew this week was going to be tough and that we'd have to keep the penalties down in order to compete. That holding penalty on the goal line really hurt us," Drwal said.

In addition to his first career passing touchdown, Campbell had a career day on the ground with 131 yards on 21 carries. The tail back credited his offensive line.

"I've always had confidence in our O-line, but as the weeks have gone on they've come together as a unit," Campbell said. "We're going to keep believing in ourselves, keep believing in the team and just never quit."

Senior DL BJ Benning said, "The record doesn't really show it, but we can play with anyone. We just need to keep preparing to win and fighting until the last play."
Groller's Corner: Lehigh Loses Another Heartbreaker

"I wasn't surprised with how [Lehigh] came out," Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore said. "They came out and made plays. I said before the game that I'd be happy getting out of here with a one-point win. It doesn't matter how much you win by as long as you get the job done and we did just enough to get the job done.

"Senior LB Matt Cohen is a great football player and B.J. Benning gave us trouble at times. Their secondary did a good job of locking down on our receivers. They changed things up well. A play would be there and we'd come back to it again, and they would have it defended the next time."

Gilmore did not hear the final score of the Lafayette game -- The Leopards' won an all-timer 56-49 over Colgate -- and said he didn't want to think about the matchup with the Leopards next weekend right away. "I'll probably start thinking about them on the way home," he said.
Morning Call: Lehigh Still Searching for a Signature Win

Lehigh had 171 yards rushing against Holy Cross, its second best total of the season behind only the 219 registered against Georgetown.

Junior tailback Jay Campbell ran for a career-high 131 yards. He also threw a TD pass on a halfback option.

''We were getting a great push and great blocks up front and our fullback, senior FB Anthony Fossati, also did a great job,'' Campbell said. ''I was able to read the holes well today. We ran a lot of inside zone, which I like, and it was working well.''

Troy Taylor led a spirited defensive effort with nine tackles, including a sack and a forced fumble on Holy Cross All-American quarterback Dominic Randolph. Randolph was out of sync all day.

''We played our hearts out on defense,'' Taylor said. ''Unfortunately, we came out with a loss, but we eliminated the third best passer in the FCS and didn't allow him to do what he wanted to do. We made him throw off his back foot and took him out of his game.''

And they'll try to do the same against Skelton.

''This gives us great confidence,'' Taylor said. ''The whole year we've been able to get after the quarterback consistently. We've had more sacks (28) than we've had in recent years. That lets our DBs know they don't have to cover the receives for eight seconds. We're either going to get a sack or force a bad throw.''
Worcester Telegram-Gazette: Randolph Rallies Crusaders

“We turned it around when we needed to,” said Randolph, who had thrown six straight incompletions on two prior possessions and turned over the ball on an interception and a fumble the two possessions before that.

“We had a few mishaps here or there,” Randolph said.

Much of the trouble was the pressure generated by Lehigh’s pass rush. The difficulty Holy Cross receivers were having getting off the line of scrimmage against Lehigh’s aggressive press coverage added to the struggles.

“It was tough getting open and finding spots,” said Holy Cross junior WR Freddie Santana, who caught two passes on the decisive drive, including the 4-yard touchdown toss with 1:03 left.“Their defensive schemes had our number for a while,” said Randolph, who finished 23 of 37 for 247 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. “It was a little frustrating. They were throwing off the timing a little bit.”

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday's Word: Horus

Yes, I've resorted to Egyptian gods for my "Sunday Word" now. It's a byproduct of following a 2-7 team, I think - the more tough losses I endure, the more creative I have to be.

In ancient Egyptian mythology, "Horus" is the son of gods Isis and Osis. He's the Egyptian god of the sky, the sun god, the god of life and the god of war. (Those Egyptian gods seemed pretty malleable, depending on how you felt that week, it seems.) Furthermore, while most translations depict "Horus" having a head of a falcon, the alternative spelling of his name, Nehkeny, means literally "one from Nehken", known as the "city of the Hawk".

So for the sake of my belief (and this "Word"), "Horus" is an Egyptian god, with the head of a hawk. (And contrary to popular belief, I do not have a life-sized statue of "Horus" on my nightstand with a Lehigh logo pasted on it.)

Bear with me. Trust me when I say this will make sense in the end.

*****

There was a time when it seemed like Lehigh, in terms of the Patriot League anyway, was like "Horus".

One of the gods, flying above the rest of the Patriot League. Millenia from now, the hieroglyphics would reveal Lehigh as the dominating force of the League.

During those glory years, the question if "Horus" would be competing for Patriot League championships were a given. The question was - posed in all seriousness - whether "Horus" could make a run at a national championship. The heck with beating "that school in Easton" - how do we beat Furman?

I got flak last year from Lafayette fans when I mentioned that the Leopards were much more defined by "The Rivalry" than Lehigh was. That's because "Horus" had a true aura around them when they were winning that the Patriot League that they could actually compete nationally for a national title.

While Lafayette has had a lot of success recently - and are a win against Holy Cross away from going to their fourth FCS playoffs in six years - they haven't been able to get out of the first round. They could probably get to that "Horus"-like status too if they can win one of these first-round games, but as of right now they're merely God Kings on Earth, like Pharaoh Ramses II, for example.

How tides have turned now, though: now that Lehigh has been out of any postseason picture for the third straight year, the mummified Mountain Hawks have been more defined by "The Rivalry" than ever. It's become Lehigh's Super Bowl, perhaps a chance to play spoiler to the Leopards' playoff chances if Lafayette loses to the Crusaders next weekend.

It's amazing in "The Rivalry" how the power ebbs and flows. For a seven year stretch "Horus" was dominating, but then the Evil Empire has won five of the last seven against a Lehigh team that has fallen back to earth. It's no secret Lafayette will be favored on November 21st.

*****

But back to the weekend that was. Obviously, the days of "Horus" are long gone now. For the third straight year, Lehigh will not be competing for a Patriot League championship. And it's natural for folks to ask why.

This weekend, I said that it would have been the biggest Lehigh upset in two decades if the Mountain Hawks beat Holy Cross. Seven years ago, the idea that Lehigh's Patriot League opponent could be a prohibitive favorite would have been unheard of.

That's because Lehigh was "Horus". One of the gods. Lehigh seemed to get all the athletes, the biggest and the best high-academic players on offer. The academic index allowed enough room to get the pick of local talent - and, thanks to Kevin Higgins, more national talent as well. While Holy Cross and Lafayette were in the doldrums wondering if they wanted to compete, Lehigh was doing things they could only dream of doing.

But now, in 2009, Lehigh no longer has that advantage from the "Horus" days. Colgate, the Anubis to Lehigh's "Horus", has continued their success and Patriot League titles - though they had a brief down period, too. Lafayette lost a president that frankly brought their football program down, got a new president and some alumni with big checkbooks and the Leopards are now fixtures atop the league. Tom Gilmore took over a Holy Cross program and made them into a great program in the last four years, and are on the cusp of a championship and their first postseason appearance since 1983. And Fordham, who has had playoff success more recently, has gone down the road of football scholarships and aren't coming back, which may promise more athletes choosing the Rams.

"Horus" doesn't get all the high-academic athletes anymore, either. Two potential NFL prospects at quarterback, senior QB Dominic Randolph and senior QB John Skelton, are at Holy Cross and Fordham. Senior DT Andrew Poulson is a giant kid at Lafayette, and I keep thinking about what might have happened if Holy Cross senior OT Aaron Jones, himself a possible invite to an NFL camp, had gone to his original choice, Lehigh, instead of Holy Cross.

The playing field is much more level. Not tilted against Lehigh at this point - Lehigh still gets great athletes, obviously - but even. "Horus" used to be so stacked that when QB Brant Hall went down, we had a QB Luke Cianello right behind him who could have been a starter for more than half the teams in the league. That's not true anymore of any Patriot League team - no team is that loaded, at quarterback or any other position.

*****

That's not to make excuses for losing. If the playing field is level, then Lehigh should be winning their fair share of these close games somehow, not sitting at 2-7. And every week it seems to be something new - giving up big plays against Colgate, penalties here, turnovers there that are preventing wins. And when Lehigh plays well against Colgate and Holy Cross but fall just short, it's frustrating. Where were these teams against Princeton and Yale, two games you can't help but wish could be do-overs?

But it's important to realize Lehigh ain't "Horus" anymore, and never will be again. That era is as dead as ancient Egypt. The new era of Lehigh football will need a different way to win championships. Looking at the years of "Horus" is interesting, but it won't make Lehigh into a national power tomorrow.
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