We break down the Liberty game - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.
Two weeks ago, Lehigh faced a team that was trying to find out whom their starting quarterback was: Central Connecticut State QB Andrew Clements or QB Nick San Giacomo.
Last week, the Mountain Hawks faced another team trying to find out whom their starting QB was: Princeton, QB Brett Epperly or QB Connor Michaelsen.
For the third straight week, Lehigh will not know whom they will be facing at QB. Head coach Turner Gill, as is his policy, will start the guy who does the best in practice, as per Chris Lang of the Lynchburg News-Advance.
Breaking Down Liberty
Usually by Week 4, the die is cast when it comes to a college football team. Your offense is your offense; it's starting to click as the players get more comfortable in the system. In Week 4 for the Flames, head coach Turner Gill is still tweaking things with his mixture of one-back sets and pro set offense.
Gill started the year as the co-offensive coordinator with Aaron Stamn, with Gill calling the offensive plays. Two weeks into the season, he gave that duty to Stamn, who now is calling the plays - a very big shift. And two weeks after that, he's started to want to "cut down on some of the playbook and simplify the offense this week in hopes of limiting some of the procedural mistakes that have happened in the first three games," Lang notes.
Gill is also working his way through a battle at quarterback, between junior QB Brian Hudson and freshman QB Josh Woodrum, two folks who are stil vying to replace QB Mike Brown, the wundertalent at that position for the Flames last year.
It's hard to evaluate Woodrum and Hudson on statistics alone - after all, the Flames have played three awfully tough opponents in Wake Forest, Norfolk State and Montana. Woodrum, though, has shown himself to be a very accurate passer - 34/44 for 322 yards and 2 TDs against Montana in Washington-Grizzly Stadium is nothing to sneeze at - while Hudson has more mobility to go with a fairly accurate arm as well (32/59, 409 yards, 3 TDs).
Yet Hudson, for all his gifts, saw a bunch of potential game-tying drives fall short versus Norfolk State, especially in the second half. Woodrum, for all his accuracy, wasn't really in the game against Montana, won by the Grizzlies by 3 touchdowns.
Gill has said that he will evaluate the starter by Friday, and Lehigh likely won't know until Saturday who the starter is - Gill, who closes practices to the media, is developing a reputation as a coach which plays things close to the vest. If I had to guess, I'd say the starter would probably be Hudson, who reportedly was 100% going into this week of practice and adds another dimension to the game. (Though I didn't pick Princeton's starting QB correctly last week, so who knows?)
What's certain is that Lehigh will know Liberty's starting QB Saturday evening at around 7PM - and that he'll have some very talented skill players surrounding him, including a bunch of names Lehigh faced last year.
Is junior RB Aldreakis Allen a potential NFL prospect next year? At 6'0, 230 lbs, he certainly has the measurables. Yet after running for 127 yards (and catching a 23 yard screen pass for a touchdown) against Norfolk State, the Griz stopped him cold, limiting him to 29 yards on 8 rushes.
Allen splits time with 5'7 senior RB SirChauncey Holloway, a change-of-pace back who hides behind the trees and is more of a slashing runner than Allen. Both, along with Hudson, only average about 98 rushing yards per game - but it's not clear if that's more a reflection of Liberty's brutal schedule than an ineffectiveness rushing the ball. In addition, freshman FB Nicky Fualaau has no rushing yards yet, and will be starting at FB when the situation requires.
Like head coach Danny Rocco's offense last year, Gill spreads the wealth when it comes to receiving opportunities. Many of the same faces return from last year's corps: senior WR Pat Kelly (216 yards, 1 TD), senior WR Ryan Ferguson (103 yards, 1 TD), senior TE Justin Gunn (138 yards), and senior WR Elliot Dutra (90 yards, 1 TD). All the receivers are very athletic, with Gunn being a particularly tough target to cover at 6'4. 235 lbs.
Against Norfolk State, Liberty suffered a huge blow when preseason all-American senior OL Malcolm Boyd was lost for the season to injury. Since then, their meaty "O" line, now led by senior C Aaron Lundy, has gone through a six-man rotation to adjust to Boyd being gone. THe five sacks given up last week to Montana suggests that the Flames "O" line, despite their obvious talent, is still a work-in-progress.
Another week, another base 4-3 defense that Lehigh will be facing. With a plethora of injuries to their front seven, Liberty has needed to make a lot of defensive adjustments in the past three weeks, which hasn't exactly been easy given the caliber of opponent they've faced.
You'd think with 295 lb senior NG Bryant Llewelyn anchoring the "D" line that the Flames' opponents would have a tough time running against them, but that hasn't been the case yet this year. 6'4, 165 lb junior DE Cory Freeman (12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss) has been the best athlete in Liberty's front four thus far.
Part of Liberty's defensive struggles in their front seven may partially be due to the fact that they are so young, with junior LB Scott Hyland (19 tackles, 1 sack) as the veteran guy back there. Sophomore LB Nick Sigmon (13 tackles), who started last year against Lehigh, is another talented Flame in the front seven, however.
By far, though, Liberty's great strength on defense is their secondary. Senior CB Kevin Fogg (17 tackles, 1 forced fumble) is lightning-quick and was a preseason all-American in many publications. Senior SS Brett Vinson (16 tackles, 1 pass break-up) and junior CB Walt Aikens (11 tackles, 1 forced fumble) offer excellent support for Fogg in the back as well. This is the strongest secondary Lehigh will have faced this year.
In addition to a great secondary, the Flames will also have arguably the top special teams unit the Mountain Hawks have faced all year. Fogg, a pretty gosh-darned good corner already, also returns punts AND kickoffs - where he already has 297 return yards and a punt return for touchdown.
Freshman PK John Lunsford clearly has a fantastic leg - he's connected already this year from 49 yards - but is only 2 for 5 on FGs on the year, though two of the misses were over 40 yards. And junior P Grant Bowden is a solid punter as well, sporting a 40.1 average thus far this year.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Learning the Lessons. It hasn't always been pretty, but Lehigh has learned how to win in the last three weeks. It's a feeling that is in their gut. Keeping that mentaility up for sixty minutes of football could be the most critical thing Lehigh needs to do this week - to simply know, inside, how to win close games when Liberty may not have figured it out yet.
2. Toughness in the receiving corps. Flames fans might think that senior WR Ryan Spadola, junior WR Lee Kurfis, and senior TE Jamel Haggins are a little soft - that hard play will intimidate them, make them drop passes, turn over the ball. If they play tough, and let nothing or nobody intimidate them - it could be a long day for the Flames.
3. Come at them every which way. No matter who the starting QB is, they won't have a lot of experience. Lehigh's defense comes at you with a lot of different people, and keeping that QB unbalanced with junior LB Nigel Muhammad, senior DE Anthony Verdarame and others will go a long way towards a win for the Mountain Hawks.
Usually, 3-0 vs. 0-3 isn't much of a matchup - the 3-0 team is usually the prohibitive favorites. But there's every reason to believe that Lehigh isn't your typical 3-0 team, and Liberty isn't your typical 0-3 team. That makes this game wicked hard to pick.
An 0-3 team with the number of tweaks that Gill has made in the first four weeks usually isn't a good sign. It's a team that is still searching for itself, looking for a combination it hasn't found yet.
Yet the talent is clearly there. Fogg is the sort of player, if left unchecked, can take over a game. He very nearly did against Norfolk State at home.
Conversely, Lehigh's a 3-0 team that also "needs to clean things up," Coen said last weekend. It's safe to say if the same mental lapses that occured last week in the 3rd quarter against Princeton rear themselves against Liberty, Lehigh will be on the losing side of this game.
Will we see Liberty pull things together this week? Will we see Lehigh clean things up this week, and see the offense make the great strides Lehigh fans are expecting to happen any day now?
Like last year, this seems like it could be a close game against evenly-matched teams - despite the records.
And in the close games, it's the team that's been there before, the team that has it in their gut, the team that knows how to win, that does. It may not be pretty, it may not be fireworks and big plays, but in the end, knowing how to win means a lot more than people realize. That's why I think Lehigh will - just - pull this out.
Lehigh 28, Liberty 24