Thursday, September 27, 2012

Game 5 Breakdown: Fordham at Lehigh, 9/29/2012

(Photo Credit: Fordham Athletics)

We break down the Fordham game - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.

It's strange that this is a conference game - yet not a conference game - for Lehigh, which actually makes this a difficult game to analyze.

Against, say, Bucknell, a loss would be devastating to Lehigh's Patriot League title chances (and autobid chances).  A loss against Fordham - whom Lehigh has played every year for the last 25 years, most counting in the Patriot League standings - would still be awfully tough to swallow, but not fatally so.  There's more history there than against, say, Liberty, yet a tiny bit less at stake than against, say, Colgate.

How dangerous are the Rams, really, in the end?  Let's dive in.



Breaking Down Fordham
Offense
Head coach Joe Moorhead is known in Fordham circles for three things.

One is his tenure as the starting quarterback for the Rams from 1993-1995.

Two is his rapid rise through the assistant coaching ranks, through Akron and UConn.

The third is his offensive philosophy, the "multiple no-huddle" offense, that gave him immense success with both Akron and UConn, ultimately giving the Huskies their first-ever Orange Bowl trip.

The "multiple no-huddle", of which variants are used by Pete Lembo at Ball State and Bob Surace at Princeton, is a hurry-up sort of offense that can have a dizzying number of different formations and looks.  It is dynamic in the sense that it can adjust to what your strengths and weaknesses are - if your best athletes are in the backfield, you can run to set up the pass.  But the overarching philosophy is for the offense to be hurrying up so often it wears down the opposing defense.  For the 3-1 Rams, it's worked well this year.

It's also not terribly far removed from the offense that Tom Masella ran last year, though it is more physical than last year's offense and has some critical key personnel running it differently this year.

"At Akron last year, we were 46 percent four wide and the other percent there was a tight end, a fullback or both on the field," Moorhead said when he was hired from Akron as the offensive coordinator for the Huskies. "I've never seen spread offense defined in the dictionary. But if it means four wide with no fullback or tight end on the field, that's not what we're going to be. We'll line up anywhere from five wide receivers to two tight ends, two receivers and a back.  Any idea that it is some finesse offense where we will be passive is sorely mistaken. That cannot be further from the truth. We will be physical."

Call Moorhead's physical, multiple-no huddle offense the "Battering Ram", with a big, physical signalcaller and a speedy, surprisingly tough back to shoulder the rushing load.

Going into training camp, senior QB Ryan Higgins, the presumed starter, had an unwelcome surprise waiting for him: the presence of a transfer from UConn, sophomore QB Michael Nebrich, who had a headstart working with coach Moorhead and his new QB coach, Andrew Breiner.

But Higgins, who had a monster preseason, ultimately split time at QB with Nebrich in the first three games.  Higgins was the better pure passer (63/97, 4 TDs), while Nebrich was a stronger runner (36 for 162 yards and 4 rushing TDs).

Against Cornell, however, disaster struck against the UConn transfer.

Nebrich "was taken off the field following a hit on a failed jet sweep run, which led to a knee injury," according to Fordham's student paper, The Ram.  "The injury will most likely keep Nebrich out for an extended period of time. Sources have said the injury is most likely a torn ligament. Nebrich, who was helped off the field by the Fordham staff after laying on the ground for a few moments, returned to the sidelines on crutches for the rest of the game."

That leaves Higgins this week as the key guy for the Rams at quarterback - a guy who doesn't totally fit the mold of what Moorhead wants at the position, which is a guy who is also a strong running threat.  While you have to factor in 3 sacks for 23 yards by Columbia last week, his rushing numbers - 8 for minus-34 yards - certainly can't be what Moorhead is looking for.  6'2, 200 lb sophomore QB Peter Maetzold, who has only one passing attempt on the season, backs him up.

The adjustment at QB hasn't mattered much thus far for Fordham, though, thanks to the emergence of a former player from Hofstra, senior RB Carlton Koonce.

The speedy, 5'8, 180 lb tailback has exploded back onto the rushing scene after Moorhead put the Lumberton, New Jersey native back at running back rather than wideout, and all he's done is rush for 608 yards and 3 TDs - good enough for 1st in the Patriot League, and 5th in the nation.

Last week, effective filling in for Nebrich in the running game, he ran the ball 36 times for 250 yards and 1 TD, and adding an 18 yard reception for another TD - making him Weapon Number One of this offense.  He scored the only two touchdowns of the afternoon for the Rams.

Fordham has developed into a run-first, pass-second type of team with Koonce's emergence.  Similarly built freshman RB Jared Crayton spells Koonce in the rare time when he's off the field, but it's likely to see him get some carries a swell.

When Higgins does pass the ball, he has some senior hands to throw to, but thus far most of his passes have targeted seven players: Koonce and the five rotating wideouts.

The three starting wideouts are seniors: senior WR Nick Talbert, senior WR Greg Wilson, and converted quarterback senior WR Blake Wayne, who have combined for 384 yards receiving and 2 TDs.  But it's the underclassmen, freshman WR Sam Ajala (157 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore WR Brian Wetzel (17 catches, 210 yards, 1 TD) that have found themselves targets quite a bit thus far as well.

Sophomore TE Dan Light (7 catches, 78 yards) rounds out the receiving corps, as does sophomore TE Adam Malkiewicz, who doesn't have a reception on the year.  But they have been solid blockers, allowing Koonce to do his damage running the ball.

Fordham's offensive line is definitely on the larger side when it comes to Lehigh's opponents this season, with 6'3, 300 lb senior OL Lloyd Morrison leading the way.   But at the critical spot of blind-side tackle, junior OL Matt Stolte, the starter the first three games, is out, and a battle for that critical position is being waged with three different players. 

Defense
For the first time this season, Lehigh will be facing off against a 3-4 defense - the type of defense they faced all preseason, against their own.  Taking away the 55-0 shutout against Lock Haven, the Ram defense has still been fairly solid overall in slowing down Villanova, Columbia, and Cornell, and has been very aggressive rushing the passer, averaging 3 sacks per game, good for 8th nationally.

One of the major surprises for the Rams was not only that junior DT Justin Yancey had "slimmed down" to 295 lbs, it was that he was shifting from nose guard to defensive tackle to better accommodate his uncommon speed for a big player.  Along with 6'5, 280 lb senior NG Patrick McGee, they form a formidable pair up the middle to stop interior rushing.

It's the linebacking unit, though, which is the specialty of the Fordham defense, and very well could be the best linebacking unit Lehigh faces all season.

Senior LB Michael Martin (37 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks), junior LB Jake Rodriques (26 tackles, 3 sacks) and senior LB Nick Womack (8 tackles) are three guys who, if eligible, would have definitely been all-Patriot League selections the last three years.  6'2, 235 lb sophomore LB Austin Hancock (25 tackles, 1 sack) rounds out the unit with yet another tall, athletic linebacker.   With the number of sacks this unit already have tallied, it's clear that Fordham's 4-3 is a multiple set that blitzes the quarterback often.

Returning starter junior CB Ian Williams leads the secondary in interceptions with 2, and the enforcer, senior FS Brendan Melanophy (10 tackles), return in the secondary.  Sophomore CB Jordan Chapman (12 tackles) and sophomore SS Jake Dixon (14 tackles) round out this unit, a mix of experience and young talent.

Curiously, it's worth mentioning that Fordham has only forced two turnovers in four games - Williams' two interceptions.  With Fordham's aggressive defense, though, this seems more like an aberration than anything.

Special Teams
Topping it all off might be the best kicker Lehigh may face all year, senior PK Patrick Murray.  A guy who I think will definitely be playing on Sundays, he's missed one kick all year, and has 3, count 'em, 3, field goals over 50 yards in four games this season.  After Koonce, he's arguably their biggest weapon on offense, and that doesn't even factor in his punting abilities, where he's booted 5 punts of 50 yards or better and is averaging a stellar 44.2. 

Fordham's return units have been average, and sophomore PR Brian Wetzel (3.5 yards per punt) and freshman RB Jared Crayton (20 yards per return) are OK, but neither have run a kick back for a touchdown yet either.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Springing Spadola.  It's not that senior WR Ryan Spadola is having a bad year - 21 catches and 335 yards is still good for 15th in the nation - its that "0" next to the stat "Touchdowns" and the average catches per game - just a little over 5 - that needs to change this week.  And it's not all on Ryan - it's the entire receiving staff, working together, that will make sure Ryan isn't double-teamed every play.  If Ryan gets more than 5 catches, triple-digit receiving yards, and at least one TD, it will go a long way towards victory.
2. Rotating the Big Dogs.  Fordham's offense is predicated on wearing down the opponent on defense - a steady diet of running, and the occasional pass to keep the sticks moving.  It will be critical that the personnel in there force incompletions, and stay fresh enough to force 3-and-outs, to keep from wearing down.
3. Turnovers and penalties.  Keeping turnovers to a minimum is always something to emphasize, but with a turnover margin that's 105th in the nation, it's critical that Lehigh really takes advantage of any that go their way and use it to put pressure on Fordham's offense.  This is not a team that is built, yet, to come from behind, and cashing in on turnovers penalties will help make it more difficult on them.  Lehigh cashed in on the freebies in a big way vs. Liberty, and if they do it again against Fordham, it could be a long day for them.

Fearless Prediction
Last week, Lehigh became a better football team by finding a way to win a game they should have lost against Liberty.

Two weeks ago, Lehigh might have become a better football team by finding a way to win a game they should have lost against Princeton.

But in ways, it seems eerily like the story arc of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles this season in their first two games, too.

The Eagles also pulled out wins they almost had no right to win, against the Browns, a team they were expected to prohibitively beat, and the Ravens, a team against whom they were not expected to win handily.

The hope is, for Lehigh fans, that this week's game vs. Fordham doesn't continue the story arc of the Eagles - who finally dug themselves in a hole against Arizona from which they couldn't dig out.

Will Lehigh do pull the same thing that the Eagles did last weekend?  I don't think so.  There's reason to believe that Lehigh's story will be different than those of Andy Reid's bunch.

Senior QB Mike Colvin hasn't always played pretty, but he's found ways to win in every game this year.  Aside from the huge touchdown run last weekend, he's made no turnovers the last two games, and it has been critical in their two wins.  (Unlike QB Michael Vick, who has been a turnover machine.)

There are plenty of signs that Lehigh's team is starting to click on offense and on defense - and, as has been noted, they have been doing what's necessary to win football games, making big plays, and cutting mistakes from week to week.

Even though much of the Rams personnel are the same, coach Moorhead has already made a big impact on this team, and has, too, taught them how to win.  But this team, despite its seniors, is younger than you might think, and are probably not as far along as they have looked in their first four games.

This game probably won't be as lopsided as last year's 34-12 win in the Bronx. But even with - perhaps - a bit of a Lehigh letdown, and Fordham playing a big show-me game, it still will be enough to spell a Lehigh victory.

I hope.

Lehigh 31, Fordham 26

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