Friday, November 09, 2012

Game Breakdown, Colgate vs. Lehigh, 11/10/2012

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

Not much more needs to be said about the importance of this game.  Essentially, it's for all the marbles.  It's why both teams practiced in March and April, why they sacrificed their time and energy all fall, why they, essentially, do this.

It's worth, though, looking at some detail as to how Colgate won these games.

In all four games, Colgate scored a touchdown on their first possession.  No punts, no turnovers, no field goals.  Touchdowns.

In three of the four games, Colgate scored a touchdown on their second possession.  Bucknell forced a punt in their game against the Raiders, but Colgate has mostly scored touchdowns there, too.

My point is that a big part of Colgate's success has been early success.  If football is a game of momentum, the Raiders have been successful in large part by getting out of the gate early, and then just continuing to roll forward.  In fact, last week against Lafayette, the Raiders scored eight times in their first eight possessions - seven TDs, and one FG, and that only happened because it was at the end of the half.

Let's look a little closer at this offense, too.



"It's a great place to play and they have a great program," head coach Dick Biddle said of Lehigh, and the big game this weekend.  "They're a very good football team this year and they've been consistent like we have. They've been to the playoffs; they've had success. They are a lot like us and we are a lot like them.

“They've won a lot of close games this year, which we have done in the past. They know how to win and they are very well coached. To play down there on grass, and there will be a great crowd – to go down there and play in that atmosphere and, hopefully, beat them would be a great accomplishment for our players."

He continued, “But you couldn't ask for a better scenario, to be able to get all the way through the season and have the last league game be for the championship and a bid to the playoffs. We know what to expect and I'm happy for our players. It's a one-game season for a championship, and that's all you could ask for.

“The worst thing that could happen is you hype it up too much and you don't play the way you've been playing, particularly for us on offense. We've got to treat it like it's just another game and they're going to wear different-colored jerseys.

“This makes it fun. It's no fun to play November football when you're not playing for anything.”

Breaking Down Colgate
Offense

For all of their greatness on offense this season, Colgate's offensive philosophy hasn't changed much.  Dan Hunt, the Raiders' offensive coordinator, has had the same formula for success the past six years: Develop a multiple-style running game around a big, athletic quarterback.   Have a stable of power backs to rotate rushing possessions.  When teams overcommit to the run, not knowing what might happen, shock and awe them with precision passing for big plays.

It's not as rigid as, say, Georgia Southern's triple-option, and allows the Raiders to spread the field, too, opening running lanes.  When it's on, as it is now, it's very difficult to stop.

I found it interesting that coach Biddle mentioned the word "grass" in his pregame comments.  Colgate's home games are played on FieldTurf, and as it so happens, all four of their big-scoring Patriot League games this season were played on artificial turf.  In fact, Colgate only played one game on grass this entire season - against Yale.  (Though maybe it's not to wise to read into that; after all, Colgate hung a lot of points on the Bulldogs, too, in a 47-24 victory.)

A big reason for the Raiders' position in the Patriot League title chase has been the emergence of junior QB Gavin McCarney (1,861 yards passing, 1,010 yards rushing, 32 TDs) as a bona-fide Walter Payton-award candidate.  The 6'2, 205 native Jefferson Township, New Jersey native has been as close to perfect as you can expect this season: built like a running back, hard to bring down, yet still possessing a great touch on the pass, completing 63% of his passes while only turning over the ball five times through interceptions.

"I just try to make moves to get into the open field," he said this week.  "When I follow my blockers and the receivers get downfield, there's usually only one man to beat and it's me or it's him. Obviously, we've been successful with that this year.  Like I always say, it's up to the offensive line. I've got to be able to get through the line first before I can make a long run. Hats off to them.”

The senior-laden Colgate "O" line has indeed been one of of the big reasons why McCarney and the Colgate backs have been so successful this season.  Anchored by a shoo-in for the Patriot League All-Conference first team, 6'5, 303 lb senior OL Ryan Risch has led a line that has not only paved a giant number of rushing yards, but has protected McCarney in the passing game as well, only allowing 1 1/2 sacks per game.

McCarney, though is hardly the only threat to run in the Colgate backfield.  Senior RB Jordan McCord, after three years of promise, finally broke out in 2012 with a mammoth year on the ground, totaling 1,368 yards rushing and 17 TDs.  Not only is he a similar runner as last year's workhorse, RB Nate Eachus who is now on the roster of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, 12 of the 17 TDs from the 5'11, Chicago, Illinois native came against Patriot League competition.  He's produced well all season, but he's had a strong sense of occasion, bringing up his game immensely in the last four games.

While Colgate will sometimes bring in kids to spell McCord, the duo of Jordan and Gavin form the great bulk of the Raider rushing yardage.  6'0, 254 lb sophomore FB Ed Pavalko, as critical a player as anyone on the offensive line, doesn't run much, but as a lead blocker he's a huge reason their offense has been so great.

Then there's the passing game - what Colgate has done to teams once they pack the box, and sell out on the run.  While rushing sets it up, McCarney has made teams pay dearly when they do overcommit, lofting 14 touchdown passes.

"I started slowly in the beginning of the year," he said.  "I struggled against Albany a little bit, with some balls being batted down. But I've kept my focus. I know I have great receivers out there who are underrated – junior WR Daniel Cason (501 yards), senior WR Chris Looney (622 yards, 6 TDs), and you saw last week that junior WR Ryne Morrison (237 yards, 1 TD) stepped up big for us. I know we have playmakers out there. As long as I get the ball in their hands, we will be good.”

Cason and Looney, fairly beat up last time against the Mountain Hawks, are 100% against Lehigh this time, and are also a big part of Colgate's resurgence on offense.  Sophomore TE C.J. Stempeck, again, doesn't catch the ball much, but he's as much a part as what makes this offense go, through blocking, than anyone on this unit.

To add to the pain, Colgate has only turned over the ball four times all season.  Without a doubt this offensive unit will be the finest Lehigh has faced this season - and could very easily be the best they will face this season.

Defense
If there's a flipside to Colgate's offensive prowess, it's that their defense has given up points at a similarly prolific rate.

In theory, when the offense is going strong, chewing up the clock with ten minute drives, the defense is always fresh and ready to make plays with their multiple 4-3 defense.  But it hasn't worked out that way - the extremely young Raider defense has given up more than 400 total yards per game, and allowed an eye-popping 210 yards per game on the ground.

The centerpiece of the defense has been senior LB Pat Friel (83 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks), but he came out late against Lafayette last weekend with a particularly bad concussion.  He is not listed on the Colgate two-deep, but there were signs that he might play this week as the concussion may not have been as bad as it was initially feared.

If he's unable to go, a relatively untested underclassman, sophomore LB Tyler Butler, will take his place, highlighting a trio of them on defense, with sophomore LB Kris Kent (65 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, 1 INT) and sophomore LB Vincent Russo (24 tackles, 2 pass breakups) taking their place.

The defensive line has been pushed around a surprising amount, despite the presence of such players like senior DT Chris Horner (25 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 1/2 sacks) and junior DE Andrew Nairin (17 tackles, 3 sacks).  Horner, at 280 lbs, is no sissy up the middle.

There's some talent in this defensive backfield, highlighted by senior FS Jonathan Mputu (51 tackles, 1 sack) and sophomore CB Mike Armiento (57 tackles, 9 pass break-ups, 3 INTs).  But at corner, the Raiders are speedy, but small, and teams have able to make hay, at times through the air as well.

Special Teams
Colgate's punting unit is dead last in FCS, something that senior P Evan Goldzack probably would rather not contemplate.  Then again, he's only punted 27 times all year for an average of 32.9 per boot, and hasn't been much of a factor all season.  Against Lafayette, Goldzack didn't punt once.

Similarly, junior PK Anthony Burgess has had some struggles (42/51 on extra points), but he also has made 5 field goal tries, and hasn't been asked to win a close game with a big kick, either.

Colgate's return units have been pretty solid.  Junior WR Ryne Morrison has averaged 6.8 yards per punt return, including a 33 yard scamper.  Sophomore QR/KR Jimmy DeCicco (432 yards, 22.7 yard average) has also been solid, and it's worth noting in another interesting move that Biddle has moved Morrison to the kickoff return unit to line up next to DeCicco as well, in an effort to bolster kickoff returns for this game.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Early Stops. You always have as a goal, on defense, to stop the other team.  But stopping this team, especially early, will be especially critical in order to slow down this incredible momentum they have had as an offense.  A shutout may not be a reasonable expectation, but if Lehigh can keep Colgate to single-digits in the first quarter that would go a long way towards a victory.
2. Colvin.  Football is the ultimate team sport, obviously, but it's hard not to look at this, to some degree, as a battle between McCarney and senior QB Michael Colvin as to who will be the more efficient QB, both running and passing the ball.  Both are mobile.  Both have the capability of ripping off game-changing runs.  Both are not all that easy to bring down.  Colvin has made more mistakes than McCarney has made this year overall, but when the chips are down, Colvin can be the better guy on this day.  He'll have to prove it, though, this Saturday.  It could very well be this simple: if Colvin is the better quarterback on this day, Lehigh will win this game.
3. Tackling Is Primary.  Head coach Andy Coen said this as well, but it's worth repeating: Lehigh will need their best tackling day of the season to make sure seven yard gains are not seventy yard gains.  Colgate will get yards, and they might get scores.  But limiting the big plays, and forcing trips to the red zone instead, could be huge.

Fearless Prediction
In all political seasons, one of the most iconic TV commercials is that of the 3AM phone call.  Who would you rather have answering that call, if it's a terrorist attack, a war has broken out, or there's another financial crisis?

Lehigh, this season, has been the ultimate 3AM team.  Like all presidential candidates, they're not perfect.  They've made mistakes, and will certainly make more mistakes.  But when the chips are down, at 3AM, they have answered the call.  Every single time.

No player has epitomized this as much as senior QB Michael Colvin.  He's made mistakes.  Every week, it seems, he's been compared, overtly or subconsciously, to QB Chris Lum.  And every single time, he has picked himself up, dusted himself off, and did what it takes to get the victory.

"The Magician" Colvin reminds me an awful lot of QB Ken Stabler, the quarterback of those legendary 1970s Oakland Raiders teams.  Somehow, Stabler didn't get the same credit as a Terry Bradshaw, or even an Archie Manning, during that timeframe.  He was a running quarterback, but also had a gun he could unfurl when needed.  Colvin is exactly like that at the FCS level: never winning style points, but he wins.

To a person on this team, they heap praise on "Magic Mike" every week.  Keeping them up when things look down.  Getting the job done, whether through a designed QB draw or a beautifully strong-armed pass to senior WR Ryan Spadola.

There are concerns that this Colgate offense is too tough to stop.  That this Lehigh offense will make so many mistakes that they won't be able to keep up.  And believe me, they're well founded.  Colgate's offense is an elite unit.  Without any question.

But when the fourth quarter rolls around, and the score is tied, and the team needs a player to step up and grab the Patriot League championship, whom would I rather look to?

Lehigh 41, Colgate 38

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