Thursday, October 03, 2013

Game Preview, Lehigh at Fordham, 10/5/2013

(Photo Credit: Philly.com)

"RELEASE THE KRAKEN!"

I honestly don't know exactly why this quote from the cheese-fest-y move Clash of the Titans was the first thing to leap to mind when thinking about this weekend's Lehigh/Fordham matchup.

In the Patriot League, certainly, Lehigh and Fordham are the definition of Titans, both undefeated with the three best out-of-conference wins in the League this season.  Two are owned by Fordham - they beat FBS Temple and nationally-ranked Villanova - and the other by Lehigh - their win last week over New Hampshire.

In the FCS, too, you could define them as Titans in the sense that the Mountain Hawks and Rams are two of only twelve undefeated teams in the entire subdivision.  Not all of these undefeated teams will be Titans at the end of the season, of course, but at least much of the national FCS community agrees for now that both are top teams: both are ranked in both major polls as two of the top 13 teams in the nation.

So maybe a sub-headline for this game of "Lehigh vs. Fordham: Releasing the Kraken" might make a lot of sense.

Because both teams won't be holding back much in the game, which, as luck may have it, will be broadcast nationally on the CBS Sports Network at 12:00 PM on Saturday.


Back in August, when the Patriot League TV schedule was announced, the fact that Lehigh/Fordham was one of the games was an exciting prospect - for Lehigh and Fordham fans, anyway.

But few in the league office could have dreamed that this would become the type of game that would be as nationally significant as it has become.

After all, what are the odds that this would have been a battle of undefeated teams?

The league office would have had to look into the crystal ball and seen Lehigh beat New Hampshire, a team they hadn't beaten since 1982.

They'd have also needed to envision Fordham upsetting Villanova, a team they hadn't beaten since 1920.  In fact, only one of the last nine meetings since 1921 was even within a touchdown.

Never mind that it required Fordham upsetting an FBS team, giving the Patriot League their first win over a team from that subdivision since 2003 (when Colgate beat Buffalo of the MAC).

The Rams were an improving team from two years ago, after they went 1-10 and hired current head coach Joe Moorhead away from the staff at UConn.

But few people thought "Rams" and "Undefeated" in the same sentence when this game was put on the TV schedule, even though it did seem like Moorhead had started an impressive turnaround last season when Fordham finished 6-5.

Now the conversation isn't focused on "competing" at Rose Hill, or even simply winning a de facto Patriot League championship, even if technically they can't win it officially because they are already offering the full allotment of scholarships.

It's very much focused on "playoffs".

“The first goal we have is to retain the Cups — the Liberty Cup versus Columbia, and the Ram-Crusader Cup versus Holy Cross,” Moorhead told the New York Post back in August. “The next goal is a winning non-conference record, and then to have the best record in the Patriot League. If you take care of those things, you can qualify for an at-large bid [into the NCAA Tournament] and have a chance to win a national championship.”

Already the Rams have achieved one of those goals, and are already well on their way to the other two.

Up only 10-0 at half, Fordham erupted with six second half touchdowns to "retain the Liberty Cup" - or, in other words, crush Columbia - 52-7.  It also guaranteed at least one of the Rams' goals would be fulfilled - a winning non-Patriot League record, with their fourth victory on the season.

Additionally, it also spawned something else: a comparison of their signalcaller, QB Michael Nebrich, to another highly-regarded college football quarterback - QB Johnny Manziel.
“He’s got a little Johnny Football in him,” WR Brian Wetzel said. “Mike Football is what we call him in the locker room.” 
“For what we want out of our offense from a quarterback-skill-set perspective, Michael fits the mold,” Fordham coach Joe Moorhead said. 
“You better keep in the pocket because when he gets out of the pocket he’s a different cat,” Columbia head coach Pete Mangurian said. “That’s when he wreaks havoc on everything, throwing the ball and running with it.”
In fact, the best way to demonstrate how deadly he is out of the pocket is easy.

It was on one of those broken plays, with Nebrich getting flushed from the pocket and find time to get away and plant his feet, that set up Fordham's thrilling last-second touchdown to beat Temple on the last play of the game in the first week of the season.


Looking back - yes - you can see the Manziel in the play, Nebrich's blurry Fordham helmet resembling Johnny Manziel's Texas A&M helmet a little.  Call him Mikey football, call him mini-Manziel, call him the Kraken or whatever you'd like to call him, Nebrich is a gamer, and the best quarterback Lehigh will have faced all season - maybe even the best when all is said and done as well.

Nebrich has won Patriot League offensive player of the week twice; senior QB Brandon Bialkowski has won the award twice.

Certainly a win over nationally-ranked Lehigh would be yet another feather in Moorhead's cap this year, and probably would offer the Rams some valuable insurance in their quest for an at-large bid to the playoffs. The committee could ignore a win against a winless FBS squad.  They might perhaps ignore a win over a strong CAA team in Villanova.  They could even discount a win against nationally-ranked Lehigh.  But they can't possibly discount all three.

But on Lehigh's side, too, they'll need to release the Kraken as well, for they too need the win to garner more national respect.

"They're off to a dynamic start.  This is a great matchup," head coach Andy Coen told Keith Groller of the Morning Call this week. "You look at the national polls and Towson is ranked second and the next two Eastern teams are Lehigh and Fordham, and I think that's pretty good for the Patriot League. While the polls don't mean much as we found out last year, we need as much good publicity as we can get in terms of a national reputation."

Most FCS watchers nationally picked New Hampshire to beat Lehigh last week, so you can say Lehigh's national reputation did grow a little with a win over a Top 25 team.  It would grow even more, though, with a win on the road over a team with an FBS win in their resume - and also give a tiny bit more added insurance, too, just in case Lehigh's in the conversation for an at-large bid this season.

Lehigh, which boasts the No. 1 yardage offense in the Patriot League, will meet their match in Fordham's offense, the No. 1 scoring offense.

"They're scary to watch on film," Coen said.  "Very fast, very physical, on both sides of the ball.  They will be a huge challenge for us."

It won't be scary for people watching the game nationally, though - which is just how the people at the Patriot League want it.

Add to the party that Moorhead made as an offseason priority to "win the close ones", as against Bucknell, Colgate and Lehigh, the Rams only lost by a handful of points.

Against Lehigh, specifically, it took a last-second field goal by PK Jake Peery to secure Lehigh's 38-35 win.

Tied at 31, the critical pieces to Lehigh's victory would become the little things that win football games, and making fewer mistakes down the stretch.  
Even though Lehigh's bounceback drive would stall at the 25,senior P Tim Divers' amazing 52 yard punt into the wind would back up the Rams deep in their own end.  
Down at Lehigh's 43, senior LB John Mahoney would bat down a critical 3rd down pass by Fordham QB Ryan Higgins, forcing a PK Patrick Murray punt that would go into the end zone for a touchback.  
Aided by a big personal foul call, Lehigh's next drive would stall again at the Fordham 37, but Divers' directional punt would be fair-caught  at the Rams' 12, further backing them up. 
Then DE Tom Bianchi would run down Higgins, and his attempt to throw the ball away would result in an intentional grounding call, robbing the potent Ram offense of room to maneuver. 
The punt out of the Ram end zone would be fielded by RB/KR Marcus Dormevil - and returned 25 yards deep into Fordham territory, ultimately setting up Peery's killing blow to the Rams. 
To Fordham, it's clear that this game on national television will be a chance to prove nationally that they can close out games like this.  They've already done so this season against Temple and Villanova, beating two squads they didn't play last season.  But in this game, they have a chance to add revenge to their already impressive resume.

 "This is going to be a four-quarter game.  No doubt," Coen said.

One More Interesting (DVR) Note About This Weekend's Game(s)

Before jumping right to the injury report, it's worth mentioning that there is another huge FCS matchup this week that involves undefeated teams.  Better yet, it's also broadcast nationally, and at different times than the Patriot League Game of the Week.

The Lehigh/Fordham game has a 12PM kickoff and Ben Holden, Tom Bradley and Rashan Ali calling the action from Jack Coffey Field.

Bradley, a former Penn State football coach, talked to Keith Groller earlier this week about this weekend's game.
"These teams have some excellent football players, but maybe the difference [between FBS and FCS schools] is that they don't have as many," Bradley said. "The skill in the Patriot League, especially on these two teams, is very impressive. Being at Penn State, we followed the Patriot League because we had Bucknell right down the road and Lehigh's not that far away. We heard and read about them all the time.   
"These two programs have done everything the right way.  I have so much respect for the men who run these programs - Andy Coen is a great coach and Joe coached the quarterbacks at Akron and his offenses used to give us fits at Penn State."
Later in the afternoon, undefeated Northern Iowa will be facing off against undefeated North Dakota State in the Missouri Valley on Fox College Sports Central, available on many cable systems, starting at 3:30PM.

If you're at home, it makes for an awesome FCS football doubleheader.  If you're headed to the Bronx, it means you ought to clean out your DVR.

The other cool thing about this FCS doubleheader?  Lehigh and Fordham boast two of the best offenses in FCS.  Northern Iowa and North Dakota State will feature two of the best defenses in FCS.

That's an awesome showcase for the FCS this week.  You can even catch both of these great FCS games before watching Arizona State play Notre Dame, too, Saturday night.

Game Notes

From Michael LoRe's injury report this week, a young defensive player that was really starting to emerge as a big defensive presence, sophomore LB Cody Kondas, unfortunately suffered a knee injury and won't play this Saturday.  It's unfortunate as the Westerville, Ohio native had a breakout game against New Hampshire, notching 9 tackles, and is out indefinitely.

Just in time, though, a couple of other young linebackers, sophomore LB Matt Laub and freshman LB Colton Caslow, return to provide valuable depth in the middle of the defense.  Don't be surprised to see junior LB Tashan Mitchell, too, in the linebacker rotation, in Kondas' place.

Another name on the injury list is senior OL Shane Rugg, who is sidelined with a broken thumb and is listed as "doubtful" for Saturday.  If he's unable to go, junior OL Matt Douglas would likely get the nod.  Amazingly, should Rugg not start Lehigh will have gone through, I believe, four different offensive line combinations in four games this season.

Other than that Lehigh's game notes show that Lehigh is fairly healthy.

Weather Report

It's something to keep an eye on, but a look at the weather report in the Bronx shows another incredible day of mostly sunny skies and a high in the mid-70s.  There is a chance of thunderstorms - at about 20% - but as of now it's supposed to be smooth sailing.

There's an additional cool thing at the pregame of the event this weekend, too. The NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Committee's Join the Huddle Tour will be there, set up in parking Lot A.

"Fans are encouraged to stop by," Fordham's release states, "view the exhibit and get your picture taken with the Lombardi Trophy, named, of course, for Fordham great Vince Lombardi."

Pretty awesome stuff - and ample reason to get to the game early, and get your tickets early, like now.

Famous Fordham Alum You Didn't Know About

Maybe you knew this already, or maybe you didn't, but with the Dodgers making it back to the MLB playoffs, the legendary broadcaster Vin Scully has to be our Fordham Alum of this game.  At 85, he's already signed up for one more year to be a part of the Dodger radio broadcast team - which will make it an incredible 65 years behind the mike for the Dodgers.

His legendary career needs no introduction, starting in 1949 broadcasting from Fenway Park's frigid roof, and soon thereafter heading to the Yankees and Dodgers and becoming the iconic voice of Dodger broadcasts.  At Fordham he founded the student radio station, WFUV, which continues operation to this day.

LFN's Drink of the Week

I don't know about you, but when I think Bronx, I think of the real Little Italy, not far from Rose Hill.  While I won't be able to enjoy a great Italian meal down the street from Fordham, it doesn't mean you can't celebrate Little Italy in your morning Fordham Tailgate.  Capezzana Conti Contini Sangiovese (preferred year: 2010) is a great wine to pair with Italian food - bring the antipasto, and bring this wine to the tailgate.  You won't regret it.

I implore you to please drink responsibly when tailgating.  As always, I don't mind folks enjoying a few drinks, whether it be Champagne, wine, or Yuenglings - but for Heaven's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car afterwards.  Thanks.

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