Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Know Your 2014 Opponents: Bucknell

You might have been forgiven for overlooking them last year.

After all, Lehigh always beat Bucknell.  It was what they did.

The last time the Bison beat the Mountain Hawks anywhere, RB Rich Lemon was their star back, and Monica Lewinsky was still welcome in the Bill Clinton White House.

But for a fifteen year stretch, the Bison couldn't beat Lehigh with a ten-point head start.

So you might have been forgiven for not making the trip to Lewisburg fully anticipating No. 16.

Except that, on October 26th, 2013, Bucknell changed the narrative.

Bucknell didn't just beat heavily-favored, nationally-ranked Lehigh in their own house.  They put on the type of beating that left Lehigh fans absolutely stunned, a 48-10 stampeding that will not soon be forgotten by either side.

Bucknell used to be another name on the Patriot League schedule for Lehigh to beat.  Now?  Their name is circled, a critical game in early October that will be a pivotal game for both sides in the Patriot League title race.


At Patriot League Media Day, Milton Standard-Journal reporter Chris Nagy intimated that Bucknell head coach Joe Susan pretty much glances at the preseason rankings, then throws them in the trash.

“I really don’t put a lot of stock into those type of things,” Susan told him. “The postseason ranking is the one that counts.  We as a staff are concerned about getting better each day.”

Coach Susan, a tall, imposing guy, is in his fifth year in coaching Bucknell since getting plucked from the staff of Greg Schiano at Rutgers, himself a former Bucknellian.

Ever since coming to Lewisburg, he has been all about instilling a winning football culture at Bucknell, sometimes laboring in the shadow of the Bison's famous men's basketball program.  But he's done so quietly and methodically, doing the little things to make so-so teams into winners.

For years, the book on Bucknell was that they were "headed in the right direction", without actually one being able to put a finger on exactly why.  Much of that seems to have been due to coach Susan and his staff, who seemed to be doing the right things - little things - to build Bucknell into a credible Patriot League contender.

Last season Bucknell did just that - in the second half.

Going into the Lehigh game, the Bison seemed to be on track for another underachieving season.

With QB Brandon Wesley injured for most of their early season, 2-4 Bucknell seemed like, well, same old Bucknell.  Sure, Bucknell was "headed in the right direction" - but when would it result in wins?

The answer ended up being: against Lehigh.

Bucknell unveiled a new pistol offense against the Mountain Hawks, which seemed to catch the Brown and White off guard and allowed the Bison to jump to an early 13-0 lead.

"To this reporter, the game was lost early in the second quarter," I wrote.  "Lehigh drove the ball effectively down the field - one of the Mountain Hawks' rare good offensive drives of the game - where a forced pass was tipped and intercepted by DB Tajh Boyd that was promptly converted into points."

"From there, the game was a slow, painful go for Lehigh," I continued, "with an apparent collarbone injury to senior QB Brandon Bialkowski the final, humiliating blow to this nightmarish game everyone associated with Lehigh would rather forget."

It was Wesley's finest moment in a Bucknell uniform, going 16-21 passing and finding sophomore WR Will Carter six times for 130 yards, and a breakout game for sophomore RB C.J. Williams, who - literally - ran over the Lehigh defense for a particularly emphatic, or humiliating touchdown, depending on your point of view.

Watching the highlights of his running roughshod over Lehigh in the YouTube preview below are no easier to watch today than they were in mid-October of last season.

But it wasn't just the offense that dominated Lehigh that afternoon - it was a complete effort on both sides of the ball by the Bison that led to the crushing victory.  Bucknell's defense, led by senior LB Evan Byers and senior LB Lee Marvel, held the Mountain Hawks to their lowest offensive output of the season in terms of both points (10) and total yardage (316).

Turnovers were a key point of emphasis from Bucknell's aggressive defense last year, and it played a massive part in the Lehigh game - Bison 0, Mountain Hawks 5.

Wesley graduates, but nearly all of Joe Susan's dangerous young team returns in 2014 - the same team who, left for dead in mid-October, won five of their last six games and very nearly played their way to their first-ever Patriot League playoff appearance.

Sophomore QB R.J. Nitti, who had some starting experience last season in Wesley's absence, is expected to be the starter, with senior QB Trey Lauretta as his backup, but regardless of starter the Bison will have the exact same offensive line that gave the Bison such a great, late surge last season, including sophomore OL Julie'n Davenport and senior OL Lonnie Rawles, both members of the first team preseason all-Patriot League team.

They even seem a lot looser than in prior seasons - as evidenced by this Deadspin article.

The one difference from last year to this year vs. Lehigh is that they won't have the element of surprise.



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