In case you have been living under a rock - or maybe just new at this - there's a game going on this Saturday that's, um, pretty important to Lehigh's Patriot League title hopes.
To just go over the scenarios one more time, just so we're all on the same page, Lehigh is in the driver's seat this weekend.
If they beat Bucknell tomorrow, they are Patriot League champions - no worst than co-champions - and they will clinch the FCS autobid, being the first Division I football program in the nation to clinch a postseason berth.
If Bucknell wins, it opens the door for other possible not-so-good Mountain Hawk outcomes where Lehigh are co-champions without playoffs, or (if they lose to Bucknell and then to Lafayette), neither champions or playoff contenders.
Certainly a Lehigh win would allow all Mountain Hawk fans to know that, even after the 152nd meeting of The Rivalry, even after a sold-out crowd at Fisher Field in Easton, the Mountain Hawks football season would not end there.
The namesake of Bucknell's stadium is a hall-of-fame pitcher, Christy Matthewson, who was also a football star for Bucknell back in 1899.
Matthewson had a very interesting hall-of-fame baseball career. At 14 years old, "Christy" (so nicknamed, as the say, because, as a Christian, he wouldn't pitch on Sundays), was pitching in the minor leagues. That didn't stop him from eventually attending Bucknell and suiting up for the football team as well.
It was Matthewson's presence that allowed the "Bisons", as they were then called by The Brown and White, that had them beat Lehigh 5-0 thanks to a kick from the future hall-of-fame pitcher.
With neither line able to cross the other's goal line, "it was essentially a kicking game," The Brown and White reported, "and it was only due to the superior ability of Bucknell's full-back, Matthewson, in this line that the visitors were enabled to turn the score in their favor."
In addition to kicking for Bucknell, Matthewson also returned kicks, which set up the field goal "from the forty yard line" that would end up being the game-winner.
That same year of 1899, according to his Wikipedia page, he pitched in the minors and went 21-2, prompting him to be drafted by the New York Giants that spring. Eventually, he would pitch in the 1905 World Series and deliver 3 shutouts, cementing his legacy.
Let's tackle this weekend's game.
Breaking Down Bucknell
Bucknell runs a variation of the "pistol offense", made famous by Nevada head coach Chris Ault. The short explanation of this offense is that the quarterback lines up four yards behind center, and the halfback lines up in various positions five yards behind the quarterback.
In Bucknell's flavor of this offense there are up to two H-Backs (FB or TE) are used, shifted to the flow of the play, to open up holes for the runners and the quarterback to run the football, while using play-action to set up big plays in the passing game. Joe Susan's version of this offense is nothing new from what Lehigh has seen before; it's essentially the same version they've seen, with the same personnel.
What that doesn't necessarily reflect is what sort of H-Back or TE they actually are. There have been times, including during Bucknell's win over Lafayette earlier this year, one of these "hybrid" players are actually a third WR. Looking at the depth chart, it looks that might be happening this year, too.
|Bucknell QB R.J. Nitti|
While not really a true dual-threat QB, when Nitti is at his best he's directing a rushing-intensive offense and hitting his man on the play-action, preferably for big plays. That's not to say Nitti can't occasionally take off on a run - in years past, he's liked to call his own number in the red zone. But his whole career he's made the most hay overall with his arm. When he's accurate throwing the football, the Bucknell offense is dangerous.
Like ;ast year, Nitti was not completely healthy this season. Like last year, he's only been completing 51% of his passes, and it's reflected in Bucknell's box scores, though it hasn't stopped Bucknell's offense from putting up a bunch of points the last two weeks.
The Bucknell running game is centered around a couple of breakout performers at running back, a 1-2 punch that is the Bison's bread and butter. That's junior RB Joey DeFloria and freshman RB Chad Freshnock.
Defloria is the speed back who is on track to be a 1,000 yard rusher for Bucknell (801 yards rushing, 7 TDs) and is also someone you need to worry about in the passing game (158 yards, 1 TD). But change-of-pace physical back Freshnock (390 yards, 6 TDs) has really come on in the last few weeks as well. They are a solid group of runners.
Lehigh may have caught a break in that 6'3, 240 lb sophomore FB Andrew Owers is not listed on the depth chart at fullback this week, the scary blocker out of the backfield that creates some of the running lanes for DeFloria and Freshnock. Instead, sophomore WR Marcus Ademiola takes his place, possibly to add another tall (6'3) physical (225) receiver or blocker for Nitti to pass to.
|Bucknell WR Will Carter|
When he's in the game, he's a difference-maker. He's struggled with injuries the last two years, but his 502 yards and 3 TDs leads the Bison. Deceptively, he has the ability to be patient and catch balls at the sticks, but then also has the breakaway speed to be extremely dangerous. He's a star, but he's also frequently the subject of double teams, too.
6'1 sophomore WR Alan Butler (232 yards) is an OK possession receiver on the other side of Carter, but just like junior TE Andrew Podbielski, part of his big value comes from exterior blocking in the running game. If your eyes focus on Butler and Podbielski on the field, you'll likely see extra yards at the end of rushing plays thanks to their blocks.
|Bucknell OL Julie'n Davenport|
Though Davenport is a star, the rest of the Bison offensive line hasn't been as dominant as they have been in other years. They've given up 23 sacks, which is a lot more than they did all of last year.
Bucknell runs a multiple 4-2-5 defense that historically has been predicated on a constant stream of all-Patriot League defensive linemen entering the program. It's the same defense Bucknell has run in years past, and going into the season it was the defense to beat in the Patriot League. In a conference with a bunch of rebuilding defenses, Bucknell's unit stood out.
The biggest (and I mean biggest) standout in their front four is 6'4, 295 lb junior DT Abdullah Anderson (8 TFL, 4 sacks) who, along with junior DE Doug Whitlock (5 TFL) are three-year starters on the defensive line. That's not to disparage 270 lb senior NG Doug Glenn and senior DE R.J. Sheldon (6 1/2 TFL, 2 sacks), who have been just as tough to face as the veterans on this daunting defensive line.
|LB Ben Richard|
With the guys up front getting so much pressure on the quarterback, perhaps it's not surprising that Bucknell's eye-popping eleven interceptions lead the Patriot League.
Bucknell's secondary features junior ROV Connor Golden (3 INTs), senior FS Brett Berg (56 tackles, 2 INTs), sophomore SS Joe Lauro (49 tackles, 1 INT), sophomore CB Bryan Marine (1 INT) and senior CB Nick O'Brien (1 INT), showing that, as a defense, Bucknell continues to click. You don't want to fall behind by two touchdowns and have to claw back into a game against these guys.
Senior CB Nick O'Brien is a big weapon in Bucknell's kicking game. Though he hasn't run one back for a touchdown, he has 330 all-purpose return yards and has been steady returning kicks. Sophomore CB Bryan Marine, opposite of him on kickoffs, is pretty good in his own right, with 21.3 yards per return as well.
Senior P Brett Berg (40.1 yards per punt) is a solid Patriot League punter, but Bucknell's kicking game has been an adventure all year. Susan will most likely depend on going for it on 4th downs on all but the most makeable of FG, with his team not even attempting any field goals in their last two games. Junior PK John Burdick has been accurate in extra points, however (10/10).
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Do Not Let Will Carter Beat You. At the end of the day, it's Will Carter that scares me the most on this Bucknell offense. Perhaps it was his epic day against Lehigh a few years ago, I' don't know, but what I do know is Lehigh's best chance at winning is to limit his yards per catch and don't let him run hog wild.
2. Stretch the Defense. Lehigh is blessed with such a dynamic offense, but what I would do to combat Bucknell's aggressiveness is to run and pass to the outside to work that aggressiveness against them. Senior QB Nick Shafnisky will keep up with those great scrambles, no doubt, but maybe this might be the time to exercise sophomore RB Dom Bragalone's ability to catch screen passes. Catching them in the blitz once could yield great dividends.
3. Patience. Lehigh don't need to be gunslingers to win this game, or rely on big plays. They can afford to take some time to start the game, get a long, extended drive, and wear down this defense. Patience and attention to detail, avoiding mistakes, will be the key to a Lehigh win.
On paper, it looks easy. If I look at Lehigh's highlight reels from the last few weeks, it looks easy. So why am I up this late worried about Bucknell?
Because weird things tend to happen in November. Unstoppable defenses start to look human. Offenses turn into pumpkins. It certainly didn't look like that it will happen judging by last week, but that's just it - that was last week. If the Mountain Hawks come out overconfident and sloppy, it's not all that hard to picture.
Yet there is a lot of reminding out there about the missing championships from the last four years, the ghost of 2012, the agony of 2013, the missing five yards in 2015. By all accounts, this group is focused on their goals. If they do, if they remain focused on the prize, the hardware, the rings, they will get them this Saturday,
Lehigh 31, Bucknell 17