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Preview of Harvard/Lehigh

In preparing for writing this Harvard/Lehigh preview, I looked over my blog postings from last year’s Harvard game to try to get some perspective on this week’s game, and they pretty much summed up Lehigh’s out-of-conference frustrations as a whole that Lehigh and the Patriot League are trying to avoid in 2007. The ghosts of this game tell us a lot about what Lehigh needs to exorcise on Saturday.

Going into the game last year, Lehigh had a bye week after losing to Princeton, 14-10, after jumping out to a 10-0 lead and seeing Princeton get two early second-half TDs and make it hold up since Lehigh couldn’t come from behind. It was the third straight home loss by Lehigh: after losing 2005’s game to Lafayette (the 140th) in the final minute, we the struggled in coach Coen’s home opener to Albany, getting shocked by a 17-16 score before falling to Princeton. We were faced with a possible 1-3 start for the first time in recent memory. I asked the question on the blog: “Is Lehigh rebuilding, or reloading”?

Harvard seemed like a hungry team. Going 2-0 against Holy Cross and Brown, this team which was picked to compete for the Ivy League title was going to be a tough challenge. But Lehigh had taken the last three games in the series, the last one a dominating 49-24 performance in Cambridge in 2005 that was one of the better Mountain Hawk games of the season.

In last year’s game, Lehigh showed flashes of a team that could score at will. Rolling up to a 24-7 lead, defensive breakdowns allowed Harvard to close the gap. On a 4th-and-6 play, Harvard QB Chris Pizzotti converted a big pass play with scores of missed tackles allowed Harvard to cut the lead to 24-14, and later cut the lead to 24-21 by halftime on the back of a fake punt. All of a sudden, this was a game.

Harvard’s offense wouldn’t stop in the second half, converting two quick TDs to jump to a 35-24 lead, while Lehigh’s offense continued to sputter. QB Sedale Threatt would rally the team to a FG and a TD pass to Mike Fitzgerald with 4:00 left in the game– but a 2-point conversion pass that was rifled into the end zone too hard failed to be caught. And 35-33 ended up being the final score, cementing Lehigh’s fourth-straight home loss and a 1-3 September.

My postgame comments were sheer frustration. “It is incredibly frustrating to see us come so close, and show so many flashes of talent in every phase of the game, just to come up short. The problem here isn't finishing games. It's finding playmakers, especially on defense.”

Today, things are a little different. We’ve beaten a pretty good Princeton team at their house, 32-21. We dominated VMI as expected, 37-6. The Mountain Hawks are a better team this year that they were at this point last year. But some questions still remain. Do we have those playmakers on defense? Are these flashes of talent going to build into a more consistent offensive performance, especially in the second half? Are Lehigh’s woes at home a thing of the past?

Game Notes & Weather Report
After two games played in extreme heat and humidity, Saturday's game should be played in sunny, 74 degree weather at one of the most beautiful times of year, with the leaves changing in what should be a beautiful day at Murray Goodman stadium. I'll be going to this game, and with the weather being pristine my wife and son will be coming too to enjoy it as well. For "Community Day", Lehigh will be honoring the 1977 Division II national-championship team at halftime, showcasing the great winning tradition of Lehigh football. It's going to be awesome.

No real surprises in this week' game notes, which means it looks like the three freshmen that have been getting significant time -- freshman RB Kwesi Kankam, freshman RB Jaren Walker, and freshman OL William Rackley -- will continue to do so. No word if junior RB Matt McGowan or junior RB Josh Pastore will get back into the mix this week - if so, it's more likely that Pastore will get some reps rather than McGowan.

Drink Of The Week
It's early fall, and the air is still wonderfully warm with footballs flying in the air, short-sleeved shirts, and sizzling meat on the grill. I think the best possible drink for this day has to be something cool, and something that shows the average Lehigh fan that they can show these stiff Ivy Leaguers how to host a party. The answer? Bloody Mary Lobster Shooters. The easy way is to mix 1 inch of poached lobster pieces in your portable blender, add Bloody Mary Mix and vodka, blend and enjoy on the rocks with a celery stick as a stirrer, but if you're more ambitious you can try to make a real one following these guidelines. My preference, of course, would be one not from mix, but instead heavy on the celery, cayenne pepper, and lemon juice.

A Word On Harvard
The Crimson, sitting at 1-1, seem to be still be adjusting to life after their record-setting RB Clifton Dawson graduated last year, as well as some major cogs on defense. Having said that, this 1-1 team could easily have been 2-0 had they held on to a late lead against Holy Cross. After giving up a 40 yard TD pass with under a minute left, the Crimson found themselves upset 31-28 by the Crusaders.

This team has a reputation as being an offensive juggernaut, and clearly behind Dawson's record-breaking Ivy campaign they were (Dawson amassed an Ivy-record 4,841 yards and 60 TDs). They have great players on defense too, however, as evidenced by Harvard's 24-17 win over Brown last week. The defense had 3 sacks and 3 interceptions in the fourth quarter, as well as having one interception called back due to a penalty.

Harvard should always be a formidable opponent for Lehigh, no matter what the year. Even though Harvard recruits under similar Academic Index rules for their athletes, if kids are good enough to qualify to get into Harvard academically, they generally go there, frequently over FBS schools like Stanford of Duke, never mind Lehigh and Georgetown. And some clearly have talent for the next level: Dawson spent time with the Cincinnati Bengals this year, and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is currently on their roster.

Offense
It's too simplistic to call head coach Tim Murhpy's offense run-oriented or pass-oriented, although Harvard's passing attack seems to be rated the best year after year. Running largely the same offensive system since Dave Cecchini (Lehigh '91) came there as an assistant coach, it involves no-huddle, spread formations, and three wide receiver sets - but also has as a central component a quality runner out of the backfield.

This offense will be run this Saturday by the starting QB, senior QB Liam O'Hagan. Last week against Brown he created all the offensive touchdowns they needed, including two passing TDs and one rushing TD. He is an effective runner (61.5 yards/game) as well as passer (232 yards/game) -- but in his Crimson career, O'Hagan has been erratic. Murphy has shown no qualms in benching O'Hagan at the drop of a hat, meaning senior QB Chris Pizzotti may also see some time on Saturday. Pizzotti is more of a conventional drop-back passer, and more accurate than O'Hagan, but less mobile and can have the pocket collapse around him.

5'9, 175 lb sophomore RB Cheng Ho is the main running threat out of the backfield. Although not really expected to replace Dawson (who could?) he did show some great speed in a 47 yard TD run against Holy Cross. However, running between the tackles won't be his strength - it will be running to the outside hiding behind those big "O" linemen on sweeps. Senior FB Noah Van Niel will only get the occasional carry - at 6'0, 240, his biggest role is one as a blocker. However, both Van Niel and Ho can catch the ball out of the backfield, so they can't be ignored in the passing game.

Senior WR Corey Mazza isn't just a great receiving threat against Lehigh (last year, he nabbed 4 receptions for 118 yards and a TD against us), he's been a dominant receiver this year in two games, already posting 16 receptions for 235 yards and 2 TDs. Mazza is a deadly combination of height, hands, and speed, and must be contained somehow. Sophomore WR Matt Luft and junior WR Matt LaGlace are not bad receivers either, with one TD apiece. Luft is more of a hands/possession guy, while LaGlace is more of a pure speed receiver. All three are tough to stop. Junior TE Jason Miller will also slip in there and get the occasional reception. Coach Murphy will use all his options.

Harvard's "O" line is similar to Lehigh's in terms of experience: two seniors, including 6'6, 290 lb senior OL Andrew Brecher, and a mish-mash of talented juniors and underclassmen. Our defensive front seven's penetration against this unit could be the key to this game.

Defense
Like VMI, Harvard plays a base 4-3, but unlike VMI, the Crimson defense is an extremely solid unit. I happen to think that Harvard in 2007 will be a team that is driven by its defense rather than its offense for reasons that will be made clear.

Start with senior DE Brad Bagdis on the defensive line, who is the speedy pass-rusher who frequently disrupts a lot of quarterbacks. He already has two sacks, and this "D" line is big and solid. For perspective, this defense held Brown to 49 net rushing yards last Saturday.

The linebacking unit also doesn't exactly seem to show a lot of weakness either. Although all of the unit are juniors, junior LB Glenn Dorris already is shining, with two sacks and 12 tackles already to go with one interception. Junior LB Eric Shultz isn't bad either, with 12 tackles. If there's a knock on these guys, it's that they are a little small and possibly could be beat up, but their statistics already speak volumes for their talent. They're good, period.

Oh, yeah, did I forget senior CB Stephen Williams, whose two interceptions made him College Sporting News' Defensive Player of the week last week? Or senior CB Andrew Berry, who was a preseason CSN first-team all-American? This secondary could be one of the most talented in all of Division I. Don't believe me? In two games this year, Harvard is allowing only a 47% completion percentage to go with their 4 interceptions. Although Holy Cross beat them in a last-second TD pass, trust me when I say that this secondary is a great one.

Special Teams
Stephen Williams also returns kickoffs, where he ripped off a 47-yarder already this year. If possible, kicking away from him is a good idea. On punts, however, Williams isn't nearly as good, averaging only one yard per return, leading one to believe that there may be weakness on their punt coverage teams.

Senior P Matt Schindel is averaging 35 yards a punt, which is just about that, average. Sophomore K Patrick Long is largely unproven, going 1-for-3 on FGs, including a miss on a 45 yarder that might have tied it for the Crimson against Holy Cross. He's a perfect 7/7 on extra points.

Keys To The Game
1. Patience. Against this secondary, there will be chances to move the ball - if the offense is patient. I don't feel this game will be won on a gadget play or home-run ball: it will be picking away running and passing the ball in a balanced way, in the short to mid-range.
2. Pressure. Lehigh has to get consistent pressure on O'Hagan or Pizzotti to disrupt them from picking our defense apart. If we sit back and let either of them get time to throw, we'll be in trouble.
3. Possession. Holding onto the ball and getting sustained drives would help immensely in Lehigh's efforts to win this game. That means protecting the ball with two hands for the full sixty minutes.
4. Pounding. Lehigh needs to win this game in the trenches, with our "O" line making the Harvard defensive front seven pay every down. Wearing out defenses is something Lehigh hasn't done as effectively as I might like, but doing so this weekend could be the key to a big Lehigh victory.

Fearless Prediction
Most folks seem to think this will be a shootout. If you look at the history of the rivalry since 1989, it's easy to see how one might get that impression: the winning team scored 35 points in six of the seven meetings. But I think this game will mark a changing of the guard for both teams.

As Harvard has to learn to live without Clifton Dawson, Lehigh seems to have already learned to feed off of their defense. Senior QB Sedale Threatt is as accurate as ever, but these two wins have been driven by one thing on Lehigh's side: tough, aggressive hitting defense, with the ability to strip balls, and play disciplined. When Lehigh has been their best at this early stage (and admittedly, on defense it hasn't always been the case), the defense has fed the offense.

Similarly, Harvard's defense fed their win over Brown last week, and were expected to win the game for Harvard against Holy Cross - on 4th-and-short, Tim Murphy elected to punt and have his defense stop Holy Cross on their last drive. It's where coach Coen and coach Murphy wish their teams to be.

I don't know if this is a homer pick or not, but I just think that Lehigh is just a little bit further along than Harvard is at this point, giving our beloved Mountain Hawks a slight advantage in this game which should be a close one in any event. I sense something different in this team that I didn't sense last year or even the year before that: a quiet confidence in getting the job done on Saturday. It seemed to finally come out last week versus VMI, and that confidence will be a huge boost going into Saturday.

It shouldn't be the type of game we've come to expect from Lehigh and Harvard, but for Mountain Hawk fans, I'm predicting a result which ought to be a lot more familiar.

Lehigh 20, Harvard 10

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