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Preview of Villanova/Lehigh

What you can definitely say about opening day at Murray Goodman this year is that it by all accounts will not be an easy game as they take on Villanova (0-1) of the Colonial Athletic Association who, for the second straight year, is coming off a loss to an FBS school before traveling to nearby Bethlehem.

Last year, they hosted Lehigh a week after losing to FBS Central Florida 35-16. Central Florida last year was a 4-8 squad that didn’t eclipse that point total again in 2006. Villanova, meanwhile, ended with the same 6-5 record Lehigh did by rattling off four wins in their last four games. (This included a big win versus their biggest rival, Delaware.)

This year, Lehigh had a bye week on Labor Day weekend which ended up being a blessing in disguise due to the number of injuries suffered in preseason camp, while Villanova this year lost 31-14 to a Maryland team that could also be a four-win squad in 2007 in a tough ACC. Conventional thinking would dictate that Villanova will be a better team from week one to week two, while Lehigh is still working out the kinks. Against a team which offers as many scholarships as Villanova, however, this will make this game an especially tough challenge.

There are a lot of links between Lehigh, Villanova, coach Talley, and coach Coen. In 2002, 2004 and 2005 as Penn's offensive coordinator, Penn faced Villanova in some truly exciting affairs. The last two games were nailbiting games going down to the final seconds that Penn barely lost (16-13 in 2004, 28-24 in 2005).

In 2004, Lehigh barely lost to Villanova by a 22-16 score in a game with some controversy. Early in the second half of that game, a Villanova player chop-blocked junior DT Royce Morgan and ended his season. Last year, Lehigh had a measure of revenge as coach Coen had his first-ever head coaching victory in what was easily the best overall game that Lehigh played last year, a 31-28 game that was an entire team effort. Lehigh rallied from a 14-0 deficit behind QB Sedale Threatt’s best outing of the season, with 300 total yards on the day and 2 TDs.

Last year, coach Coen wrote “Expect to Win” on the board before the game, and that resulted in the most confident the Mountain Hawks looked all of last year. And as coach Talley said in this week’s press conference, “Last year, they outplayed us completely. Luck had nothing to do with the game last year. They just knocked us off the field.” You can say without a shadow of a doubt that this will be all over the Villanova board this week. The Wildcats will be, to put it mildly, highly motivated to win this week to salvage their pride from 2006 and to not fall into an 0-2 hole just like they did last year.

Besides the Mountain Hawks’ injuries, also of major concern is the fact that this is a very challenging first game for Lehigh. Although no stranger to tough opening games (they have played Wofford and Buffalo (FBS) in the past seven season openers), thinking of last year’s 17-16 upset victory by Albany in last year’s opener at Goodman was something to remember for all the wrong reasons – notably, the tough time Lehigh had on special teams which led to two safeties and gave the Danes a very short field to score. (To be fair, last year’s game was played in a rainstorm.) Albany is a tough team and a patsy no longer, but if the Mountain Hawks have the same problems they did in last year’s opener, they will lose. Big.

Injury Report & Weather Report
This year, Lehigh is no longer releasing their injury report in the game notes, which makes this part of the analysis harder. But what can be said is that junior RB Matt McGowan will not be playing this week, and was considered by coach Coen a “week-to-week thing”. That means junior RB Josh Pastore will be getting the bulk of the carries, and freshman RB Kwesi Kankam will be next on the depth chart and will be getting some carries. It will be extremely interesting to see if/when he comes in, and what he is able to do.

Senior LB Rusty Campion is also out, and junior WR Sekou Yansane and senior WR Pete Donchez just returned this week from injury, The two wideouts should play, and one really, really hopes that their timing this week is OK. At LB, sophomore LB Heath Brickner and senior LB Justin Weaver will be manning the outside spot where Campion would normally be.

It is shaping up to be simply the perfect day for an opening weekend of football. Mostly sunny, with a high of 85, makes it a great day to sit in that grass horseshoe, not to mention enjoy a great tailgate at Goodman.

Drink Of The Week
With coach Talley’s reputation for not giving the Patriot League respect, and his performance at last year’s postgame press conference fresh in my mind, the drink you need to bring to Goodman is wine. Full-bodied red, red wine. A burgundy would be an appropriate choice, but I’ll instead select one of my current favorites: a 2005 Coppola Pinot Noir. A bit pricey at $20 a bottle (though less if you get it by the case), but simply it’s the best Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted.

A Few Words on Villanova
Coach Talley said in his weekly CAA conference call that this past weekend, “down 10-7 at halftime, we felt like we were hanging on.” Yet this appears to understate things a bit: on their first four drives, they drove into Terrapin territory four times (although they only had seven points for their efforts). Clearly, this is a team that could move the ball against Maryland. But in the same teleconference, he also said that this was a physical beating by Maryland: “We got worn down, and we had a lot of injuries on the defensive side of the ball,” including their starting NT who went out with an ACL tear during the game. Not only that, he seemed to have his starters in the whole way as well – which would seem to point to a team that might be pretty beat up going into Bethlehem.

With two season-ending injuries in the Maryland game to go with the three that happened before the Maryland game, coach Talley seemed a bit frustrated. It feels to this reporter that Villanova just doesn’t have the depth they have had in years past – not only were they physically beat up by Maryland, but they’re lower on scholarship players than usual. This could, hopefully, help Lehigh quite a bit.

Offense
Last year I called this game a “mirror match” on offense, and this year, it’s largely the same story. Some youth on the “O” line with some veteran returners protecting an extremely athletic QB that can kill you with his arms and legs. And this unit didn’t have much of a problem advancing the ball last week against an FBS foe.

Sophomore QB Antawn Young (pictured here versus Maryland) is a very talented, athletic QB that gives defenses the same sort of containment problems that Threatt does. Tall and built like a LB rather than a QB, he can be difficult to bring down. Although he had negative rushing yards, passing against the Terrapins he went a respectable 19-for-28 with 1 TD and 1 INT. If our fresh front seven can contain him, it will be a good day for the Mountain Hawks.

With their 11 net yards of rushing last week, at RB there are clearly still questions to answer, but banged-up senior RB Matt Dicken would appear to be the biggest rushing threat in a three-headed backfield. Dicken and sophomore RB Luca Ragone are pretty beefy runners, while redshirt freshman RB Aaron Ball is the speedster of the group (and is going to be playing due to the injury of the #2 back last weekend). These guys can be bruisers, and if the Wildcats get a lead they could be used to wear down our defensive front – something to watch for, especially late in the game. Dicken also is a pass-catching threat out of the backfield (2 receptions last week), while Ragone & Ball are more of an unknown quantity (my take: cover both, especially Ball).

Senior TE Matthew Sherry is a legitimate pass-catching threat and could easily be a killer underneath, just like he was last year. Their receiving corps is solid and deep, but lacking a true burner: senior WR Anton Ridley, sophomore WR Brandyn Harvey and junior WR Phil Atkinson are all solid underneath pass-catching threats. The LB unit needs to make sure Sherry doesn’t go wild underneath – I will be very interested to see how they cover him. If we don’t cover him effectively, they may be moving the ball extremely well against us.

There are no seniors on this offensive line, who has a great center in 300 lb junior OL Michael Sheridan. It’s an “O” line that is just about the same size as Lehigh’s and also has a significant number of freshmen and sophomores on it.

Defense
Talley prefers a base 3-3-5 defense that may not be seen the rest of the year by Lehigh. The fifth DB actually doubles up as a linebacker in key situations in this interesting defense, though it is very similar to the defense Lehigh faced at Villanova last year, so it’s not totally unfamiliar. It does, however, showcase how fast and athletic they are, even if they’re not the biggest team we’ll face all year. Normally, it's a good idea to test that athleticism to the outside, though I wonder if we'll be able to make hay there this time.

The defensive line is young but with some experience. Their line is only marginally bigger than ours, with the highest-touted member being junior DE David Dallessandro. Last year he totalled 46 tackes and 3 1/2 sacks. They're smallish, so they may be some hay to be made here one again. The loss of their starting NG means that sophomore NG Phil Matusz will be called to duty for his first career start.

Junior LB Michael Holland (34 tackles, 2 sacks in 2006) is the great athlete in the linebacking unit, where next to him freshman LB Terence Thomas and junior LB Darrel Young (44 tackles, 1 sack in 2006) join him. Although young, this is a big, talented group that are not unlike our young unit in terms of athleticism, if not a little more so.

The defensive backfield is loaded with talent and experience. Senior FS Zach Mariacher (63 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries in 2006) is more like a “rover” linebacker in the 3-3-5 defense. Senior CB Derick Durkin and sophomore CB Justin Murrell are the speedsters at corner, and senior SS Eugene Clay and reshirt freshman S Martel Moody round out a tough, speedy, hard-hitting unit. This is the strength of their defense – not unlike the Mountain Hawk team they will be facing.

Special Teams
Junior PK
Joe Marcoux was pretty dismal last year by any measure, going 5 for 11 on FGs and making only two from beyond 30 yards. Sophomore P Josh Ugarte had a rough week last week with a 29.2 punting net. Adding to coach Talley’s special teams headaches last week was that their leading kick returner got hurt and is now out for the year: his replacement is freshman WR Matt Szczur, who did rip off a 32 yard kickoff return last week. Junior PR Salim Koroma didn’t have a particularly standout game last week.

It’s tempting to read further into this, but know that their special teams will be much better this week than last. Maryland was a large team that beat them up, and in special teams this would demonstrate itself especially. Look for a much more even match this week.

Keys To The Game
1. Tackle, Tackle, Tackle. Lehigh’s hard-hitting young defense will get a baptism of fire this week against a dynamic offense which has a lot of targets including a potential pro TE in Sharry, a pass-catching threat in Dicken, and a slew of speedy receivers. Furthermore, the QB Young will not be an easy guy to bring down. Good pass protection, and great tackling, is an absolute must in order to stay in this game.
2. Passing Rhythm. I am hoping that the nicked-up Lehigh receivers will have their timing on in order to get some big plays against this defense. There won’t be a lot of time to work things out: it needs to be right at the starting gun. If we can get off some big passing plays for TDs, we'll be having a good day.
3. Unforced Errors. A team like Villanova will be brutally unforgiving if we give away the ball often like we did in last year’s opener versus Albany. Ball protection, and minimizing giveaways (especially on special teams), will be big. Sure it’s always a big concern – but even more so versus a team like Villanova.
4. Hit 'Em In The Mouth. Like last year, winning this game will mean establishing a physical presence for the whole game. A way to beat a speedy team like Villanova is to wear them down like Maryland did, and if our “O” and “D” lines can do that, we’re going to have a good day.

Fearless Prediction
What’s really striking to me is that with Villanova’s lack of depth (over past years) and unfortunate injuries this year, Villanova and Lehigh are pretty much the same team. We’re giving basically nothing on either “O” and “D” line in the tale of the tape: an inch or two of height, but when it comes to weight we’re definitely toe-to-toe with them. We both have athletic QBs and have other strengths and weaknesses that cancel each other out. We both have question marks that need answering – and the team which answers those questions better will win the game on Saturday.

I may be looking through my homer glasses a little, but I sense this could be a real special year for the Mountain Hawks, and I’m encouraged that we seem to match up toe-to-toe with Villanova, which means this will probably be a tough, physical battle for us. I’m going to look this week at the glass being half-full: we have an experienced QB leading the ship, an offensive and defensive unit who is much more comfortable in their new system, and enough wrinkles so that the Wildcats don’t know what to expect. I’m thinking – maybe just hoping – that this will result in a great opening-day victory for Lehigh on Saturday.

Lehigh 23, Villanova 17

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