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Preview of VMI/Lehigh

Some of you reading this preview will not be aware of who VMI is. You might know that they're the Keydets and they compete in the Big South conference, or that they're 1-2 on the year with a win over D-II Lock Haven and two blowout losses against William & Mary (63-16) and nationally-ranked James Madison (45-17), or that their school mascot is (inexplicably) a kangaroo.

All you need to remember if you're a Lehigh fan, though, is the following score: Lehigh 28, VMI 26.

That was the score in 2005 when a nationally-ranked Lehigh team went down to Lexington, VA hoping for a cakewalk victory, but instead found themselves in a battle with a team that simply wouldn't give up. Once Lehigh woke up, they found VMI with the ball driving for the game-winning FG with under a minute left.

SS Julian Austin ended up intercepting a pass on this drive, and allowed us to escape with the win. And escape is the right word, even though VMI would end up with a 3-8 record that year.

Lehigh very nearly fell into the trap. The kids weren't really prepared for an opponent that never stops fighting, "either up 14 or down 14," as head coach Pete Lembo said at the time. "I've been telling our guys for two weeks that whether you're playing Army, Navy, Air Force, the Merchant Marine Academy, Coast Guard or any of the service academics, it's different. What these guys do from 3 to 6 daily at practice or from 1 to 4 on Saturday game days may seem like vacation to them. It's the easy part of their day."

Add to this some interesting facts about the game this weekend. For the second straight game at Goodman, it's supposed to be a hot day, meaning conditioning may be a factor. One thing you can count on is that the athletes on the VMI sidelines are going to be conditioned, especially for the heat, since it's an integral part of their military education.

And add to this a dose of the fact that Lehigh has been a bit too hospitable to guests in the past few games, and all of a sudden you have an opponent you need to watch out for. "I talked about it all last year, I talked about it in Week 1 and I'll talk about it again this week about how important it is to win at home, said coach Coen at the weekly press conference. "You want to create an atmosphere that makes it tough for people to come in here. ''But, at the same time, kids can get a little too uptight. The message this week is that we want to play well at home, we want people to fear coming in here, but the most important thing is to play the same way whether we're at home, at Princeton or in the middle of Interstate 78 somewhere.''

It's an old saw, but VMI is the most important game this week. And if I'm coach Coen, I'd be writing Lehigh 28, VMI 26 somewhere on the bulletin board this week. Forget those blowouts by William & Mary and James Madison. Taking care of business against a hard-working team at home needs to be the top priority.

Game Notes & Weather Report
The game notes show that we have some players returning from injury, like senior LB Rashaun Gasaway, but it looks like for the third straight week we won't be seeing junior RB Matt McGowan or junior RB Josh Pastore, so the fab freshmen, namely, freshman RB Kwesi Kankam and freshman RB Jaren Walker should once again be getting the big carries. Even if Rashaun isn't ready to go, sophomore LB Al Pierce, stuck at a logjam at linebacker, shined last week with seven tackles, so there's plenty of depth there, not to mention last week's starter at linebacker junior LB Bradley Thomas.

The weather report is calling for another hot day at Goodman, with plenty of sun with a high of 84. Another day to water up, and another day where conditioning could play into the final outcome.

Drink Of The Week
Heavy on the ice, but I think a refreshing drink for Goodman when playing a Virginia school is a nice Lynchburg Lemonade on the rocks, especially on a hot, Virginia-like day. 1 part of your favorite whiskey, 1 part triple sec, 1 part sweet & sour mix, and one part lemon/lime drink (though I prefer lime squeezed in seltzer for that part). By the way, did I mention that sponsorship opportunities are available at Lehigh Football Nation? That way, I can actually name my favorite brand of whiskey here.

A Word On VMI
The Keydets embody the military school team in that they will play hard no matter what the final score is, they will play disciplined, and they will not kill themselves with penalties. These things are a source of pride for the Keydets, win or lose.

Their near-win against Lehigh two years ago nonwithstanding, VMI has struggled mightily in the past two years, going 3-8 in 2005 (after which legendary head football coach Cal McCombs was terminated and 1-10 in 2006 (under new head coach Jim Reid). Reid has focused on player retention - a huge issue at military schools in general, as a certain number of players cannot cope with the rigorous military schedule on top of football training - and installing a brand-new offense and defense than what Lehigh saw in 2005.

VMI is also an extremely young team, with over half of the team comprised of either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Although the Keydets can and do redshirt (unlike Lehigh, who can only redshirt for medical reasons), a number of true freshmen are among the starters for VMI.

VMI has been bandied about, on occasion, as a possible all-sport member in the Patriot League, which would give the league Army, Navy and VMI as military schools in all sports except football, and would give the Patriot League 50% of the "Military Classic of the South", as they have a long and storied rivalry with The Citadel (now coached by former Lehigh head football coach Kevin Higgins). They're a public school with good academics, but also include military training for those that choose a life of service in the Armed Forces, so they're a good fit in that way too (since they're like Army and Navy without the required service commitment). However, since they are so deep in Virginia, some folks wonder if they are too far south to be practically integrated into the league. The debate will rage on.

Offense
Redshirt sophomore QB Joey Robinson leads the Keydets in VMI's triple-option attack. Originally an emergency QB last year, he took all the snaps at QB in the spring and has been anointed the starer. He's primarily a runner (48 rushes for 141 yards) rather than a passer (12-19, 116 yards), and VMI has no TDs passing yet this year. Last year, he was a speedy slotback who scored two long TD runs.

Of course, that means that the slotbacks and fullback is where all the action is, and senior RB Nat Jackson, sophomore RB Tim Maypray, and sophomore RB Howard Ebegesah shoulder the rushing load. Ebegesah is the biggest of the bunch and could almost be considered a fullback, while Maypray also has the potential for speed (at 5'8, 150 lbs). Maypray is also the team's leading receiver, so it's worthwhile to put a spy on him every once in a while too. As with other versions of the triple-option attack, no one guy shoulders more of the load than any other.

With a run-heavy offense, the receivers haven't gotten much work this year. Junior WR Rick Goodwin doesn't have a reception yet, and freshman WR Bryan Barnson has a whopping two receptions for 30 yards. It's unclear whether they have any speed to burn. Junior TE Travis Ludden adds one reception for 11 yards, but it's clear he's mostly there as an extra blocker.

Senior OL Robert Brown, at 6'6 300 lbs, is the best lineman on an extremely green "O" line featuring two true freshmen. Across the line they average 6'3 and 268, which is smallish compared to Lehigh's "O" line, for example. There has been some shuffling on the line to try to find the best combination.

Defense
Senior DE Tommy Lloyd anchors this 4-3 defense, the first 4-3 Lehigh will have faced all year. He is by far their best lineman, with 6 tackles for loss already this year and 20 tackles. He's the main guy in a smallish "D" line that features two redshirt freshmen and three linemen who played for the first time this year. Of the defense's 17 tackles for loss, six are from Lloyd.

In VMI's 4-3, they will mix up a lot of different looks. Redshirt sophomore Patrick McKinney is the leader in the linebacking corps, surveying the middle with 26 tackles. Tellingly, there are no interceptions or defended passes coming from this group.

Sophomore SS Levi Swindell is the leading tackler on the team with 32 tackles, but he headlines a secondary that hasn't gotten a single interception on the year. Senior CB Marcus Brown is the "old man" of the secondary, is speedy and also has added 20 tackles, so he's the best cover guy.

Special Teams
Freshman kicker Patrick Sweeney is a good kicker with a nice leg, which he demonstrated with a 46 yard FG last week against James Madison. On kickoffs, he's been a little bit short, however, averaging 53.1 yards per kickoff. Sophomore P Kyle Hughes is only averaging 35.5 yards per punt.

Tim Maypray, as well as playing slotback, also returns kicks and punts, and needs to be watched as he returned a kickoff for a TD last week against James Madison. Kick away from him and you will be getting sophomore KR Michael Rainey-Wiles, who is averaging 20 yards per return.

Keys To The Game
1. Flying. In the Princeton game, Lehigh flew around the ball, forced two quick turnovers and the game was in hand. It underscores the importance: the Mountain Hawks need to do that every week. I'd love to see a trend where we force an early turnover all the time. (Of course, who wouldn't?)
2. Contain Maypray on the Outside. Maypray is their biggest threat running or in kick returns. The outside linebacking tandem will need to do a great job containing him and not allowing him to break outside for big rushing gains. As they will try to grind out the ball on the ground, proper conditioning will be crucial.
3. Picking Things Apart. A balanced rushing and passing attack will keep VMI's defense off balance and could, if everything goes right, allow Lehigh to pick apart the Keydets' young defense. Sedale's throws will need to be short and in the right spot to pick these guys apart.
4. Heads-up on Special Teams. As Maypray showed last week, down 35 or up 10, VMI will come after you the entire game. Sleep, and you'll find yourself giving up touchdowns on sepcial teams or on defense. Good special teams play will mean that we won't be in a 28-26 situation on Saturday.

Fearless Prediction
I sense a lot of relief in this team after the Princeton win. I can't tell you right now if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but the win over the Tigers last weekend avoided an 0-2 hole and allowed Lehigh to showcase that they are a good team and will be heard from in this Patriot League title race. The question is, will they have the focus to put away VMI? They didn't in 2005, and they almost lost the game. After the big Villanova win last year, they didn't have it and lost to Princeton, 14-10.

Yet this team feels different. For some reason, I don't think this team will let down this week, because last week's win wasn't a feat of perfect execution. There seems to be the feeling that this team needs to chop wood in order to win. I think more wood will get chopped this weekend, and like last week it won't be a perfect game, but I do think that we'll take a big step in the right direction with a big win. Sedale has a big day, and home feels like home again for at least one week.

Lehigh 38, VMI 13

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