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Preview of Lehigh/Fordham

League games are always more important than non-league games, but the team Lehigh is facing this year couldn't be more different than the one they faced last year.

Last year, Fordham lost to Lehigh 45-14 the week before Lehigh/Lafayette on "Senior Day", and the Mountain Hawks played what was probably their best game of the year. All phases of the game were clicking. Over 400 yards of offense, senior CB Brannan Thomas had a couple of interceptions, and RB Marques Thompson had 3 TDs. Fordham started with some fight, but ultimately fell in a blowout.

But this year, despite coach Tom Masella's downplaying of his troops a little bit in the pregame press conference, this one will be a huge benchmark for the Rams and a dangerous game for the Mountain hawks. A win here could propel Fordham at 2-0 in league play, with two of their hardest games behind them, and establish the Rams as a team that could very well be talking Patriot League title and autobids. A loss by Lehigh could put Lehigh behind the 8-ball for the rest of the season as well.

So far this season, young Ram team has been very inconsistent. Last week, Fordham outlasted Colgate 34-31 and moved the ball well on the Raiders, while their 21-0 burst in the third quarter sealed the win for them. Yet this team also struggled in a loss to non-scholarship Dayton the week before, 31-24, where five turnovers doomed Fordham.

It's Patriot League play, so there's no time for letdowns. And Fordham has demonstrated the ability to be a very dangerous team. Trips to the Bronx haven't always been hard for the Mountain Hawks, but this one may prove to be.

Game Notes & Weather Report
The big news is that junior RB Josh Pastore has been moved back up to the #1 back this week, so it looks like Josh is 100% healthy and will get the start in an effort to get back into the swing of things, though I'm sure freshman RB Kwesi Kankam will be getting some time as well (who is listed as the #2 back despite not getting a single carry last week). There are some dinged-up seniors not on the depth chart of note: senior TE Joe Sutherland (replaced on the depth chart by freshman TE Alex Wojdowski) and senior LB Travis Stinson (replaced by sophomore LB Al Pierce). Senior LB Rusty Campion is finally healthy as well, so he'll get some time in the linebacking unit this weekend.

No word if senior WR Pete Donchez is back this week after being spotted on the sidelines not totally suited up last week. He is, however, listed on the depth chart behind junior WR Mike Fitzgerald.

The weather this year has been nothing short of unbelievable. This weekend in the Bronx, the weather is supposed to be 87 degrees and sunny. I couldn't think of anything better than to take the short 2 1/2 hour trip to the Bronx (actually from where I live, it's a little less than two hours) to watch this key football game. And if you go and have small kids (like I do), it's important to know they have a "Little Rams Fun Park" to help entertain the youngsters with a bouncer and other inflatable fun. They even have face painting available for them (even Lehigh colors).

Drink Of The Week
After sweating what to suggest for hearty tailgaters to drink before the Lehigh/Fordham game, Google saves the day. After crossing "Manhattan" and "Long Island Iced Tea" off the list, a simple Google search gives me a recipe for a Bronx Cocktail that would be perfect for this game. Manhattan and Queens have their own drinks: who knew the Bronx also had their own? 3 parts Gin, 1 part Sweet Vermouth, 1 part Dry Vermouth, and 4 parts orange juice. (The linked recipe also includes a dash of Angostura Bitters, but honestly I have no idea what that is. Just replace with another orange slice, and a lot of ice, and I think you'll be good.)

A Word On Fordham
In analyzing Fordham, it's useful to look at the last two Liberty Cup games against Columbia to see where the Rams were last year and where they stand this year.

Last year, in a 37-7 win by Columbia, coach Masella tried to win the battle at the line of scrimmage - one time going for it on 4th down and inches at his own 20 - and failed, which contributed to Fordham's loss. This year, the Rams pounded Columbia 27-10 largely due to the fact that they controlled that line of scrimmage and had two 100 yard rushers.

In the battle of turnovers, last year Fordham fumbled the ball in the end zone in a key play of the game, which was recovered by the Lions to give Columbia a 10-0 lead. This year, the Rams took care of the ball much better and parlayed two Columbia interceptions into six points, meaning that winning the turnover battle was a big reason they dominated the game as much as they did.

Going by this opponent, the difference is night and day.

Although football head coach Tom Masella will be the first to tell you that his teams is young and needs to play better to "win some games", this team has been winning some games in order to get to their 3-2 record so far this year. The wins are impressive, too: over the CAA's Rhode Island, over rival Columbia of the Ivy League in the "Liberty Cup", and over Colgate in Hamilton. By no stretch of the imagination were these three wins over easy teams.

Offense
Earlier in the year, Fordham's offense was described as a "run-and-shoot" sort of offense. It is that in the sense that there is no tight end (instead there is a "Y" receiver, but effectively is a tight end), but not so much in that as a type of "spread' offense (like Appalachian State runs) which spreads the offense and allows the offense to do what they want to do, either run or pass. As a result, you really don't know what this offense will throw at you. This is the same basic scheme from last year, but with a year to absorb the system, the Rams have much different production than the anemic offense we saw last year - averaging 26.4 points per game this far, compared to the 14.4 from last year.

Part of the reason is that sophomore QB Josh Skelton is becoming more familiar with Masella's system. Last week, his comfort level paid big dividends as his 217 yards passing and 3 TDs were enough for Patriot League Offensive Player of the Week. This young Texan is mobile in the pocket as well, with 143 yards rushing on the year, so Lehigh will have to contain him and tackle well on the outside on runs. With only barely a 50% completion percentage and seven interceptions on the year, it is possible that Skelton may be able to be rushed to make "sophomore mistakes" which could work to Lehigh's advantage.

In the single-back backfield, senior RB Jonte Coven and freshman RB Xavier Martin have been splitting time with varied results. Both had 100 yards apiece against Columbia, but the duo combined for only 98 yards against Colgate's defense last week. Both are small, speedy backs in the Ron Jean mold, and their strength is mostly speed to the corners - neither is a real bruising sort of back. Coven has caught a few passes out of the backfield, but neither has proven to be major pass-catching threats.

The receiving unit has basically five receiver slots, but the "Y/Tight End" in Fordham's case is filled by junior WR Cody Kritzer, who has exactly one reception on the year so far. The other four receivers split the receiving yards: junior WR Richard Rayborn, sophomore WR Asa Lucas, sophomore WR Jason Caldwell, and sophomore WR Michael Shorter. This unit - with Rayborn and Lucas the tall receivers, and Caldwell and Shorter as the "smurfs" - has combined for 9 receiving TDs and 652 yards receiving. All are speedy, with Rayborn and Lucas in particular being the biggest receiving threats in this talented receiving corps.

One of the criteria for the "run-n-shoot" is having big linemen to offset not having a tight end, and the beefy Ram "O" line is one of the biggest we'll face this year, with three 300 lb linemen and the captain of the unit, senior C Mike Breznicky, pushing 295.

Defense
Fordham plays a base 3-4 defense that has gotten an amazing push by the defensive front seven. They already have 46 tackles for loss by that front seven, while they also boast a strong secondary as well.

Leading the "D" line is junior DT Greg DeMarco with 19 tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss. Junior DE Fonzie Culver joins him this year on the line, a converted linebacker, with 12 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. Their "D" line is a bit smaller than Lehigh's.

Senior LB Earl Hudnell leads this front seven, though, with 23 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, and two interceptions, showing that you need to watch for him inside both rushing the passer and sitting back in pass coverage. That's not all you need to worry about in this linebacking unit, though: senior LB Dominique Owens on the inside and sophomore LB James Crockett on the outside have also been standout performers, with a combined 76 tackles and 8 1/2 tackles for loss as well. Lehigh's "O" line will have a challenging time containing them all.

The secondary also has some real great athletes. Junior FS Matt Loucks (pictured) is the leading tackler on the team with 43 (of which 27 came in a 23-20 loss to Albany) and one key interception last week. Senior CB Sam Orah is a great player too, but doesn't have any interceptions basically since teams throw away from him. People seem to be picking on the short strong safety, 5'11 sophomore SS Tommy Martin, and 5'11 freshman CB Jamal Haruna. Hopefully, it will mean big day for our slot receivers if we can exploit it. Worthy of mention is what the Rams lack in experience they make up in speed: this is one speedy bunch.

Special Teams
The Rams take special pride in their special teams - as a matter of fact, if you're an aspiring punter you may want to catch this game since two of the top 10 punters in the nation will be playing in this game. Senior P Ben Dato is second in the nation with a 44.6 punt average - and we very well could be seeing him play on Sundays next fall. Fortunately Lehigh has his equal on our side with the best punting net average in all of Division I (44.76 average), so his booming kicks hopefully won't be the factor they normally would be.

Junior K Adam Danko hasn't been tested under pressure, but has struggled a little going 3/4 on FGs (longest: 32 yards) and 15/18 on extra points.

The Ram return team boasts a couple very speedy returners that the Mountain Hawks really need to keep their eyes on. Sophomore CB Isiejah Allen is a speedster who returns punts and already has ripped a 29 yard return, while on kickoffs freshman RB Xavier Martin already has amassed 145 yards in kickoff returns, good enough for a 20.7 yard average. Be very wary.

Keys To The Game
1. But Can You Handle.... Pressure? In the "run-n-shoot", a huge key is to get pressure on the quarterback, and I'm hoping coach Kotulski has some creative blitzing to keep Skelton on his back most of the afternoon. Since it's hard to go up the middle, I'm hoping outside blitzes could be used to devastating effect.
2. Smart Special Teams Play. For the first time this year, we have our equals in special teams coverage. I'm hoping that Lehigh sees this as an opportunity to show the world that they have some of the best special teams in the nation, and shutting down Fordham's return game would go a long way towards proving this.
3. Deep Outs. With that talented logjam at linebacker, I'd be tempted to test some nice, long passes to Yansane or Fitzgerald on "deep outs". For sure fans are expecting better than last week's 0-for-11 on 3rd down, but big plays could be a key for Lehigh here.
4. The 3rd Quarter. What doomed Colgate last week was a 3rd quarter where the Rams posted 21 quick points and the Raiders were unable to recover. This Lehigh team, who has not performed especially well in the 3rd quarter by being outscored 21-9, will need to guard against another 3rd quarter letdown. A bad 3rd quarter could mean Lehigh loses this game.

Fearless Prediction
This game, on the road in their first league game, is frought with danger for Lehigh. I'm reminded of the Villanova game we won in 2006 31-28, only to let down the following week against Princeton 14-10, where there was a serious letdown effect. A letdown this week could be a recipe for an 0-1 start in the league.

The key will be to start the game riding the high on defense and special teams last week, and hoping the offense feeds off that energy and puts together a better performance this week. This clearly could happen - but I am deathly afraid of some sort of letdown this week. It will be important for the players to realize the importance of this game, and the challenge of the team they're facing. Fordham is good, they're dangerous, and they're playing at home.

I think Lehigh will play a close game. I do not think by any stretch they will run away with this. This week, I'm giving the Mountain Hawks the benefit of the doubt in that they will continue to improve, win the game and not slide back. I just hope my nervous feelings this week are misplaced.

Lehigh 24, Fordham 21

Comments

Anonymous said…
You were right to be worried about this game, Chuck. Fordham has improved greatly under Tom Masella, and are now legitimate PL title threats.

Now we have to see how the Lehigh team accepts this setback. They are heavy underdogs next week at Yale, and after that jump right back into the PL title hunt with one foot in the bucket. It will be another gut-check season.

I suspect one loss will again be good enough for a title (or share of a title).

Meanwhile, the PL continues to show well this year against the Ivies - and I write this while the Lafayette game is just underway.

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