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Preview of Lehigh vs. Villanova

(Photo Credit: Villanova Athletics)

Let's face it: there is one team from the big, bad full-scholarship Colonial Athletic Association (or CAA) on our schedule this year - what many around the Lehigh program would like to call our "play-up" game.

And this, Virginia, is it.

In the CAA coaches teleconference, coach Talley said that Lehigh has "a star next to Villanova on their schedule", and he's absolutely right. Rightly or wrongly, the games against the CAA are seen as battles against the FCS elite, the games that are the biggest tests for Patriot League teams in general.

They are challenges. Top to bottom, the CAA houses some of the best teams in all of FCS and have created national champions like Delaware in 2003 and James Madison in 2004. Delaware and UMass were two of Appalachian State's victims in 2006 and 2007 in the FCS championship game, and last year two CAA teams were in the semifinals. The CAA has proven themselves to be an elite conference.

The Sports Network Top 25 rankings bear this out. In a league with twelve members, they have six slots in the Top 25 and seven teams receiving votes. Our opponent this week is ranked #21 in the nation as is widely seen as a real CAA title contender.

And for the first time in the longest time, we're not really expected to win. Back in those days, we'd either be ranked ourselves or at least be receiving Top 25 votes. We're not really getting those anymore.

In years past, when Lehigh was regularly picked to win the Patriot League or contend for the title, we generally were picked to give CAA teams a run for their money in games like this. But this year's Lehigh team was picked fifth in the preseason poll, and this team seen as having too many questions to be able to really compete against a team who could quite possibly another future NFL star as their quarterback.

If Lehigh were to somehow pull this off, it would be a call to the rest of the Patriot League - and maybe ever the rest of the FCS - that Lehigh is back, that they deserve Top 25 consideration once again.

Game Notes
Lehigh's game notes show the return of some dinged-up players from the Drake game, senior OL Kevin Bayani, senior OL Chris Tiefenthal, and senior DL Paul Bode, although he's now listed alongside senior DL Jon Warren this week on the depth chart. Also worthy of note is that senior FB Adam Watson is back on the depth chart alongside junior FB Anthony Fossati.

Other than than, coach Coen's depth chart is a model of consistency from last week. Sopohomore RB Jaren Walker is not listed on the depth chart and is a game-time decision, so backing up senior RB Matt McGowan on the depth chart this week is 5'8 sophomore RB Jay Campbell.

Villanova's game notes are listed at this link.

Weather Report
After a nervous week of looking at the weather report and seeing rain clouds, the chance of showers on Saturday appears to be dropping fast. As of now, the forecast is for "cloudy with a 30% chance of a few showers", with a high of 81. On Villanova's artificial turf stadium, it shouldn't have too much of an effect on gameplay - or tailgating.

A Word on Villanova
Villanova (6,335 undergraduates: Villanova, PA) has known only one head coach since resuming football in 1985 after a five-year hiatus: Andy Talley, well-known in the Philadelphia area and something of a legend. Ask any reporter about coach Talley and generally speaking they love the guy.

There are a lot of links between Lehigh, Villanova, coach Talley, and coach Coen. In 2002, 2004 and 2005 Coen was Penn's offensive coordinator, and the Quakers gave Villanova some true battles as that "Big 5"-inspired football rivalry was rekindled by the Wildcats. 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. There was also some controversy in the post game press conference when there was mention of stealing Lehigh's offensive signals as well.

In 2006, Lehigh started the year with a 17-16 loss to Albany, and it didn't look like coach Coen's first-ever coaching victory would come against the Wildcats - on the road, no less. But in what could be called Sedale Threatt's greatest moment as a Mountain Hawk, he would lead Lehigh to their best overall game, a 31-28 game that was an entire team effort. Threatt had 300 total yards on the day and 2 TDs. Coach Talley said the following year: “They outplayed us completely. Luck had nothing to do with the game last year. They just knocked us off the field.”

Last year, Lehigh played their opener against the Wildcats at Murray Goodman. Villanova, down a bunch of starters from the heat and with injuries from their loss to FBS Maryland the week before, prevailed 30-20 on a great performance by their sophomore QB. In a scenario that would replay itself way too often in 2006 for the Mountain Hawks, Lehigh's mental errors (including missed kicks and not converting in the red zone) would play large in the final result.

Last Time Out for Villanova
It's tempting to read into Villanova's 48-21 defeat at the hands of FBS West Virginia - "the best team we've ever faced," Talley told the media - but the truth of the matter is the Wildcats actually went into Morgantown and acquitted themselves very well against a team that might just be playing in a BCS bowl this year. Villanova actually outgained West Virginia 399 yards to 354, and the score might actually have been closer if it wasn't for three Wildcat turnovers.

LFN's Drink of the Week
In honor of the Philadelphia Club Tailgate, who is going to Flip & Bailey's for a 10:00 AM rouser, today's drink of the week is actually going to be the two types of drinks that will be available along with their breakfast buffet of bagels, eggs, bacon and other breakfast goodies: Bloody Mary's and Yuengling drafts. (You haven't really lived until you've sipped draft beer to go with your cereal, though admittedly I haven't done that since, oh, 1994?)

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in tailgates, but please drink responsibly and please be of legal drinking age.

Breaking Down Villanova
If you watched Appalachian State's upset of Michigan last year or watched any game featuring Florida, you've seen the latest offensive craze: the spread offense. Villanova ran this offense to great effect last weekend, and have a junior quarterback that can execute it very well - when healthy.

Junior QB Antawn Young (pictured), built like a speedy linebacker at 6'4, 215 lb, is an ideal specimen for this offense. Hard to bring down, and speedy enough to hit the gaps and running lanes while still having a quick release if he does happen to be caught, Young is the heart and soul of this offense - and he's comfortable in this offense, too, after starting in six games last year before suffering an ACL injury. After watching the West Virginia game, it sure didn't look like he had any aftereffects from that injury.

As of now the Wildcats don't have a consistent rushing threat to complement Young's elusiveness in the rushing game. Two 5'9 sophomores, sophomore RB Aaron Ball and sophomore RB Angelo Babbaro took 17 rushing attempts for 60 yards two weeks ago. Ball seems to get the straight-ahead rushing plays, but you know he's also built for speed. Babbaro is also a speedster, and is also a receiving threat: he nabbed 2 receptions for 27 yards last time out.

Villanova's spread offense means that a variety of different receivers get looks. Against West Virginia, seven players got receptions, including five wideouts. Sophomore WR Matt Szczur, senior WR Phil Atkinson and junior WR Brandon Harvey are listed as the starters. Young's favorite target last week was Harvey (5 catches, 85 yards), but also high on the list was tall 6'4 freshman WR Norman White (3 catches, 31 yards), so these wideouts are deep and speedy.

The Wildcat "O" line did a fine job opening holes against an FBS defense, and have some awfully big boys on it. Senior C Michael Sheridan is the linchpin of this mammoth line that averages 6'3 and 300 lbs across. This "O" line could very well be our most serious test all year, and you can add to that senior TE Steve Pimm, who last week had no receptions.

During the broadcast of the West Virginia game, the Mountaineer announcers made special mention that it was odd that they were going against the same type of 3-3-5 stack defense they employ at West Virginia. The stack defense is used to leverage speed and to use it to combat the spread offenses that are springing up around college football these days. Happily for Lehigh, the saw a variation of that in Drake's 4-2-5, so they'll be somewhat familiar with it. But the athletes they're going against this time are a major upgrade over the Bulldogs.

The "D" line has a different role to play in the 3-3-5 stack than on most "D" lines. Junior DE Tim Kukucka, a second-team all-CAA selection last year, will play better than the 2 tackles he had last week. Also an important person in this scheme is junior NG Phil Matusz, the prototypical 280 lb "D" lineman this scheme calls for.

The stack defense allows the linebacking unit to use its speed to blitz from, well, all angles. Junior LB Michael Holland (4 tackles last week) headlines a speedy unit that can be unpredictable as to whether they're blitzing or heading back into pass coverage.

In the stack, the safeties take on special meaning since they tend to take on linebacker responsibilites often, and Villanova's two best athletes on defense are there: senior SS Darrel Young (9 tackles, 1 tackle for loss against West Virginia) and junior FS Ross Ventrone (8 tackles). These DBs are built for speed, however, not size: their tallest DB is 6 feet tall.

Special Teams
Senior PK Joe Marcoux highlights a special teams unit that is pedestrian at best. Marcoux wetn 12-18 on field goals last year with his longest being 35 yards, while last week none of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Junior P Josh Ugarte averaged 39.2 yards per punt last week, making him an above-average punter, though one punt was blocked last time out. Worthy of note is that Talley "fired" some kids on special teams last week, so some new faces may very well be showing up on these teams this week.

Sophomore RB Angelo Babbaro is a very good return man and will be important to contain on kickoff return units:
he ran back 5 for 124 yards against West Virginia. Sophomore WR Matt Szczur is the punt return man, and while he didn't get any punts to return last week he did rip off a 36 yarder versus William & Mary last year.

Keys To The Game
1. Hitting Gaps. This will be one tough assignment for our defense, but critical in the containment of the spread is to plug the gaps well to close running lanes. Young will get loose outside occasionally, but swarming on him and making him think twice about taking off will be critical.
2. Time of possession. The offense needs to play some ball control and keep the chains moving - the best defense against the spread is to make sure it doesn't get on the field. Senior RB Matt McGowan will be a crucial piece to a potential Mountain Hawk "W".
3. Break a special teams play. A big return on a kickoff or punt, or a big turnover on special teams, can do wonders for building momentum (and time of possession). If the game is close, this is the sort of thing that could shift the game our way.
4.Physical play. Some say the best way to combat finesse is with pure physical play on both the "O" and "D" lines. I think a Lehigh victory is predicated on being the more physical team. This has to be the case if Lehigh hopes to win.

Fearless Prediction
This feels like a fairly tall order to ask sophomore QB J.B. Clark to carry the team on his back to win this game by himself. In order to win, the defense will have to play lights-out and other members of the offense will have to make some plays behind Clark to pull out the victory. Can Lehigh do it?

At this point in the season, I haven't seen enough to see that he can. The defense will keep the Mountain Hawks around for a while, but against one of the best teams we'll see all year I think the Wildcats will prove to be too much.

Lehigh 17, Villanova 24


Anonymous said…
This is going to be a great test for the Lehigh squad. Even if they lose, if they hold their own, they should get a bit more respect. Looking at their performance last week in the rain, and the other Patriot League teams, I think the PL title is up for grabs.

Go Engineers!

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