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Preview of Fordham at Lehigh

A year ago, I wrote of Fordham, "Fordham is good, they're dangerous, and they're playing at home." I was nervous about the young Rams, who had already beaten Colgate at that point 31-24, and rightfully so.

The only people with expectations for the Rams, picked to finish sixth of seven Patriot League teams in the preseason media poll, were themselves. But even at this time last year there were signs that this wasn't the same as the 3-8 team that struggled though 2005. At 3-2, they had already turned some heads despite their losses to Dayton and Albany. Their wins over Rhode Island of the CAA and a resounding win over Columbia in the Liberty Cup made some take notice.

If folks still weren't paying attention, their shock win over many people's dark-horse pick for the Patriot League title, Colgate, demanded it. Their new offense and defense were starting to click. Coach Tom Massella, the former firefighter, put out the fires at Fordham. Take them lightly at your peril.

In that key game in the Bronx, Fordham beat Lehigh 28-18, and although at 0-1 in Patriot League play the Mountain Hawks' season wasn't technically over, the trajectories of both teams were set. Fordham would point upwards, finishing 8-3 and would win the Patriot League title outright and earn a trip to UMass in the first round of the playoffs. Lehigh, conversely, would point downwards and struggle to 5-6, limping to 2-4 in Patriot League play.

Since that game, Lehigh has been 3-6.

This weekend, this Lehigh team has a golden opportunity to finally change the trajectory of this football team. A win here isn't just crucial for any Patriot League title dreams for Lehigh: it's a way to bury not only the results of last year's game, but the struggles in the nine that preceded it as well. It's a way to reverse almost a full year of results.

The trouble is, Fordham, at 0-1 in Patriot League play, is right now in the exact same boat as Lehigh. If they fall to 0-2 in the Patriot League their title hopes would probably be dealt a critical blow - and would be pointing downward, after a season of pointing straight upward last year. If they don't beat Lehigh at Murray Goodman - and they never have - they won't be practicing on Thanksgiving this year. They have to bring it right here, right now.

Fasten your seatbelt. It's going to be a hell of a ride on Saturday.

Game Notes
Looking at the game notes, for the second straight week senior OL Alex Kuziel starts at right guard in place of sophomore OL Ricky Clerge, who seems to have settled in as the backup on the right side behind senior OL Chris Tiefenthal. It looks like Kuziel is going to be the starter as long as he can go. Backing up senior OL Kevin Bayani used to be Kuziel, now his backup is a new face, sophomore OL R.J. McNamara.

Sophmore RB Jaren Walker has finally made it as the official backup to senior RB Matt McGowan after seeing very limited action in the last two games. And aside from those changes, the two-deep on defense and special teams remains the same from last week. Again I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how much of a relief it is to not have a lot of injuries, especially in the defense. It seems like the offseason conditioning has really paid off.

Fordham has put their game notes up here.

Weather Report
Like last week, it looks like Lehigh will be lucking out again in the weather department. The early forecast is for a sunny day with a high of 70 - the perfect day to see an important football game.

A Word on Fordham
You would think that playing in the unofficial Media Capital of the World would mean that the Rams would have tons of media coverage. You might think there would be dozens of reporters at their practices, and (like in Philadelphia) there would be a weekly press conference covering all the Division I football teams in the area, perhaps occurring at Dominc's down the street.

If you thought that, though, you'd be wrong. In a media market dominated by two pro baseball teams, two pro football teams, two pro hockey teams and one pro basketball team, Fordham struggles for any sort of coverage even from their own school newspaper. The NYC media didn;t send a single body down to Patriot League media day. When I talked to the Fordham players about having the targets on their backs, they looked at me quizzically - and the reason for that is that they're used to not having the spotlight on them.

This puts coach Tom Masella in a good situation: even though his Rams were the preseason pick to win the Patriot League, it oddly didn't translate into heightened expectations in the Bronx. Aside from the annual Liberty Cup game versus Columbia three weeks ago (which, admittedly, was covered by the New York Times and is covered generally by at least one of the bigger daily newspapers in New York), Fordham games generally escape strong media scrutiny.

This may work to Fordham's disadvantage at times. The Rams have struggled to be consistent, and this year at 2-2 is no exception - perhaps the lack of media attention can lead to a lack of focus. They've beaten Rhode Island of the CAA but lost to Dayton of the Pioneer Football League (the same league that Drake plays in). They've beaten Columbia, but lost to Colgate.

But unlike Lehigh, whose games are noted and scrutinized by two newspapers (and one blogger), coach Masella, despite being the league champs, can actually still sneak up on the rest of the Patriot League again. And if I know coach Masella, that's fine with him.

Last Time Out
Against Colgate, the gameplan is simple: you contain Jordan Scott or you lose. And Scott had his best-day ever rushing the football two weeks ago in a 31-24 victory over the Rams. Fordham's rushing defense gave up 272 yards to Scott - the biggest rushing total given up by an FCS school to one runningback this year - and most importantly, gave up the 4th touchdown to Scott with nine seconds left.

Offensively the Rams kept themselves in it with a balanced attack: 146 yards on the ground and 156 yards through the air. However, key in this game was the time-of-possession battle: Colgate held a 36 to 23 minute advantage in that department. Yet despite this disparity in yardage and time of possession, Fordham was in the game to the very end.

LFN's Drink of the Week
Lehigh needs a win over Fordham this week, so it's up to you, the tailgating professional, to do your part. It's going to be a sunny day by all weather reports this weekend. That means it's time to bring out the biggest guns that you, the tailgaters, have. And you know what that means? That's right: skip over the Yuengling Premium and go right for the Lord Chesterfield Ale. It's an ale with slight bitter aftertones: think of it as your way to get rid of the bitterness before the game, in order to taste the sweetness of victory afterwards.

As always, Drinks of the week have a place in responsible tailgates: that means being over 21 and drinking responsibly. Please do that.

Breaking Down Fordham
Fordham's offense has described as a "run-and-shoot" sort of offense, but I'd call it more of a multiple/spread offense. Strictly speaking, there is no tight end (instead there are "W", "X", "Y" and "Z" receivers), but each have different, multiple functions. The "Y" functions mainly as a tight end, but also doubles up as a running fullback in certain situations. The "W", "X", and "Z" slots can be considered recievers, and ones that spread the field - but, again, they can also be brought back on reverses as well. Generally speaking, this offense won't be afraid to go right at your weakness - and it has the flexibility to attack it either way.

It's a complicated offense, but junior QB Josh Skelton (pictured) has a year and a half under his belt running it. The Texan is mobile in the pocket - making him an effective weapon running out of the spread, with 67 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. He's also been an accurate passer out of this offense, too, throwing at a 62.5% completion rate - many of which are of the short "bubble screen" variety to good old W, X, and Z.

With RB Jonte Coven being lost to graduation, sophomore RB Xavier Martin has been the #1 rushing threat out of the backfield (471 yards rushing, 4 TDs). At 5'9 175 he's built for speed, and if he gets past the front seven he can be a threat to break one. Sophomore RB Quasand Lewis is the change-of-pace physical back that comes in to spell Martin (36 yards, 1 TD). Surprisingly, neither have extensively caught the ball out of the backfield much - Martin has 3 receptions on the year for 30 yards, and Lewis has none.

The go-to guy in this receiving corps is Mr. W, junior WR Asa Lucas (25 catches, 353 yards, 2 TDs), followed very closely by senior WR Richard Rayborn (11 catches, 169 yards) and sophomore WR Jason Caldwell (11 catches, 160 yards). The "Y/Tight End" is played by the quarterback's brother, sophomore WR Stephen Skelton (7 catches, 66 yards). Skelton at 6'5 causes particular nightmares underneath for defensive coordinators, and any one of the "W", "X", and "Z" slots can be the focus of the offense - making it hard to focus on any one of them.

The "O" line is a little bit smaller than last year, but but they're still large all the way across averaging more than 280 lbs. Senior OL Mike Nardone has been fighting off injuries so far this year, but coming off a bye week I've got to believe everyone starting will be healthier than usual.

Fordham plays a base 3-4 defense like Lehigh's, but their fronts do a lot more blitzing than our units have done traditionally. This is reflected in their sack totals (10 sacks in 4 games), and their tackles for loss totals (34 for 154 yards lost). They come after you.

In some defensive lines the nose tackle is unsung, but not so Fordham's. Junior NG Darzell Wright is a 310 lb behemoth that is a good run stuffer - think William "The Refrigerator" Perry, a player that plugs one and a half gaps. He has 8 tackles on the year - but 3 1/2 of them are tackles for loss.

LB Earl Hudnell - the player whose interception return for a touchdown doomed Lehigh last year- is lost to graduation, but the linebacking unit remains formidable. Junior LB James Crockett (25 tackles), sophomore LB Nick Magiera (21 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 3 sacks) and sophomore LB Andre Delaire (27 tackles, 20 solo tackles, 2 tackles for loss) are all quality backers whose combination of speed and blitzing make them a very good, disruptive unit.

The secondary also has some real great athletes. Senior FS Matt Loucks is the leading tackler on the team with 31 (with 21 unassisted), but - in a possible break for Lehigh - he was ot listed on the two-deep. This doesn't mean Lehigh has a free ride in this secondary, with a slew of speedy underclassmen: sophomore CB Jamal Haruna, junior FS Isiejah Allen (5 pass breakups), and sophomore Isa Abdul El-Quddus. But if their enforcer isn't lining up in the secondary, that could mean more of an opportunity for running. Furthermore, it's worthy of note that these defensive backs, with the exception of El-Quddus, are under 6 feet tall, and they have no interceptions on the year just yet.

Special Teams
You might think that Fordham misses their all-League punter from last year Benjamin Dato, but freshman P Cameron Dean has done a fine job so far, averaging 39.5 yards per punt last week versus Colgate and getting Patriot League honors for his work. He may not be Dato, but he's emerging as weapon for the Rams in the battle of field position.

In contrast, senior K Adam Danko has only one touchback on kickoffs this year, and has only made 2/3 field goals so far (the longest being 33 yards). He's also 9 for 11 on extra points.

Junior FS Isiejah Allen is a very dangerous punt returner, averaging an amazing 14.5 yards per return, and sophomore WR Jason Caldwell has also done very well returning kickoffs, averaging 24 yards per return. They don't make it any easier with sophomore RB Xavier Martin on the other side, either - it's obvious that Masella believes in putting all his best athletes on the field in special teams, not specializing them on just offense or defense.

Keys to the Game
1.Give Clark time. This Ram defense defines itself by being a disruptive force, so the ability of our "O" line to give Clark the time he needs to make things happen will be crucial. That extra second, I think, will really do wonders.
2.Don't give Skelton time. You can't cover all the offensive receivers every down - but you can pressure Skelton to make tougher throws. If Skelton has time to pick apart the linebackers and secondary in pass coverage, that won't be a good sign.
3.No Mental Lapses on Special Teams. Let's just say that we can't be so busy celebrating that we make mental errors like missing kicks on extra points. I'll leave it at that.
4.The Big Eraser. A win here for Lehigh does a lot of erasing - erasing of a tough two losses, and a tough stretch of losses dating to last year. Lehigh fans don't care if it's 6-3 or 36-33 - as long as Lehigh puts it in the win column. Style points don't count. Just Win, Baby.

Fearless Prediction
As Keith Groller said, at heart I'm an optimist. I want to see Lehigh acheive the four "Keys to the Game" that I lay out for them, I want to see improvement from week to week. I want to see successful coaches that are around for a long, long time. I want to see players succeed, win, and have fun at Lehigh. And more than anything I want to see wins over "that school in Easton".

With my innate optimism - and the importance of the game to both schools - I find this incredibly hard to predict. There is one aspect, however, that's worth mentioning.

I think Lehigh has learned through these two heartbreak losses on back-to-back weeks. If this is a close game - and I think it will be - I think it's the experience from those two losses that will allow Lehigh to turn the page from the beginning of this season. Maybe it's the optimism talking - maybe I simply have to beleive it - but I think that the team that closes the deal wins this game. And I think it's going to be Lehigh.

Lehigh 24, Fordham 17


Anonymous said…
you do a nice job. in fact i read your blogs even when Fordham is facing another team in the upcoming week. I too am an optimist, but for the Rams. :) Fordham's O hits their stride.

FU 30
LU 20
Doug H said…
It is good to see a nice day to visit the Lehigh Valley... I'm coming up from Florida for my first game in a couple of years... I guess I can leave the sweater at home!!! It's also Volunteer Day at Lehigh so there will be a good crowd of loyal Lehigh alums back for the lunch and football games and seeing old friends... the game will be live on Fox College Sports Atlantic so fans around the country who have that station can watch it live...

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