It's funny; when you start the football season, it feels like you team could simply play anybody and you'd be ecstatic. I'm not saying Central Connecticut State is just anybody, of course - you'll find that out soon enough - but that feeling is invading every college football fan going into this weekend.
As a result of this euphoria, it's tempting to just revel in the fact that it's here - football season is here, and we're still undefeated against Lafayette since last November.
That's probably the gensis as to why teams get "overlooked" on the schedule on Week One. You think Michigan was looking to be upended by Appalachian State two years ago? Michigan was reveling - in the new season, in their No. 5 preseason ranking, in their, well, Michigan-ness. Before the day was out, the "Miracle in Michgan" was complete, Michigan would plummet out of the Top 25, and their season would be in a shambles.
Granted, Lehigh fans had been starving for an offseason with some euphoria. It's been a while since we've had a Patriot League championship and FCS playoff games. The win last November was the first bit of real, genuine euphoria we've had for a long time. And we can be forgiven for revelling in it a little.
But you can bet that CCSU is counting on just that. This is not the team we beat 58-10 a few years ago: that will be clear after the opening kickoff. This is FCS football. Every game counts. And CCSU will not be anyone's patsy. You can take that to the bank.
Time to get excited about opening-day football.
This week's game notes from Lehigh - the first of the year - featured some genuine surprises, especially on the offensive side.
Start with junior RB Jay Campbell getting the starting nod over junior RB Jaren Walker, for starters. Coach Coen had raved about Campbell in traning camp, and he appears for now to have won the starting nod. I wouldn't be surprised to see coach Coen rotate in Walker in spots - maybe rotating them all year, possibly, given them all ample opportunities to make plays - but Campbell's rise on the depth chart clearly came from hard practice time and hard work in the offseason. Campbell earned the shot this weekend.
In another surprise, sophomore WR De'Vaughn Gordon and sophomore WR Jake Drwal get the start in their first significant action with the first team offense. Junior WR Craig Zurn will also certainly get a lot of spots - he's clearly expected to make big-time plays this year - but it will be interesting to see how Gordon does in his first start.
On the injury front, it's not too surprising that senior LB Al Pierce is not ready to go as he returns from a pull hamstring in preseason practice. Taking his place is senior LB Tobi Showunmi - another guy who has worked hard to get the starting nod. Senior LB Troy Taylor - an LFN favorite from last year who was a monster on special teams - also gets the start as he promises to potentially be a special LB for the Mountain Hawks.
Another unfortunate injury in the week leading to the CCSU game is senior DT Phil Winett, who is dinged up and won't play. In his place will be sophomore DE Cody Connare - who plans to make the most of his shot.
It looks like this is still a young team. On the two-deep is two freshmen (OL Ryan Weitz and K/P Jake Peery), eleven sophomores and eighteen juniors. Only ten seniors dot the list.
CCSUs game notes can be found here.
A more perfect day for football could not be imagined. Try a high of 84, abundant sunshine, and light and variable winds. Get there early to enjoy the sun, and perfect tailgating weather.
This has been a stark contrast some home openers: last year versus Drake out of the non-scholarship Pioneer League, the game was played in a driving rainstorm and ended in a 19-0 victory. Three years ago - playing CCSU's leaguemate in the NEC, Albany - another rainstorm ruined head coach Andy Coen's coaching debut in a 17-16 upset win.
A Word On Central Connecticut State
Lehigh last played the Blue Devils in 2001 to the tune of a 58-10 win. The temptation is to think that in 2009 we'll see a replay of this tune. But like a song from Enrique Iglesias or N'Sync, that song is history. CCSU, and the NEC, is totally different in 2009.
In 2001, the NEC offered need-based scholarships similar to what the Patriot League currently offers - and the amount they could offer was limited to boot. Back then, they were more similar to Drake than Delaware.
But something happened: in 2005, NEC member schools petitioned successfully to the league leadership to start allowing a limited number of scholarships that were not "need-based" in nature. In a nutshell, they were now allowed to offer a number of football scholarships as they're commonly defined everywhere else in FCS.
Despite the fact that most teams' scholarship players were barely freshmen, the impact on the NEC was almost immediate. In 2006 Albany upset Lehigh 17-16 - but it was CCSU who went to Georgia Southern, one of the hallowed temples of FCS, and beat the Eagles under their six FCS championship banners in a game-changing 17-13 victory.
The NEC's splash on the national scene ultimately led the former commissioner, the late Ms. Brenda Weare, to ask the FCS playoff subcommittee to give the NEC a path to the playoffs. She (accurately) argued that in every other NCAA sport, every eligible conference that has asked for a playoff autobid got one. Her argument was: why deny us? The arugument worked, and starting in 2010 the NEC will get their first-ever autobid.
CCSU head coach Jeff McInerney has given the former "Teacher's College of Connecticut" unprecedented success as head coach: he's the first head coach of the Blue Devils to ever post a winning record in his first three seasons. It's also a homecoming of sorts for coach McInerney: he went to college at Slippery Rock.
Last Time Out
The Blue Devils ended last season with a bang, crushing Sacred Heart 49-14 in a blowout win. CCSU scored on their first two drives and never looked back, racking up a 28-0 lead and added three second-half touchdowns. They knocked out the 2007 NEC Freshman of the year, sophomore QB Dale Fink, out of the game in the second quarter and the rout was on.
LFN's Drink Of The Week
It's 80 degrees. It's the home opener. It's Central Connecticut State. So what drink is approrpiate to serve at your tailgate in abundant sunshine? Clearly something on ice, but not a frou-frou frozen drink. What should the discriminating Lehigh fan drink?
It's tempting to serve this "cool drink", but might I suggest a blue CCSU twist, if you will:
6 cups cold water
1/4 cup quality vodka (suggestion: Smirnoff Red Label)
1 cup fresh lime juice (about 6 limes)
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup Blue Curacao
20 lime slices (optional)
Call it "Cool Blue." Enjoy!
(As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in tailgates, but please drink responsibly and please be of legal drinking age. )
Breaking Down Central Connecticut State
In the past, CCSU ran a variant of a triple-option attack with two quarterbacks splitting time on offense. But this year's game notes adds an ominous note: one of the quarterbacks will be lining up at running back and wide receiver too. It looks like Lehigh might be seeing the "Wildcat Formation", which is gaining popularity these days. (If you watched the Philadelphia Eagles' third preseason game when Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb were on the field at the same time, you saw what we might see on Saturday.) It involves two QBs, with one going in motion, some direct snap runs, and other quirks.
The reason Jeff McInerney is going to the "Wildcat" is that he feels he has two outstanding quarterbacks. They are senior QB Aubrey Norris and senior QB Hunter Wanket. While Wanket is the better passer of the two, both are mobile and can take off running with the ball with ease - a good choice for the "Wildcat" formation. On the plus side, Wanket didn't throw the ball all that much last year - so Lehigh might still see a skew towards running and screen passing. Look for them to alternate, or sometimes be on the field together.
Adding to defensive coordinator David Kotulski's worries is the presence of a very strong running back. Senior RB James Mallory (1,575 yards rushing, 15 TDs) was a brutally effective 5'10, 200 lb with good strength and good speed as well. In conjunction to Norris and Wanket and change of pace junior FB Eric Richardson, this is a multi-dimensional running threat that will be a challenge for our front seven to contain.
When Wanket or Norris do throw the ball, usually the target is 5'11 speedster senior WR Nick Colagiovanni (361 yards, 5 TDs) or 6'1 junior WR Josue Paul (272 yards, 1 TD). On rushing-first offenses, though, they also have value as decoys or downfield blockers. Colagiovanni also has the speed to stretch a defense, too.
In recent years, CCSU has been known for big guys in the trenches. This year they have five returning lettermen, and boast a couple big boys: 6'6, 300 lb sophomore OT Mike Allison and 300 lb junior OG Jesse Castillo. They were extremely effective last year in helping CCSU be the No. 1 rushing offense in the NEC - and that's over two teams with great runners like Albany senior RB David McCarty and Monmouth senior RB David Sinisi.Defense
The Blue Devils sport a base 4-3 - similar to "that school in Easton". They boast an experienced defense that will pose the Lehigh offense a stern test. Like Fordham and Lafayette last year, their "D" line is aggressive and will attack the line of scimmage, getting good disruption of opposing offenses. They also take pride in creating turnovers - they've created one in 12 consecutive games.
For CCSU, it all starts up front with a pair of (unrelated as far as I know) defensive tackles. Senior DT Danny Rodriguez and senior DT Roberto Rodriguez combined for 57 tackles and 8 1/2 tackles for loss last years. They shouldleave gaps, though, when they attack the line of scrimmage - something, potentially, to look out for.
The top returning linebacker is sophomore LB Jeff Marino, who logged 83 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and 3 interceptions last year. Rounded out by junior LB Tim Pratt and one LB getting his first start (sophomore LB Isaiah Boddie), Lehigh shouldn't be afraid to run up the middle if necessary against this squad.
The secondary features junior FS Alondre Rush, who most definitely acts as a second linebacker and "enforcer" on this team (70 tackles, 2 interceptions). Senior CB Marcus Dorsey (2 INTs) and junior CB Dominique Rose (4 INTs) demonstrate that this is a secondary that has some playmakers. I'd go as far as to say this is a secondary that should be feared.
Junior PK Joe Izzo is CCSU's kicker, who went 42 for 45 in PATs last year and connected on 4 of 5 FGs. His leg strength might be a question mark with only five FG attempts last year. Freshman P Greg Midal will be the Blue Devils punter in his first-ever varsity action.
Senior WR Nick Colagiovanni returns punts, and junior WR Josue Paul and sophomore CB London Lomax return kickoffs. Punt returns were an issue last year - Colagiovanni only averaged 3.1 yards per return last year - but Paul averaged 20.3 yards per return on kickoffs with 1 TD.
Coverage units, on the other hand, were a bright spot last year. Junior FS Alondre Rush blocked 2 of CCSU's seven blocked picks last year, and only allowed 6 yards per kick return.
Keys to the Game
1. Trenches, trenches, trenches. It's an old saw - especially from me - but these trench battles might be where this game is won or lost. On defense, establishing a stout run defense will be crucial - a few early 3rd-down stops could do wonders. On offense, getting a solid running game going could be important - and that means the "O" line hogs will be doing their job.
2. Short passes. I'll be blunt: this secondary scares me. While it's worthwhile to test the waters deep, the bread and butter on Saturday through the air should be the dinks and dunks in the soft areas in the middle of the field. That means junior QB J.B. Clark will need to be accurate - and keep mistakes to a minimum.
3. Big return game. While a return touchdown from junior CB John "Fear Itself" Kennedy or senior CB Jarard Cribbs would be nice, that key difference in field position could play a big part in getting Lehigh's engine going. Outgaining CCSU's returnunits would mean that Lehigh's firing on all cylinders - which is what Lehigh needs to win this game.
In many ways this is a scary home opener. Central Connecticut State is hardly the pushover they were in 2001. They have football players, especially in their secondary. Their rushing attack was great in 2008 - and it seems like there could be even more wrinkles on offense opening day that will be hard to prepare for. If Lehigh comes out flat, or falls behind early, this game could be trouble - something that can happen, especially with so many underclassmen on the roster.
It comes down to this: Do you beleive Lehigh has turned the corner? Are all the happy feelings meaningless, or was the Lafayette win really the start of special times once again for Lehigh?
This will come down to Lehigh's rushing "D". Can they slow down the CCSU rushing machine? I think they will. Can the Lehigh offense make hay against the Blue Devil "D"? I'm less sure. Will a loud, partisan crowd be the difference? I think it will be.
Lehigh 21, Central Connecticut State 17