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Game Preview: Lehigh at Bucknell

(Photo Credit: Bucknell Athletics)

It's been hashed and rehashed.

At the midpoint of the season, Lehigh has played like champs on offense but like chumps on offense. The defense shut out two straight opponents, but the team went 1-1. First it was junior QB J.B. Clark, then sophomore QB Chris Lum, and then Clark again starting on offense, and the running back trio of junior RB Jay Campbell, junior RB Jaren Walker and freshman RB Zach Barket haven't been healthy all at the same time since the first game of the year. The record is ugly: 1-5. And the entire Patriot League schedule looms in front of them.

With a home backdrop like that, the squad had to be loving the fact that they're heading out of the frosty Lehigh Valley to play a game on the road.

If you're a Lehigh fan, you have to hope that the Hawks find some permanent answers on offense this weekend at Bucknell, while cleaning up some of the mental lapses that have doomed the Mountain Hawks in the first half of the season. That might be easier in Lewisburg, away from the pressure cooker in the Lehigh Valley.

You have to hope that away from the pressure, this team can come together a little bit on offense to regain the lost momentum from the Yale loss. At the same time, you hope the defense continues play at their amazing level to win the ball game.

Yet this game may not be a cakewalk. The Bison haven't beaten Lehigh since 1996, and they saw that "0" on the scoreboard last weekend, too. They have to believe that they can take us, and reverse twelve years of frustration in one afternoon. They'll be up to play Lehigh. Opposing teams always are.

It's one-game-at-a-time mode for the Mountain Hawks. A 1-0 Mountain Hawk team travels to Bucknell to play a 1-0 Bison.

One game at a time. Here goes.

Game Notes
Clark's back. With coach Coen "playing a hunch", junior QB J.B. Clark will be leading the offense as the starting quarterback after sophomore QB Chris Lum couldn't score in the first half against Yale. The game notes don't offer much else in the way of changes, but the Express-Times mentions some troubling news in that junior RB Jay Campbell and freshman QB Michael Colvin might still be nursing some injuries and may not be available on Saturday. If true, that would put Lehigh's No. 1 and No. 2 rushers out for the game, meaning junior RB Jaren Walker and freshman RB Zach Barket would almost certainly share the load. Sophomore RB Matt Fitz appears to be injured and is not listed on the depth chart.

On defense, sophomore LB Devin Greene is back to backing up senior LB Al Pierce, who was declared healthy for this Saturday. Look for Greene to get some time in the middle in any case.

Bucknell's game notes can be found here.

Weather Report
It's warmer, but it's looking like another bad weather game for Lehigh as the forecast calls for 60% chance of rain with a high of 66. Since Christy Matthewson stadium is artificial turf, that could make for a slippery game - but one that might give the defense a chance to keep their shutout streak alive, too.

A Word on Bucknell
The Bison have not beaten Lehigh since 1997. In fact, Lehigh has played Bucknell every year since 1950, and the Mountain Hawks enjoy a 40-29-3 series lead on the Bison.

The Bison featured in a special year for Lehigh: 1950. Under head football coach "Bill" Leckonby and runningback Dick Doyne, Lehigh was undefeated and "Middle Three" Conference champions, and that year they beat Bucknell 27-6 en route to the Engineer's first-ever perfect season at 9-0. The following year, though, Bucknell unleashed their savage attack on Lehigh with runningback Burt Talmadge, and beat Lehigh 47-7 en route to their first-ever perfect season. A rivalry was born.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, these games had Patriot League championship connotations seemingly every year. Although difficult to fathom now, the games against Bucknell were more highly regarded that the games against "weak sister" Colgate. Nowadays, Colgate and Holy Cross games generate a lot more buzz than the ones against the Bison.

Lehigh has won eleven straight against the Bison, and Bucknell head coach Tim Landis has never beaten the Mountain Hawks. To beat Lehigh would be a great accomplishment for Landis and his seniors, and he'll be emptying out the playbook to do so tomorrow.

Bucknell fans ought to be happy about one, thing, though: that the basketball team's first practice is on Friday night, not Saturday afternoon. No word if the first practice will outdraw the Bison football game this weekend, though.

Last Time Out
Bucknell is coming off their bye week - perhaps not good news for the Mountain Hawks, but two weeks ago the Bison offense struggled against one of the best defenses in FCS as they lost to Penn 21-3. Starting their fourth-string QB due to injuries, Penn scored their touchdowns on a HB toss-and-pass, a direct snap to the RB for the other, and added a run sweep for the third score. The Quakers held the Bison to under 200 yards on the afternoon, and only allowed the Bison in the red zone once all game.

LFN's Drink of the Week
This week's drink, aside from the fact that it will probably be enjoyed in a rainstorm, simply needs to be something that gives Lehigh some luck. That leaves only one drink in by bag o' drinks that I can offer; the Lucky Lady. Consisting of vodka, orange juice, grenadine and Kool-Aid, I'd add a squirt of lemon juice to cut down on the sweetness a little and to make it five ingredients - five ingredients, five wins. (I'm hoping.)

As always, "Drinks of the week" have a place in responsible tailgates. Please drink responsibly. Otherwise, you might not be so lucky as I'll kick your ass myself.

Breaking down Bucknell
Offense
Landis runs a spread triple-option offense, which is similar to the type of offense run by Wofford and the classic Georgia Southern teams in their championship years. It is very difficult to prepare for in one week's time, but since we have Bucknell as a league opponent every year, Lehigh's staff is very familiar with their offense. The spread option is a predominantly a running set using two wideouts, one fullback, two "slotbacks" that play RB or TE, and the QB as a rushing threat. A lot of different athletes touch the ball in this system, and it requires the running game to be working to function effectively.

From Lehigh's perspective, this is an offense that has a tendency to beat up the skill players since they take so much hard contact. That means when we play Bucknell late in the year, we tend to get a team that has been smacked a little with injuries. This year is no exception.

Start at quarterback, where Landis has listed sophomore QB C.J. Hopson OR senior QB Marcelo Trigg as the starter. No word who will really be starting, but Trigg, who we missed last year as the starter as well, didn't play against Penn and seems to be struggling through injury this season, opening the door for Hopson. Both are probably better runners than passers, though Hopson put up the ball 34 times against the Quakers (but only connecting 13 times). Hopson is the Bison's leading rusher with 292 yards and 2 TDs. Since game Three, Bucknell doesn't have a single touchdown pass after Trigg seems to have gotten hurt.

The slotbacks feature Bucknell's best player. Speedy senior RB A.J. Kizekai has 5,000 all-purpose yards in his career and is the the team's second-leading rusher behind Hopson. The other slotbacks are senior RB Justin Pulgrano (who did complete a pass versus Georgetown) and junior FB Ryan Smith - who despite an injury, is Bucknell's third-leading rusher with 105 yards. Kizekai and Pulgrano can also catch the ball out of the backfield (combining for 173 yards and 3 TDs). Everyone in this backfield is under 5'11 - including the fullback, who weighs in at 205 lbs.

Senior WR Shaun Pasternak, a preseason all-American, was out the first five games of the year but came back versus Penn, catching 1 ball for 12 yards. In his absence, senior WR Cale Cadman has been the go-to receiver for the Bison, leading the team with 20 receptions for 213 yards. Both receivers are tall and are more possession guys than burners.

Senior C James Phelan is the "old man" on the line and team captain on this smallish "O" line. In a Patriot League where almost everyone has a 300 lb lineman, the biggest body on the "O" line - sophomore OL Ian Dal Bello - weighs in at 280.

Defense
Three years ago, Landis abandoned his base 4-3 defense to install a 3-4 to take advantage of his talent and depth at linebacker. His multiple 3-4 defense is very similar to Lehigh's, with linebackers and defensive linemen changing in and out giving multiple looks. Like the offense, injuries have wrecked some havoc on this unit, too.

The Bison have a very good "D" line. Senior DE Will Braaf and sophomore DT Robert De La Rosa (26 tackles) lead an aggressive front three that have gotten push on the "D" line this year. Unlike the rest of the defense, which is smallish by Patriot League standards, the Bison's "D" line are all above 265 lbs.

At linebacker, the Bison are missing oft-injured senior LB Sam Nana-Sinkam, who has seen his Patriot League career deciamted by injury, and senior LB Brigham Farrand, who is also out with injury. In the middle, the Bison boast senior LB Greg Jones (54 tackles) and, coming back from injury, senior LB Casey Williams (16 tackles in 2 games). For all their aggressiveness, though, they've only forced 1 fumble all year.

Junior FS Rob Gerlach and junior SS Akhiel White have five interceptions amongst them, meaning that this secondary does a good job playing center field. (The corners, sophomore DB Bryan Robertson and senior CB Jason Davis, are 5'9 and 5'8 respectively - which means a tall receiver could potentially make hay against them.

Special Teams
Sophomore PK Drew Orth
hasdone well for the Bison this year, converting 23/25 extra points and converting 4 of 5 FGs. Sophomore P Andrew Bell has averaged a solid 37.6 yards per punt. Coverage units have been decent, as nobody has scored a touchdown on their punt or kick return units.

The always-dangerous senior RB A.J. Kizekai returns kickoffs, and sometimes punts as well - he needs to be watched. Speedy senior RB Josh Lee stars opposite him, so it doesn't make much sense to kick away from Kizekai - teams have elected to kick it to A.J. and contain him. Senior CB Jason Davis returns punts.

Keys to the Game
1. Do what works. When you're struggling on offense, it's more important to build confidence than to make ideological points. If running the ball with freshman RB Zach Barket is working, go with it. If play-action passing pitch-and-catch fromjunior QB J.B. Clark to freshman WR James Flynn is working, go with it. Find a winning formula, and stick to it.
2. Trenches. If Lehigh dominates the trenches, they will win the game. That means the "O" line - who hasn't carried a game yet this year - will need to do so this week to give the offense something to build upon.
3. Tackling. If it's a close, bad-weather game, solid tackling will be crucial. That means hitting gaps and wrapping up ballcarriers on defense, and limiting the yards after carry to a minimum. Good tackling will give Lehigh their best chance to win.
4. Momentum. I said it last week, and I'll say it again. Lehigh has had a bad habit of going one step backwards after one step forward on offense: a big penalty after a big 20 yard gain, or an interception right after a big play to get into the red zone. Starting now, it has to be all forward. Mistakes will happen, but the momentum needs to be forward. Always.

Fearless Prediction
Like Georgetown, Bucknell comes at a good time for Lehigh. They need to go back to the drawing board again on offense and come up with a gameplan on offense that will at least give them a shot to win the Patriot League. At the same time, the defense needs to keep that intensity without getting down. Being away from the pressure of playing at home - and the sometimes brutal fans - will help.

It looks to be a bad-weather game, one where the defenses rule the afternoon and the team that makes fewer mistakes will win. Last week, Lehigh's defense ruled but still lost the game on special teams and anemic offense. Will the offense pull it together enough to get the win?

I think they will. It won't be a pretty game. But Lehigh should have enough in the tank to win this game and give the fans some hope going into Halloween weekend.

Lehigh 24, Bucknell 9

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