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Game Preview: Lehigh at Drake, 9/4/2010

It came out of the blue like a bolt of lightning from the clouds that hang over Mount Kilimanjaro.  Not content with the pomp and circumstance coming with hosting Lehigh for the first time ever, the Drake Bulldogs - Lehigh's opening day opponent - announced that the are going to play the first-ever football game in Africa.

Really.  It's not a joke.  The trip this May will involve building an orphanage, climbing the iconic African mountain, as well as playing a football game.  It will also require a massive fundraising effort - and will, hopefully, end up being a positive life-changing trip for all the kids involved.  It sounds like an awesome idea - one that Drake head coach Chris Creighton deserves full credit for.

One fundraising idea for the trip came from the Des Moines Register: from every sack Drake makes this year, or how many points they score.

Lehigh's mission?  To make the Bulldogs find another team to raise their money.  Zero sacks, zero points.  (more)

Not that this game isn't important for Drake, but coming away from the midwest with a victory is crucial for the Mountain Hawks.

That's partially due to their "theater of pain" schedule, with four Sports Network Top 25 teams on their schedule - including last year's defending national champions - and a couple of other teams, Lafayette and Harvard, who are great candidates to make it in the Top 25 before the year is out.

But it also has to do with a woeful out-of-conference record over the last two years.  The Mountain Hawks have gone 1-9 in out of conference games - the lone victory coming against.... Drake, a 19-0 shutout in 2008.  The Mountain Hawks want - almost need - to get the monkey off their backs.

And a win over Drake in 2010 would be different than a win over Drake in 2008.  Back then, Creighton was in his second year as head coach, installing a new offense and coming to Bethlehem with a 3-8 team.  Now, he is at home with an 8-3 team who was a goal line stand away from being the Pioneer champions.  In addition, he happens to also have a fantastic defensive front four - including, possibly, a pair of NFL prospects on the line.

Drake at home is clearly a different team than Drake on the road.  Since 1994, Drake has accumulated a home record of 67-16-1.  Don't think that won't make a difference this Saturday night.

A win could be a fantastic shot of confidence for this Mountain Hawk team for the rest of the season.  It would officially end a long offseason of coaching changes, the J.B. Clark drama, the rough out-of-conference record, and the losing records of the last three years.  You hate to talk about momentum this early, but if there's a team that could benefit from that early momentum it's Lehigh.

I hate to say it, but it feels like a must-win for the Mountain Hawks.

Game Notes
This week's game notes shows some awfully interesting moves by the coaching staff.  Start with senior LB Shane Ryan - an LFN fave - moving to backup outside linebacker when it seemed like he had a chance to make it as a nickel or dime back as a defensive back.  It seems as a linebacker he will have more opportunities to see the field - which is a great thing.  Senior SS Casey Eldemire will be the final piece of the puzzle in the secondary, lining up next to senior FS John Venerio.

The other surprise is sophomore WR Ryan Spadola, who has earned a starting position opposite junior WR Jake Drwal.  Sophomore WR De'Vaughn Gordon I have to believe will still find his way onto the field often - assuming an injury he picked up in camp has healed all the way.

Senior DT Ben Flizack, a converted linebacker, also will start up front alongside senior NG David Brown.  After getting used to seeing a depth chart littered with underclassmen, it's really encouraging to see so many seniors on defense.

Weather Report
Friday's chartered flight to Des Moines looks like it will be clear, thankfully, with thundershowers making way to clear skies in the afternoon.  Saturday evening should be a perfect night for football, with mid-70s temperatures possibly dipping into the high 50s at night.  Fall will have arrived in Iowa.

A Word On Drake
A lot of folks don't know that Drake plays football in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.  When you ask most folks about Drake, they probably think of their Missouri Valley Conference basketball team (and leaguemate Northern Iowa, who beat Kansas after Lehigh's men's basketball team showed the world their weaknesses), or possibly the Drake Relays, one of the largest, oldest national track and field events in the United States.

But the Bulldog football team has a long big-time football tradition in their own right.  In 1922, they went 7-0-0, beating future big-time programs like Colorado State, Kansas, Iowa State and Mississippi State.  In 1945, Drake played in a January 1st bowl game - the inaugural Raisin Bowl, when they beat Fresno State 13-12.

In fact, as a part of the Missouri Valley Conference in football - before they discontinued sponsorship of the sport in 1985 - Drake played a "major college" schedule.  Their biggest rivals were Iowa State and Northern Iowa - but when the Missouri Valley dropped football, Drake president Michael Ferrari decided to disband football for the 1986 season and reinstate it at the Division III level to save money.  (The rest of their sports, and - importantly - men's basketball, stayed at the D-I level.)

For six years they competed at the D-III level - until the institution of the "Dayton Rule", where it was determined that schools that are Division I in a revenue sport like men's basketball cannot drop football to Division III to save money.  This was because Dayton - very much like Drake - could recruit non-scholarship athletes with primo facilities and unfair advantages that D-III porgrams couldn't - or shouldn't - compete against.

Enter the football-only Pioneer League - with schools like Dayton, Drake, Butler and others who still wanted to play cost-containment football but still have Division I athletics.

As everyone should know, "non-scholarship" does not mean "non-talented".  But the breakdown of Drake will demonstrate that soon enough.

LFN's Drink of the Week
Surprisingly, I found myself struggling to find a clever drink for this week's game.  Should I celebrate the state of Iowa, with a Hawkeye-themed beverage?  Try as I may, I couldn't find anything that wouldn't be at risk of making me blind.  Maybe something with corn whiskey in it - for example, a "Hillbilly Highball"?  Come on - I'm a bit nuts, but I'm not crazy.  How can I advocate a drink that I wouldn't even touch for fear of liver damage?

Unsurprisingly, if you can't find the High Life in Iowa (actually, you can, but I have a hard time advocating that either), you have to bring the High Life, so to speak, to Iowa.  I'm not talking a twelve-pack of Miller Beer, of course.  I'm talking about taking cases of - you guessed it - Yuengling's Lord Chesterfield Ale.  Complemented by its lightly laced foam head and fragrantly zesty aroma, the presence of cases of Lord Chessy will distinguish yourselves amongst the royal blue, Drake-ian, Iowan crowd.  And it goes well with burgers at the tailgate and fresh corn on the cob, too!

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that. (And, no, Yuengling does not pay me for the free advertising - I'm just a fan!)  (Note to the fine folks at America's Oldest Brewery: Call me.)

Breaking Down Drake
Drake runs a "multiple offense" according to their media guide, with something called a J-Back and a S-Back.  I haven't been able to find a definition of an offense that runs a J and S back, but my thought is that their offense is similar to Brown's and Fordham's spread-type offense where there are X and Z backs and they do a lot of different things.  Unlike Fordham's "X" and "Z" backs, though, the J and S backs do basically all the rushing on the team.

Creighton's unique offense is run by junior QB Michael Piatowski, a rail-thin pocket passer that had some decent statistics last year (2,139 yards passing 14 TDs).  Overall his statistics were good passing but he struggled against the better teams on his schedule, like Dayton, Butler, San Diego and the only team with football scholarships that they played last year, South Dakota.  Against those four he averaged less than 200 yards passing and got only 5 TDs.

Creighton will be looking for big improvement from Piatowski on game days this fall, and unlike Lehigh's quarterback he has something crucial: experience running Creighton's unique offense.  He should be able to settle in quickly on Saturday and - they hope - strike quickly on our defense.

Piatowski will have tons of options for receiving threats.  With WR Spencer Cady graduating, that leaves Drake's best wideouts as junior WR Drew Blackmon (457 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore WR Joey Orlando (259 yards, 3 TDs).  Worthy of mention as well is that Drake is replacing both tight ends with new players, with junior TE Ben Sabel the only letterwinner returning.  In the past, the TE hasn't figured much in their offense, but with a 6'6 sophomore TE Matt Bowie, that may change.

But it's the J-Back - the running back who splits between rushing and receiving duties - that Lehigh will really need to worry about.  Senior RB Steve Platek, was the lion's share of Drake's offense last year and he returns for his final year of eligibility.  He was more of a threat receiving out of the backfield than a rushing threat last year, averaging something like 3 rushes a game, but he also had a tendency to come in and run in goal-line situations (where he had 6 TDs).  Senior FB Tom Kostek is the S-Back or slot back and is more of their rushing "work horse", and senior FB Patrick Cashmore is another good S-back in their rotation of backs, and can also double as receiving threats.

Drake's 'O' line loses three players from last year.  They're surprisingly big on the line, with senior OL Stephen Flynn (334 lbs) and 6'7 senior OL Dan Clinton (317 lbs) figuring to be big factors at the guard position.  They are breaking in a new center, though, which is something to consider in the first game of the year.

Drake clearly has some players on defense.  They played a 4-2-5 last year and their front four could be the best in the PFL.  Some of their players have gotten interest from NFL scouts.  Their "D" is aggressive like Fordham's, and their rush defense last year was one of the best in the country.  This defense will be tough to contain.

Senior DE Dain Taylor is a football player.  He had 11 1/2 sacks last year and pretty much produced sacks in every game last year, including one against South Dakota and two against last year's Pioneer League champion, Butler. A preseason all-American from a multitude of organizations, he's rightfully a big focus on this "D" line.  "Dain is as passionate about football as anyone I have ever coached," said Drake head coach Chris Creighton in this official Drake release. "In his final off-season, he has set new personal records in all eight strength and conditioning categories. We have high expectations for Dain this fall."

Taylor is not the only problem on this line.  If you double-team him, that opens up holes for two other guys that could start for a whole lot of FCS teams: junior DT Andrew Asbell, who also is getting looks from NFL scouts, and senior DE Josh Walkup, who was a terror last year in his own right (32 tackles, 13 1/2 tackles for loss including 8 sacks).  Sophomore NG David Witkiewicz fills out the "D" line, and I mean "fill out" - the junior is 6'6, 286.  This is a front for that is complete and can pose a lot of problems: our offensive line will need to put on a great performance to shut them down.

The linebacking unit will be led by senior LB Ben Morrison, (75 tackles, 14 1/2 tackles for loss) and he is a solid player.  Sophomore LB Tyler Moorehead, the Pioneer League freshman of the year in 2009, lines up next to him (67 tackles, 14 1/2 tackles for loss).

As if that wasn't enough experience to worry about from this defensive unit, three stars also return in the secondary.  On the plus side, Drake's secondary didn't generate a lot of interceptions last year - senior CB Michael Lahart led the Bulldogs with two, and senior CB Lucas Mosier right behind him with one.  Ten of eleven starters on defense played extensively in 2009.

Special Teams
With the graduation of their all-league punter and kicker last year, it has been open season to determine Drake's replacement at those positions.  Senior P/K Mitch Rassmussen and senior P/K Billy Jansen have been "neck in neck" for the spot, according to Drake's game notes, but it's safe to say that Lehigh will be facing a player who has seen his first real important game action.

Lahart, the starting corner, doubles as a punt returner, where he led the Pioneer League with a 10.6 average.  Mosier, the other corner, doubles as the main kick returner where he averaged 21.4 yards per return.

Keys to a Lehigh Victory
1. Take It Back.  Special teams have a golden opportunity to be super-special in this game, with Drake breaking in new kicking units and a new kicker.  I don't mind setting the bar very high: I'd like to see either senior CB/KR John "Prez" Kennedy or senior CB/PR Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs take one to the house for a score.  If we get one of those, it will go a long way towards victory in Iowa.
2. Humongous Trench Battles.  I'd take Drake's fund-raising ideas for their Africa trip and turn them on their head.  If this Lehigh "O" line is as good as everyone says it is, it should shut down Drake's future NFLers and allow no sacks.  If this Lehigh defense is that good, it should be able to shut out this offense like it did last time.  Make no mistake, these are ambitious goals.  But they are achievable.
3. Play with the quickness.  Junior QB Chris Lum can keep a heavy pass rush at bay with a lot of quick drops, screen passes and quick slants.  As good as the trenches will have to be, the offense can help themselves with executing these plays - and keeping the number of turnovers at bay, too.

Fearless Prediction
This game scares me because it just feels like so much more is at stake than other season openers.  When you have such a challenging schedule, you have to take the wins where you can get them, and going 0-1 before facing off against the defending national champions at home is a recipe for a rough year.  Add to that the obvious quality and experience on defense that Drake has - coupled with, basically, an inexperienced Lehigh offense - and this won't be an easy go.

When I watch this game on Saturday, I will be paying particular attention to Lehigh's "O" line, because that's where this game, I think, will really be won or lost.  If Lehigh can contain this brutal Drake "D" line and give Lum the time to execute, he will.  If Lehigh can get the tough rushing yards behind senior RB Jay Campbell and the hogs in front of him, the Mountain Hawks will have an excellent chance to win.

I'm not going to predict a shutout by Lehigh's defense.  I'm also not going to predict a sackless game by Drake's defense, either.  But I think that the difference will be a solid day running by Campbell, and the Lehigh will get the victory they need.

Lehigh 28, Drake 24


Anonymous said…
You failed to mention, Johnny Bright, possibly the greatest player to don a Drake uniform. He was on track to win the Heisman in 1951, derailed by a dirty play from an Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) player that broke his jaw and prematurely ended his season. It also led to Drake and Bradley resigning from the MVC in protest. The photographs of the "Johnny Bright Incident" also won the Pulitzer prize that year.

Johnny Bright went on to have a long and distinguished career in the CFL, where he was inducted into the CFL HOF.
Anonymous said…
was actually Creightons 1st year...
Douglas said…
I'm wondering if upper end Pioneer teams like Drake are on a par with Patriot League now... I know that Kerwin Bell ( Jacksonville Univ coach) wants to upgrade his program to be a scholarship program.. Look forward to watching this game on Fox College Sports on Saturday night..
Tim Weideman said…
Hey, loved the preview! I'm going to be attending the game (I'm a Drake student) and wanted to know a little bit more about Lehigh.

I thought you made some good points about both teams. Before I came to your blog, I knew it would be close.

I have to flip your prediction, however, and go 28-24, Drake.

This game will show Drake fans if the team is going to challenge the Pioneer Football League's top teams again this year.

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