Could the timing have been any worse for the Mountain Hawks?
Plenty of fans might have predicted that New Hampshire - the perennial Top 25 ranked, FBS-upsetting, playoff game-playing Wildcats - would be 1-1 going into Week Three of the season.
While Central Connecticut State of the NEC might have been a challenge for the Wildcats, it was easy to see big, bad New Hampshire beating them. Similarly, it was just as easy to see New Hampshire struggle against FBS Pitt - which is a step up in weight class against the Marshall's and Army's that they've beaten in recent years - to give them a 1-1 record.
But their shocking 28-25 defeat to Rhode Island last weekend doesn't just put the Wildcats at 1-2. It makes their game this weekend vs. Lehigh an absolute must-win if they hope to achieve any of the goals that have become expected up in Durham: contention for the CAA title. Playoffs. And a run at the FCS championship. (more)
While Lehigh fans like myself have been talking about the Mountain Hawks' rough schedule, New Hampshire is one of the few FCS schools that could have them beat in terms of schedule strength.
Start with out-of-conference games against Pitt of the Big East, and add to it last year's NEC champion and Lehigh. The Wildcats' conference slate then features a five-game stretch where New Hampshire will play CAA conference teams currently ranked 11th or better, including three of the top five teams in the nation in Villanova, James Madison and Richmond. Two of those games are on the road as well.
At 1-2, New Hampshire sees this game as a crossroads to the season. If they go 1-3, they would certainly have to run the table against the rest of the CAA in order to have a chance at the playoffs. As it stands right now, if they go 2-3 against those teams they'll be in danger of missing out on their first playoffs in seven years. And that's assuming they get by Towson and their biggest regional/Yankee Conference rival Maine as well.
History, too, is on the side of the Wildcats. "If you count 2004 to the present as the New Golden Age of University of New Hampshire football, you can count on one hand the number of games the team should have won but didn't", says Mike Zhe of Seacoast Online.
However, Zhe points out, one of those games was the "almost inexplicable" loss to Rhode Island.
For New Hampshire fans, excruciating doesn't even begin to describe that defeat. The Wildcats had 11 crushing penalties, and 3 critical turnovers, one of which was the game-winning touchdown for Rhode Island. The Rams beat them with only 88 yards through the air - and 216 yards rushing, against a team that prides itself on its run defense. And even though by all accounts they didn't play their best, they still were leading before the fateful fumble returned for a touchdown - and had a chance to win it, before a game-ending interception.
Lehigh, on the other hand, comes into Durham with some solid momentum after their tough-fought 35-22 win over Princeton. They come to the Granite state with a newfound feeling on how to win tough, physical games in the world of FCS - and even having some fun while doing it. Better yet, the Mountain Hawks also come to Durham with little to lose, since the wider world of FCS does not expect them to beat a nationally ranked CAA team on the road. When you haven't beaten New Hampshire since 1982, that's what happens.
Yet, Lehigh needs to still get better in order to win a big game like this. Last weekend, Lehigh started slowly, and made some key mistakes early in the contest that would be killers against a solid team like New Hampshire. Finishing the game so well against Princeton was really great to see - but it will take a complete, four quarter effort to have a chance to win against the Wildcats.
Lehigh might have had a chance to sneak up and even survive a slow start against a loose, confident New Hampshire team that didn't see what was coming. They won't have that luxury this weekend.
While this week's game notes only show one change - the elevation of junior OL Troy McKenna to starting right tackle after senior OL R.J. McNamara had an ankle injury last Saturday - there's plenty of other injury news to think about.
In this week's media luncheon, head coach Andy Coen said that starting junior QB Chris Lum was held out of the first two days of practice and that he was "hoping" to get him into practice later this week. If Lum is unable to go, sophomore QB Michael Colvin, who has already had two days with the first-team offense under his belt, will be the starter and will hope to build off his solid second half vs. Princeton.
A slew of other banged-up players - notably senior NG Billy Dokousilis - returned from injury this week as well. It's not clear, however, how close to 100% they are. Princeton's physical play last weekend may mean that a bunch of Lehigh players are going to Durham a bit banged up.
You have to admit that Lehigh games this year have really lucked out weather-wise. If you're making the trek to Durham, this weekend will be no exception with a high of 75 and what should be a beautiful, unseasonably warm New England day. It should be spectacular, with the foliage just starting to turn orange, too.
For those wondering how to get to the game from the Massachusetts, Maine or Boston area, it's worth noting that taking the train couldn't be easier on the Downeaster line. The train stop is no more than 1,000 feet from New Hampshire's Cowell Stadium, and makes for a great, convenient way to travel to campus and watch the game.
A Word on New Hampshire
"Lehigh, we're looking at a way to get back into the swing of things, and get back to what we know" junior OL Will Moher said this week in UNH Athletics' video preview of this weekend's game. (which, helpfully, is embedded below).
Unhelpfully, there's quite a bit of history going against Lehigh in this week's game at New Hampshire as well. New Hampshire's game notes show there's a little fact that New Hampshire has the longest home winning streak in the last 79 years currently on the line - they've won their last ten games at Cowell Stadium. One more win will tie the all-time record at 11, set in 1929-1931. There's also the inconvenient truth that New Hampshire has won seven consecutive games against the Mountain Hawks, including a 42-27 win over Lehigh in 1996 that featured Wildcat RB Jerry Azumah, two years before he would win the Walter Payton award as the best offensive player in all of I-AA.
During the last six years, New Hampshire has mirrored the CAA's rise as possibly the elite FCS conference in the nation. Their signature, wins over FBS schools, has mirrored other CAA schools' successes over them as well, most lately James Madison's win over FBS Virgina Tech. Their playoff success over the last six years has mirrored that of the entire conference, and the Wildcats' playoff record over that span is second only to that of the Montana Grizzlies.
"New Hampshire is a team that will be bringing one of the best defenses in the country, a solid offense that doesn't make many mistakes, and one of the strongest FCS reputations over the last five years. It's going to be a huge challenge for Lehigh," I blogged during the preseason. On that score, not much has changed since August.
LFN's Drink of the Week
You're headed up to the Granite State this weekend to cheer on Lehigh, but you're worried about your carbon footprint. You want a nice, refreshing Chivas Regal on the Rocks, but you don't have time to get extra ice in Boston, or anywhere on the way. What's a dedicated tailgater to do?
Fear not. Pick up some granite drink chillers when you cross the border into New Hampshire. Not only are they locally gathered smooth, solid granite stones from the beaches of New Hampshire, they don't let water dilute the carmel finish of your Scotch as you're enjoying your tailgate. Chill them in your cooler, and when you're done, just rinse with water, dry them off, and use them again next time! Better scotch, and using less energy - what's not to love?
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, folks at the New England Trading company? You're welcome.)
Breaking Down the Wildcats
Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt called the offense of UNH head coach Sean McDonnell as a "little more spread option quarterback type than what Utah was. They'll run a triple-type option". The offense, which was devised by one-time assistant Chip Kelly (and who is the current head man at Oregon), is more spread option (with 3 wideouts and no listed fullback) than triple option, and hasn't changed a lot since those days. But it does require a mobile, athletic QB that can do a lot of different things, including run the ball effectively.
Senior QB R.J. Toman (551 yards, 4 TDs), a three-year starter, learned under Kelly and QB Rick Santos how to execute this offense, and - until last weekend - did so extremely well. A strong, solid runner that gets 10 or so touches running the ball a game, when asked to pass he's been fairly accurate, completing 65% of his passes. He probably hasn't had as much hype since he's followed in the shoes of Santos - but overall in his career he's been very solid overall in regular season play. He rarely turns over the ball more than twice in a game.
Running back in New Hampshire's offense plays a crucial role in finding holes in the spread offense and also as a receiver out of the backfield. While senior RB Sean Jellison has been playing some, a nagging turf toe injury means that sophomore RB Dontra Peters (221 yards, 3 TDs) has come in to take the rushing workload. Peters is a small, speedster back, while Jellison normally would be more of a workhorse. As always with spread offenses, though, speed is what makes it work, and Peters delivers that. Look for a lot of outside runs and screens, too, to isolate Lehigh outside the trench.
Similarly, on the receiving end New Hampshire will spread the field and offer a multitude of potential targets for Toman to throw to, giving him plenty of reads before taking off for himself. Toman's favorite targets so far have been 6'6 junior TE Chris Jeannot (19 catches, 161 yards, 1 TD) and senior WR Terrance Fox (14 catches, 160 yards, 2 TDs). Other able-bodied targets, however, will include senior WR Kevin Mason (8 catches, 68 yards), sophomore WR Joey Orlando (6 catches, 81 yards) and senior WR Chris Chandler (1 catch, 12 yards). Interestingly, aside from Jeannot New Hampshire's receiving corps is on the smaller side - but they make up for size in speed.
While head coach McDonnell didn't put the entire blame on the Wildcat "O" line, a young unit that didn't block DE Victor Adesanya was a cause for a lot of frustration from Wildcat Nation last weekend. They're young for the most part, but that doesn't mean that they're not talented: senior OL Seth Price and sophomore OL Ricky Dilma are 300 lb bookend tackles that are very good players.
"We have to play better," said coach McDonnell during Monday's CAA conference call. "We have to protect the quarterback better. ... (R.J.) was 31 for 44 (for 284 yards and two TDs). He made a bunch of great throws on different plays and ran side to side very well. When he's got time to do what he does, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league."
Expect an "O" line that has been challenged all week by the New Hampshire coaching staff.
The Wildcats play a 4-2-5 defense similar to the one Jack Sidlecki fielded a few years ago at Yale and is currently employed at, among other places, TCU. It's known for bringing a simple, multiple-look defense to play to disrupt a multitude of spread offenses, and the fifth defensive back (or "weak safety") acts as an effective tackler, blitzer, or general "speed guy" to hunt down speedy backs and receivers.
It starts, though, with a very strong defensive line, and junior DL Brian McNally (8 tackles, 1 sack) is the anchor of a tough - and somewhat crazy - defensive line. 300 lb senior DT Steve Young (7 tackles) is another tough customer on a "D" line that is short on stats - for now - but big on talent. Still, it's worth noting that Rhode Island racked up 216 yards rushing against them - a spot which, in preseason, was seen as a major strength in the defense.
New Hampshire had to replace a great LB last year in LB Sean Ware, but UNH has been able to plug in a pair of sophomores - LB Alan Buzbee (18 tackles) and LB Matt Evans (32 tackles) that have not missed a beat. They are young and relatively inexperienced, but they have very effectively blitzed and been the tackling machines they're expected to be.
Where New Hampshire really shines, though, is their stellar, speedy secondary. Senior CB Dino Vasso (9 tackles, 1 interception), senior FS Hugo Souza (20 tackles) and senior S Ryan McGuinness (18 tackles, 2 interceptions) patrol the field so well and excel at creating turnovers. Like their receiving corps, what they lack in size (average height: 5'11) they make up in speed and aggressiveness.
The Wildcats have a lot of youth on their team, and kicker is one example, where sophomore PK A.J. Delago and freshman PK Mike McArthur have booted exactly one FG apiece in their collegiate careers. It's quite unclear if the Wildcats have the type of kicking game that could deliver a long game-winning FG late in the contest. Senior P Kyle Auffray is a decent punter, however, averaging 38 yards per boot.
Senior WR Terrance Fox is a great threat on both punt returns and kick returns, with 207 return yards already and 1 TD. There are no shortage of speedy return guys on the other side of him, either, as senior FS Dino Vasso (3 returns, 38 yards) demonstrates.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Jay-Jay Is Dy-No-Mite. Senior RB Jay Campbell has to have looked at the film from the Rhode Island game and said that he and the Lehigh "O" line have to establish a good running game to have a chance at this victory. If Lehigh can get things established on the ground, it will go a long way towards a Lehigh victory.
2. Tackling in space. New Hampshire football involves screens, spreading you out and forcing your players to make plays on the outside. It will be up to senior LB Al Pierce, junior LB Tanner Rivas, junior LB Mike Groome and junior LB Colin Newton to contain those guys and make those open-field, solo tackles to prevent first downs and to keep the momentum in check.
3. Fearlessness. It's easy to say, "This is a CAA team, playoff team, FBS beaters, yadda yadda yadda." But Lehigh should not be intimidated by this matchup. If the Mountain Hawks want to win the Patriot League and taste playoff football once again, this is the kind of game that nobody should shrink from. It's a challenge that should be embraced - and a great opportunity, once again, to show that Lehigh deserves to be in the conversation in the Top 25. It's been a while, but this gives another golden opportunity to get there.
New Hampshire will be pissed. They've been rattled by their 1-2 start, and they will be out to prove a point this Saturday. The question is: has Lehigh progressed to the point yet where they can win a game like this?
Lehigh has already been improving a lot. They have shown a lot of good, especially in the second half last weekend against Princeton. And yet, the 35-0 home shutout against Villanova serves as a stark reminder that there's still a long way to go. One half does not a season make.
Lehigh can compete with New Hampshire, certainly. If they put together four quarters of football with a great gameplan, a lot fewer mistakes and a strong, loose showing, they can come away with an historic upset this weekend. But to me - at this point - it seems like the Mountain Hawks still need to grow a bit more, and get better, before they win a big game like this. They'll compete - and do Lehigh proud - but they'll fall short in the end.
Lehigh 24, New Hampshire 28