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Game Preview: Villanova at Lehigh, 9/11/2010

(Photo Credit: andrew7459, Flickr)

So what's better if you're a Lehigh fan?

It sure seemed like most Lehigh fans were hoping for Villanova to hold onto the "Mayor's Cup" against FBS Temple last Friday - hoping that the Wildcats would be coming into Murray Goodman stadium brimming with confidence - and perhaps overlooking the home team with the new uniforms.

Instead, Lehigh will be receiving a Villanova team that coulda, woulda, shoulda beat a vastly improved Temple team - and could be looking for an FCS team to be a punching bag to reclaim their No. 1 ranking - which was inexplicably stripped from them when they lost after leading the Owls the great majority of the game last weekend.

But which is better?  A Wildcat team brimming with confidence after yet another win over Temple?  Or a team that cannot afford to start the year 0-2 and needs to reclaim momentum?  (more)

"It was one of those nights where it was extremely warm, humidity was high, and that always hurts the [FCS] team," head coach Andy Talley said in the CAA coaches' teleconference this week.  "because you sort of run out of gas at the end.  We actually dominated the first half of the game, but you started to see it slip away a little bit in the second half.  We had plenty lot of opportunities to win it: defensively we played real well.  We had our chances to win it at the end, it's just one of those things where you're in a big-time game that comes down to the last couple of seconds."

Listening to the teleconference, it's clear that Talley was not at all disappointed by his team's performance.  Coming from a guy who once considered full-pad practice for his squad the day after Lehigh upset the Wildcats 31-28 four years ago, that's saying something.

And if you think about it, it makes sense.  Sure, there's some Philadelphia bragging rights at stake with a game versus a local FBS opponent, but hey, Temple is an FBS opponent.  The loss to them doesn't damage your chances of playoff contention, winning the CAA, or anything.  In a lot of ways, it's just an elaborate preseason match against a team with advantages - that they were expected to lose, and did.  There's a reason who App State over Michigan and Jacksonville State over Ole Miss do not happen very often.  It's hard to beat FBS schools.

And yet... Villanova beat this team last year.  While Temple is a MAC team and are much better than they were in recent memory with their first 8-3 record and first bowl appearance since forever, they're still many steps behind, say, Penn State and Florida in the pantheon of college football teams.  The truth is that the gap between non-BCS teams and the top flight of FCS is very, very small.  And it's a game that Villanova should have won.  They had it.

In a way, though, the question is academic.  1-0 Lehigh will be facing off this weekend against an 0-1 team - one that is justifiably pissed about letting the game get away from Temple last Friday.  They also happen to be - on my Top 25 ballot, anyway - the No. 1 team in the country.  They're also the defending national champions, boast almost all the key ingredients from the team that walloped Lehigh 38-17 last year, and will bar none be Lehigh's toughest challenge on the year.

This gives the Lehigh coaches and players the opportunity of their careers.

It gives the chance for Lehigh to pull off the biggest upset in their history: bigger than the 13-12 win over Army in 1983, bigger than the last-second FG that beat Richmond 24-23 in Lehigh's first-ever win in the I-AA playoffs in 1998 - and would be the biggest  win at Murray Goodman Stadium history, too, eclipsing the thrilling 27-24 overtime win over Hofstra in the I-AA playoffs in 2001.

It could also do something else: make Murray Goodman into a loud, vociferous home-field advantage for the home team for the rest of the year.  There could be no better way to get everyone - the student body, the folks in the Bethlehem area, Delaware fans, everyone - behind this team this year.

Is it possible?  Is it even worth dreaming about?  Beating the No. 1 team in the country?  Really?

Game Notes
The game notes from Lehigh came with the sobering realization that senior FB Jaren Walker, who had a serious leg injury during the Drake gameand senior LB Troy Taylor, who was injured in practice the week before Drake, have finished their collegiate playing careers.  Walker, who had a lot of promise this year after shifting to fullback, and Taylor, who was expected to compete for first team all-Patriot League at linebacker, were true football players that will be missed this season.

Replacing Taylor is junior LB Mike Groome, who had a very solid day starting in his place in Des Moines (7 tackles, 1/2 sack),  and staring in place of Walker is junior FB Bryce Arruda, the blocking fullback.  Sophomore LB Billy Boyko and freshman FB Sean Farrell jump up the depth chart this week to back them up.

Also not present in the two-deep is sophomore TE Jamel Haggins, who also had a tough knock last weekend as well.  The status of his leg injury is not known, but what is known is that junior TE Mark Wickware replaces him.

It's not said very often, but a testament to this coaching staff that there is enough solid depth to be able to work around these injuries.  Not many teams can lose a Taylor and have a Groome there to take their place.

Weather Report
Saturday's weather is shaping up to be a perfect fall day, with highs in the upper 70s and few clouds in the forecast.  It could mean a really large walkup crowd for the game, and with a strong Villanova contingent could also mean a packed stadium.  My advice: get to the game early.

A Word on Villanova
"The 38-17 defeat was not a surprise to a lot of people, but it was striking to see the Mountain Hawks line up against what we want to be someday," I said after last year's game. "Lehigh got to look up close at a team that could very well win the national championship in FCS this year. The Wildcats didn't play the cleanest game in the world, but it was more than enough to put away the Mountain Hawks who fall to 0-2."

The defeats to Villanova the last two years were both kickstarted by defensive plays returned for touchdowns.  Two years ago, Wildcat LB Osayi Osunde stripped a ball from QB J.B. Clark and returned it for a touchdown, and last year when RB Jaren Walker laid the rock on the ground after an apparent injury, freshman DE Marlon Johnson scooped it up and posted a crushing touchdown, giving the Wildcats an insurmountable 24-7 lead.

Junior QB Chris Lum actually got his first significant game action against Villanova last year, and scored the last touchdown in the game for Lehigh.  It was the game where he got into the conversation about becoming the starting quarterback - which has led to this moment for him this Saturday.

Villanova (6,335 undergraduates: Villanova, PA) has known only one head coach since resuming football in 1985: Andy Talley, well-known in the Philadelphia area for quite some time, but now that he's won the national championship and the AFCA National Coach of the Year honors last year, he's become more of a coach with national recognition.  (Matter of fact, a couple of days after the Lehigh game, Talley and his football team will be visiting President Obama at the White House in recognition of their championship.)

Talley is a master of the press conference.  When one finishes listening to him, you get the impression no matter how talented his Wildcat team is that the opposing team will be some sort of massive challenge for his team to overcome.   If you listen to his interview on the CAA website, you won't hear a thing that Lehigh will  be able to use as bulletin-board material.  In the past, I've tended to hear a lot about Lehigh's Patriot League championships and great traditions, and not a thing about the Mountain Hawks' weaknesses or sub-par out-of-conference record.

There are a lot of links between Lehigh, Villanova, coach Talley, and coach Coen. In 2002, 2004 and 2005, when Coen was Penn's offensive coordinator, the Quakers gave Villanova some true battles as that "Big 5"-inspired football rivalry was rekindled by the Wildcats. The last two games coach Coen was involved with were nailbiting games going down to the final seconds that Penn barely lost (16-13 in 2004, 28-24 in 2005).

Sadly, this game will be the last in a four-game series between the nearby FCS schools.  Here's hoping that Lehigh and Villanova will be facing off against each other again soon, because, quite frankly, I have throughly enjoyed these games.  So have the Lehigh players, who were ready to line up against Villanova last March.  "We see it as a privilege," senior CB Jarard Cribbs said back then. "We take it as a challenge, they’ll probably be ranked No. 1. We hope to go in there and beat them, we don’t plan to go in there and lay down."

"I’m ready for it, let’s do it," senior RB Jay Campbell said as well. "Bring the champs, it’s all good. Let’s go."

LFN's Drink of the Week
Seeing that Nova will be heading to see President Obama this weekend, might I suggest a new drink that would ease the Wildcat's jaunt to Washington with an 0-2 record: the Obama-Rama Martini.  Sort of a grape martini with every ingredient Obama-themed, it's a bit sweet, and a bit strong - follow the link to see how it's made, since I don't think I could recreate the rationale behind the drink accurately even if I tried.  What I do know is that it will take several of these to ease the pain for the Wildcats after they play Lehigh this Saturday.

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.

Breaking Down The Wildcats
While the book on Villanova would be that they run a "multiple" offense, they primarily run a spread-style offense and also run a fair amount of plays in the "Wildcat" formation. (No word if it's Villanova where it was invented, but I believe it is.)  Aside from the "Wildcat" and their spread offense, what you need to know is that Villanova's offense will do their best to put teams off balance with a dizzying number of offensive variations.

In the "Wildcat", there are different types of splits and formations involving direct snaps to the running back, backfield motion, and sometimes even putting two quarterbacks on the field and sending one in motion.  It's unpredictable and difficult to key on.

Even so, the quarterback is still, for the most part, the guy that the defense will be focused on, and Villanova's, senior QB Chris Whitney, is one of the best in the nation.  Whitney epitomizes guts and determination as a QB - he's not always the prettiest passer or the fastest runner, but when he needs to get a ball somewhere he gets it there.  He's also built like a linebacker, so he's difficult to bring down when he's running.

This may not be as much as a key as in years past, however.  "We tried not to run him too much against Temple," Talley said, "because we only have a true freshman (freshman QB Dustin Thomas) backing him up.  With Chris, we felt like we wanted to keep him as healthy as possible because he's been laboring with a bad back all summer."  If that's true, and Whitney will be running less than last year, that will help Lehigh.

Of course, if Whitney gets hurt or is unable to go, Talley could always line up Mr. Everything, senior WR Matt Szczur, at quarterback as well.  Out of the Wildcat, Szczur gets lots of direct snaps and completes passes - and was the MVP of last year's FCS National Championship game.  (Against Temple, he "only" had 235 all-purpose yards running, passing, receiving, and returning kickoffs and punts.)  He's such a dangerous player receiving the ball and running the ball, with his hands and speed - why not as backup QB, too?  Like Whitney, he's also pretty big and difficult to bring down as well.  He's the complete package.

Szczur - and the way head coach Andy Talley uses him - causes nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.  Oddly for a player that gets so much focus before a game, he doesn't get a lot of touches during a game.  Against Lehigh last year, he had nine touches - granted, he did have over 100 yards rushing - and on average during the season in 2009 he averaged ten touches per contest.  But he could get a lot more now, especially if Whitney is hurt or is hurting - something worth looking at this weekend.

And it's not like the offense is only the Whitney/Szczur show, either.  While the Wildcats do rotate running backs, senior RB Aaron Ball (9 carries, 45 yards, 1 TD) and senior RB Angelo Babbaro (6 rushes, 34 yards) are fast, almost interchangable backs who can zip through the "O" line at any time as a threat for a touchdown run.  Stop them and Szczur, and junior WR Norman White - stepping in seamlessly for WR Brandyn Harvey, who played the role so well last year - kills you with catches, whose 8 catch, 69 yard, 1 TD effort last Friday was a real eye-opener.  White will be a guy to watch on Saturday for sure.

What makes this all click is a fantastic "O" line, anchored by 320 lb senior OL Ben Ijalana, widely respected as an NFL prospect and one of the best offensive linemen in all of FCS.  Nova has an offensive line with a bunch of "jumbo" hogs, and when you add 280 lb senior TE Chris Farmer to that line, you have a daunting challenge to get pressure on the quarterback and sealing those rushing lanes.

Villanova is a combination of a humongous "O" line for protection and speed from every skill position on offense.  They are really daunting on paper.

Villanova one again brings the 3-3-5 stack defense that is also employed at, among other places, FBS West Virginia. The stack defense is used to leverage speed and to use it to combat other spread offenses.  Teams that use it have loads of speed on their own, too, since it requires sound tackling, complicated blitzing and solid safety coverage to execute well.  Last year, no team in FCS executed the 3-3-5 better than Villanova.

With sophomore DE Marlon Johnson being lost for the year with a torn MCL, Lehigh may have caught another break as their entire "D" line will be composed of players that did not start last year.  That doesn't mean that there's no talent or experience on their front three, however: 305 lb senior NG Thomas Weaver is the perfect linchpin for the 3-3-5 in the middle, and speedy senior DE Mario Jonhson (2 tackles, 1 pass break-up) will certainly be strong players in the trench.

Linebacker will feature a daunting trio as well: underrated senior LB Marquis Kirkland (10 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss), senior LB Anthony Johnson (2 tackles, 1 sack), and the preseason defensive player of the year in the CAA, senior LB Terence Thomas (10 tackles).  Their job is to tackle extremely well and provide plenty of disruptive blitzes, something they have always executed solidly and performed exceptionally against Temple.

At safety - which doubles as a blitzing linebacker often in the 3-3-5 - Villanova also has plenty of senior leadership in senior FS Fred Maldonado and senior SS John Dempsey, who recovered a fumble to very nearly give Villanova the victory last Friday.  If there's a weakness in this 3-3-5, its the youth at the corners, where junior CB James Pitts (11 tackles) was picked on a bit last weekend.

Special Teams
While sophomore PK Nick Yako missed two big field goals last weekend, he's proven time and again he can make the big field goal, connecting on the game-winner against Temple last year and a 41 yarder last Friday.  Those hoping to see an advantage in field position in the punting game will not be happy to see that junior P Dominic Scharnecchia averaged 50 yards per punt last Friday.  No, that's not a typo.

Szczur is incredibly dangerous retuning kicks, and he very nearly returned a couple back for the Wildcats in Week One.  Angelo Babbaro is another incredibly speedy back who is very dangerous - so the kickoff return unit will be a very, very dangerous unit for Lehigh to cover.  On punts last weekend Szczur was the primary return man, but it seems likely that junior WR/RS Dorian Wells will be the one returning kicks instead.

Keys to a Lehigh Victory
1. Cleanliness is next to win-liness.  Mistakes have killed Lehigh in the past against this team, and this year this is doubly, or triply, true.  Lehigh's game will not be perfect, but keeping penalties and miscues at a minimum will be the cornerstone of any possible Lehigh victory on Saturday.  It has to be a clean game.
2. Containing the blitz.  Villanova blitzes early, often and from everywhere.  The blitz pickup guys, on the "O" line, TE and H-Back, will be crucial to give junior QB Chris Lum some time to work.  Again, if senior OL Will Rackley, senior OL Ricky Clerge and the rest of the "O" line can give Lum the time he needs to get going, that will be crucial.
3. Special Teams Containment.  There will be no better special teams return unit we will see all year, so it is crucial that the Mountain Hawks swarm to the ball and wrap up the tackles.  It will be important that Lehigh win, or at least tie, the Wildcats on special teams, and preventing huge returns is a large part of that.
4. Scout's Honor.  The motto on defense has to be: be prepared for anything.  Part of Villanova's game is to keep the defense on the back foot, reacting, and guessing.  It will take smart play on the defense to slow them down and keep the Wildcat from getting a rhythm: and I know this Lehigh team is capable of doing it.

Fearless Prediction
It's real easy to read into the Temple game last week and see them as a vulnerable team, especially if you listen to Talley's press conference.  Do not be fooled.  They may be banged up and have some questions to answer, but the reality is they have a lot more answers than questions.

The pressure is off Lehigh this week: they truly come into this game with nothing, really, to lose.  Little is expected of them nationally; nobody is predicting them to win.  On paper, Villanova is a daunting team: the class of FCS football last year, and there's no reason to believe they're still not the No. 1 team in the nation.  Just take a peek at their roster.  It's obvious.

We will learn, however, what this Lehigh team is made of.  What this team can be.  How this team will battle this year; how they'll match up against the best team and some of the best players in the country.

Lehigh needs to play a clean, well-executed game to win.  They'll need to fight extremely hard, and they will need to win a close game if they hope to pull this out.  I think Lehigh is a better team now than they were last year - and we'll see that as the year goes along.  But they haven't learned how to win a game like this yet.

Villanova 34, Lehigh 21  


ngineer said…
Very nice overview of the game. You note a key, being the 'nova blitzes. If the line can give Lum just enough time to see the blitz and hit the hot receiver, we could break some big gainers with our multiple WRs this year. Kickoff coverage needs to improve a lot from last week. With Sczcur returning, they have to plan to not allow special teams to set the table. If Lehigh can keep this close in the fourth quarter, the place could really be rockin' and then, who knows what.
LU '89 said…
Saw the 'Nova game last week. They looked like the better team for the majority of the game - but they couldn't handle Temple's power running attack in the second half and the Owls had one burner receiver that caused them severe matchup problems. Overall, they were very solid and I didn't see anything obvious that we can exploit.

Bottome line: Not expecting much from LU this weekend and would be pleased with the predicted 2 TD margin, presuming that it remains competitive throughout. Saw last year's matchup in the rain, and we were not remotely competitive.

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