Momentum. You hear a lot about it during the football season, especially when it comes to bye weeks. Teams with the momentum - and the bye - sometimes lose the focus, and come out flat after a strong start.
Interestingly, for Lehigh, bye weeks for the last six years have been all about working out issues - working out kinks after a loss. Counting the 2007 season, where Lehigh had a bye week on Week 1, for the last seven years Lehigh has had a loss entering the bye week.
After a game in New Hampshire where starter junior QB Chris Lum was unable to start with a leg injury and multiple defensive stars left the field on crutches, Lehigh's bye week also was huge in another way this time around, too: it's allowed the Mountain Hawks to get healthy after a very challenging September. (more)
In August, most Lehigh fans would have been happy with a 2-2 record coming out of September. Beating Villanova - the defending national champs - seemed like a tall order. Beating New Hampshire seemed more achievable - but on the road, more of a long shot at best. Wins against Drake and Princeton seemed more achievable, but by no means assured, especially when facing a Princeton team with an all-new offensive and defensive staff that nobody had seen play.
But going into the bye week, coach Coen - and a multitude of Lehigh fans, too - didn't seem too happy with a 2-2 record. Losing to Villanova was one thing - but getting shut out at home to them? Losing to New Hampshire was maybe to be expected - but not being able to cash in offensively on three or four golden opportunities that could have really put pressure on a Wildcat team that would lose 16-13 the following week vs. Maine?
The bye week was a chance to keep chopping wood for this team. To keep working on things - not only on offense, but also on defense where New Hampshire QB R.J. Toman torched Lehigh's defense on 3rd down two weeks ago. The defense has been impressive - they are 4th in the nation in sacks, with more than three per game, and have already forced eleven turnovers in four games - but they have still shown an alarming knack for giving up big plays, which figured heavily in the storylines of the Villanova and New Hampshire games.
In years past, the Fordham game has been a big game in terms of Patriot League conference standings. While this year it does not "count" in that way - since Fordham's scholarship class last year means they are ineligible for the Patriot League title - it still does mean a tiny bit more than just any old out-of-conference game. The Patriot League's conference tiebreaker will take into account teams' records over Fordham over their regular out-of-conference schedule, so a win here could give Lehigh an edge in the title race should the Rams, say, beat Georgetown or Colgate later in the year.
Furthermore, this game will not be easy. For the fifth weekend in a row, Lehigh will be facing off against a team with an legitimate NFL prospect. Fordham's high-octane offense has already beaten Columbia - a team which beat a CAA team (Towson) and destroyed Princeton last weekend - and Rhode Island, who upset New Hampshire right before Lehigh's trip to Durham. The Rams, on the heels of a two-game losing streak, will be looking to reverse their own losing streak at a venue where they've never won before, Murray Goodman stadium.
It's going to be a really good test for this Lehigh team - and with a trip to Cambridge against an impressive-looking Harvard team next weekend, the Mountain Hawks will need to get some good momentum to have a chance in that game - and get to more big Patriot League games later this month.
A test that Lehigh will need to ace in order to be taken seriously in the Patriot League.
The big question mark coming from Lehigh's game notes and media luncheon is in regards to the health of junior LB Colin Newton. Not listed on the depth chart (senior LB Shane Ryan is listed as the starter in his place,) Coen has nonetheless hinted that the outside linebacker may be able to play, going as far as to calling him "probable" at the Wednesday luncheon. It will be very interesting to see if he plays in Ryan's spot, and for how long - if he plays at all. If Newton cannot play, sophomore LB Jerard Gordon will back up Ryan on the outside. (If he doesn't play, it will strangely enough be a replay of last year, where he was hurt and didn't make the trip to the Bronx.)
Two other guys who were banged up against New Hampshire - senior LB Al Pierce, and senior CB/KR John "Prez" Kennedy - are, happily, in their old spots atop the depth chart, much to the relief of Lehigh Nation. Senior NG Billy Dokouslis also returns as does senior DT Phil Winett, who was also mentioned in the media luncheon as a guy who has finally come back from a multitude of injuries. His presence in the 3-4, rotated in with senior DT Ben Flizack and junior DT Andrew Knapp, will be a welcome sight and should make an already-strong front three even stronger.
Three more interesting notes to talk about: impressive freshman FB Sean Farrell, who scored his first collegiate touchdown vs. Princeton, will start this weekend, with senior FB Bryce Arruda backing him up. And another freshman has cracked the depth chart: freshman OL A.J. Hood will be backing up senior OL Will "Big Daddy" Rackley on Saturday. Junior OL Troy McKenna will be starting again at right tackle, with senior OL R.J. McNamara still, apparently, nursing an injury.
Unusually, every game this year for Lehigh has been played in near-ideal temperatures, and this weekend is shaping up to be no exception. Early reports give us a high of 76 with "mainly sunny" skies. Again, it looks like a near-ideal day for football.
I'll be at Goodman this weekend as well. Normally I get to the game just before kickoff, but this weekend I'll be heading out early to get a flavor of the tailgating going on at the stadium. I'm looking forward to it.
A Word on Fordham
In my Know Your 2010 Opponents piece this August, I wrote the following: "Fordham has a lot of existing talent to work with, and theoretically has a lot of strong talent in camp right now, thanks to football scholarships. But how will the Rams do at quarterback? And how will the third defensive coordinator in three years work out for Fordham? If Fordham finds the answers to these questions by the time they play Lehigh, they will be an awfully tough team to beat."
A month into the season, some of those questions have been answered - notably at quarterback - but one thing that is clear is that football scholarships have not been an instant answer to some of their questions. Sure, there are some members of the scholarship freshman class that have been plugged into the two deep - six of them on the depth chart for this weekend. But some of the high-profile transfers that were supposed to be game-changers for the Rams have not, to this point, been so.
In fact, Fordham looks a lot like the same type of team, so far, that Lehigh beat 35-28 last year up in the Bronx. In that game, senior RB Jay Campbell ground out 27 rushes for 155 yards and senior DB/PR Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs had a great day returning punts, notching 7 punt returns for 107 yards and adding an interception for good measure. In that game, Lehigh got an eye-popping nine sacks against future NFLer QB John Skelton and held a slender touchdown lead for most of the second half.
You could argue it was in this particular game that Lehigh learned how to win close games. Since then, they have gone 3-2 - and have won all three games after either being tied or only up one possession in the fourth quarter.
You would think that playing in the unofficial Media Capital of the World would mean that the Rams would have tons of media coverage. You might think there would be dozens of reporters at their practices, and (like in Philadelphia) there would be a weekly press conference covering all the Division I football teams in the area, perhaps occurring at Dominc's down the street.
If you thought that, though, you'd be wrong. In a media market dominated by two pro baseball teams (one of which is almost always in the postseason), two pro football teams, two pro hockey teams and one pro basketball team, Fordham struggles for any sort of coverage even from their own school newspaper. Getting updates from Rose Hill is sometimes a challenge.
Also, just linking the Rams to Tuesday's piece about Boston University and Northeastern, Fordham's head coach, Tom Masella, happened to be the final head coach - for now - of the Boston Terriers after Boston University pulled the plug on their program in 1997. It's sort of a blip on Masella's long and interesting coaching career, but he is still a part of that history.
LFN's Drink of the Week
I'm not sure I'm known for being superstitious, but let's face it - I am superstitious. If you see a guy around Murray Goodman touching the bell every time he goes by the Lehigh bench, that's me. So if something works for a close win last year, I'm probably going to continue the same tradition in the name of superstition.
Last year, a wet day in the Bronx called for a "Bronx Iced Tea": rum, cointreau, vodka, tequila, gin, lemon juice & cola. This year? Despite the fact that the weather report calls for crystal clear skies and a perfect day for football, lets' do it again: a round of "Bronx Iced Teas" for everyone. One will make you forget why you came; two, well, I don't know anyone who's been able to polish off two, so I can't say.
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, for the fine folks at Cointreau in Angers, France? Call me. I'd be happy to promote more of your fine products for a mere all-expenses-paid trip to Angers for three weeks in May.)
Breaking Down the Rams
Fordham's offense has described as a "run-and-shoot" sort of offense before, but with the popularity these days of the spread offense, it's now being called what it was all along: the spread. Strictly speaking, there is no tight end (instead there are "W", "X", "Y" and "Z" receivers), but each have different, multiple functions. The "Y" functions mainly as a tight end, but also doubles up as a running fullback in certain situations. The "W", "X", and "Z" slots can be considered recievers, and ones that spread the field - but, again, they can also be brought back on reverses as well. The idea is to spread the field and go athlete vs. athlete with a teams' linebackers and secondary - much like Princeton, and New Hampshire, have already tried to do this year against Lehigh.
Yet Masella has also said his offense is "struggling to find an identity" - not making plays on 3rd down, for example, to put away Holy Cross last weekend. You can bet Masella was emphasizing that this week in practice.
Junior QB Blake Wayne could not be more different than QB John Skelton in this offense - but in ways, Wayne, a speedy 5'10, 182 lb signalcaller, is better suited for the spread than Skelton was. Wayne leads the team in rushing (364 yards) and has scored 4 TDs on the ground as well as 4 TDs through the air. He evokes more former Appalachian State QB Armanti Edwards than Skelton, and will constantly be a threat to take off with the ball. Last week against Holy Cross, he became the first Ram QB ever to rush for 100 yards in a game. "I'm more comfortable but I'm still learning," Wayne said to the Ram last weekend.
In an ideal world, Wayne will get an early lead, and get the offense in a balanced rushing attack with himself and speedy 5'9 senior RB Xavier Martin (352 yards, 4 TDs) running through the gaps that the spread offense gives them, and playing a short, high-percentage passing game to move the ball. Of Fordham's weaknesses, scoring points out of the spread is not one of them. Wayne has turned over the ball a few times, however - more than 1 per game so far.
The go-to guy in this receiving corps is Mr. S, senior WR Jason Caldwell (445 yards, 1 TD) and a pre-season all-American. The Rams will look to isolate him 1-on-1 as much as they can, as they will the "Y/Tight End", senior WR Stephen Skelton (117 yards, 2 TDs) and brother of that other Skelton playing in the NFL you may have heard of. Skelton at 6'5 still causes particular nightmares underneath for defensive coordinators, and any one of the other speedy lettered backs, like senior WR David Moore (122 yards) and senior WR Patrick Miller (78 yards) also can pose problems. 6'2 junior WR Brandon Anderson, getting the start this weekend at the "X" spot, might also be worth following as well.
Fordham, who lost two mammoth linemen from last year, boast a young group overall anchored by senior OL Adnan Vandyk. Overall, they've done a good job making holes for Fordham's run game and protecting Wayne, and have only allowed 5 sacks all year.
The Rams play a multiple defense with a 3 man front, alternating between the 3-4 and 3-5-3 stack defenses. In their last two games, however, a rash of injuries have left them extremely vulnerable defensively. That is evident from their giving up 36 points to Holy Cross and 30 points to Division II Assumption, respectively, and over 500 yards of offense against a Crusader team that had problems scoring points before last weekend.
Listed on the depth chart is junior DT Patrick McGee, who did not play against Assumption or Holy Cross and will provide the Rams with some desperately-needed depth in that area. 296 lb freshman NG Justin Yancey will anchor this banged-up unit that has struggled this year to hold the line in their last two games.
At linebacker, senior LB Nick Mageria (31 tackles) anchors this active unit with senior LB Bryson Wilson (27 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 3 passes defended), and junior LB Nick Womack returns to the two-deep after missing the last two games as well. Most notably, a front unit that had developed a reputation for playing aggressively and getting many tackles for loss has not been very effective at all this year: with only 19 all year, they rank 108th out of 125 teams in FCS.
The Rams secondary, led by junior SS Isa Abdul-Quddus (41 tackles), has also struggled, with not a single interception all season so far, which may also explain the move to a 3-5-3 at times this year. With twin upperclassmen brothers in the backfield, senior CB Jamal Haruna and senior CB Ahmed Haruna, they are experienced, however, and may not stay interception-free for long.
Sophomore P/K Patrick Murray last year wrestled the starting job away last year as a freshman and has been a real weapon offensively, averaging 42 yards per punt (leading the Patriot League, technically) and has made 14/15 extra points and 6/9 FG tries. He's got a leg and a half, which is worth remembering.
Sophomore RS Zach Crosby and senior RB Xavier Martin are a solid, speedy tandem returning kicks, and senior WR Patrick Miller is a very good punt returner too, though none have broken one for a touchdown yet this year. (Senior WR David Moore has also returned punts this year.) On kickoffs in particular, this will be an area to watch, as both Martin and Crosby are very solid.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Keeping Your Books Balanced. The key to getting Lehigh's offense rolling should be balance, balance, balance, with senior RB Jay Campbell and sophomore RB Zach Barket grinding out yards in bunches and junior QB Chris Lum dissecting things with precision passes. Holding onto the ball - and winning the time-of-possession battle - will be huge in this game.
2. Tackling in space. I said this last week, too, but with another spread team this will continue to be a point of emphasis. On special teams, and on defense, Fordham will attempt to make this an athlete vs. athlete game, and Lehigh will have to match them with solid tackling in space to keep from making positive gains into huge plays.
3. 3rd Down Conversions. On both sides of the ball, this should play a huge part in this game. On defense, denying the Rams on 3rd down will be crucial in getting momentum for any sort of Lehigh victory. On offense, converting those 3rd down plays will keep time of possession in Lehigh's favor. If Lehigh converts better on 3rd down than Fordham, they should win this game.
The bye week came at a great time for Lehigh. It came when a slew of starters needed time to get better from injuries, and it came after a loss where many lessons were learned. It's how Lehigh got better after these lessons which holds the key to this game this weekend.
It's no secret that Fordham can score. Holy Cross knew that. Assumption knew that. They both won by grinding out yards against the Ram defense and keeping Wayne and the offense off the field. Lehigh will have to take a page out of their playbooks in order to have a chance to do the same thing this weekend.
Will Lehigh's offense be up for the challenge? The possibility is there that they will - certainly a healthy Chris Lum will help immensely. The chance is here for Lehigh to make a large step towards showing the rest of the FCS world that they're ready to contend for the Patriot League championship. I think they take that big step.
Lehigh 38, Fordham 26