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Game Preview: FCS Playoffs, Lehigh at Northern Iowa, 11/27/2010

(Photo Credit: Matthew Putney/The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Times-Courier)

"We just ran out of gas."

Those were the terse, displeased words of UNI head coach Mark Farley this week on Panther Sports Radio, trying to put their 30-14 road loss against Western Illinois behind them.

There have been no smiles from Farley's face talking about the loss last weekend - one that Panther Nation think cost them a first-round bye in the playoffs, despite the fact that UNI are Missouri Valley Conference champions in 2010.

“We fell into the trap of showing up,” a fired-up Farley said after the game. “We’ve proven to be a solid football team if we come out and play. …We came out like it was a Saturday afternoon scrimmage and paid the price for it. You have to prepare every week and you have to play every week. You can’t just show up at these things.”

He did, however, have one smile during his recap of last week and previewing next week's matchup - that of the health of their starting quarterback, who was pulled early in the loss to the Leathernecks with an injury.

"We'll see," Farley coyly said. (more)

Farley is right about one thing - UNI has indeed proven to be a solid, scholarship football team out of the rough-and-tumble Missouri Valley Conference.

They sport a 7-4 record, with their only losses coming to FBS Iowa State, rival Southern Illinois, playoff-bound Stephen F. Austin and playoff-bound Western Illinois.

They are a near-fixture in the FCS playoffs. This appearance will be their 15th in the postseason, and their sixth under coach Farley.

They have talent - hoo boy, do they have talent. Going into last season, the Panthers boasted that they had nine players currently on NFL rosters - one more than in-state rival Iowa State, who only had eight. You may have head of their most famous alumnus, former Panther, Arena League player and certain NFL hall-of-famer QB Kurt Warner: you may also know that the NFL's Eagles also have a Panther on their roster, too, 6'7, 333 lb OL Austin Howard, who is on the depth chart and seems likely to be a fixture on the Eagles "O" line in the future.

And at home, in the exceptionally loud UNI-Dome, they are especially tough. In their four home wins this year, no visiting team has scored more than 14 points. The only team that beat them in the dome - Southland Conference champions Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks - managed only 20 offensive points against them with a team that has the No. 3 scoring offense in the country.

This game poses a huge challenge for this Lehigh football team without a doubt.

Start with the Dome. It holds 16,000 fans, but its design means that it gets incredibly loud inside. It may not be a sellout, but you can count on the fact that there will be a sizable crowd there and they will get loud when Lehigh goes on offense. Lehigh will have played in front of a bigger crowd, but they've never played in a dome before. It will be a big logistical challenge for the Mountain Hawk coaching staff.

Then, you have to look at the talent. I'll go over it below, but Farley is a master at attracting talented kids from the midwest to play in Cedar Falls. They get some high-profile transfers on occasion, but most of the time they simply out-work the folks from Iowa State and Iowa to get great football players.

And then you have to look at playoff experience. The Panthers didn't make the playoffs last year, but they did in 2008 and 2009, and for the redshirt senior class, they probably remember the national championship run in 2005 that came oh-so-close to beating Appalachian State in Chattanooga.

Home field advantage, NFL-caliber talent, and playoff experience. It will be a daunting combination for Lehigh to overcome this weekend.

Game Notes
Lehigh's game notes have one inaccuracy that I know of: junior SS John Littlejohn will not be making the trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa since he is serving a one-game suspension, per NCAA rules, for throwing a fist in the 146th last weekend. His presence will be missed in the defensive backfield and special teams: I would not be surprised at all to see senior LB Shane Ryan's role increase in the defensive backfield, and on special teams, to compensate for his being off the roster this week.

Senior DT Ben Flizack is reportedly back on the "D" line, giving Lehigh valuable bodies and depth on their 3-4 front. And considering the physical beating that Lehigh took in "The Rivalry" last week vs. Lafayette, the Mountain Hawks enter this playoff game reasonably healthy and riding a great wave of momentum.

Weather Report
Planning a trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa? Of course, the game is in the UNI-Dome, where it will be a balmy 72 degrees with zero wind, but if you're going be there early to tailgate (the parking lots open at 8:00 AM Central time), pack your winter clothes. The early forecast calls for a high of 40 degrees - and you can bet that at eight in the morning, it will be damned cold. Pack something to scrape your windshield - and bring plenty of hot sauce.

A Word on Northern Iowa
I've said my piece on the Panthers' playoff experience, tough dome, yada yada yada. It is true that UNI wins an awful lot at the dome. But it's worth breaking down their only loss at the Dome this year - the 22-20 loss to the Lumberjacks - to see if there are any hints as to how Lehigh can pull off the huge upset.

Unfortunately, the game seems like more of a statistical blip for Northern Iowa than anything else.

A missed extra point. A certain TD run off a big play - that was fumbled at the Stephen F. Austin 2 yard line in a brain-freeze sort of moment. Three Panther plays of more than 70 yards - including a 99 yard kickoff return - were UNI's only scoring on the afternoon.

The Panther defense had a heroic effort stopping the high-octane Stephen F. Austin attack in the second half - shutting them down, thanks to some great second-half adjustments. But with their athletic first-string QB out with an injury in the second half, the Panthers were unable to score even a field goal, giving the Lumberjacks with a huge, momentum-boosting road victory in a very tough place to play.

And you can see on the drive sheet that in the second half the loud crowd was taking its toll on the Lumberjack offense, which is a pass-happy team and one that relies on timing to execute. Two false start penalties and a burned timeout is testament to the effects of the Dome.

If there is something to take from this game, it's that - in the first half, anyway - Stephen F. Austin was able to get yardage in good chunks from UNI's defense and the Lumberjacks were also able to get good pressure on UNI's quarterback - getting 5 sacks, in a rare game where the visiting team were more able to get tackles for loss than the home side.

LFN's Drink of the Week
Last time I was trying to figure out a Hawkeye state-themed beverage, I had some trouble. Wanting to avoid things that might include pork (the meat of choice), eggs (the protein of choice) or risk blindness (everything else), it was tough. Originally I considered something with corn whiskey in it - for example, a "Hillbilly Highball" - but 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?

What I figured out was: if you can't find the High Life in Iowa (actually, you can, but I have a hard time advocating that type of beer), 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 purple, Panther Nation, or even blue Drake-ian, Iowan crowd. And it goes well with burgers at the tailgate and fresh corn on the cob, too!

(Besides, it worked against Drake - it might be crazy enough to work again against UNI.)

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 The Panthers
Offense

Northern Iowa runs a "pistol" offense, which is a quarterback-driven offense. It is a hybrid of the traditional shotgun and single back offenses - the QB lines up in the shotgun in the base offense, with the running back lining up behind, rather than next to, the QB. In the pistol formation, the quarterback is close enough to the line of scrimmage to be able to read the defense and far enough back to give him extra time and a better vision of the field just like in the shotgun. At the FBS level, Nevada is best known for the formation, while at the FCS level James Madison is probably its best-known practitioner outside of UNI.

That is, if their first-string QB plays.

A big game of "will he or won't he?" is the question of the week for both Lehigh and UNI fans, as the health of junior QB Tirrell Rennie, the triggerman in the pistol offense, is questioned. In two of the Panthers' losses this season, Rennie went down with injuries in the middle of the game, and in the third (vs. Southern Illinois) Rennie came out for the backup, junior QB Zach Davis, for a time during the game.

Rennie is a 6'0, 201 pound multifaceted threat that has both thrown (1,465) and ran (1,384) for over 1,000 yards, and is responsible for 22 Panther TDs. He's a real headache of a player on a multitude of levels: he's hard to bring down, has a knack for making big plays with both his arm and his feet, and despite his 8 interceptions he hasn't thrown for more than one in a game this entire year.

If Rennie isn't in the game - or is unable to go - Davis is almost the polar opposite of Rennie. He still lines up in the shotgun, but he's almost a pure pocket passer with nowhere near the wheels of Rennie on offense. He's also struggled mightily as a passer, with just over a 50% completion rate, 4 TDs and 5 interceptions.

Whomever is calling the plays at quarterback, 5'8 sophomore RB Carlos Anderson (880 yards, 2 TDs) will be the primary back out of the backfield. He's not a heavy-duty back, but what he has is serious breakaway speed, which he demonstrates either through runs, the option or on screen passes (120 yards). Anderson and Rennie frequently perform the option out of the pistol formation to devastating effect. When they need a change-of-pace, grind-it-out back, senior RB Matt Straithman (274 yards 1 TDs) plays that role.

The Panthers are not a big passing team, but they have used it for big plays all year and have done a great job of suckering defenses to stacking the box to prevent the running game and then killing them with a big pass play. Their two biggest targets are an experienced wideout - 5'9 junior WR Jared Herring (534 yards, 5 TDs) and an experienced, all League tight end in 6'7 senior TE Schuylar Oordt (405 yards, 3 TDs). Oordt, with his height, poses all sorts of problems in the linebacking unit in terms of pass coverage, and can't be ignored. Herring, with his speed, is a burner and also has ample ability to make big plays if the secondary is caught napping.

6'3 senior WR Maurice Turner (258 yards, 1 TD) is the possession guy in the offense, and while junior WR Josh Collins was out the last two weeks with an injury, 5'9 junior WR Montari Leonard (181 yards, 1 TD) has stepped in in passing situations.

UNI plays with a base two-tight end set for their running game, and their "O" line is certainly built for running the ball. All five starting "O" linemen are 300 lbs, with 6'5, 301 pound senior C Austin Zlab leading the trench guys and are key drivers for this offense, with 6'4, 262 lb senior TE Ryan Mahaffey thrown in there for good measure. This is the biggest line Lehigh will have faced all year - bar none. Not even Villanova's was bigger across the board.

Defense
Like Lafayette, UNI plays a base 4-3 and features an aggressive, blitzing team that will seek to make a lot of tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Unlike Lafayette, however, the Panthers are a champion team at stopping the run, which is the foundation of their top-rated defense.

The rock on this defensive line are junior DT Ben Boothby (47 tackles), who has 8 sacks but only has one multi-sack game since a monstrous 4-sack performance to start the year vs. North Dakota State. Senior DE Henry Obi (18 tackles) is also a sack artist with 4 1/2 in 8 games), but he has been hurt a lot this year and has split time with junior DE Will Eilert (34 tackles, 5 sacks). Junior DE Darren Branch and junior DT August Hadenfeldt round out this big, daunting unit.

At linebacker, The stats on this defensive front are evenly split - a hallmark of Mark Farley-coached teams - but they are extremely solid across the board. Senior LB Jamar Thompson (94 tackles), senior LB L.J. Fort (82 tackles, 3 interceptions) and junior LB James Conley (67 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks) are a great linebacking unit with no real weakness among them. On the outside, Conley is a good pass rusher and a solid tackler, and Fort in the middle is a really solid middle linebacker and can play run and pass support equally well.

If there's a weakness on this defense, it's at the corner, where sophomore CB Varmah Sonie (20 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble) and sophomore CB J.J. Swain (35 tackles, 1 sack) have been relatively untested. But junior SS Tre'Darrius Canady (47 tackles) and sophomore FS Andre Martin (71 tackles, 5 interceptions) have made plenty a receiver pay for going over the middle.

It's worth noting that many of the players on this defense, as good as they are, are mostly juniors. With the notable exceptions of Fort and Obi, none have played in as big a game as they will this weekend. That inexperience could factor into this weekend's game.

Special Teams
The Panther special teams unit will be the best Lehigh has encountered all season, bar none.

Senior PK Billy Halgren has been a model of consistency on extra points (32/32), and while his accuracy on FGs has not been the greatest (15/22 on the year), what is not in doubt is that his leg is terrific. Three of his makes have been more than 40 yards, and his longest was 44 yards.

Sophomore P Kyle "Don't Call Me Andy" Benard has a booming leg, good for a 43 yard average punting the ball. And those of you hoping for a break with the return games - forget it. With senior WR Jared Herring in punt returns (7.0 yard average) and sophomore RB Carlos Anderson in kickoff returns (673 yards), the Panthers have two deadly weapons on special teams that will need to be picked up. Anderson has two TDs returning kickoffs this year.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Preventing Big Plays. What scares me more than anything about the Panthers is their ability to make big plays. I'm not just talking about Rennie, either - Anderson and Herring, on either offense or special teams, both concern me a lot. If Lehigh can keep the Panthers' big plays to a minimum, the Mountain Hawks will have a chance.
2. Spreading The Field Like Butter. Lehigh junior QB Chris Lum should benefit by spreading the attack - not only through the passing game, but also through runs with senior RB Jay Campbell, too. A balanced, spread-out attack should be able to grind out some yards - that will have to be converted into points.
3. Pressure on the QB, whomever it is. It's tempting to get caught up in the "Will Rennie play, or won't he?" game. But it shouldn't affect the main goal of the defensive gameplan, which is to pressure whomever the QB is into sacks, tackles for loss and mistakes. Junior LB Mike Groome and senior LB Al Pierce will need to be at their disruptive best for Lehigh to win this game.
4. Preventing Penalties. Against Lafayette, Holy Cross and others, Lehigh has been able to overcome their seemingly inexhaustible ability to shoot themselves in the foot with untimely penalties. Against UNI, those penalties cannot happen if Lehigh hopes to win this game.

LFN's Fearless Prediction
Can Lehigh hang with the Panthers?

Lehigh's defense has proven that they can play with anyone in the country. Against "scholarship" teams or no, if this defense is given a lead to defend they can defend it with the best of them. The offense struggled mightily against defending champion Villanova (0 points) and New Hampshire (10 points), but the team is night and day different from those two losses and I think they will not be shut out. Any UNI fan that thinks any different - through their playoff-tested team, their loud dome or whatever - is fooling themselves.

I have zero doubt that Lehigh will be able to hang with the Panthers. None.

But with Rennie at 100%, this appears to be a different game for Lehigh. You try to look at it some other way, but ultimately you ends up thinking about it on those terms. With the multitude of problems that he poses to a defense, and the effectiveness the Panther offense has shown with him in the game, if he's unable to play or isn't 100% it would seem to have a deep, deep impact on the game. But I'm taking the coy statements from Mark Farley to assume that he's 100% on Saturday.

If he is in, the entire key to the game will hinge on Lehigh's ability to prevent big plays from him and force him into mistakes that Lehigh can (and must) convert into points in some way, shape or form. Rennie will be the best athlete on the field for either team - it will be the job of the entire Lehigh defense to make sure that he doesn't bust loose.

If Rennie isn't 100%, the Panthers are in trouble.

I think Lehigh can do it.

Expect a quiet dome this weekend.

Lehigh 19, Northern Iowa 16

Comments

van said…
"but they've never played in a dome before"

Actually Lehigh played in a dome at Idaho quite a few years ago. I had the unfortunate opportunity to attend that game while living in eastern WA. It was homecoming and it was really loud. And no doubt it had a big negative effect on our guys.
ngineer said…
Great write up Chuck. And, to paraphrase the lady in the diner upon watching Meg Ryan's 'exercise', "I'll have whatever you're drinking".

It's a great picture you painted, and with Western Illinois in my memory bank (and Cecchini was the OC then, I think), anything is possible. If the players can clone their Colgate performance--especially on offense--we have a shot. Keeping it close early will be very important as they get their sea legs and eardrums accustomed. Here's to a "big one."
Anonymous said…
WE ARE SO PROUD OF OUR BOYS !!!
LC#1 said…
Well, unlike your fluke Colgate game, hopefully UNI won't have two or more of their top players out.... and they'll give you the shellacking you richly deserve!
Go Lehigh TU Owl said…
I believe this is a game that Lehigh will be able to win assuming they're mentally ready. Some people are making UNI out to be the '85 Bears. I don't see that being the case. The Panthers are playing on the opening weekend for a reason, as are the other 2 MVC teams. That conference, like the PL, was down this year. Had Lehigh been paired with William and Mary, UD or App State then i would have a sense of doom and gloom, i don't get that feeling at all with UNI. Maybe the Panthers win by 50, who knows. But based on what i gather this should be a great game.

Whoever the winner is, is going to get clobbered by the Blue Chickens.
Anonymous said…
UNI is down this year. They do not have the horses they've had in the past. This is definitely a winnable game for Lehigh. Coach Farley better work some magic cause they are playing a "hungry"team....
Anonymous said…
LC #1 should be choked and beaten about the face and hands and his teeth removed one at a time with pliers after having his ear drums punctured while his family watches in horror. Have a nice day LC!
lehidude said…
LC#1, must be a Princeton fan. Why else would they be on the fan wagon?

In any event, I like our chances, with or witout this Rennie guy.
Anonymous said…
ooohh! "torture LC#1 etc. etc."...wow! nice "roid rage" , bozo! ps its only a kid's game after all, signifying nothing of importance... get a life..geesh! what a troll!
Anonymous said…
Well there's room to add you, guess I would have to plan for a little longer event and some better coordination. twice the fun though Leopard fan
Anonymous said…
How sick can one be??..well, I guess pretty much so in your case anyway...take those meds doofus!
Anonymous said…
I have passion for my team and care about them very deeply. When someone dogs them like the above pud and then you come along with your useless commentary I have to say how I feel. Quite frankly I would be much obliged and derive great pleasure out of battering the both of you in the name of Lehigh football bwahahahaha. C U Next Tuesday
observer said…
umm..yaaas...no doubt the usual 149 pounder sitting at the puter in dirty underwear dateless on yet another Friday nite feeling as "powerful" as would behind the wheel of a 3000 lb. car and exhibiting road rage to some poor little old lady....I'm sure we're all verry impressed!..lmao!!..:-))) (football as one's sense of self-worth! priceless!!!)
Anonymous said…
I would be happy to arrange a time and place for you to meet up with this dirty underwear wearin 149 lb. dateless wonder.
Anonymous said…
OOOOooooo!! What a mensch! ZZZzzzzzz...
Anonymous said…
why i oughttta
Anonymous said…
Embarrassing display of posting. Chuck runs a class operation here and I would hope he would wipe out the entirety of this childish crap.

LU is facing Delaware next week. Thats all we need to be talking about.
Anonymous said…
oh God, I have to add a third?? I had better rent a cargo van

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