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Game Preview: FCS Playoffs, Lehigh at Delaware, 12/4/2010: Breakdown And Fearless Prediction

(Photo Credit: William Bretzger/The Delaware News-Journal)

Yesterday, I broke down the "Blue Route Rivalry" in terms of the players' views on the game, and the long and storied rivalry that has been Lehigh and Delaware through the years.

But it's not going to be Tubby Raymond or John Whitehead on the sidelines this weekend - it's K.C. Keeler and Andy Coen on the sidelines for the Hens and Hawks this time, and the dynamic count not be more different.  Rather than smack, it's all about mutual respect and the "challenge" of playing Delaware.

In this Part 2 of the playoff preview, I'll start with an extended breakdown of the Blue Hens, and then end with my (patent pending) fearless prediction of the game this weekend. (more)


Breaking Down the Blue Hens
The Head Coach
When K.C Keeler came to Delaware in 2002 from Division III Rowan to take over the vacant head coaching position in Newark, he didn't just become only the fourth Blue Hen head football coach in the last fifty years.

He came with the baggage of following a superstar, Tubby Raymond, for starters. Add to that the fact that Tubby was his former coach - and active within the program - made it an even bigger challenge.

"When I got recruited out of high school, Lehigh was one of my choices," Keeler told Keith Groler of the Morning Call. "Coach [John] Luckhardt, who is now the coach at California of Pa., was on Lehigh's staff. He recruited me and I nearly went to Lehigh because of him. And, of course, I have a lot of friends who are Lehigh grads."

But to top it all off, the first thing K.C. wanted to do when he got to Newark was to scrap the Wing-T offense that Tubby helped to make famous.

No pressure, K.C. Just go into a legendary program, take over for the College Football hall-of-fame legend that is still around the program, and change everything. Simple, right?

The guy nicknamed "Corey Hart" (the 80s star who wears his sunglasses at night, as coach Keeler is known to wear his trademark sunglasses anytime during the day or night) hasn't seen complete, total success as head coach of the Blue Hens - but no other human being could have navigated the pitfalls of taking over for a legend so well.

All this, and he appeared in two national championship games - winning one of them in 2003 - to boot. Thanks to his success - a 71-41 record since taking over for Raymond - he recently signed a contract extension keeping him in Delaware until 2017.

Like Raymond, Keeler is a celebrity, needing to hire an agent to keep his speaking engagements in check. “There was a huge crowd in the back of the store waiting for them to get the [2003 championship] stuff out of the boxes," he reportedly said after their championship win. "We were looking at stuff and all of a sudden they saw me. They started congratulating me. Pretty soon, there's a person standing in front of me with a Sharpie and a championship hat. 'I'm getting this for my grandfather, and it would be great to have it signed by you,' he said. I signed it, and before you knew it, a long line had formed. I was there signing stuff for two hours.”

Even though he's a celebrity at home, he's a down-to-earth guy away from the sidelines. He seems to be friends with Lehigh's head coach in the offseason, according to Groller's article. (Even so, a possible sub-plot to the game this weekend could be: Glitz vs. Grit.)

He's managed to succeed at Delaware by becoming a fantastic recruiter - for both local talent and high-impact transfer students, like QB Joe Flacco, who is now the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens - and installing his no-huddle, spread offense in Newark. At the same time, he's managed to pull together a fantastic defense as well. It's not all about scholarships: Keeler is the architect of a team that brings in a whole lot of great football players.

Offense
The Blue Hen offensive attack is similar to Appalachian State's offense in that it's a spread attack, but it's more of a combination spread/ball control attack rather than the Mountaineer's "we'll score anytime, anyplace, anywhere" type of offense. For a defensive coordinator, you have the worst of both worlds: the spread attack that causes matchup problems, and the ball control aspect that wears down the defense.

Oh yeah, there's also the former Parade All-American, the one-time blue chip recruit for Penn State, who will be calling the shots on the field, too.

Senior QB Pat Devlin (2,158 yards passing, 15 TDs) has a lot of strengths, but the two biggest strengths you need to know about are his accuracy passing (67% completion percentage, including more than 75% completion percentage in four of his last five games) and his ability to prevent mistakes (only two interceptions on the year - both negligent factors in the games in which they occurred - and zero lost fumbles on the year). And with Devlin, his accuracy suffered earlier in the year when he had a cast on his non-throwing hand. Since that's healed, he's only gotten better.

He's a tough competitor, can pass extremely well on the run, and - like QB Peyton Manning in the NFL - is given a lot of leeway in making decisions and finding tendencies. And don't forget that he can run, too - at 6'4, 222 lbs, he can be tough to bring down as well. He's not going to dazzle you with his speed, but he's far from a pure pocket passer.

Lehigh radio host Matt Markus recently described Devlin as "QB John Skelton's physical gifts with QB Dominic Randolph's football IQ. That's an awfully daunting combination for anyone who remembers both the Fordham and Holy Cross signalcallers from last year.

Villanova QB Chris Whitney was one thing: Devlin is another level entirely.

Devlin's ability to distribute the ball to a multitude of different receivers in his three-receiver, spread attack is exemplary. Six different receivers have caught touchdown passes from Devlin, and there's no one receiver to key on since Devlin is so good at distributing the ball. Sophomore WR Nijha White (516 yards, 4 TDs) has been Devlin's "top" receiver this year, but there's no shortage of targets: there's possession receiver junior WR Mark Schenauer (), and burners senior WR Phillip Thaxton (431 yards, 4 TDs) and sophomore WR Rob Jones (354 yards, 2 TDs) as well. 6'5 senior WR Tommy Crosby (310 yards, 1 TD) can pose matchup problems too, as does 6'4 junior TE Colin Naugle (131 yards, 1 TD).

Oh yeah, there's that 1,000 yard running back, too.

5'11 freshman RB Andrew Pierce is what has made Delaware's spread offense into something that is fiendishly tough to contain. While his best days running the ball came earlier in the season (a 200 yard running day vs. Duquesne leaps to mind), he still managed 1,149 yards rushing and 14 TDs - and is a real threat catching the ball out of the backfield, too, with 159 yards receiving and 3 TDs. In Delaware's only two losses this season, speedy "A.P." was limited to under 70 yards rushing and under 100 all-purpose yards - which seems a prerequisite for success if you hope to stop the Blue Hen offense.

Backing up Pierce this year are two other backs: 6'1 sophomore RB Leon Jackson (290 yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore RB David Hayes (347 yards, 3 TDs). Neither got a carry in the season-ending game vs. Villanova, but one of both might get some time spelling Pierce if Delaware chooses to grind out the clock using the running game at some point.

Delaware's "O" line is smaller than Northern Iowa's - which is a good thing. However, the Blue Hens athletic linemen need to be able to be extremely mobile in Keeler's spread formation, so this is less of an advantage than you might think. Senior OL Kevin Uhll is the most experienced of this group. Worthy of mention, too, is that this group is also averaging giving up more than one sack a game to Devlin, including five in their loss to William & Mary. Pressure on the quarterback will also be huge in trying to contain this offense.

Defense
You can make the case about the Delaware offense that aside from Devlin, the Blue Hens are a young team that have never been in this type of situation before. You cannot say this about Delaware's formidable, solid 4-3 defense, which is laden with senior talent and does not appear to have any big weakness to exploit. They are the No. 1 scoring defense in FCS this year (only giving up 11.89 points a game, on average), and they are No. 3 in total yardage allowed (267.82 yards per game).

Surprisingly, they do so with a front seven that does not get a lot of sacks. Senior DT Siddiq Haynes (27 tackles, 2 sacks) and senior DT Junstin Johnson (15 tackles) do a fine job blocking the interior, while junior DE Chris Morales (25 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) and junior DE Michael Atunrase (35 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) are effective bookends as well. Worse for Lehigh, there is depth on their "D" line that they rotate in and out, keeping this big, athletic front four fresh.

The linebacking unit is headlined by senior LB Matt Marcorelle (67 tackles, 1 interception), but junior LB Andrew Harrison (73 tackles) and junior LB Paul Worrilow (73 tackles) are effective tackling machines as well. There's nothing subtle about these guys, and they don't take a lot of risks in terms of blitzing - they say, "Try to get the short yards against us," and they respond with plenty of hard hitting and solid tackling.

That's because the secondary that Delaware brings to the game could be the best that Lehigh has encountered all season.

The bookend corners senior CB Anthony Walters and senior CB Tyrone Grant have combined for 111 tackles and 8 interceptions. And if you're thinking the safeties will offer some room for Lehigh receivers, think again. Senior SS Anthony Bratton (66 tackles, 2 interceptions) is a crushing presence underneath (and a potential NFL prospect), and senior FS Darryl Jones (68 tackles, 2 interceptions) is also a punishing player as well who makes life miserable for opposing receivers. This secondary is going to be extremely tough to crack.

Special Teams
Senior P Ed Wagner (40.3 yards per punt) has a solid leg in the punting department, while sophomore PR Rob Jones averages a decent 6.5 yard per return, giving the Blue Hens an above average punt return and cover unit. Senior KR Phillip Thaxton only averages 21 yards per return, and hasn't broken any this year for touchdowns yet.

Sophomore PK Mike Perry has been a weak point for the Blue Hens this year - missing four extra points (32/36) and converting 15/20 on FGs, though he did convert on a 47 yarder versus James Madison. Most Blue Hen fans remember him for missing a 44 yard FG against William & Mary, however, that ultimately led to a 17-16 loss to the Tribe and the loss of an outright CAA championship.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Steady, Steady Hands. It would be nice to force multiple Blue Hen turnovers, but you can't count on it happening. With that in mind, junior QB Chris Lum is going to have to play his best, as close to error-free as possible game in order to have a chance at the victory. That goes for senior RB Jay Campbell, sophomore WR Ryan Spadola and the rest of the offense too: keep the errors to a minimum.
2. Our Pierce is Better Than Your Pierce. The defense this year has been lights-out by swarming to the ball and making opposing QBs pay when they stay in the pocket. Senior LB Al Pierce and junior LB Mike Groome will have to do so again to Devlin and "that other Pierce". If they get three sacks of Devlin - and the other Pierce is under 100 all-purpose yards in this game - I like Lehigh's chances.
3. Field Goal Blocks. With senior CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs's field goal block and strong push on field goal attempts, there could be an advantage on this unit for Lehigh this week. Some good push in forcing field goal blocks or misses could loom huge in this defensive-minded game. I'd like to see a block, or a forced miss, somewhere in this game - it could be huge.
4. Keep This Thing Within One Score. What Delaware is looking for in this game - more than anything - is a two-score lead, early if possible. Every second in this game that Lehigh hangs around is a potential cause for Blue Hen worry - and the pressure on their team will be immense. The more pressure on the Hens late in the game, the better chance Lehigh has to steal the victory.

LFN's Fearless Prediction
In Week Two, Lehigh faced the defending national champions at near-full strength in a 35-0 blowout home loss. The game this weekend will be equal in terms of the challenge of that game.

But this is not going to be a repeat of the 2000 playoff blowout, or a repeat of the 40-0 shutout of the 2003 national championship game against Colgate. Delaware will not score 40 points on this defense.

This is a different Lehigh team than the one that suited up in Week Two, and the nation will see that this Saturday, win or lose.

Lehigh has real momentum going into this game, too. They're undefeated since October. They've improved in leaps and bounds, week to week.  And Delaware has had two weeks to stew on their overtime loss to Villanova.  Folks may pooh-pooh that loss, but make no mistake - it makes a difference.

While this season has been successful beyond most Lehigh fans' wildest dreams this year, a win this weekend against Delaware would mean an incredible amount to an awful lot of people. Beating the Blue Hens for the first time since 1999. Avenging offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini's humiliating loss - and broken nose - from 1993. It would be Lehigh's first-ever postseason win against Delaware. It would make a fantastic year into the legendary one, one that folks will be talking about for years and years to come.

And it could be a type of game where the first team that makes it to 21 points wins the game. It seems destined to be a defensive battle, a struggle between the No. 1 ranked scoring defense and the No. 10 ranked scoring defense in the entire nation. I'd be surprised if one team wins by more than 10 points.  I wouldn't be surprised if you have to scrape both teams off the gridiron once its done.  It's going to be tough and physical out there, and it should be a whale of a game.

And yet, my head trumps my heart in picking this game.  I look at Delaware, and I see a team that is so good on paper, so strong on defense, that my head resoundingly sees Delaware as the stronger team.  Lehigh is better, but are they better enough?

Please, Lehigh.  Prove me wrong.

Lehigh 17, Delaware 21

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thanks for another great review. Dunkel and Sagarin have us as a 14 point underdog, which feels about right to me. Like Villanova and New Hampshire, Delaware offers tremendous speed that negates some of our defensive firepower. More importantly, I just don't see us having enough offense to win a game that will require us to score at least in the mid-20s. Regardless, I will be down there in the cold tomorrow pulling for our guys - and I am very proud that we have restored our gridiron roar. With NCAA appearances this year in both football and basketball, these are high times on South Mountain. Go Lehigh!
VAHawk said…
Penalties and turnovers. That's what cost us the game in 2000 vs. Delaware. We could have won that one. So if we play a 'clean' game, anything is possible.
Great analysis though.
Jim Kelley said…
Thanks for the the comprehensive report on this game between old rivals. This Blue Hen Fan is appreciative.

Although UD is enjoying one of their best regular seasons, Lehigh's defense has me concerned. I believe the game will be very tight in the first half, with special teams playing a role in the final result.

As Delaware leaves DII West Chester off its schedule after 2012 and Nova possibly moving up to the big east conference, may this game revitalize our dormant rivalry. This Hen Fan misses you guys:)
DAVID said…
Excellent, comprehensive analysis. Kudos.

I've seen several a tight games between these squads first hand and this has the potential to be the same. I've tremendous respect for the Lehigh program and am happy to see them back on top of the Patriot League and in the NCAA Division I Football Playoffs.

For your readers from this Blue Hen fan - this is the best defense I've seen in nearly 25 years watching the UD program, and that includes the 2003 National Champions that scored a shutout in the finale. There are NO weaknesses on the defensive side of the ball. The lack of sacks merely reflects a defensive philosophy - not a deficiency - that dares opponents to throw into the UD secondary. My father, an inside linebacker on the Delaware squad that became national champs in '63, says this is the best D he's seen, too - his squad included.

I've no doubt Lehigh's own D will make things tough on the Hens offense, but absent turnovers providing good field position for the Mountain Hawks (née Engineers), I don't see this being the opposing offense that knocks a disciplined, determined, veteran UD club out of the playoffs.
Anonymous said…
Its heartening to see a group of classy Hen fans posting on this story. Goes along with GREAT analysis of this game, and great work all week by Mr. Burton. UD has a monster team on paper, but LU's D at this time may be the best I'VE seen in the last 10 years! Gotta go with the consensus however..we're probably about 10 points short.

Go LU (but we'll definitely need to have lady luck and many turnovers on our side!)
Anonymous said…
Someone from the Patriot League had to be here to play Delaware. I'm so happy it's Lehigh. They deserve to be here. Those who have watched each game know that this team has worked to be here. We all know in competition, the next competitor is always more difficult. All the othet Patriot League teams would love to be where our guys are right now. Go Lehigh!! Keep playing hard until the end. You deserve this!!!
Anonymous said…
anyone else not able to view the game on ncaa.com??
Anonymous said…
There WAS NO game on NCAA.com. Those of in internet land, away from the East Coast, were in the dark, which was probably a good thing today. Picked up the radio broadcast. Too fast, too athletic. Sounds like Chris Lum played a pretty nice game, and will be a serious force next year.

Good luck Hens. Your quality is apparent. Anyone but App State. please.

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