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Know Your 2011 Opponents: New Hampshire

(Photo Credit: Tyler McDermott/The New Hampshire)

There's a lot of football games on the schedule in 2011, but the one that seems to loom the largest - aside from that contest Lehigh plays at the end of November, of course - is the home opener.

It's not just because New Hampshire plays in the CAA, the football conference that is getting a reputation as "the SEC of FCS".

It's not just because it will almost certainly be a matchup between Top 25 teams - the first such contest at Murray Goodman since 2004.

And it's not just because the Wildcats humbled Lehigh in Durham last year, 31-10.

It's because last year's game was one of the last appearances of the "old" Lehigh team than the "new" one that closed out the year in 2010. Of all the games on the schedule in 2011, none feels like "redemption" - except this one. (more)

"The 31-10 [New Hampshire] victory shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lehigh still has a lot of work to do if they hope to win the Patriot League this year - and have a successful season," I wrote last September. "And the gap between the FCS Top 25 and Lehigh is as big as ever.

"It seemed like this offense was finally getting ready to blossom. I wasn't sure they could win a tough game in New Hampshire, but I had high hopes that they could score a few times, feed off some momentum shifts and maybe make a game of this thing," I added in the "Sunday Word". "Another week, though, and another week that my assumptions would be wrong. Lehigh's offense couldn't get more than 10 points off of silver-platter opportunities either set up by defensive turnovers, great special teams plays, or just flat-out boneheaded penalties from New Hampshire."

UNH penalties, a fantastic kickoff return by KR John "Prez" Kennedy, forced fumble (senior LB Colin Newton) and interceptions (junior CB Bryan Andrews) allowed Lehigh's offense, led by junior QB Michael Colvin, three opportunities on a silver platter in the first half. But on all three occasions, Lehigh came away with zero points.

Part of the credit goes to UNH's always-tough defense - led by senior DE Brian McNally, junior LB Alan Buzbee and junior LB Matt Evans - shutting down Lehigh's running game, which was a focus of longtime Wildcat head coach Sean McDonnell in the run-up to the Lehigh game.

But a lot of the errors made by Lehigh's offense were decidedly unforced, a point that was taught well by offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini to the offense at the end of the game.

In retrospect, this game - one which senior QB Chris Lum did not start, as he was nursing an injury - may have been a key catalyst to the maturation of last year's Mountain Hawk team.  Sometimes, you don't learn by winning - you learn when you make a bunch of key mistakes.

When summing up last season, much has been made of the 21-19 victory over Harvard as being the turning point of last season. Also, a lot has been made of Lehigh head coach Andy Coen's halftime tirade in that game, which seemed to show a turning point in the season - where last years Lehigh team learned how to win. Lehigh wouldn't lose another regular-season game the rest of the way.

But a key backdrop to the actions in Cambridge, MA was the object football lesson in Durham, NH that occurred against New Hampshire - and Coen was plenty hot after that game as well.

"Way too many procedural issues," a perturbed Coen added in the postgame comments. "Collectively as a team, we're not feeding off each other. We need the bye week to do some work. To get some guys to really decide how good we want to be. I think we still have a chance to be a good football team, but not if we play like we did today.

"I'm as angry right now as I've probably been in five years. It has nothing to do with effort, but we just have to execute better, especially in games like this."

*****

Lehigh would execute better the rest of the way - would they ever.

They would roll to eight straight wins, including a perfect Patriot League conference sweep and a win over Northern Iowa in the first round of the FCS playoffs.

You could make the case that their loss to defending FCS national champions Villanova, who had a completely healthy WR Matt Szczur, and their loss to QB Pat Devlin and Delaware, who were a bad 4th down spot away from another FCS national championship of their own, were incredibly tough challenges.

But the New Hampshire is the only game on the schedule that seemed like it could have been a game that Lehigh could have been a win.

That has to serve as a huge rallying point for the 2011 squad at home, especially for Lum, junior WR Ryan Spadola, and the rest of the Lehigh offense.

When Lehigh's "O" faces off against New Hampshire this year, they'll face a defense that loses some incredibly talented players.  Six starters, including all-CAA players CB Dino Vasso, S Hugo Souza and DT Steve Young, are lost to graduation.

For those who think that gaining yards on New Hampshire will be any easier, however, think again.  The Wildcats always seem to have plenty of talented bodies to replace those players in their "unique" 4-2-5 stack defense, and senior S Rod Walker (17 tackles) will be one of those players that undoubtedly will shine in his senior campaign.  Junior DT Jared Smith (38 tackles, 4 sacks) and sophomore FS Chris Beranger (20 tackles) also seem like two players that will be guys McDonnell counts in in 2011.

It's also worth mentioning that the linebackers that form the key of the 4-2-5, Buzbee and Evans, return once again - not to mention McNally, who could be the best pure pass rusher in the CAA in 2011, so there's every reason to believe that this unit will be as tough as last year.

On offense, you might also think that the loss to graduation of QB R.J. Toman, RB Sean Jellison and RB Terrance Fox would mean that Lehigh's defense might have a field day on a bunch of inexperienced players.

But just like on defense, the Wildcat offense is loaded with potential stars.

Senior QB Kevin Decker, who filled in for Toman in the FCS playoffs, went 23-of-35 against Bethune-Cookman in the first round of the FCS playoffs and scored 6 TDs in a 45-20 romp over the MEAC champions.  That should lay to rest any thought that Decker was asleep at the clipboard while Toman was running UNH's spread-type offense - Decker will be the prototypical tough customer at QB, who's mobile and can tuck the ball and take off very easily.

Speedy junior RB Dontra Peters was one of the Wildcat revelations last year who led the team in rushing (707 yards) and rushing TDs (7).  Against Lehigh last year, he had 122 all-purpose yards and 1 TD, and he will be the unquestioned starter going into preseason camp.

And to make matters worse, a Lehigh Valley native, junior WR Joey Orlando, is a budding star for the Wildcats as well.  With 586 yards and 5 receiving TDs last year, the son of former NFL safety Bo Orlando saved his best game for his hometown team: a then career-high 10 catches for 89 yards and 2 TDs.

You can bet Joey will want to put a tent over Murray Goodman stadium and make it his own show.  But the game has the potential to be a show for Lehigh, too - as, potentially, the first Top 25 matchup at Murray Goodman stadium since nationally-ranked Lehigh hosted nationally-ranked Colgate in 2004.

Both Lehigh and UNH will have a lot to prove in September when they meet in Bethlehem, and it will be a chance for Lehigh to show, truly, how far they've come in the course of a year.  It will be a chance to enact a bit of revenge for last year's performance.  And the eyes of the wider world of FCS, certainly, will also be paying attention as well.

Lehigh's home opener is going to be quite a stage.

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