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Game Preview Week 5: Yale at Lehigh, 10/1/2011

(Photo Credit: Peter Casolino/The New Haven Register)

One of the interesting aspects of this Lehigh team is the perspective of its players.  For this group of seniors, their time at Lehigh hasn't been all about high-powered offense, winning championships, and making runs in the FCS playoffs.

Despite all of this squad's success the past two years, the memory of the rough times are never all that far away.

And Yale is associated with one of the roughest points of the Andy Coen era, and arguably the lowest (non-Leopard loss, that is) point in the last decade if you're a Lehigh fan.  For the last time the Eli came to Murray Goodman Stadium, they won the game without scoring an offensive touchdown.  (more)

Not everyone involved in the Lehigh football program right now remembers the 7-0 loss to the Bulldogs in 2009.

But you can bet the senior class does, which adds an extra layer of intrigue to this battle of 2-0 and 3-1 teams.

"I'm sitting here in front of my laptop, struggling to think of what to say," I struggled to say in my recap of the 7-0 loss in 2009. "All I can really say is that anyone who sat through this game, online or - Heaven forbid - in person, deserves a medal."

I'd like to think that one of the homework assignments of all the players of the football team might be to watch that excruciating tape of the game - just to remind everyone where this team came from.

It was only Lehigh's second home shutout since 1986, and the first-ever home shutout at Murray Goodman stadium.

It was a game where the Mountain Hawk defense would continue a nine-quarter shutout streak, holding QB Brook Hart and the Yale offense to 189 total yards, and still lose.  The only points would come on a Yale fake punt on a direct snap to LB Paul Rice, which he'd take 50 yards for the only score of the game.

The offense would see an ineffective senior QB Chris Lum benched in favor of the more-experienced QB J.B. Clark - and combine for a horrendous 8-for-28 passing day, with 60 net yards passing and 1 INT.

Twice Lehigh would enter the Bulldog red zone - and twice, would come away empty after missing short field goals.

I also penned one of my most vicious "Sunday Word"s after the loss, simply declaring "Zero" to be the word that successfully summed up the game.

"I really thought this season would be different, I noted.  "I didn't think Lehigh would be undefeated, but I honestly thought they were in the upper echelon of the Patriot League and have a shot to win the title if everything came together right.  This team has proved that it is in no way deserving of being thought about in that way."

At their lowest, CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs, then a junior, came to the post-game press conference after the Yale debacle.  "It's certainly frustrating to lose, but I'm not frustrated at any one thing, I'm just frustrated we lost," he said. "In order to win games you need to play a complete game in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams, and today we didn't play all three phases."

It's odd reading those words again after experiencing a 27-24 victory last weekend over a nationally-ranked Liberty team, where all three phases of the game came together to make big plays to help Lehigh pull out the victory.

And it's also interesting to see all the starters on the field on that day - Lum, senior WR Jake Drwal, senior LB Colin Newton, and many, many others - who lived through that low point as well.

"They embarrassed us here," senior OL Jim Liebler, one of the players in that game, said in pregame interviews, and junior LB Fred Mihal also acknowledged the loss at Murray Goodman two years ago.  "That's not going to happen again," Liebler said as well, simply.

While there's plenty to break down with undefeated Yale - and this could very well be the year they break the curse against Harvard and win an Ivy League Championship - the biggest key to the game might be seen in the tape of the 2009 game, where a very different Lehigh team took the field and got shut out at home.  Remembering that game is a huge key to victory on Saturday.

It seems like Mr. Liebler gets it.  The question is - does the rest of the team?

Game Notes
Lehigh's game notes show that for the first time, Lehigh's offensive line will see the same starting five for consecutive weeks (senior OL Jim Liebler, senior OL Troy McKenna, sophomore OL Matt Lippincott, junior OL Mike Vuono, and senior OL Keith Schauder).

And while senior LB Tanner Rivas is listed as "questionable" for the Yale game after Keith Groller's report in the Morning Call, he's still listed atop the depth chart at outside linebacker.  Should Rivas be unable to go, senior LB Fred Mihal, one of the heroes of last weekend's game, will make the start, so it seems like the Lehigh defense shouldn't miss a beat.

Other players with injuries, like junior RB Zach Barket and sophomore DB Courtney Jarvis, seem to be healed up this week and look like they're ready to go as well.

Weather Report
While the weather for Saturday is still pretty much up in the air rain-wise, with a 30% chance of precipitation at the time I'm typing this, what's not unclear is the fact that fall is actually here.  The high temperature is currently forecast to be only 55 degrees, so it will feel a lot more like November than late summer.

It's eerily similar to the weather report from the 2009 game vs. Yale, too, however.

A Word on Yale
Yale and Lehigh have a fairly good rivalry going, having met 20 times, including six meetings in the past decade.

In 2006, the rivalry with the Eli was formalized with the creation of the "Yank Townsend Trophy", named after the only Yankee (i.e., student from Connecticut) who was in the Lehigh class of 1895.

After graduating, he would relocate to New Haven to be close to the rest of his family, where he would design many buildings and residences and cement his legacy for generations.

 Yank's descendants sponsored the trophy to be presented to the winner of this game. It's a cool way to link these two historic schools, linked by academics and tradition, a constant reminder to the history and football traditions of both schools.

But since the establishment of the trophy, it hasn't come close to making its way to Grace Hall.  Yale has won both contests since the trophy was made a part of the contest.

One very interesting development around the Yale program this offseason was that Army, who of course competes as an FBS independent, signed a deal to play Yale at the Yale Bowl to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the venue.

For the record, I think it will be great when Army plays at the Yale Bowl in 2014, and full credit goes to Yale athletic director Tom Beckett for making this historic game happen.

But I also maintain that this game should also be the spark of a larger debate on the non-scholarship nature of not only the Ivy League, but the Patriot League as well.

As a part of their game against Army, Yale has asked for a waiver from the NCAA to allow it to be a "bowl counter" - meaning should Army win, a victory over Yale would count towards their bowl eligibility.

The NCAA Rulebook states that in order to be a "bowl counter", schools must offer at least 56 1/2 scholarships. While Yale scholarships all of its athletes, none of the aid is considered athletics specific, so for the purpose of the NCAA Yale doesn't count as a counter.

To me, it's not right that instead of opening up a debate as to the counter status of their "scholarship everyone policy", Yale is instead applying for a waiver to the rule, which allows Yale to claim they're "non-scholarship" while refusing to play by the rules that other non-scholarship (and need-limited leagues, like the Patriot League) play by: that is, if you're not counting them as scholarships, you're not a bowl counter.

Do I think Yale should play Army at the Yale Bowl?  Absolutely.  But do I think that the aid given to both Ivy League and Patriot League students who happen to play football ought to be called aid for bowl counter purposes?  Absolutely.

LFN's Drink of the Week
One of the great things about playing the teams of the Ivy League is that fact that they're old, among the oldest institutions of higher learning in the United States.  Another great thing about playing the Ivies and enjoying a beverage or two before the game is that not only are there drinks associated with those Ivies, that they're usually more than 100 years old.

It's not hard to envision the folks on Mad Men sipping Yale Cocktails, featuring French Vermouth, gin, and Creme D'Yvette, a liqeur made from violet petals, vanilla and other spices.  (It's equally as easy, incidentally, to envision said folks drinking Princeton Cocktails, which was my "Drink of the Week" against the Tigers in Week Three.)

But isn't it time for Lehigh to have its own cocktail, for enjoying before a football game?

May I propose the following for this weekend: a "Lehigh Cocktail" with 1 1/2 parts vodka, 1/2 part Kahlua, 1/2 part Amaretto, 1/4 part Bailey's Irish Creme, 1/4 part Creme de Menthe, and 2 parts cream?  That ought to show those future Too Big to Fail guys who knows what about mixed drinks.

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 Yale
Offense
The slogan for this year's Yale team, printed on the team's T-shirts this year, is "Armed and Dangerous".  While one might be able to argue that Eli head coach Tom Williams is referring to the B-list cross-dressing mall cop comedy starring Meg RyanJohn Candy and Eugene Levy with that slogan, it's much more likely that the "arm" they're talking about comes from Yale's starting quarterback, and their more pass-happy offense.

Senior QB Patrick Witt, the vaunted transfer from Nebraska who was on the verge of upending QB Joe Ganz for the starting nod three years ago, is now the returning signalcaller for the Bulldogs.

He's not the same type of athletic, rollout QB that QB Mike Brown was last week - he is very much a pocket passer.  But not only does he have a BCS-quality arm, his 73.4% accuracy in two games shows precisely how much of a weapon he is passing the ball.  Already he has 5 TD passes and 526 yards passing in two games for the Bulldogs - good enough for back-to-back Offensive Player of the Week awards in the Ivy League.

He's devastatingly accurate with the ball, and takes care of it as well - he only has one interception so far this year.  Given time, he will pick any defense apart, and it will be the Mountain Hawks' challenge to make sure he doesn't pick them apart, too.

Supporting Witt's passing is a running back by committee, featuring junior RB Mordecai Cargill (149 yards rushing, 2 TDs), senior RB Alex "Train" Thomas (109 yards, 1 TD).  They've provided a good change-of-pace to the passing attack of Witt, but haven't really broken out individually with a huge game thus far.  "Train" is more of a between-the-tackles runner, while Cargill is more of a speedy, shifty runner.

Cargill catches the ball out of the backfield effectively, too, with 46 yards and a TD so far this year.  Sophomore FB Elijah Thomas, too, will catch the occasional pass out of the backfield but doesn't have a single rush this season thus far, acting primarily as a blocking back.

In fact, Witt will spread the ball to an unbelievable number of receivers, as judged by the fact that he has hit eleven different receiving targets in a mere two games so far this year.

Listed atop the receiving corps for the Eli are three underclassmen, sophomore WR Deon Randall (109 yards, 1 TD), junior WR Chris Smith (135 yards, 2 TDs), and junior WR Allen Harris (135 yards, 1 TD).  The speedy Randall in particular is starting to break out for the Bulldogs, acting not only as a receiver but also as a running back, occasionally, as well to maximize his talents.

But there's plenty of other receiving targets that should also see time for the Bulldogs, notably posession receiver senior WR Gio Christodoulou (1 catch, 16 yards), speedy sophomore WR Cameron Sandquist (18 yards, 1 TD), and 6'4 sophomore TE Kyle Wittenauer (22 yards).  All told, Witt has an awful good variety of targets to throw to.

Senior OL Gabe Fernandez is the "old man" on this young, athletic "O" line that has only allowed one sack in two contests this year (to Georgetown DE Andrew Schaetzke.)   It seems like the Bulldogs "O" line so far has very much made the grade; but this weekend's matchup will be the biggest test for this squad by far, it seems.

Defense
Tom Williams' 4-3 defense should look very similar to the defense he unveiled at Lehigh two years ago.  Unfortunately for Lehigh, now as then, Yale's defense is filled with senior playmakers they'll need to stop.

Start on the "D" line, where the Eli boast two speedy, near-300 lb defensive tackles in senior DT Jake Stoller and senior DT Reed Spiller.  They don't have a lot of tackles - because Georgetown and Cornell didn't really challenge them much.  All four members of the "D" line are seniors, including senior DE Matt Battaglia, who already has two batted passes on the season.

The linebacking unit, too, with senior LB Jordan Haynes (16 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) and senior LB Wes Moyer (10 tackles, 2 tackles for loss), are loaded with experience, while the one underclassman, junior LB Will McHale (19 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery) has impressed mightily in the early going.

In fact, eight of the starting defensemen are seniors, including senior CB Drew Baldwin (16 tackles, 1 interception), senior CB Dawson Halliday (5 tackles, 2 pass breakups) and senior SS Geoff Dunham (15 tackles).  Add sophomore FS Nick Okano (9 tackles, 1 interception) and you have an extremely solid defense, with lots of senior leadership and few weaknesses.

Special Teams
After Lehigh's special teams kept Liberty out of the end zone last weekend, another stupendous special teams group for Yale comes to South Mountain providing another challenge for the Mountain Hawk unit.  Junior WR Chris Smith and sophomore WR Deon Randall have combined for 245 yards of kickoff returns in two games.  They are both challenges to contain.   Senior WR Gio Christodoulou remains a top punt returner as well.

Junior PK Phillip Panico, who already has a 39 yard FG to his credit and a six game streak of converting field goals, is a solid kicker.  Freshman P Mike Cazzetta, with only two games under his belt, is averaging a nice 40.4 yards per punt so far.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Aggressive Offense.  It would be easy for the Lehigh offense to be intimidated by Yale's experienced defense, but they simply need to keep doing what they've been doing - examine the new looks, keep working things, and breaking them down, like they have all year.  If Lehigh remains as aggressive as they've been playing and play Lehigh football, they'll find success.
2. Bring the Kitchen Sink.  Witt hasn't seen a big pass rush team so far this year.  It's up to Lehigh's defense to pepper Witt with a variety of "Kitchen Sink" blitzes, to keep him from finding his offensive rhythm.
3. Build on Special Teams Big Plays.  Last week's special teams big plays really kept momentum in Brown and White last weekend.  Building on that will be crucial to Lehigh's chances this week - building on the successes in the kicking game, building on solid returns.  Doing well in that all-important third aspect will be critical.

Fearless Prediction
Yale has recently been a really big thorn in the side of Lehigh, and specifically coach Coen, who is 0-3 against the Boola-Boola crowd.  But the Lehigh team coach Williams will face this weekend is a much, much more confident bunch than the squad that played them at Murray Goodman in 2009.

And that's why Lehigh's going to win this game.  They're a team that doesn't get down when they lose the lead - they now have confidence that they'll make plays to come back and win.  They're a team that doesn't get rattled easily, and even if Witt, the NFL prospect, starts out with an impressive drive, I'm convinced this Lehigh team will not be intimidated at all.

Will there be a letdown?  That's certainly a risk, given the huge victory last weekend and league play starting next weekend.  But I just can't see a letdown happening for the Mountain Hawks, because so many of them remember the last time around.  With their last chance to exorcise the ghosts of that game, they will.

Lehigh 33, Yale 20 

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