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Game Preview, Week Two: New Hampshire at Lehigh, 9/10/2011

It's not like ranked opponents are a rarity at South Mountain - just last year, Lehigh laid out a welcome mat for the defending national champions, Villanova - and promptly got trounced, 35-0.

And it's not even all that long ago that Lehigh was nationally ranked and playing at home, either.  In 2004, two Top 20 teams faced off at Murray Goodman stadium in a key conference battle - and Lehigh beat their "other" conference rival, Colgate, 21-14.

But it's been an awful long while that a nationally-ranked Lehigh team hosted a CAA team at their place - as equals.

This weekend, Lehigh players and fans will have a matchup that has a little bit of everything.  A big, bad CAA team facing off against an upstart Patriot League squad.  A battle between two nationally-ranked teams.  A chance for revenge after the Mountain Hawks' worst game of last year.  But for Lehigh, it's mostly a game about respect.  (more)

You'd think that Lehigh would have earned more respect nationally since their loss to New Hampshire last year.

I've talked a lot about the Mountain Hawk loss to the Wildcats last season 35-10, most recently in my "Sunday's Word: Granite" piece this weekend.  It was an ugly loss - a game that Lehigh could have had a chance to make into a ball game, had they simply capitalized on some great opportunities and played a crisp game.

Since that fateful 35-10 loss in Durham, New Hampshire, the Mountain Hawks have gone 9-1 and have to be considered one of the hottest teams in the country.  With a 14-7 playoff win against Northern Iowa, after a loss to national runner-up Delaware 42-20 they ended the season in the middle of the Top 25 - not too shabby for a team that finished 5-6 in 2009.

Picking up right where they left off last year with a convincing 49-24 win over Monmouth last week, senior QB Chris Lum gathered national Player of the Week honors from the Patriot League and the Sports Network for his 22-for-34 passing day, for  364 yards and 4 TDs against the Monmouth defense.

And yet, for all the personal accolades, Sports Network voters didn't feel the need to advance the Mountain Hawks in their national poll.  As a matter of fact, they actually fell a spot, from No. 13 to No. 14.

Sitting right above Lehigh in their poll this week?  No. 4 Northern Iowa - who lost to FBS Iowa State, 20-19, in heartbreaking fashion - No. 8, Delaware - who got drilled 40-17 by FBS Navy - and No. 13 New Hampshire, who got blown out by FBS Toledo 55-28.

It's a fact that can't have escaped the players this week - that for their great individual performances against Monmouth last week, they still don't have the national respect that teams like Delaware, New Hampshire and Northern Iowa, for better or for worse, already have.

Losing your first week, and still remaining in the Top 13 teams in the nation?  That's respect.

And that's the respect that Lehigh will be striving to get this weekend.

It feels like this game - this revenge game, this "Patriot League David vs. CAA Goliath" game - is a tremendous opportunity for Lehigh to get that national respect that hasn't been there for quite a long time.

That's why nearly everyone in the program has been pointing to this game as one that they've been "looking forward to".

Game Notes
Lehigh's game notes show only one major ding from last week, the most notable among them being the absence of junior LB Billy Boyko, who suffered a concussion last week and won't play this week.  Senior OL Troy McKenna is still out this week - as last week - with a foot injury, and won't play either.

Senior LB Shane Ryan, with 5 tackles, ably filled in for Boyko last week and will definitely work his way into the defense again this week, so it's fair to say that Lehigh should be almost at 100% going into this game with the Wildcats.

Weather Report
Youd be forgiven for thinking that this weekend will be more of the constant rain that the Lehigh Valley has seen all through this week.  But the latest weather report shows that there's now only a 30% chance of rain - and falling.  Still, the field condition bears watching going into the game - Murray Goodman's drainage system will undoubtedly be a topic of conversation, rain or no.

A Word on New Hampshire
During the last seven years, New Hampshire's football conference, the CAA, has risen to become an elite, if not the elite, football conference in all of FCS.  The Wildcats from Durham have been a large part of that success.

Their signature, wins over FBS schools, has mirrored other CAA schools' successes over them as well, most lately Richmond's win over FBS Duke. 

The Wildcats have also had success in the FCS playoffs, , too.  During the last seven years, New Hampshire has qualified for the playoffs all seven years, and advanced past the first game six of those seven years.  No other FCS school can claim that level of success.

If you think that these statistics mean that New Hampshire is looking past Lehigh this weekend, however, think again.  Sean McDonnell's Wildcats have not had an 0-2 start since 2002, and New Hampshire will be under a lot of pressure to perform well after their 55-28 drubbing against FBS Toledo.

"It was disappointing," McDonnell said after the game. "We fumbled three times when we were running with the football. We've got to secure it better. We gave them too many opportunities against our defense and a young secondary." 

Looking at New Hampshire's video preview of the Lehigh game, too, the Wildcats are hardly looking past the Mountain Hawks.  "This team that we're playing," McDonnell said, "is probably one of the most improved teams in the country."

"I know that they're ready for us," senior WR Chris Chandler said in the same preview, calling this weekend's game a "grudge mach".

LFN's Drink of the Week
I don't know if you, dear reader, realize how superstitious I am when it comes to Lehigh football.  When I'm on the sideline of Murray Goodman, I touch the bell that rings Lehigh touchdowns.  If Lehigh's losing, I have a tendency to leave the press box in order to give the Mountain Hawks the luck they need to win.

This carries over to my "Drinks of the Week", where last year's losing drink against the Wildcats - scotch, with granite drink chillers - will not be consumed this weekend.

Instead, I bring out the big guns.  Against Drake and Northern Iowa - not coincidentally, both Lehigh victories - the "Drink of the Week" was the fragrantly smooth and tangy tasting Lord Chesterfield Ale, from the fine folks at the Yuengling Brewery.  And thus, it is the "Drink Of the Week" against New Hampshire as well.  Until it doesn't work anymore, my motto will be, "When you need a win, you go with Lord Chessy."

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 New Hampshire
You don't make it to the playoffs out of the brutally tough CAA without a pretty gosh-darned good system.  Coach McDonnell's balanced spread-option style offense is, indeed, a great system, dependent on a mobile, athletic quarterback at the controls and skill players with speed to burn.

Senior QB Kevin Decker, the extremely able quarterback who sat behind QB R.J. Toman most of last year, fits this mold perfectly.  Despite a tough day against Toledo, he had a worrisome accuracy rate - 21 for 28, for 162 yards and 1 TD - that shows how dangerous a surgeon he canbe passing the ball.  And if you shut down his passing options, he can take off with the ball as well - Decker gained 29 yards on the ground against the Rockets, despite getting sacked twice.

Crucial to making the spread offense work is a stable of speedy backs, of which junior RB Dontra Peters (20 yards) would probably be considered the starter.  All three backs for the Wildcats, including  sophomore RB Chris Setian and freshman RB Nico Sterati, combined for 128 yards rushing - but also contributed to the lopsided final score, with two fumbles.  Ball protection should be a big point of emphasis for New Hampshire this week.

Speedy junior WR Joey Orlando (6 catches, 49 yards) is a budding superstar for the Wildcats on offense, and is a native of Bethlehem as the son of the former NFL safety, Bo Orlando.  Senior WR Chris Chandler (2 catches, 13 yards), freshman WR R.J. Harris (4 catches, 46 yards) and sophomore WR Justin Mello (6 catches, 52 yards) round out a deep, talented receiving corps that effectively spreads the field and offers a multitude of targets for Mr. Decker.

New Hampshire's offensive line will not wow you with its size, but it makes up for the lack of cheeseburgers with excellent technique and a complete knowledge of McDonnell's system.  While the "O" line, is experienced, they are young - the "old man" on the line is senior TE Sean Cullen, the mostly-blocking tight end that is only senior on the line.  After him, junior OL Rickey Dilma is the next oldest.

The Wildcats play a 4-2-5 defense, a popular formation these days.   It's known for bringing a simple, multiple-look defense to play to disrupt a multitude of spread offenses, and the fifth defensive back (or "weak safety") acts as an effective tackler, blitzer, or general "speed guy" to hunt down speedy backs and receivers.

It starts, though, with a very strong defensive line, and senior DE Brian McNally (4 tackles) is the all-CAA anchor of a tough - and somewhat crazy - defensive line. Senior DE James Jenkins (4 tackles) complements the live-wire McNally on the other side, but the Wildcats' pair of defensive tackles, sophomore DT Brian McCann and 295 lb junior DT Jared Smith did not have a power game against Toledo and should be looking to come out strong against Lehigh.
The Wildcats' two linebackers - junior LB Alan Buzbee (4 tackles) and junior LB Matt Evans (14 tackles) were all-CAA players last year and seem to have only improved from last year.  They solidify the center of a front seven that Lehigh had a rough time rushing on last season.

Where the Wildcats were really exposed last weekend, though, was in their young, relatively inexperienced secondary.  Senior CB Kyle Flemings (6 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) had the best day on a roughed-up unit that gave up 304 yards through the air.  

Special Teams
The Wildcat kicker, sophomore P/K Mike MacArthur, has one heck of a leg.  Against Toledo, he puntd 4 times for a average of 47 yards a kick - numbers which, if he can keep it up, might ultimately land him in the NFL.  He had two extra-point attempts against Toledo - both converted.

Junior RB Dontra Peters aside from being the starting back, is also a danger returning kickoffs as well (29.6 average).  With the amount of depth and speed on UNH, their return game is bound to be tough to contain, with players like freshman WR R.J. Harris and junior WR Joey Orlando as well

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Make sure speed doesn't kill.  New Hampshire's special teams are indeed special, and their speed, frankly, frightens me.  Containing these units will be crucial to Lehigh's chances in winning this game.
2. Keep Decker in the Pocket.  If senior LB Tanner Rivas and senior LB Colin Newton can successfully remove that crucial element to the Wildcats' offense - the mobility of Decker - a real important cog of New Hampshire's defense gets disrupted.  It could be the difference between victory and defeat.
3. Pressure the NewHampshire Secondary.  It's worth seeing if the Wildcat's young secondary can stand up to the newly-potent Lehigh offense.  I'd test the waters with junior WR Ryan Spadola early and often.

Fearless Predicition
Lehigh will be looking for respect in this game.  Will they get it?

They might get it if they continue executing as well as they did against Monmouth.  This Mountain Hawk team showed that they're capable of fantastic execution.  

But can they do it against FCS royalty?  Can their best players go toe-to-toe with "scholarship" players - players which, a year ago, were seen as "too talented for the Patriot League to be competitive against"?

We will learn a whole lot about this team this weekend.  And - hopefully - Lehigh will gain the respect.

Lehigh 32, New Hampshire 30


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