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Game Preview, Lehigh at Bucknell, 10/8/2011

(Photo Credit: The Williamsport Sun-Gazette)

"While 9-2 and a deep run in the playoffs might seem to be a bit unrealistic at this point," I wrote back in August," there's still a lot of bullishness that the Bison can re-find their winning ways in 2011 - and maybe, just maybe, beat a Top 25 team in Year Two of the Susan era."

Boy, was that ever right.

It's not just that the Bison already have three more wins than they had all of last season.  It's the toughness they've shown, the explosive offense they've displayed, and the disruptive force their defense has been.

All this means is that weekend's matchup with the Bison will hardly be the walkover that such games have been in the past.  (more)

It's not so surprising that Bucknell is 4-1 going into this weekend - with wins over Princeton, Marist and Duquesne, arguably teams that the Bison should beat.

It's more the way they've won these games that have raised eyebrows across the league.

Against Duquesne, a school from the same conference as Monmouth (the NEC, which allows a limited number of football scholarships), the Bison won on a last-second touchdown run to squeak out a 27-26 victory.

And against their last two opponents, Princeton and Georgetown, Bucknell exploded for 69 total points in two blowouts.

A week after Lehigh struggled to put away the Tigers, the Bison went into Princeton stadium and made it into a laugher, holding onto the football nearly forty minutes and rattling off 27 unanswered points en route to a 34-9 romp.

And Bucknell also made it look easy against the Hoyas last weekend, forcing six turnovers, notching a safety, and limiting Georgetown to -3 rushing yards.  They would surge to a 28-0 lead before ending the game with a 35-18 win.

In fact, you could even argue that this Bison team was a 4th-and-short against Cornell from being undefeated going into this game.  Bucknell was inside the 10, readying for the go-ahead score with under two minutes to play, when Cornell stuffed the Bison on 4th down and escaped with a 24-13 victory.

Before the 2010 season, folks looked at Bucknell head coach Joe Susan - a close, trusted assistant of Bucknell grad and current Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano - and liked what they saw, on balance.  Many thought that coach Susan was on the right track, overall - but thought it would take time for the Bison to return to the upper echelon of the Patriot League.

A year later - and, to some, ahead of schedule - the Bison have arrived.  The team that was picked to finish sixth in the preseason Patriot League poll already has beaten Georgetown - and doesn't seem inclined to want to stop there.

They'd like nothing better than to mark their return to the Patriot League elite by knocking off a nationally-ranked conference team that they haven't beaten since 1997.

"Bucknell's had their best start in ten years," sophomore TE Max Anderson said in Lehigh's pre-game press interviews this week. "They're an exciting, young team."

"I give their coaching staff an enormous amount of credit," Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said. "I think their defense has been a big part of their success. They're plus twelve in turnover margin, and they're ranked No. 2 nationally in that area. Their defensive front is really good, and our offensive front is really going to be challenged.

"Bucknell's offense is a vastly improved group," senior NG Billy Dokouslis said. "They're definitely a lot bigger and a lot faster than they were, a team that's returning a lot of starters, and they're a team that's hungry. They've lost to us a bunch of times. "We're nationally ranked, we're coming into their place, they're definitely going to be a motivated bunch that we absolutely have to attack and play our "A" game."

It's going to be a huge game in Lewisburg, PA, in October.  Before the season, who'd have thunk it?

Game Notes
This week's game notes are out, and the one mild surprise is that junior LB Sam Loughery has been elevated to starter at inside linebacker, thanks in part to his strong play in the early part of the year.  With Lehigh's rotation in linebackers, though, don't be too surprised to see plenty of senior LB Devin Greene as well in the mix.

Also, with junior RB Marcus Dormevil out for the second consecutive week, sophomore DB Courtney Jarvis moves to the kickoff return team, alongside freshman RB Jason Suggs, who had a great game vs. Liberty two weeks ago.  Returning punts will be either sophomore WR Sergio Fernandes-Soto or senior WR Jake Drwal.

From Michael LoRe of the Express-Times, we learn that junior TE Mark Wickware, who sustained a "mild" head injury last weekend, will not start, and junior TE Jamel Haggins will be starting in his place.  And there's also question about whether senior LB Tanner Rivas will start, too, as he nurses an ankle injury.  If he's out, senior LB Fred Mihal, who has played extremely well the past two weeks, will start instead.

Weather Report
Hard to picture a more perfect weekend for football out in Lewisburg - as of today, the weekend forecast calls for a high of 76, under sunny skies, at Christy Matthewson Stadium in the heart of the Bucknell campus.   It should be the recipe for a good offensive day - hopefully - on their field's artificial turf.

A Word on Bucknell
By any measure, it was a rough year for the Bucknell Bison and head coach Joe Susan in 2010.

A 1-10 record, with the only victory a freaky 24-21 win at Georgetown, was certainly not the dream of the young Bison team that stepped onto the football field on Saturdays in the fall.

After a 4-1 start, however, a preseason upbeat mood in Lewisburg has turned into a feeling of: Why not us?  Why not now?

Looking at Bucknell's highlights from last week, you also see a different sort of attitude with this Bison team as well, especially on offense.  There's a confidence there that clearly wasn't there last year.

William Bowman of the Daily Item tried to quantify this new attitude in an article he wrote this week, where he partially attributes it to the man in charge:

On Saturday the 56-year-old got cleaned up on the sideline when a kick returner was tackled in front of the Bison bench and plowed into him.  
Susan rolled out of the hit, quickly climbed to his feet, untangled the headset cord from around him and threw the crowd a fist pump with a smile on his face and it was right back to work.  
A smile as he acknowledged the crowd? As serious as he is, I never thought I would see the day Joe Susan smiled until the clock showed all zeroes and the Bison were up.  
Susan showed no weakness, wouldn’t allow it. From there, his team — one that was getting a little push from Georgetown after dominating the first 29 minutes — responded with a big drive, pushed the lead back and rolled home with their fourth win in five games and three more than all of last year.  
Susan’s toughness rubs off on his players. That’s why the Bison, despite being outsized every single week, have one of the nation’s best defenses.  
Susan won’t let his team relax. As much as he’s a football coach trying to win games each Saturday, he’s also a maker of men, a gig he finds more important. That’s why his players can’t show weakness. He doesn’t allow his players to put their hands on their hips when they are tired; they are instructed not to react if something goes wrong on the football field. If they get hurt — not injured, but hurt — they are to get back up as quickly as possible.

Coach Susan is a tall, imposing, no-nonsense guy, and he's got his players infused with his tough, no-nonsense attitude.  And that's a big reason why they are playing an extremely meaningful game this weekend.

LFN's Drink of the Week
As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm nothing if not superstitious. In that spirit, this week's "Drink of the Week" will be exactly the same as last year's - where Lehigh enjoyed a resounding 32-10 victory and tailgaters and Lehigh fans enjoyed a "Black Bison" - with my take on the drink being, three parts cola, one part vodka, and a splash of lemon to make this a refreshing, pregame treat.

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 Bucknell
Bucknell used to be known as a run-first team, especially back in the days of Tim Landis and the triple-option offense.  But now - with some crucial new weapons at his disposal - coach Susan's more balanced pro-style offense has taken hold in Lewisburg, and has borne fruit.  For the first time in recent memory, Bucknell enters their game against Lehigh with more yards through the air than on the ground.

Early on in coach Susan's 1-10 season last year, he made the decision to go with now-sophomore QB Brandon Wesley as the main signalcaller, and that decision is paying off handsomely in 2011.

The speedy, rail-thin QB learned a lot last year and took some lumps, but also, for the most part, kept his mistakes to a minimum.  This year, he's already got the stats to show that he's breaking out, with a 61% completion percentage, 898 yards passing, with 6 TDs passing and just two interceptions on the year.  He's improved in the way he handles pressure, and improved his accuracy throwing on the run, which makes him much more dangerous this year over last.

The speedy QB is also a threat to run at any time, especially on goal line situations - he has 120 yards rushing, but 5 TDs on the ground.  Notably, the Bison last week in the Georgetown game used Wesley in an option-run situation, using his speed and athleticism to get one of the TDs.  Lehigh will have to watch out for these types of option runs this Saturday.

Wesley is a very good QB that should only get better in the years to come.

Also of concern is an improving running game, with the emergence of a player who lost his entire freshman season.

The leading rusher on the Bison so far is junior RB Jeremiah Young, the highly-touted back who suffered an ACL tear in the 2009 "Big 33" high school all-star game, with 291 yards and 1 TD.  Along with junior RB Tyler Smith (225 yards, 3 TDs), they form an interesting 1-2 punch out of the Bison backfield, with Young being more of a prototypical back, and Smith being more of a speedster that can also catch passes out of the backfield (107 yards).  Sophomore FB Travis Friend will get the occasional touch rushing or receiving, but he's primarily a blocking back.

The by-word for the Bison skill players is "speed".  They don't have a player that pounds on an opposing defense, but they have a lot of guys that are fast.  Senior WR Frank DeNick (311 yards, 3 TDs) is listed as the third receiver on the Bison, but he had a monster game vs. Georgetown last week, with 4 receptions, 122 yards, and 2 TDs.  Two more speedy targets for Wesley are senior WR Gabe Skwara (145 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore WR Victor Walker (221 yards, 2 TDs).  Of particular concern is Bucknell's ability to make big plays in the passing game: last weekend, they had three scoring plays of over 35 yards.

Moving experienced senior OL Ian Dal Bello to center in the preseason, too, has very much paid off for the Bison, allowing for Wesley's early-season success and to allow for a larger "O" line across the board.  Add to that junior TE Nick Gatto, who mostly stays at home to block, and you have a vastly improved unit from last year.

It will come as no secret that the Bison will be playing a 4-3/4-2-5 defense - after all, that's been the base "D" the Bison have been playing for years.  It's also a 4-3 because they have not one, but two, players that are making a serious bid at Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year from that spot.

6'4, 280 lb senior DE Josh Eden and 6'5, 290 lb senior DT Robert De La Rosa are two jumbo-sized players that have created jumbo-sized problems for offensive coordinators they have faced this year.  Combined, they have incredible numbers for defensive linemen: 46 tackles.  17 1/2 tackles for loss, including 8 1/2 sacks.  4 forced fumbles.  2 fumble recoveries.  1 interception.  And, if that weren't enough, a  blocked kick and safety as well.

Eden and De La Rosa create such matchup problems since you can't devote too many resources to double-teaming one or the other.  Double Eden, and you have De La Rosa creating problems inside.  Bottle up the middle, and Eden comes from either side.  Together, they really form a Hobson's choice for opponents.

Cementing the solid Bucknell defense in the middle is senior LB Tim Bolte (31 tackles, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery) and senior LB/WS Sean Rafferty (27 tackles, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery for TD).  With Eden and De La Rosa causing such havoc underneath, the linebackers can hang back more and make plays, which translates into an eye-popping +12 turnover ration through the first five games of the year - good for second in the nation.

Another big beneficiary of the aggressive Bison defense is senior CB Bryce Robertson, who already has 5 interceptions and has emerged as the leader of an experienced secondary, which returns three starters.  Sophomore CB Derrick Palmer, too, with 1 INT, displaced the existing starter in the preseason, and is a player to watch as well - as if there weren't enough players to watch already on this defense.

Special Teams
Senior PK Drew Orth is a perfect 3-for-3 kicking field goals this year, including a 43-yarder made against Princeton, so there's no questioning his accuracy or his leg.  Junior P Ryan Gutowski, on the other hand, averages 35.7 yards per punt which could be a special teams advantage for Lehigh if this becomes a game of field position.

After facing a litany of teams that posed all sorts of nightmare matchups on special teams, Bucknell's return units have so far been largely contained by the teams they've faced.  Senior CB Bryce Robertson returns punts, averaging a respectable 7.2 yards per return, while senior RB Tyler Smith (364 yards. 28.0 average) is the top return man on the kickoff return unit.  The Bison don't have any returns for touchdowns, though, and their longest return on the season has been 45 yards.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Time Of Possession.  In Bucknell's victories this year, one of the stats that jumps out at you is the time of possession battle: the offense wins by holding onto the football, and keeping the defense fresh.  Wearing down Bucknell's solid defense by having them have to play an extra ten minutes would be an excellent strategy for victory this weekend.  That may mean tilting a tiny bit more towards the run on offense, with junior RB Zach Barket and sophomore RB Keith Sherman, and preventing 3rd down conversions on defense.
2. Minimizing Turnovers.  Keeping turnovers to a minimum is always a good idea, but with Bucknell's offense taking such good care of the ball, it's crucial this week.  Taking care of the football will be crucial - an opening half like last weekend's versus Yale would be a recipe for disaster this week.  Take better care of the football, and the chances for victory go way up this week.
3. Stuff the Run.  Wesley is not an easy guy to contain, at times, but forcing him to be a dropback passer should work to Lehigh's advantage.  Stuffing the run game of Wesley, Smith and Young, is key to making Wesley more of a pass-first player - and should benefit Lehigh.

Fearless Prediction
This is not the same Bison team we've seen in the past.  They are tougher, more balanced, and - crucially - have learned how to win football games.

At the same token, they haven't seen a team that's the same caliber of opponent as Lehigh.  Nothing against the teams they have faced - Duquesne and Georgetown are not bad teams at all - but these young guns, for all their toughness, haven't faced a team quite like Lehigh this year.

This Mountain Hawk team too, so far, hasn't let their success get to their heads, and it shows, with their no-nonsense demeanor and their businesslike attitude.  They seem to be taking Bucknell quite seriously, as they should.

If Lehigh can play a crisp game this weekend - and hold onto the ball - they should get their three-game road trip kicked off with a crucial league victory.

Lehigh 41, Bucknell 24


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