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Game Preview, Lehigh at Fordham, 10/15/2011

(Photo Credit: Brian Kraker/The Ram)

To a lot of people in Patriot League circles, Fordham is a test case.

When it comes to a high-academic football program that also offers "football scholarships", i.e., aid for football players that is not needs-tested, Fordham is the only program that does business in this way.

Scholarships were supposed to - automatically, it seems - make the Rams into an FCS powerhouse.  Free of the yoke of needs-testing, Fordham was supposed to more glory for their football program.  More games against FBS opponents.  Domination over Patriot League opponents.  And - who knows? - perhaps even an invite to the FCS playoffs.

Two years into the experiment, nobody is talking about the FCS playoffs, nor are they talking about dominating the Patriot League.  With arguably the toughest-ever schedule in the history of the Patriot League, an injury-riddled Ram team is searching for an answer for the question of winning football games.

Four of their first five games on the road has made for a rough go at Rose Hill.

Their first game took place at UConn, home of a team which went to a BCS Bowl last year (thanks to the Big East's automatic qualifier for such a spot).  Their 35-3 drubbing may have not have been unexpected, but undoubtedly Ram fans had to be concerned about the fact that the Ram offense only had three first downs in the first half.

After evening their record with a 21-14 win over crosstown rival Columbia, the Rams then went on a road trip to Rhode Island of the CAA, where they lost to the, um, Rams, 21-17, on a late score by RB Travis Hurd. "That was a great college football game," head coach Tom Masella said after the game. "Give Rhode Island credit. They really came at us in the first half and I liked the way we responded in the second half but we have a young team that has to learn to play sixty minutes of football."

And in the last two weeks, it's only gotten more frustrating for the Rams and their fans.

First, it was a trip to Hamilton, NY, where Colgate senior RB Nate Eachus came back just in time from an injury to run over Fordham to the rune of 228 yards and 1 TD and throttle the Rams, 38-14.  "We made too many mistakes today," Masella said. "We can't turn the ball over that many times and expect to win on the road."

And just in case that wasn't challenging enough, a trip to the defending Ivy League champions last week completed the Rams' Theater of Pain tour, with a disappointing 35-20 defeat.

For a team that has Vince Lombardi and the "Seven Blocks of Granite" enmeshed in their legacy, it probably felt like they've been running into blocks of granite every week.

And even at home, a visit from No. 8 Lehigh probably won't be much easier for the Rams.

Lehigh is playing at an offensive level not seen since QB Dominic Randolph suited up for the Holy Cross Crusaders.  Senior QB Chris Lum, junior WR Ryan Spadola and senior WR Jake Drwal sit atop or near the top the statistical rankings in key offensive categories: total offensive yards/game (Lum, 1st, 375.0), receiving yards/game (Spadola, 1st, 147.0), and receptions/game (Drwal, 3rd, 8.17, and Spadola, 4th, 8.0).

Defensively, the Mountain Hawk defense took the lionization of Bucknell's super "D" linemen, senior DE Josh Eden and senior DT Robert De La Rosa, and turned it into a ten-sack performance by Lehigh's entire front seven.  Oh yeah, along the way they limited the Bucknell offense to only six points, too, with one field goal coming real late in the game.

And this Lehigh team has deftly sidestepped almost every mine that's been put in their way.

Liberty, a school in the FCS Top 25 that can offer 63 merit-based scholarships?  Lehigh prevailed, 27-24.  Yale, a school that doesn't have special scholarships for athletes, but nonetheless scholarships nearly the entire student body?  It was the Mountain Hawks in a laugher, 37-7.

At Lehigh these days, the "s" word - scholarships - is hardly mentioned.  It hardly needs to be.

It almost seems like they're setting out to prove that it's not "football scholarships" that win football games - it's top-notch athletes.  And whether with merit-based or need-based aid, they've been winning at a scale that is getting a lot of notice nationally.

The trick, of course, is to keep that going.

An odd quirk of Lehigh head coach Andy Coen's career at Lehigh is the fact that he's lost every single game going into the bye week. so despite all of Lehigh's success, it's one item on the bucket list that none of the current members of the team have been able to achieve.

And there's the constant worry that there will be that big slip-up - that game where the focus isn't quite there, the execution is just off, that allows Fordham, or some other Patriot League opponent, to derail this train.

Losing this weekend at Fordham could throw the train off the tracks.  It's this team's job to make sure it doesn't happen.

Game Notes
The game notes this week show a Lehigh team that is banged up a bit, necessitating the fourth lineup shuffle at that position in seven games.

Senior OL Jim Liebler, who is being held out with a head injury sustained against Bucknell, means senior OL Keith Schauder will switch to center, junior OL Mike Vuono will shift to guard, and 6'6 sophomore OL A.J. Hood will shift into the starting lineup again at right guard.  THat also means a true freshman, freshman OL Matt Douglas, slides into the No. 2 spot in the depth chart at center behind Schauder.

Junior TE Mark Wickware is still out, which has meant that junior TE Jamel Haggins will start for the second straight week, with sophomore TE Max Anderson backing him up at the No. 2 position.  Both Haggins and Anderson have fit in seamlessly at that position, catching six passes in the last two weeks.

On defense, senior LB Tanner Rivas will be out for his third straight game, but again, senior LB Fred Mihal has done a fantastic job in his spot, with 18 tackes, 1 sack and 3 passes defensed on the year so far.

And on special teams, junior RB Marcus Dormevil remains out - but, again, freshman RB Jason Suggs has filled in very well in his place, too, with 249 kickoff return yards to his credit.

With all the injuries, it's clear that Lehigh has been blessed with a lot of players that have stepped up when others have gone down.  It's a crucial reason why Lehigh is 5-1.

Weather Report
While this mess o' rain has afflicted both the Pennsylvania and Bronx surrounding areas, the good news is that the moisture is scheduled to be out of the area by Saturday, ending late on Friday.  However, something that bears mentioning: weather.com reports that not only will it be a high of 65 degrees, but that the conditions in the Bronx will likely be windy as well.

A Word on Fordham
You would think that playing in New York City, the unofficial "Media Capital of the World" would translate into lots of local media coverage. You might think there would be at least a reporter or two at their pregame   practices, and (like in Philadelphia) there would be a weekly press conference covering all the Division I football teams in the area, perhaps occurring at Dominc's down the street.

If you thought that, though, you'd be wrong.

The New York City sports media market, of course, there are two pro baseball teams, two pro football teams, two pro hockey teams, one pro soccer team and one pro basketball team.  And WFAN, one of the oldest sports radio talk stations in the nation, goes 24/7 with New York sports talk.

WFAN, in fact, is a frequent employer of former Fordham student broadcasters and producers.  For example, Lou Raffino, producer of the Imus in the Morning show, is a Fordham graduate, as is Collin McShane, news host on Imus and business reporter on the Fox Business News channel.

(And recently, McShane's student broadcasts of Fordham football were broadcast on the show, too, highlighting a call of a kickoff return from former Lehigh RB Ron Jean for a touchdown against the Rams.)

Despite a weekend where both baseball teams were getting a head start on their golf game, and the Giants were busy explaining away their inexplicable loss to the Seattle Seahawks last weekend, 1-4 Fordham football barely merited a mention in the local media.

When college football is mentioned - which is pretty infrequently - the talk tends to be about the quasi-local FBS teams: Army, UConn, Rutgers or Syracuse.  (And, occasionally, Notre Dame, due to their special place in the hearts of many Catholic readers.)

Can Fordham break into the top tier?  The hope is, with the season-opening game against UConn and a game at the new Yankee Stadium later this month versus Army, the Rams can be more of a part of the never-ending sports conversation in the five boroughs.

LFN's Drink of the Week
Yes, I'm going to go the superstitious route yet again.

If a Bronx Iced Tea worked the last two years, it should work again - and, better yet, it will be the second reference to an obscure, French liqueur this season.

To make a Bronx Iced tea, it requires: rum, Cointreau (there's that obscure French liqueur!), vodka, tequila, gin, lemon juice and cola. (Countreau is a special brand of Triple Sec, which substitutes nicely.) One will make you forget why you came to the Bronx; two, well, I don't know anyone who's been able to polish off two, so I can't say.

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 Fordham
Offense
Going into the season, head coach Tom Masella had a three-way race to see who the triggerman would be for the Rams' spread offense.

The question was: who would be able to be the best QB John Skelton-like combination of passing accuracy and mobility that Fordham's offense requires in order to get going?

On opening day, Masella's guy was freshman QB Peter Maetzold, a tall, athletic kid from Texas that seemed to be the closest thing the Rams had to Skelton, the future NFL quarterback.

But Maetzold played, well, like a freshman through the first four games of the year, As a result, Masella gave junior QB Ryan Higgins a chance instead of Maetzold last weekend - and he had a pretty good day (21/38, 2 TDs, 1 interception), though it still was in a losing effort.

In Fordham's game notes this week, Maetzold is listed atop the depth chart, but if Masella's postgame comments are anything to judge by, it looks like Higgins will be the starter again this week as well, based on his showing last weekend.

The pocket passer Higgins, who is built more like a linebacker, doesn't have the strong arm of Maetzold, who is more of a prototypical rail-thin spread quarterback.  But whomever Masella starts, both Ram QBs combined have a grand total of six touchdowns.  If the Rams hope to win, they'll have to have a much better day from one or the other.

The Rams' spread attack does indeed spread the ball around to a bunch of different receivers, with sixteen different Fordham position players catching at least one pass this year.  Their most reliable receiving target, however, is 5'8, 185 lb speedster junior RB Carton Koonce (163 yards receiving, 4 TDs) who primarily acts as a pass catcher out of the backfield.

Their next two top small, speedy receiving targets in the Rams' offense are senior WR Aaron Mays (8 catches, 99 yards) and freshman WR Sam Ajala (133 yards, 1 TD).  Another top target, freshman WR Brian Wetzel (11 catches, 172 yards), did not play in the Penn game due to injury, and is listed behind junior WR Blake Wayne (12 catches, 92 yards), last year's quarterback, on the depth chart.  It remains to be seen if Wetzel will play.

In contrast to the short, speedy wideouts, 6'3, 235 lb senior RB Darryl Whiting (296 yards rushing) is a workhorse running the ball, with junior RB Langston Lacroix (82 yards, 1 TD) spelling him.  Another true freshman, freshman TE Dan Lyght (7 catches, 46 yards, 1 TD), is the Rams' tallest target in the offense, at 6'4.

If you are a big fan of size on the offensive line, Fordham has it in spades, averaging over 300 lbs across (making them the biggest "O" line Lehigh's front seven will have seen all year).  Sophomore OL Thomas Fisher, at 6'7, 320 lbs, will be protecting the blind side.

Defense
Like last year, the Rams will play a multiple defense with a 3 man front, alternating between the 3-4 and 3-5-3 stack defenses. But some crucial injuries have made the Fordham defense more vulnerable than usual this year.

The anchor of the defensive front, 305 lb sophomore NG Justin Yancey has been hurt for most of the season thus far, which means junior NG John LaSure has been starting in his place.  No slouch himself physically at 6'7, 275, he, along with senior DE Andy Okonkwo and senior DT Patrick McGee, have not been that effective thus far getting much push in opponent's backfields, combining for only one tackle for loss on the season.

The linebacking unit, however, is the great strength of this defense.  Senior LB Nick Womack (20 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks), senior LB Andre Delaire (42 tackles, 1 interception), and sophomore LB Jake Rodriques (43 tackles, 1 sack) make up the most experienced section of the Ram team, and they're solid gang tacklers.

Injuries, too, have depleted the Ram secondary.  Two starters were out last week versus Penn, and a couple more true freshmen, freshman CB Vaughn Scott  and freshman SS Jake Dixon, dot a secondary with no interceptions so far on the year.  That has to have Lehigh offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini licking his chops. 

Special Teams
It seems like this Ram team has been doing a lot of juggling, trying to form some stability.  But there's one position where the Rams have complete stability - at punter.

Junior P Patrick Murray could be looking at a future NFL career with the numbers he's putting up - 46.8 yards per punt, including eight over 50 yards, and one that went 72 yards.  He's currently 4th in FCS in punting average, and if given the opportunity, could be a great weapon for the Rams in a battle of field position.

At kicker, though, Masella finally settled on another freshman, freshman PK Michael Marando, to take over the kicking duties.  Last week, he made field goals of 34 and 36 yards, seeming to solidify the Ram special teams this week.

Returning punts and kicks are freshman CB Vaughn Scott and junior WR Greg Wilson. Hard to believe, but the Rams only have four punt returns so far on the entire year, while injuries have pressed both Scott and Wilson into these duties.


LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Go for the Throat.  If there's one thing that would be good to see on this Lehigh team, it's a bit more "killer instinct" - to not give a team like Fordham any breathing room.  A big, early start would be great to see - and would really help towards a win.
2. Pressure Up Front.  Lehigh beat Bucknell with an extraordinary amount of pressure up front.  Whomever the starting QB might be, keeping him off balance with pressure will continue to be important - and to build off the great momentum from last week.
3. Special Care on Special Teams.  Murray's booming punts can be a weapon for the Rams - but it also could be an opportunity for senior WR Jake Drwal to get some extra room to break big returns.  For Lehigh's oft-struggling special teams units, a big score there would be a big morale boost.

Fearless Prediction
The Rams are a team with a lot of talent - it's very clear, when you look up and down their roster.  Unfortunately for Ram fans, that talent has been hurt, pushed into service extremely early, and hasn't been able to get in any sort of good rhythm so far this year.

At some point, the Rams will put things together and win some games.  But it's up to Lehigh to prevent that rhythm from happening this weekend.

If they do, Lehigh will give coach Coen his first-ever win going into a bye week - and in good time, too, to heal some guys up from injuries.

In the end - scholarships or no - Lehigh should be too much for the Rams to handle.

Lehigh 34, Fordham 6

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