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Breaking Down Towson, FCS Playoffs Second Round, 12/3/2011

(Photo Credit: The Baltimore Sun)

My brain says the bye week is a good thing for a football team.  Injuries get an opportunity to heal, there are more hours in the week to break down game film, and the student-athletes get a few days to sit back, relax, and contemplate what they've accomplished this year.

(It also gives another week for senior LB Mike Groome's playoff beard to grow out, to allow "Mike's beard to be big enough for everyone", as senior LB Colin Newton told me this week.)

But it also means that the wait for this weekend, with a full holiday weekend in between Lehigh's last regular season game and this week's "elimination game", has seemed endless.

But the wait is nearly over.

Below the flip, see Towson broken down, as well as my "Keys to the Game" - and, of course, the "Fearless Prediction".

Breaking Down Towson
You've probably heard before that Towson is a rushing offense, a team that will run more often than they pass.  But it's more accurate to call the Tiger offensive unit a "big play" offense - one that will use trickery and deception to connect on big plays for touchdowns.  In their 56-35 win over New Hampshire, for example, their offense only broke the New Hampshire red zone four times - the rest of their scoring came from scoring plays of 20 yards or more.

Towson runs more of a multiple set than a traditional "run it in the I formation and overpower the opposition" sort of offense.  They will spread the field, line up in 3 tight end sets - basically, they'll bring everything and the kitchen sink at you offensively - until they get a lead, when they then can run the ball and grind out the clock.

Much of the pregame accolades have been given to the easiest pick in history for for FCS Freshman of the Year, freshman RB Terrance West (1,242 yards rushing, 27 TDs).  The 5'11, 220 lb Tiger has been a revelation for Towson - a rare combination of speed and power that has him a constant threat to break into the secondary, and very tough to bring down once he gets there.  Against New Hampshire, he ripped off two touchdowns that accounted for 141 of his 261 rushing yards on the afternoon.

While not listed as the starter, he has steadily seen more and more touches as the season has gone along, and hasn't slowed much.  He'll get the ball 20-25 times a game, and when he doesn't get the rock it will go to  freshman RB Trea Jones (125 yards), speedy junior RB Tremaine Dameron (307 all-purpose yards, 3 TDs), or junior RB Dominique Booker (414 all-purpose yards, 3 TDs).  Aside from West, Towson's backs have all been out multiple games this year for one reason or another, but have been able to plug in replacements easily with a stable of different players.

At quarterback, 6'3, 212 lb sophomore QB Grant Enders is a physical, running quarterback that will take off with the ball and go with it as often as he'll use fakes to connect to his open receivers.  Like West, he's tough to bring down - sort of like a taller version of Payton Award-winner QB Ricky Santos of New Hampshire a few years ago.

His numbers aren't gaudy (1,867 yards passing, 224 yards rushing, 18 TDs) but he's improved immensely as the season has gone along, using the strength of the running game to become much more effective passing.  Against Rhode Island to close out the season, he went 20-for-26 passing for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns passing.

In Towson's passing game, there's no real favorite receiver - just different guys that seem to get open each week to exploit holes in coverage.  Junior WR Tom Ryan (563 yards, 3 TDs), junior WR Gerrard Shepard (209 yards, 1 TD), sophomore WR Leon Kinnard (308 yards), sophomore TE James Oboh (297 yards, 3 TDs), or senior FB Tyler Wharton (179 yards, 5 TDs), it doesn't matter: when teams double down on the run, all five have been effective in moving the offense and exploiting opposing defenses all year.

What scares a lot of folks around the CAA - and might even frighten head coach Rob Ambrose a little - is that there are only two seniors on the starting offense - Wharton, and senior OL Henry Glackin, the starting right tackle.  The effective, athletic offensive linemen that have made their CAA championship a reality will be returning next year - including the rest of the cast of Tigers.

Towson's multiple 4-3 should look very familiar: their defensive coordinator, Matt Hachmann, was a part of Frank Tavani's staff at Lafayette for eight years, including the four-year stretch where the Leopards beat Lehigh four straight from 2004-2007.

While not identical, they'll do a lot of the same stuff philosophically that those Lafayette teams did: blitz from a lot of different areas, and disguise things very well.  The one plus Lehigh has is that it's a unit that has also given up its share of points in CAA play as well.

Like those Lafayette teams, Towson's defensive strength is in their front seven, with junior DE Romale Tucker (69 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks) and junior DE Frank Beltre (65 tackles, 4 sacks) frequently coming from the edges in bltizes.  They're not the biggest "D" line Lehigh has faced all year, but they are extremely quick and athletic.

With the "D" line doing the lion's share of the pushing, it allows the opportunistic Tiger defense to hang back a little, with the tackling led by junior LB Denzel White (77 tackles, 1 forced fumble) and junior LB Alexander DiSanzo (64 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, 3 interceptions).  Like the rest of the team, they're not built for size, but rather are built for speed.

It's worth noting that Towson's weakness in CAA play was pass efficiency defense, where the Tigers were 8th in their league, but it's also worth noting that they also were near the top of the league in takeaways, too, which shows their tendency to try for the turnover more than the tackle.  Junior FS Jordan Dangerfield (82 tackles, 2 interceptions) and freshman CB Tye Smith (54 tackles, 2 interceptions) anchor this young unit.

Like the offense, there are only two seniors on this starting eleven - a scary prospect for the rest of the CAA.

Special Teams
The good news for Lehigh is that the Tigers' kicking game has both not been big-game tested - nor have they played a huge factor in the outcome of games.  Sophomore PK D.J. Soven has only attempted seven field goals all year, making six of them, while freshman P R.J. Peppers only has a 35.4 average on punts, with only 6 making it inside the 20 yard line.  (Soven has been near-perfect in extra points, however.)

The bad news is their return game, starring freshman DB D.J. Joseph, has been quite good, especially lately. Joseph ran back a key kickoff return for touchdown against New Hampshire, and his speed will certainly test Lehigh's return units.

LFN's Keys to the Game

1. Winning the Toss.  If I'm head coach Andy Coen, I'd be looking to get the ball first and put pressure on this Towson team to come from behind to beat the Mountain Hawks.  Should Lehigh win the toss, I'd elect to receive, and see if I can jump out to a quick touchdown lead over the Tigers.  And should that become an early 14-0 lead over the Tigers, look out.

2. Preventing Big Plays.  Other teams have been eaten alive by Towson's big play abilities.  It will be crucial for Lehigh to prevent those at all costs, keep the play in front of them - and tackle extremely well.  If Lehigh can limit Towson's big plays - like they've done all year - they will have a chance to win.

3. Taking Care of the Ball.  Towson licks their chops when they get turnovers.  It will be up to senior RB Matt Fitz, senior QB Chris Lum and the rest of the offense to protect that ball - and not give away points to Towson.

4. Playing Lehigh Football.  This team has heard a lot about the CAA, scholarships, and respect the last two weeks.  On the football field this weekend, though, none of those things are there - just two teams, looking to advance.  It took playing a certain way to get you there: and sticking with it is the key to victory this weekend.

Fearless Prediction
Towson, the CAA champions, will be unrecognizable from the Towson team that Lehigh faced eight years ago.

They are built for success at the FCS level - for years to come.  And their transformation and turnaround has been a sight to behold.

But the playoffs require something a little bit different than the regular season.

Lehigh knows this.  They were there last year, and much of the same core of players are also suiting up this weekend.  They have an idea about what sort of mental toughness is required to go the distance in the playoffs.

Towson may have the freshman of the year.  They may have a CAA championship.  But I think this will be a game where experience counts just a tiny bit more than raw talent.

The Tigers will be back in this position plenty of times in the future.  But with a Walter Payton award finalist quarterback and a team that has been there before, I think Lehigh wins this game.

Lehigh 41, Towson 22


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