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Game Preview: FCS Playoffs Second Round, Lehigh at Towson

(Photo Credit: Doug Kapustin, The Baltimore Sun)

If past performance were indicative of how things are going to go this Saturday, Lehigh would have nothing to worry about.

In eleven meetings with the Tigers, Lehigh   has gone 10-1 against Towson, and lit them up for more than 40 points in five of those meetings.

But nobody at Lehigh has any illusions that this Towson team will resemble those Tiger teams from the 1990s and 2000s.

The Tigers' story is an easy one to admire: from a 1-10 season to a 9-2 record in the SEC of FCS, Towson is easy to like, too recently a member of the FCS "haves" to be hated by anyone.  But even though they're a feel-good story, there's a reason these Tigers are CAA champions.  They are loaded with talent.

Towson's turnaround has come at least in part due to something the Tigers never were able to do as members of the Patriot League - attract transfers.

Head coach Rob Ambrose brought a couple kids from UConn with him when he took over the head coaching job after head coach Gordy Combs was terminated in 2009, and has also brought in a lot of transfers from FBS schools as well - nine in all.

These key transfers make up three of their top four receiving targets, the linebacker that leads the team in interceptions, and their second-leading sack artist.

So there's no question that there's a ton of new talent at Towson that will make this a very different experience for the Mountain Hawks.

Towson has also gotten lots of lessons in the school of hard knocks playing in the CAA, a conference that's been described as the SEC of the FCS due to the high quality of all the teams that comprise the league.

"People keep asking me if senior QB Chris Lum is the best quarterback we've faced all year, but that's a hard thing to say since we face great talent week after week after week," Ambrose said this week. "Lehigh is an incredibly strong, quality opponent. They'd fit in our league quite well. [But] this is like another week in the CAA facing a team with a different color jersey."

Towson will look a lot more like Delaware, last year's CAA champions that beat Lehigh 42-20 last year at Tubby Raymond Stadium second round of the FCS Playoffs than the Towson team Lehigh defeated 35-3 at Murray Goodman Stadium in 2003.

But playing the best is what the FCS Playoffs are all about.

There was a time not all that long ago when a team like Lehigh could have gone 9-1, played against Lafayette at the end of the year, and then it was up to voters - in the Engineers' case, Lambert Cup voters - to determine who they thought was the "champion" of the East.

(In FBS, no matter what anybody tells you, it's still determined in that way, no matter what computer "formulas" are used.)

But in FCS, if you're in the playoffs, there's no place to hide.  Survive a Tiger attack from Towson, and it could be a Bison stampede from North Dakota State the next.  You play the best, and you beat the best, and you'll have the chance to be national champions - the way it should be.

In FCS, the Lambert Trophy winner, given to the best team in the East, will not be in doubt when all is said and done.  If No. 1 Lehigh beats No. 2 Towson, and James Madison, New Hampshire, and Maine all lose on the road this weekend, Lehigh will be the best team in the East, no questions asked.

The playoffs are great because it removes all pretense. If Vikings head coach Dennis Green said, "You are what your record says you are," the playoffs show even more what type of team you are, too.

By the end of the game on Saturday, we will know exactly what types of teams both of these teams are.  And one of them will keep demonstrating what they are further into the playoffs, and the other team will not.

It's going to be one damned interesting - and fun, I think - game.

Game Notes And Injury Report
The pregame interviews and game notes make it very clear that senior WR Jake Drwal, who suffered a hip pointer in an extremely physical game against Lafayette two weeks ago, is 100% ready to roll against the No. 8-ranked team in the country this week. (That and the injury report provided by the Express-Times.)

The bye week, too, allowed a multitude of Lehigh players to rest up and get healed from little dings, though junior LB Sam Loughery and junior RB Zach Barket remain out with season-ending injuries.  Aside from those two injuries, Lehigh's basically injury-free going into this matchup.

Weather Report
With an unseasonably warm Rivalry clash two weekends ago, December will be felt at Johnny Unitas stadium in Towson this weekend, with a high of 47, and even a very slight chance at a snow flurry.  Crucially, with a 3:30 start time, it will get darker and colder at halftime, meaning the temperature will likely dip into the 40s and maybe into the high 30s when the game is complete.

Broadcast Information
There are two ways to watch the game if you haven't already planned to make the trip to Towson.

The first is to check if your cable company carries ESPN3, ESPN's online streaming solution for broadcast over the internet.  From there, you can watch the game on a mobile device, your computer, or, if you have an XBOX 360, on your computer.  (Better yet, you can mute the volume from ESPN's announcers, and listen to Matt Kerr and Kody Fedorha call the game on LehighSports.com or AM 1230 and 1320 in the Lehigh Valley.)

If your cable company does not offer ESPN3, you're in luck - thanks to fans in Montana, that is.

Thanks to the fan mutiny in the Treasure State, ESPN has made every game available as well through their pay-per-view option, ESPN Gameplan, meaning you can order the game through a "College Day Pass" through your cable company.

If you're interested, call your local cable company for details.  I have heard that the day pass is $26, and includes every college football game offered that day, so you can watch all eight FCS playoff games with that price.

More importantly, though, the fact that ESPN Gameplan is carrying the game allows folks to set up their own viewing parties of the game locally, where local watering holes subscribe to ESPN Gameplan on a regular basis.

From the Lehigh Side
There have been a multitude of different previews of this weekend's matchup, including Lehigh's official preview (with video interviews), but below I'll include exceprts from Keith Groller of the Morning Call (subscription required) and the Brown and White as well as two official interviews from the Patriot League as well.

Groller: Lehigh Playing for Patriot Pride, as Well as Its Own

The Mountain Hawks will take plenty of emotional ammunition with them to the Baltimore beltway, considering they are 0-7 in their last seven games against CAA foes, and Delaware eliminated them from last year's tournament. 
Lehigh played the Blue Hens, eventual national finalists, close for three quarters. This year, Lehigh wants to go the distance against a CAA heavyweight. 
"Our guys are confident, which is probably the most important intangible you can have at this time of year," Mountain Hawks coach Andy Coen said. "We played two of the traditional FCS powers on the road last year and there can't be a more hostile place than the UNI [University of Northern Iowa] Dome and we scared Delaware for 21/2 quarters last year. 
"We want to do more than scare people this year, and having gone through it last year means a lot. I'm hoping that's an advantage for us because this is going to be new for the Towson kids."
Brown & White: Football Team to Tackle Towson in FCS Playoffs

“As a defense, we have to eliminate the big plays,” senior LB Mike Groome said. “Besides containing the run, we have to get after their quarterback, who’s pretty athletic and likes to throw the ball deep.” 
“Towson has an athletic defense,” senior QB Chris Lum said. “If we rid the inconsistencies by eliminating penalties and turnovers, we’ll be in a position to win.” 
Whether the Hawks score enough will come down to the play of its veteran offensive line, led by seniors OL Troy McKenna and OL Jim Liebler
“Like all year, we have to play at a high tempo and play physical,” McKenna said. “We match up well with them athletically. Hopefully our defense holds their offense, so our offense can put up points.”


A Word on Towson
To say that the folks at Towson are excited about this football game would be an understatement.

For years, Towson has come close to the FCS playoffs, but never been able to get over the hump.

Picked last in the CAA this year at media day, the thought of making the playoffs, never mind hosting a playoff game, might have gotten you laughed out of the ESPN Zone in Baltimore where they hosted the event.

But the moment is here, and athletic director Mike Waddell, head coach Rob Ambrose and the entire Towson athletic department have gone into overdrive promoting this playoff event at their school.

Ambrose, himself a Towson graduate, knows how rare this moment is for his alma mater.

"There's so many sentences, statements, phrases and thoughts that have never been uttered here before," Ambrose said in regards to the playoffs in his weekly CAA teleconference. "It's what we're building toward and what we're building to keep. It's one hell of a time to be a Tiger."

Waddell and the athletic department have also engaged in a great campaign to get fans to come to Johnny Unitas Stadium to watch the second round matchup, making package ticket deals and making an all-out effort on Facebook and Twitter to ensure a great number of fans.

They even allotted 1,800 seats to Lehigh's ticket office and their fans - significantly more than the 500 required by the NCAA, and allows for the many Lehigh fans who are making the trip to sit in (somewhat) friendly confines.

All week they have aired interviews and insights from Towson athletics folks, too, about the success of their football team and the appearance of President Barack Obama on their campus to watch Towson take on Oregon State in an early-season men's basketball game.

It's as if they've been sitting for years, waiting for their 15 minutes of fame, and hitting the ground running.

Seriously, though, no matter what happens for their football team, it seems to me like everything that has transpired in the past week looks like the start of something special developing at Towson.  It sure doesn't seem like they're content to be doormats anymore, and they've made this playoff game into a great event.

I know I can't wait to come down there - and it's the same with a lot of fans, casual and rabid, of both teams.  A heaping amount of credit has to be given to the athletics department for making this so.

LFN's Drink of the Week
This one was hard.  Unlike many of the Ivies (and some Patriot League) teams Lehigh has faced, neither the town of Towson nor the Tigers have an official drink they call their own.  When looking for the Towson equivalent of the Tally Ho, no special drinks were mentioned at all - except "domestic drafts".

But then I saw exactly what "domestic draft" comes from Baltimore.

Read into this what you like, but when I was an undergraduate at Lehigh, when you just wanted beer, and didn't care where it came from, you got copious amounts of the cheapest beer you could find - in our case, which was Baltimore's finest: National Bohemian beer, or "Natty Bo" as it was then called.

Enjoy your wine spritzers.  Sip some Hot Toddies.  By all means, spike the hot chocolate with Rumplemintz.  But don't forget to bring a twelve-pack of National Bohemian, and watch Lehigh beat Towson, just like they did in the old days.

As always, Drinks of the Weeks only have a place in respectable tailgates, where those enjoying the Natty Bo's and other refreshments are over 21 and (for God's sakes) not driving.

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