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Know Your 2012 Opponents: Fordham

Technically, it could be considered a non-conference game.

While Fordham is a part of the Patriot League, and their players show up in the preseason and postseason league all-America teams, since they started to offer merit-based aid for football players, they continue to be ineligible for the league title, and their wins and losses against teams in the League only serve to break ties.

But they're not just a non-conference game.

Fordham's players know what this game means for their program in 2012.  Rules might determine that they can't win a Patriot League title, but they know if they sweep the Patriot League they have an excellent chance to make the field as an at-large team.

The centerpiece of that argument would be a win over nationally-ranked Lehigh.

After the Rams went 1-10 in Year Two of their Big Football Scholarship adventure, head coach Tom Masella was relieved of his duties at the end of last season.

If the folks on Rose Hill that thought that football scholarships would make Fordham into world-beaters by 2011, winning a virtual Patriot League trophy last year, they couldn't have been more mistaken.

Aside from the obvious issue with the won/loss record, the Rams were in the upper half of FCS statistically in exactly two categories: net passing and net punting.

That's not exactly a recipe for success.

With "scholarship athletes", Fordham finished 119th out of 120 teams in stopping the run.  They also finished 119th out of 120 teams in scoring offense as well.

In a game that could have been emblematic of the entire 2011 season, Fordham played their second FBS team on the schedule upstate against Army - and lost 55-0 in a snowstorm.

"Fordham struggled in all phases in its 55-0 loss and, adding salt to the wound, a bus of about 20 players broke down on the way to the game," Fordham's student paper, The Ram, reported,  "preventing them from making it. Many other students, on the way to the game, were forced to return home before they even arrived due to a snow storm."

Playing with about 2/3rds of their squad, and their pass-focused game grounded by weather, Fordham had no chance.  Army "ran at will" against the Rams and racked up a 42-0 lead in the first half, and didn't look back.

On a long-awaited day where players, fans and Alumni had a chance to play at one of the hallowed places of college football, Michie Stadium, instead it was a forgettable white-out, where most fans couldn't even attend due to the weather.

But it wasn't just against FBS teams where the Rams struggled.  They struggled against pretty much everyone.

Against their Patriot League opponents, Fordham lost every game by over 20 points, giving up 38 points to Colgate, 30 to Georgetown, and 41 to Holy Cross. 

What were the obstacles scholarships could not overcome? 

Well, first of all, injuries.  When I talked about Lehigh's trip to the Bronx last year, I talked about a team that already had some big injuries and had been pressing some young kids into service early.

And in Lehigh's 34-12 win against Fordham last year, some uncomfortable themes to the Rams' year keep rearing their ugly heads.  Untimely turnovers.  Inability to convert 3rd downs.  Falling behind 20-5 by halftime, and being unable to claw back into the game.

I was always a big fan of coach Masella, whom I always called the Tinkerer, always tweaking this, changing that, never satisfied with the final product.  But I can't say I blame the folks at Fordham for making a change after last season.  No matter how you look at the season, it was as ugly as it gets.

*****

To help turn things around, outgoing athletic director Frank McLaughlin called someone up at UConn that ended up becoming the first Patriot League student-athlete to become a head football coach anywhere.

Joe Moorhead, who was a three-year starter for the Rams at QB, was introduced this December as Fordham's next head coach with a mission from Frank, according to The Ram: "This is not a rebuilding program,"McLaughlin said, apparently to the surprise of anyone who had actually seen a Fordham game last year. "We expect to be successful this coming year."

Moorhead was instrumental at UConn as offensive coordinator, where RB Jordan Todman was an instrumental reason why the Husky offense won the Big East and earned a well-publicized trip to the Fiest Bowl against Oklahoma.

He also seems, in many ways, to be a perfect fit on Rose Hill as "the Fordham guy who will bring Fordham back on top".

"Just over 15 years ago, following our last-second 24-21 comeback win against Harvard in Cambridge, I was asked by a reporter from the Boston Globe about Fordham's football tradition and my response to him was, ‘Fordham football used to be an eastern powerhouse, and that our goal is to put Fordham football back on the map,'" Moorhead said. "That was my plan as a player, and that will now be my unrelenting mission as the leader of this program. This coaching staff will not rest until we put Fordham football back on the map." 
"I like an up-tempo offense," Moorhead said. "I like things that dictate the tempo and I like to get our speed in space and create explosive plays." 
Defense will be no different, as Moorhead stated his intentions to pressure opposing offenses and dictate games. "Defensively, we're going to play multiple fronts and coverages," Moorhead said. "We're going to be a pressure team. We're going to attack the line of scrimmage. We're going to work to shut down the run on first and second down and eliminate explosive plays. When third down comes along, we're going to get after the passer and make sure that we're disrupting route concepts and getting the quarterback on the ground."

Moorhead cleaned house with the coaching staff, bringing in an all-new defensive coordinator (David Blackwell/South Florida), and a trio of offensive "coordinators" that split up the offensive coaching duties. 

One of these coordinators, the "Pass Game Coordinator", comes to Fordham from UConn, Andrew Breiner, where he's been spending this season working with three new faces at QB - and one familiar one.

Junior QB Michael Nebrich, who saw some game action against - of all teams - Fordham in a 35-3 blowout, transferred to Rose Hill in an effort to become their opening day starter, where he'll be working with the two guys he worked closest with in Storrs.

Nebrich's presence seems to have done one thing in particular: lit a fire under the three current QBs, senior QB Ryan Higgins, sophomore QB Peter Maetzold, and sophomore QB Nick Glogau.

Higgins, an athletic but erratic gunslinger in 2011, went 13-for-20 in the Ram's most recent scrimmage with 4 touchdowns, sending a clear message that he won't give up the starting QB position without a fight.

Moorhead told the New York Post that he was in no rush to determine the starter.

“As soon as we’re ready, we’ll name a starter,” Moorhead said. “Michael just got here, he’s got two practices under his belt so we’re trying to expedite the learning process and get him some reps. We don’t play for 16 days so we can let the guys compete and see who does best.”

Whomever the starter will be, he'll have some veteran targets to throw to.  Senior WR Blake Wayne (349 yards, 1 TD) and senior WR Greg Wilson (539 yards, 4 TDs) could see more action in Moorhead's up-temp style.

There's also senior leadership in the backfield with senior RB Carton Koonce (309 yards receiving, 4 TDs) and senior RB Langston Lacroix (135 yards rushing), but neither are true power-running backs.

Defensively there is probably no more anticipated return from injury than that of senior NT Justin Yancey, the 6'0, 295 lb cement mixer in the middle of the "D" line that seemed, at one time, to show the Patriot League the type of athlete that could come to the Patriot League with merit-based aid: talented, smart kids, that will play good football and graduate with the rest of the class.

He'll join an experienced linebacking corps including junior LB Jake Rodriques (69 tackles, 5 tackles for loss) and senior LB Michel Martin (94 tackles) that - if healthy - looks awful good on paper, with eight returning starters (nine if you count Yancey).

But that's just it.  The Rams look good - on paper.  Many people see that,   but the Tinkerer couldn't get all the pistons to fire at the same time, andwas let go as a result.

Many of these same players are back this year, with a new first-time head coach who will be installing his new system, his new legacy, his way. 

This makes Fordham a giant wild card going into the season.  It's easy to see them soar over .500 and perhaps even make a go at an at-large to the FCS playoffs.  But it's also easy to see Moorhead struggle in his first year, even with all the apparent talent on the roster.

If the Liberty game theme was "national", this game's theme is "Texas Hold 'Em".  Will we see a 3 and and 8, or pocket kings?

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