Two top-notch programs in FCS.
Two football programs that are on the map nationally.
That's what the matchup down in Lynchburg, Virginia promises this Saturday evening when the Flames host the Mountain Hawks.
It also happens to be a game of opposites.
Lehigh, at 3-0, hasn't always looked like the No. 13 team in the country, but has done what it takes to win. And 0-3 Liberty hasn't always looked like a winless team, but also hasn't gotten over the hump and made the one big play to get into the victory column this year.
For Lehigh, this game was always going to be really special.
Liberty is very well known for its impressive gameday atmosphere in Williams stadium - Its sellout crowds, its noise, the sea of red on gameday that makes you think that you're in, say, Ohio State rather than an FCS home stadium.
And people who follow college football know that football games that "feel" big-time are not only the domain of FBS. They know that places like Montana, Appalachian State, North Dakota State and Delaware are hallowed fields of play that can carry big-time crowds and excitement.
The buzz of the environment in Lynchburg was something never far from the lips of head coach Andy Coen on Wednesday, as well as junior FB Zach Hayden and junior DB Tyler Ward.
"The biggest thing is how quick we catch up to the environment there," Coen said at the weekly press luncheon. "They have a very passionate fan base, a great student body there that is going to support their team, and for the first time we're going to have a real home-field advantage [for Liberty] that we're going to have to handle."
"I've been to a state championship at Liberty," Ward said, whose family lives about an hour from Liberty's campus. "I know they fill the stands pretty much every weekend. It's definitely going to be a really good atmosphere."
"Any time you can play in front of a crowd like that it gets you fired up," Hayden said, a gleam clearly forming in his eye as he said it. "Last time I got that feel was out in North Dakota [for the FCS playoffs], and hopefully this time we can have a different turn of events."
In terms of fan experience, Liberty's stadium stands alongside those places - even if, as of yet, they haven't delivered a Flames berth in the FCS playoffs.
And if they are hoping to make the playoffs this season, time for the Flames is running short.
Granted, their schedule has been a Theater of Pain tour that any FCS programs, or even many FBS programs, might find challenging.
Start with a trip to Wake Forest - where the Flames came close, but not close enough, to upset the Demon Deacons, falling 20-17.
Then it was a quick jaunt home, to face off against the nationally-ranked Norfolk State Spartans of the MEAC, where they lost 31-24.
And then what does Turner Gill's team do for an encore? Why, they travel to nationally-ranked Montana to face the Griz in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, one of the toughest places to play anywhere, anytime, where his Flames fell yet again, 34-14.
Three games, one FBS opponent, two Top 25 teams that made the playoffs last year. All losses.
Might they be the best 0-3 team in the country? Quite possibly. Aside from Savannah State, who were shut out against Oklahoma State and Florida State in consecutive weeks to start the season, no other FCS school has faced as challenging a schedule as the Flames.
Now, for the fourth straight week, Liberty welcomes yet another Top 25 team and yet another team that made the playoffs last year: Lehigh.
For Lehigh, it's a taste of what could be a part of Lehigh's future, if they keep things together: plane trips, perhaps, to other national sites in the FCS playoffs. (Hopefully this time, all the flights will have senior WR Ryan Spadola on them, like this one.) Zach seemed to epitomize the excitement such games bring to the team: the ability to play on the national level of FCS, in front of a crowd who doesn't usually get to see them play.
For Lehigh, it's a chance to make a lasting impression - one that will linger in Virginia, and perhaps nationally, for years to come.
The question is, what sort of impression will the Mountain Hawks make?
This week's game notes feature yet again some shuffling on the offensive line as senior OL Tom Ruley returns to the starting lineup, shifting senior OL Vinny Pelligrini to right guard and senior OL Mike Vuono to right tackle. It is the fourth different offensive line configuration in four games for the Mountain Hawks. Pellegrini alone has already played three different positions on the "O" line.
Michael LoRe of the Express-Times broke the story that senior RB Marcus Dormevil will be returning punts this week in the place of sophomore DB Jason Suggs, who struggled last weekend. The punt return situation will be interesting to watch on Saturday to see how Dormevil does, and to see if Suggs gets another opportunity back there at some point.
Some very encouraging injury news, too: senior TE Jamal Haggins, who was sidelined with a high ankle sprain against Monmouth in the opener, was cleared to return to practice this week. How much he will be able to contribute against Liberty is a "day-to-day" thing, according to coach Coen, but with junior TE Max Anderson out with a foot injury against Princeton, Haggins will mix on the depth chart with sophomore TE Tyler Coyle, and one of the heroes of last week's game, sophomore TE Dylan Colgate. Even if Haggins comes back only in blocking situations his presence should be a big boost for this offense.
People don't often think about the long snapper on special teams, but Lehigh will be starting freshman LB Matt Laub as the long snapper this week since junior LS Kyle Lechner broke his hand. Laub has been a revelation this year as a freshman backing up senior LB Billy Boyko at inside linebacker, and perhaps there will be a bit of a closer eye on him this weekend in Lynchburg as well on punts and kicks.
"It's a big stage for a young kid," Coen told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "He's done a great job in practice. Hopefully, we don't have to punt a lot because it's going to be loud and there will be a big crowd there [in Lynchburg, Va.], but Matt has really worked hard and will do a good job."
For anyone who is going to be on the flight to Lynchburg or knows someone on it, rest assured that the weather in Lynchburg is scheduled to be a beautiful day with a high of 81 and only a 20% chance of showers. It's in stark contrast to the last time Lehigh traveled down to Liberty in 2004 - by bus, no less - where a rainstorm knocked out the radio broadcast in the Valley as Lehigh prevailed 34-16. (I didn't go to that game, but the rainstorm certainly affected me that day!)
A Word on Liberty
If you want a great snapshot as to where Liberty's football team stands right now, Chris Lang of the Lynchburg News-Advance is required reading.
And if you read his pieces, you pick up on three big themes thus far for the Flames: injuries, change, and senior WR Ryan Spadola.
It should come as no surprise that the Howell, New Jersey native is getting special focus by the Flames' defense this week. After all, "The Answer" is a finalist for the Walter Payton award, which is effectively the Heisman Trophy for the FCS, and he also averages 98 yards per game receiving, which is good enough for 13th nationally.
Ryan also showcased his speed and ability last year at home in Lehigh's 27-24 win over the Flames, where a huge touchdown play after an onsides kick grabbed early momentum.
"We knew at a certain point of time, we were going to try to grab momentum," Coen said after the game. "It was something we worked on all week, and PK Jake Peery did a really super job on it [in practice]. We had a lot of confidence in it, and the one he hit it the game looked even better than the ones he hit in practice."
And only one play later, senior QB Chris Lum would find Spadola in a gap in coverage with a perfectly situated pass - and just like that, one play and 55 yards later, Lehigh was up 10-3 early in the second quarter.
It so happens that the corner that was burnt on that play last year, senior CB Walt Aikens, returns this year and knows a little something about how to cover Ryan, according to Lang's report.
“You’ve got to be physical with him," he told Lang in the press conference. "A lot of receivers don’t like it when the corner is physical with them. You try to get in his head, bump him up a couple of times and see how he responds to that.”
The battle this weekend of Spadola vs. Aikens - who had a pretty good day overall last year, grabbing two interceptions against Lum in the game in Murray Goodman - will certainly be one to watch this Saturday.
But there will also be plenty more to watch, too - notably, what new changes come out of head coach Turner Gill's meetings this week, thanks to injury or other changes.
It's highly unusual for a coach to overhaul the way he does things in the middle of the season, but that's exactly what Gill did a few weeks ago when he announced that he would be giving up his play-calling duties and handing them instead to (new) offensive coordinator Aaron Stamn.
Furthermore, this week he also "wanted to cut down on some of the playbook and simplify the offense this week in hopes of limiting some of the procedural mistakes that have happened in the first three games," according to Lang.
That's a pretty unusual move to make after three games already in the books.
And that's to go along with a slew of other injuries as well to key players who might not play on Saturday.
LB Dallas Griffiths, LB Chase Griffiths, OL Malcom Boyd, S Chris Mayo and DT Francis Bah are just four of the names of players that are either out, doubtful or questionable for this weekend's game. Boyd, a preseason All-American in some publications, is a giant blow on Liberty's offensive line, and Bah, another preseason projected starter in the defensive front, is another huge missing player if he can't go.
How will all this affect the Flames on Saturday?
LFN's Drink of the Week
Last year, I made an exception for my "Drink of the Week". Since Liberty University is a Christian university that does not allow drinking on campus, I chose O'Doul's as my 'Drink of the Week', a non-alcoholic beer. Normally I'd keep the tradition alive to not change a winning drink, but as this trip to Lynchburg is the second in my lifetime - and is officially a place where Moonshine is a big part of the local history - what to do?
I thought about making the drink a Lynchburg Lemonade - actually, one of my favorites. But since drinking one could get you kicked off of campus, I though perhaps just Lemonade might be a better choice. So I'd suggest getting a couple quarts of Paul Newman's Lemonade, and enjoying it for your tailgate.
(If you're feeling particularly liberal - like Mr. Newman, I hasten to add - you might want to also slip a finger of Kirsch in there, to make it a Schlemonade - three parts lemonade, one part Kirsch. Trust me. It's a drink I actually invented myself.)
I implore you to please drink responsibly when tailgating. As always, I don't mind folks enjoying a few drinks - but for Heaven's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car afterwards. And remember, again, Liberty is a dry campus with dry tailgates, so don't enjoy a Schlemonade on their campus. Thanks.
The Five Songs On My Mixtape for Liberty
You all probably saw this coming - a song on my mixtape with which Tipper Gore does not approve. Hopefully they'll still let me in the press box on Saturday with the following five songs on the walkman.
1. Big Balls (AC/DC)
2. Red Solo Cup (Toby Keith)
3. Animal (F*** Like a Beast) (W.A.S.P.)
4. Because I Got High (Afroman)
5. Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now (McFadden & Whitehead)