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Game 6 Breakdown: Columbia at Lehigh, 10/6/2012

(Photo Credit: Columbia Athletics)

We break down the Columbia game - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.

WEATHER UPDATE: The weather situation for this weekend is evolving at this point, though the high of 68 and the 30% chance of showers remain.  Isolated thundershowers are now in the possible weather forecast for this weekend, so pack appropriately.  I happen to think that the weather will hold steady, and if it does, it will be an excellent October day at the stadium, which also happens to be "NCAA Take a Kid to the Game" day.

And when you do, Joe Uliana, ambassador to the Lehigh football program, also has this to say:

Off the field, we will be honoring the 55th Anniversary of the 1957 Lambert Cup Team at our pregame tailgate at the Rust Pavilion. Sixteen members from the team will be back and they will be honored on the field at halftime. If you are coming to the game, please stop by the Rust Pavilion to say hello to everyone and to tailgate with other former Lehigh Football players.  Also, the annual Jim Mahlbacher ’80 Scholarship fundraiser held by the Delta Upsilon brothers and players will be held this weekend.  Their tailgate area is near the Rust Pavilion so please stop by and say hello to them as well.

Let's now dive into the breakdown of the young Lions.

Breaking Down Columbia
The Mountain Hawks will now be facing their third first-year head coach in their third consecutive week - Lion head coach Pete Mangurian.

You would think that this would be a great advantage to head coach Andy Coen, since they are facing a team trying to find itself, but in ways it's.  Since the opposing team is experimenting, tinkering, trying to find out what works, you don't know from one week to the next what they might throw at you - one week it might be the spread, the next the triple-option.  Indeed, if the team is struggling enough, it might be the only advantage they have - the element of surprise.

(It's worth mentioning that all three of these teams, and in this mix you can add the "who's going to start?" QB situation posed by Princeton coach Bob Surace in Week 3, have tried to use surprise as a key element to their strategy for beating the Brown & White.) 

Against Princeton - visible from the highlight reel helpfully attached to the Lehigh preview on Columbia Athletics' web page - you can see hints of a spread-style offense, with a lot of passing highlights, yet against the Tigers, the Lions essentially kept a balanced offense, though, with 30 rushing attempts and 35 passing attempts.  It seems like Mangurian wants to establish a balanced offensive attack, but hasn't been able to do so yet. 

That's not due to the talent level of senior QB Josh Brackett, though, the 6'1, 190 lb signalcaller for the Lions.  Last year, he was a speedy multi-faceted quarterback, a solid runner and - when he's on - a decent passer as well.  However, thus far this year, he's spent more time in the pocket and less time wandering on designed runs - it's worth noting that he only carried the ball 4 times against Fordham.  It's also worth noting that Brackett's extra time in the pocket hasn't paid many dividends for the boys in Baby Blue thus far - Columbia is averaging less than 200 yards passing per game, and have enjoyed only one touchdown pass in three games thus far.

Which leads us to junior RB Marcorus Garrett (80 rushes, 354 yards, 1 TD), a durable back who ran for more than 30 attempts against both Marist and Fordham, and is clearly a key part of the Columbia offensive puzzle - when all the pistons are firing.  Indeed, it's easy to picture Brackett taking off on option-pass plays, Garrett going through gaps on spread running plays, and keeping defenses off balance.  (Sophomore FB Stephen Silvio, the other back in the offense, doesn't have a carry yet this year.  It looks like Mangurian mostly operates out of a three-wideout set, thus leaving Silvio in only in short-yardage or goal line situations.)

The trouble is Columbia is trying to do all of this with a very inexperienced, and surprisingly undersized, offensive line.

I'm often leery at simply looking at the sizes and weights on the "O" line to pass judgement on the efficacy of that unit, but when senior OL Scott Ward is the largest (and most experienced) body on the line at 6'7 and 278 lbs, it does make one's eyebrows raise.  It is not a prerequisite for all offensive linemen to be over 300 lbs to be effective, but footwork and efficiency in the blocking scheme is.  For what it's worth, the unit seemed to handle Princeton's extremely talented "D" line pretty well on the highlight reel.

But there's also the matter of experience - there are only three uperclassmen on the two-deep on offensive line, and the entire interior of the line is comprised of either true freshmen or sophomores.

And to be frank, their "O" line had a rough game last weekend statistically.  The Lion rushing attack only averaged 1.8 yards per rush, and allowed two sacks.  Columbia only managed just over 200 yards of total offense against the Tigers.  For all of Lehigh's struggles against Princeton, they did manage to gain 400 yards on them.

In fact, the more you look at Columbia, the more it looks like their inexperienced "O" line has been keeping them more vanilla and conservative offensively than they'd like, even with the emergence last weekend of sophomore WR Connor Nelligan (11 catches, 102 yards) as a primary receiving threat.  At 6'3, 198, he's definitely a guy that Lehigh will need to keep an eye on all game - clearly a guy with a lot of talent.

After Nelligan, freshman WR Isaiah Gross (10 catches, 153 yards) and junior WR Louis DiNovo (102 yards recieving, 1 TD) are the key pass-receiving wideouts, with 6'5 junior TE Hamilton Garner (5 catches, 44 yards) another intriguing receiver should Brackett get time to pick apart a defense.

As much as Columbia has struggled thus far on offense, the Lion defense has been ferocious.

How ferocious?  The Lions are second in the nation in sacks per game - no joke - by averaging 3.67 per game.  In tackles for loss, they average 7.67 per game.  That's a front seven that is playing spectacularly well by any measure.

The Lions come at you with a base 4-3 defense, and - unsurprisingly, with those numbers - the front seven is loaded with upperclassmen, with six of the seven starting spots manned by seniors.

The defensive ends, senior DE Josh Martin (16 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) and senior DE Will Patterson (13 tackles, 2 sacks) are speed-rushers extraordinaire - Lehigh has not faced such a combination of speed and tackling on the "D" line thus far this year. Senior NG Greg Lee and senior DT Shad Sommers round out the unit in the interior.

In the middle stands the only non-senior in the starting lineup, junior LB Zach Olinger, who leads the team with 28 tackles and is tied for the team lead in interceptions (1) could be their best linebacker.  On the sides, senior LB Mike Waller (25 tackles, 1 interception) and senior LB Ryan Murphy (20 tackles, 1 sack) are the final pieces of the puzzle - a very strong front seven, and one that could be the toughest Lehigh has faced since the Liberty game.

As good as their front seven has been, though, their secondary has been more pedestrian, though they have notched two interceptions in 3 games.  Junior SS Marquel Carter (14 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception) has been the best athlete in the secondary thus far.  Teams are averaging 288 yards passing against the Lions, which puts them in the lower half statistically in the nation.

Special Teams
Columbia's special team coverage units were, um, not all that special last weekend - they allowed a 94 yard kickoff return to Princeton CB Anthony Gaffney for a touchdown that could have been the play of the game in that it allowed Princeton to jump to a 14-0 lead from which the Lions could not recover.

While Columbia doesn't list their return units on their two deep, freshman DB Brandon Blackshear notched a 21 yard punt return last week, and sophomore RB Alec Fisher and freshman RB Trevor Bell did a fine job on kickoff returns as well, ripping off 176 yards in 7 returns, good for nearly a 25 yard per rush average.  Senior PK Jake Peery will hopefully putting the ball deep in the end zone to keep them from being weapons.

Junior PK Luke Eddy, with a 41 yard field goal last week, obviously has a fine leg, though he is 1-for-3 from distance this year.  Junior Paul Delaney has a 37.5 average on punts - in the lower echelon in terms of Lehigh's opponents this year - but does sport two 50+ yard punts this year as well.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Busting it Deep.  It might be time to allow senior QB Michael Colvin to air it out a bit more to test out the speed of Lehigh's receiving corps.  I think some well-placed passes to junior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto and senior WR Ryan Spadola could soften up the aggressive Columbia defense and really cement this in the win column for Lehigh.
2. Don't Let the Gaps Get It.  A small "O" line doesn't necessarily mean a bad "O" line, but no matter what the size of the opponents, the key is to plug gaps to stop the run game.  Stop Garrett, as Princeton did, and Columbia could have a long day offensively.  That's what Lehigh needs to do on Saturday.
3. Stomp on the Throat Early.  Words can't describe how that early kickoff return for touchdown helped Princeton to an easy win last weekend.  Jumping out to an early lead would go a long way towards a Lehigh victory this weekend, too, and will force Brackett and Columbia to pass a lot more often than they'd like.

Fearless Prediction
Columbia is a team in transition, looking for a signature win.  But they are not a team devoid of talent.

They are  a team looking for big things - every team is - but they are still trying to figure it all out.  The question for Lehigh fans, of course, is: will they figure it all out this weekend, and make this a game?

As senior DE Anthony Verderame said, the key for Lehigh is to come out with defensive intensity over the full forty minutes and shut down the Lions' nascent offense.  This can be done, but it has to come with a warning: Columbia has some very good athletes on offense, too.  WR Connor Nelligan looks like a real up-and-comer, and you have to wonder, what if QB Sean Brackett finds him again for 11 receptions?  What happens?

It's kind of amazing that, on the Lehigh side, there are still so many questions to answer, despite the 5-0 record, the "just win, baby" element of this team, which makes these games so hard to handicap.  If last weekend's offense joins up with the defense from Week 2, this is a laugher. But join up the Week 3 offense and last week's defense, though, and we could have yet another cardiac finish.

I'll be looking to see how Lehigh improves this week.  I think they will get better than last week - and if so, it will spell trouble for the guys in Baby Blue.  If not, though, don't be surprised to see yet another cardiac finish.

Lehigh 31, Columbia 13


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