When most people think of Bucknell, they tend to think of basketballs, not footballs.
Part of that comes from their upset of Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, the, um, SECOND most talked-about Patriot League upset over a legendary hoops program in the NCAA tournament.
Occasionally, when the Bison start out strong, the local parer, the Daily Item, has some good coverage of the team in their backyard. It sometimes even shares space with Penn State, whose long shadow covers Lewisburg as well.
But with a 1-5 start, the local reporters don't file the same reports. After the Bison's 35-7 drubbing at Harvard, there were many Boston-area reports of progress, but nothing from Bucknell's local paper.
You have to go to The Bucknellian, the Bison's school newspaper, to get some decent coverage of the football team.
“Our team continues to play hard at every position through the course of the game,” head coach Joe Susan said. “We need to eliminate turnovers and do a better job of catching the ball in our receiver group. We are bringing along more young players. In this league you cannot stay young very long.”
“We have shown resilience as a team. We will work hard to put together an effective game plan against another ranked opponent,” Susan said. “When this turns, it will stay turned.”
Will it turn for the Bison against Lehigh? Let's analyze and find out.
Breaking Down Bucknell
Like Liberty and Georgetown, Bucknell is a rushing-intensive team. Unlike Liberty and Georgetown, the Bison run a pro set-style offense that often lines up with both the tight end and fullback. Last year, the Bison offense attempted to be more balanced, but this year, Bucknell has really struggled to get much going offensively.
When Lehigh faced off against junior QB Brandon Wesley last year, the speedy, rail-thin QB had a 61% completion percentage, 898 yards passing, with 6 TDs passing and just two interceptions on the year. "He's improved in the way he handles pressure," I wrote in last year's preview, "and improved his accuracy throwing on the run, which makes him much more dangerous this year over last."
What a difference a year makes. Wesley's completion percentage is still 61% (104/168, 1,053 yards), his interceptions (6) are way up and his touchdown passes (2) are way down. Worse, his escapability is not nearly what it was (52 rushes, 91 yards, 1 TD).
At running back, a pair of seniors, senior RB Tyler Smith (105 yards) and senior RB Jeremiah Young (251 yards, 2 TDs) provide a mixed rushing attack. They form an interesting 1-2 punch out of the Bison backfield, with Smith being more of a prototypical back, and Young being more versatile that can also catch passes out of the backfield (90 yards). Junior FB Travis Friend will get the occasional touch rushing or receiving, but he's primarily a blocking back.
Few people may have realized how senior-heavy Bucknell was in the receiving corps last year, but they certainly do so now with only seven players aside from Smith, Young and Friend who have caught passes thus far this year. Their leading receiver, junior WR Victor Walker (27 catches, 290 yards) only averages about 50 yards receiving a game (after starting the year as a two-way player at wideout and corner), and sophomore WR Josh Brake (13 catches, 182 yards) starts on the opposite side of Walker on the two-deep this week.
The Bison only have 3 touchdowns through the air all season, and haven't got one through the air in their last three games.
The reason for their struggles might be a young offensive line with only one senior, senior OL Troy Steinhilber, though the Bison's line is significantly bigger than, say, Columbia's. But despite their size, they have clearly struggled. They're only paving a 2.9 yards per game average on the season, and are giving up, on average, three sacks a game.
After playing more of a multiple 4-3/4-2-5 defense last season, the Bison are sticking more with the 4-2-5 this season. What may be a bit of a secret, though, is the fact that Bucknell's defense has quietly become one of the best in the Patriot League, No. 2 to Lehigh's No. 1.
The other interesting aspect is that they've continued to have a very strong defense even though they graduated two all-League players last season and a host of other senior parts to that unit.
The Bison boast two ends, senior DE Samuel Oyekoye (19 tackles, 7 tackles for loss including 4 sacks) and senior DE Sean Sellers (17 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks), who are solid speed-rushers to the outside and get good pressure on the quarterback. They are paired with a couple of tackles, senior DT Devin Gordon-Hamm and junior NG Tracey Smith, that have provided an excellent run defense in 2012. Their rushing defense has only allowed 88 yards per game - good for 6th in the nation.
Anchoring the middle is Bucknell's best defensive player, sophomore LB Evan Byers (55 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 interceptions) that is the heart and soul of the Bison defense. The 6'0 sophomore out of Wyoming Seminary had two of his picks against Harvard last week, and he seems like he could be a mainstay in the Patriot League first team defense in the next three years. Senior LB Beau Traber (25 tackles,1/2 sack) assists Byers on the front six.
The silver lining for opposing offenses in the face of Bucknell's daunting front is that the Bison's pass defense, at 100th in FCS, has struggled. Senior CB Donald Quarles (22 tackles, 7 pass break-ups) is the most experienced defensive back in an extremely young, five-man secondary that boasts three starting sophomores and one junior.
Junior PK Sean Cobelli seems to be a decent kicker, going 6/8 on the season with a 44 yard field goal to his credit, but most of his attempts have been of the 20-25 yard variety. Senior P Ryan Gutowski (38.5 yards per boot) is an above-average punter in terms of Lehigh's opposition this season.
It's hard to imagine junior WR Victor Walker playing both offense, defense AND special teams in a year, but that's what he's done, after shifting to special teams on Week 2. With 140 return yards, he's clearly one of the special athletes on the Bucknell side and will need to be watched on kickoff return units. Senior RB Tyler Smith accompanies Walker on the kickoff unit, and junior WR Kyle Sullivan hasn't broken a big punt return yet but averages a respectable 6.8 per return.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Reacting to Pressure.. The book on Lehigh is pretty open right now: get in the face of senior QB Michael Colvin, and make him make mistakes. That's clearly what Bucknell will do, and it's critical that when the pressure comes, there's options. And it's not on one person on offense, either: good positioning, good blocking, and good decisions will all help handle the pressure and put Lehigh on course for a homecoming "W".
2. Piling the pressure. On the other side of the ball, the defense needs to channel their 11-sack performance from last year and go after Bucknell the same way they did last year. Led by junior LB Nigel Muhammad and a host of front seven players, harassing Wesley will be critical towards keeping their offense ground in neutral.
3. Cleanup on Aisle Eight. The goal is in sight: back-to-back-to-back Patriot League championships. But the elusive "perfect game", where all three phases of the game are all working, firing on all cyliders, still evades this team. This week, Lehigh needs to play a cleaner game in every possible aspect: penalties, turnovers, and giveaways in field position. All the games are big in league play, but the games will only continue to get harder as the season goes on - hopefully resulting in "that school in Easton's" best shot in November, and practice after that against another Top 25 team in the FCS playoffs. Every game this team can clean itself up, and get better, will only help towards a Patriot League championship... and a national championship. And it has to start now.
You can't "sugar-coat" Lehigh's offensive performance last weekend: seven turnovers is seven turnovers. There are plenty of times where the Mountain Hawks would have done that and lost; but they didn't. They found a way to win ugly, 17-14, remain undefeated, and remain on track for the Patriot League championship and beyond.
Lehigh now comes home for Homecoming with a rare chance for a football team this late in the season: an opportunity to clean up their mistakes and become a much better football team.
On the surface, Bucknell offers the opportunity for just that: a struggling offense, a solid defense, but clearly some steps behind the Mountain Hawks.
But football is a funny game, and it has a way of humbling teams that think they have no chance to lose. Ask Arkansas this year (Louisiana-Monroe). Or Michigan (Appalachian State). Or Army (Stony Brook).
Lehigh has been on a razor's edge this season in terms of wins and losses. They have let teams hang around more times than I care to count. An interception return for a touchdown, one of these days, can be the difference between winning and losing. It hasn't been, yet. But it will be if it continues.
There has been a lot of missing pieces for Lehigh offensively, none bigger than senior WR Ryan Spadola. This could also mean that Lehigh's offense might not be firing on all cylinders for the second straight week. In Patriot League play, where every game is critical, this is bigger than most people think.
Can Lehigh put away a team in the first half? Can the Mountain Hawks clean things up before the well-deserved bye week? Or will it be yet another adventure?
Lehigh 20, Bucknell 10