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Game Preview: Bucknell at Lehigh

Before the season started, I implored Lehigh fans not to overlook Bucknell.

In Year Three of the Joe Susan era, it seemed to me like the Bison, behind a veteran quarterback and an always-tough defense, might be able to build on their 6-5 record last year and, perhaps, make a run at the Patriot League title.

So far, it hasn't worked out quite that way.

After a 19-17 win over Marist on opening weekend, Bucknell has struggled mightily, losing their next five games and averaging only a whopping 9 points per game.

And this weekend, they face off against their third nationally-ranked opponent this season.

Susan is the type of coach you can't help but root for.  (Well, maybe not when he's coaching against Lehigh, but you know what I mean.)

Maybe that's what I was thinking when I was telling people back in August to watch out for the Bison, despite the fact that they were picked to finish last in the Patriot League Preseason Poll.

I looked at last year's record, and saw a team that won some games they probably shouldn't have, and ended with a 6-5 record.  I saw a young team returning, notably their quarterback, junior QB Brandon Wesley, and saw danger signs to the rest of the league.  

In a year where everyone seemed separated by so little, why not Bucknell, with experience under center and a young team that knows how to win?  Why not the Bison, expected to deliver a last-place finish?  Why not Joe Susan's guys, a team that seemed to have started to learn how to win?

I conveniently ignored the fact that their two all-Patriot League defensive linemen, DE Robert De La Rosa and DE Josh Eden, are now gone.  

I also failed to put much stock in the fact that their offensive line last year - that gave up eleven sacks to Lehigh in a 30-6 drubbing in Lewisburg - hadn't improved enough on that unit.

As a result, the 2012 Bison (1-5, 0-2) have not looked like the 2011 version that seemed on the brink of better things.

Like so many teams on Lehigh's schedule this year, a win for the Bison would be the biggest highlight of their season by far. 

Though playing nationally-ranked opponents wouldn't be anything new to them - they faced off against Delaware in Week 2 and Harvard last weekend - this would be their last shot to do so this season, and their final, outside shot at the Patriot League title.

But the Bison's struggling offense - they rank 119 out of 121 teams in all of FCS - have to be a source of excitement for the Lehigh defense, most of whom remember last year's sackfest.

That may be a good thing, too.

While the focus has been on the Mountain Hawks' mythical "perfect-game-to-come", Lehigh's banged-up offense makes it possible that it may not be a well-oiled machine against the Bison defense - who, let one forget, is the No. 2 ranked defense in the Patriot League, just behind the Mountain Hawks.

There has not been a week this year that Lehigh, despite their 7-0 record, has pulled away early from a team and ended the game in a laugher.  With a banged-up offense and a defensive struggle quite possible this weekend for Homecoming, the possibility most certainly exists of another nail-biting game.

The season does not take a break, or pause for injuries, though.  It rolls on, and teams need to find ways to win with who they have. 

Game Notes
The bye week, certainly, will not come at any better time for Lehigh than after this game.  And no part of the team, according to the game notes, has been more racked by injuries than the receiving corps.

Senior WR Ryan Spadola (mononucleosis), junior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto (head injury) and senior TE Jamel Haggins (knee) are all out this week.

That means that 3/4 of senior QB Michael Colvin's opening-day targets are unavailable this week.  It also means that there will be only one upperclassman in the starting lineup (junior WR Lee Kurfis) and only one other upperclassman pass receiver on the roster this weekend (junior WR Ryan Burke, who has yet to see game action this year).

The underclassmen that will be starting this weekend, sophomore WR Josh Parris and sophomore TE Tyler Coyle, do have a fair amount of game experience, it must be said, as well as the three receivers behind them on the two deep (sophomore WR Derek Gaul, freshman WR Derek Knott, sophomore TE Dylan Colgate).  But offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini has to be hoping that his receiving corps comes through this weekend injury-free just to be able to field the injured players by the Holy Cross game.

On defense, too, there are some nagging injuries to junior LB John Mahoney (who has sat out the last two games with a knee injury) and senior FS Billy O'Brien (questionable) which may limit their playing time.  Again, though, there are two strong players that have stepped up when they've been out - sophomore LB Isaiah Campbell and junior FS Tyler Ward - who have already been getting significant playing time and should be able to step in without missing a beat.

Michael LoRe of the Express-Times talked about the amount of young players asked to step in and perform this year:

Coyle and Campbell aren’t the only underclassmen starting for the Mountain Hawks. Sophomore OL Ned Daryoush and sophomore OL Matt Douglas start on the offensive line, and classmate sophomore WR Josh Parris, a Palisades High School graduate, earned his second consecutive nod at wide receiver in place of Spadola.

“We have a lot of young guys playing this year and it’s only going to help in the future,” sophomore tight end Tyler Coyle said. “We have a lot of depth in each position so if a big player like Spadola or Jamel goes down, we find ways and have people who can step in and play their position.”

When might Spadola return?  Keith Groller of the Morning Call asked coach Coen that this Wednesday:
"I can't give a definitive on when he'll be able to get back on the field, but they have traced it back to when [the mono] started, and at the end of this week he'll be evaluated and see if the things that need to dissipate have dissipated," Coen said. "If that is the case then he'll be able to start his reconditioning phase. It's all going to come down to the blood tests. Our training staff has a timeline ready.

"He looks pretty good and says he feels much better. He has been able to return to class. I can't imagine him taking too long to getting back in the shape that he needs to play. Even if he's not ready to play 70 snaps when he returns, it would just be big to get him back on the field. Even if he can do just a handful of things, it would benefit us."

Weather Report
Once again, travelers to Lehigh for Homecoming luck out.  While Friday calls for a 90% chance of showers, Saturday it clears up, and at gametime we will be seeing a high of 62 - again, perfect football (and tailgate) weather, with beautiful mid-50s weather for pregame.  

A Word on Bucknell
In 1997, a young, talented team coached by Kevin Higgins travelled to Lewisburg, PA to take on the Bison, and were defeated, 21-14.  FB Jeremy Myers caught and ran for a touchdown, while RB Rabih Abdullah, whose injury was a key reason why the Mountain Hawks would stumble to a 4-7 finish, ran for 150 yards.

That was the last time Lehigh lost to Bucknell, a streak which started in Lehigh's epic 1998 season with QB Phil Stambaugh at the helm.  It also was a season when most of the current players were in preschool.

Since then, the Lehigh/Bucknell series has been one of the more lopsided in the Patriot League.

In the last fourteen wins, only two were by a touchdown or less.  In only three of those wins did Lehigh score less than 30 points, while on only one occasion did the Bison score more than 17 points.

Granted, the Bison have struggled over the years, but what makes this streak so remarkable is that Lehigh has not been consistently dominating year in and year out.  Even when the Mountain Hawks went 4-7 recently, one of those wins was a double-digit win over Bucknell.

Lafayette over the same stretch?  Still pretty good, but not as dominating, either.  The Leopards have gone 4-10 against the Bison. 

In addition, Bucknell has three wins over Colgate, who was just as dominant as Lehigh over that stretch.  They have a multitude of wins over Holy Cross, Georgetown, and even Fordham.  Just not a single one over Lehigh.

To someone who's superstitious, one might wonder if the Bison are due for that elusive win. 

LFN's Drink of the Week
As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm nothing if not superstitious.  The problem is, when you've beaten the same opponent, year in and year out, there's always the question: change the "Drink of the Week" up, or just go with the same old drink, the Black Bison?  (That's three parts cola, one part vodka, and a splash of lemon).

But the "Black Bison" doesn't feel like it should be the "Drink of the Week" this week.  Bucknell week needs a change.  Homecoming needs a change.  A bid for 8-0 needs a change.  So how about... Isle of Skye - 8 year Single Malt Scotch in honor of Lehigh's bid this year to go 8-0?  (You can even use this cool carrying case to bring it to your tailgate.)

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that.

The Five Songs on my Mixtape for Bucknell
What a week it's been for me - very stressful.  As a result, I've done not a lick of research for my "Five Songs on the Bucknell Mixtape".  This guarantees that this will be one for the ages.  

1. Boys of Fall (Kenny Chesney)
2. Nothing but a G Thang (Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg)
3. Never Knew Love Like This Before (Stephanie Mills)
4. Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey) (De La Soul)
5. White & Nerdy (Weird Al Yankovic)


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