In the offseason, outgoing active athletic director Frank McLaughlin introduced Fordham's next head coach, Joe Moorhead, and exclaimed to all present, "This is not a rebuilding program. We expect to be successful this coming year."
After turning things around to the tune of a 6-5 record this past season, few would argue that first-time head coach Moorhead was indeed a large success last season, allowing the Rams to put their 1-10 season well in their rear-view mirror.
For the Rams, the challenge will now be to increase their win total again, and return to the FCS playoffs.
In 2009, Lehigh head coach Andy Coen would tell anyone who was listening that the Mountain Hawks were only a few points away from becoming Patriot League champions that season, despite suffering a 4-7 record.
Coach Moorhead seems to be pulling from a similar playbook this offseason for his Rams, who are ineligible for the Patriot League title and autobid this season as the rest of the league looks to catch up to their level of offered scholarships.
“We lost three Patriot League games by a combined eight points,” Moorhead told John DeMarzo of the New York Post. “You can point to one our two plays that changed the outcome. We need to turn those close losses into wins. The difference between 6-5 and 9-2 is not very big. It’s being able to focus on the things that are necessary to bridge that gap.”
This will be the last season Fordham is ineligible for the official Patriot League championship and playoffs autobid, as next year most Patriot League teams will be offering enough scholarships to be in the ballpark of Fordham, who is already offering the leaguewide limit of 60.
But as evidenced by Moorhead's statement, the de facto Patriot League title is still very much something that Fordham players and coaches covet. If they sweep their Patriot League schedule - something they haven't done, remember, since converting to conventional scholarships in 2010 - they'll make the "Patriot League Champion" rings.
“The first goal we have is to retain the Cups — the Liberty Cup versus Columbia, and the Ram-Crusader Cup versus Holy Cross,” he told the Post. “The next goal is a winning non-conference record, and then to have the best record in the Patriot League. If you take care of those things, you can qualify for an at-large bid [into the NCAA Tournament] and have a chance to win a national championship.”
Certainly one of those Patriot League games that Moorhead coveted last season was the games against Lehigh, which Fordham lost 34-31 game at Murray Goodman stadium.
The Rams were victims of a 23 yard PK Jake Peery walk-off FG in the closing seconds, only the second walk-off FG for Lehigh at Murray Goodman in the last 11 years, and the last since PK Brian Kelley nailed a 23 yarder in the first round of the I-AA playoffs vs. Hofstra in 2001.
Looking back at that game, the difference between Lehigh and Fordham was not all that great - and, as I noted at the time, and Moorhead himself might tell you, it was the little things that made the difference.
Tied at 31, the critical pieces to Lehigh's victory would become the little things that win football games, and making fewer mistakes down the stretch.
Even though Lehigh's bounceback drive would stall at the 25, senior P Tim Divers' amazing 52 yard punt into the wind would back up the Rams deep in their own end.
Down at Lehigh's 43, senior LB John Mahoney would bat down a critical 3rd down pass by Fordham QB Ryan Higgins, forcing a PK Patrick Murray punt that would go into the end zone for a touchback.
Aided by a big personal foul call, Lehigh's next drive would stall again at the Fordham 37, but Divers' directional punt would be fair-caught at the Rams' 12, further backing them up.
Then DE Tom Bianchi would run down Higgins, and his attempt to throw the ball away would result in an intentional grounding call, robbing the potent Ram offense of room to maneuver.
The punt out of the Ram end zone would be fielded by RB/KR Marcus Dormevil - and returned 25 yards deep into Fordham territory, ultimately setting up Peery's killing blow to the Rams.
In a game that resulted in 65 points being scored, one can see it was actually key special teams plays that truly were the difference between a win and a loss.
"We spent a lot of time on special teams this offseason," Coen said after that game. "We weren't very good last year on special teams. For what these guys did today," as he gestured at Peery and Dormevil in the post-game press conference, "were huge in the outcome."
Now in his second year, Moorhead now has two recruiting classes that he can truly call his own.
While it's way too early to call them unqualified successes, they show two things: a focus on retaining local, talented football players to "stay home" and play in the Bronx, and allowing a safe transfer spot for former UConn football players, where Moorhead was an assistant coach before returning to Rose Hill.
Moorhead has found a multitude of local athletes who want to stay home and run his multiple, no-huddle offense. To a degree, it's a similar recipe that former Lehigh head coaches Hank Small and Kevin Higgins had in the "Air Lehigh" days.
First among them is a local player who needed a destination when his original school, Hofstra, discontinued football suddenly in the winter of 2009.
Since transferring to Fordham out of necessity, 5'8, 182 lb senior RB Carlton Koonce (1,909 all-purpose yards, 15 TDs) has shined on Rose Hill, unsurprisingly blossoming as a speedy rushing and pass-catching threat. Last season, he beat the school single-season rushing record rushing yard record, and this season he'll be looking for more, after returning for a 5th season since he redshirted at Hofstra.
"He is a tremendous young man, energetic, who has been elected captain by his teammates," Moorhead said. "He has picked up our running scheme and we can utilize him as a receiver and he is just a pleasure to coach."
He's not such a pleasure to play against, with his speed and shifty moves. Koonce is well suited to playing in this wide-open, no-huddle offense.
A communications major, Koonce said the entire experience, of having to start all over again, has made him stronger. He said he saw even in a difficult time the true character of former Hofstra coach Dave Cohen and his staff.
"Our coaching staff at Hofstra did a great job of putting us first. Those guys were out of a job and they have families, and they put it all aside and helped us look for new schools," he said.
Originally, when he was re-recruited, Koonce said he was leaning toward attending Eastern Kentucky, but he said his father talked him into visiting Fordham.
When Lehigh faced Fordham last season, one of their two QBs got injured the week before, meaning QB Ryan Higgins made his first full start on offense. This season, however, Lehigh will likely be facing off against the signalcaller they just missed, sophomore QB Michael Nebrich, a UConn transfer that came to Fordham, essentially, along with Moorhead.
The mohawk-sporting Nebrich was a dual-threat QB, rushing for 162 yards and 4 TDs in the three games in which he competed, and will only be more comfortable in Moorhead's system with a year of study under his belt. He'll also have the Rams' top receivers, junior WR Brian Wetzel (1,042 yards receiving, 9 TDs) and 6'4, 232 lb junior TE Dan Light (388 yards).
Coach Moorhead singled out the Patriot League losses in particular as an indicator as to how close they are to the league's elite: losing to Lehigh by 3, Colgate by 2, and Bucknell by 3.
What he didn't mention: if you take out Fordham's game against outmatched Division II Lock Haven last season, they didn't beat a single team on their schedule by double digits, either.
The Rams were similar to Lehigh in the way that they didn't really blow anybody out, allowing teams like 2-9 Holy Cross (36-32), 3-7 Columbia (20-13) and 4-6 Cornell (34-27) to hang around in those games.
The Ram defense gave up yardage in chunks, though, with their 420 yards allowed per game average making them the 95th rated FCS squad in that area.
It's an obvious area for Ram improvement, and in the early going coach Moorhead has been pleased with how his defense looks.
As has been the case for most of the first week of the Fordham football camp, the defense came out in the first scrimmage tonight and controlled the offense, allowing just three field goals, under the lights on Jack Coffey Field.
"The defense was tremendous tonight," said head coach Joe Moorhead. "They were quick to the ball and forced some turnovers. Offensively, we need to step up and start making plays."
The scrimmage started with the ball on the offense's one and the first team defense held the first team offense to just one net yard on three plays.
Defensively, Fordham sees LB Michael Martin graduate, but do have two of their more productive defensive players returning in senior LB Jake Rodriquez (81 tackles, 9 1/2 tackles for loss, 1 INT), and senior CB Ian Williams (86 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 5 INTs). Junior DT DeAndre Slate (46 tackles, 5 tackles for loss) will also be a name to watch on the defensive line as the Ram defense looks to improve off of last year's performance.
In years past, Lehigh's games against Fordham were seen as easy victories over a struggling, yet talented team. This season, though, with a nationally-televised matchup in the Bronx on CBS Sports Network, the Mountain Hawks will undoubtedly be squaring off against a much-improved Fordham team - with, quite possibly, playoff implications on the line.
And - for coach Moorehead and those who follow Fordham football closely - Patriot League championship ramifications, too, even if they can't call it that officially.