To aid on our analysis of the visiting Blue Devils, I have to huge assist to James Madison, and Matt Straub of the New Britain Herald.
Straub's preseason piece on CCSU head coach Jeff McInerney shows a lot of what he wants to accomplish this season.
And James Madison, by playing CCSU last weekend, meant that I have game notes available to go on - namely, last week's notes. CCSU's lack of a preview by Friday makes it hard to get a sense of the team this week through the Lehigh game notes, but the notes for the Blue Devils' game last week is very much available. (And necessary.)
Breaking Down Central Connecticut State
Central Connecticut State, under head coach Jeff McInerney, will be running an offense that is unique to all of Lehigh's opponents this year. It's a spread flavor of the triple-option offense, with McInerney being a disciple of Georgia Southern's triple-option offense made famous by hall of fame coach Erk Russell, who adapted his version from the classic Wishbone offense.
There are lots of Russell acolytes who are famous head coaches, most notably Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech. Additionally, there are a lot of triple-option devotees that came out from Georgia Southern's Southern Conference from that era, notably the hall-of-fame Air Force head football coach Fisher DeBerry, who was a former offensive coordinator at Appalachian State, and longtime Wofford head football coach Mike Ayers.
McInerney, of course, puts his spin on the classic offense: let's call his flavor the "Fire Up Option", based on his Twitter handle. It's a flavor that involves two wideouts rather than a slot back, and speedy running backs instead of true "power guys", but still requires his QBs to read the coverage and make decisions to either run, or misdirect, sometimes with a pitch to a running back or fullback, reverses, or passes.
The new flavor McInerney is trying to throw in the mix is blazing speed. Straub mentioned that CCSU averaged 71 plays a game on offense last season. McInerney wants to make that number increase to above 80.
“Everything in college football, and even pro football, is going up tempo,” McInerney told the Herald. “People are trying for 80-90 plays a game. That only works if you get first downs, though.”
Last week against James Madison, the Blue Devils got up to 71 plays - short of the magic number. This week, McInerney will certainly want to keep the up-tempo game going to try to get to that magic 80 play number - and get a win that would be a huge shot in the arm for his team.
Last season, Central Connecticut State broke in two quarterbacks: senior QB Andrew Clements and sophomore WB Nick SanGiacomo, a transfer from Tulane, who both split time at that position. Last Saturday, Clements took the majority of snaps, while SanGiacomo only came in the game late, though he did rally the Blue Devils to score their final touchdown.
Both are about 6'2 and weigh about 220 lbs, built like running backs, which is befitting as they have rushing as a key part of their game. McInerney in the preseason stressed that it was a competition between Clements and SanGiacomo, but it seems likely that Lehigh will see more of Clements than SanGiacomo.
One thing that's not a debate is that 5'8, 170 lb junior RB Rob Holloman figures to get the lions' share of rushing opportunities. A speedy 1,000 yard rusher from last season, he's the type of small, speedy, shifty runner that can excel in this type of spread option attack. Junior RB Darius Lee is in very much the same mold as Holloman and is effective backing him up - he had 12 carries for 56 yards last Saturday.
Fullback is a critical part of a spread option attack, and junior FB Tom Tarantino fills that role for the Blue Devils. He had 1 rush for 4 yards last weekend.
Last week, CCSU's run/pass breakdown was 44 rushes and 26 passes. When they do throw the ball, they have two receivers that started against Lehigh last year, 6'6 senior WR Denzell Jones (2 catches, 27 yards, 1 TD) and senior WR Nick Bacarella. Last weekend's top receiver for the Blue Devils, though, was 6'2, 185 lb speedster junior WR Tyrell Holmes, a defensive back last season who stepped into the offense and grabbed 4 catches for 60 yards and a TD. Don't be surprised to see them running the ball, too, through designed reverses or even direct snaps.
CCSU's offensive line is very young, with 6'5 300 lb senior OL Taylor Fuller leading the unit. If an offense is planning to run 80 plays a game, the "O" line needs to be very athletic, but as a run-first team, they need to be incredibly disciplined. After one week of action, against a ranked team, CCSU didn't manage to crack 300 yards of total offense, but it was against James Madison a squad that is always one of the most physical in the country. The jury on this squad is still definitely out, though the fact that line has two sophomores and one true freshman betrays a serious lack of experience.
The good news for the Blue Devils is that they return some key players from last year's squad, and also saw some of their new players emerge last weekend in CCSU's 4-3 defense. The bad news is they still have a squad that has let up 30 or more points in their last 11 games. If CCSU is to have a chance this weekend, they'll need to break that trend.
Sophomore DE Josh Aleze (7 tackles, 1/2 sack, 1 fumble recovery) was probably the player of the game on defense for the Blue Devils last week. CCSU's defensive front is not exceptionally large and also features a redshirt freshman on the starting line, freshman DT Austin Wezenski (4 tackles, 1 sack). Senior DE Victor Harris was slated as the starter but only saw limited action last weekend with 1 tackle.
There is some experience in the middle of the defense with senior LB Pat Atkinson, who started last season against Lehigh. The leading tackler in this unit last weekend concerning the smallish linebacking unit was junior LB David Rose (7 tackles).
The big star on the defense has to be senior CB Chris Linares, who had 2 tackles last season but frequently isn't challenged much on his side.
"We’re trying not to give up the deep ball, which is what got us last year,” Linares told the Herald. “We all just want to win. No one likes losing. This summer we had the highest percentage of players ever at our workouts. Every day we’ve been trying to get better so on the last day we can hold that NEC title again. We were on top just a few years ago. Now we’re trying to work our way back up there.”
They will need Linares' steadying influence in the secondary, because the other Blue Devils back there are lean on experience. A true freshman, freshman CB Jevon Elmore, starts opposite him. If history is any guide, they are all speedy - but also small.
Holloman rushed for 1,000 yards last season, but his extra value for the Blue Devils comes from special teams, where he returns both punts and kicks. He had 373 yards and 1 TD in returns last season, but James Madison learned quickly not to punt in his direction. In his one kickoff return, he ripped off a 52 yard return.
A true freshman, freshman P Ed Groth, kicks for the Blue Devils, where he averaged 34.8 yards per boot last game. Junior PK Stephen Calitiri only converted 2 extra points last week, but he's a decent kicker who booted a 37 yarder last season.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Efficiency. It's been a long offseason - everyone on the entire Lehigh squad has to be extra-ready to hit anybody in a blue jersey on Saturday. But there's also value in control, and methodical efficiency. Playing tough, but under control, is a challenge in Game 1's. Showing me that would be a strong indicator that this 2013 football team will go very far this season.
2. Discipline. The spread option isn't easy to defend: it requires identifying gaps well, and filling them fast. That requires discipline. With a your defense, guys like senior LB Nigel Muhammad will have to demonstrate the discipline to do so. Sacks are nice on the stat sheet, but I'd gladly take some good stops on 1st and 2nd down with simple gap filling.
3. Long Drives. McInerney wants 80 plays a game. What's the best way to keep the Blue Devils from this goal? Sustained drives, moving the sticks, rushing the ball with senior RB Keith Sherman, and grinding up the clock. Watching some drives of 10 or 11 more plays on Lehigh's side will be a great indicator that the Mountain Hawks are winning this weekend.
So many new faces. So many new starters. No WR Ryan Spadola or LB Billy Boyko there to lean against. What to expect? Lehigh has high expectations every season - conference championships. Wins over Lafayette. Winning records. There are no excuses.
Head coach Andy Coen could certainly be forgiven if he were trying to temper expectations for this group - after all, every single skill position on offense loses major production. Yet it's undeniable: Andy has been upbeat this offseason. He has mentioned that he really likes this incoming group several times, and has praised his team to the hilt about their choices for team captains, their work ethic, the preseason. That is unusual.
I think we'll get a taste of why Andy's been so upbeat this weekend.
Lehigh 35, Central Connecticut State 17