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Game 4 Breakdown: New Hampshire at Lehigh, 9/28/2013

(Photo Credit: John Doyle/Foster's Daily Democrat)

“I think we just need to get better coming out in the second half,” said UNH senior OL Seamus O’Neill in their win over Colgate two weeks ago. “We need to focus on playing the entire game. When we’re up on someone we need to keep our foot on the pedal.”

Sound somewhat familiar?

One of the more interesting subplots going into this weekend's game is how New Hampshire, thus far the ultimate first-half team, does against Lehigh, thus far the ultimate second-half team.

What I truly like about the Wildcats, though, is their game notes, which are extensive and easy to get to.  There's also the matter of their video preview as well, which was equally as valuable to me.

Let's break these guys down.

Breaking Down New Hampshire
Offense
You don't make it to the playoffs 9 straight years out of the brutally tough CAA, never mind show up for (yes) 130 straight weeks in the FCS Top 25, without a pretty gosh-darned good offensive system.

Coach Sean McDonnell's balanced spread-option style offense, who originated from the mind of the NFL's Chip Kelly, is indeed a great system, dependent on a mobile, athletic quarterback at the controls and skill players with speed to burn.  Kelly, arguably the most valuable assistant coach to a college football program since June Jones, went on to make Oregon a perennial Top 25 team in the FBS before heading to the Eagles this offseason to bring his UNH lab experiment to the NFL.
In one of the first speeches to the offense, Kelly explained his philosophy. "We want to run 80 plays offensively," Kamau Peterson recalls Kelly saying. "If we don’t get to 80 plays, we’ve failed."
It's an offensive philosophy that was revolutionary almost 10 years ago, but now finds its way into a multitude of college football teams, including Lehigh's.  Different schools have their own flavor of getting to 80 plays, notably Princeton, last week's opponent, and Central Connecticut State, Lehigh's first week opponent, but the idea of getting to 80 plays, no matter what number of trick plays and quick snaps it takes to get you there.

McDonnell's flavor of the offense involves more of a reliance on rushing plays, from both the quarterback and the running backs than you might imagine.

"We're using screens off our run game, mainly," McDonnell said in the run-up this week.  "When people start crowding the box, that's when we'll use our screens.  They're running against man-to-man situations, zone blitz situations."

For the third straight week, junior QB Anthony Vailas gets the starting nod for the Wildcats.  Labeled as a battle in the preseason between him and sophomore QB Sean Goldrich, Vailas has played his role extremely well in the first few games of the season, completing his passes at a 64.2% clip, and adding to it 24 rushing attempts.  Though he only has 64 yards rushing, don't let that fool you: he definitely has the ability to take off with the ball and make a big play with his feet to score.

If Vailas comes out, Goldrich is a more than able replacement.  In the second half of the Colgate game he ripped off a 28 yard run and, like Vailas, has a completion percentage over 60%.

Junior RB Nico Steriti (27 attempts, 144 yards rushing, 3 TDs) is simply the latest of a slew of great running backs coming out of the Granite state.  He's been the workhorse this season, carrying the rock, along with Vailas, setting up the passing game effectively.  Against Colgate he burst through a hole in the line and turned it into a 56 yard touchdown run.

Senior RB Chris Seitan spells him, and, like Steriti, he has a good ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.  In a McDonnell/Kelly offense, versatility is critical.

In two games this season, Vailas and Goldrich have found eleven different targets in the passing game.  The two primary targets this far have been junior WR R.J. Harris, who was on the field in 2011 at Murray Goodman and caught a key touchdown pass in that game, and senior WR Justin Mello, who form a deadly first couple of progressions for Vailas.

Mello, a former walk-on, and Harris have combined for 300 yards receiving and 3 TDs, and both have big-play ability, especially after a defense stuffs the box.

Concentrating on that duo, too, is fraught with peril, since junior WR Jimmy Giansante and junior TE Harold Spears also have big-play ability in terms of the wideouts.   Shut one down, someone else gets open.  New Hampshire makes it a very tough choice for defensive coordiators.

In fact, it's awfully hard to see a chink in the Wildcat offense.  In addition to all the speed and talent, they also boast a strong "O" line as well, with bookend senior OL Seamus O'Neill and junior C Mike Coccia on a very solid offensive line.

If there's a way to attack this offense, it's through the turnover.  In two games, Vailas has fumbled the ball four times already, losing it twice, and Wildcat quarterbacks have also turned the ball over twice as well.  If they do turn it over, it will be critical to make New Hampshire pay.

Defense
As in 2011, the Wildcats still play a 4-2-5 defense, a popular formation known for bringing a simple, multiple-look defense to play to disrupt a multitude of spread offenses, and the fifth defensive back (or "weak safety") acts as an effective tackler, blitzer, or general "speed guy" to hunt down speedy backs and receivers.

Like everything else about New Hampshire, it's all about the closing speed, and the Wildcats have some great athletes on the defense, unsurprisingly ones that feature that speed.

Senior DE Cody Muller is a 6'4, 255 pound speed rusher that already has 2 1/2 sacks on the season, headlining a defensive front with senior DT Sean McCann in the middle.  Against rush-happy Colgate, they held their backs to a scant 4.4 yards per carry, a veteran defensive line.

The middle of the defense is headlined by junior LB Shane McNeely (18 tackles, 1 INT) who anchors the middle and is a solid tackler.  His brother, freshman OL Tad McNeely, also starts, and both are Lehigh Valley kids from Allentown Central Catholic.  He's already a headliner on defense, and you know he'll be out there to outdo himself this weekend in front of loads of family and friends.

In enforcer in the secondary is senior SS Manny Asam (17 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss), who has been a strong presence in the Wildcat secondary for years.  Sophomore WS/S Hayden Knutson has also impressed in the early going in the Wildcat secondary.

Most of the knock on the Wildcats last season was that their defense kept them from key victories, and was their Achillies heel.  This season, though, it doesn't seem like that's the case at all.

In many ways, this game will be the first true test of the Wildcat defense against a top-notch offense - Central Michigan's offense isn't anything to write home about, while Colgate entered their game against the Wildcats with a laundry list of injuries, most notably to QB Gavin McCarney.

Special Teams
As you would expect from speed merchants, the kick return group of freshman CB Casey DiAndreade and sophomore WR Jared Allison are speedy and dangerous.  In two games they've notched 114 return yards, though none returned for touchdowns yet.

Junior P Brad Parsky has a fantastic leg, booting 6 punts for a 47.5 average.  Not that the Wildcats have had to play a field position game often this season, but if they do, they have the type of punter that will allow for that.

Senior OK Mike MacArthur has not been the most consistent kicker over the course of his career, going 38-for-46 in PAT's last season.  His longest FG last season was 43 yards, and his longest in this young season is 27 yards thus far.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Pace.  I keep flashing back to the 2011 game for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that stuck out to me that game was the fact that Lehigh expended a lot of energy to come all the way back in the game to get a 3-point lead, and then, to me, ran out of gas the rest of the way.  A lot of talk has centered around playing a 60 minute game, but to me it's more important to pace out the game so that neither the offense or defense runs out of gas at the end.  More than anything pacing will be critical.
2. Assisted tackles.  New Hampshire's offense is very strong, so it will be critical for Lehigh's defense to fly to the ball and gang-tackle to make sure that plays don't turn into big plays.  If there are a lot of assisted tackles on the scoresheet, it will be an indicator of effectively slowing down the Wildcat attack.
3. Withstanding pressure.  New Hampshire's front four controlled the line of scrimmage extremely effectively versus Colgate, and also got good pressure on the quarterback.  This week the Lehigh offensive line, led by senior OL Matt Lippincott, will need to wrestle control away at the line of scrimmage in order for the Lehigh offensive machine to get rolling.  That trench battle will be one of the big things I'll be watching for this weekend.

Fearless Prediction
Lehigh and New Hampshire could not be entering this game more differently.

Two weeks ago, New Hampshire destroyed Colgate, and then enjoyed a bye week, their win against the Raiders essentially a stress-free affair.

In contrast, Lehigh went through two nailbiters - as they have all season - and somehow escaped with wins.

If Lehigh is to win this game in my opinion, they will have to switch the script on New Hampshire - jump out to the quick lead, and pace out the game to work hard all 60 minutes.

But can Lehigh switch the script?

New Hampshire is the most complete team Lehigh has faced all season.  They've faced some excellent individual athletes, but nothing like the well-oiled machine that is the Wildcats.

Their offense makes the three offenses Lehigh has already faced pale in comparison.

The challenge is on the Lehigh defense - can they keep the Wildcats under 30 points?

Lehigh 34, New Hampshire 41

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