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Know Your 2013 Opponents: Colgate

(Photo Credit: Albany Times-Union)

Lehigh football players probably don't need to be reminded of the date, but it was November 10th, 2012, where Lehigh's season ended last season.

It was the only blemish on Lehigh's otherwise-stellar 10-1 season, but the 35-24 loss to Colgate cost Lehigh dear.

One loss.  One loss that lost the Patriot League championship.  One loss.  One loss that lost them the autobid, and ultimately, a playoff spot.  One loss.  The difference between achieving all their goals of the season, and facing an offseason of what-could-and-should-have-beens.

Lehigh's schedule has a fair number of interesting matchups this season, as every season.  Some are challenges.  Some are Ivies.  Some are the regular array of Patriot League schools.  Some are genuine rivals.

 But for the Mountain Hawks, there is only one game that's circled in red with the mission of revenge.  November 16th, 2013.  Colgate.

"I think it was a great win for Colgate, and a great win for our players, coaches, and athletic director," head coach Dick Biddle said in last year's post-game press conference, a tiny smile escaping his normally stoic game face as he went to sit down.  "This senior group hadn't won a championship, and it would have been the first group that didn't get a ring while they were at Colgate.  This is probably the best win I've had in my career under the circumstances."

There's no doubt that it was.

After Colgate lost three of their first four games - including one against South Dakota 31-21, a team that would only win one game all season - the Raiders fell off of most people's radar for the season.  At that time, few would have predicted them to win the remainder of their regular-season games, let alone beat Lehigh on the road, the two-time Patriot League champions who was flirting with the Top 10 with an undefeated record.

After the guys in Colgate Maroon barely losing to powerful Stony Brook 32-31, though, something happened: The offense, led by senior QB Gavin McCarney, and the Raiders' veteran offensive line, went from being merely powerful to being otherworldly.

McCarney would run for over 100 yards in six of those seven games, including 126 yards and 3 TDs against Lehigh on that fateful November day.

After an ineffective drive, senior P Tim Divers saw his punt go into the end zone - and then saw the greatest Patriot League drive this season, an absolute war, and ultimately, in my opinion, where this game was won by Colgate, and lost by Lehigh. 
Twice, Lehigh forced 3rd-and-long situations for Colgate, and twice, they succeeded.  After punishing Colgate on runs up the middle, McCarney found senior WR Dan Cason with a spectacular catch and also saw Dan power past the sticks to get the 1st down. 
On the next set of downs, senior S Tyler Ward had position on Cason on one pass attempt and seemed to have an interception in hand - but Dan got his hand inside of Ward and barely managed to force the ball to dribble incomplete. 
McCarney then lofted a perfect pass to WR Chris Looney, a 40 yard strike in a place only Chris could get it, giving Colgate another big first down. 
It's at this point you could see the beginnings of Lehigh's defense wearing down as McCarney would power it in the end zone from 9 yards, cutting the deficit to 3 and it increasingly looking like Lehigh was holding on for dear life
The Raiders offense, which consists of their misdirective rushing attack, a pounding offensive line and accurate passing to toast opposing defensive backfields supporting the run, did their cold, effective job against the Mountain Hawks, and in the end won the Patriot League championship as a result.

It was striking to see Lehigh, who jumped to an early lead, wear down as they did in that second half behind the dual-rushing attack of McCarney and RB Jordan McCord, using timely passing to keep the Mountain Hawks off balance and, ultimately, snatching the championship away from Lehigh on their home field.

McCarney's numbers made people take notice nationally, too, as his incredible 3,778 yard, 38 TD performance had him receive a lot of votes for the Walter Payton award for the best player in all of FCS.

This preseason, unsurprisingly, saw McCarney that was listed as the preseason Patriot League player of the year, as well as an early nominee for the Walter Payton award this year too.

It's worth mentioning, though, that Colgate's offense in 2013 will have a very different personnel than 2012.

Gone are many of the members of the "O" line that paved the way for McCarney's great season - in their first game this weekend against Air Force, the Raiders started two sophomores at the bookend tackle positions, sophomore OL Zach Sawin and sophomore OL John Weber.

Gone is all-league RB Josh McCord.  Replacing him is another underclassman, sophomore RB John Wilkins, who had 90 yards rushing and a TD vs. Air Force in the Raiders' multifaceted spread rushing attack.  It was his first-ever start as a member of Colgate.

Sure they still have the sure handed senior WR Dan Cason, who had 6 catches for 60 yards last Saturday, and junior WR Jimmy DeCicco, who also had 21 yards rushing as well.  But the defending Patriot League champions have a lot of youth they're still breaking in on offense.  With McCarney at the helm, it seems likely they will still have a powerful offense, but the development of their underclassmen will determine if they're merely an excellent offense or an otherworldly one like last season.

*****

It's hard to judge a team after a contest against an FBS team, but especially so after playing Air Force, in triple-digit temperatures in mile-high air against one of the speediest, athletic teams in the nation year in and year out.

After chewing up the clock on an effective opening drive and going up 7-0, you could see the Raiders wearing down early in the second quarter as the Falcons started to pound Colgate's offensive front, tying the game and then scoring 31 more unanswered points in a 38-14 final.

"They wore us down, particularly on defense, because they were getting a lot of people in on offense," Colgate coach Dick Biddle said. "We knew we had to bring our `A' game, and I thought our kids played well. Our defense struggled a little bit, but they're a very good team."

Biddle was right to be optimistic after the loss.  After all, in 2010, Air Force hung 69 points on Northwestern State, and in 2009, rang up 72 on Nicholls.

While the 409 total yards - most of it on the ground - were the largest total amassed against Colgate in a while, Colgate did actually win the battle of time of possession.  In doing so, they were also able to demonstrate to the kids the importance of the Colgate Way of doing things: don't turn over the ball, and win time of possession, and you'll have a chance to win a lot of football games.

It wasn't the case against Air Force, of course.  But with a lot of young players, it was a very valuable learning experience against the service academy that is always the favorite year in and year out for the Commanders In Chief trophy.

"Our kids really tried to execute to the fullest what we wanted to do, and that was shorten the game, control the line of scrimmage and control the ball – particularly on offense," Biddle said. "That would limit the amount of time they had on offense because our defense could struggle a little bit with what they do.  I was very pleased with the way our offense controlled the ball in the first quarter and in the first half. We kept the ball away from them and we limited scoring opportunities."

Colgate's defense last season gave up a fair amount of points, but as every Lehigh fan knows, they had a tendency to tighten up when the game was on the line.

Junior LB Kris Kent, who had 10 tackles against Air Force, returns from last season where he was the second-leading tackler, as does junior SS Demitri Diamond (6 tackles, 1 tackle for loss), who are strong spots for the Raiders.

Where Colgate's defense will be made or broken in 2013 will probably be the defensive line, though, where the development of players like sophomore DT Victor Steffen, who lodged the Raiders' only sack on the afternoon, will be critical to the teams' success.

"We started off well and I liked the way we were coming off the ball and really giving it to them," Kent said after the game. "There was just a turning point where they started becoming more physical than us.  And that's the bottom line. When a team's going to be more physical, they are going to be able to run the ball. That's something we need to fix for next week."

Some might argue that Patriot League teams have no business playing FBS opponents - that they're losses, that the prove nothing, and all they serve to do is frustrate.

That didn't appear to be the case for Colgate, though - and it seems to me like the experience of this game will be of great benefit to the Raiders going forward.

The Mountain Hawks hope it is, too.  They'll want Colgate to be in championship shape when they go up to Hamilton, November 16th, 2013, and enact their revenge.

It's circled on the Lehigh calendar.  In Maroon Sharpie.  Of that there is no doubt.

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