When most people think of Bucknell, they tend to think of basketballs, not footballs.
Part of that comes from their upset of Kansas in the NCAA Tournament, the, um, SECOND most talked-about Patriot League upset over a legendary hoops program in the NCAA tournament.
But that's not to say that the folks down Lewisburg way don't care at all about football.
If there is an underrated stadium in the Patriot League it's Christy Matthewson Stadium, named after the hall-of-fame pitcher. Built in 1924, it was originally named Memorial Stadium to honor all the Bucknellians who had "fought in war", either the Civil War or World War I, and had a "Christy Matthewson Memorial Gateway" in the front to honor the late pitcher, who had recently died from tuberculoisis complications stemming from his time in war.
While Lewisburg isn't, shall we say, a metropolis, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the stadium, which seats 13,100, could approach sellouts once again if Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell could both be in the title hunt at the same time. The Bison have proved this with Sojka Pavillion, as their establishment of a perennial mid-major powerhouse in hoops have provided lots of sellout crowds.
Breaking Down Bucknell
To an extent, you need to throw out the Patriot League rankings of the Bison's offense. When their no-question-about-it starter at QB, senior QB Brandon Wesley went out to injury, freshman QB R.J. Nitti got a baptism of fire in running the Bucknell offense, a pro set-style offense that often lines up with both a tight end and fullback.
It's hard to overstate the difference between Nitti, a quarterback that had only been on Bucknells' campus a couple of months, and Wesley, nearly a four-year starter who knows every aspect of Joe Susan's offense.
The athletic Wesley - when he's been in there - has been a solid quarterback, completing 56% of his passes, ripping off some big runs. His value comes from his experience and his speed, at 6'2, 195 lbs, and his accuracy has improved from year to year. Critical to Buckell's offensive success is the ability of the Bison to minimize turnovers, which was one of the big reasons they beat Dartmouth last week.
With the right blocking upfront he can make things happen, even when plays break down, which can make him extra-dangerous. With him in the game, Bucknell's offense is a very different animal than with Nitti, who, while a raw talent at 6'4, 220, is still learning the game at the D-I level.
Bucknell's leading starter at running back is freshman RB C.J. Williams, who found the end zone for the third time last week in the Bison victory and has 428 yards rushing on the season. While difficult to qualify him as a true "power" back, sophomore RB Matt Del Mauro is certainly a speed back at 5/7, 185, getting his first touchdown of the season last weekend on a pretty draw play that took the entire Big Green team by surprise. He has 228 yards on the season.
With the Bison's reliance on running, it's important to have a good blocking fullback, and senior FB Travis Friend could be one of the best in the Patriot League. He doesn't have a single carry yet this year, but like Lehigh senior FB Zach Hayden he does get some passes out of the backfield at times - he has 9 catches for 47 yards and 1 TD this season.
The go-to receiver for the Bison is 6'3 junior WR Josh Brake (311 yards, 1 TD), whose numbers are down mostly thanks to Wesley's absence. Freshman WR Will Carter (143 yards, 1 TD) and senior WR Kyle Sullivan (62 yards, 1 TD) are the next two top receivers in the receiving corps.
As you'll see, Bucknell's giant strength is their defensive front six, who get tackles for loss in bunches. But one of Bucknell's severe weaknesses, too, has been their offensive line, which now boast two freshman (freshman OL Ned Bent and freshman OL Julie'n Davenport) as starters. As a unit, they've allowed 20 sacks in 6 games, allowing a little over 3 sacks a game on average.
The Bison are sticking with the same multiple 4-2-5 they went with last season, and it's no wonder: even though their offensive line has given up a lot of sacks, their front six/seven have been generating tackles for loss at an amazing level, averaging 41, or nearly 7 a game.
The man who's generated a lot of these tackle for loss is the amazing sophomore SS Clayton Ewell (35 tackles, 10 tackles for loss including 2 sacks), who can come anywhere, anytime on blitzes and act as a third linebacker. He also has an interception, highlighting his versatility and the fact that it's worth figuring out where he is on the defense at all times.
That's not to say that the other six front players are to be ignored.
5th year senior DE Sean Sellers (11 tackles, 3 1/2 tackles for loss) has also just returned from injury, and he's an immediate difference-maker on the defensive pass rush as well. Senior NG Tracey Smith (26 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks), junior DT Demetrius Baldwin-Youngblood (21 tackles, 3 sacks) and junior DE Dylan McDonnell (9 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) make the Bison a very strong candidate for the toughest defensive line that Lehigh will face all season.
You can add to this two fantastic linebackers in junior LB Evan Byers (63 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) and junior LB Lee Marvel (44 tackles, 1 sack), who also recovered the onsides pick last week to seal Bucknell's victory.
Where Lehigh might be excited is in the secondary, where the Bison have some youth next to Ewell. Junior SS Matthew Steinbeck leads the team in interceptions with 2, and senior CB Derrick Palmer (17 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) represent the rest of the experience in the secondary. The Bison also feature a freshman in his second collegiate start at the other corner, freshman CB Nick O'Brien (15 tackles, 2 pass break-ups).
Bucknell is one of the few teams that have forced fewer turnovers than Lehigh this season. They've only forced four, all interceptions.
Bucknell may be the only team in Division I where the punter and the punt and kickoff returner are the same player. Senior P/RS/WR Kyle Sullivan is averaging 37.9 per boot - not bad at all, considering the amount of action he gets in a game - and also has 228 all-purpose return yards as well. Speedy freshman CB Nick O'Brien (128 yards) joins Sullivan on the other side on kickoffs.
Junior PK Ryan Maurer replaces the incumbent kicker going into the season, where he's been very reliable, scoring 10/11 on extra points going 5/5 inside of 40 yards. (His only miss was a 40 yard attempt). The guy he replaced, senior PK Sean Cobelli, kicks on kickoffs, and might be the number they call if the Bison need a 45 or 50 yard FG to tie or win a game.
LFN's Keys to Victory
1. Out-Sack the Competition. Bucknell gets sacks, but also gives up sacks. I'll be looking very closely at Lehigh's "hogs" this week, seeing how they protect senior QB Brandon Bialkowski from Bucknell's fearsome pass rush. If they do their job and continue what they've been doing in regards to his pass protection, and senior LB Nigel Muhammad gets going pressuring Wesley and gettting sacks of his own, I really like Lehigh's chances to keep the streak going.
2. Big Plays on Special Teams. I remember last season, when RB Marcus Dormevil and sophomore DB Laquan Lambert's efforts on special teams were a giant part of Lehigh's victory. If junior WR Josh Parris and freshman WR Brandon Leaks can get real estate in the return game, it will go a long way towards victory on Saturday. (And two more blocks from Lambert wouldn't hurt, either.)
3. Working in the 2's and 3's. I think this could be a real show-me game for Parris, junior WR Derek Gaul, junior TE Tyler Coyle and the rest of the receiving staff behind senior WR Lee "Mr. Leegistics" Kurfis. With Lee undoubtedly drawing a lot of interest from Bucknell's secondary, it opens a door for a Gaul, Coyle or Parris to have a breakout day. If one of them does, again, I like Lehigh's chances.
Emotion. Bucknell will have it, coming back for homecoming fresh off a win. Determination. Bucknell will have it, facing off in the showcase game on their football schedule. Toughness. Bucknell will have it - a Joe Susan-coached team always will.
Furthermore, it's not easy to keep a 15 game winning streak going against any opponent. On the road, a high emotion game, while Lehigh's tempted to look forward to Holy Cross, Colgate, and Lafayette. Can Bucknell pull off the upset?
I don't think so.
Lehigh's motto this year is "No Opportunities Wasted", which is directly related to their playoff snub from last year. They know every game is a playoff game, and a loss to Bucknell would probably mean no postseason.
I also think working in Lehigh's favor is the fact that the bye week comes next weekend. In a classic "trap game", Lehigh might hold back on the playbook, or try to save some energy and emotion for a game the following weekend. But this week, there won't be that temptation - and I think, for that reason, Lehigh will prevail.
Lehigh 35, Bucknell 16