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Game Breakdown: Lehigh at Fordham, 10/5/2013

(Photo Credit: WFUV)

We break down the Fordham game - and we give our fearless prediction below the flip.

Though this game doesn't officially count towards the Patriot League standings, make no mistake about how big this game is for both programs.

Look no further than the ticket sales for this game.

Fordham's Jack Coffey field is sold out, all 7,000 seats, and even on this game is a hot ticket, with no tickets available as of right now.  (Check back if you still need tickets!)

A sold-out, 7,000 seat venue for a meaningful football game is what FCS football is all about, and whatever happens it's going to be a fantastic ambassador for Patriot League football broadcast across the country on CBS Sports Network.

Breaking Down Fordham

Ram Head coach Joe Moorhead is known in Patriot League circles for three things.

One is his tenure as the starting quarterback for the Rams from 1993-1995.  In fact, Moorhead is the only head football coach at a Patriot League school that actually played in the League as a player and also participated as a head coach.

Two is his rapid rise through the assistant coaching ranks, through Akron and UConn.  In both places, as quarterbacks coach, his calling card was offense, notably Zips QB Luke Getsy and Huskies QB Zach Frazer.

The third is his offensive philosophy, the "multiple no-huddle" offense, that gave him immense success with both Akron and UConn, and ultimately allowing the Huskies to make their first-ever trip to a major BCS boql, the Orange Bowl.

The "multiple no-huddle", of which variants are used by Pete Lembo at Ball State and Bob Surace at Princeton, is a hurry-up sort of offense that can have a dizzying number of different formations and looks.  It is dynamic in the sense that it can adjust to what your strengths and weaknesses are - if your best athletes are in the backfield, you can run to set up the pass.  But the overarching philosophy is for the offense to be hurrying up so often it wears down the opposing defense.  

In a sense, Lehigh has been preparing well in the early part of the season for the Fordham offense.  Three of the Mountain Hawks' first four opponents had this fast-play philosophy in place: Princeton, Central Connecticut State, and New Hampshire last weekend.  Like these three teams, Moorhead's idea is to get as many offensive plays called as possible.

"At Akron last year, we were 46 percent four wide and the other percent there was a tight end, a fullback or both on the field," Moorhead said when he was hired from Akron as the offensive coordinator for the Huskies. "I've never seen spread offense defined in the dictionary. But if it means four wide with no fullback or tight end on the field, that's not what we're going to be. We'll line up anywhere from five wide receivers to two tight ends, two receivers and a back.  Any idea that it is some finesse offense where we will be passive is sorely mistaken. That cannot be further from the truth. We will be physical."

You could call Moorhead's physical, multiple-no huddle offense the "Battering Ram", with a big, physical signalcaller and a speedy, surprisingly tough back to shoulder the rushing load.  It's comes from a similar philosophy as Lehigh's other opponents, with the key difference that it's been much more effective in generating points on the scoreboard.

A big part of that comes from the guy under center.

Junior QB Mike Nebrich, a transfer from UConn, has been a gigantic part of the Rams' offensive success this season thus far.  

Called "Mikey Football" by his teammates (a nod to Texas A&M's "Johnny Football", QB Johnny Manziel, he has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that the knee injury that sidelined him for all of last season.

Nebrich "was taken off the field following a hit on a failed jet sweep run, which led to a knee injury," according to Fordham's student paper, The Ram, last year.  "Nebrich, who was helped off the field by the Fordham staff after laying on the ground for a few moments, returned to the sidelines on crutches for the rest of the game."

Nebrich has amply shown how good he, and the Fordham offense, can be when he's healthy.  

Start with the stats.  A 161.30 QB effeciency rating through 5 games.  286 yards rushing and 3 TDs.  A 73.7% completion percentage - no, that's not a typo.  1,377 yards passing through 5 games.  12 passing TDs - and only one interception, that of the bounce-around-off-of-three-players-and-in-the-hands-of-a-defensive-back variety.

He's been dynamic - getting tough yards when he takes off running with the football, which he can do at any time.  When he does get loose, he's shown the ability to recover, set his feet, and throw the ball effectively.  He is a nightmare for an opposing defensive coordinator, and could be the best QB Lehigh faces in their regular season schedule this year.

Adding to the Mountain Hawk pain is senior RB Carlton Koonce, the speedy, 5'8, 180 lb tailback transfer from Hofstra.  If your defense sells out too much on Nebrich's escapability, Koonce will burn you running the ball.  He already has 625 yards rushing and 5 TDs himself, and while he hasn't been a major pass-catching threat thus far this season, he's shown that capability in the past and thus it has to be respected.

Similarly built sophomore RB Jared Crayton seems to be Koonce's heir apparent in the rare time when Carlton's off the field, but it's likely to see him get some carries as well.  5'10 freshman RB Kendall Pearcey completes the look of what coach Moorhead looks for in a back first: speed.

Interestingly, one of Nebrich's former teammates at UConn has joined him this year at Fordham and become one of the Rams' top receivers in 2013.

Junior WR Tebucky Jones leads the Rams in receptions (33) and has emerged as a dangerous threat next to the rest of the Rams' stable of receivers, junior WR Sam Ajala (412 yards, 3 TDs), junior WR Brian Wetzel (303 yards, 6 TDs), and junior TE Dan Light (212 yards, 1 TD).  Light in particular was singled out by Lehigh head coach Andy Coen as someone to worry about on this offense: a 6'4, 250 lb tight end that has been improving by leaps and bounds as Nebrich has settled in.

The offense is so designed that you can't really focus on one person: all four have speed, and the guys behind him, notably freshman WR Jorge Solano, do too.  There's no one guy that Nebrich focuses on exclusively: if a guy gets hot, Moorhead won't hesitate to keep going to that well if it's working.

The "O" line, led by senior OL Steven Tapia, has been physical, but not overwhelming.  Opponents have gotten 13 sacks against this line, meaning opposing pass rushes have been able to get to the quarterback.  The Rams rushing game, though, has been very strong: Rams' backs average 4.5 yards per carry.

The story of Fordham's season was always going to be about their defense.  It was no secret that Fordham would have a top offense in FCS - the only question was whether the defense could slow down opposing offenses long enough to end up on top.  Their emergence has been a huge part of their undefeated start this season.

Fordham plays a 3-4 defense, and the defensive front is extremely young.  Junior DT DeAndre Slate (20 tackles, 7 tackles for loss including 4 1/2 sacks) is emerging as a terror underneath in terms of pass rush, while senior DE Nick Merino (6 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss) is one of the few seniors in this unit.

Despite the loss of two linebackers last season to graduation, Fordham's linebacking unit has been stellar so far this season.  Senior LB Jake Rodriques (21 tackles, 1 tackle for loss), senior LB Brett Biestek (20 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), junior LB Austin Hancock (26 tackles, 1/2 tackle for loss) are all solid, and junior LB Stephen Hodge (41 tackles, 3 sacks) might be the best of the bunch.  This is a very solid unit.

Making matters worse is the fact that Fordham has a pair of solid corners, too, who have been known to come in on corner blitzes, too in Fordham's multiple 3-4 setup.  Senior CB Ian Williams (22 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) is one of the best in the Patriot League, with senior CB Jordan Chapman (25 tackles, 1 INT) not all that far behind him.  Unlike most Patriot League defensive backs, they're both over 6 feet.  Junior FS Levon Williams (31 tackles) has also emerged as the leader in interceptions in this unit with 2, another headache for coach Coen to deal with on this vastly underrated defense.

Special Teams
Junior PK Michael Marando had the tough luck of sitting behind a great Patriot League kicker, PK Patrick Murray, but he has done amply well this season, only missing 1 FG attempt and hitting a pair of 40 yard attempts.  He's perfect on extra points, notably the one that gave Fordham the epic win over Temple.

Freshman P Joe Pavlik has averaged 37.1 yards per kick and downed almost half his kicks inside the 10, an eyebrow-raising number that shows he's been very effective for the Rams.

Add to this the fact that senior WR Brian Wetzel averages 21.6 yards per punt return - no, that's not a typo - and freshman WR Jorge Solano averages 25 yards a kickoff return and has already brought one back for a touchdown, and you see that the Rams have an excellent special teams unit.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Hotter than Summer.  As the weather's been hotter than usual. Lehigh's pass rush will also have to be hotter than usual to keep Nebrich as off balance as he can possibly be.  If senior LB Nigel Muhammad can manage a multiple-sack game, it will show that Fordham's quarterback has been off balance, and the Mountain Hawks' chances of winning go up significantly.
2. Time Of Possession.  As great as it is to get to 80 points a game, a focus on getting chunks of yards on the ground would be hugely helpful with the three-headed rushing attack of senior RB Keith "Tank" Sherman, senior RB Sean Farrell, and junior RB Rich Sodeke.  The best way to keep the Fordham offense off the field is to be grinding out yards on the ground.
3. Turnovers. There's a bad number out there in regards to Lehigh: No. 90.  That's where the Mountain Hawks stand on turnover margin, at -3 on the season and No. 90 out of more than 120 teams in FCS.  Against the teams they played earlier this season, this turnover margin was enough.  Against Fordham it almost certainly won't be.  If Lehigh can somehow force more turnovers than they make, they will be in a much, much better position to win this game.

Fearless Prediction
Sellouts.  Releasing the Kraken.  The Lombardi Trophy in the parking lot.  This Saturday, it's the biggest Lehigh/Fordham game in quite some time, and it's a great potential stage for Lehigh to prove - yet again - that they are a top team.  

As people have kept questioning the Mountain Hawks, they've been answering, and once again they'll be asked to keep answering.

And yet in many ways, this is the biggest challenge yet for this team.  It's on the road - something that shouldn't be discounted at all - and the Ram defense might be the toughest Lehigh's been asked to navigate this season.  In a battle of offenses, it's in the defenses where this game will be won or lost.

There's also the confidence of both teams.  Both squads are playing with the idea that they know they can win any game.  There's an awful lot of similarity with these teams - the swagger, the dynamic offenses, the fact that both have been second-half teams.

History favors the Mountain Hawks - the Rams have only beaten Lehigh twice - but honestly, it feels like you can throw that history out the window in this game.  This Fordham team feels different.  They're not the same team they were that lost to Lehigh on a last-second field goal last season.

It honestly feels like a classic is in the offing in the Bronx - a close game throughout.  And if it is, I have a very hard time picking against Lehigh and the magic show that has been this season.

Lehigh 40, Fordham 37


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