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Game Preview, Lehigh at Columbia, 10/12/2013

(Photo Credit: The Daily Princetonian)

It's very rare to be able to see a non-conference opponent on the football schedule and be able to compare them completely to your own team.

Non-conference opponents, of course, are not teams from your own division which you are expected to be able to compare yourself against.

Columbia's non-conference schedule going into their nationally-televised game against Lehigh consists of three games: one against Fordham, one against Monmouth, and one against Princeton.

It means that Columbia head coach Pete Mangurian, and Lehigh head coach Andy Coen, will be very familiar with their opponents this week.  Not only will they be able to recall last year's game at Murray Goodman in terms of personnel, but they'll also be able to pull game film on three common opponents to get the tendencies of both teams.

One thing that neither team will be to one another is a surprise.

This summer, I wrote a series called "Know Your 2013 Opponents", hoping to be able to call back upon my analysis at that time in order to scout out the Mountain Hawk opposition when it comes closer to gametime.

Most times the analysis is extremely valuable, but on this occasion it wasn't worth the carpal tunnel syndrome.

“History tells you that your second season is when you make your biggest jump in a new program," Columbia head coach Pete Mangurian said in the Ivy League preseason teleconference.  "Your players understand what you’re looking for and develop a work ethic.”

Aside from that head coaching nugget from Mangurian, though, the rest of my early-season preview could be torn up shortly after the Lions' first game.

Gone is all the research on junior QB Brett Nottingham, the Stanford transfer who set behind now-Colts QB Andrew Luck and was to transform the Baby Blue offense into a juggernaut.

After getting a season-ending wrist injury in Columbia's humbling 52-7 loss to Fordham in their season opener, Columbia's Robin Hood will be hung up in the forest, not to return to the green turf of Kraft Field at Wien Stadium this season.

In that same game DE Seji Adebayo, a starting defensive lineman, was also lost for the season with a knee injury, making that "second season jump" Mangurian talked about in the preseason even less likely.

As if the injury bug wasn't bad enough with those two players, last week Columbia announced that DT Wells Childress would also be done for the year with a foot injury.

That's not exactly the start Lion fans had hoped for from a team that finished 3-7 last season and wanted to build on those 3 wins - hopefully to achieve Columbia's first non-losing season since 2006 (when Norries Wilson coached them to a 5-5 record) and their first winning season since 1996 (when Ray Tellier guided them to an 8-2 record and got them within striking distance to an Ivy League championship).

The contrast with Lehigh, who are regrouping and refocusing after their second regular-season loss in two years, couldn't be greater.

"Right now the fans are shell shocked," Columbia blogger Jake Novak told me.  "You'd think that after all the years of losing, we'd all be used to this. But the profound regression of the team from last year is surprising. Even with the injury to Nottingham, we just shouldn't be this bad.

"Part of it is because most of the fans did not realize how terribly difficult our schedule was. I spent most of the summer warning everyone to be ready for much-improved Fordham and Monmouth teams."

Lehigh can certainly attest to that difficulty, having lost last weekend to the Rams 52-34 after being unable to close a 3 point gap three different times in the game, and squeaking by Monmouth 28-25 partially thanks to a freaky heads-up play by senior FB Zach Hayden to advance a blocked punt fielded behind the line of scrimmage for a 37 yard gain.

Add in Lehigh's come-from-behind 29-28 win against Princeton, and Columbia's 53-7 drubbing last weekend by the Tigers, and both Lion and Mountain Hawk fans know how tough the way has been thus far.  And it's also worth remembering how close Lehigh came to going 0-3 against the same group of teams that made Columbia 0-3.

The Lions will be looking to demonstrate on national television (NBC Sports Network, 12:00 PM) that their young team is better than their 0-3 record might indicate.  They'll be starting a freshman QB in his first collegiate start to see how he responds to the job, and the spotlight.

As for Lehigh, they'll be looking to prove that their loss last weekend was just a fluke.

“Our team is really hungry,” senior CB Courtney Jarvis said to Mike LoRe of the Express-Times yesterday. “We’re trying to get past it. We’ve been flying around in practice. We’re motivated and we can’t wait to get back on the field and prove that last week wasn’t really Lehigh football and I believe we can do that.”

Clearly the Mountain Hawk defense's pride was hurt early and often in last week's game at Fordham, after giving up 52 points and over 600 yards to the Rams.

Will the Lehigh defense be able to make the sort of statement versus Columbia's young offense that they are hoping?

“It’s an important game to see how our kids come back from a tough loss,” Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said. “I’m not surprised in the response; it’s been a positive response. We have to move forward and they’re doing that. What’s really good is there’s no finger pointing. It’s ‘Hey, let’s get back together tight as a team and practice better than we did last week,’ and these guys have to look themselves in the face and I feel good about that.”

Last season's Columbia game was not one of the Mountain Hawk's better efforts.

"Sure, Lehigh jumped to 14-0 and 21-7 leads," I said of Lehigh's 35-14 win over Columbia last season, "and the Mountain Hawks made some bursts of impressive plays to score touchdowns on Columbia.  But it was critical Lehigh mistakes that led to the Lions' 14 points - which put a bit of a damper on the post-game celebration."

"I thought the kids started out the game pretty focused," Coen he said afterwards, "before going into a little lull there.  But there were too many things I wasn't pleased with."

It seems unlikely that Mountain Hawk fans will be pleased with a similar effort this time around, especially considering last week's loss.

Before the season, this game might have been seen as a final tune-up before the most important games of the year, the conference games that will determine whether Lehigh will be able to win the Patriot League autobid. 

Now, though, this game looks like it's going to be one where the Mountain Hawk faithful looks over their defense, and wonders whether they're up to the task of winning that Patriot League autobid, the only way the Mountain Hawks can leave no doubt about their eligibility for the FCS playoffs.

There's a lot of faith that senior QB Brandon Bialkowski and the Lehigh offense will find enough points to win.  The question is whether the defense can slow teams down enough to make sure that last week's regular-season loss will be the last one of the 2013 season.

Game Notes and Injury Report

The big news going into this week comes from sophomore LB Cody Kondas, the promising young linebacker who had his knee scoped this week and is looking for the earliest possible return date of 3-4 weeks.  

Replacing him on the depth chart is junior LB Jared Heschke, who got some time last year at linebacker and will probably see a decent amount of time at linebacker on Saturday.  Two freshmen, freshman LB Pierce Ripanti and freshman LB Colton Caslow, remain on the two-deep at linebacker.

Hard-luck junior DB Jason Suggs had a surprise injury last week keeping him out of the Fordham game, with sophomore CB Olivier Rigaud taking his place on the depth chart.  Suggs had an MRI on his knee and it's unclear when he'll return.

On Lehigh's offensive line, too, there's still some shuffling going on.  Freshman OL Micah Tennant disappeared from the depth chart and senior OL A.J. Hood, importantly, will be backing up at both tackle positions.  Senior OL Shane Rugg also will make the trip to Manhattan, but only in the position of backup to junior OL Matt Douglas.

Weather Report

For the first time this season, Lehigh may be playing a football game in less-than-optimal conditions.  The early forecast calls for an unseasonably warm day, with a high of 70, but it looks like it will be mostly cloudy with a 40% chance of some showers.  It might keep away the less hearty of your travelling party, but most likely will still be a nice day at the upper tip of Manhattan.

Famous Columbia Alum You Didn't Know About

There are so many Columbia alumni that are famous, led by the current President of the United States, Barack Obama, and an army of politicians, notably Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Chelsea Clinton, Pat Buchanan and Dick Morris, among very, very many, that it's difficult to find one that's more on the obscure side.

Though not obscure by any means, the world-famous author of Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, was a Columbia graduate and a prolific writer in the New York scene before heading off to Would War II, where he, in between war duties, penned Catcher in the Rye.  

LFN's Drink of the Week

Columbia's Baby Blue lends itself perfectly to a drink that is electric blue, which logically leads me, dear Reader, to look up drinks involving the bluest of the blue alcohols, Blue Curacao.  Yet last week's loss to Fordham, and Columbia's loss to Fordham, for that matter, was especially bitter.  How to resolve this for my "Drink of the Week"?

Fortunately, dear Reader, I found the perfect drink: the Blue Bay, which is one part Blue Curacao, and two parts bitter lemon soda.  Just the right hint of bitter, and just the right amount of blue, it's the drink that probably sums up both fan bases the best at this moment.

I implore you to please drink responsibly when tailgating.  As always, I don't mind folks enjoying a few drinks, whether it be Blue Bays, some of the beer in the official tailgate that's available outside of Robert A. Kraft field, or any alcoholic drinks  - but for Heaven's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car afterwards. Thanks.

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