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Game Breakdown, Lehigh vs. Colgate, 11/16/2013

“They've won a lot of close games this year, which we have done in the past. They know how to win and they are very well coached. And you couldn't ask for a better scenario, to be able to get all the way through the season and have the last league game be for the championship and a bid to the playoffs. We know what to expect and I'm happy for our players. It's a one-game season for a championship, and that's all you could ask for.  We've got to treat it like it's just another game and they're going to wear different-colored jerseys."

Those were the words of none other than Dick Biddle, approximately 368 days ago, when Colgate traveled down to Lehigh to face off against the Mountain Hawks for a Patriot League championship.

They are also words that could have been torn out of this week's Biddle presser as well, perhaps adding that the Raiders have won four of their last six, and won eight of their last ten Patriot League games.

For Lehigh, it's technically not a Championship game - they need to win this game in order to get to a Championship game, Rivalry 149 down in the friendly confines of Murray Goodman stadium.  But for Colgate, almost all the Championship Week quotes from last year still apply.


Breaking Down Colgate
Offense

You know what worries me about this game?  Turf.

It doesn't get a lot of press, but Andy Kerr stadium is an artificial turf stadium - FieldTurf, the same type of turf common at many schools, such as Lafayette, Princeton, and many, many others.

Dan Hunt, the Raiders' offensive coordinator, does not have a complicated offense to figure out.  In fact, everyone in the stadium should know precisely what's coming: Their big, athletic quarterback controls a strong misdirection running attack, with plenty of designed quarterback runs to keep the opposition guessing.  When teams overcommit to the run, the quarterback shock and awe them with precision passing to wide-open receivers for big plays.

But what worries me is how well suited Colgate's attack is to artifical turf specifically, where cuts are sharper and the speed of the offensive game is quicker.

There's also the matter of senior QB Gavin McCarney (1,529 yards passing, 614 yards rushing, 13 all-purpose TDs), the physical, prototypical Dan Hunt QB that is wickedly tough to bring down and does not make many mistakes passing the ball.

During the course of the year, the Walter Payton Award cndidate appeared to be slowed down by injury, but he seemed plenty fit to the folks watching the Raiders at Lafayette, where he ran 14 times for 88 yards.  He might not run the ball 30-35 times anymore, but he can and will make plenty of good things happen with his legs.

"McCarney is a tough kid,", sophomore LB Matt Laub said this week. "He's very athletic and picks himself up when he gets knocked down. But that's not going to stop us. He's just another guy to hit."

McCarney's toughness and ability as a leader is never in question, but when you look at the injuries to the Raiders on offense you see why they they haven't been the offensive machine they were last season.

Sophomore RB Demetrius Russell (556 yards rushing, 79 yards receiving, 7 TDs) has been the rushing workhorse next to McCarney - when he's been available.  Last week, though, his 92 yard, 3 touchdown performance clearly shows he's back to 100%, with junior RB Jimmy DeCicco (303 yards rushing, 103 yards receiving, 3 TDs) also injured part of the year, and also back to 100% this weekend as well.

Colgate will spread the field and use misdirection to cause that hesitation on the defense to break big rushing chunks.   With DeCicco in, there's a bit more of a chance of him catching it out of the backfield, but both are speedy gap runners and have decent hands.

If they need a big yard on 3rd-and-1, there's a great chance that 6'0, 246 lb junior FB Ed Pavalko (105 yards rushing, 2 TDs) might hear his number called.  You won't hear his number called on a lot of Colgate's runs, but rest assured he will have been a part of those runs, opening up those holes for them to run through.

"I've gotten a couple more carries than I have the last few years and it just comes with knowing the offense better," Pavalko said this week. "I have an idea of where everyone has to be and they trust me. That trust is what gives me the opportunity to get the ball more, and I really try to do what I can when I get it.  It's been a great time; it's back to my high school days. I used to carry the ball all the time. Whenever I get a carry, it's so much more fun."

Gone for the season are McCarney's top targets, senior WR Dan Cason and senior WR Nat Bellamy, both gone for the year with injuries.

Replacing them on the outside are all underclassmen: sophomore WR Brian Lalli (8 catches, 101 yards, 1 TD), sophomore WR Cameron Cline, who started for the first time last weekend, and freshman WR John Maddaluna (12 catches, 152 yards, 3 TDs), a Gladstone, New Jersey native that almost went to Lehigh instead of Colgate.

The other area where the Raiders have seen players step up is at tight end.

Three players - sophomore TE John Quazza, junior TE Kevin O'Connell, and junior TE CJ. Stempeck - have been a critical part of the passing game with all the injuries at wide receiver.

All 6'3 or taller, Quazza and O'Connell feasted on Lafayette's defense last week, catching 8 passes for 84 yards combined, with Stempeck as a valid target, too.

The "O" line for the Raiders is a very young unit, led by the one "old man" on the squad, senior OL Andrew Scarmado - but they are disciplined and don't make many mistakes.  The Raiders are the least penalized team in the Patriot League, and it plays a huge part in their success over the last six weeks.

Defense

The Raider defense has been asked to make a lot more stops than last season, thanks to all the injuries, but have "made the stops they needed to win", as coach Biddle said this week.

Their 4-3 defense has improved a great deal since September: against Yale on September 21st, Colgate gave up 39 points to the Eli.  Since that game, they haven't let a single opponent hang 30 on them, and not coincidentally that's when they started to put things together and be successful.

Senior DE Austin Dier (41 tackles, 5 1/2 tackles for loss including 3 sacks) and sophomore DT Victor Steffen (29 tackles, 6 tackles for loss including 3 sacks)  have been a big part of this turnaround, while 271 lb run-stuffer senior DT Mike Watts (12 tackles) and freshman DE Nathan Obinwa (8 tackles, 2 sacks) round out the starting linemen.

But it's the linebacking unit, where junior LB Kris Kent (80 tackles, 9 tackles for loss), junior LB Vinny Russo (62 tackles, 3 1/2 tackles for loss) and sophomore LB Cameron Buttermore (49 tackles, 1 tackle for loss)'s strides have really improved the Raider defense.  Their overall improvement, frankly, is why they're here, as the underclassmen that have been thrown into the mix have done well.

When Colgate has put pressure on the quarterback, junior SS Mike Armiento (79 tackles, 5 interceptions) has been there to take advantage.

"They made the change for me to go to safety, and that helped," Armiento said this week. "But I couldn't have done anything without my defensive line getting pressure. Last week they got 3½ sacks, which is huge.  Forcing the quarterback to throw the ball in the time he doesn't want to throw the ball is when we get our interceptions. Our linebackers dropping back in their coverages has really helped our secondary and helped me be able to make plays back there."

On run support, senior SS Demetri Diamond (61 tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for loss) has been great - when he's been in there.

"Demitri Diamond is getting healthy now," Biddle said this week.  "He's gotten a lot bigger, a lot stronger and he's playing with a lot of confidence, which is important."

At corner, Colgate has had injuries, but they have recovered from those injuries in these past couple of weeks.  Sophomore CB Josh Ford (40 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) and sophomore CB Adam Bridgeforth (38 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) start at the corners.

Special Teams
Sophomore P Nikko Armiento has averaged about 40 yards per punt, a decent average, while - if you can believe it - Colgate kickers have only attempted 3 field goal attempts all season.  Freshman PK Jonah Bowman made a 38 yarder in his only attempt of the year, but if Biddle's offense is firing, he doesn't do field goals.

Two dangerous return men, junior CB Jimmy DeCicco and junior FS Mike Armiento, are fielding kickoffs and punts, respectively, though Armiento hasn't been credited yet with a return.  They're prized for not coughing up the ball on special teams, though DeCicco has a 74 yard return and Armiento clearly has plenty of speed.

LFN's Keys to the Game

1. Physicality.  Getting physical will be the key to this game, which means winning the battle of the trenches on both sides of the ball.  I'd really love to see sophomore LB Matt Laub and the defense build off of their strong performance last weekend and ratchet up the physical play even one more notch - if they do, I really like Lehigh's chances.

2. Treating Possessions Like Gold.  In a game like this, you know exactly what the Raiders will try to do: elongate the game, shorten the number of drives, make the most of their drives, and not make mistakes.  Each possession on offense or special teams, is indeed like gold - meaning, if Lehigh can end up with a turnover differential of 0, or +1 - it will give Lehigh a great opportunity to win.

3. 3rd down and 4th down stops.  Stopping the Raiders on 3rd down (and almost certainly 4th down) will be huge in the way the Raiders play offense.  If Lehigh can force "turnovers" in the sense that they're keeping McCarney and the Raiders from those types of conversions, Lehigh will win.

Fearless Prediction

Lehigh and Colgate have been here before.  It's why you go to Lehigh or Colgate: to be in games like this, where there's championships and/or playoff hopes at stake.  It's why we're all fans: to share in the joy, or crouch in the pain, of games like this.

It's the type of week where you take practice a little easier, in order to deliver the extra punishment on Saturday - because it's win, and survive, or lose, and be out of the playoff hunt.

Equally, it comes down to the seniors, who have the fewest games left.  Can guys like senior RB Keith Sherman and senior FB Zach Hayden deliver the knockout blows?  Can senior FS Tyler Ward come up with another big interception, another big hit?

I see QB Gavin McCarney on Colgate's offense, the senior that will be trying to will the Raiders over the finish line for his last opportunity at the playoffs.

But I also see a lot of Lehigh seniors, too, doing everything they can to make this season a success.  Seniors like senior QB Brandon Bialkowski, who doesn't have to come on the field to help junior QB Matt McHale and freshman QB Nick Shafnisky become better quarterbacks, but does so.

This game will be a war; Lehigh and Colgate games always seem to be wars.  This game will be about wills; Lehigh and Colgate games always seem to be about wills.  This game will be close; they're always close.  And I think Lehigh will have enough - just enough - to win this game.

Lehigh 34, Colgate 28

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