One thing that is worthy of mention about last year's game, and may have gotten lost in all the talk of "revenge", was the element of surprise.
Head coach Joe Susan, facing off against a then-Top 25 team, had just re-introduced QB Brandon Wesley to the staring lineup the prior week, and also unveiled a brand-new offensive attack against Lehigh as well, meaning that the game film head coach Andy Coen saw from the prior week against Dartmouth was essentially worthless.
Surprise doesn't excuse the outcome, from a Lehigh perspective - not at all - but it's worthy of mention that Bucknell's pistol formation and offense shouldn't be taking anyone by surprise this week. It also means that nobody should be reading too much into Bucknell's loss at Bryant last week, either.
Breaking Down Bucknell
Like Monmouth last week, Bucknell runs a variation of the "pistol offense", made famous by Nevada head coach Chris Ault. The short explanation of this offense is that the quarterback lines up four yards behind center, and the halfback lines up in various positions five yards behind the quarterback.
Last year, Brandon Wesley was more of a dual-threat running the football. This season, sophomore QB R.J. Nitti (79/146 passing, 1,130 yards passing, 10 TDs) steps into Wesley's role after spending some time as his understudy last season. Nitti started some games as well last season when Wesley was hurt, with mixed results.
The 6'4, 220 lb Nitti isn't as mobile as Wesley but, if you take out last week's game against Bryant, he's been fantastically accurate throwing the ball. A typical Nitti-like day was his statistics versus Sacred Heart: an 18-for-31, 4 TD, 1 interception day. (Incidentally, all five of Nitti's interceptions on the season came against NEC schools.)
Where he hasn't been great is escaping a pass rush. Teams only have averaged a little over 2 sacks a game against the Bison, who boast an experienced "O" line behind preseason all-Patriot senior OL Lonnie Rawles, but Bryant, who registered five sacks against the Bison, showed a way forward for the rest of Bucknell's opponents: attack Nitti early, and often.
For all of Bucknell's issues in pass protection, their run blocking is superlative. Bucknell's strategy isn't complicated: mix a steady dose of Williams and junior RB Matt Del Mauro (181 yards, 3 TDs) running the ball right at your throat, and after the defense has been softened appropriately, hammer them with the play-action pass.
Williams is also a grave threat receiving the ball (112 yards), joining sophomore WR Will Carter (285 yards, 4 TDs) and junior WR Bobby Kaslander (22 receptions, 324 yards, 3 TDs). The 5'10 Carter made mincemeat of Lehigh's secondary last season, frequently getting behind the coverage and connecting on over 100 yards of receiving last year, while the 6'2 Kaslander has been an effective option in a possession role receiving. Senior TE Pat Kelly is also a solid blocking and short-yardage option.
Bucknell runs a multiple 4-2-5 defense that historically has been predicated on a constant stream of all-Patriot League defensive linemen entering the program. There shouldn't be much change from last years' setup, though some very good D linemen were lost this year to graduation.
To stuff the run, Bucknell has two interior linemen who are bigger than 260 lbs, freshman DT Abdullah Anderson and senior NG Demetrius Baldwin-Youngblood. With big interior guys like that, it's no wonder that the Bison are the No. 1 rushing defense in the Patriot League to this point this season. Youngblood is a serious all-Patriot League candidate this year as well (25 tackles 5 tackles for loss including 4 sacks).
|LB Evan Byers|
Another revelation this year for Bucknellians has been the play of junior SS Clayton Ewell (30 tackles. 6 tackles for loss including 3 1/2 sacks, 3 interceptions). He has had a great nose for the ball and has led the Bison in takeaways. With the front six generating so much pressure, Bucknell's defensive coordinator has a lot of options to either have him hang back in coverage, or bring him on blitzes. So far this season, they've used him very effectively.
After Ewell and the other experienced member of the secondary, junior FS Louis Taglianetti, the other three positions in the back seem a bit thin and inexperienced. Two underclassmen, freshman CB Colin Jonov and sophomore CB Nick O'Brien, are at the corners, while Lehigh has caught a bit of a break with senior WS Matthew Steinbeck being out with injury. In his place sophomore WS Thomas Bodolus steps in.
Senior P/K Derek Mauer takes care of all the kicking duties for the Bison, averaging about 36 yards per punt and converting 2 of 4 field goals on the season, including a 45 yarder. He's only had four touchbacks on kickoffs, worthy of mention, so there may be some opportunities on special teams to get some big runbacks.
Bucknell hasn't run back any kickoffs or punts for touchdowns yet, but that doesn't mean that the Bison haven't been close. Sophomore PR Nick O'Brien has filled in for the injured senior WR Joash Brake, for a 4.7 average, while 5'9 junior KR Brian Regan has been averaging a 16 yards per kickoff.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Dinks and Dunks. If the philosophy of an offense has to be to "take what the defense gives you", Bucknell's defense is likely to give some opportunities for short-range passes, especially to the outside. Sophomore QB Nick Shafnisky will need to make some good decisions on Saturday as to when to run, when to throw it deep, and when to "dink and dunk" and take what the defense gives you.
2. Senior Leadership needs to step up late. Head coach Andy Coen noted accurately that in two of the four games, personal foul calls on seniors extended game-winning drives. Against out-of-conference foes, it resulted in losses, but weren't a season-changer. If Lehigh has a chance to claw back into this Patriot League title race, dumb fouls like these have to end now. In a game as passionate as the one that will happen this Saturday, a mistake like that could cost the victory.
3. Bring the Noise. One thing that was lost in the defeat against Monmouth was Lehigh's improvement in terms of getting pressure on the quarterback. Pressure set up a particularly good exchange with Lehigh getting an interception by junior CB Olivier Rigaud, which was switfly converted into a touchdown. The defense won't have the luxury of simply pinning their ears back and going after the quarterback every play, but when the opportunity arises, they'll need to bring the serious pressure.
4. Jumping up early. The overriding theme in Bucknell's win last season vs. Lehigh and Bryant's win last week over Bucknell is that an early jump made it extremely difficult for the opposing team to climb the mountain. Getting the early jump, like they did against Yale, could be critical in getting Lehigh a big victory on Saturday.
It was circled on the calendar back in March - the rematch against Bucknell. Revenge for the 38 point blowout in Lewisburg. Revenge for taking the Mountain Hawks by surprise.
One of the points I remember in that game was a spot in the game when QB Brandon Bialkowski had already gone out to injury, never to play again in a Lehigh uniform. It was the lowest moment of the season, hopelessly down to a team that hadn't beaten the Mountain Hawks in fifteen tries, the starting quarterback almost certainly gone for the season, a national-ranking on the verge of being gone.
Down 34-3 at the lowest point of the season, RB Keith Sherman came out with senior QB Matt McHale on the end of that drive with Bialkowski's broken collarbone, and Sherman willed his his way into the end zone for Lehigh's only touchdown of the afternoon. When things looked bleakest, Sherman erupted, playing like a man possessed and Bucknell being unable to prevent him from getting into the end zone.
It was that effort that propelled Lehigh through the second act of their season, putting them into the Patriot League championship conversation despite the fact that they had a huge quarterback question going through the rest of the season.
In every game after that, Sherman was different. Each game, he effectively told his team to ride his back to the title - and he came fiendishly close to doing so. His performance beat Holy Cross and Colgate. He brought the game with Lafayette to within 8, tantalizingly close to delivering the championship and FCS playoff berth to Lehigh.
You see signs of this type of burning flame starting to light in this team, especially the seniors. But so far, it hasn't become wins, yet, because of poor execution at critical times - not only by seniors, but by everyone associated with the team.
It seems to me guys like senior WR Josh Parris, senior DT Tim Newton, senior FS Jason Suggs and senior RB Rich Sodeke will be the key to this game this weekend, somehow.
And I think those seniors will be the reason this team will win.
They will win because they were on the field or watching from the sidelines Keith Sherman last year score a seemingly-meaningless touchdown at the end of a game that was hopelessly lost, at a time that they saw at the same time, instantly, what it takes to win a football game in their senior year.
They've known all along what it takes to win, but I think this week the message makes its way to the rest of the team, too.
The memory of that touchdown is close, this week, to all, and for that reason I think this team will learn how to win.
Lehigh 36, Bucknell 28