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Game Breakdown: Fordham at Lehigh, 10/24/2014

WR Brian Wetzel (AP Photo)
We break down the Fordham game - and we give our fearless prediction below the flip.

Fordham's incredible squad gives a tantalizing glimpse as to what Patriot League football teams might look like once four seasons of scholarship athletes come into the program.

In their first year of eligibility for the Patriot League title since adopting conventional scholarships in football, Fordham has been drilling opponents, scoring more than 40 points per game in their six wins.

They're doing so with scholarship athletes, of course - but with scholarship athletes that are seniors, too, including two very, very important transfers from UConn.

Fordham's strategy has been a slow payoff, but a great one so far, giving the Rams a squad that is among the top offenses in all of FCS.

That's what Lehigh is up against this weekend.


Breaking Down Fordham
Offense

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.

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.

The good news is that Lehigh head coach Andy Coen will not be caught unaware of Moorhead's offense, which is now fairly well-established.  The bad news is, just like Dave Cecchini's "Air Lehigh" offenses, there are many sub-variations baked into the offense and it can be tweaked to attack specific weak links in a defense.

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

QB Michael Nebrich
Senior QB Mike Nebrich, a transfer from UConn, has been a gigantic part of the Rams' offensive success, and is deservedly a strong candidate for the Walter Payton Award this year.  

Called "Mikey Football" by his teammates (a nod to Texas A&M's "Johnny Football", QB Johnny Manziel), he has amply shown how good he, and the Fordham offense, can be when he's healthy.  

Start with the stats.

Nebrich enters this game with the same Payton-worthy numbers he did last year, when his Ram offense dissected Lehigh 52-34.  He has a 162.01 passer efficiency rating, with a 65.1 completion percentage, 2,304 yards passing, with 21 passing touchdowns vs. 5 interceptions.

He still has the fantastic footwork and beautiful passing touch he's had since he's come to Rose Hill, but he has evolved into more of a pocket passer this season, perhaps due to the leg injury he sustained two years ago and has, at times, seemed to be an issue last season.

Before the season, probably Fordham's biggest question was who was going to be able to run the football to take pressure off of Nebrich.  Fairly quickly it was obvious that Moorhead and the Rams had a potential national Freshman of the Year candidate to do so, freshman RB Chase Edmonds.

The 5'9, 185 lb shifty spark plug of a running back is already a 1,000 yard rusher through 6 games (1,011), with 11 TDs to his credit.  Worthy of mention, too, is that he's gained more than 100 yards in all six of Fordham's victories.  (The only time he didn't?  Against Villanova, which was Fordham's only loss of the season - in that game he was held to -5 all-purpose yards.  We'll be returning to that game later.)

When Edmonds needs to sit down and get oxygen, 5'10 sophomore RB Kendall Pearcey, another speed back, comes in.  Generally he's come in for about 6-10 carries a game, and has 304 yards rushing and 3 TDs as well.

One of Nebrich's former teammates at UConn leads one of the most deadly receiving corps in all of FCS, a group or seniors that are all deadly.

WR Sam Ajala (USA Today)
Senior WR Tebucky Jones (44 catches, 689 yards, 6 TDs), senior WR Sam Ajala (36 catches, 624 yards, 2 TDs), senior WR Brian Wetzel (40 catches, 569 yards, 5 TDs), and senior TE Dan Light (23 catches, 148 yards, 4 TDs) form a receiving corps that looks eerily like that of a successful NFL team.

If  you think of Nebrich as Drew Brees, you can think of Jones and Ajala as WR Brandin Cooks and WR Marques Colston as the outside receivers testing the defensive backs.  When they're covered, the 6'4, 250 lb Light is reminiscent of TE Jimmy Graham, a tall, deadly, pass-catching outlet receiver.  And that doesn't even count the guy that really should keep a defensive coordinator up at night: the diminutive Wetzel, who looks and plays an awful lot like WR Wes Welker.

Senior WR Marcus Jones also can't be ignored, a 6'0 receiver who spells the other receivers and has 139 yards and 2 TDs while battling through several injuries.  Though Lehigh has played some very, very good teams this season, they haven't encountered a receiving corps as good as as deep as the Rams'.

There was one team that did manage to hold this high-flying Ram defense to 6 total points - top-ranked Villanova.  Can Lehigh try the same recipe?  If they do, it may require a fearsome pass rush.

The Wildcats had a whopping 12 tackles for loss against the Fordham "O" line, including 6 sacks, so the solution for beating the Rams seems to be getting massive pressure on Nebrich.  Fordham's line, led by senior OL Mason Halter, has averaged donating three sacks a game this season to opposing defenses, though as noted six of them came against Villanova.

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.  This 3-4 defense has, with the exception of the Villanova game, answered that call resoundingly.

270 lb senior DT DeAndre Slate (35 tackles, 4 sacks), senior DE Nick Merino (17 tackles, 2 sacks) and 300 lb senior DT Justin Yancey make for a big, run-stuffing line.  They've limited opponents to 3.9 yards per rush this year, which has been critical in the Rams getting those early 3-and-outs to set up their offense to get quick scores and insurmountable leads.

DE Brent Biestek
5th year senior LB Brett "Beast" Biestek had a mammoth of an evening against Lafayette three weeks ago, owning the Leopards' right tackle and getting 4 sacks on Lafayette quarterbacks.  At 6'4, 270, he is listed as a LB/DE hybrid and he lined up frequently from the stance as a DL against Lafayette.  To me, he's a legit pro prospect.

That's not to discount the other Ram linebackers: senior LB Austin Hancock (41 tackles), senior LB Victor DiFusco (44 tackles) and sophomore LB George Dawson (27 tackles), who do a good job wrapping up ballcarriers.   Last week DiFusco did not play due to injury; if he's not available, senior LB De'Nard Pinckney, who had 10 tackles last week vs. Penn, will likely stop in.

You'll note that we see a boatload of seniors and a handful of 5th year players on the Rams - the secondary is no different, with senior CB Ian Williams, senior FS Levon Williams, senior SS Jake Dixon, and senior CB Jordan Chapman.  Together they have 4 of Fordham's 7 interceptions on the year, and in every game but two this season (Columbia and - notably - Villanova), the Rams have at least one pick.

Special Teams

Senior PK Michael Marando has been an extremely reliable kicker within the 25 yard line, missing only one such kick all season and notching a perfect 36-for-36 on extra points.  He also has a leg for distance kicks, in evidence with a made 46 yard boot against Columbia.

RB Chase Edmonds
Senior WR Brian Wetzel returns punts for the Rams, averaging a healthy 10.5 per return, while freshman RB Chase Edmonds and senior CB Ian Williams team up on kickoff returns, neither of whom are guys you want to kick the ball to.  Edmonds' longest return is 65 yards; Williams, 30.

Fordham hasn't needed to get into any field position games this season, but if they did, sophomore P Joe Pavlik has been solid in this area averaging 40 yards per punt.

Indeed, if statistics won ball games, Fordahm would win the national championship.  Statistically Fordham is very impressive.

LFN's Keys to the Game

1. Offense as Defense.  The old saw is "the best defense is a good offense," and never before has this been more critical than with Fordham.  Keeping Nebrich on the bench with long, sustained, grinding drives, led by the rushing of senior RB Rich Sodeke, sophomore QB Nick Shafnisky and sophomore RB Brandon Yosha, will be critical, and, of course, not turning over the ball.

2. Tackling for Loss.  When Nebrich does take the field, you have to pressure him and make him at least move out of the pocket to force sacks or off-balance throws, something more possible now that he's more of a pocket passer.  Nebrich can't get the ball to his weapons if he's running for his life.   Similarly, tackling Edmonds in the backfield would be of huge help - if he's held to under 100 yards, Lehigh's chances of victory go up significantly.

3. A two-score lead.  Fordham is very, very good at jumping out to an early lead and piling on the points when your offense is forced to pass every down.  But they are largely an unproved quantity after falling behind by two or more scores - in fact, when they did so vs. Villanova, they were never able to fully recover.  Last year in the Bronx, Lehigh was never able to secure that two-touchdown lead - and ultimately were blown over by the Rams.  If they can prevent a two-score lead at all times - or get a two-score lead of their own - that's their best chance and coming away with a mammoth upset.

Fearless Prediction

Remember when Fordham came to Lehigh on a pacing break, few home (and away) fans made the trip, and the Rams were an afterthought for Mountain Hawk fans?  I do; those days are not all that old.

In the days when Fordham was transitioning from need-based aid to scholarships, the Rams struggled mightily to find out the right balance between their personnel and their offensive and defensive strategies.

But winning football games is what makes excitement.  This time around, it's not just homecoming and Family Day that will be giving Murray Goodman stadium a big boost in attendance this week - it's that there's a buzz in the air, because Fordham, at No. 12 in the nation, is that good.

Fordham isn't going to displace the NY Giants as the Big Apple's favorite football team any time soon, but the big-time media has taken notice of the Rams' success.  With the local news, Fordham talk is edging out Yankees hot stove talk and the latest bumbles of the Jets.

That has led to sellout crowds in Fordham last season when Lehigh came to town, and should mean a very strong contingent of garnet-colored fans heading to Bethlehem this weekend, too, invading Lehigh's homecoming.  That's the recipe for a big game: a nationally-known team, homecoming, and wins.

Lehigh this season, though, hasn't played the part they have in seasons past, struggling to a 1-5 start.  Realistically, beating Fordham is their only shot at staying relevant in the Patriot League title race, something only Villanova has done.  Worse, Moorhead has certainly made this at least in part about having Fordham win at Murray Goodman Stadium for the first time ever.

What will happen on Saturday is a great battle - a desperate team on the one side, buoyed by a great atmosphere, and the other, a team trying to stay elite and in charge of the Patriot League title race.  I think it's going to go down to the wire.

Fordham 38, Lehigh 35

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