A lot has been made this week of Lehigh facing off against an Ivy team playing in their first game. It's a fairly unique feature of FCS and the Patriot League, where Ivy League schools are frequently a part of the out-of-conference menu and the Ivy League teams, who choose to start their football season in mid-September, need some out-of-conference teams to begin the season.
It does certainly pose a challenge in certain respects. A team playing in their first game is freshest, less injured, and can surprise a team like it can in no other way the rest of the season - there is no game film really to study. On the other hand, teams playing in their first game are generally also sloppy, and need time to adapt to the speed of football. It is a double-edged sword.
In his Lehigh head coaching career, Andy Coen has been 5-4 in such games. Generally, oddly enough, they tend to be a good barometer for the rest of their seasons.
In seven of the nine games, and every game since 2008, a win in this game has equaled a winning season for Lehigh. A loss has equaled a losing season.
Last season, Lehigh lost a frustrating, heartbreaking game to Yale, 54-43, and finished 3-8 on the year.
Breaking Down Penn
So, having said that, exactly how do you break down a team that hasn't played a down? The answer is: you pore over Penn's game notes, examine the preseason media hoopla on the Quakers, study the record and roster from last season, and see what you can find out.
Thankfully there is plenty of paper trail to figure out a thing or three about our Quaker opponents.
Offensive coordinator John Reagan comes to Penn from Kansas, bringing with him his somewhat conventional spread-run offense. In a new era of hurry-up, number-of-plays analytics, at Kansas Reagan was definitely old-school in terms of his type of offense, emphasizing time of possession and sustained drives, kind of an anti-Chip Kelly approach.
"We've been watching a lot of Kansas film actually," senior LB Matt Laub told Greg Joyce of The Express-Times this week. "We do have film from Penn from last year. The good thing is we're able to watch specific players who are coming back. We're able to watch their tendencies as individual guys, how they play."
Reagan "ran a lot of option football at Kansas," according to Coen and Joyce, but according to the depth chart Penn should be lining up in a similar formation to Lehigh, with a base three wideout set, single back, and tight end.
|Penn QB Alek Torgerson|
Torgersen is definitely a better passer than a runner, though he did gain a lot of ground against Cornell in Penn's final game last year, running for 86 yards to go with more than 300 yards through the air as well.
Torgersen has noticed a difference between this year's squad and last.
"There's a lot more energy," Torgersen told Philly.com. "Last year we were pretty flat when we came to camp. That's the biggest change, I think. Obviously, 2-8 isn't good by anyone's standards. We've been highly disappointed with that. We came here to win championships. We want to shock the world. We don't have anything to prove to anyone, at least to me. I just want to go out and play for my teammates, help us be the best team we can be."
Listed behind him is senior QB Andrew Lisa, who hasn't taken an offensive snap in three years at Penn, ahead of a transfer from Colorado of the FBS, sophomore QB Will Fisher-Colbrie. There was some speculation - well, okay, it was me - that Fisher-Colbrie might come in and compete for the starting role with Torgersen.
A big cause for Penn's regression last season was a decline in the Quaker rushing attack, which had been a hallmark of their team for many years.
Sophomore RB Tre Solomon was a multi-threat back for Penn as a runner and a receiver when he went down with a season-ending injury last season. He's listed atop the depth chart with junior RB Brian Schoenauer right behind him, and a true freshman, freshman RB Jay Cammon, also in the mix. Neither Solomon or Schoenauer had a true breakout game last season, forcing Torgersen to need to pass early and often for the most part.
Last season, running backs and wideouts often were "dual use", meaning wideouts would generally get rushing yards in certain situations and running backs would sometimes line up as receivers. It seems likely that this will continue this season as well.
With their two leading receivers from last season graduating, senior WR Eric Fiore fits the bill of "dual use" wideout very well, racking up 624 all-purpose yards both rushing and receiving last year. He's the lead candidate to emerge next to sophomore WR Justin Watson (42 receptions, 497 yards, 2 TDs) and senior WR Cameron Countryman. Though there are lots of juniors and seniors in this receiving unit, there isn't a load of receiving experience.
|Penn TE Ryan O'Malley|
The offensive line is lighter than some of the other units Lehigh has seen this season, most notably JMU's 300 lb behemoths. But it does have a lot of experience returning, notably 6'6 280 lb junior OL Tanner Thexton.
Of special note is the trouble this unit had run blocking last season, only forging 115 yards on the ground per game for an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
Head coach Ray Priore has for years overseen Penn's multiple 3-4 defense, and a look at the depth chart shows that he will be continuing with the 3-4 defense with Bob Benson as defensive coordinator. A one-time head coach at Georgetown, Benson helped architect a successful 3-4 defense at Albany most recently.
As befitting a 2-8 team, Penn struggled at times last season creating turnovers and getting pressure on the quarterback. Making matters worse is the loss of their leading tackler of a year ago, LB Evan Jackson, and tackle for loss leader, LB Dan Davis, but the Quakers do return a lot of players that contributed heavily last season.
|My Favorite... Snack? Try Cheesesteaks..|
"[Benson] made it clear during the team’s Media Day that Connaughton is not only one of leaders of the unit,", the Daily Pennsylvanian previewed this week, "but the team as a whole. It’s fair to have faith in Connaughton, who has played in 21 career games and finished last season with 17 tackles."
At linebacker Penn has two great returning players in speedy senior LB Nolan Biegel (58 tackles) and senior LB Tyler Drake (58 tackles, 6 sacks). "The team’s defensive approach is designed to replace Davis with a group that doesn’t have to rely on only one person," the Daily Pennsylvanian adds.
Last season, Penn's secondary struggled mightily against the rest of the Ivy League, "continually beaten on long passing plays and were responsible for numerous explosive drives by opposing offenses," the DP mentions. Fifth-year senior CB Kevin Ijoma (52 tackles, 8 pass breakups) and senior SS Ian Dobbins (27 tackles) hope to do much better in 2015.
Senior WR Eric Fiore will be the Quakers' main punt and return specialist, notching 290 yards in kickoff returns last season. Senior PK Jimmy Gammill has a good leg, connecting on a 48 yard FG last season, but struggled with consistency, only hitting on 11 of 16.
Sophomore P Hunter Kelley had a modest average on punts (36.7) but he did manage more than five 50+ yard kicks, so again the theme for Penn's special teams must be "more consistency".
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Pouncing on Penn Early. With all of Penn's enthusiasm and fire to start their 2015 football season, the best way to combat that is to play disciplined and to jump to an early lead. A couple big plays on offense leading to touchdowns, dousing the Quakers early, might make things a much tougher go for Penn. A couple sustained drives led by junior QB Nick Shafnisky ending in the end zone would be the beginning of the recipe for winning.
2. Screens. Another way to combat a fired-up, overaggressive defense are things like bubble screens. Lining up a lot of those to counteract Penn's energy early could be a good strategy.
3. Get to Torgersen. Whether you're an option team, a plays-per-minute team or a Wing-T team, the best way to disrupt anyone's offense is to put pressure on the quarterback. If Torgersen doesn't have time, he can't run, pitch, or throw. Pressure from the front guys will be the key to disrupting Penn's nascent offense.
On paper, based on last year's records and players, this should be the type of game that favors Lehigh. In practice, with the element of surprise, a fired-up team that's undefeated and unscored upon with obvious talent, it becomes a very scary proposition - especially with a daunting schedule of Princeton and Yale up the road.
Yet Lehigh will be bringing the energy, too, in their first home game of the season, their first chance to show the home crowd what's possible for them in 2015. With the right amount of crispness and execution, it can be a showpiece.
I think if Lehigh scores more than 30 points vs. Penn, they'll win. I don't think they will, but if they do it will be a sign that things are firing on all cylinders.
I've got to believe that this is what this Lehigh football team will show this time around. The added experience of playing the last two weeks will show up in the form of a game with fewer mistakes, and a strong performance. It may not be a blowout, but I think it will be a win, and Lehigh Nation will gladly take it.
Lehigh 28, Penn 17