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Game Breakdown, Lehigh at Bucknell, 10/10/2015

We break down the Bucknell game - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.

The rivalry between Lehigh and Bucknell could not be more strange.

The Mountain Hawks hold a 44-31-3 advantage in the series and have played each other on-and-off for the last 127 years.  But Lehigh, relatively speaking, has dominated since the NCAA established Divisions in 1978.

Since both Bucknell and Lehigh were reclassified as Division I in 1978 and started competing in Division I-AA together, Lehigh holds a 27-9-1 advantage.

But any good Lehigh fan will point out, though, the last two years have see two of those nine losses.

And both weren't just losses - they were butt-whoopings I don't need to go over again, a humbling 48-10 loss to Bucknell in 2013 and a bad 45-24 loss last season.  Then again, Bucknell is 16-5 in their last 21 games, so it's not like they only has success against Lehigh.

One more interesting fact is that this weekend's Lehigh/Bucknell game is occurring when both Lehigh and Bucknell are on "pacing break" this weekend.


The namesake of Bucknell's stadium is a hall-of-fame pitcher, Christy Matthewson, who was also a football star for Bucknell back in 1899.

Matthewson had a very interesting hall-of-fame baseball career.  At 14 years old, "Christy" (so nicknamed, as the say, because, as a Christian, he wouldn't pitch on Sundays), was pitching in the minor leagues.  That didn't stop him from eventually attending Bucknell and suiting up for the football team as well.

It was Matthewson's presence that allowed the "Bisons", as they were then called by The Brown and White, that had them beat Lehigh 5-0 thanks to a kick from the future hall-of-fame pitcher.

With neither line able to cross the other's goal line, "it was essentially a kicking game," The Brown and White reported, "and it was only due to the superior ability of Bucknell's full-back, Matthewson, in this line that the visitors were enabled to turn the score in their favor."

In addition to kicking for Bucknell, Matthewson also returned kicks, which set up the field goal "from the forty yard line" that would end up being the game-winner.

That same year of 1899, according to his Wikipedia page, he pitched in the minors and went 21-2, prompting him to be drafted by the New York Giants that spring.  Eventually, he would pitch in the 1905 World Series and deliver 3 shutouts, cementing his legacy.

Let's tackle this weekend's game.

Breaking Down Bucknell
Offense

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.

In Bucknell's flavor of this offense a fullback is used, shifted to the flow of the play, to open up holes for the runners and the quarterback to run the football, while using play-action to set up big plays in the passing game.  Joe Susan's version of this offense is nothing new from what Lehigh has seen before; it's essentially the same version they've seen, with the same personnel.

Bucknell QB R.J. Nitti
Junior QB R.J. Nitti is essentially in his third year of running this offense.  While not really a true dual-threat QB, when Nitti is at his best he's directing a rushing-intensive offense and hitting his man on the play-action, preferably for big plays.  That's not to say Nitti can't occasionally take off on a run, and he also has four af Bucknell's five rushing touchdowns on the season, so he likes to call his own number in the red zone.  But he's made the most hay overall with his arm.  When he's accurate throwing the football, the Bucknell offense is dangerous.

Nitti was not completely healthy last season, and, somewhat worryingly for Bucknell fans this season, Nitti's accuracy has been down overall since he got injured last season.  In 2015 he's only been completing 51% of his passes, and it's reflected in Bucknell's box scores.  Last week vs. VMI, he went 17/34 for exactly 50% completion percentage, and only 188 passing yards, though the Bison did end up beating the scholarship program in Lexington in overtime.

A big contributor in that game was another Bison player that has implanted himself in Lehigh fans' nightmares, junior RB C.J. Williams.  Through four games he's averaged more than 100 yards per game on the ground, and he also has skills catching the ball out of the backfield, which he's done 9 times for 99 total yards on the season.

However, took a vicious blind-side hit late in the 4th quarter of the VMI game last week to his left shoulder/arm and spent time on the field last week before being taken off the field.  (You can actually still see it here.)  I still must mention that Williams still sits atop the depth chart for this week, but if I were to guess, and trusting the source, I'd probably, to be conservative, judge Williams' status as "questionable".

A 100% C.J. Williams is a talented, tough weapon for Lehigh to contain on the ground, but, as last year's Bucknell game and last weeks' Yale game showed, such a weapon hasn't been necessary to get rushing yardage against Lehigh this season.

What is interesting, though, is how Bucknell rallied after the injury.  They were a different team.  It was as if the injury pulled them closer together, and helped them pull out the win.

If Williams cannot go, 5'7 senior RB Matt delMauro will certainly get the same bulk of carries in his place.  He only has 101 yards rushing backing up Williams, but he did score the game-winning touchdown against VMI last weekend.  He has only one reception on the season.

It's worth noting that all the backs listed below Williams, and there are two more listed below delMauro, sophomore RB Joey DeFloria and freshman RB Omar Garcia.  They are both in the same mold as delMauro - pure speed backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield.  Less publicized than delMauro's touchdown run is the fat that DeFloria caught a big pass to set up a late 4th quarter score after Williams came out.  He also caught the game-winning touchdown pass two weeks ago vs. Cornell, so he's already proven himself to be a dangerous weapon.

“That really changed the momentum,” Susan said of DeFloria's catch. “He’s a great kid. Very low-key in terms of his humble approach. A very smart football player. ... He’s fast. He outran their defense (even though) they had an angle on him.”

6'3, 240 lb freshman FB Luke Owers has no rushes on the season, but he's the blocker out of the backfield that opens up the pounding rushing offense for the stable of backs.  Though it's out of vogue for offenses to have fullbacks anymore, Joe Susan has a potentially great one in Owers, who also is a dangerous receiver out of the backfield (10 catches, 152 yards).

Bucknell WR Will Carter
The most-targeted receiver of Nitti will definitely be the guy who also has inhabited Lehigh's nightmares the past two years, junior WR Will Carter.

He's only played two games this year, but when he's in the game, he's a difference-maker.  With 146 yards and 2 TDs, he's made a meal of Lehigh defensive backs for two straight seasons and will gladly make it a third if he's able.

Against Lehigh, Carter got most of his yardage in YAC, or "yards after catch".  One of his touchdowns last season came on a bubble screen, a pass that went maybe 10-15 yards across the field, but his speed and elusiveness made what could have been a short gain into a back-breaking big play.  Deceptively, he has the ability to be patient and catch balls at the sticks, but then also has the breakaway speed to be extremely dangerous.  He's a star.

6'2 senior WR Bobby Kaslander (118 yards) is an OK possession receiver on the other side of Carter, but just like sophomore TE Andrew Podbielski, part of his big value comes from exterior blocking in the running game.  If your eyes focus on Kaslanded and Podbielski on the field, you'll likely see extra yards at the end of rushing plays thanks to their blocks.

Bucknell OL Julie'n Davenport
Once upon a time, Bucknell played a triple-option with light, nimble linemen that would sometimes get overwhelmed by Lehigh's pass rush.  No longer.  The Bison have what could legitimately be called the best offensive line in the Patriot League, anchored (and I mean anchored) by 6'7 (!) 315 lb (!) junior OL Julie'n Davenport.  He may not be on the NFL's radar screen - yet - but make no mistake about it, he's by far one of the Patriot League's best and Bucknell's sack numbers reflect that - they've only given up 8 all season.

Davenport should have NFL scouts heading to Lewisburg due to his height and footwork on blocking.  He's a bookend tackle and will most likely be all-Patriot League at a bare minimum when all is said and done.

It was hard to tell whether it was the weather or not, but junior C Cary Hess came in last week and seemed to struggle a little on Bucknell's "O" line snapping the ball.  Doubtful it will be a factor tomorrow, but nonetheless it will be something I will be watching.

Defense

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.   It's nothing new, and, somewhat encouragingly, perhaps, similar to Yale's defense from last week.

Defense has been the Bison calling calling card this season.  They've only yielded 15.5 points per fame and only allowing 285 total offensive yards per game as well.  In their only loss of the year, a 26-7 defeat at the hands of Duquesne, they only let up 347 yards of total offense.

As you might expect, Bucknell's solid, experienced, defensive front has been the genesis of their success.  Their front four of sophomore DE Doug Whitlock, sophomore DT Abdullah Anderson, junior NG Ben Shumacher and senior DE Jimmy King have combined for a mind-boggling 17 tackles for loss between the four of them, or an average of more than four a game.

"Here Is VMI... Now... Just Plain Zero!"
That's paired with the two tackle leaders in sophomore LB Ben "No I Didn't Star In The Running Man" Richard and sophomore LB Mark Pyles.  Though young, in Bucknell's aggressive 4-2-5 the two underclassmen have thrived as tacklers and in the blitz.  They've combined for 9 1/2 tackles for loss 73 tackles between them.

The Bison are known around the league for being a tough, physical defense with no quit.  That's the trait of a strong defense, and the Bison are only allowing 109 rushing yards per game thus far.

Bucknell's secondary features senior SS Clayton Ewell (27 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), who has been a strong, all-Patriot League caliber enforcer this season, as expected, who comes in often on blitzes and run support.  The rest of the secondary, though, is young and somewhat untested.  A true freshman, freshman CB Bryan Marine, starts, though he's done a fairly good job thus far with 3 pass break-ups and 4 passes defensed.  With FS Louis Taglianetti sidelined, junior FS Brett Berg has stepped in his place, notching 18 tackles, 4 pass break-ups and 4 passes defensed.

Special Teams

Sophomore PK John Burdick has struggled a bit in special teams this year, connecting on 2 of 5 FGs on the season (23 and 30 yards).  He did attempt a 50 yard boot versus VMI, so there is some confidence in his leg, but his accuracy has not been the greatest.  Freshman P Alex Pechin, however, has been a good weapon in the kicking game, averaging 41.1 yards per kick.  He also kicks off for the Bison.

Sophomore RB Joey DeFloria and senior WR Brian Regan return kicks on kickoffs, and DeFloria already has one returned 85 yards for a touchdown last week - another big play that kept Bucknell in the game after they fell behind 19-7 in the 4th quarter last week.  Freshman WR Alan Butler returns punts for a 6.2 yard average.

LFN's Keys to the Game

1. The Doctor Is In?  I'm not sure if Bucknell's secondary has really seen any receiver this season like the guy I like to call "The Doctor", sophomore WR Troy Pelletier.  I'm not saying to have junior QB Nick Shafnisky target him 30 times, but I hope the offensive gameplan has a hefty prescription for a lot a ways for Pelletier to get open.  I think a lot of Shaf-to-Pelletier connections, maybe even taking advantage of an aggressive Bucknell defense, might work very well.
2. Do Not Let Will Carter Beat You.  Though Bucknell is a team that emphasizes the run, Carter is the guy that scares me.  (Can you blame me?)  He might get open; he might get those seven or eight receptions, too.  But it is imperative that he doesn't get the YAC, which means making tackling him at the point of reception.  If Lehigh lets Will Carter have another monster day, it will be another long day.
3. Winning The Trenches.  Put simply, Yale walloped us last week in the trenches.  Any success Lehigh has the rest of the way will come from improvement in the trenches.  Improved play on the "O" line gives Shaf, freshman RB Dom Bragalone and the rest of the offense just a tiny bit more time to operate.  On the D line, if Lehigh gives up another 200 yard rusher, again, another long day at the office.  The Mountain Hawks simply need to win in this area.

Fearless Prediction

It's a critical game for Lehigh's football season - it almost goes without saying.  It's a game where Bucknell enters with all the momentum, coming off two good wins versus Cornell and VMI, whereas Lehigh had two subpar performance in a row versus Princeton and Yale.  If momentum was the sole determinate of this game, Bucknell would be a runaway winner.  But are they?

Bucknell's offense has struggled thus far, but the past two years have lit up the Mountain Hawks defense.  Do they keep that up?  Or does the magic stop for them after two fourth quarter come-from-behind wins against teams not as mighty as Princeton and Yale?

Bucknell's defense has been, well, awesome.  But have they faced anyone like Nick Shafnisky, an athletic quarterback that is awfully hard to scheme against because of his added dimension?

One way or another Bucknell and Lehigh will be answering some questions on Saturday.  In the past, Bucknell has been the tougher team, and has won the games.  Yet Lehigh's players seem to be saying the right things, and seem to have learned that they need that inner toughness to win this type of game.

I believe it happens this week.  I can't adequately explain it.  But I am on board.

Lehigh 27, Bucknell 20

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