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Game Breakdown, Yale at Lehigh, 10/3/2015

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

All week everyone's been tracking the progress of a potential superstorm, hurricane Joaquin.  While the main concern, of course, is the safety of everyone in the hurricane's path, people are also wondering whether the storm will be affecting the game this weekend in the form of wind or rains.

It turns out, if the tracking goes the way the majority models are indicating, that Lehigh's 12:30 game at Murray Goodman might not only escape the rain, but there might not be any showers to speak of.

In the latest hour by hour at Weather.com, the forecast actually only has modest showers in the morning, ending by 11:00 AM (just in time for tailgating), and remaining partly cloudy all the way until 4:00 PM on Saturday, an absolute perfect window for the football game and Goodman stadium homecoming activities.

In short, it's increasingly looking like the storm will either move very slowly through the Caribbean,  or take a sharp right turn and head so far out to sea that the worst of the winds of the storm will miss the Lehigh Valley completely.  Though the situation is still serious along the Eastern shore, at Murray Goodman it is actually, against all earlier odds, looking like good weather.


One of the more underappreciated subplots of this weekend's game involves one of Yale's assistant coaches, who had the singular key play in one of Lehigh's more agonizing home losses in the past decade.

In 2009, Lehigh's defense shut out Yale's offense - but it wasn't enough to win the football game.  In an awful game, the Mountain Hawks lost to Yale 7-0 thanks to a successful fake punt attempt.

LB Paul Rice, now an assistant coach on Tony Reno's staff, was the player who scored that touchdown for the Eli.

On that day, let's just charitably say I wasn't happy.

"You could try to pump up Yale as a latter-day Walter Camp-coached team," I wrote, "but they were nowhere near that level. Their ineptitude on offense equaled Lehigh's, as it was a fake punt that Yale took into the end zone in the only well-executed play for positive yardage all afternoon.  You could try to make excuses - that it was wet, or windy, or that Lehigh had a lot of injuries. But any excuses like that are pathetic. There is no justification for the hideous performance on offense this afternoon."

Another Outcome Like This One?  Yes, Please
Fortunately for all of us, Yale's last trip to Murray Goodman was a lot more satisfying for the home team, a dominating 37-7 win that would result in the Yank Townsend trophy for the Mountain Hawks.

"WR Ryan Spadola and WR Jake Drwal would continue to torment the Yale secondary the rest of the afternoon, both combining for an amazing 260 yards receiving," I wrote, "with Jake nabbing all three receiving TDs on the afternoon, including a 5 yard grab in the corner of the end zone on one drive, and a soft, 12 yard grab, dragging his foot in the end zone on the other."

In another interesting subplot for tomorrow afternoon, Jake's brother will be suiting up for Yale on the receiving end.

Breaking Down Yale
Offense

The Yale Bulldogs won't be throwing a formation on offense that is unfamiliar to the Mountain Hawks - they are running with the same single-back, three wideout set that most of Lehigh's opponents have run this season.

While they are missing some big pieces from last season's team, most notably RB Tyler Varga, who is very much playing on Sundays for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, they still return the most important carryover piece from last season - their quarterback.

QB Morgan Roberts
Junior QB Morgan Roberts, a backup quaterback at Clemson three years ago, was anointed the head signalcaller last season and had a terrific season, breaking longstanding Yale records for completions (248) and yards (3,220) while tying the school record for touchdown passes (22).

At his current pace, he's pretty much picked up where he left off in 2014, already with 6 touchdown passes (with only 1 interception) and a 61.4% completion percentage.  That can't make Lehigh's defensive coordinators sit very easy.

Roberts defines the words "dual threat", not to mention possibly being a "triple threat" receiving in certain plays in the playbook.  He's athletic enough to take off with the ball (he already has a 15 yard run to his credit) yet is still a dangerous, accurate passer as well.  Like another veteran FBS quarterback that Lehigh has faced, James Madison QB Vad Lee, Roberts can be a big danger in a multitude of ways on offense.

“[Reno] really trusts us and believes in our offense and believes we can execute,” Roberts said after their big win vs. Cornell. “We’re always no-huddle, playing up-tempo, so it’s not like we were out of our comfort zone.”

Last season against Lehigh, Roberts had a spectacular afternoon, going 31-of-40 passing and getting 4 touchdowns.

You'd think Roberts might suffer from the loss of an NFL-caliber running back to graduation for last year's team, but you'd be wrong.  Varga wasn't the only effective running back in their stable last year.

Yeah, He Did This vs. Lehigh Last Year
Junior RB Candler Rich carried the ball 67 times last season for 502 yards, but Lehigh fans should remember him from last season's game, where he had 104 yards rushing and a touchdown on 11 carries, sporting a hefty 9.5 yards per carry.  Last season at the Yale bowl, the Eli amassed a whopping 307 yards rushing against Lehigh.

Encouragingly, Rich isn't averaging 9.5 yards per carry this season.  He's averaging a somewhat more sane 3.9 yards per carry, and Yale is averaging less than 100 yards per game this season.  Sophomore RB DeShawn Salter (17 carries, 51 yards) comes in for Rich when he needs a breather, essentially the same type of speed back Rich is.  Both have combined for only one reception out of the backfield.

Rich is listed at the primary back on the two deep, but he came out in the third quarter of the Cornell game and didn't return.

"Tony Reno did not confirm or deny his status for Saturday," The Yale Daily News said.  "Rich’s replacement, Deshawn Salter performed well, but Reno said the team will not be making adjustments in the backfield."

Rich's status is a huge looming question mark looming over this game.  In this reporter's opinion, Yale is a different team with him in the game.

Even without Rich, Roberts has shown to be plenty proficient in the passing game.  His high completion percentage comes from the multitude of targets he has to choose from in the passing game.  In two games, he's already spread the ball around to nine different receivers, making it difficult to key on one player.

The most productive of the receivers has been junior WR Robert Clemons III (14 catches, 155 yards, 2 TDs), but worryingly sophomore WR Michael Siragusa Jr. (10 catches, 159 yards, 2 TDs) has been every bit his equal on the other side.  Both had huge days vs. Colgate in their opener, a game where Yale - surprise, surprise - came from behind to beat the Raiders 29-28.  Clemons and Siragusa combined for all three receiving touchdowns.

Unfortunately Yale isn't restricted to those two guys catching the ball.  It could be the day that slot receiver junior WR Myles Gaines (7 catches, 61 yards) gets his number called, or senior TE Sebastian Little once again, who caught the game-winning touchdown versus Cornell last week, or sophomore WR Bo Hines (6 catches, 68 yards), who seems like a player whose talent is waiting to bust out, or the younger brother of the former prolific Lehigh wide receiver, sophomore WR Ross Drwal, who already has a touchdown this season and looks to emerge as a potential big-play receiver as well.  It was Drwal's touchdown that put Yale within striking distance vs. Cornell.

It's worth mentioning that Hines didn't play vs. Cornell last week, either, though Yale has the sort of depth at wideout that should make any FCS school drool.

Yale's offensive line has struggled this season to protect the quarterback in two games, yielding seven sacks.  Senior C Luke Longiotti is the most experience member of this light-ish line - no starter goes over 300 lbs - but, just like Princeton, Yale's offensive line is physical and has the ability to wear down defenses.  Their ability for fourth quarter comebacks is a testimony to that.

"Many players have referred to the team’s ability to compartmentalize and put bad plays behind them as a strength," The Yale Daily News interestingly noted.

Defense

Yale lines up in a base 4-2-5 defense that isn't fancy, but has gotten the job done in consecutive weeks.  They shut out Cornell in the second half last weekend, and have only yielded one touchdown in the second half in two games.  Though packed with players that aren't seniors, almost all of them have seen time on the defense last season.

Opponents are averaging about 250 yards of total offense against the Bulldog defense, though how much of that was a function of Colgate's and Cornell's respective offensive styles is difficult to say.

Probably the most experienced player on the line is 294 lb junior NG Copache Tyler, who functions as an effective interior run-stuffer.  Interestingly, the defensive line has not been very aggressive thus far this year, with only three sacks on the season.  Junior DE Marty Moesta has one of them.

Senior S Cole Champion
Like Lehigh, they have the equivalent of a "rover" linebacker that can double up as a safety in certain situations.  Sophomore LB Matthew Oplinger plays this role at Yale, while two very talented tackling machines, senior LB Andew Larkin and junior LB Victor Egu, man the middle.  They've combind for 33 tackles on the season, and are responsible for the Eli's other sacks on the season.

The safeties remain the strength of the defense, with senior S Cole Champion (12 tackles) the linchpin.

Junior FS Foye Oluokun has been a beast in prior seasons but was hurt and didn't dress vs. Cornell.  He's listed on the two deep, but his status could be uncertain for the Lehigh game.

Junior CB Dale Harris and junior CS Spencer Rymiszewski round out the secondary, which did a good job limiting Colgate and Cornell in their first two weeks.

Something important to note as well in regards to Yale is their predilection for penalties.  Against Colgate, the Eli were penalized 8 times, and against Cornell, 12 times.  Three were personal fouls, and two were for illegal blocks on returns, so against Yale Lehigh will need to be on guard for a physical matchup.

Special Teams

Yale's special teams are something that will be of special concern for the Mountain Hawks on Saturday.  Led by Oluokun, the Bulldog special teams units already have four blocked kicks on the season, so extra points and punts will need to be areas of special concern on Saturday.

“We thought we had a good [special teams] unit last year, and we did some things in the offseason to look at … what schematically you can improve on,” Reno told The Yale Daily News. “We felt that our personnel could block kicks. The amount of them, at this early juncture, that surprised me a little bit. But this is what we hoped for.”

Junior P/K Bryan Holmes is 2/3 on kicking attempts with a long of 37 yards.  He averages a pedestrian 38,9 yards per punt, with a long of 45.  He offers steadiness in the kicking game.

Sophomore PR Jamal Locke has shown some scary ability on kickoffs, including one that went 84 yards.  and sophomore PR/KR Jason Alessi does double duty on both punt and kickoff returns.  He's had good returns on both units, so he's a player to watch.

LFN's Keys to the Game

1. Brags Left, Brags Right.  Stretching the Yale defense to the corners seems like an excellent idea, and with the emergence of freshman RB Dom Bragalone it seems like a good strategy on offense as well.  A combination of runs to the outside and some clock-eating drives will hopefully wear down Yale's offensive front a bit, possibly to make them a bit more vulnerable to the pass as well.
2. Run Stuffers.  Candler Rich's availability in this game is a huge factor, but regardless of who's carrying the rock for Yale it will be critical to make the Bulldogs into a one-dimensional team if Lehigh hopes to win on Saturday.  If they can hold Yale to 150 yards on the ground, I like the Mountain Hawks' chances to win.  If not, it could be another very long day for the Lehigh defense.
3. Added Protection.  If Yale's defense doesn't blitz much, defending the four- or five- man pass rush on regular defensive plays will be critical.  If Lehigh's offensive line can give junior QB Nick Shafnisky that extra two of three seconds to make things happen, good things will come.

Fearless Prediction

So much of this game appears to ride on the health of Candler Rich and Foye Oluokun, it makes it hard to predict this game.  If they are healthy and going 100%, they are a different team.  But will Tony Reno risk injuring them further before Ivy League play?  To this reporter it seems unlikely.

I mentioned in the game preview that this is a big game in regards to Lehigh showing the world that they are a team that can finish.  In their two losses this year, they were torn asunder in different ways.  The team, to a man, says they have learned from these losses, and I believe them.  But they still need to show the focus on game day, and the only way we'll see that is when they take the field.

It feels like Lehigh is the team with more to prove on Saturday, protecting their home turf, on Homecoming, with a bit of extra need to demonstrate something extra going into league play.  That, combined with the likely absence of several key guys on Yale, have me picking the home team.

Lehigh 42, Yale 34

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