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Lehigh At Villanova Game Breakdown And Fearless Prediction, 9/10/2016

Thanks to Villanova's game notes and Brian Ewart and the gang over at VUHoops.com, which is the source of most of this research (and, of course, my years of expertise following Lehigh football.)

One last plug of the Q&A Brian did over at VUHoops.com with me, and some other good content from their site.

Of note: VU Hoops: 3 Things To Know About Lehigh

"In the pre-season, Lehigh's offense was not only touted as high powered, but was generally considered the biggest strength of the team.  Last week they seemed to be sleep walking early on against the Monmouth.  In the first half, the offense was held to just 49 yards and no points.  Despite a decent showing by their defense, the Hawks went into halftime down 7-0.

"However, in the second half, senior QB Nick Shafnisky lead the team to 190 yards and 3 TD's.  It turned out to be too little too late, but they could easily ride that momentum into week 2.  Lehigh is a pass first team with lots of options at receiver and some talented tight ends, so Nova's secondary will need to be on top of their game Saturday.  They're no Pitt, but if the Mountain Hawks offense is clicking, Villanova's defense will have another tough test on their hands.



Breaking Down Villanova
Offense

The last preview I wrote about the Villanova offense comes from 2010, which waxed philosophic about the "Wildcat" formation and WR Matt Sczcur, who is now in line to play postseason baseball for the Chicago Cubs.  Szczur in many ways was the type of stupendous athlete for which a Wildcat formation was based - he was such a speedy, dynamic game-changer that doing things like direct-snapping him the ball was a great use of his talent.

But this is 2016, and though Villanova doesn't have a once-in-a-generation type player like Szczur at wideout, the Wildcats have plenty of players that could pose the Lehigh defense problems.

With Szczur and former QB John Robertson, Villanova has generated the reputation of having an offense that will adapt to its athletes' talents.  Robertson, an extremely mobile dual-threat QB, became the main weapon in the Wildcat arsenal, punishing teams both on the ground and through the air.

Head coach Andy Talley clearly wanted the Pitt game to be a contest for him to evaluate the offense to see where the talent was to be maximized.

"A lot of it was the strong Pitt defense," Ewart told me, "they had a big front line and much more depth than Villanova could compete with. Villanova's offense is a bit of a work in progress, however, but they didn't make some of the ugly errors that plagued them last season."

QB Zach Bednarczyk
Villanova's offense didn't make much headway last week, but their lefty quarterback, sophomore QB Zach Bednarczyk, last year's CAA co-Rookie of the Year, did a fairly decent job under the circumstance that he was running for his life most of the time in the face of the Pitt pass rush.

Bednarczyk, who became the starter when Robertson went down with a season-ending injury last year, ran for 60 positive yards (while enduring 58 lost yards in sacks) and went 15 for 31 passing with one interception.  Like Robertson, he's a guy that can beat you with both his feet and his arm.  Last season, he completed 58% of his passes and ran for 515 yards, but his running game was a lot further along than his throwing game.  Against Lehigh it's a pretty good bet that he'll want to emphasize both parts of his game.

One thing that Villanova lacked last season, especially when Robertson went down, is that strong second rushing option aside from Bednarczyk.  That's why Talley had very big praise for senior RB Javon White last week, who gained 37 tough yards against a daunting Pitt defensive line.

A back that has good hands out of the backfield, White's best all-purpose yardage game last year came against Fordham.  White's biggest struggle has been staying healthy - last season, he competed in only seven games before suffering a season-ending injury.

When White isn't in the game, sophomore RB Aaron Forbes will take the rock, though last weekend he didn't see much action with only 3 touches the entire contest.  Like White, though, it's a good bet that he is a strong speedy back that can both run the ball and catch it out of the backfield.

Another think that Talley has been looking for in his final season at the helm of the Wildcats is a deeper receiving corps.  It seems like every year Villanova has a scary deep threat that needs to be addressed, but so far one didn't emerge last week.

TE Ryan Bell
Who's the likeliest candidate?  Well, last week 6'3, 130 lb junior TE Ryan Bell emerged as Bednarczyk's top target, oddly enough, with 6 catches for 52 yards.  On his athletics bio, he is listed as a "solid blocker with good hands," which is precisely what one always wants in a tight end on offense.  Will he be the primary target again?

Most of the non-tight end receptions for Villanova came out of the slot, where 5'7, 155 lb sophomore WR Jarrett McClendon and junior WR Taurus Phillips caught a grand total of three passes.  From the slot, Villanova is known for doing reverses and wideout rushes, so that's an added element from the receiving corps that Lehigh will need to guard against.

It's also a solid bet that the true outside receivers, sophomore WR Alex Padovani and junior WR Lincoln Collings, will do better than the grand total of one reception between the two starters.  It's worth noting that Villanova's offense becomes a very different animal when a deep threat emerges - this is borne out by the last six or seven years - so you can bet Talley will be testing the waters here at some point.  It is also worth noting that this outside group is young, and fairly inexperienced.

Nova's offensive line struggled last weekend to contain Pitt's pass rush, but it's hard to grade the Villanova "O" line as anything but an "incomplete" at this stage of the season.  The line features a couple of seniors, but all eyes should probably be on the right tackle, sophomore RT Ethan Greenridge, who is protecting Bednarczyk's blind side.  He lines up at 6'4, 345 lbs - and no, that's not a typo.

"We'll see more in the next two games how things truly fare for this team, but I would expect the Wildcats to look a little more potent on offense this weekend at home," Ewart told me.

Defense


Villanova plays a 3-3-5 defense which is precisely the same type of scheme that Lehigh is playing, and in a lot of ways is the type of 3-3-5 defense Lehigh aspires to have - one that forces turnovers, and uses a heavily talented (and big) defensive line to slow down the run and let speedy linebackers and defensive backs make big plays.

It helps when you have a guy that has the look of a future NFL player on your D line.

DE Tanoh Kpassagnon
Senior DE Tanoh Kpassagnon has the measurables that make NFL scouts drool.  Who doesn't want a 6'7, 290 lb defensive lineman on their team?  (Already I'm desperately hoping that there's a New Orleans Saints scout in the press box with me this weekend.)

Not only did he notch 2 tackles for loss last weekend, which is a testament to the speed he has as a large defensive end, he also blocked a Pitt field goal attempt as well, a testament to Kpassagnon's enormous wingspan.  A huge disruptor on both defense and special teams, it will be very interesting to see what Lehigh will do to scheme to try to slow him down.  That's one thing I'll definitely be looking at.

It's sometimes so easy to get caught up with Kpassagnon's raw ability that it's worth noting that 285 lb sophomore LB Bryan White and Temple transfer senior DE Bryan Osei are also pretty gosh-darned defensive linemen in their own right.  These guys won't be pushed around easily.

LB Austin Calitro
Also sometimes lost when looking at Villanova's defense is the strong play of redshirt senior LB Austin Calitro, one of the captains of the defense and the leading tackler last week vs. Pitt.  He's a great tackler and another huge reason why Villanova's defense works as well as it does, and sophomore LB Jeff Steeb (8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss) and junior LB Ed Shockley (6 tackles) aren't too far behind Calitro in the tackling department, either.  Senior LB T.J. White, too, offers depth at linebacker and will probably see a bunch of snaps.

In the 3-3-5, blitzes come from everywhere, as Lehigh fans are learning.  From linebacker, rover, or safety, there are a lot of angles to cover.

At Villanova, the Rover is called the "wide safety" and junior LB Rob Rolle, who recovered a Pitt fumble for the Wildcats' only score, is the starter.  His score illustrated the role of the Rover, a player that lines up everywhere, and finds where the ball is, and makes good things happen.

Senior SS Shayne Jones is another Rover-esque defensive back that's a strong tackler, with junior FS Rasaan Stewart lining up next to him.  At corner, junior CB Malik Reaves and junior CB Trey Johnson line up at corner.  "Reaves looked fantastic last week against Pitt, showing no signs of being slowed by an injury," VU Hoops noted.

Special Teams

Sophomore PK Gerard Smith doesn't have much of a 2016 resume yet, but as a true freshman last year he showed himself strong in terms of PATs (19 of 21) but not so much in terms of field goals (3 of 7, with the longest of 39 yards).  In general, placekickers at Villanova have had a rough go over the years - a few years ago, an upset over Syracuse in reach, the Wildcat kicker missed a 25 yard field goal that would have beaten the Orange in regulation, and then, in double overtime, Talley called for a 2 point conversion instead of kicking an extra point that could have forced a third overtime.

Junior P John Hinchen, as you might expect in a game with only 7 points scored for the Wildcats, had a strong game punting, averaging more than 39 yards per punt and booting a 55 yarder.

Sophomore WR Jarrett McClenton, the speedy slot receiver, is featured on both punt returns and kickoff returns.  Junior WR Taurus Phillips and freshman RB D'Andre Pollard round out the return units.  All three are short, fast, low-to-the-ground returners that will be difficult to bring down.

LFN's Keys to the Game

1. Picking up the blitz.  The pass rush will come from all over, but the single most important thing is for the offensive line, tight ends and backs to pick up blitzes when necessary.  Senior QB Nick Shafnisky certainly has the capability to run away from trouble, but that extra second of time given with a picked-up blitz can make all the difference with getting Lehigh's offense going - and it will need to get going right away to have a chance to win.

2.  Show Your Strength On Defense.  It's easy to just say "finish your tackles", but against Villanova it's going to come down to more than that.  I think this is a real opportunity for this defense to show the world their potential in terms of swarming to the ball and excelling at minimizing yardage after catch and minimizing second-chance runs - especially those involving Villanova's quarterback.

3. Forcing Turnovers.  Turnovers come from disruption, and it's been a real point of emphasis for the Mountain Hawks this offseason.  Forcing turnovers will come from strength, aggressive tackling and getting off a consistent pass rush.  Can Lehigh get that established on a consistent basis?

Fearless Prediction

On paper, there's little sugar-coating it: This will be a challenge.

Villanova's in the Top 25.  Lehigh is not.  Sometimes it's that simple.

But these are exactly the types of challenges that Lehigh football players yearn for.  It's why they play the game.  They don't go out and put their bodies through nine months of constant conditioning and practice and injury so that they can just coast through the regular season.  They're here to show what they can do.

What I don't see is a Lehigh team that will come out as flat as they did last weekend.  In fact, I could see the opposite: I can see a Mountain Hawk team come out fired up, playing much cleaner, eager to show that last week was only a fluke.

The question is whether that will be enough.

My fearless prediction is this: Villanova will end up on top, but the Mountain Hawks will not get blown out of the building.

Villanova 31, Lehigh 24

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