You heard right.
One of my FCS Playoff pet peeves (especially in the first round) is that, for some reason, ESPN (who owns the TV contract for all rounds of the FCS playoffs) and the NCAA do not space out all the games in fixed time slots.
If ESPN and the NCAA wanted to generate excitement about the playoffs, it would be fairly easy to space out every game with a kickoff every hour (Noon, 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM, etc.) all the way up to 8:00 PM. That way, hardcore FCS football fans can watch part of every single game, with at least one game getting to crunch time every hour from about 2:30 PM on. It would be compelling theater.
But ESPN and the NCAA, for some reason, choose not to do this, and indeed this year, ESPN has five FCS playoff games kicking off at 2:00 PM, one kicking off at 3:00 PM, and a couple of stragglers kicking off at 5:00 PM and 7:00 PM, respectively.
Why? There is literally no good reason for this. ESPN is causing hardcore FCS football fans to watch less FCS football. I'd love to be able to catch Weber State/Chattanooga, but it's on at the exact same time as Lehigh/UNH, so my chance of catching that game live is below zero.
Had Lehigh/UNH kicked off at Noon, and had Weber State/Chattanooga kicked off at 3:00 PM, suddenly I would have watched more ESPN3. Foolishly, I thought that was also in ESPN's (and the NCAA's) best interest that I am writing about and talking about more FCS playoff games all day.
This year, the silver lining is that the FCS hardcores seem to be targeting Lehigh/UNH as the one game they're most likely to watch with the six simultaneous games.
The reasoning for this is varied, but it comes about at least in part due to the fact that UNH is considered FCS playoff royalty, having qualified for them for the last thirteen years. Facing off against UNH is sort-of akin to a team facing off against Duke in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
It's also seen as a potentially highly competitive, high scoring game. Most FCS playoff watchers know that playing at The Dungeon is difficult for many teams, and some veteran FCS playoff fans remember Lehigh as a scrappy team punching above it's weight. They remember wins over Northern Iowa and Towson, both heavily favored over the Mountain Hawks, both on the road.
Having said that, let's jump in and break things down.
Breaking Down New Hampshire
You're a Lehigh fan. You look at UNH head coach Sean McDonnell, who has been to the FCS playoffs every year for the past 13 years. You study up on your Chip Kelly, who was an assistant here for years before becoming an NFL head coach (and who still follows UNH football very closely from afar). Kelly's vision and style of play still permeates Durham.
You understand that the Wildcats are a pace-of-play team, perhaps the first team in America who took pace-of-play, maximizing offensive possessions, and coming up with the calculus that if your offense simply runs 80-100 plays a game, you have a great chance of winning. For good measure, you run 2 point conversion plays in the first or second quarter, simply because you can.
Yet New Hampshire's offense hasn't been the main story for the Wildcats this season. They certainly have had their moments, recently scoring 43 points in a win (vs. Stony Brook) and 39 points in a loss (vs. James Madison). But overall, they've been inconsistent, most notable in a 36-25 loss to Albany in their last home game.
|UNH QB Adam Riese (Concord Monitor)|
Knight, the more dual-threat QB of the two, was more able to use his legs to make things happen for the Wildcat offense. However, there is some doubt as to whether he will be the starter on Saturday.
“(Knight’s) foot and his toe are getting better. Had the boot off yesterday and was out there doing a little bit and will do a little more today. I’m under the belief that he’ll probably be in the backup role for us,” McDonnell said on Wednesday. “We’ll see how much more he goes today. But Adam is moving around freely, is ready to go, so we’ll see how that goes. But unless something crazy happens, (Knight) will be there for a backup position.”
What must be crushing for UNH fans is that Knight's big wild card is his running ability, so if his foot isn't 100%, it seems very likely that Riese will indeed be the starter.
Riese is more likely to stay in the pocket, though he does have the ability to take off with the ball if necessary. He went 20-for-37 in last week's game for 218 yards, and more crucially brought the offense together at a time when the game could have gone off the rails. As a senior and team captain, there cannot be any question that the Wildcats will be settled with him under center.
|UNH RB Dalton Crossan (Concord Monitor)|
If I were McDonnell, I would look to feed Crossan early and often, for when he goes over 100 yards rushing, the Wildcats tend to win (including last week, where he exploded for 163 yards). When the game was tied and the Wildcats were driving for the game-winner, McDonnell fed him the rock 6 times to get 25 yards, showing how he gets better as the game goes along.
The Wildcats' receiving corps is extremely young and has had their targets spread out over the entire group with sophomore WR Neil O'Connor (596 yards, 5 TDs) as the top receiver. Sophomore WR Rory Donovan (305 yards, 3 TDs) and freshman WR Malk Love (476 yards, 1 TD) round out the top three receiving targets. UNH will sometimes use their receivers as rushers in gimmick plays, and are mostly interchangeable. You can also count on the fact that McDonnell will not hesitate to go to the well on a combination that is working, including the use of senior TE Jordan Powell (224 yards, 1 TD).
New Hampshire, like Lafayette last week, has an enormous front line, anchored by players like Lehigh Valley native senior C Tad McNeely and 6'6 senior OL Andrew Lauderdale, a guy who might get looks in an NFL camp this summer. For all that, though, this line has been inconsistent. When this unit does well and protects the quarterback and carves holes for Crossan, though, the Wildcats are in any game.
The Wildcats still play a 4-2-5 defense, a popular formation known for bringing a simple, multiple-look defense to play to disrupt a multitude of spread offenses, and the fifth defensive back (or "weak safety") acts as an effective tackler, blitzer, or general "speed guy" to hunt down speedy backs and receivers.
|UNH CB Casey DeAndrade (Concord Monitor)|
The strength of the Wildcats defense lies in their secondary, where Lehigh will be facing their first true shutdown corner of the season in first-team all-CAA senior CB Casey DeAndrade (57 tackles, 2 INTs, 9 pass break-ups). Think you want to always pass away from him? Bad news: freshman CB Prince Smith, Jr., is almost nearly as good, with 5 INTs on the season in his own right. He was the CAA's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Want to pick on the safeties? More bad news: freshman SS "Pop" Lacey (66 tackles) just got his first interception last weekend - a critical return for touchdown - and has been the team's top tackler on the season. Freshman FS Michael Balsamo and freshman WS Rick Ellison round out a defense that has picked 12 passes this season - unquestionably the strength of this team.
|UNH CB Prince Smith, Jr. (Concord Monitor)|
On the defensive line, senior DE Cam Shorey (36 tackles, 8 tackles for loss), is the headliner and was also a first team all-CAA selection. Sophmore DE Jae'Wuan Horton fills out the other side, while a pair of near-300 lb defensive tackles, junior DT Rick Holt and sophomore DT Ryan Sosnak, clog up the middle effectively.
Statistically, the kicking game for UNH has been down the middle, with junior P Max Pedinoff (38 yards per punt) and junior PK Morgan Ellman (6/9 FGs) having average years in the kicking game. However Ellman's 30 yard FG is why Lehigh is travelling to UNH this weekend, because it was the difference in the game. It seems to reason that McDonnell will not hesitate to put Ellman in another game-winning situation again this week if necessary.
The return game will feature UNH's best athletes in senior CB Casey DeAndrade and senior RB Dalton Crossan and they are both troublesome weapons. DeAndrade has had a 28 yard punt return and a 91 yard kickoff return, so he's a guy that could be keeping special teams coaches up at night.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Don't Let Confidence Mean Unnecessary Risk. Lehigh is playing with a huge amount of confidence at the moment, much of which comes from a +10 turnover ratio. More than anything else, that ball protection and those forced turnovers have been what has made the Mountain Hawks work so well. With the hope that the takeaways come easily, what's critical for Lehigh will be not creating unnecessary giveaways. If the turnover ratio favors Lehigh, I like their chances. If it doesn't, I don't.
2. Spread 'em out. James Madison provided a great game narrative that Lehigh would be well-served to try to duplicate on offense: spread out the defense, and eat up yards with a mix of the run and pass. Do so at a quick pace, and score in bunches. This is how James Madison soared out to a 42-12 lead, to hold on and beat the Wildcats 42-39. It could happen again this weekend for the guys in the gold pants.
3. Relentlessly pursue Crossan. Dalton Crossan was the engine that made UNH go this season, so stopping him has to be a top priority. Swarming to him early and often has to be a big part of the defensive gameplan, while not getting overrun by UNH's big, physical O line.
Whether Lehigh "earned" a home game or not, here we are. Whether UNH "deserved" a home game, or an at-large bid, here we are. The game is nigh. And when you look at the matchup, you see a game that can go either way.
This Lehigh team is coming into this game with a lot of confidence, having won nine straight. The momentum from this type of run for the Mountain Hawks cannot be overstated, but at the same time it's not everything. Will Lehigh be able to handle the pressure of this matchup, in this place, at 2:00 PM on Saturday?
All I know is whatever happens to Lehigh, I don't think this will come easy. It never is, playing on the road in the FCS playoffs. But I think this team has what's necessary to come away with it.
Lehigh 45, New Hampshire 36