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Villanova at Lehigh Game Preview: Battle Of Nationally Ranked Teams Highlight Mountain Hawk Season Opener

One has been here before; the other has not, at least not lately.

Over the course of the last few seasons, Villanova Stadium has hosted all sorts of games involving Top 25 teams.  James Madison, New Hampshire, Richmond - all of these CAA teams have been to the Main Line, at one time or another, at the same time the Wildcats have also been in the Top 25.  When it comes to hosting big football games, Villanova is no stranger to that situation.

Not so, Lehigh.

Sure, the Mountain Hawks have played a bunch of Top 25 teams over the course of the last several seasons.  And last year, Lehigh returned to the Top 25 as well.

But the Mountain Hawks haven't hosted a game like this, a Top 25 tilt between two opponents that are both in the Top 25, since the Mountain Hawks beat New Hampshire 34-27 back in 2012.

This year's season opener represents the cumulation of the long, hard road of building a Top 25, national-caliber FCS football team.  Last season was a year of a Patriot League championship, a return to national respect, and rings.  And it all leads to this weekend, one of the biggest games on the Week 1 FCS National schedule that will provide a tremendous test to see how this 2017 Mountain Hawk team might turn out this season.

"Our opponents are unstoppable!"
Former Villanova head coach Andy Talley was a master at this.

I don't think there was ever anyone better when it came to managing the pregame press conferences for his football team.  Love him or hate him, in his more than thirty year career prowling the Villanova sidelines, he knew how to work a room full of reporters.

He was the master of "I'm not sure we'll be able to score a single point against Lehigh" school of quotation.  He would somehow manage to obfuscate how he really felt in every press conference - he literally knew all the right things to say to the press, stretching the truth, heaping heavy or faint praise on the opponent, whatever was required.   You never knew whether he was telling the whole truth or massaging the truth to fit the narrative he wanted - and he did it in such a football master head coach sort of way, you'd just nod your head and smile to yourself.

But Andy Talley finished his retirement tour last season, with the Wildcats losing a tough game to South Dakota State to cap off his final season.  It wouldn't be a National Championship sendoff - though he did earn one of those before - but it would still be a strong end to his head coaching career.

This year, longtime assistant Mark Ferrante takes over for Talley, and it's not surprising that he would pull from the same playbook when it comes to the pregame press conferences.

Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante (Philly.Com)
"I can’t remember the last time that we didn’t open up with an FBS opponent," he said in this week's CAA teleconference.  "When you have those games (FBS) the expectations might not be as high because you’re playing a level up. From our perspective, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Lehigh is a very formidable opponent, they went 9-2 and won the Patriot League championship last year and then faced a tough opponent in New Hampshire so, it will be interesting but we’re excited to get underway regardless of who were playing. They’re a top 20 ranked team, so we have more than our hands full."

"More than our hands full" sounded like it could have been written by Talley himself.

"We have to slow down that explosive offense," he continue.  "They have all their playmakers back. They’re top 10 in just about every offensive category a year ago, so I’m looking for our experienced secondary to match up against their experienced skill on offense. Hopefully we can hang in there defensively and slow them down and then on offense, again, consistency. We averaged over 30 points a game in our nine victories from last year and in our losses we scored seven or less. That’s been the theme, consistency and finishing the game. I know they (Lehigh) have a lot of guys back on defense as well so it should be a close contested game with our strengths matching up against each other."

Ferrante might be a brand-new head football coach - technically - but it's not like he's doing a lot different, at least initially, in terms of managing his nationally-ranked team.

“I’m not a coach coming into a new situation," he said.  "The uniforms haven’t changed. I haven’t done any of that stuff. Coach Talley did a great job here. If you have a winning formula in place, why would you want to change anything? He taught me how to do things, as far as everything he’s developed into the culture of this program. I’m not coach, and he’s not me. So our personalities are different. As I grow with the position, that may become more evident down the road. But not right now."

He went on to talk about the stability he offers.

“The players have heard me before," he continued.  "Coach has put me in those situations. I’ve been to banquets, handled media days. He sent me to head-coaching meetings, for various reasons. I’ve spoke in front of the team to break down a practice, or to start a practice, or in a team meeting. It’s just that now I’m doing it all. So they’re hearing it more frequently.”

Not To Be Denied
Stability probably suits Villanova fans just fine, especially as it concerns Lehigh.

In the modern era, Villanova has beaten Lehigh six times in seven meetings, the most recent coming last year in a close, hard-fought 26-21 defeat.

Behind some inspired running by RB Dom Bragalone and a strong first-half performance, Lehigh surged to a lead, but couldn't hold on as the Wildcats retook the lead in the second half.

In the 4th quarter, the Mountain Hawks needed to convert a 4th and 10 to drive for the winning score, but the pass from QB Nick Shafnisky to WR Troy Pelletier, though complete, wouldn't go far enough to get a fresh set of downs.

"I thought Lehigh played great," Talley said afterwards.  "We knew they would come in and give us their best game, which they did.  We preached to the team that what they saw on tape against Monmouth was not what we would see tonight, we would see a better football team, well prepared, and ready to play, and they certainly were.  They gave us all we wanted and more, actually, I was very impressed with them.  They are well coached, and they played hard."

DE Tapoh Kpassagnon (Kansas City.Com)
Though the "turnaround" last year seemed to happen at Penn, Lehigh's strong performance against Villanova, even in defeat, seemed to peek at some great things ahead for the championship 2016 season.  The Wildcats last season had one of the top defenses in all of FCS, boasting DE Tapoh Kpassagnon, who ended up as a second round draft pick by the Kansas City Chiefs, but that's not all the Wildcats had on defense - they had a defense loaded with depth and talent, which also had another player that is still on an NFL roster - LB Austin Calitro (49ers).

There's another NFL-caliber prospect still at Villanova - CAA preseason defensive player of the year DB Rob Rolle, who will be taking the field this weekend at Murray Goodman this weekend and has already gotten the attention of plenty of NFL scouts.

That Lehigh scored 21 quick-strike points against a team with potentially three NFL players and came so close to beating them - as the 2016 season wore on, and Villanova and Lehigh continued to excel, the Mountain Hawks' performance against the Wildcats stood out.

"It's a game of inches," coach Andy Coen said after that hot, humid, thick September evening on the Main Line last year.  "I just told these two guys walking across the field here (Pelletier and LB Colton Caslow), it really is a game of inches. We were this close to beating a very good football team."

In a way it is odd that Mark Ferrante, going into this season, had as his message for his team the word "finishing" - when Lehigh faced Villanova last season, it came down to finishing, and it was the Wildcats who managed to finish better, stopping the Mountain Hawks just short of a comeback.

And if there is anything uniting both fanbases this weekend, it's that both groups will be eagerly looking to how both teams finish this game.  It's almost feels as if it's destined to come down to the fourth quarter to the last set of plays.

WHO: Villanova vs. Lehigh
WHEN: September 2nd, 12:30 PM
WHERE: Murray Goodman Stadium, Bethelehem, PA

Game Notes And Injuries

WR Luke Cristiano
The first game notes of the season had one big bombshell.

Freshman OL Jackson Evans was penciled in as a starter at guard, making him the first true freshman opening day starter since OL Will Rackley, who had an illustrious four-year career at Lehigh and ended up being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Evans was one of four freshmen on the two-deep, the others being freshman DB Divine Buckrham, freshman DT Jack Kircher, and freshman DB Jaylen Floyd.

The two-deep also offered a couple more interesting revelations - the presence of senior DB Quentin Jones starting at the Rover position (instead of corner), and junior WR Luke Cristiano edging out senior WR Sasha Kelsey at slot receiver.  As expected, Lehigh rolled out a 4-2-5 defense, and junior LB Matt Butler and sophomore LB Keith Woetzel winning the hotly-contested battle to start at linebacker.

Shouldn't Be Needed This Year
Weather Report

The good news is that, as of today, the temperature at kickoff is slated to be a very comfortable temperature in the low 60s, with the bad news being that there is a chance of some rain during the course of the game.

In my opinion, though, this temperate and slightly wet weather might be a blessing in disguise.

When the schedule came out and I saw a 12:30 kickoff on September 2nd, I was worried that it might be a hot, humid game in the mid 90s like the last time nationally-ranked Villanova came to Murray Goodman Stadium in 2010 and beat Lehigh 35-0.  It was actually so hot I was worried for the health of the players at times - thankfully it appears that this week's game will be played in more football-worthy temperatures.

Special Stuff Happening

Before, During, And After the Game
As if it weren't special enough to get treated to a game between two of the best teams in all of FCS, after the game there is a special Meet the Marching 97 Picnic at Rauch Field House afterwards.

Officially for "alumni and friends of the Marching 97", tickets are $20 and include tailgate food from the Goosey Gander.  It is also an unconfirmed rumor that the finest band East of all points West may also break wind through some instruments and entertain those in attendance.

You can reserve tickets online here for this event.  Same day registrations will also be accepted, according to the invitation.

LFN's Burger of the Week #BOTW

Here at LFN, we listen to the fans, because without the fans, there is no LFN.  And when fans think of Lehigh tailgates, they naturally think of burgers.  Fans suggested a "Burger of the Week" to add to my comprehensive previews, and I thought it was a great idea.  Back in June.

Now with the pressure of a deadline staring me in the face, I struggled to come up with an appropriate burger for the occasion of the season opener.  Plain old meat on a big, fluffy bun with a slab of orange processed cheese product on it won't do.  It needs to be kicked up a notch.

I think this week I will go with the classic American Burger, perfect for a Labor Day weekend of football.  I think it appropriate this week not out of my own laziness, but I like to use fresh ingredients on my burgers, and as the summer winds down we have tons of huge, ripe tomatoes that are perfect for burgers.  The classic - high-quality ground beef, fresh lettuce, a huge slice of juicy tomato, carmelized onions, and a drop of mayo and real American cheese - feels right this week.

LFN's Drink of the Week #DOTW

In that same vein, the classic "Drink of the Week" will also have a regular, return-to-the-normalcy-of-college-football-weekends sort of feel to it.  And what better to pair with a juicy, classic American burger than some nice Canadian beer?

My favorite beer at the moment (and no, I'm not paid to endorse particular beers) is Labatt's Blue, a pilsener that really goes perfect with burgers.  When grilling burgers, you don't necessarily want some weird heavy artisinal IPAs to match with them - a pilsener works great, its smoothness cutting through the fat of a burger.

It feels appropriate, for some reason, to go back to the classics and normalcy this week, and this burger and drink combo feels right.

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that.

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