Princeton released their game notes earlier in the week and today added to their preview pack an interview previewing the Lehigh game from head coach Bob Surace.
Surace did make an observation about Lehigh that was worth mentioning, after philosophic about the abilities of RB Dominick Bragalone.
"You wanted to play them when Penn played them," he said. "After playing a Top 4 type team in Villanova, and against a Navy team that plays in a bowl game every year, you wanted to play them then, not after a bye. Those change the outlook of everything you're doing."
As Lehigh fans, we do tend to forget that Lehigh has arguably played the most challenging schedule they've had in a decade. Not that that's any sort of excuse, but the truth is that in order to be considered a top team in FCS, the Mountain Hawks need to be able to compete in games like this against nationally-ranked teams like Princeton - and beat them.
The last-minute injury information I've been able to find out on Lehigh is that senior RB Dominick Bragalone and freshman RB Rashawn Allen are both 100% healthy after the bye and will be ready to go this weekend, something that will undoubtedly please most of Lehigh Nation.
Another bit of good news is that junior LB Keith Woetzel, who suffered a hand injury last week against Navy, is good to go for the Princeton game as well. When you read the game breakdown below, you'll see why his return is extremely important.
As first reported by Keith Groller of The Morning Call, Lehigh will be shuffling the interior of the offensive line after opening up the spots to competition earlier in the week. Senior OL Thomas Zuewsky may be in line for his first-ever start at guard, senior C Tim Wagner will be under center, and senior OL Jackson Evans will shift to guard.
“It was very productive,” Zuewsky said of the bye week. “It gave us a chance to catch our breath and worry about ourselves and maybe hush all the external variables and opinions. We started camp on Aug. 1, the earliest it’s ever started, and we had been playing for two months straight. So, the bye week gave us a chance to calm down and get back to worrying about what’s most important and that’s us.”
Unfortunately there is some bad news on the WR front. Senior WR Luke Christiano is still suffering from a foot injury incurred at Penn and is out this week, and senior WR Connor Bianchini and freshman WR Ray Falcone are unavailable this week. This means that senior WR Sasha Kelsey is in line to get more reps, and we might be seeing the debut of freshman WR Austin Dambach.
In seasons past, Princeton has been the masters of trickery when it's come to offense. There were documented cases of Surace rolling out formations with 2 or even 3 of their QBs in the same formation, doubling up as possible quarterbacks, runners, or receivers.
One of the reasons Surace felt confident enough to run with these formations is that he wanted to leverage the abilities of one quarterback in particular, senior QB John Lovett.
A 6'3, 230 lb athlete built more like a linebacker than a quarterback, Lovett was the perfect Swiss army knife for these formations - a tough-to-bring-down threat to run, a good passer with a soft touch, and a player with the ability to catch the ball, too.
Lovett has given the defensive coordinators at Butler, Monmouth and Columbia fits on how to stop him - something that all three teams were unable to do effectively.
You have to respect his running ability - he leads the Tigers in rushing with 293 net yards - but when defenses have overcommitted to the run, he's killed them with the passing game, too, connecting on 63% of his passes. Touchdowns, 9; interceptions, 0. In many ways he is similar stylistically to Villanova QB Zach Bednarczyk.
The good news is that Lehigh's defense has seen Bednarczyk already this season, so to some degree they know what to expect. The bad news is Bednarczyk and the Villanova offense put up 31 points on this same Lehigh defense.
Making matters worse is that Princeton has a deep, talented group of skill position players surrounding him to both run the ball and catch the ball.
Senior RB Charlie Volker, who (lest we forget) had 14 rushing touchdowns last season, is a very strong running back as well with 280 net rushing yards and 4 rushing TDs on the season, and his "backup", sophomore RB Colin Eaddy, is equally as tough and speedy, with 187 yards on 11 carries with one TD.
Like Penn, Princeton doesn't boast the biggest offensive line Lehigh will face or has faced this season, but historically Princeton's O line is one that is extremely athletic and fundamentally sound. The young unit, led by senior OG George Attea, has only yielded 3 sacks on the season, and has paved the way for many of Lovett's highlight-reel runs..
The best way to describe Princeton's defense is that it is a 3-4 hybrid. In the game notes the front seven is listed with 3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers, and a position called 'Rush', which can be considered a down lineman sometimes and a linebacker at other times.
More to the point, though, whatever the defense has been called, it's been tremendous, yielding only 26 points this entire season. It's rare to say this, even three games into the Ivy League season, but almost every aspect of Princeton's defense - stopping the run, stopping the pass, pressure on the quarterback - has been stellar. They've even forced seven turnovers - combined with Princeton's 0 yielded turnovers, that has been killer.
There might be some hay to be made against the corners in the passing game, but the Princeton secondary boasts junior FS T.J. Floyd, who already has 3 interceptions on the season, including two last weekend versus Columbia. Junior SS Ben Ellis as well has been active in the pass game with 11 tackles and 2 pass break-ups.
As tough as Princeton's offense has been, their defense will pose an equal challenge for Lehigh this weekend as well.
If you're looking for positives, Princeton freshman P George Triplett is only averaging 32 1/2 yards per punt, nearly 10 yards less per punt than Lehigh P Ed Mish (44.45). If this game were to somehow become a rock fight, a Lehigh field position game could work out in the Mountain Hawks' favor.
PK Tavish Rice is listed as Princeton's first-string FG kicker, but doesn't has an attempt yet this season.
Junior WR Tiger Bech, sophomore WR Austin Carbone, and sophomore WR Jacob Birmelin are listed as the return specialists. They haven't needed to rely on their return game so far for offense.
Worthy of mention last week was on the very first play of the game last week, Columbia started their game with a 91 yard kickoff return that set up an early field goal. Special teams might therefore might be an area where Lehigh can get an advantage.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Building Foundation for the Passing Game. With a bye week to tweak, Lehigh is going to need to figure out a way to get senior QB Brad Mayes into some sort of passing rhythm. While still acknowledging the fact that Lehigh has faced four pretty good defenses, not only will there be a need to get the passing game cranked up for this weekend's contest, the Mountain Hawks will equally need to get things going in the passing game in Patriot League play. There hasn't been enough of a foundation built for the next few weeks, and it needs to be built this week.
2. Grinding on Special Teams. On paper, Lehigh has a big advantage this week in special teams, and if Lehigh is to win this game they'll need to convincingly win this battle this week. One possible path to victory is a grind-it-out, field position game. Another is getting a big turnover or return on a punt or kickoff return. If Lehigh can win this battle, it will give them a better chance at victory.
3. 2nd and 3rd and Long. So far, the Lehigh defense has done a very good job in forcing 2nd and long and 3rd and long in a lot of different situations to opposing teams. If they can force Princeton to need to convert big 3rd downs in order to move the chains, that will put Lovett in a place where he hasn't been this season - a place where he needs to rely on standing in the pocket and completing long passes. It won't be an easy ask, but if they are successful, it will give Lehigh a shot.
Lehigh's bye week came at a pretty good time for the Mountain Hawks, by all accounts. It allowed Lehigh to recuperate from a brutal, physical stretch of games, and get their heads straight, essentially, after a rough loss at Penn. Now, freshened and realigned, they go to face a nationally-ranked team that sits on top of all the statistical categories in FCS, pretty much. Once again, it's not an easy ask.
The key for Lehigh, in facing this huge challenge, is to approach it as a circled-wagons sort of game. Nationally, nobody is really giving Lehigh a chance - they remember last year's team, with a losing record, and look around at the other teams in the Patriot League and think that the Mountain Hawks don't have a snowball's chance against Princeton's offensive machine.
Is that enough, though? Are the all questions that needed answering really answered after a bye week? We will find out on Saturday.
Lehigh 28, Princeton 31