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Merrimack at Lehigh Game Breakdown and Fearless Prediction, 9/28/2019

It's what we do every week: copiously go over the opposing game notes and analyze the upcoming game matchup.  I'm starting to call these the "football nerd" previews because it feels like the audience for these detailed team breakdowns are other football nerds like myself. 

For Lehigh fans, there is no greater need for a "football nerd"-level breakdown of an opponent than Merrimack.  Few opponents have been as big as an unknown to Mountain Hawk fans as the school that formed right after World War II in North Andover, Massachusetts.  Helping that sense of mystery is that the Merrimack Athletics' website offers no football game notes, and when you click on the link called "Weekly Two-Deep", you get a two-deep from 2018.

Merrimack, until recently a member of the Northeast-10 conference in Division II, announced they are going to join the NEC as a full Division I member in time for the 2023-2024 season.

“The College’s 2011 strategic plan, the Agenda for Distinction, called for Merrimack College to become a Division I institution to compete and excel at the highest level,” president Christopher E. Hopey said almost a year ago in announcing their move to the NEC. “We are pleased that our record of achievement and growth has resulted in this invitation to compete in the NEC and partner with its outstanding member institutions.”

“There’s no question we have the top tier players to be successful,” Warriors head coach Dan Curran said before the season started. “They’ve always been able to play with anyone.  What we need to do going forward is to develop more depth because injuries are going to happen. We’re not where we want to be but we’re getting there. We’re starting to see the gap between the starters and the backups get tight.”

They’ve certainly shown already that they’re not a team to be taken lightly. Besides their two overwhelming home wins against sub-Division I opponents, the Warriors led at St. Francis (PA) at halftime and took Central Connecticut State down to the wire, who came oh-so-close to upsetting FBS Eastern Michigan last week.

“Eight of our 11 opponents are Division 1 and this is by far the most competitive schedule we’ve ever had,” Curran said before the season. “We know what we’re getting into but we’ve shown we can play with the top teams and we’ll be ready.”

The Warriors head coach Dan Curran was a former University of New Hampshire fullback, who helmed the Wildcats under head coach Sean McDonnell and then-offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. His teammate was Walter Payton award-winner RB Jerry Azumah, who broke a multitude of I-AA rushing records and would later play cornerback for the NFL's Chicago Bears.  After Azumah's graduation, he ran for 1,000 yards in his own right his senior year and spent some time on NFL rosters professionally.


Breaking Down the Merrimack Warriors' Offense


There's a lot of Sean McDonnell and Chip Kelly in Dan Curran's offense, something that is very evident when you watch highlights of the Warriors' offense.  While RPO and playing fast is a part of the equation, it's not the whole picture.  Curran has a lot of tools at the skill positions that give him options to attack a defense - if he thinks that quick jet sweeps are the way to attack a defense, he'll do it.  If it's deep passes, he feels he has the skill guys to do it.

One thing that leaps out from the film is the energy level Merrimack brings to each game this season.  The Warriors came within a play or two of coming back from a two-score deficit against Central Connecticut State by scoring two touchdowns, recovering an onsides kick, and converting two 2-point conversions in the span of about a minute late in the 4th quarter.  It takes a master motivator to pull that off, and Curran appears to be just that as a coach.

The issue with the Warriors is one that will be familiar to Patriot League watchers over the past few years - depth.  In Division II, schools have a smaller number of scholarships at their disposal. and the Warriors are starting to offer more than the thirty or so they had as a member of Division II.  As a result, their depth isn't comparable yet to most of the other schools in FCS.

Sophomore QB Christian Carter has looked great in the Warriors first four games, showing off his athleticism to the tune of 819 yards passing and 9 passing TDs.  Four of those touchdowns came against Central Connecticut, with three of them coming from the Warriors' furious rally to tie the game.  That sequence shows that Carter has the ability to take over a game, if you let him, and he has a gun of an arm. 

Carter has already thrown 5 interceptions, so he can be forced into mistakes.

Carter's favorite target is a bona-fide NFL prospect in WR Marquis Spence, who has caught 23 of Carter's 69 completions on the season.  He has 5 TDs, 3 of which - you guessed it - came in that Central Connecticut State game with the game on the line.  Spence has strong hands that might remind some Lehigh fans of WR Troy Pelletier.

Filling out the receiving corps is WR Johnny Rosario (10/262/3), slot WR Anthony Norcia (13/142), and TE Tyler Roberts, who mostly has been used as a blocker so far this season.  While a lot of players have made their way to the stat sheet, with the game on the line Carter and Spence have been the main attraction.

Merrimack has a stable of backs and rotates through them in a method that might remind you of the Philadelphia Eagles.  RB Jamari Venter is the starter, but RB Matt Brehon and RB Malachi McFadden have also gotten pretty big loads out the of backfield as well.  The Warriors are averaging 5.4 yards per carry, though at least some of that came against sub-D-I competition.  Carter, as mentioned, has every capability of tucking the ball and running, adding aggravation to the defensive gameplan.

Almost every offensive lineman on the Merrimack roster has been redshirted, though having said that few of them are upperclassmen.  One of them protects Carter's bind side, however, 6'3, 295 lb OL Erick Browne.

Defense


Merrimack appears to run a 4-2-5 defense that has as its main strength its secondary, who has already nabbed 6 interceptions.  Overall the Warriors have eight takeaways and are +3 in turnovers.

6'2, 200 lb CB Darion Mackenzie (10 tackles, 5 pass break-ups, 2 interceptions) has had an excellent start to the season, and is certainly a player to watch.  He already has a pick six and will be looking to add to his collection.  CB Caleb Holden, FS Maverick Gamble, ROV Daekwon Shepard and SS Jovan Grant round out the group to headline a strong unit.

LB Michael Mercuri and redshirt senior LB Enrique McFarland form a solid linebacker set.  McFarland and DE Cory Hagerman have combined for 10 tackles for loss.

Special Teams


P/K Cory Resendes does all the kicking but he's done a good job so far for the Warriors, averaging 39.11 yards per punt and having made a couple field goals from 30-39 yards..

Spence and Shepard have returned punts for the Warriors, and WR Shaka Moales has fielded kickoffs and all three have shown worryingly how good they are returning kicks.  Spence has averaged 16 yards per return, and Shepard and Moales have a pair of 75 yard returns between them.

LFN's Keys to the Game


1. Make Carter A Pocket Passer.  If Lehigh can contain Carter to the inside and force him to stand there and make passes, it will take away one of his biggest threats running the ball.  You know he'll find Spence a fair amount, but I like Lehigh's chances if they take away his mobility.

2. Make Monaco a Runner.  Two weeks ago, I said I wanted to see starting QB Tyler Monaco take off and run with the ball if a play doesn't develop.  This week I'd love to see that possibly go into action.  I think the threat of running will make him a better passer.

3. Passion And Fire.  Merrimack will without a doubt bring a lot of fire and passion into this game on Saturday, which is a reflection of their head coach Dan Curran.  It is up to this coaching staff to match Merrimack's passion with passion, and to not let the Warriors getting the upper hand on the emotions and narrative of this game.

Fearless Prediction

Lehigh fans see the work "Merrimack" on the schedule, and relax.  They see "team that is transitioning from Division II" and they ease up, thinking that Lehigh will just show up and the Warriors will lose.  If any fans think that way, it would be an enormous mistake.  Merrimack has players and will give Lehigh everything they can handle this weekend.

I keep returning to Merrimack's game against Central Connecticut State, where they rallied to tie the game and showed that this team has what it takes to keep their motor running all four quarters.  This team is hungry, and they want their first Division I win of the 2019 season.

Lehigh can win this game - in fact, really, need to win this game - if they match Merrimack's motor and execution.  The Warriors will be a stern test in a game that could go either way.

Lehigh 34, Merrimack 27

Comments

Anonymous said…
A very, very good defense in 2019. Excellent. Any W is a good thing.

That is about all you can say. Gotta stay positive..
Anonymous said…
Yes, let's take the positive and a W is a W! There were some bright spots as I sat through the whole game. Defense looked good overall and offense made some big plays. Monaco started off strong then faded fast. Shoup made some some good runs and a couple of throws (one for 80) but he looks more like a scrambling QB and looks small (not sure but is he 5'10, maybe 5'11 at most?).He will get hurt scrambling with this O-line. We had 4 interceptions against a mediocre team. So where do we go from here, could be a long season. Do we give Beesmer a shot as I hear he is the best we have. And will some of injured line return soon?
Anonymous said…
Good news for LU in the PL is that the Colgate offense continues to look anemic as well without their star QB. Could be a 7-3 game. But Gate is not the only threat in the PL. I would be watching out for Georgetown too...they are building confidence even though their level of competition has been one of the worst in FCS.

As to the QB situation, its time to get creative and make changes. No real downside.
Unknown said…
Just no consistency on offense. Get a turnover next play interception......just constant shooting themselves in the foot. Got to try and figure the QB position out or the rest of this year will be hard to watch!
blogger said…
Arrived early 3rd quarter for free so can't complain. Essentially club football but parents and friends seemed to enjoy themselves.
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