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.
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.
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.
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 PredictionLehigh 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