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.
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Get Ready For The Season With The Ultimate 2017 Lehigh Season Preview!

You're a Lehigh fan.  You have the tailgate chair, the BBQ Apron, and the cornhole set that's of questionable legality.

You've been stocking up on beer and beverages, ready to try new LFN "Drinks of the week" and trying new meatball recipes, awaiting the beginning of the season.

Mentally and physically, you're ready for the upcoming tailgating season.  But are you up-to-date on your fandom?  Are you in the know, or do you know how to get there?

Never fear, Lehigh fan, LFN's here with everything you need to know.  Every Twitter follow, every preseason preview, and profiles of every out-of-conference opponent.  You may have been busy learning how to prepare pulled pork this offseason, but below the flip is everything you need to get up to speed.
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Lehigh Position Analysis: Skill Positions (QB, RB, WR, K, RS)

Spotlight On: QB Brad Mayes

Rightfully, much of the focus of Lehigh's football coverage this offseason has been on the offense.  That makes sense; after all, Lehigh ranked near the top of every receiving and rushing category in 2016.

Yet most of that coverage has been on guys that have been on preseason FCS all-American teams (senior WR Troy Pelletier, junior RB Dominick Bragalone) or probably should have been on more of them (senior WR Gatlin Casey).

Oddly, the focus on those all-League caliber players have shifted the focus from what could be the most important transition from the 2016 offense to the 2017 offense - the transition to a new starting quarterback.

Certainly, junior QB Brad Mayes was no ordinary understudy for the Lehigh Mountain Hawks last season.

Though technically he did back up QB Nick Shafnisky, he showcased his obvious talent multiple times last year, most notably breaking a Yale Bowl record with 524 passing yards and scoring 6 passing touchdowns in a 63-35 win over Yale.

Much press has rightfully gone to the receivers and running backs, but the direction of the 2017 football season might come down to the play of the quarterback whose number switched from No. 14 to No. 4 this season.

"I think Troy and Dom are outstanding players and they deserve all the recognition they've been getting," Brad told me.  "And I'm excited to play alongside those guys, because that makes my job that much easier."
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Lehigh Position Analysis: Defensive Backs

Spotlight On: S Sam McCloskey

Lehigh Sports issued a release Friday evening that announced Lehigh's team captains for the 2017 season.

Some of the names, senior OL Zach Duffy and senior OL Brandon Short, were hardly surprises - after all, they were team captains last year.

Another, senior DL Jimmy Mitchell, is a steadying leadership force on the defensive line - again, not much of a surprise.

But the presence of junior S Sam McCloskey as the fourth team captain raised some eyebrows.  It's unusual to be a junior team captain, though QB Nick Shafnisky and LB Colton Caslow had been team captains as juniors.

As head coach Andy Coen explained, "What's really impressive is that in our ballots contain only seniors with the ability to write-in people. A lot of our guys obviously had to write in Sam, so that was really interesting to see. Our coaching staff feels he's ready right now to be a strong captain and his peers obviously feel the same way."
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Lehigh Position Analysis: Defensive Front Seven

Spotlight On: DE Tyler Cavenas and NG Jimmy Mitchell

This past year, the NCAA mandated that two-a-day practices would no longer be allowed, which naturally has changed the way Lehigh has been camping this August.  "A single day may include a single, three-hour, on-field practice session and a walk-through. During walk-throughs, protective equipment such as helmets and pads can’t be worn, and contact is prohibited," the NCAA said.

“The guys like the new procedure, the new process we have in place here,” head coach Andy Coen said. “The guys are more fresh not having the two-a-days. [Sunday] was the first day we went full pads and had live tackling and the kids were fired up about that. We didn’t do a lot, just enough to get our feet wet.”

With no contact during the two-hour walkthrough session, pads and contact are a more rare occurrence.  To senior DE Tyler Cavenas, though, what did that mean?

"I [still] feel like we can push ourselves," he told LehighSports.com.  "It's weird, we have these walkthroughs now, but I think when we do go out, we'll be more intense out here and we'll be getting after it more.  We're only going to be out here one practice a day, so we'll have to give it all we have."

Knowing Tyler, he does.
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Lehigh Position Analysis: Offensive Line

Spotlight On: Brandon Short and Zach Duffy

Somewhere after the end of the 2016 season, senior OL Brandon Short and senior OL Zach Duffy announced that they would be enrolling in graduate school at Lehigh and playing their final years of eligibility, which had to make offensive line coach Andy Merino and head coach Andy Coen high-five each other.  Short and Duffy, along with senior OL Tim O'Hara, gives the Mountain Hawks a rock-solid center and bookend tackles with loads of game experience that helped carve the way for Lehigh's astounding offense last year.
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Know Your 2017 Opponents: Wagner

Most of the teams on Lehigh's football schedule have become so familiar that it seems like they are on the Mountain Hawk football schedule every single season.  Ivy League teams, Villanova, Monmouth... to anyone following Lehigh football over the last decade, they are names fans have heard of.

Not so Wagner.

That's nothing against the Seahawks, who have played many Lehigh opponents in the last five years (Lafayette, Central Connecticut State, Monmouth, Georgetown, Holy Cross, and Colgate in the FCS Playoffs in 2012).

But, strangely for a school so close to Bethlehem, Wagner has never played Lehigh in football.  That will change this season, when the Mountain Hawks travel to Staten Island to compete in their only night game of the year.
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Know Your 2017 Opponents: Penn

Last season, there were two iconic games that set the tone for the Lehigh football season - one a tough loss, the other a tough victory.

The first iconic moment was simply called "the Monmouth game" - the season-opening game where the Mountain Hawks started out slow, allowed the other Hawks to build up a double-digit lead, and after a furious comeback, Lehigh came up just short.  Lehigh had multiple opportunities to seize control - but didn't.

It threatened to become the narrative that defined the season - that is, until the second iconic game, which was simply called "the Penn game", and also broke down to a specific moment - the end of the first half.
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Know Your 2017 Opponents: Yale

The 2016 Yale Bulldogs might have experienced the biggest swings of any other school in college football.

They experienced the low of getting destroyed at home against Lehigh, giving up an amazing 63 points to the Mountain Hawks led that day by QB Brad Mayes in a 28 point defeat.

And they were dominated by some of their bigger rivals in Ivy League play, losing 42-7 to Penn and 31-3 to Princeton.

Yet of their three wins, they pulled off two enormous upsets - beating Ivy League title contender Dartmouth at home, 21-13, and finally breaking Harvard's nine year hex against them in "The Game", scoring a touchdown with 4 minutes left to secure a tremendous 21-14 win over their bitter Crimson Rivals.

The Ivy League starts play on September 16th, where Lehigh will find Yale travelling to Murray Goodman Stadium in the Bulldogs first game of the year.

The Mountain Hawks will be playing their third game of the season, and Mayes will be going against the team which he had a record-breaking performance.

The Eli will have had all offseason to bask in the glow of breaking the nine-game winning streak of Harvard against them - and once the enormity of their win over Harvard fades into the distance a little, to focus on avenging last season's 63 points that Lehigh put on them last year.
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Know Your 2017 Opponents: Monmouth

Monmouth and Lehigh have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

They don't share a conference - the Mountain Hawks are in the Patriot League in all sports, while the Jersey Hawks (my name for Monmouth's mascot) compete in the Big South in football, and the MAAC in all other sports.

But athletically, in terms of everything from enrollment, participation to overall athletic department spending, Monmouth and Lehigh are like peas in a pod.  They are both universities; they both have between 4,000 and 5,000 undergrads; and the size of their athletic departments are similar as well.

The Mountain Hawks and the Jersey Hawks have also been frequent opponents of the other in football and men's basketball as well.  Since 2010, Lehigh has played Monmouth twice in men's basketball and five times on the gridiron.  (Recently, it was announced that Monmouth's hoop squad and their wacky bench antics will be headed to Stabler this fall to play Lehigh hoops as well.)

But in football the last few years, Lehigh's games against Monmouth have proven a liability to their national stature.  That's because they've lost their last two games against the Jersey Hawks, and while their loss last season wasn't stated as a reason why the Mountain Hawks didn't earn a home game in the FCS Playoffs, it was the one, big blemish on Lehigh's record that may have prevented them from being in consideration for a possible seed (and, by extension, at least one home game).
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