Category Archives: Villanova

Know Your 2017 Opponents: Villanova

(Photo Credit: Akira Suwa/Philly.com)

Writing a season preview about Villanova used to be the easiest job in the world.

Just grab your boilerplate biographical information about future hall-of-fame head coach Andy Talley, do a little Googling of the Wildcat's next up-and-coming NFL prospects, come up with a dozen synonyms for the words "tough" and "challenge", and the preview basically writes itself.

But this season's task of facing Villanova is simply different than all of those other years.  Talley, the only coach Villanova has ever known since restarting their football program in 1985 after a failed attempt to pull the plug on it in 1981 in the middle of spring practice, has finally retired from the head coaching ranks.  While the same familiar trappings of high preseason rankings and potential NFL prospects remain, their new head coach, longtime Talley assistant Mark Ferrante, is now running the Wildcats and will be seeking his first win as a collegiate head football coach.

The three things that are certain is that the Wildcats are ranked No. 10 in the STATS FCS Top 25 Poll to start the year, that they're ranked No. 9 in the FCS Coaches' Poll, and that when they come and visit Murray Goodman Stadium on September 2nd at 12:30 PM, they'll be playing Lehigh in a battle between Top 25 teams.
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Davenport, Kpassagnon Only Two Of Possible NFL Draftees Lehigh Faced Last Year

One of the more interesting aspects of covering Lehigh football for so long is the fact that you end up seeing future NFL players on their rise to the big show.

In fact, two players who squared off against the Mountain Hawks in particular have an excellent chance of being drafted on Day 2 or Day 3 of the NFL draft.

But those not the only Lehigh football opponents that will be hoping to get a phone call from an NFL team this Friday or Saturday.

Though few Patriot League, Ivy League or even CAA players enter their football programs with the NFL as their main goal, every football player that matriculates to these schools still harbor the dream of dominating their league and as a result get an opportunity to pursue their NFL dream.

And it is true that NFL scouts come to FCS football games to look for talent that might have been overlooked.  Many years ago I was in Hofstra's press box, watching the Pride take on New Hampshire, with NFL scouts from the Colts and Saints there to watch WR Marques Colston play.  The Saints decision to pursue Colston may very well have come from that game in Hempstead, New York.
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My Vote for the FCS Top 25, 11/1/2016

You didn't ask for them, but here's my pick for this week's FCS Top 25.

I'm pretty proud of myself for not falling into the trap of South Dakota State.

Many people, after the Jackrabbits' huge win over North Dakota State, vaulted them to the Top 5 of their polls, but I know better.  The craziness of the Missouri Valley I thought would eventually catch up with them, so I had only reluctantly put them at No. 10.

Their loss to 3-5 Illinois State, taken in isolation, was a shocker - but perhaps not completely shocking, though, considering the Missouri Valley has not one but two teams that have beaten Power Five Teams and also have five losses.

In fact, there are three Missouri Valley teams - Illinois State, South Dakota and Northern Iowa - that can plausibly say, if they get to 6-5, they have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs as an at-large team, thanks to perceived quality wins.

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My FCS Top 25, 10/4/2016

You didn't ask for them, but here's my pick for this week's FCS Top 25.

This week's candidate for the LFN Top 25 curse?  Sacred Heart, with Colgate a very close second, but there were a lot of teams in the lower reaches of my Top 25 that suffered defeat, in a list that includes Fordham, Southern Utah and (again) William and Mary, who suffered a second straight crushing defeat in two weeks, this time at the hands of New Hampshire.

Never in a million years did I ever think Tennessee State, Cornell and North Carolina A&T would simultaneously be in my Top 25, yet there they are.

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Villanova 26, Lehigh 21 Postgame Thoughts: It’s Not How You Start, But How You Finish

I like winning.

Who doesn't?

Admittedly, it is a bit of a selfish impulse on my part.  It is always easier to recap a heroic made-for-TVesque Lehigh win than a loss.  Narratives and nicknames flow like water when games have outcomes like that.

Not so today, after Lehigh's 0-2 start.  It's harder to pull together the game recaps when the outcomes of the games instead show a team that is on the brink of learning how to win, but hasn't been able to figure out how to turn that corner.

Two games into the season, I don't see a Lehigh team that is necessarily bad, or pointed in the wrong direction.

Instead, I see a team that is trying to figure out how to put away a tough opponent and win football games.

And frankly, there's nothing wrong with that yet.

*****

Trying to hit the right tone after a loss like Saturday's poses a special challenge.

I've seen all sorts of Lehigh wins and losses.  I've seen all the highs and the lows of the Andy Coen era.

Makes Me Smile, Always
I've seen the most thrilling FCS playoff win I've ever seen in person at Towson, and I was at Yankee Stadium in November of 2014, the worst of all the Rivalry defeats by a team sporting Brown and White.

But by far the hardest games to get right are these "moral victories," where Lehigh plays a truly strong game across the board against a team that is expected to be a playoff team, but falls just short.

By any measure, Villanova is a strong team at this point of the year.  Their defense held Pitt to only 28 points, a squad that turned around and hung 42 on Penn State.  If you're grading on a curve, Lehigh's offense scoring 21 points on this daunting unit - not bad.

Sitting at No. 19 in the FCS Coaches' poll, the Wildcats were a playoff team last year, and were picked to finish 4th in the CAA, behind the No. 2 team in the nation that eviscerated Virginia in Week 1 (Richmond), and two current Top 25 teams that were also FCS playoff teams last season, William & Mary and James Madison.

Given a recent history like that, many rightfully expected that Lehigh might struggle against the Wildcats, as is befitting their ranking.

They Are Pretty Good
But that's not what happened.

On the road, the Mountain Hawks came in and came back from a 6-0 deficit to go up 14-6 at half, stuffing the Villanova run game on 4th-and-1 and orchestrating two excellent scoring drives.  At times during that half, Coen said in the post-game presser said that the Mountain Hawks "dominated the line-of-scrimmage at times."  Against such a quality team like Villanova, that's very positive.

We all know the rest of the story: in a game of inches, Lehigh came up just short on 4th and 10 to turn over the ball on downs.

Yet that escapes a key point: against the No. 19 team in the country, the Mountain Hawks were in a position to win.

Which is, of course, the conundrum of the coverage of the game.  They were right there!  They had a chance to win what could have been a season-defining game that pushes them through a daunting out-of-conference schedule that features three awfully tough Ivy League opponents in defending Ivy League co-champions Penn, always-tough Princeton, and Yale at the Yale Bowl, a place where Lehigh hasn't won in over a decade.

But it didn't happen that way.  Instead, Lehigh starts out 0-2.

The end result is a mix of happiness that the Mountain Hawks were in it, and yet undeniably frustrating that Lehigh, on the brink of achieving a season-defining upset, came one or two yards short of the goal.

I think the most important thing to remember is how this loss, in the end, will not define Lehigh's season.

My mind keeps drifting back to Colgate, and the Raiders' 2015 season in particular.

If you were "Colgate Football Nation" at this stage of the 2015 season, two games in, the Raiders started the season 0-2.

They got trounced by Navy, 48-10, and then got pulverized by New Hampshire the following week, 26-8.

Would Colgate Football Nation have rushed to the exits, saying that things needed "fixing" and saying the season was on the brink of disaster?

Sure, there was a higher level of concern among the fans when Yale pulled off a miracle comeback to beat the Raiders the following week, 29-28, to give Colgate an 0-3 start.

Not a Panic Moment for Colgate Fans
But, crucially, the wheels didn't come off most of that fanbase.  Frankly, they're used to an early-season schedule of incredibly daunting opponents, a trend that continued last weekend when their ancient Rival Syracuse pounded them 33-7 in the first game of the Dino Babers era.

After Colgate's 0-3 start, in what was unquestionably the most crucial game of the season, an away game at Holy Cross, it was the Raiders successfully pulling away late in the second half for a 31-14 victory.

It set the tone for the rest of the season, and you know the rest of that story.  It ended with a Patriot League championship, wins over Fordham and Lehigh, a rematch win over New Hampshire, and a shock victory over James Madison.

Looking back now, it's easy to see that Colgate team as one that took some time to find itself.  But they did, and it happened in spite of the two hugely lopsided losses in the first two weeks.

Colgate fans that stayed the course after their 0-2 start were rewarded.

What about other fanbases after this past football weekend?

Is Fordham Football Nation ready to put their team in the FCS national championship game after eviscerating an 0-2 Division II team 83-21, a game that was 31-0 at one point and ended up as a glorified practice in the second half?

Is Georgetown Football Nation starting to panic after only beating Marist 20-17, relying on a 4th down touchdown pass to preserve victory?  Are they asking to revoke the need-based aid of their starting quarterback?

Probably not panic button time for Bison
Is Bucknell Football Nation in the dumps after giving up 30 points to last year's NEC champions and FCS playoff participants Duquensne?  Are they calling for the offensive coordinator's head and asking for a switch to the Wing-T?

What about the two other Patriot League teams that lost last weekend, Holy Cross and Lafayette?  Are their fanbases crying that the season is over after losing to New Hampshire and Delaware last weekend?

If they are, they are missing the point of this part of the preseason.

The nature of the first two games of the season is that they're an "incomplete".  Would season-defining wins been welcome?  Definitely.  But they're no reason to panic.

For my part, after sleeping on it and getting over how Lehigh was this close to beating the No. 19 team in the nation, I see a lot to be hopeful about for the rest of the season.  There was a lot of improvement from the first weekend, and there's no reason to believe that the improvement won't continue going into next weekend's visit to Franklin Field.

I don't know what the future has in store for Lehigh in the next three out-of-conference games, before a no-doubt-about-it important game vs. Colgate in October.  But what I do think is that this team deserves everyone's patience over the next three weeks.  Based on a very good performance on Saturday - one that came up a yard short - that's the least we can do for them.

Villanova Wins A Game of Inches, Defeats Lehigh, 26-21

"It's a game of inches," head coach Andy Coen said after the Mountain Hawks had just fallen to nationally-ranked Villanova on a hot, humid, thick September evening.  "I just told these two guys walking across the field here (senior LB Colton Caslow and junior WR Troy Pelletier), it really is a game of inches. We were this close to beating a very good football team."

Indeed they were, even if, after a disappointing loss last week to Monmouth, many across the nation had written off Lehigh's chances of an upset of the team ranked No. 19 in the FCS Coaches' Poll.

Stung from a first half against Monmouth when they failed to score a single point, Lehigh battled hard in the first half and played "outstanding" Coen said, as the Mountain Hawks jumped to a 14-6 lead.  After missing a field goal falling behind 20-14, Lehigh rallied to retake the lead, and after falling behind one last time, the defense forced a stop and handed the ball back to the offense, with a chance to win.

But it came down to one play - converting a challenging 4th and 10, and a big pitch-and-catch that ended up just short of the yardage necessary to keep the drive going.

Last week, it seemed to many fans for it to be nearly impossible for the Mountain Hawks to be able to compete with the No. 19 team in the nation.  Instead, here was Lehigh, inches away, just short of sending the home fans to bed without victory cigars.

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Lehigh At Villanova Game Breakdown And Fearless Prediction, 9/10/2016

Thanks to Villanova's game notes and Brian Ewart and the gang over at VUHoops.com, which is the source of most of this research (and, of course, my years of expertise following Lehigh football.)

One last plug of the Q&A Brian did over at VUHoops.com with me, and some other good content from their site.

Of note: VU Hoops: 3 Things To Know About Lehigh

"In the pre-season, Lehigh's offense was not only touted as high powered, but was generally considered the biggest strength of the team.  Last week they seemed to be sleep walking early on against the Monmouth.  In the first half, the offense was held to just 49 yards and no points.  Despite a decent showing by their defense, the Hawks went into halftime down 7-0.

"However, in the second half, senior QB Nick Shafnisky lead the team to 190 yards and 3 TD's.  It turned out to be too little too late, but they could easily ride that momentum into week 2.  Lehigh is a pass first team with lots of options at receiver and some talented tight ends, so Nova's secondary will need to be on top of their game Saturday.  They're no Pitt, but if the Mountain Hawks offense is clicking, Villanova's defense will have another tough test on their hands.


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Lehigh At Villanova Narrative Street: "Holy Cow. Villanova’s Defensive Line."

Lehigh fans's reaction to the big task ahead of them this weekend seemed to echo what head coach Andy Coen said in this week's Lehigh Football Report from LehighSports.com.

"Their defensive line.  Holy Cow," he said.  "Their technique, their defensive end - ready for these numbers?  He's 295 lbs, 6'7, and he's got an arm span that you can't believe and he just wreacks havoc.  It's not just him.  It's a defensive philosophy that Villanova has had for the last 10, 12 years, and they've always played great defense."

When look at Lehigh's #NarrativeStreet this week, we can start there - the Mountain Hawks will be going up against "an FBS-level defense," as Andy said.


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Lehigh At Villanova Game Preview: The Cherry On Top For Andy Talley

Villanova is listed as No. 22 in the STATS Top 25 poll this week, and No. 19 in the Coaches' poll.  Lehigh, as has been the case since 2014, is unranked.

Additionally, since resuming play against the Wildcats in the modern era in 2004, Lehigh is 1-4 against Villanova.

So, simple matter for Lehigh to put the Monmouth loss behind them and kick off the rest of the 2016 football season with a win, right?

Not exactly.

That the Villanova game this Saturday will be a big challenge appears to be something head coach Andy Coen, junior OL Tim O'Hara and the rest of the Mountain Hawks are quite aware, but that doesn't mean that anyone will be backing down.

"The message we're going to have is don't get on the bus unless you think you're going to win the game," Coen said.  "So, we're looking forward to it."
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