#9 Villanova at #19 Lehigh – September 2nd 12:30 PM, Goodman Stadium Bethlehem, PA
TV: Service Electric (local)
Streaming: Patriot League Network (Free)
Lehigh starts the 2017 season with a highly anticipated showdown with 9th ranked Villanova. Mark Ferrante will be making his head coaching debut for the Wildcats. He takes over for the legendary Andy Talley who retired after last year. Talley had been the head coach at Villanova since the school resurrected the program in the mid-80’. He took Villanova to the pinnacle of FCS football in 2009 when he guided the school to the national championship . Ferrante takes over a team that’s strength resides on defense. Despite the loss of 2nd round draft pick Tanoh Kpassagnon, the unit should be nearly as good as the one that led FCS in points against last year (13 ppg). Defense was the hallmark of Talley coached teams and that will continue for at least one year under Ferrante.
The chess game between the explosive Lehigh offense and the stalwart Wildcat “D” is clearly the headline of this game. Villanova has an excellent secondary which will likely provide the stiffest test the Lehigh WR duo of Pelletier and Casey faces all year. Free safety Rob Rolle was named the preseason CAA Defensive Player of the year and a STATS 1st Team All-American. Defensive backs Trey Johnson and Malik Reaves are very good cover cornerbacks. If the Villanova defense has a weakness it’s likely in the trenches where there’s not a lot of experience outside of senior DT Ricky Johnson. Conversely linebacker is loaded with familiar faces. Ed Shockley (86 tackles in ’16) is probably the best of a very good group. Lehigh has the balance and experience to push the Wildcats as far they’ll go. Mountain Hawk RB Dominic Bragalone and a veteran O-Line will be the key to Lehigh’s fortunes on offense.
The forgotten matchup in this game is the much maligned Lehigh defense against the often bumbling Wildcat offense. Villanova did put up 396 yards rushing in last year’s contest but struggled to score for much of the game. If Lehigh wants to reverse last year’s outcome they must, at the very least, “control” the Villanova rushing attack. The Wildcats are quite young along the offensive line so RB Aaron Forbes (799 yards 8 TDs) might see less daylight than he’s accustomed to seeing against a veteran Mountain Hawk defense line. Three year starting quarterback Zach Bednarczyk has had a workman like career. He won’t wow you doing anything in particular but ultimately gets the job done. If Lehigh can limit the damage on the ground and force Bednarczyk to make plays through the air the Mountain Hawks have to like their chances.
There’s no denying the struggles the Mountain Hawks have had against the CAA since knocking off UNH in 2013. The playoff loss to New Hampshire last year was especially ugly. However, none of the recent Lehigh teams, including the one last year, had the combination of experience and talent the 2017 version possesses. If Lehigh wants to make a statement nationally getting a Top 10 CAA rival on their home turf is the perfect opportunity.
Prediction: Lehigh 30 Villanova 24