By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
FARGO, N.D. — Let’s say you’re a Lehigh player right now.
Today, you learned that your star receiver, junior WR Ryan Spadola, was suspended by the NCAA by making an offensive tweet.
To call it a distraction would be the understatement of the year.
No Lehigh team has ever gone through this. Heck, no team has ever gone through this. No player has been suspended by the NCAA for tweeting something.
So the question is to you: how do you respond?
It would be easy to just give up and blame the loss on the suspension and the pandemonium of the week, right?
Just six days after taking the bus up from Towson, tomorrow morning you make the flight to Fargo, North Dakota, to prepare for the loud, intimidating venue they call the FargoDome.
Cross-country travel, the suspension, and all that distraction. Who would blame you for losing, not being focused?
And in the No. 2 ranked team in the country, North Dakota State, you have a truly daunting opponent. Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani called them “one of the best teams in the country” when he faced off against the Bison on opening weekend in a 42-6 defeat.
He was impressed with everything. The defense.
The execution of the offense. The big-time atmosphere. The noise at field level. Everything.
The Bison also will feature the best defense that you have faced all year.
They’re the No. 2 scoring defense in all of FCS, averaging only 14.83 points relinquished per game. Their cornerback is a guy who could play on Sundays.
This defense is solid, with no weak points to speak of.
Worst of all, lose, and Lehigh’s season is over — with the thought of how this game might have been without the distractions.
Before, folks might have picked you to beat North Dakota State, a team with the full allotment of football scholarships. But now, without your best player?
Everyone knows Patriot League teams don’t have the depth to keep up with the “full scholarship” teams, right?
Everyone knows that Patriot League teams have some good players, but the “full scholarship” teams have better players, right?
Everyone knows Patriot League teams don’t have what it takes to get to the championship game, right?
If you think for a second this Lehigh team will turn over and let the Bison run all over them, you don’t know this team the way I do.
All season, different Lehigh players have been asked to “step up”.
Senior CB Kenyatta Drake stepped in when junior CB Gabe Johnson stepped in and played a critical role in Lehigh’s 14-7 win over Holy Cross. Senior RB Matt Fitz stepped in and was a hero against Towson just this past week, subbing in for junior RB Zach Barket, out for the year with a leg injury. The offensive line was shuffling big-time from week to week, but every week a new guy jumped in, and made the offense click.
All year, this Mountain Hawk team has had a business-like way about it. Some might have laughed when they said back in September their goal was the national championship. But they sure as hell weren’t.
They knew there was something special about this year, and if they just kept focused, they could do great things.
It won’t be easy without Spadola, who is 98 yards away from the all-time FCS single-season receiving record. Missing him will be very, very tough on this Mountain Hawks offense.
But Spadola or no, there’s a football game to be played.
And the football team I know will not be distracted. They have a focus on the goal that makes them dangerous whether their star receiver plays or not.
Those folks that think this Lehigh team is going to give up and get blown out or intimidated in the FargoDome are going to be disappointed this Saturday.
Game Notes and Injury Report
The game notes, issued before Spadola’s suspension by the NCAA, still have the Hopewell, NJ junior listed as the main wideout.
Listed below him is sophomore WR Lee Kurfis, who could take over in his place. Other names that might be lining up in that spot are senior WR De’Vaughn Gordon, or sophomore WR Sergio Fernandes-Soto.
It will be very, very interesting to see what head coach Andy Coen and offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini do there.
According to Mike LoRe of the Express-Times, junior CB Gabe Johnson will also be out for the game in Fargo, and just like the Holy Cross game, senior CB Kenyatta Drake will be expected to start in his place.
Other injuries include junior LB Billy Boyko (questionable) and junior FS Billy O’Brien (probable).
While the weather in the FargoDome will be a balmy 68 degrees with no chance of significant wind, those players and intrepid fans flying to North Dakota Friday or Saturday morning would still be advised to wear some longjohns.
The weather report, happily, reports sunny and clear weather – but with a daytime high on 19 degrees.
Oddly enough, if the game had to be played outside, a “warm spell” is expected in Fargo on Saturday, which would have made it theoretically possible – at 35 degrees, just above freezing. (And, oddly enough, only five degrees colder than the scheduled high of 40 in the Lehigh Valley this weekend.)
Last week, the citizens of Montana scored one for FCS fans when ESPN decided to allow all eight playoff games to be available on ESPN Gameplan.
But this week, Mountain Hawk and Bison fans struck out.
As of today, per an email sent to The Forum (Fargo), ESPN is holding firm about their decision to only offer the Lehigh/North Dakota State and Maine/Georgia Southern games on their internet streaming solution ESPN3 rather than on a pay-per-view basis on ESPN Gameplan.
We have received feedback and comments, but the game will remain as an exclusive to ESPN3,” network spokeswoman Kristie Chong Adler told The Forum in an email Thursday.
Cable and satellite TV providers were able to offer last Saturday’s game through ESPN’s GamePlan pay-per-view service.
But that service concluded for the season last week and won’t be available again until next season, “which is why the games are not available on GamePlan,” Chong Adler stated.
This might have been a sensible explanation — except for the fact that a Fargo-area cable company offered ESPN GamePlan with the idea that the two games would be available this weekend.
That and the fact that the Divsion II and Division III playoff games will be offered instead.
Friday’s quarterfinal game, Northern Iowa at Montana, will be televised on ESPN in HD, while Saturday’s game between Sam Houston State and Montana State will be on ESPN as well in HD. (The SWAC Championship Game will be on ESPNU on Saturday as well.)
It doesn’t make much sense for ESPN to not put them on Gameplan, as it makes the global media conglomerate more money and costs them nothing extra, since they have to bring a small crew to the game anyway.
But unless ESPN changes their minds in the next 24 hours, this means is that in order to watch the game, you’ll need to be able to hook up your computer to your big-screen TV, run it through the ESPN3 app on your XBOX Live, or simply watch it on your laptop.
Call your cable provider to find out if you have ESPN3 available to you.
From the Lehigh Side
Much of the talk this week has been centered around the Spadola suspension, but sophomore OL Matt Lippincott and the hero of last weekend’s game, junior DE Tom Bianchi, were interviewed by Lehighsports.com:
In addition, the Morning Call also had an article on Lippincott as well:
Matt Lippincott was talking with his mother the other night about what they were going to do over Christmas break.
“She was making plans and I had to tell her ‘Mom, I don’t know if I will be home for Christmas this year’,” Lippincott said. “And then my mother said ‘Well, we’ll just have to bring Christmas to you’ and that it would be a lot of fun.”
In a dome filled with 18,000 to 20,000 fans — most of them rooting for NDSU — being able to hear and function will be keys to the success of the Lehigh offensive line, and ultimately, the offense itself.
“We’ve just got to be strong up front,” Lippincott said. “It’s going to be loud there. Everybody knows that. We’ve had noise pumped into the stadium where we practice every night to help us prepare, but we know it’s still going to be 10 times louder in that dome with all of those people there and emotions flying. We just have to limit our pre-snap mistakes and know our assignments.”
Also worthy of mention was something that the local lineman from Wilson High school said: that on the “O” line, they’ve “had several people step up when others went down.” This weekend, it’s sure to be a theme in these last days of preparation before North Dakota State.
A Word on North Dakota State
I went on earlier this week about the Bison’s head coach, Craig Bohl, and what he brings to the North Dakota State program.
This week, though, he’s had nothing but praise to heap on Lehigh and this Mountain Hawk team:
“They’re big, strong, rugged … they’re throwback guys,” he said. “Senior LB Mike Groome is a rock solid guy, a Dick Butkus-type guy. They’re going to come up, hit you in the mouth, stand their ground and play solid defense.
“They beat Northern Iowa (14-7) last year and beat the Colonial Athletic Association champion on the road and I think that shows their character, their resolve and their ability to handle adversity and come up on the winning end,” Bohl said. “The best defense I know is keeping their quarterback on the sideline. Their record is 11-1 and that’s certainly appropriate.”
If there was any lack-of-respect card Lehigh can play in this game, the bulletin board material certainly won’t be coming from Bohl, who sports a career 72-31 record at the helm of the Bison.
The only question might be, though, will Bohl stay the head coach of the Bison after this year?
According to Dom Izzo of WDAY in Fargo, Bohl’s name has surfaced as a person of interest in Colorado State’s coaching vacancy.
That’s the thing about success at the FCS level — it opens up doors to high-paying jobs in the FBS, too.