VILLANOVA AT LEHIGH 9/2/2023: Game Preview And Fearless Prediction: Wildcat Baptism Of Fire for Cahill and Mountain Hawks

BETHLEHEM, PA – There’s been a very positive buzz at Lehigh camp this spring and summer, as an almost-completely new coaching staff and new “culture” has been installed by Cahill at Lehigh, following a very rough 2-9 season last year.

The offseason has been a remarkable series of good vibes from the players and staff about how much buy in there was – RB Jack DiPietro told me that about 75 guys had been on campus over the summer to be at their best in the fall.

Recent Interviews with WR Geoffrey Jamiel, DE Trevor Harris, OL George Padezanin, LB Mike DeNucci and (earlier in the summer) DL Dean Colton made it clear that there are real leaders and competitors on the roster very eager to change their legacies this year. Harris called it a “new start” for his senior year.

This Saturday at Lehigh, folks will be able to see for themselves the progress that has been made since Cahill’s hiring last December.

But Saturday’s game will be a huge challenge.

And new Lehigh head football coach Kevin Cahill, talking to WFMZ’s Dave Lesko this week after one of his mid-week practices, effectively summarized an offseason of hard work and rebuilding of culture, while also acknowledging the enormity of the task at hand.

“Ready or not, here it is.”

Indeed. As Cahill and the coaching staff probably know better than anyone, all the positive vibes and good energy will hit up against the reality of the Mountain Hawks’ Week 1 opponent.

And this isn’t meant to to cast a cloud over a great Lehigh preseason – by all accounts – but Villanova isn’t exactly the ideal tune-up for a Mountain Hawk team that has been learn all-new offensive and defensive systems.

“I don’t think any college head football coach thinks they’re truly ready,” Cahill told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. “But we’re in a good spot. The staff is really experienced and understands what we’re trying to do. We’re going to be ready to go on Saturday.”

Villanova has been a steady early-season fixture on Lehigh football schedules since 2006. Unfortunately for the Mountain Hawks, it almost always has resulted in an early season loss.

“Ready or not, here it is.”

The Wildcats have beaten Lehigh ten straight meetings, scoring more than 30 points in nine of those ten. In only one of those games, a 38-35 shootout, did the Mountain Hawks score more than 3 TDs.

In the last four meetings – all of which I attended in person – Villanova’s margin of victory has been at least three touchdowns.

In 2023, the Wildcats are starting to be seen as a current dark horse contender to make the FCS Playoffs; Lehigh was picked to finish 5th in the Patriot League.

Nineteen members of Villanova’s football program have “Gr.” listed next to their names under “Eligibility”, which shows how many 5th year players and redshirt players are now a normal part of Villanova’s roster. Lehigh has three.

Though there aren’t any official betting lines for the game (note: please, just don’t), when running the matchup through the Versus Sports Simulator you get an average final score of Villanova 30, Lehigh 13, which is in line with past seasons.

“[They have] a lot of experience,” coach Cahill told Tom Fallon about the matchup this weekend . “It’s an established program, and one I have a lot of respect for. People keep saying it would be an upset if you beat them, and that’s where our program is right now. It shouldn’t be. We’ve got to get back to the point where a win against Villanova would be just another win.”

To be fair, Lehigh has a lot of experience as well.

Senior C George Padezanin has started every game post-COVID season and will be looking to extend that streak into this year. He’s on the radar of NFL scouts.

Whomever ends up taking the first start at QB, QB Dante Perri or QB Brayten Silbor, both have tossed passes in FCS football games and started before. They know the deal.

WR Geoffrey Jamiel is a baller, and he’s looking to build on his fantastic rookie season last year. On the other side is WR Eric “Megatron” Johnson, who seems to come up with highlight reel catches.

RB Gaige Garcia and RB Jack DiPietro started in the last two years and form an experienced 1-2 punch.

And senior LB Mike DeNucci is Lehigh’s leading tackler of a year ago, and he’s joined by a number of returning defensive players in DL Dean Colton, DL Trevor Harris, S Logan Jones and CB Donovan Lassiter.

Harris and all of the others voice what is clearly the position of the upperclassmen in that they want to set a new legacy for themselves and show what they’re capable of.

But will they be able to against this opponent – this very tough opponent?

“Ready or not, here it is.”

Goodman Stadium/Bethlehem, Pa. Noon
PxP – Matt Kerr; Analyst – Mike Yadush
BROADCAST (Fox Sports Lehigh Valley 94.7 FM/1230 AM;
PxP – Tom Fallon; Analysts – Lance Haynes and Connor Mills

Patriot League Preview – Can Anyone Dethrone the Crusaders?
Preseason Camp – Cahill and Mountain Hawks Dedicating To Make Goodman Home Field Advantage
Lehigh Football – Getting to Know Your 2023 Non-Conference Opponents
Season Preview: Lehigh Hoping To Build Something Special With Fifth Years Colton, DiNucci

LFN’s Drink of the Week

Frankly it was kind of a disaster getting this preview ready for you, and one of the reasons was my cocktail shaker, which I needed to make this drink, was fused shut. Fortunately I figured out the solution: put the shaker in the freezer for several hours (which causes the metal to contract). I’m not a materials engineer – though I know some – but I guess today I’m playing one on the internet.

Anyway – after a very long offseason, a long preview-writing process and a very long, trying summer for a lot of reasons, I needed a drink, and I found one.

I’ve had Pomegranate martinis before, but they always were vodka-based. Ever since getting on a Gin kick, I was interested in making a more traditional gin martini with pomegranate, and instantly I thought the results were fantastic. You can find the recipe here.

LFN’s Tailgate Dish of the Week

This one came directly from my father-in-law, who pointed me towards this easy naan pizza recipe that is so easy you can simply plop it on a covered grill. These are perfect for tailgating because they’re the perfect size and not hard to do. You can find the recipe here.

Game Notes and Injury Report

No college football team in America has a fully formed team in the first week in September, but for the beginning part of the 2023 season the mantra in South Mountain is “growth” with an intriguing combination of veteran players with plenty of game experience and youth, with ten players listed as sophomores listed as ones on the opening day depth chart.

Unlike many Lehigh camps in recent years, Cahill reported on the Happy Hour with Tom Fallon that they came out of camp “pretty healthy”. That meant that the team on the depth chart is pretty much the team we’ll see. It also means that we have fewer true freshmen on the two deep – which is also a very welcome development.

A bit of a surprise to me was seeing sophomore OL Chris Curatolo starting at right tackle. He’s the only new player from a year ago on the offensive line, and I’ll be curious to see him on Saturday and how he protects the QB.

Scouting Villanova

It dawns on me that I have personally witnessed most of the Lehigh/Villanova matchups in person over the last ten years – most of them losses.

Last year’s 45-17 defeat sadly was a typical Villanova/Lehigh matchup of the last six years – an offensive coming out party for many of the Wildcats, including 5th year player QB Connor Watkins, who racked up 298 yards passing and 3 passing touchdowns in an efficient 11-for-15 passing performance to go with 25 yards rushing and a rushing score.

We’ll be seeing him again, a year more experienced than his up-and-down 2022 season might have seen. Last year he didn’t pass often, but when he did he burned Lehigh for big plays, very effectively using read option and a solid passing attack to ultimately overwhelm the Mountain Hawks.

RB Jalen Jackson has “6th” next to his name in on the depth chart as he will be one of Villanova’s stable of rushers that will try to wear down Lehigh’s defense. He had a 187 yard rushing performance against Monmouth last year. “5th” year WR Jaaron Hayek also returns, who is probably Watkins’ go-to guy for big plays and around the red zone.

Defense looks no easier. Athletic LB Daniel Abraham (26 tackles, 2 INT) will lead a fearsome 3-3-5 defense, while sophomore LB Shane Hartzell out of Perkasie (74 tackles, 9 TFL) is one of the best linebackers in the CAA.

It’s worth mentioning that although, like many CAA teams, Villanova has some number of portal transfers, most notably on the defensive line (starters DL Cameron Gagnon/Brown and DL Jake Reichwein/Holy Cross), the vast majority of Villanova’s talent has been home grown. They certainly benefit from the CAA’s redshirting rules and have tons of 5th and 6th year players, but they are hardly a rent-a-team like some FCS schools.

LFN’s Keys to the Game

  1. Picking Each Other Up. Like the players, I have to say that I have also bought into the new culture at Lehigh to pick each other up and use constant constructive feedback to improve. It’s what I (and businesses) do in real life and it can help the Mountain Hawks keep this game close.
  2. Fighting Til The Last. It’s easy to come out of the gates hot and try to score 1,000 points on the first drive. It’s a lot harder to keep up that pace in the 4th quarter, up by 3 touchdowns or down by 3 touchdowns. Win or lose, if the team shows fight and resolve the whole way, that will really help establish the 2023 season.
  3. Avoiding Big Plays. If there is anything that plagued the 2022 Mountain Hawks, it was giving up big plays at the worst possible times. (See: last year’s Lehigh/Lafayette game.) The best thing Lehigh could do to surprise the world is ideally not to give up big plays, of course, but at least keeping them to a minimum and preventing big plays from becoming scores. Last year’s defense statistically looked great, but big plays did them in far too often.

Fearless Prediction

My official line is that I know things are going to be good in 2023, and I know under the surface there is a good football team looking to emerge. I just don’t know if this will show up versus Villanova. We’ll see a team that is better. I’m just not sure the scoreboard will show that.

Villanova 31, Lehigh 14