By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today columnist
College Sporting News
Those men would hardly recognize the style of football played by these Rams, with its wide-open passing attack spearheaded by quarterback Michael Nebrich and his three-headed trio of receivers. While not as poetic as Tinker, Evers and Chance, the group of Jones, Ajala and Wetzel are a terror on the outside and open up holes for Koonce in the running game. Still, with my CAA hat on, the second thing I was doing was wondering if this Fordham team would be able to stand firm against a Towson squad that would do the Seven Blocks proud. Could the same defense that was getting gashed by Sacred Heart's running game stand up to one of the great running backs in the country and possible Payton Award winner, Terrance West? As I watched Sacred Heart hang around despite several turnovers, I wasn't so sure.
The last thing that occupied me was the score from Durham, NH, but considering that the Wildcats had rolled up a 21-0 lead seemingly before Lafayette got off the bus, the updates from the Granite State would not hold my attention for long. So, I turned to the man standing beside me wearing a James Madison hat and struck up a conversation with Jeff Bourne, the Dukes AD and head of the FCS playoff selection committee. The discussion was long enough to merit a separate column, but a couple of CAA-related nuggets emerged. First and foremost, he insisted that the UNH/Maine rematch was more about balance of pairings than regionalization. Second, that Delaware would not have made the playoffs even if they had beaten Villanova. The second point had been guessed at but was interesting to have confirmed and the first is the key storyline of this upcoming weekend.
New Hampshire at Maine
This should be an exciting time for the University of Maine and its football program with the team's first home playoff game all set for tomorrow. However, it had to have come as a shock to Jack Cosgrove to see the potential rematch with New Hampshire in the second round and he couldn't have felt any better last Saturday watching the Wildcats tear apart an overmatched Lafayette team 41-7. Truth be told, New Hampshire is a really tough pairing for the Black Bears for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the most obvious difficulty is that Maine is 1-10 since 2002 against their neighbors to the west, with the one win coming in overtime in 2010, 16-13. Second, they got smacked around by the Wildcats just two weeks ago and that team is, if anything, more confident heading into this game. Lastly, any hopes for a big homefield advantage are largely eliminated by playing a team from the same region with a coaching staff and players that are used to making the trip north for a late-season game in Orono. Sean McDonnell hinted at as much in his spot on this week's CAA coaches call. Being comfortable with the logistics and environment of any road trip always makes it easier for the visitors to play well.
As for everything between the lines, there just seems to be something about this matchup that favors New Hampshire. For example, the last two times a Wildcat defense has held a team under 100 rushing have been in the last two Bryce-Cowell musket matchups. On the flip side, the Wildcat running game was virtually unstoppable two weeks ago in Durham. It helped New Hampshire grab an early lead and then control the game the rest of the way.
The biggest change for New Hampshire has been the play of the defense. After losing all-time leading tackler Matt Evans along with two others to graduation, the Wildcats were further hit by two season-ending injuries early in 2013. Failing to protect double-digit leads in three of their first four games, the unit hit a low point against Towson, allowing 731 yards of offense to a Tiger team that rallied from a 20-3 deficit for a resounding 44-28 win. Sitting at 1-3, New Hampshire would have no chance to make a run at the playoffs without improved play from the defense. Things started to turn in a win over Rhode Island, but the 29-28 win over Villanova that got the Wildcats back to .500 was when the confidence really got going. Since then the team has allowed 20 or fewer points in 6 straight games, including last week's manhandling of Lafayette. The playoff win marked the first time the Wildcats have held teams to single digits in back-to-back games since 1995. Most notably, New Hampshire garnered an incredible 15 sacks in the last two weeks, 10 against Lafayette and 5 in the regular season finale against Maine.
Maybe the only thing working against New Hampshire is its own playoff history. This marks the 10th straight playoff berth for the Wildcats, but they have never been able to win two games in a single postseason, including failing to accomplish that task in five straight years in the middle of the last decade. It's an unusual streak, but speaks to how hard it is to win road playoff games the deeper you get into the tournament. Also ominous is the fact that this is the third time they have faced a conference foe in the playoffs and on the first two occasions New Hampshire lost, once to UMass and then to Villanova in their national championship year in 2009.
Something feels different this time, though, and it's largely because of the matchup and the location. New Hampshire will head to a famililar stadium to play a team they are confident against and, I expect, with many of their own fans in tow. There should be an air of anticipation in Orono for this one, but I get the sense there's a lot of trepidation instead. Of all the teams that could have made the trip to Orono, this is the one that seems to most trouble the locals and with good reason. I don't know if the musket will be making the trip or not, but, either way, it will be in Durham, NH come Sunday morning.
Wildcats 23 Black Bears 17
Fordham at Towson
Driving home from Fordham last Saturday, it was hard to know what lessons to take away from the Rams game against Sacred Heart. Michael and Nebrich and Co. jumped out to a 24-7 lead and then made the necessary plays defensively in the second half to come away with a 37-27 win. Nebrich was solid but inconsistent as he continued to recover from an injury that kept him out of a loss against Lafayette two weeks ago. However, the Rams inability to stop the Sacred Heart running game and the reliance of the Rams defense on turnovers raised some red flags heading into this week's game against Towson.
It was just two years ago that Towson faced an almost identical situation, a home game against a Patriot League team in their playoff opener. However, that team had surprised everyone to win a CAA title and may have been a little overconfident and lacked some focus in a narrow loss to Lehigh. This year's team has been pointing towards a playoff return all season and won't be overlooking a Fordham team with a player like Nebrich at the helm.
A couple of things that jump out at me about this game. First and foremost, having watched Fordham play last week against Sacred Heart, I'm not sure the Rams can match up physically with the Tigers on either side of the ball. Towson is pretty stout up front on both lines and I expect they'll be able to open holes for Terrance West in much the same way that Sacred Heart did last week. What could hold the Tigers back are injuries to their wide receiving corps. Although Coach Ambrose insisted that everyone was at practice this week, it sure sounded in his voice as if he didn't want to admit that two of his top wideouts would not be at full strength for this weekend. If the Rams defense can put another defender in the box to stop West and quarterback Peter Ahrens can't take advantage through the air, then Fordham could limit the damage the Towson offense can do. Fordham has been stingy in the red zone this year and the last thing Towson wants to do is put their playoff hopes in the hands of its shaky kicking game.
When Fordham has the ball, the Rams and Neibrich should still have some success throwing against a somewhat suspect Towson secondary but the Tigers line should be able to get pressure on the Fordham QB and wear him down over the course of the game. Running quarterbacks have given Towson some trouble this year, especially John Robertson of Villanova, so Nebrich's mobility will be an important factor as well, especially given the pressure he's likely to see.
The last point involves turnovers, where the Rams have been as good as anyone in the country this year, forcing 38 so far this season, or nearly three a game. It's a good thing they picked up four last week as they might not have held off the Pioneers without them. Unfortunately for the team from the Patriot League, Towson led the CAA in takeaways as well. Curiously, they also led the league in giveaways, which should make for a critical factor on Saturday.
My initial inclination was to expect a convincing Towson victory, but I have a feeling Fordham will hang around for a while, with Nebrich able to exploit the vulnerabilities of the Towson defense. In order to win, though, the Rams are going to need a couple of things. First, a +2 or +3 edge in turnovers and second, some stops in the red zone and a missed field goal or two. Towson has lost twice this year, both times at home and both in surprising fashion, especially the collapse against Delaware. This is a dangerous matchup for the Tigers and Rob Ambrose better not have allowed his team to underestimate the Rams. Still, despite some of the questions at wide receiver, Towson will be fresh and physical and the crowd at Unitas Stadium will be more than ready to rattle the Rams and their still not 100% star quarterback. Expect a whole lot of Terrance West and a bunch of quarterback pressures along the way. I think it will be entertaining in stretches but expect the home team to protect the ball, control the clock and come away with a hard fought win.
Towson 31 Fordham 27
Enjoy the playoffs weekend and as usual, any comments, questions, rants, complaints, scouting reports, predictions, etc can be sent to CAAToday@yahoo.com.