The Lafayette Leopards have opened the season with a 1-2 record, a win over Central Connecticut and losses to Delaware and Princeton the last two weeks before hosting the Villanova Wildcats this weekend. Andy Talley is certainly pleased to be playing the Leopards for the first time of his tenure at Villanova, calling it "a natural game" for his program. Despite that, the 'Cats have not scheduled the Patriot League opponent until now, a few years after their conference added a nearly-full complement of scholarships.
We're a little short on history with Lafayette football, so to help get us caught up on the Leopards' finer points, we reached out to Paul Reinhard. Paul covers the Leopards' program for the Allentown Morning Call, and blogs about Lafayette football at Ramblings From The Bench.
1. Lafayette's quarterback, Drew Reed, has put up some serious yardage in the air. Do the Leopards need a big performance from Reed to win on Saturday?
A quick look at the stat sheet answers that question: Yes, Drew Reed must have a big game if Lafayette is to upset Villanova. Reed was terrific as a freshman, when he led Lafayette to a Patriot League championship. A Lis franc foot injury hampered him as a sophomore and he had a mediocre junior year. He has looked like the 2013 Drew Reed early this year, making accurate throws and good decisions. When he steps up in the pocket or rolls out, he can be dangerous. He has lots of targets and he must use as many of them as possible. Matt Mrazek has five TDs; he's not speedy, but he is crafty. Joey Chenoweth is a weapon but has been slowed the last two weeks after eight catches in the opener. Dylan Wadsworth is a weapon at TE.
2. The Leopards have held CCSU to 10 points, and held a 6-3 second-half lead over UDel (before falling behind 24-6), how strong is their defense?
The defense is much improved over 2015, with good depth and experience on the front line and a pair of really good linebackers. Two freshmen - and that's true freshmen because the Patriot League doesn't redshirt kids - started in the secondary last week. The Leopards haven't faced a quarterback with the dual-threat skills of Villanova's Zach Bednarczyk. Zach's kind of QB has hurt the Leopards in past years. I don't see a low-scoring game for the Wildcats. Princeton got 35 - but with some turnover help. So, the return question is: how strong is the Villanova offensive line? The Leopards have some quickness, but they'll also have to be patient against Bednarczyk.
3. After a lack of production on the ground so far this season, do you expect Lafayette focus on trying to get things going in the run game on Saturday, or stick to their strengths in the air?
Lafayette Coach Frank Tavani is an old running back and will continue to try to find a way to make the running game work. The Leopards are big enough - all 300-pounders on the interior o-line - and will get better. It's a matter of how soon. The line just hasn't gotten a good push, and some young running backs aren't finding the seam when there is one. I don't know if DeSean Brown, who sat out the last two weeks, will be back, but he would definitely help things. Coach T doesn't want to throw 60 times a game, but if Villanova is willing to give short stuff, he might change his mind and try ball-control passing. Runs by the quarterback have been few, and Reed has been sacked eight times, leaving him with 4 net yards rushing in three games. My game plan would be to go for it in the air.
4. Who are the key players on Lafayette's defense? Is the unit geared more toward stopping the run or pass?
Junior linebacker Brandon Bryant was overlooked by the league in preseason all-star voting, but he's the heart of the defense. Plays at 125 percent all the time. He had 114 tackles last year and has 27 in three games. His LB mate, Michael Root, is in his first year as a starter but leads the team with 31 stops. The Leopards use a 4-2-5 scheme, with the fifth d-back being a hybrid linebacker-d-back. I thought we'd see more blitzing, but they do have six sacks in three games after having only nine in 11 games last year. I don't think the unit is geared heavily either way, but Tavani always says "stop the run" as a first priority. DEs Collin Albershardt and Beau Bosch are both active guys up front. They must get some pressure on ‘Cats QB.
5. What do think Lafayette's ceiling is this season? Can they challenge for a Patriot League title?
When you start to think about coming back from a 1-10 season, it's difficult to have too many expectations. Each of the four recruiting classes has gotten stronger, but that's not the case only at Lafayette. The entire league is getting better. Lehigh gave you guys a pretty good run for your money a couple of weeks back - on the scoreboard, at least. Lafayette improved from Week 1 to Week 2 and again from Week 2 to Week 3. This is a demanding schedule, with Army coming in a couple of weeks. How they hold up over the long haul will depend on how they hold up physically. They were decimated with season-ending injuries in 2015; this year has been much better through three games. I do think there a couple of surprises in the Leopards' future - watch out for kicker Jacob Bissell, who has great range. This week? Big job.