Isiejah Allen is a threat on defense and special teams (CREDIT: Fordhamsports.com)
The 2007 Fordham Rams are clearly an improvement over the 2006 edition of the team that fell apart against Columbia in a 37-7 Lion victory at Wien Stadium.
The good news for the Lions coaches is that Fordham has exhibited a clear series of strengths and weaknesses through the first two games of this season, as opposed to the schizophrenic squad that inexplicably fell to Monmouth in the 2006 opener before shocking Albany at Albany a week later.
The Rams have finally found a talented and consistent QB in sophomore John Skelton. He's showing some signs of inexperience at times, but also a lot of poise. In the Rams' run-and-shoot offense, he's throwing an average of 40 passes per game and completing a decent 53% of them. He has four TD passes and four interceptions, (all but one of his INT's have come on first down).
On third down, Skelton is not impressive, but he has avoided the big mistakes. He's 7 of 18 for 91 yards, six first downs, no TD's, no INT's, and four sacks for a total loss of 38 yards. His yards-per-attempt average on third down is 5.05 compared to his overall YPA of 6.19.
The starting receivers seem to all be talented enough, but no one is emerging as the number one threat as of now. One strong contender is freshman David Moore who, like Skelton, comes from El Paso, TX and seems to have a bright future ahead of him. Columbia's secondary and spur linebackers will probably have their hands full all Saturday night.
Skelton and his four wide receiver set are not the whole story on offense. Senior tailback Jonte Coven is having a strong season so far, with 185 yards rushing, three TD's, and a big 5.8 yards per carry.
But with these weapons, the Rams are still only averaging 23.5 points game... that's not bad, but they could have scored a lot more if it weren't for some tough turnovers in each of their first two games. Fordham's minus-4 turnover ratio is something that should be a major item of interest for the Lions, who created and thrived on many opponent turnovers last season and finished with a plus-10 turnover ratio.
And yet, the Rams are a perfect five-for-five in the red zone with five TD's. Clearly, this is a team that responds to different kinds of pressure in different ways.
The offensive line appears to be stepping up to the added pressure of all the extra passing plays. The Rams have given up just four sacks and Skelton has often had room to run when his receivers are covered. Columbia will absolutely need to put more pressure on him than Rhode Island and Albany did in the first two games.
In short, Fordham has a very young and dangerous offense that could explode for a 30-point game or cough up five turnovers, it depends on how well they prepare and how much pressure the opposing defense brings to the table.
Fordham's current defensive squad reminds me a lot of some Columbia defenses of the past in that the Rams have four or five very talented players on "D," but the whole does not seem to equal the sum of its parts. Despite sporting stars like Earl Hudnell, Isiejah Allen, and Matt Loucks, the Rams are giving up an eye-popping 455 yards per game, 317 of them on the ground. And the Rams are getting absolutely smoked in time of possession, averaging just over 22 minutes per game, for a massive 15 fewer minutes than their opponents. The fact that Fordham has only given up 46 total points this season is a testament to their own ability to create key turnovers and some stellar play in the red zone. But there's also been a lot of luck, luck that could run out now that the Columbia coaches have had plenty of time to look over two games worth of tape.
It would appear the starting front three of Fonzie Culver, Darzell Wright and Greg DeMarco are the main culprits. Those starters have combined for just two tackles for a loss and no sacks. Backups Ryan Kleve and Ryan Mehra are the only defensive linemen with sacks, (Mehra has one and Kleve has half a sack). Columbia's very weak running game from last year may not need to improve very much to do some damage this weekend.
Against the pass, the Rams look much better. They've given up an average of just 138 yards per game, but when you give up so much against the run, who needs to pass? (That's VERY reminiscent of the Columbia teams of 2003-05 that generally posted nice numbers against the pass but were woeful vs. the run).
But in the red zone Fordham has been decent, giving up just four TD's and five field goals in 12 total red zone chances on defense.
Sometimes "bend but don't break" doesn't work too well for a defense, but that M.O. has been workable for the Rams so far in 2007.
Fordham has an All-America candidate in senior punter Benjamin Dato. He's averaging 43.1 yards per punt with six inside the 20 in just the first two games.
Sophomore Isiejah Allen is doing a great job on punt and kick returns, and he could be very dangerous as Columbia begins kicking off from the 30 for the first time Saturday night.
Kickoff return coverage has been average, but the Rams are giving up fewer than two yards per punt return.
The one weak link on special teams is at placekicker, where junior Adam Danko is just not nearly as good as the now-graduated Micah Clukey was for four years on Rose Hill. Danko has not attempted even one field goals so far but he's already missed two PAT's.
Fordham always talks about how they're fired up for the Liberty Cup game, but more often than not they've shown up looking uninspired. The great 2002 Ram team that advanced in the Division IAA playoffs handed Columbia its only win of that season in a 13-11 loss in the first Liberty Cup game. The next season, Fordham almost blew a 21-point lead and barely held on to a 37-30 win. Columbia's weak 2005 team looked like winners after winning at Fordham in 2005, and last year's 30-point Lion rout spoke for itself.
Why Fordham has generally looked less prepared than Columbia even though they come into these games with two weeks of actual games under their belt is beyond me. The only guess I can make is that the Lions learn a lot more from the Fordham game films than the Rams gain by playing more than just practice games every season.
One exception was 2004, when Fordham came out inspired against what looked like a sleep-walking Columbia team and took a 17-0 halftime lead. The Lions did wake up in the second half and made it close, but the Rams held on for a 17-14 win.
Whether Fordham Head Coach Tom Massella can turn that trend around may depend a lot on his young starting QB who has shown nothing but enthusiasm so far.