Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Front Row Seat

As Patriot League coaches and team captains join the handful of media which have made their 20 minute drive to the Green Pond Country Club, the 2012 Media Day isn't like the 20-odd events which have preceded it. Things are a little different around the "Pennsylvania League" these days.

The first change is that reporter questions about scholarships won't be met by muffled voices and awkward "no comment" replies from coaches. Like Holy Cross basketball before them, Fordham football stared down the league, and the league blinked. One of the founding principles behind "The Last Amateurs" is no more. John Feinstein hasn't written an elegy for PL non-scholarship football, in part because PL football has never interested him the way basketball did, bu perhaps the elegy would fall on deaf ears in this assemblage. For once, Frank Tavani and Dick Biddle and Andy Coen can raise their voices and tell the assembled media, however few, that they're ready to go and next year's class will be the best ever. (As it always is.)

There's a change down the aisle at Fordham too, which is no longer on double secret probation for offering 30 more scholarships than everyone else, but will still be on the outside looking in for two more years... whereupon they will still have 30 more than everyone else, but by then it's presumably OK. Even as a 30-scholarship team in 2011, it was low tide for the Rams,  with a blistering 1-10 record, the loss of its coach, and the retirement of its long-time athletic director. With a football budget now north of 5.5 million (or mre than what GU spends over there years), former Fordham QB and Georgetown assistant Joe Moorhead is looking to be quick, but not hurry, the Rams' rise to back the top of the PL standings.

Scheduling talk figures to be a little different, too. Whether the coaches like it or not, the days where the Ivy League would schedule 80 percent of tis games versus five PL schools by rote, appears to be gone with the wind. Slowly and surely (the only ways the Ivy moves), scholarship PL schools are being weaned off future Ivy schedules. If Princeton wanted a scholarship opponent, they could lose to Rutgers, in that they don't need to lose by 35 to Lafayette.

And following the move of Fordham, who lost convincingly to Army and UConn and will travel to a convincing loss at Cincinnati this October, expect to hear the drumbeat for PL teams to dip their toes in the waters of I-A guarantee games. Holy Cross fans would relish a return match with BC, no matter the outcome. Colgate would take on Syracuse any day of the week. The over/under at Media Day on the first question that asks: "Would [your school] consider playing at Penn State?" is 30 minutes. Public answer? "We would have to discuss this further." Private answer? "Where do we sign?"

And then, there are some unfamiliar colors at the front table. Blue and gray. The same coach that won one league game in four seasons now stands alongside the top of the coaches' list in the league. Barring a homer vote (and as I write this a day early, it's eminently possible), Georgetown figures to be close to second in the PL coaches and media voting.

Third place, and there's some ballot stuffing going on. Fourth place, and Kevin Kelly should get up and leave.

The freshmen that arrived at unfinished Multi-Sport Field in 2009, watched their starting quarterback quit the team after sitting the last two minutes of the home opener, and struggled through the school's first ever 0-11 season, now enter 2012 with heads held high and a well deserved round of confidence. The Hoyas haven't returned 17 starters since the mid-90's when it ran roughshod over the MAAC schools, and experience in August is a great addition to any training camp.

Georgetown didn't get here by accident, and don't have to end the season by accident, either. And while much in the PL media between Easton and Bethlehem consider the 2011 season some sort of Verizon FiOS editing job, the Hoyas did win those eight games and proved they belonged on a field with the more popular kids in the PL playground. It's like seeing DePaul finish runners-up in the Big East. Sure, they could, but how?

Coming off the 2011 season, and entering 2012, there are three constants that have driven Georgetown forward, and each figure to be important going forward this season:

1. Offensive Philosophy. The playcalling of Elliot Uzelac (2004-05) was awful. It was matched by Jim Miceli (2006-09), no less frustrating. Both were veteran coaches who had seen plenty of football in their day, but it just didn't click with the players and the results were eminently predictable. From numerous penalties and time outs to avoid getting the plays in late, to the simplicity of plays that opponents could actually call out from across the defensive line of scrimmage, the Hoyas of the mid-2000's were not respected among other PL teams, and it showed. When Dave Patenaude arrived from Hofstra in 2010, he opened the playbook and cut down on the simple mistakes that plagued the Georgetown offenses of that decade. It was so unusual, at least for Georgetown, that it threw opponents off guard, especially in a pair of close wins over Lafayette. Patenaude has left for Coastal Carolina and PL observers will be watching to see if former Columbia OC Vinny Marino is the next Patenaude or the next Miceli. Probably, it's neither.Yes, Columbia's offensive output was poor in 2011, but the play calls were less of the issue and more to Columbia's general inexperience. Marino inherits the most experienced Georgetown offense in years, and if the calls remain stable, this offense can get to work.
2. Depth and injuries. Over the lean years spanning the Bob Benson and Kevin Kelly tenures, the amount of injuries to linemen from week to week couldn't be ignored. It did Georgetown no good when its second or third string tackles were starters by week 5--they were often undersized and unprepared for the task, and it showed. Sacks and TFL's declined over the last two years, and with it, Georgetown's quarterback rotation had more time to find targets, and less time needed in full "run away" mode from incoming linemen. For the most part, Georgetown escaped serious injuries in 2011, and while depth is much improved, a full season with its lines would be the best medicine for this team.
3. Confidence. There was a time not long ago when the Hoyas would fall behind 10-0 or 14-0 and your could hear a collective sigh rise up from the bench area. This was not a team that believed in itself of a comeback, and the numbers bore this out. From a note I posted to the Any Given Saturday message board: "From 2004-09, teams scoring 14 or more points vs. Georgetown were a combined 51-4 (.927); two of  the four GU wins when allowing 14 or more were to Marist, the other two were to Bucknell. In 44 games from 2004-09 where the Hoyas allowed more than 21 points, opponents were 44-0." Offensive woes notwithstanding, today's Hoyas are more confident that all is not lost if they give up the opening score, or if it's 17-10 at the half. Just as important, if Georgetown can hold a lead in the last two years, they have been up to the task. The 2012 schedule gives Georgetown an ample opportunity to open up with just that level of confidence--from Davidson and Wagner, through three Ivy games, into the meat of the PL schedule. In a three week run of Fordham, Lehigh, and Colgate, a confident Georgetown team could remind the PL brahmin that 2011 wasn't some sort of video edit.

Of course, that's not to say there aren't more questions ahead. Coach Kelly was shopping around New Haven last January, and there's been turnover in the staff. The MSF remains a hot potato topic in development circles and is so prickly it even got its own question in the capital campaign literature.

Ninety scholarships will be on the line every year going forward in the PL, and not one will be offered from the Hilltop. In 2013, maybe not that big a deal. In 2015, a bigger deal. In 2017, a very big deal.Those are questions for another day, even if at least one Lehigh Valley  reporter figures to ask Kevin Kelly, "Scholarships...so, what are you going to do about it?"

But for now, Georgetown sits in the front row. The correct answer is "Just win."