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David Bykowski

Playoff Preview: (6) Concord at (3) Kutztown

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When I eventually wrap up this season, I can add some notes on Concord's incredible 48-40 win over West Virginia Wesleyan to wrap up their first conference championship in 21 years (among other things). But a mere 14 hours before kickoff of Concord's first Division II playoff appearance isn't the time for them.

Game of the Week
Concord (7-3) at #10 Kutztown (10-1)

Prior to last week, I thought Kutztown looked very dangerous. I liked their chances in the PSAC championship against Slippery Rock. After all, I saw this team last year, an unlikely #1 seed in Super Region 1. I knew all about what Kevin Morton could do, about the talent at wide receiver that he had around him. I saw Shepherd fight back against a good team to win in the fourth quarter on their march to the WVIAC's first national semifinal playoff appearance.

I had only briefly watched the Golden Bears this season. What I saw really impressed me, though. Here was a team that had gone from being able to air it out repeatedly and not do too much else to having a balanced offensive attack and a good defense. In 2010, Kutztown didn't face much competition and ended up winning more close games. In 2011, the competition was only slightly better, but the Golden Bears dominated most weeks.

So what changed? Let's start with what didn't: quarterback Kevin Morton is still an outstanding passer with skilled receivers in Josh Mastromatto (who doubles as a runningback too, but we'll hit that position later), Colby Tuell, and Eric Frazier. The offensive line got more experienced, even if there isn't too much depth there (not that that's much different from most Division II programs).

But now add in Robbie Frey, a senior transfer at runningback from Connecticut (yep, the one that played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl last year). His impact on the offense has been monstrous. No longer can opposing defenses repeatedly rush three and drop eight men into coverage. They have to be prepared for a runner that may not have outstanding speed but has the size to make up for it. Add to that a defense that has been especially strong at stopping the run, especially with DE Brett Moss, who leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks. Not to be overlooked is Kutztown's leading tackler, LB Andrew Hodges. And there are those 23 interceptions on the year (leading the PSAC), including nine from freshman DB Anthony DiNolfi.

And then, in what looked to be a ho-hum moment at first last week, darkness appeared in the Golden Bears' biggest, most sparkling jewel. Morton left the game after the first quarter and did not return, hampered by what is currently said to be a knee injury. He was merely favoring one leg for a snap or two before a Kutztown punt, but after that, he was seen lying on his back on the training table, and backup Marshall Vogel was in the game.

I watched video of last week's 21-14 Kutztown win over the PSAC's top defense (and one of the best in the country) in Slippery Rock. Vogel started very slowly. Even later in the game, he still looked unsure. He's definitely a pocket passer. He'll drop back three, maybe five steps, and stop, stand, stare, and throw. He doesn't scan the field as effectively as Morton does. He doesn't appear mobile in the pocket in the least. And his accuracy can be perfect but can also be far off the mark.

There's another weakness in Kutztown: the kicking game. The Golden Bears have made two field goals all season (and have only attempted five). Jack Ruggieri has been perfect on PATs this season, and honestly, the Golden Bears haven't been in too many close games this year. When they have, the offense has found the end zone, just like in the final five minutes of last week's conference championship win. Sure, Mastromatto can be a dynamic return man, so I won't say that special teams overall are weak. But when it's playoff time, your chances are much better with a kicker in whom you trust.

If Vogel starts, it changes the whole game. I don't see Vogel being able to make the kinds of plays that Morton can. Kutztown has had an extra week to get ready for possibly having Vogel start, and they'll likely be more effective at successfully mixing the run and the pass than they were last week (Slippery Rock keyed in on the run but gave up 300 yards in the air to Vogel in the final three quarters).

Here are my three keys to Concord winning tomorrow:

1. Establish the pass.

That's right, I said establish the pass. Concord's offensive line opened up gigantic holes for Brian Kennedy last week, but they were facing a West Virginia Wesleyan defense that had just shown no ability to stop the run when they lost to Charleston. Kennedy may have some openings this week, but his role will have to be two-fold: to pick up tough yards in short yardage situations (something possibly better suited for Chris Rodriguez or even Andrew Gondor) and to work as a pass-catcher. He simply needs to keep the Golden Bears' defense honest so that Zack Grossi has room to work. Usually, not having a go-to wide receiver in clutch situations is a bad thing. This time, given that star DB DiNolfi would probably be covering such a stud receiver, it may be helpful that Grossi has numerous targets to throw to, all of them with similar abilities. But if Concord is going to win this week, it will be because of 300 yards from Grossi, not from BK.

2. Own the turnover battle.

Sounds obvious, doesn't it? Kutztown is +11 in turnover margin overall on the year. But in the one loss they took, a 49-7 shocker at Shippensburg, they were -5 on the day with no takeaways themselves. How to do that, though, could be more complicated. Putting an all-out blitz on Morton/Vogel won't work: Kutztown has too many receivers you wouldn't want running in single coverage constantly, and that won't force turnovers, just sacks. This week, sacks probably aren't good enough, not when Frey is just as capable of a 15 yard run as Tuell or Frazier are of making a 15 yard catch on a key third down. Mix in some blitzes, just like Concord did against West Virginia Wesleyan last week, but don't overcommit one way or the other. In the first half, Concord almost every time rushed four linemen and dropped everyone else, linebackers and DBs, into coverage. When the second half started, they mixed it up: a couple big blitzes, more one-man blitzes with four down linemen, and some three-man rushes with eight in coverage. Concord can't afford to wait until halftime to shake things up like that this week. Be unpredictable, and you'll get some turnovers. Win the turnover battle, and your chances to win the game are very good.

3. Remember Shepherd: play loose.

October 1, 2011 was one of the worst days for college football in several years in terms of the weather. I'll remember that, but I'll also remember Concord's dominant home win over Shepherd that ugly day. What happened on that field was a Concord team that people had dismissed after an 0-2 start (even if everybody expected one of those losses and the other turned out not to be so bad after all) believed in themselves when nobody else thought they had a chance (myself included). They played loose. And they had an outstanding game from start to finish. Compare that to how they performed in games where they were predicted to win, often in dominant fashion: an 18-9 win over a lowly Seton Hill team, a 32-29 comeback win over an even worse West Liberty squad, and a 14-3 loss at Glenville State fresh off the Shepherd win and coming in as the favorite. Being the favorite has not gone well for Concord in the last month. I don't think they were the favorite last weekend (though I picked them anyways), and many comments on d2messageboard.com seemed to back that up. But they believed in themselves, stayed loose even when they were down by two scores early in the second half, and came away with a win. Now they need to do that again.

Concord has the talent to be able to pull off the upset. Very few people give the Mountain Lions a chance to come away with a win in their first NCAA Division II playoff appearance. Some have very quickly dismissed Concord as a team that needed earned access to get into the playoffs, and on that basis alone, they must not be deserving. If Kutztown believes that tomorrow, they'll be in for a big letdown.

With all that said, do I think Concord will actually do it? They'll need to play a near-perfect game, particularly if Morton starts at quarterback for Kutztown. The Golden Bears run a wide variety of offensive sets, and I expect that to throw the Concord defense off during the first couple of drives. How Concord responds will determine whether I'm leaving for to West Haven, Connecticut on the day after Thanksgiving or not. Personally, I think 20% of the time, Concord can pull off the win. I'm a math guy, and I can't pick the Mountain Lions to win on odds like that.

Prediction: Kutztown 35, Concord 21


Normally, I do some sort of liveblog from all of the games I go to. I'll spare you the full version of the NCAA's broadcasting rules regarding blogs, but here's the short version:

I can't do it. If I do, or if I blog or tweet too much, I could have my credential revoked.

So, here's what I recommend instead if you're not getting up before the crack of dawn (like I am) to drive up to Kutztown:

1. Listen to Kyle Cooper (I may join him for a bit) on 102.3 FM or online at http://www.theticket102.com.

2. Watch the game online. Kutztown has a very good video stream on Ustream at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/ku-live.

3. Sure, hit me up on Twitter @Byko. Just do it AFTER the game. After all, there's only one thing that bloggers want: followers.

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Updated 11-18-2011 at 10:27 PM by David Bykowski

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