Fordham athletics is an interesting case study.
The Rams joined the Patriot League as it transitioned to an all-sports conference in 1990. They were the group’s first basketball power, winning the first two Patriot League tournaments and at a share of three of the first four regular season titles.
Despite that success, Fordham never really viewed themselves as a Patriot League school. It’s not that it isn’t a good school; quite the opposite, in fact. It’s that they didn’t really fit the Patriot League profile. Everything about the university– its size (15,000), its location in the Bronx, its Catholic heritage, its athletic history– seemed to fit the profile of a Big East school. Indeed, Fordham had traditionally featured schools like Villanova, Seton Hall, Pitt, Georgetown, and Boston College on its basketball schedules.
If they really wanted to raise their profile to match those of their would-be peers, Fordham knew they would have to offer athletic scholarships. This was a non-starter in the Patriot League, and in 1995 the Rams joined the Atlantic 10 alongside similar Catholic schools like St. Bonaventure, Duquesne, Xavier, and St. Joseph’s. Whether Fordham has seen any benefit from this association is debatable, but the results on the court are not: it has been a disaster. In the 21 years since joining the A-10, Fordham has had two winning seasons. They’ve had 13 with ten or fewer wins, and endured a 41-game conference losing streak from 2009-2011.
There are parallels in the Fordham football program. Famous for Vince Lombardi and the Seven Blocks of Granite, the Rams were a regular in the polls before World War II but greatly de-emphasized the program afterward. The school dropped football altogether in the ’50s, but brought it back as a Division III program in 1970. Fordham eventually moved to I-AA in 1989 as a member of the Colonial League, which became the Patriot League the following year. Fordham struggled after rejoining Division I, with the exception of a few bright spots during the Dave Clawson years. Once again, the school found itself wanting to add scholarships in order to improve its fortunes. This time, the Patriot League agreed.
That was in 2010. Once those first scholarship players became juniors and seniors, Fordham turned into a bit of a powerhouse. In 2013, the Rams won 12 games, defeated an FBS opponent (Temple), and advanced to the second round of the FCS playoffs. They went to the playoffs again in 2014 and 2015, with the latter season including another FBS win, this time over Army. It’s that game that warrants a closer look, for obvious reasons.
Fordham utilized a common option defense against Army, lining up in what was essentially a 4-4 with three defensive backs. The single free safety would follow the tail motion and play the pitch or the quarterback:
There’s a number of ways to counter this defense. Among other things, you can use misdirection to get the safety running the wrong way, run up the middle to force him to stay home, or just adjust your blocking to free up the pitch. You can also throw the ball over the safety’s head:
After that, Fordham left the safety in the middle of the field and had their outside linebackers play man to man on the slotbacks. It didn’t work very well; Army just ran the play the other way:
At that point, Fordham went back to Plan A and had the safety follow the tail motion again. You can’t really say that Army was entirely unsuccessful against it. They only had 256 rushing yards, but that’s misleading since they lost 35 on a bad snap on a punt. Without that, they’d have been hovering around 300. Their problem wasn’t an inability to move the ball; it was the inability to do so consistently.
A lot of that can be traced back to the quarterback. Ahmad Bradshaw was a sophomore making his first career start. He showed a lot of promise running the ball, but he also missed a few reads that killed drives. He wasn’t terribly accurate throwing the ball, either, completing only 6 of 14 passes with an interception. It’s that performance that I think will influence Fordham’s game plan against Navy.
I doubt that the Rams will use the same alignment on Saturday. They did win the game, but teams don’t usually line up against Navy the same way they showed on film against other option teams (although it has happened before). Even if the exact look will be different, though, we’ll probably see some of the same ideas.
One thing that Fordham did against Army was try to time the snap count. The slotback uses the quarterback’s cadence to determine when to go into tail motion, and the ball is snapped once the slotback reaches the fullback. Teams sometimes use this knowledge to get into the backfield before the offensive line can react. With Navy employing a new quarterback and five new starters on the offensive line, it makes sense for Fordham to put some pressure on them right away.
The other thing that Fordham did was force Army to throw the ball. You’ll notice in the video clips that the free safety was lined up extremely shallow– more like a 4-3 middle linebacker. Whatever alignment the Rams use against Navy on Saturday, I expect them to be similarly aggressive with their safeties. The hope would be that a relatively unproven quarterback will struggle as Bradshaw did. Even if Navy could connect on some of these passes, they might not be able to do so consistently enough to be able to keep pace with Fordham’s offense. That’s the thinking, anyway.
Given the confidence that the Rams have in that offense, the approach is as good as any other. The team that faced Army in last year’s opener was relatively young, but the offense was still a top-20 unit in both total offense and passing offense. They were ninth in the FCS in scoring, and they only stand to get better this season as almost every key component is returning.
It starts up front. The offensive line features three seniors and two juniors, including preseason all-conference honoree Anthony Coyle at left tackle. That veteran group will be blocking for two of the brightest stars in the FCS: quarterback Kevin Anderson, and running back Chase Edmonds.
Anderson was a revelation last season, throwing for 3,183 yards and 32 touchdowns. He completed 67% of his passes, and Fordham was second in FCS passing efficiency. The most remarkable thing about those last two numbers is that the Rams’ offense isn’t some dink-and-dunk operation; they throw the ball downfield. It helps to have a target like Phazahn Odom, a 6-8 tight end that grabbed 7 touchdown passes in 2015. Odom wasn’t alone, though; five different players had at least 30 receptions last year.
Anderson’s ability to distribute the ball to multiple targets helps to spread the defense, which opens running lanes for Chase Edmonds. Edmonds is a legitimate star. He is a two-time consensus All-American, having rushed for 1,838 yards in 2014 and 1,648 yards last season. His 137.3 yards per game were third in the country. He is a receiving threat as well, having caught 31 passes and 5 TDs in 2015. It’s a nice setup that Fordham has: pass the ball to loosen up the defense, run Edmonds as the defense backs up, then nail them with play action.
I don’t want to be too over-the-top in talking up Fordham. I had similar praise for Colgate last season, and we all saw how that turned out. Yes, they are an FCS squad that the Mids should be able to handle without too much drama. Nevertheless, they present their own set of challenges, and are a good opening test for a Navy team with much to prove.