Fordham football is venturing into uncharted territory, and the Rams are doing it in style.
After a 2012 season in which Fordham finished with a winning record for the first time since 2007, the Rams are off to a 5-0 start that has been filled with high-octane offense and more than a little drama.
The Rams are ranked No. 12 in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) standings, and have some believing they belong in the top 10. On Saturday, Fordham will face rival Lehigh in a battle of unbeatens. The Mountain Hawks have mounted three furious comebacks against Central Connecticut State, Princeton and New Hampshire, on their way to a 4-0 start.
In his third year as head coach, Joe Moorhead has turned around a program that was recently a bottom-feeder. Inheriting a team that went 1-10 in 2011, Moorhead guided the Rams to a 6-5 record last year. The former Fordham quarterback has installed a spread offense that averaged more than 31 points a game in 2012, second in the Patriot League.
This year, they’re a shade under 40 points a game, due in large part to a balanced rushing and passing attack that constantly looks for quick strikes.
Carlton Koonce, who set the Fordham rushing record last year with 1,596 yards, now has three straight 100-yard games. The 5-foot-8 senior running back has consistently kept defenses off-balance with his combination of quickness and power.
At the start of the season, there was a question as to who would fill quarterback Ryan Higgins’ shoes, but redshirt sophmore Mike Nebrich has had the offense clicking since Day 1. Nebrich is seventh in the FCS in passing, averaging 330 yards per game, and has spread the ball around to wideouts Sam Ajala, Brian Wetzel and Tebucky Jones.
Nebrich transferred to Fordham from UConn in 2011, and Jones followed him a year later. Nebrich has been pleased with his teammate’s progress. “I think the biggest thing for Buckets was learning the playbook,” Nebrich said. “Once he grasped that, the sky’s the limit.”
Jones was at his best in last Saturday’s 38-20 victory over St. Francis (PA), with nine catches for a team-leading 118 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown that put Fordham up-24-20. The Rams scored the final 21 points.
Though Fordham has blown out lesser opponents like Columbia and URI, fans have still been treated to a healthy dose of drama. In Fordham’s 27-24 victory over Villanova, an opportunistic Rams defense forced Villanova fumbles on the Wildcats’ final three possessions.
“Those weren’t accidents, we practiced for that,” Moorhead said. “I told our guys before the game one of the keys to this game would be takeaways, and they responded.”
The following week against a heavily favored Temple team on the road, Fordham scraped and clawed to a 30-29 victory, its first over an FBS opponent since 1954. The win was capped by 34-yard touchdown pass from Nebrich to Ajala with four seconds remaining. To keep the drive alive, Nebrich scrambled for two consecutive razor-thin fourth-down conversions.
“When I actually fell after the throw, I heard everybody cheering so I thought, ‘Oh, man, he dropped it,’” Nebrich said after the game. “And then I see Sam stick the ball up out of his back. It was an incredible feeling.”
The Rams will not be eligible for the Patriot League title or an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs until 2014 due to their decision to award athletic scholarships to football players starting in 2010. While at the time this went against Patriot League Rules, the league has since followed in Fordham’s footsteps. However, Fordham is still eligible for an at-large berth — a prospect that looks more and more likely as the season progresses.