Fordham football 1 of last 2 unbeaten schools in FCS

The Jets have turned heads this season, and the Giants are on a winning streak. But New York’s hottest football team — one which actually plays its games in the Big Apple — is the Fordham University Rams.

At 10-0 entering Saturday’s matchup on the road against Lafayette, Fordham is one of the final two unbeaten teams at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level — once known as the NCAA’s Division 1-AA. It’s one of the best seasons in the program’s history, which dates all the way back to 1881. Since scaling back their schedule from 18 games in 1919, the Rams have won 10 games just twice before (1987, 2002).

Much of the credit for Fordham’s success should fall upon coach Joe Moorhead, hired to his first head coaching job before last season after the Rams finished 1-10 in 2011. But Moorhead is quick to shift credit to those around him.

“I think it’s a tremendous testament to our players and their belief in the things we identify as important to winning and losing games,” said Moorhead, now 16-5 as a head coach. “All my credit goes to those guys and my coaches. They’ve done a phenomenal job.”

One of those players, quarterback Mike Nebrich, can’t help but stand out from the crowd. The junior has posted incredible numbers that have thrust him into the Walter Payton Award race — FCS’ version of the Heisman Trophy. He’s completing 74.8% of passes with a 23-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has thrown for 3,181 yards. The dual threat also has gained 445 yards on 123 rush attempts, including a team-leading eight scores.

“He’s a threat to lead the team down the field within the scheme or with his improvisational skills, and he did all it while really minimizing negative plays,” Moorhead said. “He’s really the ideal fit for what we want in our spread up-tempo system.”

Unfortunately, Nebrich suffered a right knee injury — the same knee in which he suffered a torn ACL a year ago — in the first quarter of their latest win, a 23-21 victory over Bucknell in the team’s regular-season home finale at Coffey Field last Saturday. He’ll miss Saturday’s game at Lafayette, but Moorhead said Nebrich “potentially” could be back for the regular-season finale at Colgate next Saturday.

The prospect of not having an elite passer for an important road game doesn’t worry Moorhead, however. He believes in Nebrich’s backup, Pete Maetzold, who threw for 317 yards and completed 60% of his passes in relief against Bucknell.

“The great thing about Peter is he’s very cerebral,” Moorhead said. “He takes his preparation very seriously. We preach to our guys, our backups are one play away from being a starter. … That’s our philosophy — next man in — and the next man in is gonna do as good or better of a job than the person he replaces.”

Despite the fifth-ranked Rams having one of the best records in FCS, which includes victories over FBS-level Temple and FCS-ranked schools Villanova and Lehigh, Fordham can only earn one of the 10 available at-large bids in the FCS playoffs. The Rams are ineligible to earn the Patriot League’s at-large bid until next season, stemming from the fact that they offer athletic scholarships.

That’s why, despite their great success thus far, Fordham still must focus on their remaining matchups. As Moorhead tells it, focus is a prime directive for the Rams.

“The analogy we’ve given [the players] is, it’s like a hurdle race,” Moorhead said. “If you look ahead at the hurdles that are near the finish line or back at the ones you’ve cleared, you’re gonna end up tripping on the one that you’re supposed to be jumping over. … They’ve just gotta concentrate on the hurdle we’re on.”