Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday's Word: Hole

Having blamed her, perhaps unfairly, for the death of Kurt Cobain, I never really was able to really enjoy the music of Courtney Love's band "Hole". 

(A fresh listen to "Doll Parts" later, I'm further discovering that I'm still not really enjoying her music today, either, though I'm sure the female angst in her songs really wasn't intended for me, anyway.)

As a Lehigh fan this weekend, it also wasn't very enjoyable to see the Mountain Hawks dig themselves into a seven-turnover "hole" either.

But a funny thing happened about this weekend's game.  Sure, Lehigh dug themselves in a giant "hole", there's no denying that.  But just like they have every other week, they dug themselves out of it - which, in the end, was the most important thing.

The ability to dig yourself out of a hole is not something most teams can do.

There are many folks out there in the world of FCS, looking from the outside at this Lehigh football program.

From the most passionate Lafayette fans close to Bethlehem to the Eastern Washington folks who mostly enjoy their slices of the Big Sky out in Cheney, Washington, they are sitting in the wings, waiting to see if the Mountain Hawks break.

They see a Lehigh team that thinks that they can't lose - but don't always play like it.

They see a team that is making mistakes - more mistakes than most nationally-ranked teams make.

They see a team that digs "holes" for themselves, and then - due to determination, sub-par competition, or just sheer dumb luck, in their minds - they find themselves with 0:00 remaining on the scoreboard, and the Mountain Hawks on top.

"They've played nobody," you can picture a fictional James Madison fan growling.  "Our only loss is to the No. 17 team in the nation - and I don't mean Illinois State, I mean West Virginia.  West Virginia!  Lehigh?  They barely beat Princeton.  Columbia and Georgetown grace their schedule, fer Pete's sakes."

Having looked at this Lehigh team now for seven consecutive weeks, I can tell you it's not luck, or bad competition, that is resulting in these wins.  There is a lot more to it than that.

Take this weekend's game.

Senior QB Michael Colvin had an awful first half of football by any measuring stick.  While you can argue that not all of the turnovers were his fault, ultimately the stat sheet doesn't lie: he had one fumble, and four interceptions, whether tipped, overthrown, or however they occurred.

They were big ones, too.

Colvin's fumble on the second play of scrimmage ultimately resulted in Georgetown's first touchdown - a 4 play, 31 yard drive to give Georgetown a 7-0 lead.

And one of those tosses, an ill-advised screen pass nearing the end of the first half, was perfectly anticipated by Georgetown CB Jeremy Moore, who took it back 80 yards for a pick six to give Georgetown a 14-7 lead.

There was another quarterback this weekend that essentially gave away points as well, and it's someone that any Lehigh football fan should recognize.

North Dakota State QB Brock Jensen is the quarterback of the defending national champion Bison, and also was the victorious quarterback over Lehigh in the FCS Playoffs last year.  He was the stunningly efficient leader of North Dakota's "death of a million cuts" offense last season, one that did just enough to overrun the Mountain Hawks in the FargoDome, 24-0.

This week, though, Jensen was in trouble at home, in the same FargoDome, against Indiana State.

As the clock went under five minutes to go in the first half, Jensen overthrew his receiver, where Indiana State's CB Johnny Towalid saw mostly daylight, after evading one Bison tackler, to give the Sycamores a 10-3 lead that would remain at halftime.

Two different QB's that put their team in a "hole", in the exact same fashion.  For a quarterback, there can't be a worse feeling in the world than throwing a bad pass that's returned for a touchdown that gives the opposing team the lead.

It points to an interesting parallel between Lehigh, ranked at about 11 in the country going into the weekend, and the unanimously-No. 1 ranked Bison.

Here was Lehigh and North Dakota State, trailing at halftime to teams which, in the past four years, had winless seasons to their credit.  Indiana State, under head coach Les Miles, went 0-12 in his inaugural season for the Sycamores in 2008, and Georgetown head coach Kevin Kelly went 0-11 in 2009, and very nearly was let go after that season.

In the Lehigh and North Dakota State locker rooms at halftime, there were two ways to go for head coach Andy Coen and Craig Bohl - lace into their team with an obscenity-laced tirade to implore them to not make mistakes, or simply preach patience.  Tell your players to stop digging the "hole", and climb out of it.

While it's not clear what coach Bohl told his players at half, Coen himself after the game said that there was no need to panic.  "We walked off of here at halftime, and I was disappointed, but I wasn't going to lose my mind," he said.  "I think the team that should have been really upset was Georgetown.  We turned over the ball five times, and they were only ahead by seven points."

While the coaches can vocalize and do what they need to do to focus the team, it's really up to the players themselves to ultimately achieve the victory.  Coaches never plan plays they hope turn into pick-sixes or fumbles - they scheme to get a touchdown every time, and make the opposing defense try to stop their plans.

In the end, it is situations like this - self-inflicted or otherwise - that show what a team is really made of inside.  Either you continue to melt down, and keep digging yourself deeper and deeper, and lose, or you gather yourself mentally, and find a way to stop digging the "hole", and you find a way to win.

Jensen and Colvin, and their respective teams, emerged from the locker rooms at halftime on very different trajectories.

Twice, Jensen would have an opportunity to convert a third down to keep a scoring drive alive, and twice, the pass would fall incomplete.  All the Bison would have to show for their drives was a 33 yard field goal from PK Adam Keller to make the score Indiana State 10, North Dakota State 6.

Then, on the first drive of the fourth quarter, Jensen would do the unthinkable one more time - he'd find Towalid again, who would find the end zone again, and put the Sycamores up 17-6 with 14:23 to play.

To his credit, Jensen did do his level best to get the Bison back into the game, immediately orchestrating the type of 9 play, 75 yard drive you'd expect from the defending champs.  He'd go 3-for-3 passing on the drive, and for good measure sneak the 1 yard touchdown run and the 2 point conversion to cut the deficit to 17-14.

But it wasn't enough.

His third interception of the day, a ball over the middle that was jumped by FS Larry King with 2:10 to play, would be the final mistake from under the Bison could not dig out.  The Sycamores would eat up the clock, punt the ball away, and the Bison's backward pitches would not result in a miraculous finish.

The No. 1 team in the nation fell to Indiana State 17-14, in what has to be the biggest win in Sycamore history, even bigger than their win over FBS Western Kentucky last year.

Jensen kept turning over the ball.

Colvin did not.

On the first drive of the second half, Colvin put together a near-perfect drive, alternating a steady diet of senior RB Zach Barket and some precision passes to sophomore WR Josh Parris and junior WR Lee Kurfis.

He almost snuck it in from 4 yards out, but on 2nd and goal he instead handed it off to RB Keith Sherman, who almost walked through a giant hole in the "O" line to knot the game at 14.

There were more two more Lehigh turnovers on offense - fumbles not of Colvin's doing, it must be noted - but Lehigh's defense stopped Georgetown cold after each miscue.

Two sacks on 4th down - one be senior DT Sajjad Chagani and another by junior LB Nigel Muhammad - ended drives that could have been critical points for the Hoyas.

In the 4th quarter came just one great play on offense - but it was all that was needed.  Colvin pump-faked, and found Sherman deep downfield for a 42 yard strike, putting it in range for a field goal for senior PK Jake Peery.  He was successful.

Like Jensen, he had one impressive drive in the second half.

But unlike Jensen, he didn't turn over the ball one time, and not only did that make it harder for Georgetown to win, he also did just enough for Lehigh to escape D.C. with the victory.

Confidence, and the ability to put negativity behind you, is not something that makes the stat sheet.

But it's something this team has in spades, and not just Mike. 

And the end result is what every Lehigh fan wants: wins, no matter how you get them.

It must be emphasized that it wasn't just a few offensive plays that won this game for Lehigh this weekend.  Defensively, Lehigh held Georgetown to just 329 yards of total offense, and forced a couple turnovers themselves, one which the offense in the first half converted into a critical touchdown.  The defense, everyone to a person said after the game, played awesome.

And then there's some great individual special teams plays: a field goal block at the end of the first half, and a deflection at the end of the game, were also gigantic plays that kept this from being a loss as well.

With seven games played, a lot of the book of Lehigh's 2012 season has already been written.  To date, they have frankly been a bit of a sloppy team, with at least one boneheaded play a game. 

It's a team that lacks the well-oiled precision of last year's offense led by QB Chris Lum.

But they are a team that never gets down on themselves.  They have a defense that is fearsome - better than last year's I feel - and can shut down anybody.

Their special teams unit, too, has delivered with great individual plays in the clutch. 

And overall as a team, down one touchdowns, two touchdowns, they have the confidence on offense to put mistakes behind them - not matter how big - and to do what it takes to win football games, which in the end is all that counts.   

They build on each other - a big defensive stop becomes a big offensive play.  A big offensive touchdown, like the game at Liberty, becomes a pick-six to take the lead.  

If last year's team was a Lamborghini, with all its flash and speed, this year's team seems to be a Ford truck - not as pretty and not as fuel efficient, but expect it to deliver when you most need a boost.

Especially if you need to get yourself out of a "hole". 

Ask the Bison.

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