Sunday, September 08, 2013

Win Against CCSU Evokes Many Goodman Memories

(Photo Credit: Chris Shipley/The Morning Call)

When you've gone to a lot of Lehigh games as I have, it's easy to fall back on "memories" (today's "Sunday Word") to try to describe the action.

In a game which pretty much defied description overall, perhaps it was a requirement.

Sure, there hasn't been a game in recent memory - certainly not in the Andy Coen Era - that featured a starting quarterback for Lehigh with less game experience than senior QB Brandon Bialkowski last Saturday.

Can you remember the last time Lehigh had eight departing seniors on defense to replace?  I can't, either.

Yet even with all the new faces lining up for the Mountain Hawks, it was easy to see this performance alongside some of the greats in Murray Goodman history.  I mean it.  It is game one, a fact I haven't forgotten, but I'm willing to bet that through time, this one is going to rank up there in terms of "memories" for many.


Back in May, did you have this one circled on your calendar as one that was going to be an instant classic?

Like many I'm sure, I came to Murray Goodman thinking that the Mountain Hawks were going to whoop up on a Blue Devil team they handled easily last season.

I knew that Lehigh was young in a lot of places, but I had a lot of faith in the abilities of the guys waiting in the wings.  I knew Central Connecticut State would have a lot coming back, and I knew that CCSU RB Rob Holloman was a very good player, but I didn't think it would be nearly enough to beat Lehigh.

It really shows the danger of looking at the schedule in May, trying to pick and choose the games that will be good games.  You really do never know.

Coming into the game and finding a throng of students at the gate, I was reminded of some times in the not-all-that-distant-past where a fair number of students and young alumni would make it a regular thing to come back for Lehigh home games.

There's been a lot of talk in the media about overall student apathy in terms of attendance at all collegiate sporting events, not just football, so it was heartening to see a lot of jacked-up students coming out to the stadium - dressed in the wackiest of day-glo getups.

I really like the whole day-glo, no-theme thing the students have going on precisely because it's not a manufactured gameday experience thing that you see so often these days at college football games.

(Take a gander at this to see what I'm talking about in terms of "manufactured gameday experience".)

Every generation of Lehigh student and fan has "memories" of how they enjoyed the games.  Some remember when Lehigh was called the Engineers, played on the South Side, the school was all-male and the game against Lafayette was the be-all and end-all.  Others remember the dawn of the Patriot League, relaxed tailgate and drinking rules, and the first-ever FCS playoff success of the Mountain Hawks.

Each remember the games as enjoyable, memorable and something to continue well after graduation.  And each set of memories will be different, and all need to be respected.

Student gamedays ares something that seems to me to be devised organically by the students for themselves. They can't be manufactured by athletic departments, coaches, reporters, or me.  They develop naturally over the course of years.  For these student fans, ultimately, they will go to the games on their terms.  These students are doing just that, and I enjoy it.

*****

Heading into the press box, I saw my friend and colleague, David Coulson, who instantly recalled the last time he had been to Murray Goodman stadium.  It was in 2011, the last time New Hampshire came to Bethlehem, and Lehigh lost to the Wildcats in overtime, 48-41, on a controversial touchdown call.

I didn't register his "memory" initially in the context of the beautiful, wind-free football game being played, but talking to Dave during the course of the game that game came up a lot.

In fact, the Goodman "memory" that bounced in my skull involved the last time Central Connecticut State visited Lehigh back in 2009, a very hot season opener where Lehigh was defeated 28-21.

I remembered a tough game from QB J.B. Clark, the returning starter, going 7 for 29 passing with 3 interceptions, a true low point for the two-time Lehigh/Lafayette MVP winner.  But I also remembered Lehigh's defense, playing in brown jerseys, getting worn down in the muggy heat from Central Connecticut State's triple-option offense.

My "memory" was that Lehigh's brown jerseys played a large part of their defensive struggle, the sun beating down on them, with a fair number of student-athletes on defense playing in their first-ever football game.  I saw the definite potential of this day being a replay of that afternoon.

As the game progressed my focus went to the amazing Central Connecticut State athlets RB Rob Holloman.

It brought me back to 1989, watching my first-ever Lehigh football game on freshman parents' weekend.

In that game Lehigh played against Towson State, and beat a Tiger team that featured a future NFL player, RB Dave Meggett, in a 48-39 shootout.

Back then, Meggett was not known for the problems he's had with the law since leaving the NFL.  He was know for being a great all-purpose yardage gainer, returning a kickoff for a touchdown against the Engineers.

In my opinion, Holloman might be better than Meggett, at least based on what I saw on Saturday.

He had great speed and - at this level, anyway - consistently made losses into gains.  He couldn't be brought down by arm tackles.  He'd hit the holes through his offensive line extremely well.

He also amassed 223 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns, including three that really stood out: a swing pass that turned into an early 44 yard gain, a straight run for 35 yards, and an off tackle where he broke several tackles before stopping in the end zone.

"What a great guy, what a fine young man," CCSU head coach Jeff McInerney said after the game.  "Just a tremendous athlete who can catch the football, run in between the tackles for a tiny guy, he's got very good hands, good route runner.  Good young man.  Glad he's on our team."

"He's a really good player," head coach Andy Coen said after the game.  "I would hope not to see a guy as good as he is the rest of the year.  I'll be upset if there are too many guys we play in our league that are as good as this guy."

It was a dominating all-purpose performance - one that people would have been talking about after the game, had one of the great "Goodman Magic" comebacks not occurred.

By the beginning of the 4th quarter, many of the students and fans had left, down 20 and the Blue Devils driving for a 1st at goal at the 9.

It looked and sounded a lot like my description of the end of the game in 2007:
It was eerily quiet in the stands as CCSU would mount yet another drive after a Lehigh 3-and-out.  How can fans get into the game when they can't see any positive offensive progress? You can only cheer great hits for so long.
That's when the remaining crowd got to see the Goodman magic up close - and the potent Lehigh offense finally start to click.

Three other Goodman "memories" went through my mind as the game paced to its thrilling conclusion.

The first was one of the best-ever moments in Murray Goodman history, the 1997 double-overtime win where WR Brian Klingerman caught the ball with one arm in the end zone to clinch a 37-30 victory and a Patriot League title.

Incredibly, until this weekend that was the only double-overtime game ever at Murray Goodman.

And similar to that game, too, Lehigh faced a double-digit deficit and had a lot of fans headed for the exits until Klingerman racked up a ton of receiving yardage, scoring 16 unanswered points to force overtime.

While it's way to0 early to compare senior WR Lee Kurfis to Klingerman, it certainly was a Klingerman-esque performance, notching 222 yards and 2 TDs (and very nearly getting a third).

As senior QB Brandon Bialkowski kept on delivering bullets to Kurfis, and he was giving Lehigh a chance, the remaining fans - just like in 1997 - started to rise and awaken.

The second "memory" that leapt to mind was that UNH call in the end zone, one that was recalled by Coulson, Keith Groller, Michael LoRe and a bunch of the Lehigh folks in the press box.

In the second overtime, Blue Devil QB Nick SanGiacomo lofted a great pass to WR Matthew Braddock in the end zone.  He came down with the ball, but the catch was ruled incomplete.

Replays showed that he actually got a foot in bounds, but at the FCS level such a play doesn't go to the replay booth, so the call stood.

It showed to me how fine the difference is between winning and losing - and how calls go both ways, especially in tight games like the one last weekend.  In both games, the missed calls were bitter pills to swallow for the losing sides, but in the end, both teams still had a chance to tie or win the game in spite of it.

The final "memory" came a play later, when SanGiacomo fired a perfect pass to WR Scott Benzing to try to win the game.

In 2009 against Lafayette - in overtime, of course - Lehigh was up 27-21, when LB Al Pierce faked a blitz and slid into coverage.  He then reached up and grabbed an underthrown pass - and snatched a "Rivalry" victory over the Leopards, a critical, thrilling victory.

It was one of those victories, Coen would tell me later, that set up the success of the last three years.

On Saturday, it was junior LB Isaiah Campbell that closed on Benzing, and - in a Pierce-esque moment - got a hand into Benzing's grasp and made the play that sealed the victory, knocking the ball free.

In both games, it was one individual play - one defensive guy stepping up and making a play - that was the difference between winning and losing.

That's what Lehigh football teams have been doing a lot these past few years, and the game this weekend ends up a happy "memory" to put next to all the others.

***

There is a problem with "memories" however.  Ask any Steeler fan, or Redskin fan.

There comes a point when the power of the "memories" overwhelms the present - where it becomes easier to live in the past, celebrating Klingerman receptions or Pierce interceptions than look at the present.

The game was a fun one, for fans and players alike.  It's one that should be celebrated - and then filed away until after the season.

Because "memories" are a double edged sword.

There obviously is a lot to work on for this Lehigh team.  It was a pretty good debut for QB Brandon Bialkowski and the other players getting their first significant starting time.

But there's a long way to go in this season yet.

Nobody wants this game to be the only positive "memory" this season.  It's a great start.  But it's just that, a start.

Let's see where this team takes us next.

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