Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Lehigh "Disappears" For A Week And Hopes to Reappear In Thick of Title Race

Face it - it was a weird weekend without Lehigh football.

It's been a while since the Mountain Hawks have had a bye weekend this late in the season, and while Lehigh "disappeared" from the Patriot League title race this weekend, a lot more became clear in the Patriot League title race while they were not playing a football game this Saturday.

Three teams - Colgate, Lafayette, and Lehigh - can guarantee their spot in the playoffs if they win their remaining games.  Two others - Holy Cross and Bucknell - need to win, and get help, in order to win the autobid.  Only Georgetown has been eliminated from the race officially.  (Fordham, at 9-0, is not eligible for the Patriot League's autobid, but barring a late-season collapse seems well poised for one of FCS's at-large bit to the playoffs.)

Lehigh reappears this week with a simple goal: win this week, and get to next week.  But there's no margin for error.  One loss, and realistically, Lehigh can watch their chances at a Patriot League championship and the FCS playoffs "disappear".


There's no other word for it: it sucks to go into a bye week with a loss, and especially after the way Lehigh lost against Bucknell.

It was a day where little went right.

Bucknell didn't just win, they dominated with a 48-10 win that was, to put it mildly, humbling.

And adding injury to insult, senior QB Brandon Bialkowski was found to have a broken collarbone that prematurely has ended his Lehigh career.

The good news is that head coach Arndy Coen had two weeks to come up with a gameplan to go after Holy Cross, who lost a heartbreaker to Fordham last week 32-30.

The bad news, though, is that on both sides of the ball, it's almost like training camp once again.

"Our normal bye week schedule allows us to give our kids some time off to get healthy and to concentrate on their books," head coach Andy Coen told me last week.  "We will practice Thursday night as we are again in a 4 O'clock test week. Thursday and Friday will be mostly camp type practices to go back to competing against one another, and cleaning up as much as we can in an attempt to get better.   We will begin our holy cross prep in earnest over the weekend."

On defense, all you need to do is look at the Bucknell box score to figure out what to "clean up".  One line of reasoning says just clean up, well, everything.

Against Bucknell, Lehigh gave up 309 rushing yards.  If your defense gives up three cents to the opposition on the groud, you're not going to win many football games.

That's not to say the Mountain Hawks had a lot of positives defending the pass, either, allowing QB Brandon Wesley to have an efficient 16-for-21 afternoon passing.

Incremental improvements on defense might be OK if Lehigh had a healthy BB under center, but they don't any longer.

Friday and Saturday may have been a time where coach Coen has been evaluating his QBs, seeing whether to start junior QB Matt McHale or freshman QB Nick Shafnisky under center.

Could we see the freshman start on Saturday?  Or will McHale, who has gotten some time on offensive series this season and in wildcat goalline situations, get it instead?

It's especially interesting because, unusually, it's not the type of spot where you have a lot of fudge room to have one guy audition for the job.  There's simply not a lot of time to learn while doing.  Whomever steps in will have to be the man right away.

The positive is that whomever lines up under center will have some true stars to help him along in the form of senior RB Keith Sherman and senior WR Lee Kurfis, not to mention an experienced offensive line.

And even better for Mountain Hawk fans, it's a unit that has had lots of experience pulling rabbits out of their hats throughout the earlier part of the season.  They know how to create wins out of thin air.  They did it before.

Still, the goal winning these last three games is the type of challenge that I've never really seen before for Lehigh, navigating a giant injury and coming off the sting of not just a loss, but a giant loss.

And, too, what other teams across the country have this opportunity before them?

Most teams that lose 48-10 to conference teams and lose their starting quarterback late in the season find themselves "disappearing" from the playoff race and figuring out a football life without playoffs.

And had Fordham counted as a league loss, the Mountain Hawks would be sitting with two conference losses, realistically on the bubbliest of bubbles, at best, in the at-large playoff picture.

But thanks to a unique quirk in the schedule, Lehigh can still do this.  Win at home vs. Holy Cross, they then can keep going.  It's a rare, rare opportunity, and one that even next season wouldn't happen.

It's a small window to a championship and the FCS playoffs, but, nevertheless, it's a window.  And it's a window that can be grabbed by the Mountain Hawks before it "disappears".

Will they?

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