Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Season In Review: Great Accomplishments In A Rebuilding Year

(Photo Credit: Matt Smith/The Express-Times)

When I look back at Lehigh's football program over the last four years, I can't think of a single game that wasn't meaningful.

And when you think about this fact, that's a powerful thing to say about this group of seniors that will graduate this season.

So many programs have off years, years in between quality starting quarterbacks, years when players who find themselves in NFL training camps graduate, and the number of holes to fill are too great to compete for championships, let alone playoff spots.

But that didn't happen for this group of Lehigh athletes in 2013.

Despite needing to replace two players who found themselves in NFL training camps, WR Ryan Spadola and LB Billy Boyko, a starting quarterback, QB Michael Colvin, and an all-Patriot League secondary consisting of CB Bryan Andrews and S Billy O'Brien, the expectations on this year's team was great: Win the Patriot League.  Build off a 10-1 season.  Make the playoffs.

That's what going to Lehigh to play football is all about: Winning.  High expectations, on and off the field.  And despite the rebuilding, and despite the gigantic injury to QB Brandon Bialkowski, this team made every game meaningful.

Every step of the way, there were people looking for this Lehigh team to fail.

That's because Lehigh is a successful football program.  When you're successful, there's always someone out there wishing that you fail.

There were those, in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere, that looked at this team and didn't see a continuation of the program that went 10-1 in 2012 and had back-to-back Patriot League championships and playoff victories in 2010 and 2011.

They saw a team that was due for failure.

They saw a team with a brand-new quarterback, QB Brandon Bialkowski, a senior who hadn't taken a meaningful snap in a game in his career.

They saw a running back, RB Keith Sherman, who always was a mountain of talent, but had battled through a host of injuries in his first three years at Lehigh.

And they saw a receiver in WR Lee Kurfis who - in their eyes - couldn't possibly match the same production or abilities as WR Ryan Spadola, who had just made the roster of the NFL's Jets.

It seems amazing now, but Kurfis wasn't on the preseason all-Patriot League team at receiver.

It took all of one game for people around the league, though, to recognize their mistake.

Down by 20 points in the 4th quarter to Central Connecticut State, Kurfis, Bialkowski, and Sherman showed what this team was capable of doing.

Most wrote them off.  Some stopped believing that this team was a top team, a Top 25 team.  Some left the CCSU game early.

In three offensive plays, though, Kurfis would connect with Bialkowski on three catches of 44, 62, and 77 yards, each one more spectacular than the other.

Once, Kurfis would cross the end zone.

After another, Sherman would take a screen pass in for a touchdown.

And after the third, senior RB Sean Farrell, the former fullback, would bull his way into the end zone from the 2 yard line to complete an improbable comeback, 51-44, in overtime.

I have seen a lot of college football teams, and I've seen many of them fold their suitcase in this position, down big, opening game of the season, stop competing.

But this team never gave up.

They knew the game was meaningful, and as a result, they won the game.

They thought that every game was meaningful because every game they played during their whole career was meaningful.

"It's just the culture of this team," Kurfis said after that game.  "No guy hangs their head for a minute.  When we came in as freshmen, that's how the seniors did it, and now that's how we're doing it."

In many ways, the incredible comeback set the tone for a season filled with thrilling comebacks, and in turn, making every game of their careers meaningful.

*****

Few people thought Lehigh would be 4-0 heading to the Bronx to face a newly-revitalized Fordham team.

They thought they could have slipped at Monmouth, where a heads-up play on a blocked punt by senior FB Zach Hayden converted a turnover of possession into a drive continuation for the Mountain Hawks, where one play later, Bialkowski would thread the needle to Kurfis for the game-winning touchdown to seal a 28-25 win.

"As I was going out there, I knew I had to do something big to make up for that block in the back penalty on the return," Hayden said after the game.  "The punt was blocked and my eyes went immediately to the ball.  I caught it, and I think it was just instinct to run with it, get the first down, trying to drag people as far as I could."

On national televsion on NBC Sports Network, there was the miraculous 19 point comeback in the second half to knock off the eventual Ivy League champions, Princeton.  Playing shorthanded with several players suspended and other key players out with injury, Bialkowski played the hero once again, finding Hayden on a swing pass for one of the touchdowns, guiding a drive which ended with Keith Sherman blowing through the line for a 5 yard TD run, and leading another drive that would have Sean Farrell, again, getting the tough, physical yards for the go-ahead score to win the game, 29-28.

"We never give up," Brandon said after that game. "This team never gives up. We know we can get game-winning drives like we’ve shown the last three weeks. We’re going to continue to grow on what we’ve done and be the best offense we can be in the upcoming weeks."

Pressed into service because of the suspensions, a hero was CB Jamil Robinson, who saw extensive time in the secondary and helped keep one of the top passing offenses in FCS in check.

"I felt well prepared and have belief in my playing abilities," he said, "so I just told myself to simply just play ball, don't think about it.   All the hard work we put in as a team, I was ready to just help and contribute toward our success, thankfully I was able to do that."

Then there was an even less probable win against a Top 25 team in New Hampshire - the same New Hampshire team that, once again, spent the entire season ranked in the Sports Network Top 25 and went back to the playoffs once again as well.

Early in the 3rd quarter, Lehigh fell behind 27-13, but again, behind two expertly-led drives ended with Sean Farrell touchdowns and the go-ahead strike delivered by BB to sophomore WR Derek Knott, Lehigh would beat the Wildcats 34-27, for good measure stopping New Hampshire on 4th and goal with under a minute to play.

"It's kind of like clockwork with the offense and defense," LB Nigel Muhammad said after the game.  "We're attached at the hip in a way, once the offense scores it give the defense life, and we get some more confidence.  That's something that's been happening the last three games, and something that came out today."

Going 4-0 with this schedule in September was not just one unit's effort: all three phases came together to make this a reality.

True freshman PK Ryan Pandy brought stability to the kicking game and converted some critical points to make these wins happen.

P Tim Divers, an all-league punter with 41.2 yards per punt, was a true weapon in these games, with nine punts exceeding 50 yards and 16 of his kicks getting downed inside the 20.  (Senior LS Kyle Lechner, too, was an underappreicated part of the stability of Lehigh's kicking game this season, whose snaps set up Pandy's and Divers' success.)

Junior LB Isaiah Campbell came up big in the biggest spots, nabbing a game-ending interception against Princeton and defending on New Hampshire's final overthrow, and FS Tyler Ward always brought energy and hard hits to the defense, especially in the second half of games.

But in Lehigh's first trip to the Bronx, against another nationally-ranked, undefeated team in Fordham, the Mountain Hawks saw first hand that it wasn't going to be easy being the hunted.

Facing a focused, precise, new type of Fordham squad, the Rams punished the Mountain Hawks dearly for their mistakes on national television on the CBS Sports Netowrk, attacking Lehigh's defense mercilessly en route to a 52-34 win and, in a stroke, made them the team to beat in the Patriot League.

"The game flipped on the back-to-back possessions with the turnovers," Coen said afterwards. "That's one thing we haven't been able to do a great job of. We haven't forced many turnovers and we seem to commit one or two per game. That's what happened here. We fumbled a punt where, if we got the ball back, we would have had an opportunity to take the lead."

Almost lost in the defeat was that it was a pretty good day statistically for the offense, with 324 yards passing, 3 TDs and great distribution of the ball, including a touchdown pass to WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto and another 9 reception, 100+ yard day for Kurfis.  But it wasn't nearly enough.

“For a defense that’s embarrassing,” FS Tyler Ward said after the game. “We really need to refocus, come back next week and show we’re not a team who is going to give up 630 yards and 52 points in a game.  I’m hoping it kind of pisses some people off and makes them realize you can’t walk out on the field and just get a win. Everyone was pretty upset and it shows we love winning and hate losing with a passion."

That made the Columbia game meaningful for the Mountain Hawks - a critical game to get their feet back under them and to try to establish the defense as a unit that really could win them a Patriot League championship.

Faced with adversity, this Mountain Hawk team could have folded.  I've seen many FCS teams fold in this team's exact situation.  But not Lehigh.  They'd surge ahead, and make every game meaningful.

It was the Columbia game where freshman LB Colton Caslow and junior DE Tim Newton showed that they were first-team players, helping hold Columbia to 10 points and all but clinching a fourth consecutive winning season for the Mountain Hawks with the defensive 24-10 victory.  Newton got two sacks to squelch any hope of a Columbia comeback.

They'd officially make their fourth consecutive winning record happen the follow week against Georgetown, a 45-24 drubbing that would start the Mountain Hawks' quest for the Patriot League championship in earnest.  Keith Sherman, at this point nicknamed the "Tank" by me, had the first of multiple career days rushing, with 181 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.

But then came the biggest obstacle of all.

*****

The game was a nightmare.

Lehigh's 48-10 loss to Bucknell, their first in 16 straight meetings with the Bison, would have been bad enough.  But to lose QB Brandon Bialkowski on a routine hard hit by a Bucknell defender for the season had every Lehigh fan wondering if this was the blow from which the Mountain Hawks could not recover.

"Breaking in, essentially, a brand-new QB is trying even in the best of circumstances, but with three must-win games to make the playoffs, there's not a lot of time for junior QB Matt McHale, junior QB A.J. Visconti, or freshman QB Nick Shafnisky to get up to championship-caliber level," I wrote after going from ecstasy to agony in about three hours that Saturday.

Suddenly, there was a real risk that Lehigh, breaking in two quarterbacks that hadn't ever started and hadn't made a meaningful completion all season, would have games that were not meaningful at the end of the season.

To RB Keith Sherman, WR Lee Kurfis and the rest of the seniors, though, there was no option: the Mountain Hawks would simply have to hop on their backs, and do their best to win three straight games.

Sherman's 3 touchdowns helped anchor Lehigh's 38-20 win over Holy Cross, helping both McHale and "Shaf" get their sea legs under them and head up to Colgate to enact some revenge on the Raiders.

When McHale was knocked out of the game in the first half, Nick Shafnisky came in, prepared thanks to the starting-quarterback-turned-coach.

"When I would come off, [Brandon] would talk to me about my reads here, should I take the route one way or the other, stuff like that," Shaf said after the game.  "He was actually a huge help, more than people think."

In "Shaf's" first-ever start - think about that a second - he leaned on Sherman's 225 all-purpose yards and Kurfis' 8 catches and 103 yards to allow Lehigh to avenge last year's loss, 31-14, on (of all days) Dick Biddle Bobblehead day.

SS Rickie Hill and CB Courtney Jarvis had their best days as Mountain Hawks on this afternoon, with Hill getting a big interception and Jarvis, who had 49 tackles on the season, shutting down Colgate's passing game.

Every game meant something.

The seniors inherited this team that was placed in the preseason in the FCS Top 25, and at the end of the regular season they still had a team that was ranked in the FCS Top 25.

This senior class has two Patriot League Championship rings, and two playoff victories.

They have a 39-9 career record, a winning percentage that you can stack up against any college football program in the country.

In the process, there were some great statistical achievements.

Senior RB Keith Sherman had a breakout year, becoming the first 1,000 yard Mountain Hawk rusher since RB Jermaine Pugh in 2003.  He'd finish with 1,064 yards rushing, 311 yards receiving, and 12 TDs on the season.

And senior WR Lee Kurfis broke WR Ryan Spadola's single-season receptions record with 99, notching 1,351 yards receiving and 9 touchdowns.  Though he was snubbed for preseason Patriot League honors, he was a shoo-in for postseason receiving honors, while he also was a late addition to the Walter Payton Award voting list, the FCS equivalent to the Heisman Trophy.

Both of their individual achievements couldn't have been accomplished without an incredible offensive line, anchored by senior OL Matt Lippincott, senior OL A.J. Hood, and senior OL Shane Rugg as well.

They, and the rest of the senior class, leave their senior year with the program in the same shape they found it - ranked in the Top 25, a winning program, in which every game is meaningful.

Despite the enormous challenges of being the team with the targets on their backs, despite the challenges stemming from of the adversity from this season, despite the biggest possible injury happening to this team, Lehigh stood tall and made every game meaningful.

I'm incredibly proud of this team.

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