Friday, December 23, 2016

2016 Season In Review: Mountain Hawks Complete Five Year Trek To Patriot League Championship

Kids come to play football at Lehigh because they want their games to matter.

They come to Lehigh willing to sacrifice so much, because they want to win games, of course, but they also play the game in order to win championships - Patriot League Championships.

They want those rings.

Sure, they get to square off against the Villanova's, James Madison's and New Hampshire's of the FCS world to measure themselves against the best of their division.  And they get to participate in the nation's most played Rivalry in all of college football, putting them in an elite club of players and into college football history.

All of those things are very important, of course, and allow them great playing memories and, in the case of the Lafayette game, perennial bragging rights.  

But 2015's heartbreak in Hamilton, the 49-42 loss to Colgate, really hurt on a fundamental level for this Lehigh team.  When that senior class was recruited, one of the things that is a part of the deal is that the Mountain Hawks have won Patriot League championships at least once in every four year span.  Until, that is, the class of 2016, though they came agonizingly close several times.

That disappointment seemed to inform this year's team, which also had a couple of fifth-year seniors in senior WR Derek Knott and senior ROV Laquan Lambert, that so many of last year's team didn't get the chance at the championship rings that they ended up earning this season.  

It informed them all the way to a championship, and rings.

Picked fifth in the preseason, behind teams sporting possible NFL draft picks in Fordham (RB Chase Edmonds) and Bucknell (OL Julie'n Davenport)?   

Behind the team that denied them the championship on 1st and goal last year, Colgate?  

Behind the team with the preseason all-Patriot League quarterback, Holy Cross (QB Pete Pujals)? 

Was it reasonable for Lehigh football fans to expect a Patriot League Championship?  Probably not, and as expectations went, the goal in the preseason felt lofty.

"I think that's fair," junior OL Zach Duffy said of their preseason placement.  "It's where we finished last year, and we haven't proved much yet.  We haven't achieved our goals yet.  I wouldn't have wanted to be picked any higher since we haven't earned it."

Some teams have as their goal righting the ship against Lafayette.  Some teams have as their goal making a deep run in the playoffs.  But this 2016 Lehigh team, without question, had as one of their primary goals to get back to winning the Patriot League Championship.  

Junior OL Zach Duffy and senior ROV Laquan Lambert
"The offseason saw us put in a lot of work as a team both with the older guys and the younger guys," Laquan said at Patriot League Media Day. "We've got that camaraderie together and we're very excited. Camp is a very long process, but we're all excited to get better and take that next step and try to win a championship."

Win a Championship could have been seen as simply expected talk before the season, when everyone is 0-0 and nobody's eliminated yet from championship contention.  But it didn't have that feeling when he said it, after being picked tied for 4th place in the preseason, with so many quality teams ahead of them they would need to leapfrog.

Going into the season, concerns No. 1, 2, 3 and probably also No. 4 involved the defense, who struggled to keep teams off the scoreboard in 2015, most notably in that Colgate game that cost them a shot at a championship in 2015.

"It was either our second or third scrimmage during training camp," head coach Andy Coen said after a game this year, "and [defensive coordinator] Joe Bottiglieri said to me that we're really becoming a good defense and if we keep working and doing it the way we're doing it, we're really going to end up having a really good defense."

The season schedule, oddly with Colgate as the first conference game, offered a chance for the Mountain Hawks to work out the kinks against three Ivy League opponents, including last year's Ivy League Champions, as well as nationally-ranked Villanova and an expected tune-up against Monmouth of the Big South in the home opener.

Ah, Monmouth, the game every member of the Mountain Hawks had to strain to forget - Monmouth, which, by the middle of the season, that was at serious risk of being a verb.

The much-vaunted Lehigh offense started slowly, and by the time they got their act together, the Hawks from West Long Branch, New Jersey squeezed the life out of the Mountain Hawks in a 23-21 upset win, holding onto the ball for 37:31 of the contest and getting several key first downs to win the game.

Ironically, though, that early loss might have helped set up the amazing run that was to come, because it removed the safety net that the Mountain Hawks had the rest of the way.  

They'd play much better in a back-and-forth game against No. 19 ranked Villanova, with a chance to win the game at the end that fell a bit short in a 26-21 loss on the Main Line.

Senior QB Nick Shafnisky
"It's a game of inches," head coach Andy Coen said after the Mountain Hawks had just fallen to nationally-ranked Villanova on a hot, humid, thick September evening.  "I just told these two guys walking across the field here (senior LB Colton Caslow and junior WR Troy Pelletier), it really is a game of inches. We were this close to beating a very good football team."

Villanova head coach Andy Talley, who was in his swan song season after his 37th season on the Main Line, also had nice things to say about the Mountain Hawks' game effort.

"I thought Lehigh played great," he said afterwards.  "We knew they would come in and give us their best game, which they did.  We preached to the team that what they saw on tape against Monmouth was not what we would see tonight, we would see a better football team, well prepared, and ready to play, and they certainly were.  They gave us all we wanted and more, actually, I was very impressed with them.  They are well coached, and they played hard."

Though the Mountain Hawks' 0-2 start was a source of concern for the Lehigh faithful, it set up the moment against the defending Ivy League Champions, Penn, that seemed to turn the entire season around.
The touchdown and extra point put Penn back ahead, 28-21, but with 1:14 left, and three timeouts, it wasn't a question whether Lehigh was going to try to drive the length of the field to tie up the game, or at least try to cut the deficit a little.  Head coach Andy Coen was going to try.  Definitely. 
So the experienced senior QB Nick Shafnisky took the field, knowing what needed to be done - the same thing that Lehigh's offense had already done three times in the same half - drive the length of the field and make something happen. 
Why should this critical drive be any different?  Why wouldn't it also be a dollar short, like we had seen before? 
The funny thing is, it wouldn't be a dollar short, a stop short, a yard short, a second short.  It would get exactly the right number of yards and, with 0.3 seconds left, either a touchdown or nothing the result, the Lehigh offense did not end up getting stopped short, and in so doing seemed to do a lot more than simply tie the game.
It was a gutsy call, and Lehigh's gutsy quarterback would tie the game at halftime, and the Mountain Hawks would ride that momentum to a shutout of the Quakers in the second half in a 49-28 rout.

QB Nick Shafnisky celebrates 1st half TD
It was a call that was frequently invoked by many as the "turning point" as Lehigh came out of that game, and the Mountain Hawks rode that momentum into league play with a resounding win over Princeton, 42-28, and a record-smashing trip to Yale, which ended with a 63-35 score.

What a difference three weeks made - after two struggles against Monmouth and Villanova, suddenly, Lehigh's offense kicked into high gear, and has started to get the attention of a wider audience as Colgate came to town.

It didn't even seem to matter who the quaterback was.  In two games, Nick Shafnisky put up 42 points on two of the better teams in the Ivy League.  After surprisingly not making the trip to the Yale Bowl due to injury, all sophomore QB Brad Mayes did was put up 63 on the Bulldogs.

Of course, it wasn't all about the quarterback.  Junior WR Troy Pelletier and junior WR Gatlin Casey made it extremely difficult to determine which guy the Patriot League was going to select as Player of the Week, especially against the Ivy League.  Combined, the superstar receiving duo caught 11 touchdowns and racked up 872 receiving yards against Princeton, Penn, and Yale.

"The offensive scheme we came in here with our coaches was incredible," Shafnisky said in the post-game press conference after the Princeton game. "The past two weeks, the plays that they're calling, I don't even have to think about them … they just know what to call. On first down, they know how to get positive yards and keep the ball moving and move the sticks. And it's huge to get yards on first down. I think last week we had something like 300 yards on first down. We're just staying on track whether it's running or passing."

Even with the wind at their backs, this 2016 Lehigh team had plenty to prove going into the game against Colgate - not only to avenge last year's loss, but to prove, at 3-2, they were Patriot League Championship contenders.

Huge Stop vs. Colgate (Doug Kilpatrick/Morning Call)
And prove it they did, combining perfectly on offense, defense, and special teams to overcome a 17-7 deficit and to pull away with a 45-31 win over the Raiders.

It might have been the most complete game of the 2016 season for the Mountain Hawks, and it seemed like most of the good stuff started to happen after senior LB Pierce Ripanti, senior LB Colton Caslow and freshman FS Riley O'Neil stopped Colgate RB Keon Washington on a critical 3rd-and-1 in the shadow of Lehigh's end zone.

Caslow's leadership in defense cannot be underestimated.  On a defense where credit is generally spread around, he was an emotional spark plug that seemed to make everyone around him play that much better.  Even though the stat sheet wouldn't show more than 10 tackles to his name, he seemed to be around the ball on every single play.

Down 17-7 after that field goal, that seemed to start the chemical reaction to get Lehigh going, and especially Gatlin Casey.

He found himself wide-open for one passing touchdown from Shafnisky, who put it in his outstretched hands perfectly.

And later, when the Raiders tried to mount a comeback, he took the kickoff 93 yards down the right sideline, electrifying the Family Day crowd of 9,255.

Overall Casey had a mammoth day, with 11 catches, 196 yards and 3 TDs, to go with his 93 yard kickoff return.

DE Harrison Johnson (Worcester Telegram)
The next two weeks the Mountain Hawks seeked to maintain their status as Patriot League Championship contenders, and did so with two resounding victories, one against Georgetown, 35-3, and another against Holy Cross, 46-14.

Once again, it was done with two different QBs, and Pelletier and Mayes put in their prototypical tremendous performances.  But it was a near-shutout of Georgetown, led by senior ROV Evan Harvey's fiery performance, and a dominating rushing performance by sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone (17 rushes, 182 yards, 2 TDs) that really made people start to take even more notice.

Now at 6-2, and three more games to go, people were starting to ask the question: Was the 2016 team as good as the one from 2011, the team that went 10-1 during the regular season and knocked out Towson in the FCS Playoffs?"

"I don't think the 2011 team had the sort of razor's edge that this 2016 has in terms of playoffs or conference championships," I wrote after the Holy Cross win.  "There is a fragility to this season that remains even as the wins keep piling up and the accolades, once invisible, start to trickle it.  Unfortunately, one loss can see it all disappear."

It was a message that seemed to be one that this 2016 Lehigh team understood, or perhaps they understood it all along and didn't need the reminding.  But this team seemed to be keenly aware that they needed to keep up the momentum - even more challengingly, without a break, because in a twist, their bye week was the weekend before the final game of the year.

Going into the game against Fordham, it was certainly seen as a kind of playoff game for the Mountain Hawks,  A win against the Rams would not clinch the league, but a win against them would put Lehigh in the driver's seat, and it would allow a chance for Lehigh to prove that they can win against an offense as fearsome as their own.

That Lehigh won the game might not have been a complete surprise.  It was the utter ease in how they did so that was stunning.

Not since RB Jack Rizzo was last seen shredding Lafayette's defense in 1971 had Lehigh seen as dominating a rushing performance by a Lehigh team.  Behind the "O" line of junior OL Tim O'Hara, senior C Brandon Short, senior OL Micah Tennant, senior OL Zach Duffy, and sophomore OL Liborio Ricottilli, Shaf, Bragalone and junior RB Nana Amankwah-Ayeh ran for an amazing 359 yards and 6 touchdowns, tying Rizzo's mark.

WR Derek Knott (Brent Hugo/Lehigh Athletics)
Junior DE Tyler Cavenas, who sacked Fordham QB Kevin Anderson three times on the afternoon, summed up the emotion on defense when he kneeled down and fired an imaginary bow-and-arrow at the crowd after a particularly huge takedown.  Senior NG Jimmy Mitchell, so close to Cavenas on that play that he could have maybe gotten credit, also added his own sack in a game where Anderson spent most of the game running for his life.

Sandwiched around all of these touchdowns and sacks was a highlight-reel catch by senior WR Derek Knott for 86 yards, which brought the Murray Goodman crowd to its feet as Mountain Hawks piled on points after points to get to an incredible 51-9 lead midway through the third quarter.

"This season, everything is clicking," Knott told Steve Lomangino of Lehigh Athletics.  "It doesn't matter what we call, our offensive coordinator and receivers coaches are putting us in a great position to be successful on every single play.  We're just going out there and doing what they tell us to do.  It's just easy, man.  We're just having a good time."

With the win, there was one roadblock left before finalizing the climb to the Patriot League Championship - Bucknell.

The Bison, though suffering through a 3-5 season, were not going to be an easy out in any way for the Mountain Hawks.  The Joe Susan-coached team had exactly the type of grinding offense that could pose problems for Lehigh, and everyone knew that they would give Lehigh a game.

"Reflecting back on that game in 2013 against those guys from Easton where we had another ring in our sights and we let it slip," former Lehigh OL Ashton Hood posted on Facebook to his followers.  "To my boys playing for a title this weekend remember that feeling. Remember what you saw. Remember how shitty it was. And don't let it happen to you. If this is your last time strapping up in Goodman Stadium, do not waste your opportunity to carry on the tradition. I still can't believe we lost. Don't let it happen to you. Go get your ring fellas."

ROV Laquan Lambert (Roshan Giyanani/Brown and White)
With too many heroes to count, in no particular order, senior LB Pierce Ripanti, senior ROV Laquan Lambert, senior WR Trevor Soccaras, sophomore PK Ed Mish and a ton of others - Lehigh clinched a share of the Patriot League Championship with a gutty, physical, come-from-behind against a game Bison team, 20-13.

I'd encourage you to read the entire account, but one of the things I did say about the game was, "Lehigh earned it.  They had to work the entire game to earn this championship, and they did it.  In short order, coach Andy Coen was doused with Gatorade on the sidelines.  Players, and students, mobbed the players on the field.  It was over.  It was done. There would be no disappointment on this day, no Patriot League Championship Trophy being loaded into a truck and brought back to Patriot League offices.  Lehigh is the 2016 Patriot League football champion."

QB Nick Shafnisky (Lehigh Valley Live)
It would take a couple of weeks to remove the "co-", for Lehigh to dispatch their Rival Lafayette in the 152 meeting of the most-played Rivalry in all of college football, 45-21.  No other Patriot League team could claim the Patriot League championship; it was theirs all alone.

Though a banged up Lehigh team would lose in the FCS Playoffs the following weekend to New Hampshire, and the disappointment in losing to a member of FCS Playoff royalty was real, it did nothing to dim the accomplishments of this 2016 team and the re-establishment of Lehigh as the top team of the Patriot League.

It was a very long climb, but this team succeeded with a spectacular, entertaining, amazing season - one that was a tremendous fun to watch and experience.

"Just coming off of last year, we had so many doubters, so many people that didn't believe in us," Ripanti said. "This was just an amazing opportunity for us to step up, show what we're about. I feel like this is just a culmination of all the hard work we've put in, all the hours, all the film we've watched and just the change in mentality we've had."

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