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Sunday's Word: Signs

If it's the middle of August, I'm probably doing one of two things: preparing for the college football season, and catching up on my movie watching before fall sports so dominates my schedule.  This weekend, my wife and I embarked on something we throughly enjoy watching every year: the movie "Signs".

Set very close to where I live, this movie by M. Night Shalyman has not, in certain ways, aged very well.  It was the quintessential perfect movie at the perfect time: released ten months after 9/11, before M.Night thought he was God's best gift to filmmaking since Alfred Hitchcock and subsequently descended into Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender bad movie purgatory.  It was also released before Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix became two of the craziest human beings on the planet (off-screen).

Despite M. Night's worst cinematic instincts creeping into the first half of the movie, and despite the unintentional laugher that Mel and Joaquin create in portions this movie today, "Signs" still stands tall. Despite some of the cheese of the effects, the movie does actually work despite its love of crop circles, alien communications and the concept of massive alien War of the Worlds-style attack.  It ends up getting emotional reactions right.  It's still intentionally funny - and scary - in parts.  And the core message of the movie is clear, and is a good one.  Against all odds - and the activities of so many people involved with the movie in the ensuing years - "Signs" still works today.

In the world of football, Lehigh fans are looking for "signs" in the practice fields close to Murray Goodman stadium, not cornfields.  But they view the "signs" differently than most offseasons. Three years of losing records have dimmed expectations to the point where Mountain Hawks fans don't know what to believe. (more)

A running joke with Leopard fans is that every year going into the season, Lehigh fans always think their team is blessed with the ability to get a 9-2 record.  It's absolutely true, too.  In years past, many fans - me emphatically included - overlooked quite a few "signs" in these teams the ability to win the Patriot League, and if not make a "deep run" in the FCS playoffs.

In 2007, I saw QB Sedale Threatt as a preseason offensive player of the year and a monster talent with the sky being the limit for his ambitions, which included a 9-2 record and a Patriot League championship.  I didn't see Lehigh as a young team, learning all-new ways of doing things, undergoing a huge learning curve.

And in the end, injuries, offensive uncertainty and a massive collapse in team confidence had Lehigh's season end in tatters and a 5-6 record.  The 59-10 loss to Holy Cross served as a brutal, emotional reminder that Lehigh couldn't simply trot out more athletes than other Patriot League teams and simply expect to show up and win.

In 2008, it seemed like the Mountain Hawks would learn their lesson from the painful '07 season, with a talented new incoming class, a brand-new quarterback in QB J.B. Clark, head coach Andy Coen's new emphasis on winning the emotional part of the game.  Never mind - once again - the obvious youth, and a completely unproven quarterback going up against QB Dominic Randolph and QB John Skelton.  If everything fell just right, be 9-2 and make a run in the playoffs - or so I believed.

The 2008 players did win some battles in the emotional part of the game - most notably vs. "that school in Easton", breaking a four-game losing streak - but the legacy of the '08 team was as much about losing a slew of heartbreaking games in the last minutes - vs. Cornell, Princeton, Harvard, and Colgate - that gave Lehigh, again, a 5-6 record.

2009 was supposed to be Clark's breakout year.  Building off the win (finally!) over the Leopards, the emotional carryover was supposed to lift Clark and the team back to their rightful place in the universe.  He was, after all, MVP of "The Rivalry", and while he's not as refined as Randolph or as dominating a natural talent as Skelton, he's a true emotional field general that was supposed to lead Lehigh to - you guessed it - a 9-2 record and would put Lehigh back to its rightful place atop the Patriot League.

Instead, Clark regressed terribly in a hard-fought 28-21 loss to Central Connecticut State to start the year and ultimately found himself in a battle for the starting nod at quarterback that continues to this moment.  Yes, Clark did manage to gut through another win in "The Rivalry" in overtime 27-21 - and he did get the MVP trophy again - but the 4-7 season was way below the expectations going into the year.  While you could say that Lehigh could have been co-champions of the Patriot League (had they held on and beat Holy Cross), the same themes persisted.  Quarterback uncertainty.  Close losses.  High expectations - and good results against "that school in Easton", but not against anyone else.


There's a lot of hard work going on this offseason.  The offense is tweaking the way they did things and working harder than ever to get back on top.  The leadership on offense and defense seems like just the sort of team-first, strong, quiet leaders that Lehigh needs to be successful.

Many are warmed by the presence of new offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini, who is supposed to become the saviour of the Lehigh offense and make the winner of the August camp's quarterback battle into QB Phil Stambaugh - or, at least, into someone good enough to at least challenge Colgate senior QB Greg Sullivan on the first team all-Patriot League team.

Despite the loss of LB Matt Cohen, DT B.J. Benning and S Jesse Sanchez, there's also lots of reason to believe this defense will be as strong as ever.  With eight returning starters, and boatloads of experience coming back, there is undeniable potential for this squad to be one of the best in the nation at the FCS level.

But something interesting has happened - the "signs" are no longer translating into fearless predictions of 9-2 records, Patriot League championships and deep runs into the playoffs.


For sure part of that has to be due to the schedule - inarguably the most difficult in the last twenty years, and one that could very well be the most challenging in Lehigh's history.  It's not every day that you host the national champions at your place (which the Mountain Hawks will be doing with Villanova), nor is it every day that you play a school in New Hampshire that has made its reputation by embarrassing FBS schools.  (I watched New Hampshire humiliate Army 28-10 in 2008, and I am not exaggerating when I say "humiliate".  In every phase of the game New Hampshire was the better team.)

In addition to those huge challenges, though, is the less obvious challenge of the rest of the schedule.  Drake is Lehigh's first trip to the midwest since a 2000 victory against Western Illinois in the FCS playoffs, and that team will feature a bona-fide NFL prospect in senior DE Dain Taylor.   Since sweeping Harvard and Princeton in 2007, Lehigh has gone 0-4 versus the Tigers and Crimson.  And that's before the challenging Patriot League schedule, where Lehigh has to find a way to break three game losing streaks to Holy Cross and Colgate, while dealing with improved Bucknell, dangerous Fordham, and a Leopard team that will be ready for blood after losing two straight times to the Mountain Hawks.

When you stare down that schedule, a 9-2 result would really signify a hero result no matter how you look at it.  It seems - at best - unlikely.  A 9-2 record with this schedule would be one of those seasons for the ages - one looked back upon by Lehigh fans for a long time to come.


For sure, there are encouraging "signs" this offseason.  But I get the distinct impression that the "signs" this year are no longer ones of unbridled optimism and hope for titles and playoffs.

It's one of "wait and see".

It's one of "let's see who starts at quarterback, and let's see how they do against Drake".  One of "let's see how that defense responds to Villanova".  One of "let's see if they can beat Princeton," or "if they can compete against New Hampshire".

Lehigh fans seem to want to see the "signs" with some measure of hope - but they've seen a lot, too, in these last three years.  They've seen losing records.  They've seen high expectations shattered for three years running, without Patriot League championships or playoffs.  The 2004 hero performance against national-champion James Madison in a 14-13 playoff nailbiter has largely faded into memory, replaced by squads that hasn't delivered to them everything that they'd hoped.

Yes, they've beaten "that school in Easton", and that's great for everyone who lives and breathes the Brown & White.

But one by one, the things we saw as "signs" of renewed dominance in the Patriot League have been debunked as incorrect.  Learning the lessons of a humiliating loss to Holy Cross was supposed to teach everyone how to win again.  Didn't happen.  Starting fresh with "Coen's guys" and newfound emotion was supposed to bring us a title.  Didn't happen.  Beating Lafayette was supposed to make things right for Lehigh the following year in the Patriot League title race.  Didn't happen.


Every team this year dreams of better times than the seasons before them.  And the "signs" that come from this Lehigh offseason are, no doubt, encouraging.  But any folks out there thinking that Lehigh fans are going to come out and predict Patriot League championships, deep playoff runs and 9-2 records couldn't be more wrong.

We've seen "signs" before.  We're going to wait and see what this Lehigh team can do.  Starting with a game in Des Moines, Iowa versus Drake.


Anonymous said…
9-2 would be insane with this years schedule. 7-4 would be a successful year in my opinion. We won't be favorites against Nova, NH, or Harvard, maybe we can win one of the three. Throw in a league loss and maybe a loss in another toss up game and 7-4 is the result. As die hard fans, we want them to win them all of course but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
LUHawker said…

Great piece today. I think you nailed the word and sized up the situation well. I think 7-4 would be considered a successful season, so long as it includes a W against the Pards. 8-3 is doable, but I think it is too much to ask for. Still I am optimistic that Cecchini will find more points this year, making it a more enjoyable season.
ngineer said…
Good analysis. You are correct that when we look at schedules we see 'perfect' games being played by the Brown and White, and that on paper, we should win all those contests. The past few years have been extremely frustrating with the close losses and not playing to win, but not to lose. Maybe, just maybe, the nailbiting win over Laugheyette was the 'first sign' that Lehigh is back and can win the tough, close games again. I would expect one in Des Moines with a loaded Drake team. A win on the road will be great start.

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