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Sunday's Word: Gravy

Thanksgiving is a time of family and reflection for most people.  It's also a time for lots and lots of football: of the NFL sort, of course, but also many high-school rivalries, particularly in the Northeast, take place on Thanksgiving day.  (One of those, Easton/Phillipsburg, is in our neck of the woods and have faced off against each other 104 times.)

For Lehigh football fans - who also spent this weekend enjoying their first postseason football victory since a home victory over Hofstra in 2001 - it was a time to do something on Thanksgiving that they haven't had to do in a long time - that is, enjoy their football season that is still in progress, and subsequently look forward to surviving another week in the playoffs.

Lehigh's got the Patriot League Championship. They got the ticket to the playoffs.  They already shocked the world. What enjoyable surprises are left? Maybe some "gravy"? (more)


For a whole lot of years, Lehigh football players haven't had to worry about Thanksgiving plans. They knew that either their collegiate careers were over, or at a bare minimum that their season was over and they'd be heading home, most likely, for Thanksgiving.

This year, however, was different.

The "gravy" of this unshared Patriot League championship season was a bid to the FCS playoffs. The Mountain Hawks, who had suffered through three straight non-winning seasons, were supposed to simply be happy to have a chance to share the field with some of the more well-known, full-scholarship schools in the field.

As if to underscore that it was a down year for the Patriot League, their champion was shipped out to the loud, raucous home of the Missouri Valley Conference champion Northern Iowa Panthers. As it has been for the last six years, the expectation was that the Patriot League champion would fight gamely, and lose, giving them a long offseason to think about their great league achievement.

Sunday started the scramble of plans for the Lehigh football team and staff. Fortunately, Lehigh had already planned a trip to Iowa earlier in the year - their 2010 season opener, played at Drake, so the Lehigh staff knew exactly what to do to get everyone out there this year.

Then came the end of classes for the week - ending early Wednesday - and the practice schedule, including time for players to either eat with family, or make arrangements to eat somewhere in the area on Thanksgiving.

"I said to the guys the Friday before the Georgetown game," senior CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs told me, "that I love my family with all my heart but I would love to tell them that I won't be able to make it for Thanksgiving because we are in the playoffs. Guess this came true."

After football practice Wednesday, players who lived in the area went home to spend time with their families and enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. Players whose families were far from the Valley spent Thanksgiving stayed with teammates or ate Thanksgiving dinner with members of the coaching staff, Cribbs told me.

Then everyone came back to campus on Thanksgiving day, probably stuffed with turkey, "gravy" and stuffing, for 5 o' clock practice.

Lehigh football families - like Cribbs' - made adjustments for the holiday.

"My family has Thanksgiving dinner every year in Waterloo, Iowa," Cribbs said, "where my mother and majority of my family was born and raised, so it was so convient for them to spend Thanksgiving together on Thursday and then just stay a little longer until Saturday for the game."

Considering the game was to be taking place in nearby Cedar Falls at the UNI Dome, Jarard would only be delaying the time with his family one day, as Friday morning the team would be on the chartered plane to Cedar Falls the next day.

*****

"It was great to be back in Iowa to play in a playoff game," Cribbs said. "The atmosphere is the UNI Dome is like no other. You don't have to worry about weather conditions and the noise from the crowd rings off the walls. It definitely gets the adrenaline pumping.

"It was also special for me because about 30 family members were able to make the game. Junior WR Jake Drwal also had tons of family at the game and they were also in strong force."

Some players got to have Thanksgiving and "gravy" at home, but had family members who couldn't make it to Iowa. Jarard and Jake gladly accepted complimentary tickets from some of those players so that their voluminous families would be able to attend the game in person.

Many long-suffering Lehigh fans may have seen this game as the "gravy" to a hugely successful season. The team had already accomplished their main goals for the year: to be undefeated in the Patriot League, sweep the Ivy League, beat "that school in Easton". A second trip to Iowa was just the "gravy" to go with the turkey.

And why should fans have expected a win? The Patriot League, as I and many others had argued, were in a down year this year. No team in the League really had a signature win over a quality FCS opponent: Lehigh's win over Harvard, who finished second in the Ivy League, came closest, with Fordham's early win over Rhode Island coming a close second. Northern Iowa would be Lehigh's third game against a nationally-ranked opponent, and the "experts" around the country largely thought that history would repeat itself: six years, seven first-round exits.

But the Lehigh players and coaches - not happy with just a leftover turkey wing in terms of playoff participation - came to win the football game. This game wasn't just "gravy" to them. This was the opportunity they all earned, through three seasons without any "gravy" - three seasons with losing records. For the seniors, this was it. Their one chance at a national championship.

Watching this game was not a pretty affair, unless you love defense, turnovers and punts. Fortunately, Lehigh was built exactly for a game like this.

They brought in a great defensive gameplan to limit the effectiveness of QB Terrell Rennie - who said he was at "85-90%" in his post-game interview - by preventing him and the offense, with the exception of one broken play for the Panthers' only TD, to make any big plays. Northern Iowa's biggest gain from scrimmage was a 30 yard gain by RB Carlos Anderson, and it seemed like Lehigh's front seven was getting contact on Rennie every single play.

When the play of the game could have been senior FS John Venerio's crunching hit of Panther WR Jared Herring in the end zone for the easiest 15 yard pass interference call in history, that tells you what sort of defensive struggle it was. Two plays later, senior SS Casey Eldemire's interception at the 2 yard line ensured that Lehigh would go into the locker room only down a touchdown - and set the stage for the comeback in the second half.

Experts around the nation thought that - perhaps slowed down by tryptophan or maybe too much "gravy" - that Lehigh's defense would get worn down by Northern Iowa's gigantic offensive line. After all, Northern Iowa offers 63 football scholarships. Wouldn't Lehigh get "worn down" by their scholarships?

Lehigh's defense responded: Yeah, right.

The Mountain Hawk defense seemed to get better and better as the game went along. They gave the Panthers some yardage and set up a couple of Northern Iowa field goal attempts - but then Cribbs, off the edge in front of his family, blocked one huge attempt that could have breathed some life into the UNI Dome for the home side.

On a third-down play late in the game - with the Panthers desperate to get a big play to get back in the game junior LB Colin Newton instead delivered a huge twelve-yard sack to give the Panthers a 4th and forever to make to try to keep their drive alive.

It was the Panthers in the turkey coma, not Lehigh, as they stuffed a short pass play to end Northern Iowa's season.

*****

It was a Thanksgiving to remember for Lehigh fans around the nation.

But this team proved one thing beyond a doubt in Iowa: this team is no fluke.

While Rennie may not have been 100%, Lehigh took a team that scored 30 or more points in its four games in the run-up to the Missouri Valley Conference title and nearly completely shut them down offensively. In their place. In a dome where head coach Mark Farley has said that home-dome advantage was generally "good for an extra touchdown".

And they did so when, offensively, the Mountain Hawk bag-o-tricks were not coming up with a lot of treats. I know the coaches looked at this tape and had to have seen a lot of areas for improvement offensively. The common wisdom - coming from me, too - was that the offense had to play nearly a perfect game to have a chance to win. They didn't - but won anyway.

For this team in particular, playoff appearances were never meant to be "one-and-done" - this team fully expects to beat Delaware next weekend. And - dare I bring it up - this team has the capability of hosting a playoff game should they shock the world two straight playoff weekends.

While this playoff run might still feel like "gravy" to those fans who are quite ecstatic with a uncontested Patriot League title, a sweep of the Ivy League, a win over "that school in Easton" and the league's first playoff win since 2003, it's not gravy to these kids or this coaching staff. They're still in this thing to win a national championship.

Comments

Anonymous said…
With temperatures in the locker room at "212" I do believe in this team. They mean what they say they are only getting better.
Anonymous said…
They "shocked the world" by beating a 4 loss team in front of 6,000 people?
Anonymous said…
go back to your hole you were born in !!
Anonymous said…
Those of us who have seen the LU team the last several weeks KNOW. UD will be finding out soon. I love, love, love their overconfidence.

Oh and brilliant analysis by the Hen visitor (or was it the Hen Pecker?) The attendance at UNI must have had a lot to do with LU's defensive domination..yup. You'll go far young man.
Anonymous said…
The "overconfidence" is warranted. You beat a bad team. Great. Time to try varsity.

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