It was a fantastic weekend for Lehigh all around, for the players, coaches, fans, and even their "fearless cheerleader", as I was called on the Lehigh Sports Forum this weekend.
The 7-2 record looks great. The 3-0 conference record looks even better. The offense is putting up points, the defense shutting down Patriot League opponents. Confidence is there. Parts of the game that had been trouble spots in September are now becoming assets. Things are looking pretty good.
But junior QB Chris Lum had a quote in the postgame this weekend that is crucial for Lehigh to remember this coming weekend. Simply, that Lehigh needed to stay "hungry". They absolutely do. (more)
It had been an awful long time since I had been in Worcester, but the availability of some family members for a much-overdue visit meant I could manage a trip to the area to see the game live and in person.
My wife, son and I piled in the car and made the five and a half hour trip - don't trust Google Maps when it comes to driving around New York City - and arrived in Worcester with plenty of time to spare at the College of the Holy Cross. The trees were yellow and brown, and while it was brisk you could see plenty of still bodies of water on the way up to Worcester, with some sun peeking out from the clouds.
If you take the Holy Cross exit, you come up on a large hill that looks uncannily like one you might find in Easton or the south side of Bethlehem. Large gates ring the college, and you can see a beautiful campus inside. At the bottom of the hill lies Fitton Field, an easy jaunt from campus. Two large ball fields made a nice spot to tailgate on the perfect afternoon for Northeast football. I didn't head over there, but it seemed like there should have probably been more folks there to see a championship-caliber game in the Patriot League.
Fitton is a very cool Patriot League venue. It would probably never be placed where it is today if planners for the college had a change to have a "do-over", set right next to a major highway, train tracks and sitting almost in the very bottom of a valley. But it's really convenient to get to, for students and out-of-town fans alike, and it's pointed so the sun shines on the home side, so even the slightest bit of sun will heat up the home stands and press box.
When you're on the road, you're on the move, of course, but not generally very "hungry". We loaded up with a fairly large breakfast in Connecticut, and when I got to the press box there was food to spare. Coffee, hot chocolate, bagels, and donuts made quite a buffet as I sat down about a half hour before kickoff. If I was "hungry" at all before the game, I most certainly wasn't after that.
Back in the day, Fitton used to be packed and hosted rivlary games against Boston College, Syracuse and Boston University. It was not as packed on Saturday, but for a Patriot League game it was a decent sized crowd and nicely revved up for the Crusaders. It made me think how great it would be if Boston University would simply just join the Patriot League and get this football rivalry going once again. There's no real good reason why the Terriers, who have a football-capable field in the middle of their campus, couldn't restart FCS football with the Academic Index that the Patriot League uses and generate some more gridiron excitement in the state.
Before the game, I saw a very upbeat-looking Carolyn Schlie Femovich, executive director of the Patriot League, in the press box as the game kicked off. I never got to talk to her about Boston University or anything else, however, as the game was just about to kick off.
Both teams came out of the gate looking "hungry", too. It had the look of a game that might be a defensive struggle - a game that might rest on one big play, one way or another.
That's why, I think, some of Lehigh's mistakes - untimely penalties, turnovers in the red zone - loomed so large in this game. A lot was made of Lum's interception at the 6 yard line of Holy Cross in the first quarter, as both teams were struggling to take control, since it shifted the momentum clearly on the side of the Crusaders.
On Holy Cross' two scoring drives when the final outcome was in doubt, two big Lehigh penalties on third down gave the Crusaders new life and ended in Purple points.
What was a little lost in the few sloppy plays, however, were some really big plays that showed how "hungry" this defense has been all year.
After the turnover in the red zone, a big third down sack by sophomore DE Sajjad Chagani forced a punt. After Lehigh capitalized and scored their first touchdown, an absolutely crushing sack by senior LB Al Pierce on third down forced another punt.
At halftime, pizza - the staple food of the Patriot League press box - came in, and I of course dug in, making me once again not very "hungry."
Lehigh showed they remained "hungry" after halftime, despite some setbacks.
After a fumble in the red zone in the second half - which was only stopped from being a touchdown thanks to a big tackle by senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley - senior CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs stood up 6'7 Holy Cross TE Alex Schneider short of the sticks on third down - forcing a punt, instead of giving the Holy Cross team some oxygen to make a comeback. On Lehigh's next drive, junior WR Jake Drwal made a spectacular fingertip grab to make the score 21 to 3, Lehigh.
Lehigh, of course, would eventually take care of business, getting the score up to 34-10 before allowing a final touchdown to Holy Cross, making the Crusaders earn every yard of it.
After the game, my family and I walked a little bit around campus - up to the Hart center, the main campus buildings and the bookstore. But I was not "hungry". The press box folks - and Lehigh, of course - took care of that.
Lehigh has wrapped up at least a share of the Patriot League title with their win over Holy Cross, coupled with Colgate's 24-14 victory over Lafayette.
And if Lehigh fans look on the remaining regular season schedule, with a 4-7 team that has never beaten the Mountain Hawks since they've entered the league, and a 4-7 team that Lehigh has beaten for the last two years, some fans may already be making their playoff plans for the day after Thanksgiving. (Will it be Virginia? Massachusetts, again, where Lehigh is 2-0 this year? Perhaps even... a home playoff game?)
But looking ahead would be a major, major mistake.
Strangely, every single team in the Patriot League is technically alive for at least a share of the championship, since no team has more than two conference losses.
Believe it or not, Georgetown very much can still win a share of the Patriot League title - and might even still get the autobid. And it's not a completely outlandish scenario.
A Hoya win over the Mountain Hawks would give Georgetown a 3-2 record in the Patriot League. Add to that a Holy Cross win over Lafayette, and all of a sudden a Lehigh loss to "that school in Easton" would mean that the Mountain Hawks and Georgetown would be in a four way tie atop the Patriot League with identical 3-2 records.
Lehigh would technically be co-champions - but, really, who would want to have rings with that engraved on it? With a historic - yes, it would be historic - loss to Georgetown in the record books, and a potential season-ending loss to Lafayette, would it feel like a championship?
As Lum mentioned, it's time to stay "hungry", even though "Patriot League Champions" are still checked off of the Lehigh players' bucket list. Like 2006 - Lehigh's last sort-of championship - it would be as hollow as a championship could be, with a loss to "That school in Easton" and no postseason playoff game to show for it.
To their great credit, it seems like Lum, head coach Andy Coen, and the rest of this Lehigh team get this. Nothing is settled yet, really. They want a vocal, pro-Lehigh crowd to make the trip to Georgetown's tiny Multi-Purpose field at the heart of the Hoya campus and make it feel like a home game and clinch sole possession of the Patriot League Championship this Saturday.
They know weird stuff can happen.
"To put it in context, over a five-year period there's only one team that has won two championships and that's us," Coen noted right after the game. "[But] we want to finish our business here and we've got to beat an improved Georgetown team next week, and they're coming off a bye. I feel good about things, but we just can't settle for this."
"It was a great win for us today but we haven't accomplished our goal yet," senior WR Craig "Braveheart" Zurn told the Brown & White this week. "To beat a team for the first time in four years, as well as the defending champion, is a great feeling but our goal is to be outright champions and make a run in playoffs. Therefore, all attention turns to Georgetown tomorrow after film because they are the next opponent in the way of our goal."
This win wasn't perfect, but for a lot of fans the game this weekend was filling.
Fans have long since ceased to expect Patriot League titles and deep runs in the playoffs. They've been starving for an outright title and a shot in the playoffs.
But the temptation is to look at this game - imperfect as it was - and say, "Is that a Ritz?"
Fortunately for the players and coaches, they seem to know that they need to stay "hungry". That's the only way they'll be able to clinch an outright Patriot League title and a playoff game this year.