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Sunday Word: Combos

Lest anyone think I'm succumbing my popular "Sunday Word" column to commercialism, I haven't yet gotten any checks to sell out my weekly editorial page yet.  (None that have cleared, anyway.)

But when Lehigh folks think of "Combos", do they think of the crunchy, delicious, oven-baked pretzels with a spicy, cheese pizza-flavored filling made with real cheese?

Or do they think of the other, many, "combos" at the disposal of head coach Andy Coen?  (more)

The halfway point of the football regular season has been reached, and Lehigh has faced for pretty tough opponents by any measure.

New Hampshire, the source of Lehigh's only loss this year, is a consensus Top Ten team, ranked just above the Mountain Hawks and sits atop the powerful CAA.

3-3 Liberty, who was nationally-ranked when they faced Lehigh at Murray Goodman stadium a couple of weeks ago, still looks like a potential playoff team in the Big South, where they went to 1-0 in Big South play with a 35-3 drubbing of Gardner-Webb on the road.

And Yale, who went to 3-1 following their pulverizing 30-0 home win versus Dartmouth, seems poised to return to their status as Ivy League title contender.

The other teams Lehigh has played - and beaten - have also had their share of moments in the sun, too, this year.

Despite their loss this weekend, Bucknell still has a winning record at 4-2, and a 1-1 record in Patriot League play.  While they lost pretty resoundingly to Lehigh last weekend, they couls still make some noise in the Patriot League the rest of the way - and if they sweep through the rest of their schedule, they could be playing in the postseason.

Princeton, who is 1-3, is 1-0 in league play, thanks to their 24-21 win over Columbia two weeks ago.  Though the road might be tough, they still have the capability of winning the Ivy League as well.

And 2-3 Monmouth was able to do what Lehigh hasn't been able to do in the last four years: beat a team from the CAA, by humbling Villanova 20-9.

What's the big difference from the five teams that Lehigh has beaten thus far and the the Mountain Hawks?

"Combos".

It's a really old saw that football is a team game.  Good teams are comprised of really, really good individual football players, but in order to be great they have to be able to work together as a part of a well-oiled machine.

The really good players need to be able to work in combination with one another to get the job done.

Take Yale.

Two weeks ago, they came in with a quarterback, senior QB Patrick Witt, that almost was the starter at Nebraska and has a fan club of NFL scouts following him to Bulldog games this year.

By his mere presence on the team, Yale becomes a good team.  But they were not a great team when they played Lehigh.  Why is that?

Because Witt did not have the same type of "combos" working for him the way they have been working for senior QB Chris Lum.

Sure, through pure athleticism he was able to gain some yards and move the sticks a few times.  But the synergy with his receivers was simply not there.  Their inability to connect stood in stark contrast with Lum and his top two receivers, senior WR Jake Drwal and junior WR Ryan Spadola, who combined for 18 receptions and both went comfortably over 100 yards receiving.

(Even after this weekend's game, Yale head coach Tom Williams found himself going back to the Lehigh game to motivate the Bulldogs.  In practice this week, he complained about the "stench" on the team due to the fact that "they weren't playing very well."  After the Dartmouth drubbing, Williams said "We got the stench off us today. We feel better about that egg we laid [against Lehigh]. We felt like we had to redeem ourselves.")

And let's look back at Liberty as well.

There's no doubt that Flames senior QB Mike Brown is an excellent athlete.  He's got a lot of tools NFL scouts are looking for in signalcallers: a quick release, a lot of mobility, and lots of athleticism.

And he also has a really, really good "combo" as well - senior WR Chris Summers, who torched Lehigh when the Flames came to Bethlehem, and who more recently had 9 catches for 133 yards vs. the Runnin' Bulldogs.

But aside from Brown and Summers, the Flames didn't have that "combo" they needed - on offense or defense - to keep up with Lehigh when all was said and done.  In a lockdown second half, the Mountain Hawk defense, including an end-zone interception by junior CB Bryan Andrews and a key forced fumble by senior LB Fred Mihal, ended up being a "combo" that sealed Lehigh's victory.

Against Bucknell, too, it was striking how much of a team effort it was to shut down the Bison offense.

Much had been made of the "combo" that was Bucknell's defensive line, comprising of the due of senior DE Josh Eden and senior DT Robert De La Rosa, the "combo" that caused so many matchup problems.

But it was eight Lehigh players, all working together, that had at least a portion of one sack in a ten sack game on Saturday.

As disruptive as Bucknell's "combo" was for Lehigh, the Mountain Hawk "combos" on their defensive front were even more so.  Senior DE Ben Flizack was in the Bucknell backfield so often, I'm tempted to call him the "Mad Stork", as a reference to that NFL hall-of-fame defensive end, DE Ted Hendricks.

"Combos" aren't necessarily quarterback to wideout connections.  Sometimes, they're on the defense, too.

*****

I think that's the great takeaway from this Lehigh team thus far.

The individual athletes, especially on offense, are having seasons to remember statistically.

But this team has beaten some pretty damn good football teams not because they can show up on Saturday and the other team hides in the locker room.

They are a Top Ten team and have a 5-1 record because of the "combos" - that they are working together very well, and functioning at a very high level as a unit.

Does that mean it's time to stop preparing?  Hardly.

A slip-up this weekend at Fordham wouldn't just mean a loss of a tiebreaker in the Patriot League title race.  It would bust up a whole lot of "combos" that are working for this Lehigh team, and who knows if they could get them back for Colgate and Holy Cross, who both loom on the horizon.

And there's still plenty to improve upon anyway.  One big interception at the end of the first half could have turned the tide against Lehigh last weekend, but didn't.  A blocked extra point could have made a difference, but didn't.  They didn't hurt against Bucknell this weekend, but they could end up hurting the Mountain Hawks down the line.

It's important to see what's gotten Lehigh to this point in the season.  "Combos".

And if they keep those "combos" working in the second half of the season the same way they've done in the first half, it could be one of those seasons of the ages.

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