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Sunday's Word: Gut Check

Last year, I used the word" "Fun" to describe a particular Lehigh victory, and in that "Sunday Word" I ended up recalling the Fun Bunch, the Washington Redskins' offensive players (WR Virgil Seay, WR Charlie Brown and WR Alvin Garrett, along with TE Rick Walker and TE Don Warren), that had their own unique celebrations after  touchdowns.

It's funny that this year, I'm going to refer to a favorite quotation from their coach at the time, the legendary Joe Gibbs.  (Even though I'm not a Redskin fan.)

Rich Tandler, author of the book "Gut Check", says that "gut check was a favorite phrase of Gibbs’, as in 'it was a real gut check out there,' in referring to a particularly challenging game situation."

After watching Lehigh battle Holy Cross last weekend, I knew almost instantly that I was going to go with "gut check" as a "Sunday Word".

For if there was ever a "gut-check" win for Lehigh this year, this was it.

I've been following the Lehigh football program since I was an undergrad in the 90s.  (And some might say I've followed it a bit too closely for my own sanity.)

I've also been blessed in that I've followed the whole of what is now called Division I - Football Championship Subdivision.  Incredibly, I've been writing about the whole of FCS football for seven years running now.

I've seen a lot of teams, and it's no question to me that this Lehigh team can be an awfully special team.

But then again, I've also seen a lot of different FCS teams come this far, only to fall over before crossing the finish line, too.

The example that keeps popping into my head is the 2010 Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.

Out of the Southland conference, everything seemed to come incredibly easy for them in the early going of that particular season.

With their Payton award-winning quarterback, QB Jeremy Moses, the Lumberjacks, after losing to Texas A&M 48-7, proceeded to overwhelm most of their competition the rest of the way.

They manhandled some of the other teams on their schedule.  Albany out of the NEC got crushed by the Lumberjacks, 59-14.  They pounded Lamar 71-3, who had just resumed football after a 21 year absence.  Central Arkansas, regarded as one of the better teams in the conference that year, got beat 30-7.

But despite all that offense Moses on that particular Lumberjack team, I got the feeling that they would be able to survive a real "gut check".

Sure, they beat some good teams.  They were tested by nationally-ranked Northern Iowa on the road, and ultimately prevailed 22-20.

But there was that one game on their schedule - an inexplicable 27-24 loss to 4-7 Texas State - that showed a peek about how this Lumberjack team really was.

There were whispers in 2009, about Moses and the team partying it up before a playoff game up in Missoula, Montana, instead of being mentally focused on advancing in the playoffs.  And in final score of their FCS quarterfinal game, it showed - a 51-0 pasting by the eventual FCS championship runner-up, the Montana Grizzlies.

And in that loss to Texas State, there was simply this sense that a lack of focus could rear its head at any moment.  Did the Lumberjacks really have any business giving up 27 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to lose that game, including three touchdowns to QB Tim Hawkins?

Despite the hiccup, Stephen F. Austin did win the Southland, and did qualify for the playoffs as a seeded team.  But they drew Villanova in the playoffs - the defending national champions, and a team that was no stranger to "gut checks".

The Wildcats had their struggles through the year, suffering through an injury to WR Matt Szczur, their big star.  They had Szczur back, too, but another thing they had that the Lumberjacks lacked was a certain mental toughness that could gut them victories.

In the playoffs, Stephen F. Austin jumped to a 21-7 lead over the Wildcats - a margin that might have made some teams to be intimidated and go home.

Not Villanova, though.

They'd rattle off 40 unanswered points - thanks to a forced turnovers, including a recovery on a punt return, and even a fake field goal.

What was remarkable about that game was how the Lumberjacks simply folded after encountering some adversity.  Villanova got the momentum, and then it seemed like everything they tried kept Stephen F. Austin off balance and, little by little, wore them away.

"I think that really changed the game," LB Marquis Kirkland said after their initial drive of the second half was intercepted at the 5 yard line, "because I think that broke their heart."

*****

Mental toughness, or "gut checks", come up in a bunch of different ways during a football season.  Evidence of them are everywhere.

For example, you can't question the "guts" of Montana, after surviving a major scare against Northern Arizona by scoring in two plays, and then stopping the Lumberjacks, to win 28-24.

And just this week, Eastern Kentucky pulled off a hugely improbable upset by scoring 28 points in just over 7 minutes to snag victory from the jaws of defeat over Jacksonville State, 52-48.

They are times when your team is tested, and you find out about the mental toughness of your team.  It's something wickedly hard to measure - it can only be proven.

That's what this Lehigh team ought to have discovered about itself this week.

It wasn't an easy week on campus.  Classes were cancelled for most of the week.  Some players didn't have power, and others did.  Chaos and improvisation were the rule during a week of the a season where routine and discipline is crucial.

But stuff like this happens in life.  Not everything is planned and under control; life will always throw stuff like power outages and other challenges at you, and you have to be mentally tough and find a way to deal with it.

Holy Cross, too, threw quite a challenge at this Lehigh team that would have made facing them tough even in the most perfect of weeks.

They brought the best secondary that Lehigh had seen all this year, bar none.  Head coach Tom Gilmore, who was on the same Lehigh coaching staff as current Mountain Hawk offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini,  knows the offense better than most, and was able to guide his phenomenal pass defense towards slowing down Lehigh's attack.

And Gilmore, a fiery coach who is a big believer in the emotional side of the game, would absolutely have his team ready to play, emotionally.

For the first time this season, Lehigh was shut out at halftime - "gut check" time.

Their starting cornerback, junior CB Gabe Johnson, has his ankle in a cast.  Senior QB Chris Lum, sacked four times in the first half, had his roughest outing of the year.

Did Lehigh have their hearts broken?  Hardly.

They came out the next half, and took over the game defensively.  The defense, led by senior LB Mike Groome and Johnson's replacement, senior CB Kenyatta Drake, shut out the Crusaders the rest of the way.

The offensive line, who was losing the battle of the trenches in the first half, won the battle in the second, allowing junior RB Zach "Bracket Buster" Barket to rush for 100 yards.

Head coach Andy Coen recalled a particular "gut-check" third down that kept the drive alive, too.

"It was a third-down, check down," he said.  "They were dropping eight guys into coverage and taking away the second-level routes. They were not going to get beat by junior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola on one play.  Chris did a nice job of taking what was there, and converting what I thought could have been the play of the game."

For good measure, senior OL Jim Liebler would muscle a ball one-handed in the red zone to retain possession - and allow senior RB Matt Fitz to score the go-ahead touchdown.

They'd survive two more shots from the Crusaders - and win the game.

"A little bit of adversity can be a good thing - provided that you come out on the right side of it," Coen said after the game. "We haven't really played with a lot of adversity here. But we've got tough kids, kids who are doing their part to win games."


It wasn't pretty.  It wasn't always a thing of beauty.

But it was most certainly a "gut check"

And I think we learned something good about the mental toughness of this football team this weekend.

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