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Sunday's Word: Focus

All week it was out there.

All week head coach Andy Coen, senior OL Mike Vuono and junior SS Rickie Hill said it to whomever would listen.  All week the word out of Lehigh was simple: "focus".

It was easy to "focus" on Princeton's back-to-back 1-9 records, their struggles on offense, their pick to finish in last place in the Ivy League, their pick by non-Lehigh fans as yet another "cupcake" on Lehigh's schedule.

Instead, Saturday proved that the Mountain Hawks won't be able to simply show up and scare off any opponent simply due to the "Lehigh" on the jersey or their Top 25 ranking.

Worse, as a team, Lehigh's lack of "focus" came dangerously close to costing the Mountain Hawks the game.

It's not often when you leave a football game and it feels like an old-fashioned tie.

For those too young to remember, there was a day when football games did not have overtime to determine the winners.  If games were tied at the end of regulation, that was it.  It goes into the books as a tie.

In the game on Saturday, there was a winner.  It was, of course, Lehigh. 

But it didn't feel like there was a lot of satisfaction on the Lehigh side of the house in the win. 

In fact, Lehigh head coach Andy Coen and Princeton head coach Bob Surace had nearly as much to say about the penalties and sloppy play as they did about the positive plays of the game.

For Surace, the issue was the "focus" of his young team in the first half.  "We did not come out and play well in the first half," he said.  "We struggled all-around, they did a great job getting off blocks, and we really weren't giving ourselves a chance."

"We had six penalties, but I swear, I thought we had 26 penalties," Coen said after the game, his temperature seemingly rising as he said it.  "It seemed like every time I looked up I saw holding, or jumping offsides.  We have to get that squared away.  Football is always a game of field position."

So much for any sort of big celebration from coach Coen about being 3-0.  "Getting things squared away" and "cleaning up mistakes" were more the subject of the day than the positives.

For Princeton, who is coming off yet another disappointing 1-9 season, perhaps a certain lack of "focus" is understandable.

But Lehigh, the number 13 team in the country, has no such luxury. 

Like it or not, their expectations are higher.  They are expected to come out with the "focus" to win games.  And, rightly or wrongly, if the perception is that they should blow out the opposition, that's what's expected.

But more important than that, though, is that "focus" is critical in playing winning football games. 

You need "focus" on each play, because you don't know when your play, that play, will be the one that determines the game - whether it's a big stop, a fumble, or a pass completion to get a first down.

This team, at times, seems to have the focus to play winning football, most notably at the beginning of games.

But at home against Monmouth and this past weekend at home against Princeton, the "focus" seems to have been lost. 

Critical penalties backed Lehigh up.  Big turnovers gave both teams new life in a game where they were on the bring of being put away.


Against Monmouth and Princeton, Lehigh did, ultimately, make the plays they needed to make to win the games.  They did what was needed to be done.  They had more points than the opposition did when the clock struck 0:00; they won.

Yet in both games, it felt like it really shouldn't have come to those moments, too.  Had the "focus" been there earlier, the outcome might not have been in doubt.

You can bet when Patriot League play starts, if a lack of "focus" remains, it will ultimately spell a loss for the Mountain Hawks.  A lost quarter, or even a turnovers and mental errors at the worst possible time, will almost certainly mean their first conference loss in three years.

I was really struck at Patriot League media day how "focused" every head coach was on emphasizing the little differences that separate championship teams and also-rans.  They all know; they've seen it all before.  They know the difference between championship teams and 4-7 also-rans can simply be some "focus".

And the early returns tell us that the Patriot League is going to be loaded with tough competition this fall.

It has escaped nobody who bleeds Brown & White that Lafayette not only carries a 2-0 record after this week's action, they also own two very impressive wins over a CAA team (William & Mary) and a favorite to compete for the Ivy League championship (Penn).  While Lehigh's win over Monmouth is looking more impressive by the day, the Mountain Hawks' win over the Jersey Hawks aren't as impressive as the Leopard victories over very impressive teams.

Last year's runner-up for the Patriot League title, Georgetown, has a fearsome defense and is a first-half slip away from being 3-0.  (They lost to Yale, 28-24, partially on a 98 yard TD reception at the end of the first half last week.)   Nobody seriously thinks that they are any sort of pushover this year.

While they don't technically count for the autobid, everyone in the Patriot League is quite aware of Fordham's improvement - and their standing within the league.  In their first three games, they've already doubled their win total from last year (2) and are on pace to score more points by Week 5 than they scored all of last year.

Bucknell, who is 1-1 on the year, held Delaware to 1 touchdown in a 19-3 defeat, making them an intriguing wild card on the season as well.

And losing "focus" on recent Patriot League champions Holy Cross and Colgate?  I don't need to tell you that would be complete folly, too.


*****

Making matters even more challenging is that Liberty, Lehigh's next opponent, is 0-3 after playing one of the most challenging schedules in all of FCS.

The Flames, led by former Kansas head football coach Turner Gill, traveled to Wake Forest to take on an ACC team, and were driving on the Demon Deacons for the winning score before ultimately falling 20-17.

They then hosted a playoff team in Norfolk State, losing in heartbreaking fashion 31-24, before travelling to Montana in arguably the toughest place to play in FCS, falling to Montana 34-14.

The Flames have one singluar "focus" this week - beat a nationally-ranked football team, and get back into the national conversation before Big South play opens up for them.  Desperation does that to a team; and make no mistake, the Flames are desperate for that big win, especially at home.


If Lehigh loses "focus" for another quarter this week, will it still be enough to beat Liberty? 

I sure don't think so.

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