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Sunday's Word: Sunny

It was not a "sunny" day this last Saturday at Murray Goodman stadium.

And just like the rain threatened but never came on Saturday, Lehigh threatened to make the game into a laugher this weekend, but somehow the dominating performance never came, and the Mountain Hawks let Columbia stick within striking distance until some late touchdowns finally led to the 35-14 win.

But as I was leaving the post-game press conference, a ray of sunlight bathed the field, and I snapped this shot of the scoreboard and field - the only "sunny" part of the weekend, I believe.

In a strange way, it seemed to sum up the Lehigh season thus far - "sunny" because the Mountain Hawks are 6-0, but with clouds on the horizon.

In the press box, sometimes they call me "Captain Sunshine" for my relentlessly upbeat attitude, even when things look grim.

And I have to admit, dear Reader, that it's a well-earned reputation.  (Heck, just read some of my previews this year if you don't believe it.  I've predicted six Lehigh victories this year, and I'm currently batting 1.000.)

Yesterday, though, I admit I wasn't feeling too "sunny" about Lehigh's effort.

Too often I looked at this team yesterday, and some of the mistakes they made, and thought, "If they do this against Georgetown or Colgate, they'll lose."

At this, the halfway point of the season, it's worth mentioning that the combined record of Lehigh's non-conference opponents is 7-15.  (We'll set aside 4-2 Fordham, which is a conference opponent but doesn't "count" for the Patriot League title chase, for now.)

And the statistics don't get prettier for Lehigh the closer you look.

Only one of these Mountain Hawk opponents, Monmouth, has a winning record at 3-2.

The Jersey Hawks probably have the best win of Lehigh's non-conference opponents, as they throttled Rhode Island of the CAA, 41-6.  But Monmouth lost by nearly 30 points to the other quality team on their schedule, nationally-ranked Albany, putting in question exactly how good the Hawks actually are.

Of the seven wins by Lehigh's out-of-conference opponents, only one of Princeton's wins was actually a victory over a team who is currently over .500.  (They beat Lafayette 35-14 last weekend, and the Leopards are 3-2.)

The other teams on Lehigh's schedule have really struggled, no matter how you sugar-coat it.

0-5 Central Connecticut State has lost every game this year by double digits.  1-4 Liberty had to rally to beat 0-5 Gardner-Webb this weekend to stay alive for the autobid for the Big South, the Flames' only shot at the FCS playoffs.  1-3 Columbia's only victory was an ugly 10-9 win over 2-3 Marist in Week One.  And 2-2 Princeton had one of the most awful losses of the year, a 21-20 loss to Georgetown on ESPNU that stood out by their level of self-destruction in that game. 

Lehigh's toughest test of the year came against sort-of league opponent Fordham, who is 4-2.  Yet even the Rams are still a tough team to handicap, too.  One of their wins came against one of the worst teams in Division II, two more came against ineffective Columbia and enigmatic Cornell, and the last came against Georgetown in the closing moments this weekend.  The losses, against Villanova of the CAA and, of course, against Lehigh, came against the best teams thus far on their schedule.

That's why Lehigh's 6-0 record seems so inconclusive to many - including myself. 

And while nobody will complain about a three-touchdown victory over Columbia, there were clearly points in this game where Lehigh could have shown the killer instinct to put the Lions away and see the backups come in midway through the third quarter, but didn't.

If this were a one-game aberration, it would be one thing, but it seems to be a defining characteristic of this team, which is dangerous going into league play.

This team has had the tendency to jump to a 14-0 lead, and then not only coast, but make critical mistakes to let teams come right back into the game.  In two of the six Mountain Hawk victories, Lehigh allowed teams to come back from two-score leads to tie or go ahead.  And in two more, the opposition had the ball on offense and was driving for the winning score.  Only very large defensive stands prevented them from taking the lead late in the game.

In all four games - and you could make the case that this has happened in all six of Lehigh's victories - a crisper team would have jumped to a three-score lead midway through the first half and made it a laugher.

You see this type of killer instinct when you take a moment and watch the elite teams in FCS.

Take No. 1-ranked North Dakota State, who ended Lehigh's season last year.

Midway through the second quarter, Bison CB Marcus Williams intercepted the pass of QB Kurt Hess of No. 2-ranked Youngstown State, going 96 yards to the house to give the Bison a 21-7 lead.

From there, the matchup of the week in FCS became a surprise blowout, with North Dakota State getting the next 27 straight points in a 48-7 destruction of the Penguins.

Craig Bohl's unforgiving offense and merciless defense are an absolute study in putting teams away.

Perhaps its impossible to see this in every game for any FCS team - including the Bison, for that matter - but it hasn't happened at all this season for the Mountain Hawks.  Not even once.  Nobody is looking at Lehigh's wins and saying they're threats to win the national championship, as the Bison are.

Certainly going into this season, it was going to be much more of a challenge to repeat, with a brand-new starting quarterback in senior QB Michael Colvin, and key cogs to replace on offense and defense.  It's sometimes hard to remember that Lehigh has so much youth on this team when you look at their national ranking and high expectations.

And granted, it's a long season.  It's pacing break at Lehigh, and it's been a tough week of exams this week - real exams, too, like architecture, chemical engineering, and weeder business courses.  (I know; I've lived through them, too.)

(How Mountain Hawks student-athletes can pull all-nighters yet still prepare for Division I competition, including film review, workouts and walkthroughs the following weekend is a mystery to me.  Perhaps Pedialyte might provide an answer?)

And it's hard to argue with the results.  Undefeated is undefeated.  6-0 is 6-0.  Whether you win 17-14 or 35-14, all the wins count the same.  Last I checked, Lehigh was still nationally ranked, and if they keep winning, they'll remain so.  Style, schmyle.  "Just win, baby," as Al Davis used to say.

Furthermore, this team has now guaranteed that they will have a winning record for the third season running, even if they lose every single game in Patriot League play.

Not all that long ago, that was actually the goal of this team, believe it or not.  This senior class had as its goal in its first season to have a winning record and to beat "that school in Easton".  They succeeded by beating the Leopards, but fell short of the first goal, finishing with a not-so-"sunny" 4-7 record.

But with Patriot League championships and FCS playoff wins come heightened expectations.  It's no longer good enough to coast through games.

Lehigh fans were hoping to see one game where the Mountain Hawks just completely outclassed the competition, but, so far, it hasn't happened yet.

And make no mistake, fans are wondering if it's going to happen this season.  As impressive as it's been, there is still doubt in the minds of fans.  And this team has earned that doubt, too.  It's easy to think of Lehigh as being a few plays away from 3-3.

*****

Yet as I left the stadium this weekend, and I saw the "sunny" day peek through the clouds onto the almost-glowing green turf of Murray Goodman Stadium, I paused.

Am I wrong to not be "sunnier" about this team, I thought?

Am I becoming what I vowed I'd never be - one of those crazed fans who expect too much of college kids, who are human beings, have classes, and have to worry about jobs and the economy after graduation instead of NFL training camps and the order of teams in the draft?

Am I becoming like the dreaded Brazilian soccer fan, so inured to victory that a 2-0 victory to Ecuador feels like a defeat since it wasn't 6-0?

After all - seeing the "sun" shine on the scoreboard - this team is undefeated, and guaranteed a winning season.

No matter what happens, Patriot League championship or no, FCS playoffs or no, these student-athletes will have had success in their playing careers.  They will have tasted victory.  They will have won in front of 18,000 screaming fans on the road.  And nothing, not even my blog postings, will take that away from them.

Yet it's this five game season coming up, realistically, that will determine the fate of this 2012 Mountain Hawk team.

If they win the next five games, nobody will remember the style points - they'll simply see "three-time Patriot League Champions", "undefeated", 11-0, and "taking care of business with the schedule they had."  "Just win, baby."

It will get them a shot at the FCS National Championship as well - perhaps even the dream scenario, I'm sure, for anyone in a Mountain Hawk uniform: another crack at North Dakota State.  (Preferably at home.  In the semifinals.  On ESPN.)

But the stakes are higher now.  One goof-up, one stubbed toe, and all of a sudden, it's maybe, "Patriot League Co-Champions", or, quite possibly, no Patriot League championship.

And the national polls will not be kind to Lehigh should they lose any game - it's not inconceivable that they might even drop out of the Top 25 should they lose any one of these five games.  9-2 might not even be enough to make it as an at-large team.  9-2 teams have lost out on the playoffs before.

For now, it's "sunny".  Lehigh is 6-0, and hold the longest regular-season win streak in FCS at 15 games.  On Saturday, the sun parted the clouds, and bathed the stadium in sunlight.

But the real question is whether the "sunny" weather will last throughout the end of the season.

And there's plenty of doubts as to whether that will be the case.

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