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Game Preview: New Hampshire at Lehigh, 9/28/2013

(Photo Credit: John Huff/Foster's Daily Democrat)

This weekend, it's homecoming at Lehigh.

The pre-football festivities for homecoming start at in the middle of Friday, with a campus rally, followed by a dinner and a movie presentation.

The movie happens to be Monsters University, the hit Disney/Pixar movie from this summer where the heroes Mike and Sully flash back to their days at old Monster U., and we find out how they made it through their college years.

It so happens that there is an associated website with the release of the movie that is still up - complete with references to the Monsters U. athletic program and homecoming

"The MU faithful were put to the test last year, losing the conference championship with a "Hail Scary" pass from Fear Tech. But MU is back this year with an excellent new recruitment class -- including three top-tier high school standouts: Bart Gates (quarterback), Uriah Pemberslime (fullback), and Harry Phiegel (wide receiver). The entire university community is buzzing with the prospect of Gates throwing to Phiegel for four years of touchdowns. "

In this entirely coincidental, fictionalized summary of the Monsters University football team is everything you need to know about this weekend's game.

"The Lehigh faithful were put to the test in 2011, losing with a  'Hail Scary' pass from New Hampshire."

It's indeed what happened to Lehigh the last time the Wildcats came to Murray Goodman stadium.

It's also the last game where Lehigh lost a game settled by a touchdown or less.

If there is anything that has defined the Lehigh Mountain Hawks in the last two years, it's their ability to never really be out of a game, and to win the close ones, even if, sometimes, they have to tap-dance all over the line between winning and losing.

And fittingly, in that "Hail Scary" game back in 2011, Lehigh did that as well.

With New Hampshire clinging to a 24-20 halftime lead, starting the second half it looked like the wheels might come apart for the Mountain Hawks as New Hampshire would score 14 points in 36 seconds.

WR Joey Orlando would zip through Lehigh's punt coverage on a 56 yard touchdown runback, and when Lehigh QB Chris Lum would loft an interception on the next Lehigh offensive play, UNH QB Kevin Decker would find a wide-open senior WR R.J. Harris to help extend the Wildcat lead to 18 points.

But as anyone now will probably tell you, a second-half 18 point deficit to the Mountain Hawks is nothing.

"When you play anybody, you don't want to do those things," head coach Andy Coen said after that game.  "You don't want to turn over the ball in your neck of the woods.  It gets maginfied when you play a team like New Hampshire, but I don't care who you're playing.

"But our kids responded. We got ourselves behind coming out in the second half but never once wavered. Our coaches and the players on the sidelines were into the game. They fought their tails off. We got right back in there and took the lead, and went into overtime."

Lum would take advantage of an Orlando fumbled punt and scored three straight drives to retake the lead., including a go-ahead grab by WR Jake Drwal that featured him grabbing the ball out of the air from the UNH defender and use every bit of arm strength to wrestle the ball into the end zone to give Lehigh the lead.
21 straight points later, it was 41-38 Lehigh.  (Sound at all familiar?)

In many ways that comeback seemed to set the stage for the success of the next two years, where the Mountain Hawks, after that game, would lose exactly two more games in two years: once to North Dakota State, the eventual FCS National Champions, and Colgate, the winners of the Patriot League title last season.

After UNH would manage to boot a game-tying field goal, the game would end a tie.  And on that afternoon, in overtime, it was all about the "Hail Scary" pass.

Decker took the ball first, and lofted the ball in the corner of the end zone. Lehigh CB Bryan Andrews forced Orlando out of bounds, but, according to the referees, came back in bounds to catch the ball.

The letter of the rule is that, yes, if a player is forced out of bounds, he can come back in bounds to make a catch.  But the problem was that Orlando never made it all the way back in bounds.

It was obvious from the footage from the TV broadcast and the sideline cameras - but instant replay is a tool that was not able to be used by the officials in this game.

Three officials surrounded Orlando and raised their hands - but, apparently, missed the divot out-of-bounds where you could clearly see where Orlando's leg slid from underneath him.

With the pressure to score a TD, Lehigh's offense would have another chance to extend the game - but were unable to do so - adding to the controversy of that final play.

To be fair, it's impossible to know if the Wildcats wouldn't have scored on the next play anyway, and the
same course of events wouldn't have happened in some form.

But the call was clearly incorrect - and the "Hail Scary" pass would stand.

“I remember that play where the kid caught the ball eight yards out of bounds,” senior FB Zach Hayden told Mike LoRe of the Express-Times this week. “Obviously, I’m exaggerating but to me, it was eight yards out of bounds.”

“We learned a lot from that game as a team, like ‘Hey, we could play with these guys. They go to the playoffs every year. We can play with these guys,’ ” Coen told him, too. “That was the confidence boost that that team needed in 2011. That was great. … I’m excited about the challenge of playing these guys. We haven’t really talked about that game. We’re not going to utilize it. My message to the kids has been we want to play against teams like this. We want to play against teams like this in December.

Junior LB John Gonos knows well that the potent offense that came to Bethlehem in 2011 will also be tough to slow down in 2013.

“New Hampshire is a very fast and physical team and they’ll exploit any weaknesses they see in the defense, so we have to make sure we all know what we’re doing,” he said. “With New Hampshire, we have to make sure we play all 60 minutes and that starts with practice.”

"But Lehigh is back this year with an excellent new group -- including three top-tier players: senior QB Brandon Bialkowski, senior WR Lee Kurfis, and senior FB Zach Hayden. The entire university community is buzzing with the prospect of Bialkowski throwing to Kurfis this season."

I find it hilarious that of all people on the Monsters University team to highlight, they chose a quarterback, wideout, and fullback.

While football is a team sport, of course, it's this Mountain Hawk trio that have emerged as the early stars on this Lehigh team.

Bialkowski, after not attempting a pass his first three years as a Mountain Hawk, has vaulted to the top of the NCAA's statistical leaders, ranked No. 4 in the nation in passing yardage despite having one less game under his belt than Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garropolo, Stephen F. Austin QB Brady Attaway, and Southern QB Dray Joseph.

Before the season, the talk was all about whether Bialkowski could step into the job as a senior and thrive.  Now, the question is whether he'll be able to keep up the production and have a senior season that's on par with the best in Lehigh history, like QB Chris Lum or QB Marty Horn.  And the scary thing is: he's finally getting settled into the starting position, and his hamstring, which clearly wasn't at 100% in the first few weeks, seems to finally be completely healed.

Kurfis was always a very solid receiver before this season, if somewhat in the shadow of WR Ryan Spadola, the former Mountain Hawk who is now on the Jets.  Going into 2013, the question was whether he could step into Ryan's spot and have a season that approaches Ryan's at his best.

Right now Kurfis is the No. 2 receiver in the country, notching two 200 yard games in consecutive weeks while "only" notching 152 yards in last week's win.  Like Bialkowski, if he can keep this current pace, it's going to be a scary prospect for opposing defenses to contain him.

And Hayden, who had an important, but somewhat obscure role in the Lehigh offense in the past couple of seasons at fullback, has burst on the scene in the most unlikely of ways: making three big plays in the past two games which led to three critical touchdowns.

His return of a Lehigh blocked punt for a 37 yard rush put him on the map, but his key 4th down conversion against Monmouth to keep a drive alive as well as his 3rd quarter touchdown in the win against Princeton were critical - while providing a critical option for Bialkowski in passing situations.

He also has a way of putting things in perspective, too.

"We've shown moments of brilliance out there, and if the offense can come out and just execute every play, it will be something to watch," he told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "It's a great feeling to be 3-0 right now when we could easily be 0-3. But at the same time, we know we're better than this. The last three games should have been won easily rather than coming down to pulling rabbits out of a hat.  We have plenty of rabbits left, but we still can make it easier on ourselves."

Whatever happens on the field this Saturday when Lehigh, the 17th ranked team in the country, takes on New Hampshire, the 7th ranked team in the country, one thing the Mountain Hawks will not be is scared.

More on New Hampshire
The Wildcats, coached by Sean McDonnell, have seen a run of success not seen by any other FCS program in the nation - not North Dakota State, not Delaware, not Sam Houston State, not Northern Iowa.  Their nine straight consecutive FCS playoff appearances are a record, and they're shooting for a tenth.

New Hampshire's last game was two weeks ago, when they dismantled the preseason favorites to win the Patriot League, Colgate, by a 53-23 margin.  How noncompetitive was this game?  The Wildcats surged to a 40-7 lead by halftime, and cruised in the second half.

“Proud of the way we responded after a tough loss last weekend,” McDonnell said after that game, after the Wildcats lost to an FBS bowl team, Central Michigan, 24-21, on a late field goal in Week 1. “We came back and played the game the way we’re capable of playing I thought.  It was good to see us execute in all areas. We spread the ball around. A lot of people touched it. We finished drives and we finished plays.”

“They’ve got a decent ball club,” Colgate coach Dick Biddle said, with characteristic understatement. “They’ve got some good, skilled athletes which exposed us on defense.”

Why are the Wildcats so good?  One very important reason is that the Wildcats have a very active pipeline of elite FCS players from the Lehigh Valley area.  One such player is OL Mike Coccia, one of the anchors on the Wildcat offensive line, who played locally at Freedom High School.

"He's been a terrific, terrific find for us," McDonnell said of Cocchia. "He wasn't heavily recruited in our level; us, Maine a few others offered him. Every day he comes to work. He's a blue-collar type of guy. He's very athletic but the thing that jumps out is what a great kid he is. All those things add up to being a pretty good football player and that's what he is."

Cocchia, ranked one of the top centers in FCS, may be looking at a real chance to make an NFL roster next April.

Game Notes
The good news came pouring in this week's game notes, most importantly with the return from injury of starting sophomore OL Terez Owens, junior TE Tyler Coyle and senior LB Nigel Muhammad, three starters who didn't make the trip to Princeton.

If sophomore LB Matt Laub comes back from injury - he's listed as questionable, according to Mike LoRe, after separating his shoulder at Monmouth - it will be the healthiest Lehigh has been since opening day.

Also very worthy of note, after all the hubub about the four suspended players last week and the reinstatement of three of the players, none of the three reinstated players are on the two deep this week.  That means the same players who made the trip to Princeton in their place, senior S Jamil Robinson, freshman CB Brandon Leaks, and junior CB Jason Suggs, remain in their exact places on the depth chart from last week.

Weather Report
Chance of Rain: 0%.  Sunny.  High of 72.  The weather report could not be more perfect for this weekend.

Famous New Hampshire Alumnus You Didn't Know About
John Irving, writer of The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, is an Academy Award winner and acclaimed writer.

LFN's Drink of the Week
So what to do in the return of LFN's Drink of the Week?  In the words of an unknown football coach, "we've got to go with what got us here".  Logically, that's Yuengling Premium, one of my favorite beers to enjoy before (and after) Lehigh victories.  It's the perfect Lehigh Valley treat for a Top 25 clash in the Lehigh Valley.

Sensible drinking can be a part of a pleasant tailgating experience, but only if you drink responsibly and for God's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car when having consumed too much alcohol.  Make a day of your tailgate, stay late and sober up before driving.

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