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Lehigh Circles the Wagons And Wins Yet Another Football Game

(Photo Credit: Justin LaFleur/Lehigh Athletics)

The problem with having a "Sunday Word" for so long is that you keep wanting to reuse an old one to describe a particular game.

"Fun", which Sautrday's 29-28 win was?  Sorry, already done.  How about "Raiders", which epitomizes the Lehigh ethos at the moment, "Just Win, baby?"  Sorry, that's one's done, too.

Making things even more challenging was Lehigh's eventful, to say the least, week leading up to this game.  Player suspensions.  Critical injuries.  Slow starts.  Potshots.

In a game where this Lehigh football team could have fallen flat on its face - and appeared to be doing so after a tough first half - the Mountain Hawks took a knee, went back into the locker room, circled the "wagons" (today's "Sunday Word"), and came out and won the game.


The term "circling the wagons" has a Oregon Trail feel to it, even if it was much more frequent that devotees of that classic educational video game died of dysentery a lot more often than Native American attacks.

In truth, though, the use of wagons in war dates much further back than that.

The Ancient Romans used something called a "wagon fort" for protection against enemies, arranging four wagons into a square and used to weather attacks.

In the Han dynasty there were similar constructs, as well as the Hussites, Poles, Dutch, and countless other kingdoms.

For two millennia "wagon forts" were an effective use of limiting damage by cavalry, and were a smart way to protect valuable resources.  After the initial onslaught, the troops would emerge from the circled "wagons", and attack, sometimes devastatingly.

That's what this Lehigh team did this week.

The week started with the usual disrespect from across the country.

It's very easy to picture national FCS poll voters looking over Lehigh's 2-0 record, sniffing to themselves "they only beat Monmouth and Central Connecticut State!", and then, in some cases, dropping them, or excluding them, from their Top 25 ballots.

This type of thing, of course, is nothing new to anyone who's been following the Lehigh football program for very long.  They see that the same people who think little of Lehigh now on a national level also didn't think highly of Lehigh as they went 10-1 through their schedule and then became the first team since the playoffs expanded to have 10 Division I wins yet still be denied the playoffs.

But that was just a mere appetizer compared to what was to come.

On Wednesday came the shocking news that four players were suspended indefinitely from the team due to an "off-campus incident".

It was the first time head coach Andy Coen had ever had to deal of something of this nature in his entire tenure as Lehigh's head football coach, never mind the other football players.

As a result, there was an old-fashioned media frenzy to try to figure out what had happened, and who was involved.  Mugshots were posted.  Names, at first not confirmed by anyone, were finally figured out, and published.  In the confusion, it was not clear what to believe.

Certainly the incident, which led to a person in the hospital and an arrest, is very serious, though not all the facts are out yet.

But coach Coen, upon learning of what had happened, acted quickly and decisively.  Less than 24 hours after it happened, he had addressed it and made his decision.

Coen's response was beyond reproach - and went well beyond what many Division I coaches, at both the FBS and FCS level, would have done.

While none of the players were starters, Lehigh clearly would have been a better football team with those four kids suiting up.

When it came to doing the right thing or having the best possible team heading to Princeton - a game, by all accounts, was a very important one - he didn't flinch, a fact that had best be remembered by everyone.  Many other coaches would have.

Despite doing exactly the right thing, though, you got the sense, though, that there were some people nationally that couldn't wait to poke holes at coach Coen and Lehigh.

Not everybody, but enough people.

What I learned this week is that there are a significant number of people out there that want to see Lehigh fail.

I'm not even talking about Lafayette fans, who largely didn't rush to judgement in regards to this incident.  I'm talking about people that think Lehigh doesn't belong in the same subdivision as North Dakota State, Delaware, or New Hampshire.

That think the Mountain Hawks aren't as good as, say 2-2 Stony Brook, who just got humbled by Villanova 35-6 this weekend.  Or don't belong in the Top 25 with 2-2 Samford, who just lost to Southeastern Louisiana this weekend.

That are sitting around hoping that the Mountain Hawks, finally, were getting theirs.

It's what a surprising number of people want to happen, within the Patriot League and beyond.  With the suspensions they saw in the news, they finally were visualizing their deep wish - a faltering Mountain Hawk program - possibly coming true.

Believe it or not, there are people that want to believe Lehigh is a renegade program.  People who think that they don't do things the right way.  On Wednesday, they got a chance to confirm their beliefs.

It's something that Lehigh fans tasted when WR Ryan Spadola was, in unprecedented fashion, suspended by the NCAA for an inappropriate retweet of a racial slur on Twitter.

I recalled that incident with senior WR Lee Kurfis this week - and the recollection he gave to that indicent was telling.

"Similar to what has happened this past week," he said, "we didn't find out until Ryan's suspension until Wednesday - not just Wednesday, but literally Wednesday night right in the middle of our typical night practice time.

"It was very bizarre, Ryan started out practice at his usual starting position at X, and then the next thing we know, he's out there on kick off scout team giving guys looks. Everyone knew what had happened, and after practice, coach Coen addressed the situation and confirmed that Ryan was indeed suspended for our game against North Dakota State.

"It was very shocking to everyone, and the first feeling I felt and I think everyone else felt was that of just a pure sadness for Ryan. We all knew how great of a kid he was and that the whole incident was just a terrible mistake, but the decision of his suspension was made and there was no looking back.

"The team had to take the whole situation as a learning experience and move forward, rather quickly for a game that was in two days.  People make mistakes, they happen every year, but Lehigh football always sticks together and learns from them and continues to move forward."

In that playoff game against North Dakota State, Lehigh would lose 24-0 to the eventual national champion Bison.

But I remember something else, too.

Watching Kurfis line up at the X, I saw his eyeblack, shaped like a cross, below his eyes.

It was the exact same pattern of eyeblack worn by Spadola that entire season, and the way that Kurfis, and many of his teammates, letting him know they stood by him.

Despite the loss, it was a truly inspired game by Lehigh that day in the FargoDome.  Memories of LB Mike Groome vaulting a Bison "O" lineman to stop RB Sam Ojuri from scoring a game-clinching touchdown.  LB Billy Boyko forcing a fumble, the first Bison turnover in nearly a month up to that point.  WR Jake Drwal, taking immense punishment over the middle yet still getting 10 catches for 151 yards.

I had this feeling, deep down, that the seniors' experience of that playoff game back in 2011 might play a part this Saturday.  That this Lehigh football team would "circle the wagons", learn from the experience of this week, and move forward.

*****

As bad as those suspensions were, it continued as even more bad news poured out of that media session.

Two names were replaced off the two deep in the defensive secondary, both suspended athletes.  I counted eight defensive backs made the trip, including two freshmen, freshman DB Brandon Leaks and freshman DB Brian Githens.

Senior LB Nigel Muhammad, team captain and defensive star, would suit up but not play against Princeton.

Sophomore OL Terez Owens, a key member of the offensive line, suffered an injury and was out, and senior C Matt Lippincott, who wasn't 100%, had to suit up.

Backup junior QB Matt McHale would not be able to go, meaning freshman QB Nick Shafnisky and junior QB A.J. Visconti, neither whom took an offensive snap in their careers, were the backups that needed to go if senior QB Brandon Bialkowski got hurt.

Starting junior TE Tyler Coyle, still out, meaning junior TE Dylan Colgate would start again and there would be less depth again at that position.

It's the most incomplete lineup I've ever seen since starting up Lehigh Football Nation.

In response to all of this, what did this team do?

"Circled the wagons".

They didn't shrink away from talking about issues on Wednesday, but they did put the "wagons" in a defensive posture, concentrated on football, and went on with their preparation against Princeton.

With adversity comes opportunities for other players to step up - and step up they did.

Senior CB Jamil Robinson found himself on the depth chart, after converting from linebacker last season, in a huge spot knowing he'd be on the field a lot in passing downs and more.

"It was a exciting moment hearing from my Coach I would be in the game," he told me, "but also a self-motivating moment that I must be prepared when I get into the game."

After not playing in the first two games of the season - in a new position - he knew he would be ready to step up on Saturday.

"I felt well prepared and have belief in my playing abilities," he said, "so I just told myself to simply just play ball, don't think about it.   All the hard work we put in as a team, I was ready to just help and contribute toward our success, thankfully I was able to do that."

They didn't succumb to the distractions, even though many teams would have.

“We dealt with those circumstances and put it behind us, coach Coen said after the game to Keith Groller of the Morning Call.  "We just went out and played a football game. I am happy the kids got a win because it’s important for them and they really came together with a great week of practice. There was a lot to learn for them this week about overcoming the adversity and distraction we had.”

Down 22-3, they didn't fold, even though many teams would have, especially after falling behind 22-3 at the half the way the Mountain Hawks did.

(I won't go through all the details of the extraordinary win this Saturday - I'll leave that to the recap I've already done.)

"We never give up," senior QB Brandon Bialkowski told Mike Lore of the Express-Times. "This team never gives up. We know we can get game-winning drives like we’ve shown the last three weeks. We’re going to continue to grow on what we’ve done and be the best offense we can be in the upcoming weeks."

After wave upon wave of cavalry came though, in the form of DE Caraun Reid and RB DiAndre Atwater, the onslaught stopped.  Lehigh emerged from the "wagons" of locker room, and the proceeded to do what needed to be done to win the game.

“We were getting banged around in the first half, no question,” Coen said afterwards. “But our kids just hung in there and hung in there. By the fourth quarter, we were clearly the tougher team.”

"It’s kind of like a double-edged sword," Kurfis said after the game. "There's so many ways to get better yet we’re still pulling off wins. Like I told the guys at halftime, if we’re going to keep being this team that’s kind of mediocre and in and out, these games are going to be close games, but if we can execute for both halves, we’re going to be a great football team."

*****

When troops emerge after "circling the wagons", they end up stronger than before, and can do real damage to attackers.

On an extraordinary week leading up to the game against Princeton, Lehigh did just that.

I get this feeling that the rest of the world of FCS will start to realize how strong they've become in the upcoming weeks.

It may not make people, especially Lehigh's opponents, very happy.

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