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LFN 101: Course Name: How To Win

You are what your record says you are.

So yes, Virginia, Lehigh is 0-4.

It is also true that the Mountain Hawks have been right in the thick of three of the four games they've played, vs. Monmouth, James Madison, and Yale - three good teams, and squads with very strong skill players on offense.  It is easy to imagine an alternate-universe Lehigh, despite the well-publicized struggles, being 3-1.

With this reality, when senior DT Tim Newton is quoted as saying that "I felt it today. It's there," when it came to getting over the hump and into the win column, he's absolutely right.  "I felt like we just need that one little kick to get us over it. But it wasn't there. We obviously weren't able to finish the game," he continued.

Fortunately, "finishing games" is a chapter of my 27 part series on "How To Win Football Games," something that might be of use to any football player, or fan, that might want to call on my decades of experience of observing different Lehigh teams and what it takes for those teams to turn losses into wins.

Because the season is nowhere near over.  There's not any extra breathing room anymore, and it's not ideal to wait until your first league game in two weeks to figure out how to win, but the truth remains that with the right work and the right attitude, Lehigh can win.

Even if it looks right now that the Mountain Hawks could finish 0-11.


In the Patriot League, a losing opening record is not a death sentence.

Just ask Lafayette.

Last season, the Leopards lost five of their first six games, and it looked even bleaker in Easton than it does right now in Bethlehem.

William and Mary blew Lafayette out of the water, 34-6, while Princeton and Harvard handled the Leopards on the way to double-digit victories.  And alongside the blowouts were a couple close losses to Penn and Sacred Heart, the latter seeing the Leopards lose on a late, long field goal from the Pioneers' backup kicker.

So how did they win the Patriot League last season?

They won because they treated all of those early games as one big experiment leading up towards league play, and, ultimately, their big Rivalry game versus Lehigh.

They experimented with different quarterbacks, and finally settled on sophomore QB Drew Reed to be their guy after he proved himself late versus Harvard.  Anointed the starter versus Holy Cross, Lafayette's second league game, he guided the Leopards a 4-1 league record to close the season - enough to win the league, and knock out nationally-ranked Fordham along the way.

It was hard to attend that Sacred Heart/Lafayette game and think that these two teams were both going to be in the FCS playoffs last season, but then again, those teams I saw on opening weekend were merely proto-teams, teams that looked nothing like the teams in November.

Therefore, in How To Win, 101, my first bit of advice is to forget history, but remember history.

Lafayette didn't win the Patriot League last season by dwelling on a last-second field goal on Labor Day.  They won by continually getting better, week to week, working harder week to week, and figuring out how to win at exactly the right time.

They remembered history, in that they remembered the feeling of loss, and how much it sucked, and hurt.  But they forgot history, too, in that they didn't dwell on bad plays in the past.  They focused on the now - and got it done.

Something worthy of consideration is the fact that this Lehigh team is the first 0-4 team since the 2009.

I lived through that season - one of frustration, most of the year, seeing winnable games fall by the wayside, seeing a dominating defensive performance against Princeton devolve into a 17-14 loss, and seeing Lehigh's first lead of the season crumble into a 28-14 defeat at the hands of Harvard.

I felt the low water mark of the season came in a ridiculous 7-0 loss to Yale, where the only score came off of a fake punt.  Lehigh's defense shut out the Bulldogs that game, but it wasn't enough for the win.

Lehigh Valley Live
But what few seem to remember is that the 2009 season was a success.

All the exasperation from the tough out-of-conference schedule revealed a team that was a lot closer than most people thought to great things.

Unfortunately, that team figured out how to win close games too late.

They lost to Colgate on a last-gasp drive, 27-20.  They gave heavily-favored Holy Cross a game, bowing out 24-20 on their last drive as well.

Into the Lafayette game Lehigh pulled in at 3-7, while 8-2 Lafayette was looking to beat their arch-rivals and get a likely at-large spot in the FCS playoffs.  At 9-2, they had a real chance.

That Lehigh team did figure out how to win.  They beat the Leopards 27-21 in overtime, with LB Al Pierce reaching up and grabbing the Leopard's postseason chances out of the air.

After that victory, the thoughts went over what could have been.  What if Lehigh figured out how to win those two home games against Colgate and Holy Cross?  On the last drive, both times?

The answer was - they could have been Patriot League champions, a thought that carried over into the following, historic season.  Head coach Andy Coen has told me before that all their success thereafter came from that one Lehigh/Lafayette game, the one in the season that was punctuated by so much frustration.  When the frustration was popped, the winning came.  And it came big.

Popping the frustration bubble and starting a winning streak is still a potential path for this Lehigh football team this season.  It is a big thing to be able to learn.  But it is possible.  If they remember the past, and forget the past.

*****

The second involves an old adage, but it still applies: playing as a team.

At times on Saturday, Lehigh's offense and defense were in a very good rhythm.  The defense was getting pressure on QB Brandon Hill, pressure that gave a chance from junior CB Olivier Rigaud to make an excellent play, and interception.

From there, the offense built off of the momentum perfectly, grasping the moment and scoring a touchdown to go ahead in the second half.

It was a perfect example of both sides of the ball acting in concert, like sprinters in a relay.  Defense hands the ball to the offense, the offense advances the baton and the score.

NJ.com
Lehigh's best teams have had this synergy, and you only need to go back to last year's team to see that.  QB Brandon Bialkowski and LB Nigel Muhammad had such clockwork going against Princeton that they overcame a three-score deficit against the Ivy League champions in a remarkable game.

Playing as a team, playing as unified, perfectly-timed units, takes time and work to put together - and not always only involving structured time with the coaches.  It takes hard work.  There is no other way.

Just like in life, sometimes forty hours isn't enough to get the software working.  Sometimes you have to go somewhere, and just work on that design project, drink that coffee and order that pizza, to get that A, even if it means staying up until four in the morning.

You need to know where you're supposed to be, what your assignment is.  It needs to be second nature - you shouldn't need to think about it.

Football and life are intertwined.  The same skills needed to make eleven offensive players put an oblong ball into an end zone are the same skills used to design successful apps, build businesses, create new materials.  Academics at Lehigh require the hard work.  So does successful Division I football.

I have to believe that this level of synergy can still be achieved this season.  I've seen this before.  It takes a while to learn for underclassmen, but by senior year, I think, it gets learnt.

*****

The final thing in LFN's How to Win, 101, is probably not rocket science, but still is applicable to this Lehigh team: stomping on the throat.

I was a fan of the NFL's New Orleans Saints when QB Bobby Hebert was the quarterback.  I loved the "Dome Patrol", their stifling defense.  I loved the fact that they were winning games 10-3 and this awkward-looking Cajun quarterback was making more flashy teams look silly, with guys like RB Dalton Hilliard and WR Eric Martin.

The one Achillies heel of those Saints, and it haunts me to this day, is that they would get leads on teams, but they wouldn't stomp on their throats to win the game.

The 1993 playoffs featured the Saints facing off against another hall-of-fame-caliber defensive team, the Philadelphia Eagles with DT Jerome Brown, DE Reggie White, LB Seth Joyner and many others.  Up 17-7 in the 3rd quarter, and RB Vaughn Dunbar getting a huge gain, the Saints were so, so close to getting the first-ever playoff win in franchise history.

But head coach Jim Mora took the pedal off the metal, meekly running the ball three times, content to let PK Morten Andersen get 3 points instead of aggressively pushing for a touchdown.

It was a place where aggressiveness and execution were required.  A touchdown would have likely broken the spirits of the Eagles, but instead a meaningless field goal kept it at a 2-score game.

Slowly, the Eagles would come back, WR Fred Barnett would make a huge, amazing reception, making the game 20-17.  Then, an awful, ill-advised pass by Hebert on the run - Hebert had all the grace of QB Bernie Kosar running the football, especially that season, and his pick wasn't even close to the intended receiver.

The points flowed like water for the Eagles - an utter nightmare for Saints fans, as one mistake after another led to a 36-20 win for Philadelphia.



There was that point in the game when the Saints had the Eagles right where they wanted them, but they kicked a field goal, thinking that there would be another opportunity for a stop or a score to put the game away.  That opportunity never came up again.

As a Saints fan, I look at this tape, and I cringe every time I see that play call to run off tackle twice and play for the field goal.  Are you kidding me?  Not one shot at the end zone?

You have to stomp on the throat whenever you can, because you never know whether you'll have another opportunity to win.

Games are fleeting.  Opportunities are fleeting.  There are only so many times and places where you can take advantage of those opportunities.  You can't afford to let them slip by, just like the Saints back on a cold, dark day for this Saints fan in 1993.

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