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UNH Was An Object "Lesson" in FCS Football For Mountain Hawks

"Have fun writing this game up," a journalist friend helpfully told me on Saturday when the Mountain Hawks fell behind 4-1.

No, Virginia, it wasn't a whole lot of fun writing up Lehigh's drubbing by UNH.

Losses are no fun for any Lehigh football fan, of course.  It's no more fun to write about a oh-so-close-to-a-win game against James Madison than it is to give up fifty points to your mortal rival.

It was awful hard to grasp at some positives about a game which was pretty much over at halftime.

But I did find some.

The biggest one of all is that this is not the FBS, where a September loss can spell the difference of the plus-one playoffs and a mid-tier bowl.

Even though Lehigh is 0-2, they are not knocked out yet.

In the last three games that Lehigh has played that have counted, they have given up 498, 606, and 646 yards of offense.

One game might be a fluke.  Two games might be a trend.

But with three straight games where the Mountain Hawks are giving up essentially more than 500 yards a game, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that there needs to be improvement - and fast.

It doesn't make me happy, nor does it makes other fans happy.  Nor should it.

The play that sticks out to me as the one that determined the game occurred in the 1st quarter, tied at 0.  UNH was lining up for a field goal on 4th and 5, and UNH QB Andy Vailas mishandled a low snap and had to run right with the ball.

Instead of tackling Vailas for a loss, though, or even just short of the sticks, Vailas was able to surge for a 1st down and goal, which the Wildcats would convert for an easy 7-0 lead.

After that potential goal-line stand was turned into a UNH touchdown, Lehigh's offense never got in any sort of rhythm, though UNH's very, very good defenders had a lot to do with that.

But why?  Why couldn't anyone bring down Vailas behind the sticks?

If it were 4th and 1, I could see it, or if it was a fake, or a fast-developing play.  But it wasn't.  It was a slow-developing sweep, a place where someone had to stop up and make a play.  Nobody did.

I know there's individual talent in Lehigh's defense; I've seen it with my own eyes.  But until Lehigh defenders step up and make plays like that one, I fear that we're going to see more 500 and 600 yard days by opposing offenses.

As aggravating as these things are, the sunny optimist in me tries to justify the performance somewhat.

"The Lafayette game was still a one-off event," I try to convince myself, "while losing to James Madison and New Hampshire, well, that was certainly in the realm of possibility.  They have 63 scholarships, the maximum allowed in the FCS by law, and let's be honest, they are CAA teams.  The CAA teams enter into this FCS season with their ultimate goal the national championship.  We don't always do that."

There were many years when Lehigh was criticized for playing a weaker schedule than teams from what are considered elite conferences at the FCS level.

The CAA has teams like New Hampshire, the SoCon had teams like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, the Missouri Valley have North Dakota State, the Southland has Sam Houston State.  All these teams are (or were) considered royalty, teams proven weekly by constant tests against powerful teams.

This was Lehigh's chance to prove to the wider FCS world that they were up to the challenge, but they didn't succeed.

Last weekend I asked head coach Andy Coen about the tough opening schedule for the Mountain Hawks, how much of a challenge it is.  He didn't shirk away from the challenge at all.  "You've got to schedule these guys, and you've got to beat them," he said.  "Opportunities like this don't always come around, and you have to take advantage of them.. We weren't able to take advantage of them today."

The Patriot League, in any given year has one or two teams that can always compete with the best teams in the nation.

A lot of years, that team is Lehigh.  But Fordham and Colgate have had a fair measure of playoff success, too.

As well as Lehigh has done in the playoffs, Colgate made it all the way to the I-AA National Championship Game in 2003, upsetting Howard Schnellenberger's Florida Atlantic team in the semifinals in a game that still makes me smile today.

Yet the Patriot League conference slate has never been the same as facing James Madison and New Hampshire week in and week out.

Being humbled in consecutive weeks by CAA teams does make one pause to think about how strong the CAA is this season.  Add in Fordham's crushing defeat to Villanova 50-6 and it shows maybe that the whole league might have some distance to go to make it to the pinnacle.

And yet.

The playoffs are not determined in Week 2.

They're determined at the end of the regular season - after the Patriot League conference slate, and #Rivalry150.

One of the best, most underrated aspects of FCS is that teams can start 0-2 but still win their conference, make the playoffs - and make a run.

It's a lot like UConn the last few years in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.  What made their run great was how they put everything together just in time to make the tournament, get hot, and win the national championship.

The same thing can certainly happen in Lehigh's case - if they learn the "lessons" of these two teams, of which one or both might be playing in the playoffs in December.

It certainly seems like the Mountain Hawks have some offensive tools to keep up with a lot of other schools, and it seems like sophomore QB Nick Shafnisky and other members of the offense are taking the setbacks as "lessons" in what it takes to be champions.

"It was tough and I made some bad calls with the protections," Shafnisky told Keith Groller of the Morning Call after the game. "They just blitzed like crazy. They were coming at us with six-man and seven-man blitzes. Our line did as well as they could physically in picking it up. They blitzed a lot more than we thought. We'll learn from it and get better."

Shaf gets it - it's about learning, and get better.  Though champions are made in September, they are not determined in September.  That's probably the best lesson that Lehigh can learn from this weekend's game, a season where all the season's goals are laid out in front of them, ready to be collected - as long as everyone gets better.

It was a harsh lesson to learn on an unseasonably cool Saturday afternoon up in Durham.  But if it was just that - a lesson - Lehigh's season may just turn out OK.

After all, the last time Lehigh went to New Hampshire and got blown out of the Dungeon, it was 2010.  After the loss, the Mountain Hawks won seven straight games, beat Lafayette 20-13, and won a first-round playoff game against one of those hallowed teams from the Missouri Valley, Northern Iowa.

It can be done.  Even if it feels like we're not there yet.


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