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James Madison's Onsides Kick Up 31 Can Help Lehigh Have A Successful Season

When James Madison head coach Everett Withers was asked about attempting an onsides kick against Lehigh while up 31 points, he made the simple observation that the opportunity was there for the taking.

At home, watching the game streamed live to my big TV screen, I won't lie - I was furious.

After thinking about it a day, though, maybe I should be thanking him.

For coach Withers may not have meant it in this way, but the key to a successful season for Lehigh in 2015 may have been that onsides kick - what it meant, what it showed, and how this football team can take that moment going forward.




One of the hardest things to do in all of college football is for an FCS team to go undefeated.

Think about it a second.  If you are a historically great FBS team with a 12 game schedule, you have four out-of-conference games, with at least three games played at home, with perhaps one team that is competing with more than twenty fewer scholarships.  If you have a schedule like that, you will win an awful lot of games and have a chance to be undefeated.

But in FCS, you invariably have tough road games - yardstick games - against bigger schools.  Sometimes you go up against a team that has twenty more scholarships.  On the road at their place.  And most schools have these form of play-up games, whether they are FCS fighting against FBS teams or a replenishing FCS team going up against one of the elite teams of FCS.

There are exceptions to this FCS rule.  Harvard, whose 2015 out-of-conference schedule consists of Lafayette, Rhode Island and Georgetown, have chosen to play three teams who went a combined 9-25 in 2014.

No objective person in their right mind would say that Harvard's schedule was attempting to offer the same type of challenge as, say, Howard University, who traveled to Boston College this past weekend to play an noncompetitive game vs. the Eagles.  (The 76-0 game was so bad that Boston College elected to play with ten minute quarters in the second half to just get the game over with faster.)

But Lehigh chose differently this season, choosing to head down to Harrisonburg to play James Madison in their expensive temple of football.  They chose to make that trip to fulfill a home-and-home contract, of course, but they also chose the game because it was meant to be a challenge.

Challenges like this are good for a football team.

I remember back in 2010 a Lehigh football team that started the year winning modestly vs. Drake, a non-scholarship school based in Iowa, and getting dominated by Villanova 35-0, the defending national champions.

Watching Lehigh's offense go against a brick wall that day was not a lot of fun, but that team transformed itself over the course of that season, winning seven straight games to sweep the Patriot League schedule and earn a playoff trip to Northern Iowa, where the Mountain Hawks would "upset" the Panthers 14-7.

People gave up on Lehigh after that 35-0 loss, too, but the players didn't.  They learned from it, and another tough loss at New Hampshire two weeks later, taking something positive from it.

Games like this are a challenge, but not a total surprise when they are a loss.  They're especially not a surprise when it's a young team competing out on the field, with a large number of true freshmen on the two-deep.  Many of the players making the trip had only seen their first look on a Division I field against Central Connecticut a week ago.  James Madison was their first look at a team that is a real contender for a playoff spot.

They got to see an Everett Withers team up close.  They got to see an Everett Withers team that would show no mercy.  They got to see an Everett Withers team execute their fast-break offense, one that makes it awfully hard to compose tweets in-game because by the time you've made one pithy observation, the offense has executed two more plays.

They also found an Everett Withers team that showed no respect for Lehigh's defense or special teams.

Withers decided to go for the onsides kick because he could.  Because he thought he could grab it from them.

And he did.

Withers wanted another shot at Lehigh's defense because he thought they could score again, even up 31.

And he did.

Withers didn't break any rule.  Football isn't a game where mercy is part of the rulebook, and I think it's pretty clear that this Lehigh team knows that.

And by doing that, he also showed what much of the world of FCS probably thinks of Lehigh as well.  That they don't have a defense that can keep up with their offenses.

It may not have been a very classy move, but it shows what Lehigh needs to do.  They must take the lumps from this loss, and use them to get better.

It can be done, to take those bruises and have them heal to help Lehigh become the sort of team that commands the respect of someone like Everett Withers.

It can learn to be able to cold-bloodedly be take a turnover from the other team and confidently execute to be able to turn it into six points more often than not.

It can learn to make a team pay for trying an onsides kick, one that can come any time an opponent tries one, whether down by 31 points or up by 31 points.

It can learn to find a way to make teams pay on defense by making them earn every yard.

It can learn how to clean up mistakes, make improvements, and end with a successful season.

But most importantly it needs to be able to look at a coaching move like this one, and simply know and understand that they are not the sort of team that would even try an onsides kick up by 31, because it's not the sort of thing that a classy bunch of coaches and players do.  Because that's not how a team Lehigh does business.

In that respect, it's hard to think of a more perfect example showing simultaneously where Lehigh needs to be and what Lehigh must never become - all on one singular play.

And for that, we should be thanking Everett Withers immensely.  He has given Lehigh a great opportunity to improve, given an opportunity to forge an identity as a team, and given an opportunity to develop this young squad into one that commands respect.

I do not know what the season will bring, but I am genuinely excited to see what the rest of this season will bring, starting with the game versus Penn.  It will be interesting to see what this team has learned - and where they will go from here.

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