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Princeton Weekend Shows Work Needs To Be Done To Be Contenders

I always enjoy making the trip to catch a Princeton game when I can.

Aside from the sentimental attachment that I have to the place, there's a lot to recommend it as a destination for anyone.

After Lehigh's 52-26 loss to Princeton, however, the Mountain Hawk people I saw after the game couldn't wait to get out of there and regroup.

Everything about this early, challenging schedule for the Mountain Hawks seems to have been designed to determine how close Lehigh is at becoming contenders once again.  It's a challenging, strong out-of-conference schedule that doesn't need an FBS team on it to make it a stern test for this group of players.

If anything in particular was learned about this weekend's game, it's that this Mountain Hawk team still needs work in order to win their Patriot League games and possibly win a Patriot League championship.  Spectacular individual plays, like junior CB Brandon Leaks upending Princeton RB Dre Nelson, are great, and like any other Lehigh fan I love to see them.  But the stuff needed to win football games are greater than individual plays, unfortunately.


If you're within easy driving distance of Murray Goodman, Princeton Stadium isn't that much further away.  (In fact, for me it's a quicker drive than Murray Goodman.)

A Great Day At The Gate, But Not A Sellout
The stadium is a fantastic place to watch a football game, and not just from the press box.

In the middle of Princeton's campus, within walking distance of a world-class art museum and a fantastic row of main street eateries anywhere, it's as beautiful a stadium in its own way as Liberty University's Williams Stadium, Tubby Raymond Field at Delaware, or any number of college football venues in the Northeast.

If it has a weakness, it's that it's so large that the fans can get lost if the game isn't a sellout.

That was the impression I had as I was walking through the campus with my family, seeing loads of alumni, visitors and students walking through campus.  Some were headed to the football game with the 5:00 PM kickoff, but some of the students carting their laptops were obviously not there to catch the game.

Every time I come here I think about the fact that the Ivy League doesn't participate in the FCS playoffs, and how exciting it would be on Princeton's campus specifically if the Tigers didn't just try to compete for an Ivy League championship but an NCAA FCS National Championship as well.

Princeton Stadium potentially can seat 27,000 fans.  This weekend, the official attendance was 15,023, and it didn't feel like there were 15,000 fans in the seats, though for certain the promise of post-game fireworks brought in a significant number of fans that might not ordinarily have watched the game.

I can't speak to the last time Princeton Stadium hosted 27,000 rabid football fans, but it's worth thinking about the sort of atmosphere that could be created here in December if, Princeton, say hosted Delaware or James Madison in a first or second round playoff game.

Last season, a somewhat disappointing 5-5 campaign for the Tigers, Princeton averaged under 10,000 fans at their games last year, with a throttling by Dartmouth being witnessed by a little more than 6,000 football fans.

Certainly the record had something to do with that low turnout, but not everything.

It's hard to comprehend the lack of enthusiasm for the FCS playoffs from all members of the Ivy League, from the presidents on down to the students.

The FCS playoffs would really give Ivy League football a real shot in the arm in terms of excitement.

In case the Ivy League folks were wondering, nobody in the FCS community is confused that schools like Princeton, Harvard and Yale will suddenly, upon throwing their hats in the ring, admit academically unqualified students in an effort to pursue an FCS National Championship over all else.

Imagine This Scene If An FCS Playoff Bid Were On The Line
They don't do so in basketball.  Why is the leadership of the Ivy League specifically afraid about football?

What is fairly clear to me is if the Ivy League decided to participate in the playoffs and entered the 21st century in terms of 11 game schedules and adding a bye week, lots more people across the nation would be interested in Ivy League football.

Take, for example, North Dakota State fans.

Right now, Bison fans don't care one whit about Harvard's relative worth on the FCS pantheon because they're never going to play the Crimson, and Harvard has elected not to participate in the championship forum in which the majority of FCS competes.  Why should they care about the Ivy League if the Ivy League essentially rejects the championship they themselves value?

If the Ivy League participated in the playoffs. I have to believe that more Princeton people would think about putting down their laptops and checking out the game in a stadium that puts many of the venues in the lower echelons of FBS to shame.

I'd imagine the streets of Princeton during a day like that would be a sight to behold.

As it stands right now, though, Princeton/Dartmouth is a game that involves the Ivy League diehard fans, the fine alumni of both schools, and few other people.

That's not a game that is going to get a lot of traction beyond two small football communities, even if the Ivy League title were on the line.

Now imagine that game having the implication of an FCS playoff spot.

Suddenly, New Hampshire fans care, if their team is in the playoff hunt.  Same with Fordham, Robert Morris, Delaware, or any number of other schools in the area, and that doesn't even count some of the great teams nationally like North Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Sam Houston State, or the Montana's.

For some reason, the leadership of the Ivy League doesn't wish to share in this excitement with its members.  And it's a shame that they don't, because they don't know what they're missing.

*****

For Lehigh, there shouldn't be a talk of playoffs (yet), but rather, perhaps, a return to respectability.

Sometimes I think Lehigh fans forget that last season was 3-8 with a lot of question marks after the season.  They forget about the loss to Lafayette in the 150th meeting of the Rivalry.  They forget that they were picked fifth out of seven teams in the Patriot League this season, behind Fordham, Bucknell, Colgate and Lafayette.

But this game was a microcosm of the potential of this Lehigh team, one that seems agonizingly close to turning the corner, but hasn't yet.

Head coach Andy Coen emphatically didn't want to use the excuse of youth to explain the mistakes that helped lead to Lehigh's defeat this weekend.   "I'm tired of telling people it's a young team," he told Keith Groller and I during the post-game.  "We have freshman that are out there playing - they've got to play.  The expectations for a junior or senior who's been playing, the expectations are greater, obviously.  We have some of those guys stepping up, and some of those guys haven't yet."

For most of the first half, Lehigh played Princeton toe-to-toe.

The defense made two great stops in the first half, one set up by Leaks' head-over-heels hit on Nelson and a huge 4th down stop by senior LB Noah Robb.

Though the defensive stops did lead to field goals and not touchdowns, I felt like the game could end up as a see-saw battle between evenly matched teams.

Freshman RB Dom Bragalone
But the Tigers' then unleashed some trickery that seemed to take the defense off guard just enough, and led to the two quick touchdowns to make it 24-13.   In-between possessions, when the Lehigh offense got the ball back, Princeton's defense brought enough extra pressure to force Lehigh into a 3-and-out.

“There was no panic on our sideline,” Princeton head coach Bob Surace said afterwards.  “There was no pointing fingers or throwing their helmets. You have to go strap it up and play the next play, have confidence in your guys.”

The third quarter was a story of Lehigh turnovers that made a 24-13 deficit into a 31-13 deficit.

One interception led to a back-breaking pick six.

It's not like Princeton LB R.J. Paige made a great play on the ball.  The ball came right to him off a deflection from the receiver, and all he needed to do is run a clear seam to the end zone to get the touchdown.

During the course of the entire game, it wasn't like Lehigh was out-manned.  It wasn't like Lehigh wasn't getting yardage against the Tiger defense.  In fact two of the four turnovers came on plays that could have been huge momentum boosts, a 4th quarter conversion by junior QB Nick Shafnisky that was fumbled and a huge pass reception by sophomore WR Troy Pelletier that ended with Tiger FS Dorian Wilson ripped from him.

“Just pursuing the ball,” said Williams, who actually forced both of Lehigh's fumbles.  “Every day in camp, coach stressed it — 11 people to the ball. It’s what we’ve been doing, it’s what we’ve been taught, so it’s kind of ingrained in our memories.”

Mistakes like this won't win Lehigh many more football games, but fortunately they are still mistakes that can be corrected in time for league play.

The silver lining is that take away the mistakes, and Lehigh's not so different from Princeton.

There were times during the game when it looked like the Mountain Hawks had the sort of offense that would be extremely tough to stop during league play.

When freshman RB Dominick Bragalone really got going on Saturday, he looked like he could be a very special player for the Mountain Hawks.  Everyone after the game had nothing but great things to say about him.

Add to that an effective Nick Shafnisky finding Troy Pelletier week after week, and it's still a tantalizing proposition to see what this offense can be capable of.

Princeton RB DiAndre Atwater (The Trentonian)
And lost in the game was Lehigh's defensive play, which was doing such a good job containing Princeton that Surace had to open up the playbook and break out the two and three QB formations to get the offense started.

Senior CB Olivier Rigaud forced a fumble from Princeton QB Chad Kanoff  and ran it all the way back for a touchdown.  That nearly brought Lehigh back into it, a great individual play where he stripped the ball, picked it up, and took it to the house.

Yet despite the flashes of great plays, Lehigh didn't string enough of them together to give the Mountain Hawks enough momentum to come away with the win.

At the end, behind the rushing and receiving of Nelson and RB DiAndre Atwater, momentum was squarely in the camp of Princeton, sealing Lehigh's fate.

This Lehigh team feels like it's close, but not there yet.

There's certain things average teams do, and there's certain things winning teams do.  Lehigh still has the opportunity to figure that out.  But there's only one out-of-conference game at home left to prove that before Patriot League play starts.

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