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Big Part Of Lehigh Title Run Is Offensive Line Resurgence

Going into last weekend, most people thought that Holy Cross might pose a problem for the Mountain Hawks defensively.

The Crusader defense had shut out two opponents, contributing to wins over Lafayette two weeks ago, 42-0, and a CAA team, Albany, 37-0.

How would Lehigh's offensive line do against Holy Cross' defensive front?

Once the dust had settled on Saturday, the answer was: "just fine, thanks for asking."

The Mountain Hawks did an awful lot of things right on offense last week, jumping out to a 41-10 halftime lead, carving out 543 offensive yards and executing 83 offensive plays.  But the foundation for that offensive explosion came from a vastly improved performance on the offensive line.



In the final out-of-conference game of the season against Yale, Lehigh struggled mightily on offense in a 27-12 defeat.

"Not a good day, today, at all, particularly offensively," head coach Andy Coen said after that game. "I think Yale really dominated the line of scrimmage and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. They were not allowing us to really get anything going in the run game at all. I've said this before, but we have to have the balance. We have to be able to run the ball and we have to be efficient throwing the football."

Rough Day for Lehigh Versus Yale
Yale sacked Shafnisky 4 times that afternoon, and didn't allow a single touchdown pass in that game.  I didn't take it lightly, either, frustratingly penning a piece saying that Yale came into our house and pushed us around.

"We thought one of the keys to the game for us was to kind of limit [junior QB Nick Shafnisky's] opportunities to run with the football and have time throwing," Yale head coach Tony Reno said afterwards. "Did we get him every time? No. He's a heck of a football player and Lehigh's a great team. But for us, the biggest chance for us to keep Shafnisky off the scoreboard was to put some pressure on him in the pass game."

Junior OL Zach Duffy and the rest of the offensive line took the challenge.

"I think once league play started, we took a step back and realized what we needed to do for us to score points and win football games," he told me.  "Our motto has been to not only outplay our opponent, but physically dominate them with technique and effort. Coach Andy Marino has been drilling that into us and it's working."

The following week at Bucknell, Lehigh ditched their old gold helmets and switched to a new uniform combination, all-white jersey and pants with a white "Lehigh" helmet.

Junior OL Zach Duffy
Though some might have attributed the Mountain Hawks' offensive success to the new uniforms, a lot more of the reason for Lehigh's 21-10 win over the Bison was a revitalized, refocused offensive line, who allowed the Mountain Hawks to carve out 229 net rushing yards against one of the better defensive fronts in the Patriot League.

Against Fordham, Georgetown and Holy Cross, the Mountain Hawks have been gaining tons of yards both on the ground and through the air.  In the last three games, Lehigh has gained 491, 453, and 543 yards respectively of total offense.

That's on the O line of Duffy, senior OL Matt Cohen, senior OL Matt Ford, junior OL Brandon Short, and sophomore OL Tim O'Hara, as well as senior OL Stephen Camasta, who went down with an injury over this time, and senior TE Chris Ruhl.

"We're playing with a lot of confidence right now," Zach said.  "As a unit, we take a lot of responsibility in the success of our team."

For Zach against Holy Cross, it also included an unexpected play in recovering a fumble on a key drive in the first half.

"The fumble play was pretty wild," he said.  "I saw the ball fly up into the air when freshman QB Brad Mayes got hit, and my instincts kicked in. It felt like I got there in a split second, but from what everyone has jokingly said, I apparently looked like I was running in slow motion. I knew I was going to get pummeled by 2-3 guys as soon as I recovered it. I guess I got a lucky bounce."

Giving Shaf That Final "Push"
That "lucky bounce" was critical, because as soon as Duffy recovered the fumble, Mayes completed a pass to junior WR Jarrod Howard for a first down, keeping the drive alive until Shafnisky powered the ball into the end zone on a 10 yard running play, with O'Hara, for good measure, giving Shaf the final push to get him into the end zone.

Six plays on that drive were rushing plays of 5, 5, 7, 0, 5, and 10 yards, demonstrating how well Lehigh's offensive line was doing on that drive.

As it stands, Lehigh has it in their power to win a Patriot League co-championship behind this resurgent offensive line, but Zach and the rest of the unit knows very well it won't be easy.

"We had a blast on Saturday against Holy Cross, [but] we definitely have a challenge coming up," he told me.  "Colgate has a stout defense. They've managed to shut down their opponent's run game two weeks in a row. I think everyone was very impressed that they shut down RB Chase Edmonds. We're going to have to push ourselves this week at practice and prepare for a physical defensive front. The great thing right now is that we are playing with a lot of confidence, and peaking at the right time. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and right now Colgate is the best because they're unbeaten in the league."

Up in Hamilton, it should be an old-fashioned trench battle versus Colgate, and Zach and the offensive line, I'm sure, would have it no other way.

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