Lehigh was coming from a frustrating 2014 where the Mountain Hawks came close to beating James Madison at home, but couldn't finish the game, making Lehigh slide to an uncharacteristic 3-8 record.
There was the departure in the offseason of RB Chris Leigh, the one player that scored a touchdown for the Mountain Hawks in the 150th meeting between Lafayette and Lehigh in Yankee Stadium, and RB Brandon Yosha, the transfer running back that battled injury and chop blocks leading to his retirement from football as well.
With pretty much any other team and any other fan base, expectations for the year would have been low. But at Lehigh, expectations are sky-high, for better or for worse, all the time. Perhaps it's the historic success of the program; perhaps it's the fans, who are spoiled by all the Patriot League championships, wins over Lafayette, and FCS playoff wins, but that's what playing at Lehigh is all about.
What the 2015 Mountain Hawks will be best known for is righting the ship from that awful 2014 to return to the winning ways that all Lehigh fans seem to expect. Going into the 2015 offseason, the Mountain Hawks 6-5 record wasn't good enough to win a Patriot League championship - though they came very, very close - but it definitely shows that the foundation has been rebuilt for future success.
If you had told me in August that Lehigh would be competing neck-in-neck with Colgate for first in the Patriot League in rushing, I'd have called you nuts.
Going into 2015, no position on the field was as urgent to be filled as running back. Oft-injured RB D.J. Kee was the only running back returning, and he didn't even register a single carry in 2014. The only players returning with rushing yardage were junior QB Nick Shafnisky and sophomore WR Troy Pelletier.
If Lehigh was to improve on 2014 - never mind get a winning record, never mind competing for a Patriot League championship - they would need to discover a running game to complement Shafnisky with the incoming freshman class and returning players without a single collegiate carry.
That's exactly what the Mountain Hawks did.
|RB Nana Amankwah-Ayeh|
Not only did he succeed in the spring, he succeeded as well in the fall as the change-of-pace back that cemented several victories by extending drives to clinch wins. Of his 162 yards rushing, it seemed like they were all important - and, critically, without a fumble.
"I said to [offensive coordinator] Drew Folmar and [offensive line coach] Andy Marino that we need to get him in there because he's a bull; he's a hard guy to tackle," head coach Andy Coen told The Morning Call this season. "It's like the military sending some bombardment stuff in there. We put him in there and he hammered his way and hammered his way. That was kind of like he's coming out party and we've been using him more ever since, some games more than others."
There was also freshman RB Micco Brisker, who battled injury a good portion of the season but showed a flash of his abilities against the Ivy League co-champions Penn, rushing for 114 yards in Lehigh's 42-21 win.
And then there was the most successful Lehigh freshman running back in recent memory.
|RB Dominick Bragalone|
"I knew that when we recruited him he was going to have an opportunity to earn the starting job as freshman," Coen said after Lehigh beat Bucknell. "I think he really took to that idea and once he got his feet wet, he's become better each week."
Get better each week he did.
Dom was the first Lehigh freshman to ever rush for over 1,000 yards, that he is only the 11th 1,000 yard rusher in Lehigh history, that he would amass more that 100 all-purpose yards in nine of Lehigh's eleven games this season.
"It surprises me," Bragalone said of his early success, "but my goal was to start as a freshman and once I earned that starting spot, I've just been working harder and harder every day to get better."
His hard work led to accolades like as Patriot League freshman of the year, ECAC Offensive Rookie of the year, and becoming a finalinst on the national level for STATS FCS Rookie of the year.
The emergence of a robust running game, a resurgent offensive line, and the continued development of junior QB Nick Shafnisky and a young receiving corps were a huge factor in Lehigh's success in 2015.
|QB Nick Shafnisky|
Nick, who amazingly didn't make the all-Patriot League teams, amassed these statistics even after suffering a hip pointer against Fordham midway through the season, limiting his output in three different games by severely limiting his passing and rushing ability.
Even during the uncertainty of Shaf's injury, a tantalizing peek into the post-Shaf future was allowed as freshman QB Brad Mayes, the highly-touted quarterback out of Florida, stepped in during Shaf's hip pointer and helped guide the Mountain Hawks to wins over Georgetown and Holy Cross, while also coming close to engineering a comeback versus Fordham.
Shafnisky saved the best for last, though, in an MVP performance in the 151st meeting of The Rivalry against Lafayette.
After he scored his fifth touchdown against the Leopards, members of press row tore up their MVP ballots; it was a foregone conclusion that he would be the MVP. They didn't even hold the vote.
Overall, he would go 21-for-27 passing with with 4 passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown. With 283 yards passing and 109 net yards rushing, his 392 all-purpose yards were more than 80% of the Lehigh offense on the historic afternoon.
Shaf would be the first to tell anybody that his offensive line, led by senior OL Matt Ford, junior OL Zach Duffy and senior TE Chris Ruhl, were one of the big reasons why the Mountain Hawks were able to achieve as much as they had in 2015.
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Overall, the resurgence in Lehigh's offense was a huge part about what was great about the 2015 season, and what could be scary for the rest of the league may be that almost all of the same cast of characters come back for next year.
At the same time, the Mountain Hawks will look to bring more consistency to the offense from 2015 as well. When all pistons were firing, like the Lafayette, Penn and Colgate games, Lehigh was hard to stop. But there were other games where things weren't firing at the right times, such as the Princeton, Yale and James Madison games. If they can find that consistency, the Mountain Hawks could be in line for a special 2016.
The Lehigh defense also struggled to find consistency, though they did have their bright spots as well.
When the defense did click, as it did versus Central Connecticut (20-14), Penn (42-21) and Bucknell (21-10), the result were wins.
|LB Colton Caslow|
“Simply put, he is a savage,” Shaf said of Caslow, a team captain on the defense in 2015. “He is a tough player, mentally and physically, he is a leader and he is really committed to the team.”
But the Mountain Hawk defense really struggled to slow down some of the better offenses in their path in 2015, such as playoff participants Fordham, Colgate and James Madison, all of whom put up 49 points or more on the defense.
When things were going right, you'd see a multitude of tackles for loss from the Lehigh defense from guys like senior NG Greg Palma (5 1/2 TFL), senior DE Matt Laub (5 1/2 TFL) and senior LB Noah Robb (5 sacks). You'd also see some fantastic big plays on defense, like Rigaud's scoop-and-score vs. Princeton, or junior CB Brandon Leaks' scoop-and-score versus Lafayette.
|LB Matt Laub|
Once opponents got to the Lehigh red zone, they often scored, converting 41 of 48 attempts (including 34 touchdowns). The defense only forced 13 turnovers all season, including only five interceptions, which hurt. In the Fordham game alone, the Lehigh defense gave up four scoring plays of 30 yards or more, all of them touchdowns, while RB Chase Edmonds, an FCS all-American, ran roughshod over Lehigh for an eye-popping 347 net rushing yards and 502 all purpose yards, not to mention 4 touchdowns.
Critical in Lehigh's offseason will be to shore up the defense in a big way, especially up front. They don't need to be the Purple People Eaters of the 1970s Vikings, but they do need to be more consistent getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and plugging running gaps. No back should be able to decimate a Lehigh defense the way Edmonds did in the Bronx.
Not to be lost on this season is the progression of special teams.
Going into the season, there were as many questions about the kicking game as there were about the running game. But freshman PK Ed Mish rapidly put to rest any questions about consistency in that area.
|PK Ed Mish|
And while injury affected the membership of the punt and kickoff return units, all season guys like freshman KR Donavon Harris, freshman WR Mike Gies, sophomore PR Marc Raye-Redmond and freshman PR Luke Cristano all fielded individual returns of greater than 20 yards during the season.
Finally, senior P Austin Devine finished his career with a fine year, averaging nearly 40 yards per punt.
It all spelled a much more satisfying end to the season than 2014 - a fun ride for everyone, and having most of the Lehigh faithful looking to see how next year's squad can build on the great foundation that the 2015 team left to build on.
Not a bad place to be in December.