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Monmouth at Lehigh Game Preview: Mountain Hawk Defense Will Be Front And Center

"I hit him with a double move, and then I knew I had him beat," Monmouth WR Eric Sumlin said after the game, thrilled with the play of his Hawks.  "It was a great feeling."

The happy occasion - or unhappy occasion, in the case of Lehigh fans - was Monmouth's come-from-behind 28-21 victory over the Mountain Hawks a couple of years ago.

It certainly wasn't the lowest point of that ill-fated 2014 Lehigh football season - there's zero question that the Razzie there goes for the 150th meeting of the Rivalry - but it was an unquestionable sign that there were problems that needed fixing.

When Monmouth last made it to Goodman Stadium, Lehigh was riding a three game losing streak, a long injury list, and a need to turn things around, fast, before Patriot League conference play.

Going into that game, Lehigh was 120th out of 121 FCS teams in total defensive yardage allowed, and that needed fixing, fast.  Monmouth, no longer the non-scholarship team Lehigh played for the first time so long ago, now were transitioning to the maximum number of scholarships, and had some scary, experienced players running Kevin Callahan's pistol offense.

Though an exciting Lehigh sophomore named QB Nick Shafnisky was under center and putting up a lot of points, the Mountain Hawks weren't putting up as many points as their opponents.  And with the Jersey Hawks at 2-1, and Leigh at 0-3, Monmouth had to be excited that their first-ever win against the Mountain Hawks was in reach.

In that 28-21 game, everything seemed to go wrong for Lehigh.  Shafnisky, ably taking the rest of the offense with him, Shaf was getting the Mountain Hawks into scoring position when disaster struck.

"On his 22nd rush of the afternoon, he fell awkwardly after his run and appeared to have a head injury," I wrote, "meaning the coaching staff needed to take his helmet and QB Matt McHale would enter the game."

McHale wouldn't do badly, but a pass to WR Troy Pelletier short of the sticks, setting up a go-ahead field goal try that would end up being blocked.

"It was a low snap, from the backup center, to a kid holding for his first-ever appearance in a game," head coach Andy Coen said afterwards.  "Stuff like that's happening, and that's part of the game, and you work through it."

From there, Lehigh's defense simply could not stop a Monmouth offense who was dead-set on proving they could finish a game.

Aided by huge defensive penalties and several big third-down conversions, Monmouth QB Brandon Hill kept picking apart and picking apart the Mountain Hawks defense, and RB Levon Chaney, a backup pressed into the starting role, would rack up 200 all-purpose yards on the afternoon and convert two critical 3rd down runs.  For his part, Hill would go 6 for 7 passing and convert a critical 3rd down to WR Neal Sterling before Sumlin hit the Lehigh safety with the double move that led to the loss.

It wasn't the first loss of that year, or the last loss of that year.  But it was painfully memorable in the way that it showed that Lehigh had, suddenly, forgotten how to win.

The loss wasn't totally on just one unit, but it was impossible not to take a look at the defense that final drive and not rehash missed tackles, a missed assignment, not stopping a running play on 3rd-and-1 that might have stemmed the tide.

Just a year before, Lehigh was ranked in the Top 25 and showing FCS Nation how even three-touchdown halftime deficits weren't enough to keep them down.  Even though Lehigh had lost a heartbreaker to James Madison in the season opener and suffered defeat at New Hampshire, there was no need to hit the panic button - those were strong teams that would end up in the FCS playoffs.

During a beautiful mid-summer day in early autumn, however, the Mountain Hawks were revealed to no longer be the type of team that can run with New Hampshire and tussle with Yale.  "Stuff" was happening.


As we fast-forward to the present week, Lehigh and Monmouth are both similar teams.

The Hawks from Monmouth ended last season at 5-6, Lehigh at 6-5.

Both teams won their final games, giving both squads a lot of optimism headed into the season.

Both were picked to finish 3rd in their respective conferences - Monmouth was picked to finish behind Charleston Southern, last year's surprise emergence in the Big South, and Liberty, who every year seems to spend some time in the FCS Top 25.

And both are finally, basically, even steven when it comes to "conventional" scholarship athletes, Monmouth with 63, Lehigh close to the Patriot League limit of 60.

That's on top of the fact that the last three meetings have come down to the final quarter.

"I think it's a good game," Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said.  "It's a game against fairly even teams, and I think the last three meetings with them have reflected that.  Both teams are going to go play hard, both teams are both going to play the games to the very end.  We beat them last time, and the time before, they beat us in the last minute of the game.  It's been one of those type of games and I would expect more of the same this time."

On the Lehigh side, the focus is all about improving the defense.

LB Pierce Ripanti
"I think the changes are twofold," senior LB Pierce Ripanti said in this Wednesday's media session.  "with Xs and Os, and also with mentality.  I think the coaches and us players have made some adjustments to the little things and the schemes we run.  It's also been a change in mindset - we want to play a lot faster, a lot more physical, a lot more tenacious."

Ripanti said that the linebackers as a unit have high expectations on themselves.

"We're a veteran group, all seniors, all guys which have had four, even five years worth of experience," Ripanti said.  "We have to lead the defense for the younger guys and be the anchor for our defense."

Pierce wants to come out to a fast start against Monmouth, and also brought up a theme mentioned by other defensive players in the preseason: "doing your 1/11th".

This weekend's season opener will certainly be a proving ground for Lehigh's defense.  It also should, if history is any guide, be a heck of a ball game - and one that could, for good or ill, be an indicator of the rest of the season.

Game Notes, Injuries, And Media Roundup
The first game notes of the season are all about the reveal, and the biggest reveal comes on defense, where a true freshman, freshman FS Riley O'Neil, appears to have won the starting job in camp, with the previously-expected starter, sophomore FS Mike Gies, backing him up.

The other big reveal is that senior LB Colton Caslow, who had a broken hand early on in preseason practice, is still out, meaning senior LB Evan Kauffman will be starting in the captain's place on Saturday.  Backing him up should be junior LB Cal Coffman.

Morning Call: Lehigh ready to show off an improved defense in opener against Monmouth
"The defense is definitely going to play with a chip on its shoulder," said Ripanti, a Wilmington, Del., product. "We know people are curious about how we're going to perform this year. We're taking it as a challenge. People keep asking me if we feel pressure. I don't think it's pressure. It's a challenge and everybody is ready to step up to the challenge and earn respect."
Weather Report
Those hoping for a sunny home opener might need to keep an eye on the weather report.  Morning tailgates as of right now are looking fine with a high in the upper 70s, but PM showers loom in the forecast with a 40% chance of rain.

Special Stuff Happening
This year, I wanted to start highlighting all the special things that make up the Lehigh football game experience, home and away.  In years past I've tried to give all of these activities a shout, but I haven't made them a formal section of the preview.  I think that should change, so I'm going to go for it this year.

The Monmouth game is officially "Lehigh Young Football Alumni Day", and at halftime members of recent Mountain Hawk teams from 2012-2016 will be honored down on the field.  Interested in participating?  Contact the Lehigh Football Partnership for details.

After the game Rauch Field House will host the sixth annual "Meet the Marching 97 Picnic".   The cost is $20, and you can register here.  The best part?  No, not that the money goes to support the Marching 97 - it's that Goosey Gander is catering the event, and your $20 goes towards Goosey "tailgate fare"!

Famous Monmouth Person You've Never Heard Of
Monmouth Grad
Bet you never thought I'd never mention the word "shadchan" in a football preview - I know I never did - but as it turns out, Real Housewife of New Jersey Siggy Flicker not only is a professional matchmaker - she plays one on TV, too.

Her wikipedia page says she graduated with a BA in communications from Monmouth (a pretty apt degree, you have to admit, if you're a professional matchmaker), and supported herself as a waitress at TGI Friday's.

In a related story, I ate a few times at TGI Friday's in New Jersey, and I have some regrets.

LFN's Drink of the Week #DOTW
Speaking of TGI Friday's, Monmouth, and New Jerseyans, let's run with this as it relates to this weekend's Drink of the Week.

What TGI Friday's-themed drink is appropriate to celebrate a surprisingly tough football matchup against a up-and-coming New Jersey school with a men's basketball bench that is arguably more famous than their actual team?

I took a spin on TGI Friday's site and looked for a drink that brought it all together.  As you might expect, TGI Friday's drink list was a fairly conventional list of Manhattans, Martinis, and Daquiris.

Ultimately I decided on the Sidecar - although a bit classic and simple, it seemed the most appropriate for a summer tailgate, and besides, I like good cognac (3 parts) and good cointreau (2 parts) and lemon juice (1 part).  Just take a lemon wedge, work it around the glass, dip it some powdered sugar, and pour.

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that.


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