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Villanova 26, Lehigh 21 Postgame Thoughts: It's Not How You Start, But How You Finish

I like winning.

Who doesn't?

Admittedly, it is a bit of a selfish impulse on my part.  It is always easier to recap a heroic made-for-TVesque Lehigh win than a loss.  Narratives and nicknames flow like water when games have outcomes like that.

Not so today, after Lehigh's 0-2 start.  It's harder to pull together the game recaps when the outcomes of the games instead show a team that is on the brink of learning how to win, but hasn't been able to figure out how to turn that corner.

Two games into the season, I don't see a Lehigh team that is necessarily bad, or pointed in the wrong direction.

Instead, I see a team that is trying to figure out how to put away a tough opponent and win football games.

And frankly, there's nothing wrong with that yet.

*****

Trying to hit the right tone after a loss like Saturday's poses a special challenge.

I've seen all sorts of Lehigh wins and losses.  I've seen all the highs and the lows of the Andy Coen era.

Makes Me Smile, Always
I've seen the most thrilling FCS playoff win I've ever seen in person at Towson, and I was at Yankee Stadium in November of 2014, the worst of all the Rivalry defeats by a team sporting Brown and White.

But by far the hardest games to get right are these "moral victories," where Lehigh plays a truly strong game across the board against a team that is expected to be a playoff team, but falls just short.

By any measure, Villanova is a strong team at this point of the year.  Their defense held Pitt to only 28 points, a squad that turned around and hung 42 on Penn State.  If you're grading on a curve, Lehigh's offense scoring 21 points on this daunting unit - not bad.

Sitting at No. 19 in the FCS Coaches' poll, the Wildcats were a playoff team last year, and were picked to finish 4th in the CAA, behind the No. 2 team in the nation that eviscerated Virginia in Week 1 (Richmond), and two current Top 25 teams that were also FCS playoff teams last season, William & Mary and James Madison.

Given a recent history like that, many rightfully expected that Lehigh might struggle against the Wildcats, as is befitting their ranking.

They Are Pretty Good
But that's not what happened.

On the road, the Mountain Hawks came in and came back from a 6-0 deficit to go up 14-6 at half, stuffing the Villanova run game on 4th-and-1 and orchestrating two excellent scoring drives.  At times during that half, Coen said in the post-game presser said that the Mountain Hawks "dominated the line-of-scrimmage at times."  Against such a quality team like Villanova, that's very positive.

We all know the rest of the story: in a game of inches, Lehigh came up just short on 4th and 10 to turn over the ball on downs.

Yet that escapes a key point: against the No. 19 team in the country, the Mountain Hawks were in a position to win.

Which is, of course, the conundrum of the coverage of the game.  They were right there!  They had a chance to win what could have been a season-defining game that pushes them through a daunting out-of-conference schedule that features three awfully tough Ivy League opponents in defending Ivy League co-champions Penn, always-tough Princeton, and Yale at the Yale Bowl, a place where Lehigh hasn't won in over a decade.

But it didn't happen that way.  Instead, Lehigh starts out 0-2.

The end result is a mix of happiness that the Mountain Hawks were in it, and yet undeniably frustrating that Lehigh, on the brink of achieving a season-defining upset, came one or two yards short of the goal.

I think the most important thing to remember is how this loss, in the end, will not define Lehigh's season.

My mind keeps drifting back to Colgate, and the Raiders' 2015 season in particular.

If you were "Colgate Football Nation" at this stage of the 2015 season, two games in, the Raiders started the season 0-2.

They got trounced by Navy, 48-10, and then got pulverized by New Hampshire the following week, 26-8.

Would Colgate Football Nation have rushed to the exits, saying that things needed "fixing" and saying the season was on the brink of disaster?

Sure, there was a higher level of concern among the fans when Yale pulled off a miracle comeback to beat the Raiders the following week, 29-28, to give Colgate an 0-3 start.

Not a Panic Moment for Colgate Fans
But, crucially, the wheels didn't come off most of that fanbase.  Frankly, they're used to an early-season schedule of incredibly daunting opponents, a trend that continued last weekend when their ancient Rival Syracuse pounded them 33-7 in the first game of the Dino Babers era.

After Colgate's 0-3 start, in what was unquestionably the most crucial game of the season, an away game at Holy Cross, it was the Raiders successfully pulling away late in the second half for a 31-14 victory.

It set the tone for the rest of the season, and you know the rest of that story.  It ended with a Patriot League championship, wins over Fordham and Lehigh, a rematch win over New Hampshire, and a shock victory over James Madison.

Looking back now, it's easy to see that Colgate team as one that took some time to find itself.  But they did, and it happened in spite of the two hugely lopsided losses in the first two weeks.

Colgate fans that stayed the course after their 0-2 start were rewarded.

What about other fanbases after this past football weekend?

Is Fordham Football Nation ready to put their team in the FCS national championship game after eviscerating an 0-2 Division II team 83-21, a game that was 31-0 at one point and ended up as a glorified practice in the second half?

Is Georgetown Football Nation starting to panic after only beating Marist 20-17, relying on a 4th down touchdown pass to preserve victory?  Are they asking to revoke the need-based aid of their starting quarterback?

Probably not panic button time for Bison
Is Bucknell Football Nation in the dumps after giving up 30 points to last year's NEC champions and FCS playoff participants Duquensne?  Are they calling for the offensive coordinator's head and asking for a switch to the Wing-T?

What about the two other Patriot League teams that lost last weekend, Holy Cross and Lafayette?  Are their fanbases crying that the season is over after losing to New Hampshire and Delaware last weekend?

If they are, they are missing the point of this part of the preseason.

The nature of the first two games of the season is that they're an "incomplete".  Would season-defining wins been welcome?  Definitely.  But they're no reason to panic.

For my part, after sleeping on it and getting over how Lehigh was this close to beating the No. 19 team in the nation, I see a lot to be hopeful about for the rest of the season.  There was a lot of improvement from the first weekend, and there's no reason to believe that the improvement won't continue going into next weekend's visit to Franklin Field.

I don't know what the future has in store for Lehigh in the next three out-of-conference games, before a no-doubt-about-it important game vs. Colgate in October.  But what I do think is that this team deserves everyone's patience over the next three weeks.  Based on a very good performance on Saturday - one that came up a yard short - that's the least we can do for them.

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