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Bucknell at Lehigh Game Preview: Reversing A Mountain Hawks Curse

Perhaps you've heard that the Cubs, managed by a Lafayette grad called Joe Maddon, broke their more than century old championship drought vs. the Cleveland Indians last night.

The Lehigh Mountain Hawks' championship drought isn't quite as long as that.

But if the Brown and White hope to raise the trophy at Murray Goodman Stadium this weekend, they'll need to break a mini-curse of their own.

It refers to the Mountain Hawks' inability over the last four years to win both Game 10 and Game 11 on the schedule, specifically during the last four years.

There have been years that Lehigh has needed Game 10 to have a chance to win the Patriot League, but haven't been able to get it done.  There have been other years where they've needed Game 11 to do so, and missed.

When Games 10 and 11 have title implications, and when Lehigh wins those games, they tend to be Patriot League champs.  When they lose one or the other, there tends to be the type of hurt that the Indians got to experience firsthand last night.

The Lehigh seniors almost certainly remember how that feels, on the potential last day of their playing careers at Murray Goodman Stadium.

During the Andy Coen era, Lehigh has actually done quite well during Game 10's, going 8-2.

However, two of those losses over last five years forced Lehigh out of the Patriot League title race in probably the most excruciating way possible.

The first was in 2012, when the 9-0 Hawks hosted Colgate in a game which would have wrapped up the Patriot League title, and an FCS Playoff bid.  There was talk of a possible seed if they win, or at a bare minimum a home playoff game.

Colgate head coach Dick Biddle, celebrating
But it wasn't meant to be.

After going up 24-14 at halftime, Colgate would rally for three touchdowns, shutting out Lehigh's offense and ultimately winning 35-24.

"We didn't panic on offense," Colgate head coach Dick Biddle said after the game.  "We just kept going.  It was a tough, physical game today, and we kind of wore them out in the fourth quarter.  And the defense really stepped up.  In the games before, we had to score on every possession.  We didn't do it this time, and our defense rallied.  It was great."

The Mountain Hawks that year would rally to defeat Lafayette in Easton, and at 10-1, many people, including myself, thought that there was no way that the FCS Playoff committee would deny a Lehigh team that had managed to amass 10 Division I wins and really only played one disappointing half of football all season - that ill-fated Game 10.

But deny them they did.

Despite the 10 Division I wins, Lehigh was out, and no screed I would write would be enough to make anyone change their minds.  Which meant that for those seniors, their final playing memory at Murray Goodman Stadium would be a loss.

And the truth remained: Win Game 10, at home, on their home field, and Lehigh would have been champions.

2015 Patriot League Championship Trophy
Then there was last year.

That Game 10 was up in Hamilton, and also had title considerations.  Win, and the Mountain Hawks would be one win away against 1-9 Lafayette for a chance to win the Patriot League title.  Lose, and it would be Colgate's.

"The game was a thriller.  A classic," I wrote.  "Both Colgate, who would clinch a share of the Patriot League championship today, and Lehigh, who wouldn't, were incredibly evenly matched.  Every time Colgate scored, Lehigh responded with a touchdown of their own, never trailing by more than a score, but never leading, either."

"It was a street fight down to the last minute," I continued.  "To the last five yards. Lehigh got all the way down to the Raider 5 yard line, 1st and goal at the 5.  And Colgate won that street fight.  Since they stopped the Mountain Hawks from getting those last five yards, they are now the champs."

Lehigh's seniors would return to Murray Goodman and get the win they wanted and expected, and thus didn't finish their final games at Murray Goodman stadium with a loss.  But they also didn't end their four year careers with championship rings, either, something that Lehigh players generally have earned their entire time in the Patriot League.

"If we have guys who get caught looking ahead, then we have the wrong guys because there's so much at stake," Coen told Keith Groller of The Morning Call in the run-up to this weekend's game. "Last year's senior group left here without a championship ring and that was the first senior group that left here without a championship in at least 20 years. So now we have an opportunity to restart that. So I think our guys will be plenty motivated, but Bucknell is a capable team."

Game 10 has meant the difference between winning the Patriot League and losing it on multiple occasions, even though that game before this season hasn't involved Bucknell.

In 2010 and 2011, Lehigh beat Georgetown and hoisted the Patriot League trophy at the conclusion of each game, once in the District, once at Murray Goodman.

In fact it was during that legendary 2011 season that was the last time Lehigh hoisted the Patriot League trophy on home soil.  Last year's team could have done it had they beaten Colgate in Week 10 and Lafayette in Week 11, but it wasn't meant to be.

But when the title has been in doubt during Lehigh/Lafayette weekend, that hasn't worked out all that well for the Mountain Hawks either.

That's where the unforgettable Lehigh/Lafayette game of 2013 comes in, which was the first experience of almost all of the current batch of Lehigh seniors had with chances at Patriot League championships.

In that game, QB Nick Shafnisky was leading the Mountain Hawks, a freshman from nearby Whitehall that started out the season as the third-string quarterback.  He was starting the football game at home, at Murray Goodman stadium, with the Patriot League trophy on hand to be presented to Lehigh if they won.

Shafnisky was only on the field because the starter to begin the year, QB Brandon Bialkowski, had his career prematurely ended by a late hit by a Bucknell lineman in a 48-10 defeat in Lewisburg, breaking his collarbone.  "It appears that the collarbone was broken so badly that he'll need an iron plate and screws to reconnect it," I wrote.

Yet at the same time, the Patriot League was so crazy that even with two league losses, Lehigh was still in the hunt for a title and a postseason berth.  Rather than rebuilding with the QB of the future, Lehigh was trying to win a championship with the third-string QB.

The Agony Of The 2013 Defeat
Third-stringer Shafnisky didn't lose the game for the Mountain Hawks, which was more defined on the Lehigh side by the superhuman effort of RB Keith Sherman to try to carry the team on his back.

Instead it was the fact that Lehigh couldn't overcome the fact that the defense gave up too many big plays to the Leopards, succumbing 50-28 after cutting it to a one-score game with 8 minutes to play.

"It's supposed to suck, and it's supposed to hurt," I cathartically wrote back in 2013 after that game, a 10,000 word effort that is still weirdly painful to go through again today.  But the outcome in this game is also inextricably linked to the career of Nick Shafnisky, who has had the rare distinction of playing two games for the Patriot League title in his career so far and losing them both.

"The night before the game, we always have our players meetings and we tell them to try and do it for the seniors because this could be their last game," Sherman said after the game.  "And this is bigger than just us. There are a bunch of people who watch Lehigh football and it brings joy to their hearts.  We just try to communicate to them [the underclassmen] and let them know that every play counts. It’s going to be a tough game.

"Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side of it today," he continued.  "We really wanted to be 4-0 against Lafayette. Biggest game, 4-0, for the championship, there were so many things going into it. We just try to communicate that so they can be composed."

The more you analyze the quotes after that 2013 game, especially those from Andy Coen, you see how the echoes of this game will unmistakably reverberate through the stadium this weekend.

"What you saw this year throughout the league is a lot of freshmen playing," he said then.  "We played quite a few. I thought the one kid, LB Colton Caslow who played inside linebacker for us for nine weeks. I thought he played at an All-League level this year.  You’re going to see an influx of these younger kids playing. It’s going to be really important in the recruiting process.  We need to address the roster and make sure we’ve got the types of players who can win championships."

"I don’t like playing for championships and losing at home," he continued, his disappointment replaced by anger, "hammering an emphasis on the middle two words", the Express-Times' Brad Wilson noted.

"This year had been very rewarding …up until today," Coen said.  "But I told them that they’re all champions last night. They just didn’t have a trophy to symbolize it. After the game, I told them that they’re still champions - but you just don’t have a trophy. You don’t have a trophy today because for these 60 minutes today, you got outplayed."

"Seniors," he continued, emotionally, "you tell them you love them and the other guys just have to go back to work to make sure the next time you have an opportunity you do today, you take advantage of it."

Quite simply, that's what's on the line this weekend.  It's not so much that the game is about Bucknell as that it's about Lehigh, as a program, as Patriot League champions, as to what it means to them as football players.

No disrespect to Bucknell, who, as we'll see later, won't make things easy in any way, but it feel like this game is about the agony the Lehigh seniors in those three games, the agony of coming so close to achieving your goals and falling just short.  This Saturday, for 60 minutes, there's a chance for this Lehigh team to put it right once again.

Game Notes And Injury Report

Looking at this weekend's game notes tell us that senior QB Nick Shafnisky will be the starter, the "OR" removed between his name and his most capable backup, sophomore QB Brad Mayes.  That shouldn't be a surprise, considering that it could be Shafnisky's final game as a Mountain Hawk at Murray Goodman Stadium.

In fact, when you look at this weekend's depth chart, it's really a testament to the strength and conditioning staff that the Mountain Hawks have been as healthy and consistent all season long as they have.  Lehigh's starting offensive line is the same starting five they've had all year, for example, as is the starting defensive line as well.  That has helped Lehigh significantly during the last two weeks in particular.

A Famous Bucknellian

"Oooh, you make my motor run... my motor run..."
Pretty sure you've heard of this men's basketball coach - a guy called Jay Wright who is the head coach of the defending NCAA men's basketball champion Villanova Wildcats.

"Though Wright is the celebrity, on these occasions he is simply one of the guys. One who watched Mork and Mindy on TV and sang along to 'My Sharona' blasting on the radio," the Philly Voice said, permanently etching a vision of Jay Wright in my brain that will be difficult to dislodge.

My only brush with Mr. Wright came for about 30 seconds, in the press box at Villanova during the FCS Semifinals v. William and Mary, the year the Wildcats won the FCS National Championship.  Even in that brief time, he was as charismatic as you might imagine, though now I'm always going to picture him clutching his Get The Knack album with both hands.

Weather Report

The weather in November is notoriously difficult to predict, but it is looking again like the Mountain Hawks will be enjoying another beautiful day, all things considered, with the weather.  A mostly sunny day with a high of 59 at gametime, with some gusty winds, should mean some great tailgating.

Special Stuff Happening

It's Military Appreciation Day at Lehigh, which means any person presenting a military ID Saturday will receive free admission, and tickets will be half price for family members of military personnel. Lehigh's ROTC program, called the Steel Battalion, will also have giveaways and a table on the concourse once you get inside Murray Goodman Stadium.

At the Rust Pavillion, the Lehigh Football Partnership are welcoming any former football alums (and their families) to their tailgate this weekend.

Other than that, the whole last home game for the Seniors thing, and the Patriot League Championship possibility thing, just a regular day at Murray Goodman, right?

LFN's Drink of the Week #DOTW

Lehigh Wants To Crush Orange This Week
This week I realized something - I'd been basically doing the Drinks of the Week this year without input from the fans.  So I went to Twitter to see what to do in terms of drinks, and the fans did not dissapoint.

The Orange Crush, aside from being perfect in terms of the Bucknell-crushing theme, is also very appropriate for another reason, too.  "Popular though it may be, the Orange Crush is not hip. It’s not slick," Punch Drink tells us.  "It demands no bottled-in-bond spirits or artisanal bitters; it requires no pre-Prohibition coupes, shoegaze-inspired nicknames or maraca-esque overhead shaking. It’s a drink created in Maryland, by Marylanders, and by all accounts that’s good enough for them."

It's also good enough for Lehigh fans this weekend, as I ask Marylanders politely whether this weekend, just for a weekend, we can borrow your crushing of Oranges for our Bucknell party.

As its inventors say, it can't be easier to make.  2 juiced oranges, 2 parts orange-flavored Vodka, 1 part triple sec, ice, and an orange slice, with an optional splash of either seltzer or Sprite (depending on whether you like sweet or more tangy).  Just pour the vodka, followed by the triple sec, followed by the orange juice over the ice, and end with the splash.

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.  And leave plenty of time to sober up.


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