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Hints, And Only Hints, Of A Championship Lehigh Football Team In Big Loss to UNH, 64-21

It would be all so easy if football were a video game.

If the players were pixels, with easy-to-read sliders with their statistics on them.


Then the FCS playoffs would be easy.  You'd plug in the teams, they'd hit each other virtually on the screen, and there would be a result, quantifying the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team.  A representative score would come out, and there would be one side bursting with victory, and the other in agony in defeat.

There would be bitterness, some teeth-gnashing, but at least you'd have figured out that the teams gave it their best shot.

But real life is not a video game.  Sometimes, star players go hunting, and come down with an illness.  It keeps them out of practice, and on the day of the big game, they're not 100%, or even 75%.  Sometimes, foot injuries do not heal, as much as you wish that they would.

And then a team like Lehigh travels up to New Hampshire, not able to put their absolute best foot forward.

Not that it's an excuse - injuries, and all sorts of other things, happen during a football season.  New Hampshire exposed what may have actually been weaknesses hiding in plain sight for this Lehigh team, exposing the soft white underbelly of the Mountain Hawks - the ability to stop an elite running game.

But it was heartbreaking to have Lehigh not be able to put their absolute best foot forward, to not be able to go down with two of their four team captains at full strength.

Instead, all that Lehigh fans got to see were tiny glimpses of the team they had gotten to know so well over the last couple of months, sandwiched around a lot of evidence on how much better the Mountain Hawks need to be in order to compete for a national championship.

If you look Lehigh's regular season, you saw a the powerhouse team that utterly torched their competition for nine straight games, leaving behind the Ivy League co-champions and every single Patriot League team in their wake, winning five out of six games by double digits and taking a ridiculous 51-9 lead on one of their supposed league competition.

And bits and pieces of that team were on display last Saturday, the final game involving a Patriot League team in the 2016 football season.

Right off the bat, with the game still fresh, tied 0-0, sophomore QB Brad Mayes provided a glimpse of Lehigh's beautiful offense.  It was a pass to junior WR Troy Pelletier, which made SportsCenter's Top Ten Plays at No. 9.

For the Lehigh fan, the cold, overcast weather of New Hampshire brightens as No. 9 comes up on the list.  A pass thrown to the place where Troy can grab it.  "Look at that grab!" the announcer says.  "Spinning one hand, comes down with it!"

Lehigh fans smile.  Yes, it was a great grab, probably Troy's best of the season.  But Lehigh fans weren't surprised.  They'd been seeing that all year from Troy, who had been in the Top Ten receivers in FCS almost all season but finally only making the Walter Payton Award list in the next-to-last week of the regular season.

It's as if the national world were only begrudgingly beginning to realize that Troy Pelletier is an elite receiver.  And for a shining moment, in New Hampshire, close to his hometown, he showed it.  That one highlight reel grab invoked all those other great receptions during the regular season, too many to count.

"I'll tell you what, he's awesome," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said afterwards. "He really is. When he came into our place (he was a) very quiet kid but a great athlete. I think the last time we were here he made his first career touchdown reception.  He's got really good hands. He's a ferocious blocker. He's pretty much the complete wide receiver. I'm really proud of how he's developed."

"It was exciting to come back home," Pelletier said. "Usually it's a pretty far drive for my family, but it was good them to have a close game for once. It's a tough way to go out."

But then, as soon as the ray of light shined, the cloud blocked the sun for Lehigh fans.

A throw by Mayes - a pretty good throw, perhaps a tiny bit behind the receiver - hit senior WR Derek Knott on the hands, and the CB Casey DeAndrade, alertly came down with the first Lehigh interception on the day.  To this reporter, it didn't seem like a horrible pass.  But it still landed in the potential NFL defensive back's hands, and counted as an interception all the same.

"He's probably the best receiver we've seen all year," DeAndrade said of Pelletier.

After that moment, the Lehigh team people saw during the regular season disappeared.

Photo Credit: Mark Bolton/Union Leader
The same defense that had Fordham RB Chase Edmonds howling at the moon, the Rams down by more than 40 points, was getting shredded by UNH RB Dalton Crossan and QB Adam Riese.

Whether it was because the Lehigh defense was missing their leader, LB Colton Caslow, or whether it was simply because New Hampshire's big, talented offensive line was throwing around Lehigh's defensive front, it was difficult to say.   But after two New Hampshire offensive drives it was 15-0, and the defense that held Bucknell to 13 points was unrecognizable.

"On the edge, they got to us," head coach Andy Coen said of the Wildcats' running game. "The cutbacks were really hurting us. We were trying to hit gaps and more than once, they cut all the way back and (got) big touchdown runs.   They had a good plan."

After UNH got the ball back and was poised to crush Lehigh's spirit early, another glimpse of the team Lehigh fans knew rose up on 4th down deep in their own territory.  Rather than go for he field goal, New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell decided to go for it.

Stepping in front of the route was sophomore S Sam McCloskey, at a stroke showing a glimpse of the secondary getting a takeaway, such a critical part of Lehigh's nine game winning streak.  Interceptions and forcing mistakes were the sparks that fueled so many Lehigh drives, and for a brief moment, it seemed like maybe, just maybe, this spark would lead to a comeback.  After all, Lehigh has scored 58 points before.  It could happen again.

But it didn't happen.  After senior QB Nick Shafnisky slowly entered the game on a 4th and 1, expertly running for a first down behind some good blocking, Coen decided, not unreasonably, to try to surprise UNH with a quick strike to the end zone from his ailing QB.

Fully healthy, it would have been easy to see this Shafnisky pass fly over the defensive back into the outstretched arms of Pelletier.  But a Nick Shafnisky with only half his motor running underthrew the ball, where UNH S Pop Lacey was able to intercept the ball at the 2 yard line.

Photo Credit: Union-Leader via Morning Call
To the Lehigh fan, it was doubly frustrating and heartbreaking, because just three weeks ago, Shafnisky was firing the same type of pass into the end zone, in a place where only junior WR Gatlin Casey could grab it.  Lehigh fans tried to squint their eyes, and see the type of pass that Shaf was able to complete at home a month ago with such ease -- one that looked like any fan could just trot on the field and do the same thing.

But this isn't a video game.  Quarterbacks get sick.  Sometimes, the body doesn't allow your passes to do the same things they always did.  Balls get underthrown.  And alert defensive backs make plays.  Pop Lacey is a really, really good defensive back, and he did what good defensive backs do.

The darkness took over on the Lehigh defense, giving up the same sort of UNH drive to Riese and Crossan that had become a trend over the game, but this drive going 98 yards, Lehigh's defense unable to get on track long enough to stop them again.

"They were much better than we were," Coen said afterwards. "I didn't think they were going into the game after all the film we watched. They may not be necessarily better than us, but they sure outplayed on us this day. We have no excuses. They ran the ball right down our throat. We couldn't stop them.  All of the things that we had done so well through the season ... winning the turnover battle, not giving up big plays, getting key stops ... all of that went away. That was the anti-Lehigh team we had out there. It was very disappointing. It was awful."

Getting the ball back after another UNH touchdown, fans again got a glimpse of Lehigh's running game, as the Mountain Hawks' 1,000 yard rusher, sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone, made a big 37 yard rushing play to get Lehigh on the scoreboard.  But then Riese, with a highlight-reel throw to UNH WR Neil O'Connor, kickstarted another drive with a 38 yard pass to counter almost immediately, making it 29-7.  A three-and-out, and another highlight reel catch to O'Conner, and it was 36-7.  Lehigh's defense was unrecognizable.

Then two minutes before the end of the half, some fire appeared from the Lehigh team, which came from, unsurprisingly, senior LB Evan Harvey.  Jumping in front of one of Riese's passing routes, he snagged an interception that gave Lehigh a breath of life before going into the locker room.  In a half without much hope, Harvey's interception provided it to Lehigh fans, keeping the Mountain Hawks' slim chances of coming back alive.

Finally, the offense would be able to build off the defense's momentum, too.  As they had done all year, Mayes dumped off a pass to Pelletier, who would come down with a tough ball, turn, and rumble into the end zone.  It was another glimpse at what made the Lehigh offense so good all season - feeding off a turnover to make something happen.

It would happen again at the start of the second half, down by 22, a tough score to overcome, but not impossible.

UNH had the ball to start the second half, and it would be Lehigh's secondary that would get the game going for the offense.  This time, it was sophomore CB Kareem Montgomery that would come up with a pick - and give Lehigh a chance to cut it to two scores.

Lehigh's offense had one more shot to make it a game - what would amount to the Mountain Hawks' last shot at showing America what they were all about.

They'd mix the pass and the run, using Mayes' passing ability to get to junior WR Gatlin Casey and Pelletier, to get to first and goal.

Then senior QB Nick Shafnisky would come in - again, not nearly at 100% - and follow his blockers and somehow, some way, will himself into the end zone to cut it to two scores.

It was at that moment that the memories of the season came flooding back.  A three yard Shaf running play that tied the game at halftime vs. Penn, and started Lehigh on their way to nine consecutive wins.  That same running play that cemented so many touchdowns during their run through the league.  The same running play that seemed to put the final touches on the win over Lafayette, the one that got him the Lehigh/Lafayette MVP trophy for the second straight year.

We had no way of knowing at the time that that was going to be the last time we'd see Shaf score a touchdown in a Lehigh football game.  But I do know that it felt special, that despite Shaf's illness he managed to fight through it best he could, and was able to keep Lehigh within striking distance.  It was a glimpse, a tantalizing, ultimately final glimpse, at Shaf's remarkable Lehigh football career, doing what was uniquely, prototypically, him.

Then New Hampshire blacked out the sun permanently for Lehigh, and the game was over.

28 unanswered points came for the Wildcats, who were running the ball with everyone on their depth chart.  Lehigh couldn't stop them.

Somewhere, Shaf tried to muster the will to come back one last time.  The passes fell short of their mark.

New Hampshire didn't let up, because there was no reason for them not to.

The game fell apart for Lehigh.  The glimpses of Lehigh's championship team were gone, buried under 364 Wildcat rushing yards and some devastating touchdown passes.

"We established the run early, which opened up the pass," Crossan said afterwards. "The offensive line played unbelievable. Opened up holes, protecting the quarterback. Once we got rolling, we didn't stop."

"I thought we'd be able to handle it (UNH's running game), but we didn't handle it obviously," coach Coen added. "Crossan's a heckuva back. He really is. The team we played today looked a lot better than any of the tape I watched of them. They just beat us up front. They really did."

All that remained were the seniors, senior WR Trevor Soccaras, senior WR Derek Knott, senior LB Pierce Ripanti, and many more, fighting through the end of a game that had fallen apart for them.

It was a tough way to end their college football careers.  All blowouts are, of course, and when New Hampshire goes down in the FCS Playoffs, whenever and wherever that is, it will hurt and be bitter for them as well.  There is no shame in losing in the playoffs, though a blowout might hurt more.

"They've meant a lot for our program," coach Coen said while choking up to Greg Joyce of Lehigh Valley Live, "and to me personally. They're a great bunch of kids. I credit these guys for getting us back to a high level. We were able to do that with these guys largely leading the way."

But to Lehigh fans, the loss was made even harder by the fact that it felt like the Mountain Hawks didn't get to really display themselves at full strength to the rest of the nation.  They might have lost anyway - no disrespect in that.  But at least they would have had more than just the tiny glimpses of the great team they saw during the regular season.


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