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Fordham Shows Lehigh How To Win Football Games By Acting Like A Team

I got to Jack Coffey Field late.

I knew it was going to be close, getting to the Bronx for the 1:00 PM start.  My son was marching in the band for the parade that morning, and nothing was going to keep me from going to that event, completed under a perfect sky and perfect weather shining upon Main Street. 

Earlier in the week I made a calculation on whether I could make it to kickoff by leaving as soon as his marching gig was complete. If I left, right as it ended, and didn't make any stops, and the traffic was just right, it was doable.

So I decided it was a go.  I'd be headed to the Bronx on a gorgeous Saturday that felt a lot more like September than November.


I crossed the Henry Hudson bridge at 12:27 PM, looking for the Moshulu Parkway.  Plenty of time, I thought, incorrectly, as I soon realized that I was going to be running into bumper-to-bumper traffic, at least in part thanks to a wedding happening at the Botanical Gardens across the street.

That I ran into some traffic wasn't all that surprising.  What was a surprise, though, was Fordham's "Family Day" festivities had not only filled up Fordham's single tailgating lot, but also the parking garage at the end of the lot, too.  With the entrance barricaded, I had to loop around the campus, finding another way in to park and walk up to the game.

Later, I would think back on that scene, of a packed lot, tons of people tailgating, and a campus filled with students, Lehigh fans, and parents walking all over and around the campus. 

I almost had to remind myself, as I was walking in at the end of the first quarter, that this was a battle between a 2-5 team and a 2-6 team

In the world of FCS, this game had dropped off of the map in terms of relevance.  No Top 25 seeding would be on the line, and if anything, Lehigh was expected to roll up a big score on the Rams, who, it was revealed, would be minus the services of RB Chase Edmonds, if anything further pulling the plug on whatever little star power this game had nationally.

But you'd have never guessed it on campus. 

The mood was upbeat.  It was a beautiful day, everyone was in New York City, and the stands were packed - a virtual sellout of 7,962 fans, easily eclipsing the 4,438 fans that first-place Lehigh could manage to pull in at Murray Goodman Stadium vs. Georgetown.  Nobody seemed to care that Fordham was in last place in the Patriot League standings, only alive for the championship mathematically.  There were here to see Fordham play a team they wanted to beat - perhaps had to beat, in order to salvage their season. 

Whether they were reflecting the mood of the families on campus, or they were motivated by Edmonds' injury, it was not clear.  But from the get-go, despite their mistakes, Fordham was clearly a highly motivated team coming out of the tunnel, scoring on their very first possession.  They were going to put up their best shot.

I think that is something that this Lehigh team doesn't fully appreciate - that every year, the target is on their backs.  Part of playing at Lehigh is that you're the hunted.  It doesn't matter that you're 2-5 or 5-2, in first place in the Patriot League standings, or in last - when other opponents see Lehigh on the schedule, they are going to kick things into an extra gear that simply might not show up against a team like Georgetown or Holy Cross. 

Fordham had a bitterly disappointing season up until this weekend.  They were 2-6, guaranteed a losing record, and struggled to put away Georgetown.  But they chose not to give up on themselves or their coach.  They decided to pull together and try to get a fulfilling win against the first-place team in the conference.

And it's sometimes hard to give credit to the other side, but this 2-6 team played inspired football.

"Even though the game was played on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, Fordham head coach Andrew Breiner thought the Rams won the game on a rainy Tuesday," Fordham's game recap accurately noted.  "For it was on Tuesday that Fordham was forced by inclement weather to practice inside the Lombardi Center and the Rams came out with an intensity that carried through the week and into today's game as Fordham knocked off defending Patriot League champions, Lehigh University, 45-35, on Jack Coffey Field."

Pride is sometimes seen as a sort-of cliche in football, but Fordham played with a lot of pride on Saturday, probably a result of that intensity coming from that Tuesday practice.

Fordham's fourth-string running back going into the season, RB D'Angelo Palladino, ran for 297 yards and 3 touchdowns, the Rams' third-best rushing day in school history, only behind Edmonds' 300+ yard efforts against Lehigh and Lafayette, respectively, in 2015.

Fordham freshman LB Glenn Cunningham had a career-high 4 sacks of junior QB Brad Mayes,  one of them forcing a fumble and recovering it deep in Lehigh territory.

Palladino and Cunningham were both Patriot League Players of the Week for their efforts, their first such honors in their young careers.

As inspired as Fordham was playing, Lehigh was accumulating injuries.

After freshman WR Jorge Portorreal responded on Fordham's opening drive with a big touchdown grab, he and senior WR Gatlin Casey got hurt on the ensuing drive, causing Mayes and the offense to need to rely on junior RB Dominick Bragalone perhaps a bit more than usual. 

There's no question Bragalone answered the bell; he had a monster game, with 297 all-purpose yards and 2 TDs.  But the injuries would definitely affect the Mountain Hawks' game, requiring adjustments that would limit the effectiveness of senior WR Troy Pelletier.

And agonizing turnovers would doom Lehigh on drive after drive, two in Lehigh's red zone, and two in Fordham's red zone. 

Despite the mistakes, Lehigh was in the game most of the way.  But in a brutal, demoralizing, awful stretch, disaster would strike.

The first injury would happen to team captain senior DT Jim Mitchell, his right leg hurt and needing to be helped off the field.  He'll undergo evaluation this week as to the severity of the injury, but the loss of the team captain on the defensive line was a massive blow to the defense.

Then when trying to recover an onsides kick down by 3, senior TE Drew Paulsen would suffer a concussion and layed immoble on the ground for minutes as once again, a Lehigh player had to be put in an ambulance and brought to a local hospital.

(The worry when he went to the hospital was that Drew had possibly broken bones in his neck or skull, but thankfully by Sunday, X-rays were negative in regards to any breaks, though he will remain in concussion protocol.)

Had Lehigh put Fordham away at some point during the game, these injuries, though severe, may not have factored in the outcome of the game.  But when Palladino got loose for Fordham's decisive touchdown with just under 3 minutes to play, the emotional toll of the loss of the two upperclassmen was really apparent.

I think what bothered me the most is that to me, watching the game, I had very little confidence that this would rally from such a double blow and recover. 

I have seen Lehigh teams over the years that thrive on that energy and find this reserve to rally and survive - that the troops would coalesce and figure out some way, any way, to win the football game, on offense, defense, or special teams. 

But I haven't seen it from this team, and so, I didn't expect it. 

I had separated myself from my family to speed to Fordham to arrive at the game late to watch a 2-5 team play a 2-6 team on a perfect day, and, at crunch time, I didn't think the 2-5 Mountain Hawks would find a way to rally and win the game. 

Instead I saw a team fall to 2-6 that is pretty effectively is a summary of what this team is at this point.

As I left Fordham, a campus filled with happy Fordham students and happy Fordham parents and elated Fordham football players, I was filled with dread. 

Somehow, Fordham is getting this football thing right.  They are creating a great gameday atmosphere, whether they're 6-2 or 2-6, and coming up with a product that people are excited to watch. 

The Rams have a neat, old-school stadium that isn't the biggest in the world, but it was a fun place to watch a football game.  The tailgates were open late.  The lot was packed.  The students were all over campus, well after the game had concluded.  Fordham's campus was a neat place to be.  Even the halftime show, featuring "Drums of Thunder", the 4th and 5th grade drumline from Montclair, NJ, had all 8,000 fans or so in attendance on their feet.

And then I think of Lehigh's home game vs. Penn - a similar day in a lot of respects, a hot, beautiful day and a packed campus. 

Yet Murray Goodman Stadium saw fewer fans, less charm, and an uneven performance on the field by the home team on that day.  In all three aspects, Fordham's performance outdid Lehigh's on Family Day easily.

I suppose this Lehigh team could find a way to win the rest of their games and win the Patriot League.  It is true; technically, if the Mountain Hawks find a way to win the rest of their games, they would become the second Patriot League representative to qualify for the FCS Playoffs with a losing record at 5-6.  They would be Patriot League champs; and they would be under .500, barring the most unlikely FCS playoff run in college football history.

But will the 153rd edition of The Rivalry have any championship implications?  Will Lehigh be able to summon enough pride to beat Bucknell?  Will the gameday experience at Holy Cross come anywhere close to the nearly 8,000 fans that came to Fordham to watch their 2-6 team play football?  To this reporter, these are very open questions.

If this team can't rally and play with the level of pride required to beat Fordham, how will they ever do so over their last three games?

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thank you Chuck for your honest assessment this week. Outside of Dom Bragalone, no element of fire in this team, particularly on D. It was perfect the way you left the open ended question. No need for faux optimism anymore.

Something is seriously amiss when Fordham is bringing in 50% more fans than Lehigh, and has the top game day experience in the Patriot League. Its been building at Fordham and slowly sliding away at Goodman, going back 10+ years now. A problem.

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