Starting the year off at 0-5 and getting swept in their out-of-conference schedule, the Mountain Hawks were in danger of having their season go off the rails.
But two things have come together over the last five football games that have put Lehigh on the brink of back-to-back championships.
The first is the late blooming of the Lehigh defense, which kept battling every week since the low point of the September 30th loss to Wagner to do the job in four of their five Patriot League conference games.
The second is the development of junior RB Dominick Bragalone into a bellcow running back, a back who has to be in the conversation for Patriot League offensive player of the year.
In five Patriot League games, Bragalone has run for 863 yards in 5 games, rushing for 11 touchdowns and adding two more receiving touchdowns as well.
The South Williamsport, PA native certainly wasn't unknown before this week - after all, as a freshman and a sophomore, he had already rushed for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. But this year, where he's amassed 1,200 yard rushing and an FCS-leading 16 rushing touchdowns, he's gone into full Monster Mode, and Lehigh fans are loving every minute of it.
"Only good players are allowed in this room," head coach Andy Coen joked to Bragalone as he entered the room for the post-game press conference.
It was obvious to all that Bragalone was more than just another good player on this afternoon.
One play after a huge blocked punt by senior DE Tyler Cavenas, the first move by the offense was to hand the ball to Bragalone at the six yard line, which, like so many other times before this year, it was punched in by Dominick for a touchdown.
And again and again on the day, Coen would call his number, and again and again, he'd score.
|RB Dom Bragalone (Lehigh Athletics)|
Though Andy did talk about balance on offense in his post-game press conference, it's hard to not marvel about what Bragalone has done over the past five weeks, gaining more than 100 yards per game in five straight contests and totaling 863 yards.
Additionally, he has scored a touchdown in every game this year, totaling 16 on the season on the ground and adding three more through the air. 11 of those 16 game during the last five games, where Lehigh has gone 4-1.
"The turnovers have been huge," Bragalone said afterwards. “You saw that last week when we scored 28 points in the first quarter. When you get the ball back [after turnovers] it makes our lives easier for us, and takes a lot of stress off us. It can take the life out of the other team, too.”
Bragalone also didn't shy away from praising the Holy Cross defense either, who did hold Bragalone to 44 yards rushing in the first half on 9 carries, despite the two touchdowns.
"Hats off to the Holy Cross defense," Bragalone also said. "They did a great job, and it was a grind, but it was a lot of fun. It’s just something that I’m used to, since high school, since college, my coaches always said, ‘You’re not gonna break every carry, but just keep doing what you’re doing and eventually something is going to open up.’ We really saw that today.”
One thing that has stood out the last five weeks in the post-game press conferences was Dom's reference to "having fun", even during the Fordham game where it seemed like a lot of players and fans weren't exactly feeling very fun after that 45-35 defeat.
"Their front seven was still great, but they did wear down," he said afterwards. "The coaching staff called some great plays, the offensive line made some great holes, and I just ran through them."
And that fun seems to have worked its way into the rest of the team, too.
|DE Tyler Cavenas (Lehigh Athletics)|
It even seems to have worked its way to junior PK Ed Mish, who seems to finally be all the way back after being missing or limited in many games this season.
“It’s great to be back on the field because missing three games was a blow to my confidence at first,” Mish said. “But my coaches and teammates have been great, allowing me to take reps, and that's helped in getting me back on the field and having the opportunity to score some points."
|PK Ed Mish (Lehigh Athletics)|
Mish was even giddy about how he punted the ball as well.
Near the end of the first half, Mish executed what might not have looked the greatest on the stat sheet - a 25 yard punt - but was a perfectly executed "coffin corner" punt, a booming, high punt that seemed to surgically exit the field out of bounds at the Holy Cross 10 and pinned the Crusaders deep.
“I enjoy punting the most because you have the ability to flip the field with our coverage team getting down the field and making some big tackles,” Mish said, obviously excited about the execution on that play. "You can see the other team's momentum just drain. The first time I tried to pin them within the 20, I din't hit a good ball for the situation, and I knew that and made good adjustment there, and the coverage team got down there to make sure that the Holy Cross return man didn't pick up the ball before it exited the field."
The fun that has worked its way though the whole team has resulted in Lehigh's two best performances all year versus Bucknell and Holy Cross, and has Lehigh on the cusp of winning another Patriot League championship and another trip to the FCS playoffs.
“The season didn’t go in the beginning the way we wanted, but we didn’t give up,” Bragalone said. “We knew what we had. We knew we had the weapons and what we could we do as a team together. The past two weeks we’ve done everything we had to do on offense, defense and special teams.”