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How The End of the 2009 Season Set Up Success For The Mountain Hawks

There aren't any books detailing the 4-7 2009 Lehigh football season, nor is it likely that the exploits of that season will be etched in stone at the base of a statue for head football coach Andy Coen.

Yet it's a time and place which I return to often when I think back on Lehigh seasons past, and it's where I find myself today as well.

The 2009 season felt like an inflection point for Coen's coaching tenure.  His first three seasons, 6-5, 5-6 and 5-6, boasted one Patriot League co-championship, but had fallen short of the lofty expectations that had been set during the Kevin Higgins and Pete Lembo eras of undefeated seasons, playoff wins, and basically scaring the pants off of Lehigh football opponents up and down the East Coast.

And when the Mountain Hawks limped to a 1-5 start, the fifth being an awful 7-0 loss to Yale whose only points resulted from a fake punt, it felt like Andy's time at Lehigh was nearing an end.  Nobody actually said officially that Andy's job was in jeopardy, but you felt like the season was on the brink of falling completely off the rails, especially if the team truly had lost their will to play football.

But then, after bottoming out against Yale, something clicked against Bucknell.


Matthew Harris/The Daily Item
"There will be lots of time for 'Sunday Words', hating the 'Gate, and analyzing some of the mistakes that Lehigh hasn't totally cleaned up yet," I wrote after Lehigh managed a 35-16 win over Bucknell back in 2009 that put the Mountain Hawks at 2-5 on the season.  "But now, it's time to enjoy this win to its fullest. Today, Lehigh's offense has shown a key sign of being more on track. So while there's also plenty of things to clean up for Gate week, right now it's time to revel in this a little bit. I think everyone needs it."

It indeed was a breath of fresh air in a season that desperately needed one.

A rare season that started with a season-opening loss to Central Connecticut State and continued with three losses to Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton), Lehigh was clinging to an outside shot at a Patriot League conference title in late October, but a sputtering offense couldn't get anything going, and to an Air Lehigh fanbase spoiled by shootouts and high-powered offense, getting shut out at home by a middling Yale team was the stuff primal screams were made of.

But the game against Bucknell was a return to normalcy for Lehigh.  QB J.B. Clark, who had returned as starter after being benched, got the extra protection he needed from his offensive line and almost magically he became the effective point-scorer everyone expected, completing 24 of 37 passes for 327 yards and a touchdown, while a powerful running back named RB Zach Barket, a high school legend up coming from Schuykill Haven, PA, got his first-ever rushing touchdown as a Mountain Hawk.

''They gave me five or six seconds to throw the ball and the receivers made some great catches," Clark said.  "We came out confident.''

The win seemed to break open a funk that had persisted from the very beginning of the season.  It was as if the very identity of Lehigh football came back.  Lehigh wasn't supposed to struggle on offense, or - gasp - get shut out at home. 

One win wasn't enough to win the Patriot League title in 2009, but critically it allowed Lehigh to end the season battling well, and ending on the highest of notes.

Facing off against 7-1 Colgate, Lehigh would engage in a back-and-forth battle with the Raiders up in Hamilton, ultimately falling 27-21 after driving for the game-tying score late.  Despite the disparity on records, the Mountain Hawks very nearly pulled off the upset.

"We continue to struggle to find a way to win the close games," Coen said after that game.  "I thought we had things figured out, but it didn't happen. It was a somber locker room and a long ride home. And that's the way it should be when you lose a game like that.  These guys took it hard. They care. They have kept a good attitude through a tough season.''

The Mountain Hawks would continue to battle hard against another great Patriot League team, a playoff-bound Holy Cross team featuring QB Dominic Randolph.  The defense would hold the high-powered Crusader offense to 24 points and came close again, but fell 24-20.

"Our kids played awesome," Andy said.  "They played hard, physical, they did what they needed to do to be right there to beat the No. 13 ranked team in the country. Our defense contained one of the most high-powered offenses in the FCS.  But the end was disappointing. I just feel bad for our kids. That's how I feel. That's the emotion I have right now.''

Effectively eliminated from the championship race, all that was left was The Rivalry at the end of the season, and going into the game at 3-7, the consensus around the press box was one more loss and Andy was going to be fired at the end of the season.  Lehigh fans simply don't do 3-8, even if the team was rebuilding and nationally-ranked Lafayette, at 8-2, was very much in the thick of qualifying for a possible at-large bid to the FCS playoffs.

In terms of the story of the Lehigh 2009 season, most of the story was written.  All that was left to discover was whether the Mountain Hawks would lose, as expected, and have coach Coen (presumably) dismissed at the end of the season, or whether the Mountain Hawks could ruin the Leopards' season instead, and perhaps save Andy's job.

Kevin Mingora/Morning Call
It would take overtime to figure that out.

In reality, the overtime consisted of exactly four plays. But it felt like the entire period was played in slow motion. Each play brought such momentum swings it's hard to put it into words.

Play one. J.B. Clark found WR Jake Drwal over the middle and gains 17 yards to get into the red zone. It looked like it could have been picked off - but somehow the ball gets past the Lafayette defender, and Drwal hauled it in and makes it to the seven yard line.

Play two. After evading pressure, Clark finds streaking TE Alex Wojdowski in the end zone for the TD.  Relief pours over the Lehigh crowd; Lafayette will have to score a touchdown to keep up.

Play three. A high snap on the extra point - and it sails wide right. No good. A six point lead. Lehigh hearts stopp. Now, all Lafayette QB Rob Curley would need to do is do what he's always done - drive to win the game, and give Lafayette sophomore PK Davis Rodriguez a chance to deliver a humiliating end to the Lehigh season.

Play Four. Curley, under pressure, tosses the ball. Lehigh LB Al Pierce fakes a rush, reads Curley's eyes, and drops back into coverage. He reaches up. He pulls the football in.

He runs with the ball. Game over. He holds onto the ball tightly. Game over? He falls down. Game over!

"Coach [Kotulski] challenges us on that play every week in practice," Pierce said in the post-game press conference, making it seem as matter-of-fact as if he were describing what he ate yesterday. "We did it every day, I can't tell you how many times. It got me the first couple times, biting on the running back." 

The celebration was instantaneous.  Fans immediately rushed onto the field and carried some of the players, most notably DT B.J. Benning, on their shoulders.

Nobody has ever said to me directly that Kotulski's drill and Pierce's interception saved Andy's job, but I have always felt like it did.  An assistant sports information director came into the postgame press conference and told us that Andy would be returning as head coach next season.  It would be the last time I ever saw that person in a Lehigh football post-game ever again.

"All coaching is is hang in there with your guys, and they got better all year," Coen said in his opening statement. "We finally got some plays to go our way this game. This was such a tough season for our guys. I'm so happy for them that we were able to get the win here today. To score and take the lead in the fourth quarter for the first time, then give it up, then win the game in overtime, after all the tough losses they've had during the season, I think it speaks volumes to these guys and how they hung in there with us all year.

"Every week, you had to pick them up off the ground - but I tell you what, the time Tuesday came around they were excited to play football. We talk a lot about the kids in our program - we want to bring guys in who are competitors, leaders, and guys who love to play football. I told them before the game that we have those people in the room. It just hasn't worked out for us. So let's just go out and get this one.

"Even when it didn't look great for us out there they kept battling and battling and.... " Coen stopped, getting a bit emotional. "Awesome. Awesome for those guys."

*****

The momentum built at the end of the 2009 season did a lot more than send out the seniors on a happy note. 

It set up the hugely successful 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons, a stretch where Lehigh would go 31-6, win two Patriot League championships and win two FCS Playoff games. 

Many times over the years Andy would bring up that 27-21 overtime win over Lafayette and credit that particular win as the foundation that set in motion what was arguably one of the best three-year stretches in Lehigh history.

That's what most people don't seem to realize.  It's the wins that happen when the cameras aren't rolling that sometimes set up future success.  It's the effort and wins that happen when titles aren't on the line that set up the titles in the future. 

Sure, it's not ideal.  But sometimes something great comes out of an unexpected place. 

That's how I've always felt about the 2009 season.  To me, it was one of the biggest successes.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Coach is struggling to string together a sentence so clearly he needs help.
Anonymous said…
Agreed. The mumbling seemed somewhat understandable after all the one sided losses, but it seems like he's still in a fog after a win.
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