Unlike last week, this wasn't one that got away - this was a more comprehensive loss. Here's five thoughts I had after looking over the game last week.
1. Villanova showed there's still a long way to go for this Lehigh team to be able to compete with them.Over the years, I've seen some brutal mismatches involving Lehigh football.
In head coach Andy Coen's second year at Lehigh, I was witness to a 56-10 stomping by Holy Cross - whose head coach was Tom Gilmore - that was one of the roughest I ever remember, especially at home. In 2016, on TV I watched UNH in the FCS playoffs crush Lehigh 64-21 in a game where the Mountain Hawks were missing one of their team captains on defense and their starting QB, Nick Shafnisky, was hobbled by Lyme's disease but still tried to play. Last year, I made the trip to Princeton to watch the best FCS team in the nation, Princeton, beat Lehigh 66-7, one of the most painful displays of football I've ever witnessed..
This was not one of those games.
The Mountain Hawks on defense proved very much to be Villanova's equal on defense, holding the Wildcats to one first down in their first three offensive series. Coming out of halftime, Lehigh's first offensive touchdown of the season made it a one-score game. There were spurts where the Mountain Hawks were able to hold their own.
But there were too many mistakes, and ultimately mental breakdowns, to run with Villanova all four quarters.
On 4th down, Lehigh was 1 for 5, the offensive line giving up their only sack of the day on one of those conversion attempts.
On defense in the second half, Gilmore credited some of Villanova's bigger runs to a breakdown on tackling.
“The big thing with the defense,” Gilmore said, “is we had a couple of misfits on blitzes and we gave up some huge runs. And then the other disappointment from a defensive standpoint is it was a tackling we had you know probably five or six tackles I can think of off the top my head that that should have been fairly routine tackles that we missed for one reason or another. We want to be a good fundamental football team. And you know I think we took a step backwards in that regard on defense from a tackling standpoint.”
Long story short - Lehigh can get back to the point where they are competing against teams like Villanova, but they are making too many mistakes right now to be able to pull off the upsets.
"The players got to fix it," an animated Lehigh WR Jorge Portorreal told me after the game. "It's a player thing, and there's nothing a coach can do about that that's going to fix a play. We've got to fix that from a player standpoint. You know we got to be better in practice. We got to be better on Saturdays."
Everyone after the game told me about the importance of the offense getting that first score of the year.
Not only the way that it happened, a beautiful 42 yard pass by Monaco to Portorreal in a seam in Villanova's zone, but the context, because it happened while the outcome of game was still very much in doubt.
"I think it really injected a lot of confidence into not only the offense but into the whole operation into the whole team," Gilmore told me. "But it was nice to be able to execute several times on that drive to keep it alive. And it shows what we're capable of doing and that's a little bit of a frustration right now - that you know we're capable of doing it."
Unlike last week, when the takeaway was a tough set of what-could-have-beens, this week the offense has this drive to point at as to what this team can achieve when they are executing at their best. And Villanova's defense could very well be one of the best that Lehigh faces this year during the regular season.
3. Stopping Villanova's first three drives was hugely important, too.Going into the game, the defense had heard all week about how good Villanova's offense was. LB Pete Haffner and the rest of the defense came in with a chip on their shoulders, and early on they should what they're capable of with three excellent defensive series.
“Yeah, it felt great early going,” Haffner said. We wanted to come out and prove that we could play with these guys, show that we’re a good team we are good defensively, flying around and I was really proud of the way we started off. Great team defense just across the board.”
With a loss such as this one, it was very important to be able to take away the positives that this team and staff were able to, especially with a hugely challenging opponent coming up next weekend as well.
In Villanova's post-game press conference, Nova head coach Mark Ferrante made a note of Lehigh's defense and how it caused them problems in the early going.
“(Lehigh’s defense) moves a lot,” Ferrante said. “They slant, they angle, they bring linebackers, they bring safeties and it takes a little while to get used to that. Once our linemen are able to see all the movement that’s happening at the speed that they’re doing it at and our running backs have an opportunity to get a couple carries under their belt and they can see what’s happening as well, they can attack it a little better.”
The defense is a lot of fun to play, it seems, and it's very clear that the Lehigh defense should continue to have a lot of fun all year disrupting opposing offenses. Even though it is still very much Air Lehigh and offense-all-the-time with much of the fan base, this defense is very much creating its own positive identity and it's exciting to watch. I can't wait to pin a nickname on this unit later in the season.
5. There needs to be more holes open for the run game.Part of this has had to do with injury and line shuffling - not to mention Villanova's excellent front six - but overall the Mountain Hawks need to get more out of their running game that they've been getting. Early in the game, Lehigh had a golden chance to earn a 1st down on 3rd and 1, but they couldn't get the yard they needed, and instead they needed to punt. Against Villanova, missing out on opportunities like that really put the Mountain Hawks behind the 8 ball early and contributed to the Wildcats building a lead.
One thing that Andy Coen used to preach week in and week out was "balance" on offense. This of course is Tom Gilmore's team, not Andy's, but for two straight weeks now the offense has been particularly pass-heavy. The offense needs to get their running machine in order to at least get some more balance in there - if nothing else to get those tough 3rd-and-1s that will be necessary to convert in Patriot League play.