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Bryce Harper's Home Run Caused An Earthquake In Philadelphia. Lehigh's Loss to Bucknell Last Weekend Should Cause One In Bethlehem.


Bryce Harper took control of the city of Philadelphia on a 1-2 pitch.

He fouled off two 99 mph fastballs, took a changeup just low, and then crushed Daniel Suarez's 98.9 mph sinker into the left-center stands.

At that moment, so many people in the Philadelphia area erupted that it felt like it registered on the Richter scale.  

Citizens Bank Park, filled with many fans who just two months ago might have been cursing the organization for being stuck in third and very possibly falling out of contention, were jumping around, waving their Red October towels, in the midst of a wild party they will never forget.

For Phillies fans and Philly fans, it was a moment they had been waiting for after an eleven year playoff drought.  For my wife, who listened to the radio call on WIP on our way out to dinner, it was a goosebump-inducing experience.

It's probably not accurate to call Philly fans "long suffering" (ask any Mariners fan), but in a lot of ways in this case it's not so much that they won, it's the way they won - winning the damned pennant after never coming closer than 3rd place in the NL East, an afterthought by most Major League Baseball fans, even in October.  

(If you want to be beloved in Philadelphia, win the whole thing with a bunch of loveable, flawed players who were counted out by the elites.  Every time A-Rod says something good about the Phillies' opponents, the Phillies get stronger.)

I don't know how the Phillies will do in the World Series, but it's unquestionably a glorious moment for their fans.  They'll remember this run the rest of their lives.

It's a glorious moment for them.  But there's an opposite side to each glorious moment, a deep-seated low point as another fan base gets the tremendous high of victory.

As the biggest Lehigh football fan you probably know, it feels like I've been living the polar opposite of that Bryce Harper home run now for the latter part of five years.

The last five minutes of last weekend's excruciating 19-17 loss to Bucknell seems to embody that.


 

For most Lehigh fans, it registered not as much a earthquake.  It was probably perceived as a quiet loss, one of a bunch of others this year, in front of 3,582 fans.

It's not a loss that registers on any Richter scale (except perhaps my own), which I think is a huge part of the problem at Lehigh right now.   

Shouldn't it be warning sign?  A call to action?  For higher expectations?

The expectations of competing for Patriot League titles, FCS playoff wins, national championship games - they're gone at Lehigh right now.  

The theme of Lehigh football right now is "rebuilding" - the same theme, the same story, since at least 2018.  It will also be the theme in the spring of 2023, too, as Lehigh is already at 1-7 on the season.  In the Sunniest of Sunny scenarios, Lehigh ends the season at 4-7.

For those that don't remember, that wasn't always the case.  Lehigh used to have expectations of Patriot League championships, and FCS playoff games, on a regular basis.  

But that was six long years ago.

When I started writing about Lehigh football long ago, back in 2003, head coach Pete Lembo entered The Rivalry with a 7-3 record - and at the time it was seen as a disappointing season, because they lost to a nationally-ranked Ivy League team (Penn), a transitioning FBS team (UConn), and a team that would end up in the FCS National Championship game (Colgate).  8-3, with no Patriot League title or playoffs?  A disappointment.  Even with a resounding win over Lafayette to end the year.

Those years. and expectations, seem like ancient history now.  Lehigh was last nationally ranked in the beginning of the 2017 season, and hasn't sniffed the national rankings since losing 38-35 to Villanova. 

Isn't it worth exploring what happened?



****

I'm going to rip off the band aid of last weekend's loss to Bucknell to look at where things are at right now.  The analysis shows where the program is now.

This past Saturday, the 1-7 Mountain Hawks were up 17-10 on previously winless Bucknell with under 5 minutes to play.  

After struggling to put up points on the Bison, Lehigh's 7 play, 24 yard drive off a forced fumble by DL Dean Colton finally gave the Mountain Hawks a lead in the 4th quarter, punctuated by a 1 yard plunge by RB Gaige Garcia.  It was Lehigh's first offensive touchdown of the game.

If the defense then makes one stop of the Bucknell offense, the Mountain Hawks almost certainly win.

But they didn't.  Bucknell QB Nick Semptimphelter, son of the former great Lehigh QB Scott Semptimphelter, went 3 of 4 passing and RB Rushaun Baker plunged into the end zone with 2:01 remaining.

Nick Semptiphelter probably could have attended Lehigh had they shown enough interest.  But they didn't, and Bucknell happily recruited him and he signed the dotted line for the Bison for a Bucknell education.  The fact is Lehigh could have had him, but Bucknell had him, instead, so he was on the field competing against his dad's alma mater.

After the touchdown, Lehigh's special teams then made a terrific play that could have won the game, when WR Tommy Lewis attacked the kick from the right and blocked Bucknell's extra point.  

Lewis scooped up the ball, and made it about to midfield before - sadly, as it turns out - he was tackled.

Although it was a big ask, Lehigh couldn't tack on the 2 extra points that would have heaped extra pressure on the Bison.  But they were in a position to score those 2 points, and didn't get it done.

Then the Mountain Hawks' special teams unit couldn't pounce on the onsides kick that the Bison recovered at the Lehigh 47.  (The Lehigh 47!)

Lehigh's special teams could have won the game, or at least made it difficult for them to win it in regulation.  But they didn't. 

Lehigh's defense then could have stopped Bucknell from getting into field goal range.  But they didn't.   Two second down conversions by Sempimphelter brought Bucknell to the 25.

Lehigh's defense could have made the FG try more difficult from there.  But they didn't.  With 42 seconds left, Sempimphelter threw a deep pass to Charlie Kreinbucher, who came down with the ball at the Lehigh 2 yard line.

Shortly thereafter, after a chip-shot field goal attempt by PK Matt Schearer, it was Bucknell 19, Lehigh 17, with 18 seconds to play - and for Lehigh fans, Bryce Harper's home run, but in reverse.  A late hook-and-ladder play went nowhere, and the loss was complete.

It's not the first time this season Lehigh fans would bemoan missed opportunities to win, and you could certainly add more than just those I mentioned.  Had the offense managed to score more than one touchdown, had Lehigh not been flagged with 12 penalties for 110 yards, had the Mountain Hawks not turned over the ball three times.. Lehigh would have most likely won the game.

More importantly, though, there are countless other Lehigh football teams over the years that would have found a way to win this game.  And that's why this should be a bigger moment than it has seemed.

Personally, I have always had high expectations for the program.  I will make no apologies for being an optimist every spring and summer, sometimes seeing a team about to turn the corner that doesn't do so.  I expect Lehigh to compete for, at a bare minimum, Patriot League Championships on a regular basis.  Every Lehigh football player has a reason to expect a serious chance to win at least one ring.

Not win every game - not win every Patriot League game by three touchdowns - but play hard, bring out your best self, and respect the stage.  I'll happily write recaps of heroic efforts in losses, if I see a team battling and getting better.  I respect what it takes to field any football team, let alone a winning one.  But it comes with some high expectations.  Occasionally, they need to be met.


*****

I went through the history to figure out the last time a Lehigh/Bucknell game had true national implications - a Lehigh/Bucknell game that didn't feel like a battle of Patriot League teams that were playing out the string.

2016's matchup, a thrilling 20-13 win, fit that bill.  (I wrote a nifty 7,500 word recap of that game at the time.)

Win, and nationally-ranked Lehigh would be Patriot League Champions, and lose, the 7-2 Mountain Hawks would have been in danger of crashing out of the title chase and the FCS Playoff chase.

The uniform combos of both teams in 2016 and 2022 were the exact same, and oddly, the scripts of the games were similar too.

Uncharacteristically for that season, it was a defensive struggle.  The prolific Nick Shafnisky-led offense was held to a single first half touchdown, while the defense clamped down on Bucknell in the second half as the offense embarked on some long, sustained drives and relying on field goals to trim the deficit.  

But Lehigh's offense would get things together just enough to win - and the defense and special teams would make enough plays to shut out the Bison in the second half - to win 20-13.

It was only after LB Pierce Ripanti sacked Bucknell QB R.J. Nitti on 4th down, as the Bison were driving for the go-ahead touchdown, that the Patriot League title was assured.



But the staff, the team, and even the fans just had this belief that things were going to work out, and they did.

When you sit and reflect, it's pretty remarkable how the game narrative of this high point of recent Lehigh football history - and the low point of last weekend's game - are similar. 

They were close, hard-fought games.  They went down to the wire.  Both offenses struggled on that day, and both defenses played well.  Both teams made special teams plays, and missed some special teams plays.

But one team just had this belief that things were going to work out.  

"It was composed," Ripanti said about the halftime locker room mood down 13-7.  "We've played from behind before.  Teams have gotten off to a good start before.  Colgate scored on their first drive.  Holy Cross scored on their first drive.  Teams have gotten touchdowns early; we were used to that.  We told ourselves, 'Get ready to win the game.'"

I think more than anything this is what this 2022 Lehigh team right now is missing is this type of confidence.  Down 13-7?  Get ready to win the game.

Sure, the 2016 team approached this game from a different place - but they had on their backs a huge amount of pressure to win, with a championship on the line.  But there was zero reason why Lehigh shouldn't have approached this 2022 game with a similar level of confidence.  Lehigh beat Bucknell last year to break up a 15 game losing streak, and there wasn't any reason to believe that they couldn't win it again in similar fashion.

I was really struck by the expectations the 2016 team created by themselves, for themselves and their fans.  I was in attendance.  At halftime, I sat there in the old Murray Goodman press box, and although I was nervous (as I always am in these situations), I also had a lot of confidence that the team was going to figure it out to some degree.  I knew the team would play better in the second half.  I didn't expect 50 points.  But I expected a decent chance to win.

And the question needs to be asked - at least in terms of the Bucknell game this past weekend - wasn't 'confidence' really the only difference between the two teams?   The teams on paper were remarkably similar.  But one team thought against all odds they had a chance to win the game - and found a way to do it.  The other saw bad things start to happen - and they continued to snowball.  Isn't that really the story of the game?  Isn't that, more than anything else, that needs to change before anything good returns?

*****

I can't speak for every former player, football fan, or Bethlehem resident who casually follows the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.  

But it's time to state the obvious to everyone. It ain't 2016 anymore.


Six years of reloading and rebuilding have gotten Lehigh no closer to consistent Patriot League championships, Top 25 rankings, and a legitimate shot making a run in the FCS playoffs. 

Too harsh?  Look at the record.  2016 was the last time Lehigh had a winning record.  In 2017, the Mountain Hawks won a fluky Patriot League championship with a 5-6 record, and got hammered in the playoffs by Stony Brook.  

The following year, 2018, saw Lehigh go 3-8 and lose in overtime to Georgetown.  And since then, the most wins the Mountain Hawks have had in a season have been four.  

In the last six years, no Lehigh victory has come over a Top 25 team.  None of those wins came over a CAA team, even unranked, and there were no wins against any Ivy League teams.  In fact, in the last six years, Lehigh has only beaten teams from the Patriot League or NEC (and notably lost to Wagner and St. Francis (PA) during that stretch).

There are people here in the program right now that can bring this program back to the lofty expectations of 2016. I know this.  It is what I, and I suspect everyone involved with the program at the ground level, truly wants.

But it involves doing something different.  What's happening on the field now is clearly not working.

Until that registers on the Richter scale with people that matter, I'm expecting a Lehigh football team that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory - if victory is in reach.  And I'm just reflecting the expectations that have been set, and have been setfor quite some time.  The sooner everyone sees that, the sooner it changes.

It will take a whole lot of people - starting next weekend against Holy Cross - to change where the program is now.  Including me.

Comments

Anonymous said…
The analysis is spot on but fails to name the party responsible for the collapse - Sterrett. He kept the late Andy Coen around too long; this was admirable given Coen's illness but not in the best interest of the program. Sterrett must have (or should have) known that Coen was going to have to retire but did not use the available time to recruit a quality replacement. Instead, he ended up with Gilmore as a rushed hire. As is well known, Gilmore is a Patriot League retread, previously fired by Holy Cross in the middle of a season and hose prior job was as a position coach (not even a coordinator).

Sterrett has been on campus for fifty years and is riding out the string. As it is doubtful if he will replace Gilmore near term (and very unlikely to recruit a quality replacement; what up and coming young coach wants to work under a near seventy year old AD?), the school needs new President Helble to step up and replace Sterrett.
Anonymous said…
Unfortunately Chuck, as a journalist at CSJ and insightful Twitter user, has to maintain contact with the Lehigh coaching staff and AD office for access to information, and thus cannot be truly honest and state the obvious, cannot talk about the elephant in the room. While Sterrett and Gilmore are still overseeing this disastrous program, he would be blacklisted if he wrote the honest truth on here. If my late father were still around, a loyal ticket holder and LU grad, he would be horrified at the sight of this program.

Tom Gilmore is THE worst Lehigh coach of the last 55+ years. Hands down.

Anonymous said…
It is VERY obvious what is wrong with this yeah. Gilmore. Look at what HC had done with many of the same kids he coached since they road him out of town. C'mon Lehigh alumni! Let's collectively write to the new PR President and help him see the light.

There is plenty of talented kids on the field who would play so much better if they had a real leader. These kids deserve better. We owe them.
Anonymous said…
It's been more of the same for the last 5 years. Poor offensive line play resulting in no pass protection for the QB, no reliable running game; horrible pass defense giving up multiple long completions; no offensive creativity; having way more than our share of turnovers and penalties; empty stands/little student or alumni support; not getting enough quality recruits.

Seems like the house needs to be cleaned. Sterrett definitely must go, and probably Gilmore. The latter is a decent guy, but nothing has improved since he took over. Not sure if new president Helble has any interest in supporting athletics...so that might be an additional problem.
Anonymous said…
Stating the obvious, Holy Cross dumped Gilmore for a fresh face and look where they are now (i.e. 8 - 0 and ranked #7). We took on this over the hill coach and look at us (1 - 7 and nowhere). The sequence of events needs to be as follows: Sterrett releases Gilmore - regardless whether the Lafayette game is a win or loss - on Sunday, Nov 20th and names an up and coming coach as his replacement by Thanksgiving Friday (November 25th). If this does not happen, President Helble will need to step in and relieve them both on Monday, November 28th. The school and program need action.
Anonymous said…
Athletics are of little interest to President Helble. Sterrett can rationalize his hire with impunity and will continue being the A.D. for another few years.
Anonymous said…
Someone said "PROBABLY Gilmore" and he's a "decent guy".

What planet are you living on? The players appear to have interest in playing for that decent guy.
Anonymous said…
NO interest
Anonymous said…
If this new Lehigh President doesn't recognize that 2500 people at a Goodman game is a problem, he is a very bad representative for the school. Why would anyone want to watch this train wreck in action on Saturdays?

This Holy Cross game is going to be sad. I don't care what the Leopards did against them, HC is not going to let up this week.
Anonymous said…
HOLY CROSS game- Lehigh 1-7. nothing to lose for Lehigh, Coach Gilmore will obviously come out with some innovative plays, something out of the box. Right?

slow moving handoff, slow moving handoff, pass and sack, punt.

Same damn thing for the last 4 years.



Anonymous said…
Watched an interview with the HC Coach. A modern coach who gets it, motivates his players, and actually does things to win football games.

HC football main emphasis is COMPETITIVE STAMINA. Training the players physically and mentally to get BETTER as the game goes on.

Now cut to the contrast with the Lehigh football program under the current coach. When Gilmore is finally relieved of duties at the end of the season, his head coaching career will be over. No rational college in America is going to hire him. It will be a HS coaching job or retirement.
Anonymous said…
While Gilmore has been promising improvement week after week, in actuality the team has has gotten progressively worse to the point of embarrassment. And,there has been absolutely no accountability. Not even a post game on the field interview, or a weekly show with shill Steve Degler feeding him softball questions. Hiding in the basement worked for Joe Biden, I hope it doesn't work for TG.
Anonymous said…
Doug Mastriano asked us all to fast and pray.
Anonymous said…
Lehigh vs. Colgate game, first series:

NOTHING TO LOSE, poor Colgate defense. Try something different, right Coach?

First Play: slow moving handoff, holding penalty.
Second Play: slow moving handoff, one yard.



Anonymous said…
The WORST coach in America, assisted by a really poor QB, is not a recipe for success.

Colgate defense is flat out poor, and Dante cannot throw a ball to a wide open receiver?

Anonymous said…
OK, Credit where Credit is due.

Dante Perri and the WRs played a GREAT game, an amazing, gutsy performance in the 4th Qtr.

Nothing about Gilmore changes.
Anonymous said…
Colgate game was definitely a fun game to watch, with a fast paced tempo in the second half, for about the first time in 4-5 years. This was as satisfying as a win in the Rivalry.

Lehigh won the battle of COMPETITIVE STAMINA today. That Colgate defense was dead by the 4th quarter, absolutely cooked. And for the first time in ages, LU took advantage of a wide open opportunity there at the end. Dante came back after a poor start, and played his best game ever.
Anonymous said…
Cannot complain about a good win over another bottom dwelling team. But if anyone thinks this (or even a win over Lafayette) means Gilmore has turned the tide, they are mistaken. Change is needed or Lehigh will become institutionalized as a "weak sister" football program a la Northwestern or Rice.
Anonymous said…
Agreed on Gilmore. EVERYONE agrees on Gilmore. His body of work over 5 years is one of the worst in the FCS nation, regardless of the Rivalry this weekend.

That being said, I actually enjoyed watching the 4th Quarter on Saturday for the first time in years.
Anonymous said…
Post Rivalry 2022,

Another disgraceful game of multiple lost opportunities against a poor Leopards team.

Gilmore Countdown to Dismissal. Monday morning.
Anonymous said…
Lehigh's athletic department needs an enema. Say good night, Joe.
Anonymous said…
A Merciful end to the Gilmore era.

A deep sigh of relief has been heard throughout the Lehigh Football Nat ion.
blogger said…
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Jonny Dave said…
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