Lehigh 42, Princeton 28 Postgame Thoughts: The Defensive Secret To The Turnaround

(Photo Credit: Craig Shipley/The Morning Call)

What a difference two weeks makes.

At times it's hard to comprehend how desperate it felt for Lehigh fans after the Mountain Hawks' slender loss at Villanova to fall 26-21 to the nationally-ranked Wildcats.

At 0-2, after a pair of excruciating losses, a rematch with the defending Patriot League champions Penn awaited, a game that the Quakers had circled on their calendar since about December.  Following that tough test would be a Princeton team that laid 52 points on Lehigh last year and returned almost all of the skill players on the team that beat them then.

A losing record going into the Colgate seemed like a best-case scenario.

And yet, here we are after these two tough tests, and the Mountain Hawks are 2-2, with a boatload of momentum going into their game vs. 0-2 Yale next weekend.  Suddenly, 3-2 and a three-game winning streak going into an enormous game vs. Colgate seems like a real possibility.

The reason for this dramatic, and important turnaround?

The Lehigh defense, who shut out Penn in the second half and shut down Princeton in key areas of the second half as well to allow Lehigh to maintain a three-score, largely drama-free lead.
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In Offensive Showcase, Shaf Throws For 461 Yards As Lehigh Defeats Princeton, 42-28

(Photo Credit: Justin Lafleur/Lehigh Athletics)

Once upon a time, Lehigh's offense had the nickname "Air Lehigh", and players like QB Scott Semphiphelter, QB Phil Stambaugh and many other Mountain Hawk quarterbacks hucked the ball around Murray Goodman Stadium like kids in a sandlot, and posted some serious passing numbers that made the place a very fun spot to watch college football on Saturdays.

Today at Murray Goodman, senior QB Nick Shafnisky brought us back to those Air Lehigh days with a game with the same type of offensive firepower.

Pairing up with junior WR Troy Pelletier and junior WR Gatlin Casey for more than 100 yards receiving apiece, the Whitehall, PA native brought Lehigh fans back to the future with a 461 yard passing performance, coming oh-so-close to setting a Lehigh record in the process.

In the end, Lehigh fans left Murray Goodman stadium with a lot of pleasant memories about a beautiful, unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon and a resounding 42-28 win over a Princeton team that hung 50 points on them last season.  Not that winning football games at Murray Goodman stadium the past few seasons wasn't fun, mind you - but few wins evoked the sandlot quality that this game did.

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Princeton At Lehigh Game Breakdown And Fearless Prediction: Can Lehigh Stop the Tigers Running Game?

We break down the Princeton game - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.

Something of note this week that I forgot to mention in my Narrative Street and my Game Preview is the fact that the two opponents that Lehigh lost to earlier in the year, Monmouth and Villanova, are doing extremely well.  Both teams' only losses have come to FBS programs, and both schools acquitted themselves very well in both circumstances.

2-1 Monmouth was never out of the game vs. Kent State, falling 27-7 to the Golden Flashes in a game after Kent State was stunned by fellow FCS member North Carolina A&T in four overtimes, 39-36.  The Hawks largely kept Kent State's offense in check and kept them in the game, and their star defensive player, DB Mike Basile, had an eye-popping 16 tackles and a blocked kick.

If Monmouth can upset heavily-favored and nationally-ranked Charleston Southern this weekend in their home opener, the Hawks would go to 3-1 and would most likely get strong consideration in many peoples' Top 25 votes.  It would also make Lehigh's loss to them to start the season sting a little less.

Nationally-ranked Villanova, also 2-1, lost their season opener to Pitt, most notably holding the Panthers to a lower point total on defense (28) than both Penn State (42) and Oklahoma State (38).  After their win over Lehigh, the Wildcats impressively dispatched Towson 40-21 at home to maintain their No. 19 ranking nationally.

Villanova will be facing off against Lafayette in Easton this weekend, their first trip there in more than 90 years, and seem like prohibitive favorites to win there Saturday night.  If they do, Lehigh's "schedule strength" won't be harmed very much by their presence on the schedule.

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Princeton At Lehigh Narrative Street: Remembering Last Year’s Disaster

I hinted at this #NarrativeStreet in yesterday's Game Preview, but the narrative that keeps jumping to the forefront in the run-up to the game this weekend is the "disaster" - head coach Andy Coen's words - of last year's game at Princeton.

There were other losses in the 2015 Lehigh football season.

There was James Madison, where the eventual playoff-bound Dukes impressively blew the Mountain Hawks out of the water, 55-17.  The 59-42 loss to Fordham where QB Nick Shafnisky was lost to injury right before halftime.  The Colgate game.  The Yale game.

But there was something about the loss at Princeton that really got under coach Coen's skin that was different than the other losses - an anger at the way it happened, the way that things seemed to come apart in the second half after matching the Tigers score-for-score in in the first half.

All the narratives seem to point to last year's "disaster", and hoping that the team has learned from it.
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Princeton At Lehigh Game Preview: Hoping "The Hangover 4" Doesn’t Hang Over Mountain Hawks

What a win it was.

The consensus from anyone on the Lehigh side was that the 0-2 Mountain Hawks needed a win.  Any win.  And it wasn't going to be easy, against last year's Ivy League champs, out for vengeance.

And then it happened - the sort of half of football that makes all the loss experiences worth it, the type of tale of redemption after the disappointment of being so close to tasting victory and possible national recognition, only to have it taken away by a few yards in a game of inches, or a drive where the defense couldn't get that one final stop.

Suddenly, all the narratives that defined the first two losses were overturned.  Times when the offense were stopped short became touchdowns.  The defense became a Steel Curtain.  The win was as definitive as it was season-affirming.  It was difficult to find much to criticize in Lehigh's 49-28 victory over Penn that had spent all offseason plotting their vengeance against the Mountain Hawks, yet Lehigh still did that to them.

And that's the big, looming danger of this week: that the Mountain Hawk hangover from the win, from the party, from the exhilaration of the flipping of narratives, is so great that Lehigh gets blown off the line of scrimmage early by a talented Princeton team that most certainly has that capability, and had it on display at home last week vs. Lafayette.
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Lehigh 49, Penn 28 Postgame Thoughts: Both Sides Of Anthem Protests Need To Abandon Empty Gestures And Do Something Real

(Photo Credit: Thomas Munson/The Daily Pennsylvanian)

The firestorm made its way to Franklin Field.

Few football fans may noticed it as the game was about to start, including myself.  I wasn't focused on the cheerleading team during the national anthem, nor was anyone else that I confer with - I was a bit more preoccupied whether Lehigh was going to open the season 0-3.

But sometime on Monday, The Daily Pennsylvanian published a short piece detailing the planned protest event, done by Alexus Bazen and Deena Char.

It is the same act that 49ers backup QB Colin Kaepernick and many, many other NFL players have performed during the national anthem during the preseason and first weeks of the season - kneeling or sitting during the National Anthem, and raising a fist.  It's an act meant to inflame and to get them noticed, and it did.

Why, though?

The "why" can and should be asked on both sides of the protest, those that find solidarity with it and those that are angered by it.

Let's talk about it.
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With 0.3 Left In First Half, Lehigh Ties Game, Then Never Looks Back, Beats Penn 49-28

(Photo Credits: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Athletics)

Penn QB Alek Torgerson and the Penn offense had torn through the Lehigh defense like a hot knife through butter.  Again.

Nearing the end of the first half, the Huntington Beach, CA native lined up on a 4th and 1 play in the Lehigh red zone.  Faking the handoff to RB Tre Solomon, he instead took it himself, running through an enormous hole on the left side of the line for a 8 yard touchdown run.

The touchdown and extra point put Penn back ahead, 28-21, but with 1:14 left, and three timeouts, it wasn't a question whether Lehigh was going to try to drive the length of the field to tie up the game, or at least try to cut the deficit a little.  Head coach Andy Coen was going to try.  Definitely.

So the experienced senior QB Nick Shafnisky took the field, knowing what needed to be done - the same thing that Lehigh's offense had already done three times in the same half - drive the length of the field and make something happen.

But that was just it; the fans were in the stands, doubting.  They had seen this Lehigh team twice this year already, on the brink of turning things around, but coming up short.  All this Lehigh team needed was a stop against Monmouth, they said.  Nope.  All the Mountain Hawks needed was to convert that 4th down and 10 against Villanova, they said.  They got eight and a half yards.  

They had seen this last season, too.  Lehigh had the ball first and goal against Colgate, ready to tie the game near the end of a game that would have given them a chance at a Patriot League championship.  On 4th down, a few yards from the goalline, the pass would be batted down.  The Raiders won, clinching at least a share of the Patriot League championship.

Why should this critical drive be any different?  Why wouldn't it also be a dollar short, like we had seen before?

The funny thing is, it wouldn't be a dollar short, a stop short, a yard short, a second short.  It would get exactly the right number of yards and, with 0.3 seconds left, either a touchdown or nothing the result, the Lehigh offense did not end up getting stopped short, and in so doing seemed to do a lot more than simply tie the game.

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