So when Lehigh beat St. Francis 21-19 Saturday at Murray Goodman, it was a type of victory that felt a little bit foreign to the way that the Mountain Hawks had been winning games in the last few years.
“It feels good,” head coach Andy Coen said afterwards. “The kids all know that the defense had struggled last year, but they’ve found ways to make themselves better. I feel good for the defensive guys.”
Safety Sam McCloskey, one of the defensive team captains for 2018, couldn’t remember a time when a Mountain Hawk defense held an opponent under 50 yards rushing.
“We really put it all on the field today,” McCloskey said. “Stopping them on 3rd downs, and the game came down to us. We came up with a big play.
It was the type of win that head coach Andy Coen described as “gritty”, one involving tough, physical play and big contributions in all three phases.
On offense, senior running back Dominick Bragalone provided the physical punch, gaining 137 rushing yards and scoring all three offensive touchdowns on the ground, powering through the line for two of his three scores. One came from a 4th and 1 from the St. Francis 2 yard line, where he powered through a hole in the line to get a critical score.
“St. Francis has a great defense,” Bragalone said afterwards, “The offensive line, they did a great job to allow me to get the tough yards, and allowed us to do what we needed to do to get the win.”
On special teams, one underappreciated part of the win was Ed Mish’s punting, who pinned the Red Flash deep in their territory twice in the 4th quarter, and extra points, whose conversions ended up being the margin of victory.
And Sam McCloskey also made a key tackle on special teams, the last line of defense that took down St. Francis return man Nick Rinella after a kickoff, preventing a near-certain score.
“The little things last year, we weren’t worried about them as much as we should have been,” McCloskey said. “This year we’ve been preaching the same techniques over and over. We made some mistakes, but the tackling from last year to this year has been night and day. Fundamentals are going to put us where we want to be.”
There of course was also the blocked field goal try, the one that sealed the game for the Mountain Hawks. Though the block wasn’t attributed to one particular player – the kick appeared to be low on the highlight reel, and hit a St. Francis (PA) lineman in the back – linebacker Keith Woetzel attributed it as a “team” block.
“The defensive line, they pushed them way back,” he said. “They made sure the kicker didn’t have any chance.”
On defense, there was, of course, the toughness in the defensive trench to keep St. Francis to only 50 yards on the ground, but there were also a lot of little things that were done right.
Like the pressure on Red Flash Bear quarterback Fenimore that set up a big 4th quarter interception by defensive back Donavon Harris, which was a huge momentum shift in the game.
And setting up the blocked field goal was a tackle by senior safety Riley O’Neil on Red Flash running back Jymere Jordan-Toney on 3rd down, pushing him out of bounds about a half yard short of the first-down marker and stopping the clock, in case Lehigh needed the time to win the game.
Defensive coordinator Craig Sutyak and defensive line coach Donnie Roberts were in the post-game press conference practically beaming about the all-around defensive effort put in by the Mountain Hawks on the afternoon.
“The guys upfront have done a real good job,” Roberts said. “We just work on being mentally sound. We just have to keep on plugging away.”
“If you win first down, you’re in good shape,” Sutyak explained. “I thought they did a good job on the first drive in the second half. 2nd-and-7 is not a great offensive play call. Forcing that dictates play more.”
It wasn’t always the prettiest, but the critical thing to this team was that it ended up with a notch in the “win” column – and that the focus on fundamentals – and the little things – paid off in the end with a real momentum boost for a brutal stretch of out-of-conference games coming up for Lehigh.
“It’s just one week,” McCloskey said, “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re going to enjoy it, and then we’re going to move on to the next week. We’ve worked our tails off, but it’s only the beginning.”