Lehigh Wins The Internet, But Loses The Football Game to St. Francis (PA), 14-13

Photo Credit: Hannah Hally Photography

We live in a strange world where people consume things in bites.  People consume bites like video clips quickly, and sometimes they love them enough to keep watching them, enjoy them, and share them with their friends and followers.

That’s what happened today with one play out of the 138 plays that were run in the St. Francis (PA)/Lehigh game this Saturday, the first game of the season for both teams.

On a St. Francis (PA) punt attempt, Red Flash P Ryan Oliver fielded a low snap, bobbled the ball, had a hard time getting a handle on the ball to kick it away, and Lehigh DE Davis Maxie made a textbook tackle on the punter that caused the punt to careen backwards, where S Sam McCloskey gathered the ball and rumbled it into the end zone.  (Critically, Oliver got up from the tackle and went to the sidelines, perfectly fine, and actually booted 35 and 43 yard punts later in the game.)

It is undoubtedly terrific football theater, consumable in a small bite, and hugely fun not only for Lehigh football fans, but for anyone who wanted to see what would happen when a punter gets tackled.

Davis “The Viral Human Highlight Reel” Maxie

The clip was soon picked up on Twitter by ESPN, Fox Sports, and all the major sports content providers, and broadcast and spread further.  By the time the evening had concluded, the clip had been seen by more than 1 million times on Twitter through the different organizations.

If you had Twitter on your phone, you might have seen it as a promoted tweet by ESPN.

Additionally, the jokes came in fast and furious:

On a crazy college football day where a member of Tennessee’s Vol Boat Navy caught fire and sunk, and Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze had a hospital bed delivered to the press box so he could call the game, it was nothing short of amazing that the clip of Maxie tackling the punter had the staying power that it did online.

But..

But it’s funny.  When you dice a game into viral clips, you can win in every clip you make – even though the reality is you lost the game.

Even though the individual play was one that was amazing, when the clock read 0:00, new Lehigh head coach Tom Gilmore wasn’t smiling in the post-game press conference.  Nor was S Sam McCloskey or QB Tyler Monaco, who had just watched a potential 40 yard game-winning FG miss right by a small margin.

They were frustrated that a winnable game slipped through their fingers.

“Well you know I’m disappointed with the result of the game obviously,” head coach Tom Gilmore said. “You go in every game expecting to win, and we didn’t get that done today. But it wasn’t due to a lack of effort. It was due to a lack of execution as everyone saw.”

“We made a couple of critical errors on defense,” he continued. “That caught up with us. We looked very good on special teams at times, which resulted in a couple big plays, but we also gave up a couple big plays. I’m disappointed in the result but not disappointed in the effort and the grit that our guys showed today.”

Lehigh’s Zaythan Hill (32) tries to makes a catch against St. Francis’ Christian Massie (24) during a football game held at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (April Gamiz/The Morning Call)

St Francis (PA) deserved to win the game, a struggle that featured two tough defenses.

Lehigh’s defense forced a lot of turnovers and made some big stops, but St. Francis (PA)’s defense also did a tremendous job stuffing Lehigh’s running game, which only managed a net of 11 yards on the day.

“Credit to St. Francis. They really packed the box and we weren’t able to break any runs,” Gilmore noted.  “That certainly put them in the driver’s seat from that standpoint.”

Lehigh’s offense only made it to the red zone three times, and St. Francis (PA) limited the damage to 2 field goals by P/K Austin Henning.

At one point, the Mountain Hawks had 1st and goal at the 1 yard line, but DE James Watkins and CB Christian Massie made plays to prevent anything but a field goal.

Lehigh’s final trip to the red zone, which came early in the 4th quarter with a chance to put the game away, saw FS Nick Rinella come down with a Monaco throw, having Lehigh come up empty when they needed points.  That set the stage for what happened next.

“They’re a good defensive team,” Monaco said.  “They came out and they fought hard. We fought really hard, too, on offense. We did some things really well. We made some explosive plays, and the receivers made some awesome catches out there.  We were really really close on a lot of runs and we fought really, really hard. But it wasn’t good enough.”

Lehigh’s QB Tyler Monaco (5) passes the ball against St. Francis’ during a football game held at Lehigh University’s Goodman Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (April Gamiz/The Morning Call)

Improved Defense

Overall, the Lehigh defense played extremely well overall, limiting St. Francis (PA) to 68 yards on the ground and 293 yards through the air, forcing 3 fumbles, and stopping the Red Flash on four 4th down conversion attempts.

“I think we are a more confident group now,” McCloskey said.  “We have guys who have played a lot of football.  So I think we just had an energy the whole time, and even when they got a big touchdown we went out there five or six series and held them to a 3-and-outs. It’s about keeping the energy up.”

LB Keith Woetzel had 9 tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for loss and forced a big fumble that gave the Mountain Hawks some momentum.

“He has a nose for the ball,” McCloskey said.  “He’s just everywhere the ball is. He’s actually didn’t participate most of camp because of  injury and we’re glad that he was back out there with us today. You can see from games from last year there’s a significant difference when he’s not on the field. We know he’s going to rack up 10 tackles a game when he’s out there.”

However two big defensive misses were the difference in the game.

With Lehigh up 13-0 in the 3rd quarter, Red Flash QB Jason Brown found WR E.J. Jenkins slidi behind the defense and hauled in a perfect pass for a 75 yard TD to cut the deficit to 13-7.

And late in the 4th quarter, Brown shook loose some pressure and found TE Terrell Johnson on the left side of the field, where he rumbled 35 yards for what ended up being the game-winner.

Without question to everyone there it was a game that barely got away.

“It’s a team sport,” Gilmore said.  “Even though we win plays individually, we win games as a team and lose games as a team.  They’re just a little things when you see them, like turning your  shoulders a little bit, like that.  There are little technical things that can cause you to lose contain on the quarterback, where we’re just not deep enough or we’re not playing wide enough. But the effort was tremendous. They played really hard. We just need to execute better than we did.”

The road won’t get any easier for the Mountain Hawks by any stretch.  The next couple weeks they will play Villanova, who could be in the FCS Top 25 next week after dominating Colgate Week 0, and then already-nationally-ranked UC Davis, who gave a Power 5 team, Cal, all they could handle this weekend in a 27-13 defeat.

Still, Monaco seems optimistic.

“We are a gritty group,” he said.  “We scratch and claw and fight and that’s exactly what we’re going to do after this loss.”

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