Everyone at Lehigh knew that the challenge of playing Villanova would be different.
The Mountain Hawks had experienced a bit of a defensive resurgence in their 21-19 win over St. Francis (PA) last week, and there was no missing the No. 12 next to Villanova’s name on the scoreboard. Before the season even started, they were ranked in the FCS Top 20 and shot up even further after upsetting Temple 19-17 in Week 1.
This week was clearly a bigger test, one where Lehigh would find out how they measured up against one of the premier teams in the CAA.
The short answer was “Lehigh is not there yet”.
“This is a very good football team,” a disappointed Andy Coen said in the post-game press conference. “They beat a bowl team last year. It’s not like we we played a poor team. This was the best defense we’ve faced in a long time. And it was not our best game.”
That it was not.
Lehigh fans are not used to seeing a Mountain Hawk offense with only 176 yards of total offense, much of that gained in the 4th quarter after the final score was not in doubt. At the end of the 3rd quarter, Lehigh had 98 total yards – 12 yards rushing, 86 yards passing.
Lehigh started the scoring in the first quarter after a hard-earned 14 play, 58 yard drive resulted in a 21 yard field goal by PK Ed Mish. Lehigh’s star running back, senior RB Dominick Bragalone, played a prominent role in that drive as well, earning three first downs and converting a 4th-and-2 to keep the drive alive.
When two quick touchdowns by Villanova ensued, including a big play from QB Zach Bednarczyk to WR Jarrett McClinton, early in the second quarter Bragalone went to the locker room after an apparent head injury – seemingly throwing the entire Lehigh offense for a loop the rest of the way.
The next seven significant Lehigh offensive drive possibilities ended: interception, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, and punt. The number of first downs in those drives earned was one, a 14 yard pass from senior QB Brad Mayes to junior WR Dev Bibbens to open up the 3rd quarter.
“I thought we would be able to do some good things attacking them through the air,” Coen said. “We knew going in that we were going to have a hard time offensively if we couldn’t run the football. They did a good job making us one-dimensional and that’s a big challenge with our offense. Everybody says Lehigh throws the ball all over the place, but we don’t. We’re a very balanced team. When we don’t have that balance, we’re not nearly as good as we should be.”
“On the two drives we scored on, we were able to be mixed-tempo and generate first downs on first downs,” offensive coordinator Scott Brisson said. “When you get into a second-and-long game against a defense as talented as theirs, it gets difficult. We want to strike a balance.”
With Villanova’s defense bottling up Lehigh’s offense that effectively, you’d think that the WIldcats would have been winning by 50 points. But after the game there were some positives to be had, especially on defense.
The defense had some things they could look back on with some pride, particularly the fact that in many ways they were able to force the Wildcats into a lot of failed drives themselves.
Villanova only was able to convert 3 out of 14 third-down opportunities, as the Lehigh defense provided opportunities for the Mountain Hawks to stay in the game longer than they probably should have. Ten tackles for loss, including three from senior LB Mark Walker, kept Lehigh hanging around until McClinton’s second touchdown, a 28 yard backbreaker from Bednarczyk that made the score 31-3 near the end of the 3rd quarter.
“Any time you can get tackles for loss on first and second down, that’s huge for a defense,” Walker said. “They had a really good scheme and we had a really good gameplan for them. Their quarterback was really mobile and made really good decisions. He made a lot of motions to try to get us out of position, but we were prepared. Some plays they just got us, though. Their offensive line was big and mobile.”
The defense forced six Villanova punts and also saw two Wildcat drives end in missed field goals, despite being on the field 33:56 of the game.
“I thought defensively, we did a great job, they keep growing and getting better and better,” Coen said.
At the end of the day, Lehigh showed that they have a ways to go this season in order to compete for a Patriot League championship and to be considered in the upper echelon of FCS teams once again.
Even if the road doesn’t get any easier against Navy, Lehigh’s first game against an FBS team in over a decade.
“They’re going to keep finding their way and keep getting better,” Coen said. “The more they play together, the better they’re going to be.”