It is very hard to figure what to make of this spring FCS football season, especially in terms of the Lehigh football team.
The Mountain Hawks in 2019 finished a 4-7 campaign with a heartbreaking 17-16 loss to their bitter Rivals Lafayette.
Through a tumultuous 2020, it was unclear whether they would play a fall season in 2020, a spring season in 2021, or simply not compete again until the fall of 2021.
Eventually, in early January of this year, the intent to carry out a four game conference-only schedule, broken up by divisions with a championship game, was announced.
Every coach and player who prepares to contest football games goes out with the intent to win games and win championships.
However, the Mountain Hawks, at the end of 2019, were in the middle of a rebuild, especially on offense.
For a spring season, that leads to an interesting question for a team like Lehigh – namely, what is the spring season?
Is it a time to steel up for a run at the national championship?
Is it a time to win one’s division?
Or should it be treated the same way spring scrimmages normally work, namely, get in as many kids as you can and have them get valuable experience for the time you return to a regular, 11 or 12 game fall schedule?
If you look at Lehigh’s 6-0 loss to Bucknell as “the end of Lehigh’s championship hopes”, you’re bound to be depressed.
But this is an extraordinary spring, and Lehigh’s abbreviated schedule – which, to this point, was only two football games – feels more like a series of extended spring practices, with many young players picking up NCAA game speed.
And despite Lehigh’s struggles on getting the offense anywhere close to a boiling point this spring – they have generated only 3 points in two spring games – what has been unquestioned is the fact that the Mountain Hawk defense has been up to the challenge of keeping this team in games this spring. Holding Holy Cross to 20 points – when the Crusaders dropped 34 on Fordham in their other game this spring – was a big deal as was limiting Buckell to 6 points, when the Bison dropped 38 on Lafayette the prior week.
And when you look at it in terms of the development of this team – and how this leads into next fall – there’s a lot more positives to draw than a normal fall season when the team is 0-2.
“I’ll be honest with you – I saw some really good things out there [today],” head coach Tom Gilmore said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to where can be, but the improvement is what we were looking for and for our kids to play hard, and they did. It’s something we can definitely build on.”
This 2021 spring football season during a still-raging pandemic is historic in pretty much every way possible. This spring, COVID outbreaks have still happened which have necessitated mid-week shifts of preparation that would be unthinkable during a normal fall.
For example, this week, Lehigh started their Monday preparing for Lafayette, the 156th meeting between the schools. But Tuesday, after practice, the coaching staff and the team learned that Lafayette was on a pause due to a Tier 1 COVID exposure.
Then late Wednesday, the team and staff learned they were instead facing Bucknell, after not knowing most of the day whether they would be playing a game at all.
It’s worth reminding people how atypical this is from a regular fall season , where everything is plotted out months in advance, a weekly pregame schedule and routine filled out, and days and even weeks of data and film watched and analyzed, not to mention a full uninterrupted preseason with a month of training and preparation before attending a single class.
Going from a game against one team, then possibly having no game, then having a game against a different opponent 48 hours later fundamentally is so different that any sort of normal year – something that may not happen again in our lifetimes.
“[Bucknell] had the same disadvantage, so you could say it works both ways,” Lehigh head coach Tom Gilmore said. “The difference is we’re an extremely young football team, so we have a lot of first and second year players in our program that haven’t had to absorb a scout report in such a short period of time.”
For the spring season, add to that the fact that COVID pauses have caused some position groups to be desperately thin of numbers in both practice and gameday.
This directly affected the Mountain Hawks: for the game this Saturday, Lehigh suited up only seven players that were eligible as offensive linemen, with two defensive linemen ready to step in and do double duty in the case of an emergency. (One had to temporarily switch to a offensive lineman number for the game so he could be available.)
About 60 Lehigh athletes suited up for the game on Saturday.
“There was a point on Wednesday night, Thursday morning, that we didn’t even know if we would have enough bodies to play the game,” Gilmore said.
Considering how depleted the numbers were, and considering the strange circumstances on how the game came about, Gilmore was actually proud of how the team competed under “extreme adversity” – his words.
“I was really proud the way our kids went out there,” he said, “and played really hard. I thought we improved over our last outing. We had some nice, impressive drives today – we just have to finish them off. You have to score points, and we’re not doing that right now, but we’re also improving, and the players that were on the field played their hearts out, and got better.”
In his second game as a Mountain Hawk, QB Cross Wilkinson had some flashes of really good play, too, importantly not turning over the ball with a 17-for-28, 167 yard passing line despite being sacked five times. He found a rapport with WR Austin Dambach, who didn’t play against Holy Cross, finding him 4 times for 65 yards.
If this were a normal spring scrimmage, folks would say that Cross is getting better and developing at the position, and stating to look better in the pocket. With more protection under more normal circumstances, he might have done better still. In that context, there’s potential there.
Defense Is Doing Really Well
Perhaps, too, it has to do with the season that was almost taken away from them, but the defense has played exceptionally well, never backing down even when special teams miscues caused them to be on the field longer than they should have been. Bucknell held onto the ball 36:43 – yet only managed two short Ethan Torres field goals. It would have been easy to see the defense’s spirits crushed – but they weren’t. They played hard and gave Lehigh a chance until the end.
Regular starting DB Divine Buckrham did not play due to injury, which meant that the entire Mountain Hawk starting secondary were freshmen and sophomores.
Yet S Donavon Thomas, S TyGee Leach, CB LaTreil Wimberly and CB Jack Bush held Bucknell’s passing attack to 147 yards. Wimberly effectively shut down their star WR Brandon Sanders, who had two touchdowns against Lafayette. As a unit, they had a challenging ask, and the young group delivered by keeping Bucknell out of the end zone.
“Backtracking to the fall, where we all started living together, going to practice every day,” Wimberly said, “we had to create that group because we’re so young. We’re all getting experience together, and we’re going to make plays and have fun.”
You’d never know the secondary was thin on numbers, too, as S Spencer Roof rotated in and had some big hits and critical plays that made catches into incompletions and gave the Mountain Hawks a chance.
“We’re going to bring it every game,” Wimberly said.
Unsurprisingly, one of the members of the defense that “brought it every play” was LB Pete Haffner, who led the team in tackles with 11. His contributions were not only on defense – including his special teams work, he was on the field almost 40 minutes on Saturday.
“I’m pretty excited about how the defense played, ” Haffner said, “but we still gave up six points and that wasn’t enough to get it done today, so I’m pretty disappointed. But any opportunity to play is just a fantastic feeling. We get to come out here, we’ve been practicing, and really I was proud of the guys that we got to go out and show.
“I really pride myself on kickoff duty, to try to go down there and make plays, do whatever it takes to help get a W. It was really fun being out there.”
Overall, it was a disappointing day for the Mountain Hawks, because in the record books, the game is recorded as a Lehigh loss. There’s a lot of work to do in order to get wins, and to develop the high-powered offenses that Lehigh fans have learned to love and expect no matter when or how games are held.
But games like this also set a good foundation for what’s to come this fall, oddly enough. That this game happened at all – and that they seem to be closer to being a better team – will pay dividends through the rest of the spring and fall.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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