BETHLEHEM, PA – A very young Lehigh football team finds itself taking a bus this week to Lewisburg, PA to find out about themselves.
The 1-6 (0-2) Mountain Hawks, with a starting two-deep that doesn’t look much like the opening day sheet, heads to face off against 2-4 (0-2) Bucknell, who hope to make it four out of their last five against their “rivals”.
Currently in the middle of a five game losing skid, fifth year Lehigh DL Dean Colton spent time talking to Keith Groller of The Morning Call this week to talk about the the program he is helping build for the future.
“Going into this season, expectations were high,” Colton said. “I think the thing is we have taken a lot of huge strides from a program and team perspective. We’re building a great foundation for the future. We’re instilling essential core values into every single player on the team. We’re getting young guys to learn what consistency and hard work is all about and what it takes to win games. They’re learning this season how hard it is to win a football game. We saw at Fordham how frustrating it can be when you don’t finish. When you turn on the film, it has been night and day different from what it has been the last few years. Unfortunately, it’s not showing in the results.”
The losses the last five weeks have been particularly hard lessons for the young Mountain Hawks to learn, and Bucknell certainly could be another. But there have been some individual bright spots among the underclassmen.
Sophomore DBs Nick Petelkian (51 tackles, 4 TFLs, 3 pass break-ups) and Brycen Edwards (34 tackles, 2 TFL) have stood out, while underclassmen QB Brayten Silbor (1,371 yards passing, 12 TDs), RB Luke Yoder (283 yards, 1 TD) and WR Mason Humphrey (15 catches, 280 yards) have been big contributors on offense.
However the biggest tough lesson of the ones Dean Colton mentioned that still seems to be “consistency”.
In particular last week in Lehigh’s 17-7 loss to Georgetown were a large number of penalties, including a preventable 12 men on the field penalty that led to an extension of a Hoya drive in the 4th quarter.
Consistency, too, plagued Lehigh in their game against Cornell, a winnable game where the Big Red jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held on for a 23-20 victory. In that game, Lehigh’s offense didn’t earn a first down until two minutes left in the first half, but made a furious comeback to make it a contest.
“We’ve got to do a better job getting them ready to come out and play in first quarter,” Cahill said in his opening statement in that game. “If we continue to battle all the way through, better outcomes will come, but we got to do it all the way through.”
If you are a believer in the transitive property in football, you will note also with some trepidation that Bucknell last week did what Lehigh was unable to do earlier in this year, which is beat Cornell 21-13. After scoring a fourth quarter touchdown to take an eight point lead, the Bison defense took over, denying Cornell on their last two possessions to win the game.
Although shadowed at times by their rivalry with Lafayette, these days Bucknell certainly thinks of Lehigh has their capital-R Rivals, which might explain the fact that they’ve won three out of their last four against the Mountain Hawks. Overall Lehigh holds a 49-35-3 edge in the series, that their 86 meetings against the Bison makes the Mountain Hawks the second most played Rivalry in their history (only Lafayette has played them more – 110 times).
Lehigh however might take some comfort in that Lafayette dismantled Bucknell in Easton already this year in a 56-22 shellacking that somehow felt less close than the final score indicated. The Leopards were able to do what they pleased on offense to the tune of 545 yards, scoring touchdowns on six of their seven first-half possessions and limiting the Bison to negative rushing yards.
Lehigh might be hoping that the truth might fall somewhere between these two realities, and that they demonstrate more of the progress they’ve shown in practice but haven’t surfaced yet as league wins.
LEHIGH MOUNTAIN HAWKS (1-6, 0-2 Patriot) AT BUCKNELL BISON (2-4, 0-2 Patriot)
Christy Matthewson Stadium/Lewisburg, PA. 1:00 PM
STREAMING BROADCAST: ESPN+ (subscription needed)
PxP – Doug Birdsong, Analyst – Kevin Herr
BROADCAST (Fox Sports Lehigh Valley 94.7 FM/1230 AM; LVFox
PxP – Matt Kerr, Analysts – Jim Guzzo and Connor Mills
Game Notes and Injury Report
This week’s game notes formalize some of the big challenges Lehigh have been facing the last few weeks, most notably the all-underclassman secondary with three first year players. Sophomore FS Nick Petelkian has been the standout of the group, with 13 tackles and 3 TFLs against Georgetown, and if Bucknell runs the ball again as much as they did against Cornell, he’s likely to be called upon again to produce in a big way for the defense. He may get some help this week in the defensive backfield, but it will be a gametime decision.
Freshman RB Luke Yoder has been a revelation in this Lehigh offense, particularly with the continued absence of RB Gaige Garcia. Yoder’s explosive running (note his 51 yard scamper against Fordham) has him leading the Mountain Hawks with 285 yards rushing and 1 TD. His explosiveness has given Lehigh a critical weapon.
Bucknell is lead by head coach Dave Cecchini, who as many Lehigh alums may know was an first team all-American wideout for the Mountain Hawks during his playing days. He was also a valued member of Andy Coen‘s coaching staff for many years as an offensive wizard.
Cecchini hasn’t transformed the Bison into “Air Bucknell”, though, as his Bison teams over the last few years have resembled a lot of the same types of Bucknell teams over the years, focused on running the ball and stopping the run. That’s not to say he hasn’t put his wrinkles into the offense, but in the end they seem to win many of their games the way they did last week – running the ball 50 times in 71 plays.
Last year they ran it more than they threw it against the Mountain Hawks – but in one of the more excruciating Lehigh losses last year QB Scott Semphiphelter, one of two QBs used by Cecchini, got the majority of Bucknell’s passing yards on two drives in the fourth quarter, one setting up a touchdown to cut the deficit to one, and, after a successful onside kick attempt, made the dagger connection to set up PK Matt Schearer‘s game-winning field goal.
Semphiphelter, whose father also was a quarterback for Lehigh, does not come in all the time, as junior QB Ralph Rucker (1,223 yards passing, 67 yards rushing, 9 TDs) leads the Bison mostly. The Bison have spread the ball around to a lot of different reeivers as well, with sophomore WR Eric Weatherly leading the way with 320 yards and 4 TDs.
But its the bread-and-butter running of RB Coleman Bennett that has been the backbone of Bucknell’s offense in their last two games with back-to-back 100 yard games. RB Rushawn Baker (185 yards, 2 TDs) spells Bennett and is dangerous in his own right.
You’d think forcing five Yale turnovers last Saturday might have led to Bucknell’s first win of the season, but they instead were on the wrong end of a 29-9 score, which dropped Bucknell to 0-6. RB Rushawn Baker was the lone bright spot for the Bison on offense, running 20 times for 113 yards and the lone Bucknell touchdown. He’s the leading rusher on the season for the Bison, but he only has 345 rushing yards in 6 games.
LB Blake Leake leads a strong Bison defense that has kept Bucknell in games. Leake, who has 51 tackles and 32 solo tackles, is a Top Ten performer in FCS in that stat. Last week saw the Bison defense hold Cornell to 86 yards rushing and held Big Red QB Jamieson Wang to 40 yards on the ground and 1 touchdown, making it seem like Bucknell has made strides towards better stopping the run.
LFN’s Keys to the Game
- The Run Needs To Be Established. I’ll continue to double down on my suggestion last week that Lehigh needs to create more of a consistent running game in order to seal games late and get more sustained drives on offense. Luke Yoder and Jack DiPietro don’t have to become Christian McCaffery clones, but they have to get 1st and 2nd down runs that move the sticks or set up more 3rd and short situations. That will open up the playbook.
- Fear The Play Action. Lehigh’s young defensive backs have been learning a lot of lessons these past two months, but I’m hoping circled on the chalkboard this week is not biting on play-action fakes. Against a team that runs so frequently like Bucknell, this is going to be critical as when Bucknell does pass the more deadly attempts are likely to be of the play-action variety.
- Consistency. When you look at this 2023 Lehigh football season, you definitely see some good individual things. But what really sticks out is the fact that the Mountain Hawks haven’t done those good things consistently enough. It’s not just a matter of “finishing”, although that’s important; “finishing” is a close cousin of “consistency”, which means doing one’s job, picking each other up after mistakes and keeping mistakes to a minimum. I tend to believe the more consistent this Lehigh team plays and coaches, the better they will become.
Lehigh fans, even in their best of times, have not been known for their patience.
I am old enough to remember when a Pete Lembo-coach Lehigh team finished 8-3, thumped Lafayette to end the year, and the season was considered a disappointment. (The last time Lehigh finished 8-3 or better was 2016.)
Those 8-3 days seem long ago now, but the truth is five game losing streaks are still not something Lehigh fans are comfortable with, which is what the Mountain Hawks are experiencing now.
I do, honestly, think that things are better in South Mountain than they were. Coach Kevin Cahill has been making changes that are bringing Lehigh into the 21st century as a program. The culture build is real, and to this fan it’s been long overdue.
But somehow this team needs to find out how to win a football game, and fast. They need to find out how to win in order to have a chance in their remaining games, most notably the game during the third week in November, the one that everyone at Lehigh cares about, not just diehards like me.
This week presents itself an opportunity to do that, but it won’t be easy. It will require consistency, sustained offensive drives and big defensive stops. I have zero illusions that Lehigh will coast to victory like it was 2003. This will be a dogfight.
Lehigh 24, Bucknell 21
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.
Reach him at: this email or click below: