BETHLEHEM, PA – The number of monkeys on this Lehigh football team’s backs are starting to mount.
Mired in an 11 game losing streak stretching back to 2019, the Lehigh Mountain Hawks (0-4, 0-1 Patriot League) are in desperate need of some positive energy going into the rest of Patriot League play. They host Yale (1-1, 1-0 Ivy League) in their second-to-last non-conference tilt of the year.
The numbers and streaks during Lehigh’s 11 game losing streak are as ugly as can be. The Mountain Hawks have scored no touchdowns in the fall of 2021. They haven’t scored more than 21 points in a competitive football game since they beat Georgetown 27-24 on October 26th, 2019, and they’ve only done so twice through their last eighteeen football games.
Lehigh’s setting all sorts of records right now that nobody wants to see set. But the best way to remove monkeys off one’s back is one monkey at a time, which is what Lehigh will try to do this Saturday at Murray Goodman Stadium.
“We’re a really high-character team,” OL Justin Gurth said in the run-up to this game. “We have a high standard for ourselves, so we’re upset with our performance over the last four games.”
You have to go deep into the record books to see the last time Lehigh didn’t get a victory in 11 straight games. Though the late 1960s were a particularly unsuccessful time for the Engineers, they did manage to beat Lafayette a couple of times to salvage something from their seasons, never suffering a winless state for more than 9 games. You have to go all the way back to the World War II era to find a similar winless streak.
One thing those WWII teams and Lehigh’s current team share in common is that they both were deeply inexperienced. The 1943 team was loaded with more than 40 freshmen and sophomores and were severely limited in the number of practices they were allowed to hold before their season. In some cases Lehigh’s underclassmen lined up against servicemen.
Lehigh in 2021 is still a relatively young squad with underclassmen, still trying to define themselves. Injuries have played a big factor, though the return of Gurth last week helped solidify an extremely young offensive line from the first three games of the year.
“‘Not beating Lehigh’ is what we need to get to this week,” Gurth said. “A big key for us is being efficient on first downs, not turn the ball over. We’ve been hurting ourselves with critical penalties and critical situations. It takes one block, just a little bit more, to get our head in the right direction.”
Gurth later said that a win “would really lift sprits inside and outside the program,” which is certainly true. To be fair, Lehigh’s early season schedule has been brutal, especially out-of-conference. Villanova, Princeton, and Richmond are a combined 7-3, with two of those losses coming from Penn State (Villanova) and Virginia Tech (Richmond). The third loss came from Richmond playing Villanova.
And it’s also true that the streaks have obscured the emergence of DL Mikhari Sibblis as a defensive force for the Mountain Hawks. The 6’4, 250 lb junior from Georgia is tied for the team lead in sacks (2.0) and has 16 tackles, 12 of them solo, and is clearly a disruptive force for opposing offenses.
“Morale’s been pretty high in practice,” he told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. “We’re focused and ready to come out this week to get this first win of the season. It’s not going to take anything magical. We just need to play our game.”
Head coach Tom Gilmore also knows that the team needs to block out the noise.
“People on the outside are frustrated because they expect and want us to win,” Gilmore said. “To be honest with you, that’s why I loved Lehigh when I was first here [as a defensive coordinator [2000-03] and why I never wanted to leave and also why I am excited to be back. But the things you hear on the outside are the frustrations because it is not happening now.
“But I believe with the right support and the hard work going on within the program, we will rise,” Gilmore added. “We have talent in this program and there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just a matter of how long that tunnel extends. We want to shorten that tunnel by making those improvements so that we can get there a lot quicker.”
The game is taking place at Murray Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem, PA, and kickoff is at noon. If you can’t make it to the stadium, it will be available to stream on ESPN+ with Steve Degler, Mike Yadush, and Kristi Fulkerson on the call. The radio call will be available on Fox Sports Radio 1230/1320 AM and 94.7 FM Allentown, with Matt Kerr, Matt Markus and Tom Fallon on the call (and also available on LVFoxSports.com).
LFN’s Drink of the Week
A saying I just made up is: “Sometimes the only way to reverse a slide is to integrate it into your Drink of the Week.” Though this may or may not be true, dear Reader, let it not be said that I am not doing all I possibly can to turn the energy of this season around. Evoking a drink which had its heyday in the 1990s, I think, does bring a certain TGI Fridays energy to this week, not to mention vague memories of me enjoying one of these occasionally with coworkers and Lehigh friends. It also reminds me of how popular Kahlua was in the 80s and 90s – it seemed like every drink back then had some in it.
- 1 ounce vodka
- 1 ounce coffee liqueur (Kahlua)
- 1 ounce Baileys Irish cream
- 1 1/2 ounces heavy cream
- Garnish: chocolate shavings
Add the vodka, coffee liqueur, Baileys and cream to a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled. Garnish with shaved Ghiardelli chocolate if desired.
LFN’s Drinks of the Week are meant to be enjoyed in responsible tailgates, meaning everyone is over 21, nobody is driving while impaired or under the influence, and Ubers are lined up. Only enjoy these things responsibly.
The lingering injuries to LB Pete Haffner and DL Kevin Callahan are still present, and these two athletes will be out for the Yale game. QB Nigel Summerville suffered a knock during a series against Colgate last week, but he has bounced back from than and will be available this week. QB Dante Perri will likely still get the start, but Summerville should see some time at QB too, which was the plan last week as well. The regular starter, QB Cross Wilkinson, is still out this week recuperating from a head injury.
The same applies to RB Zaythan Hill – he suffered an injury at Colgate but will be available on Saturday.
After watching all of Yale’s 23-16 win over Cornell last week, my initial reaction was how strange a game it really was. The 10c version of the recap would read: “Cornell on their opening drive looked like RPO magic, but only ended up with a field goal. Yale then took over the game, not always looking crisp but effectively out-executing the Big Red late, suffocating them to go up 16-3 before a crazy final two minutes where three touchdowns were scored and Cornell put themselves in a position to possibly tie the game.”
The big star for the Bulldogs was SS Rodney Thomas II, who almost singlehandedly beat Cornell with his two interceptions and his returning of the Big Red’s late onsides kick try for a touchdown.
Yale’s secondary was a huge force against Cornell, ending up with 3 interceptions (the third nabbed by CB Wande Owens). That shouldn’t overshadow Yale’s front seven, who also held the Big Red to 88 yards rushing. A trio of upperclassmen, LB Micah Awordian, LB Noah Pope and LB John Dean, survey the middle of the field, while 6’3 267 lb sophomore DT Clay Patterson leads the team in sacks with 2 1/2. It’s an experienced 4-3 multiple defense that will be no easier than any of the other teams Lehigh has faced so far.
Offense doesn’t get much easier to deal with, either.
RB Zane Dudek is Yale’s upperclassman diminutive lead back, who go his start as a freshman in 2017 with an efficient 9 carry, 131 yard, 2 TD performance against Lehigh at Murray Goodman stadium. He was one of the stars in that punishing 56-28 win.
(“[This game] was a great example of our culture,” head coach Tony Reno said after that game. “We’ve got a team that has the ability to play together, the ability to play with the guy to the right and left of him, [and the] ability to play one play at a time and win each play. [We continue] to focus on winning plays and not winning the game.”)
QB Griffin O’Connor (551 yards passing, 4 TDs, 1 INT) is generally more of a pocket passer, but he plays an efficient game and spreads the ball around to a multitude of receivers. WR Melvin Rouse II (8 catches, 84 yards) has so far emerged as his most reliable go-to receiver.
This will be Yale’s first road game of the year, after enjoying their first two games at the Yale Bowl. They were picked to finish second behind Princeton (who, coincidentally, Lehigh already played earlier this season, losing 32-0). In a nutshell – Yale will be no less of a test for Lehigh than the other parade of brutally tough out-of-conference foes they’ve already faced.
Keys for Lehigh
- Precious Momentum. With their young offense needing some small victories – especially with inexperienced QBs – it has to start for Lehigh with cherishing momentum like you would platinum or diamonds. Successful plays, one at a time, strung together to get first downs, are a necessity. String together more of them, without penalties and negative plays, and you’ll see good things happen. String together a lot of them, and the monkeys will fall off this team’s back.
- Trench Warfare. Yale’s success will come from a big offensive line giving O’Connor time to execute his gameplan, and it will be up to Lehigh’s strong front seven to disrupt the Bulldogs. Any winning condition for the Mountain Hawks will require Lehigh to win this battle of the trenches and keep Dudek and O’Connor off balance.
- Execution. Last week on both offense and defense, Lehigh shot themselves in the foot with execution penalties and a very costly early turnover. They will need to up their execution level to have a chance to beat Yale this weekend.
Like I said in the leader, the best way to remove monkeys from one’s back are one monkey at a time.
Several monkeys have leaped on this Lehigh Mountain Hawk football team’s back this fall, largely based on arguably the hardest, worst possible stretch of out-of-conference football teams this team could possibly face. Villanova and Richmond are at worst strong FCS playoff contenders; Princeton and Yale would be strong FCS playoff contenders, too, if the Ivy League did the right thing and had their teams compete in the FCS playoffs. All of them have championship-caliber defenses. That has not done Lehigh’s offense any favors, especially one who coming in had so little experience at QB.
I’m definitely of the belief that a Lehigh win will go a very long way towards shutting critics up. It could be 6-3, 52-45, or anything in between, but a win would get things turned around, fast.
But streaks and ruts are not easy to break, and unfortunately it requires playing more perfectly, executing twice as good, and requires twice the determination to bust out. It may not be fair, it may not be fun, but it’s the only way to break it.
From that gauntlet Lehigh needs to come together as a team and tell the world what they want to be this year. This week, it’s against another stupendous team that on paper is terrific. To win and compete, it’s going to require more perfection, better execution, and maybe even a little luck. It’s not easy, but then again nothing in football ever is. I think, though, that there won’t be as many monkeys on their back.
Yale 28, Lehigh 13
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: