Head coach Tom Gilmore couldn’t have scripted a better opening for their game against Holy Cross.
On their third offensive play, Mountain Hawk CB Jack Bush popped the ball out of veteran WR Byron Shipman’s hands, which then landed softly into the waiting arms of Lehigh LB Pete Haffner. Lehigh would start their first offensive series in this historic spring football season in Holy Cross territory, with a chance to really make a statement.
Redshirt Toledo transfer QB Cross Wilkinson was getting his first meaningful game action in years, passing to a receiving corps that was essentially all new – only TE Alex Snyder and WR De’Shun Mickens were upperclassmen. Though RB Rashawn Allen and RB Zaythan Hill had lots of game experience from last season, as did blindside tackle Chris Fournier, a senior, the offensive line and the rest of the offensive two-deep consisted of all underclassmen.
But that didn’t matter when the ball was handed to them in Holy Cross territory.
On that first drive, Allen and Hill got some tough yards to move the sticks, while Wilkinson would throw a pass downfield to a new face, freshman WR Eric Johnson, for a 28 yard gain that got the few Lehigh fans that were allowed in to watch the game excited.
But then the drive stalled in the red zone.
A 3rd down pass play ended up incomplete, as Holy Cross’ defense stiffened. Then, on 4th down, a low snap on the field goal try contributed to a missed 25 yard FG try by PK Dylan van Dusen.
In a way, that opening drive which ended with zero Lehigh points summed up the entire afternoon.
It was a defensive struggle all game – Holy Cross only averaged 3 1/2 yards per play, Lehigh 2 1/2. There were six fumbles overall – two lost fumbles by Lehigh, two lost fumbles by Holy Cross. There were two interceptions – again, one from Holy Cross QB Conor Degenhardt, and one by Cross Wilkinson. There were seven sacks overall, and the sacks were the plays that seemed to garner the most emotion on both sidelines.
But when they needed to get big 3rd down conversions, Degenhardt and the veteran Holy Cross offense would simply get done what they needed to do more often, and that’s why they won the game despite a great Lehigh defensive effort.
“Everyone was extremely excited to play after such a long layoff and it was really great to be out there – a beautiful day for football,” Lehigh coach Tom Gilmore said. “But you know I’m really disappointed in the way we played. Even with all the circumstances we were dealing with, I felt we could have played a lot better in all three phases.”
Up 3-0, Lehigh had the ball deep in their territory after freshman DB Donavon Lassiter fielded a fair catch at the 7 yard line. Two plays later, Wilkinson was flattened by a sack and he lost the ball, recovered by Holy Cross LB Jacob Dobbs, giving the Crusaders a golden opportunity on the doorstep. The defense made a spirited attempt to hold the line, but WR Dean Nagle roped in a 4 yard pass for Degenhardt and barely crossed the plane of the goal line for the touchdown, making it 7-3.
“Some of them were youth-type mistakes,” Gilmore added, “Cross had the big play to start, and he and Shoup had a couple of big plays, they did some good things. But we need to improve a whole heck of a lot. There were some timing issues, holding onto the ball too long, Hopefully with this experience it gives us experience doing these things will reset the ‘timing clock’ for our quarterbacks, and we’ll be better next week.”
QB Cross Wilkinson was making his Lehigh debut on offense, as well four underclassmen starters that hadn’t seen varsity game action before this weekend – OT Justin Watson, WR Eric Johnson, WR Johnny Foley, and OG Jack Kempsey. Whether the presence of veteran leadership like WR Jorge Portorreal would have helped we’ll never know – he is still recovering from offseason surgery – but the offense struggled, and after a couple of sacks knocked out both Wilkinson and QB Addison Shoup, it was third-string QB Nigel Summerville who was tasked to try to engineer a comeback but was unsuccessful.
Combined, they would go 10 for 23, throw for 113 yards and 1 interception against the tough Holy Cross defense. But Wilkinson saw some positives while acknowledging that he and the underclassmen will continue to get more comfortable with the offense as the spring goes on.
“I think I did pretty well today, but there’s more to get better at,” Wilkinson said. “I was a little nervous, but not as much as I thought. It’s like riding a bike. I enjoy it. Moving forward, I think I need to keep preparing. I felt pretty prepared coming in today, but there is always a lot of stuff you can take with it. Just getting this game under a belt after a long hiatus from the field made us more and more comfortable. We’ve just got to have it show out on Saturdays now.”
Lehigh’s defense gave the Mountain Hawks some opportunities early in the game, thanks to some really great individual performances on defense. LB Nate Norris (6 tackles, 1 fumble recovery), LB Pete Haffner (8 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 recovered fumble), and DB TyGee Leach (9 tackles 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception) were huge disruptive forces, seemingly forcing Degenhardt out of the pocket constantly and getting their hands in to tip passes everywhere.
“Overall, the effort [on defense] was real good,” Leach said in the postgame. “But there were still small mental errors, losing contain, stuff like that. We need to fix that this week. Communication, trust in each other.”
Leach came back re-focused after the long layoff, he said, with a new appreciation for football because “the game can be taken from us at any time,” he told the press. His preparation all offseason and his aggressiveness seemed to pay big dividends and really kept Holy Cross’ offense off balance.
“He’s had a dominant preseason,” Gilmore said. “God bless him. We’ve asked him to do a lot. He’s really playing three and four different positions out there because of depth and some injuries that we’ve had. He’s just a really smart, hard-nosed player. He’s out here after the game telling me everything he did wrong, and that’s the kind of player you want.”
Lehigh will focus next on 0-1 Colgate, whom they will meet in Hamilton, New York next weekend after their surprising 24-10 loss to Lafayette, eager to take the lessons from this game and put it behind them. Certainly this week’s loss isn’t a deal-breaker for success this spring season, but the Mountain Hawks will need to figure things out fast if they hope to compete for the Patriot League south title.
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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