We are now officially midway through the 2023 Lehigh football season. The Mountain Hawks sit at 1-5 overall, and 0-1 in the Patriot League.
I thought I'd go ahead and make up some midseason grades, and set some "fan goals" for the second half.
The 2023 Mountain Hawks were picked to finish fifth in the seven team Patriot League. In order to meet or exceed that expectation, they'll probably have to go at least 3-2 the rest of the way in conference play. Their remaining games are vs. Georgetown, at Bucknell, vs. Holy Cross, at Colgate, and vs. Lafayette in The Rivalry.
Can they do it?
Culture Changing: B+. I was there in the Bronx last week after the tough 38-35 defeat to Fordham, and there wasn't a single player emerging from the locker room that looked like they didn't care. Every face was glum. They didn't even seem sad. More frustrated and angry.
That may seem normal, considering the agonizing way the Mountain Hawks lost, but it was a marked change from many of the Lehigh teams I've seen over the last seven years. To me, that's a sign that the culture change, talked about by Lehigh players and coaches alike, has been taking hold.
It may not seem like it during this 1-5 start, but I tend to believe that the hard lessons during the five losses are making a positive difference in this team. With a sophomore QB-WR combo and a ton of underclassmen in key roles, I have little doubt this will pay off over the next few years. The "culture change" seems to be happening, and it's worth a good grade. (It would have been an A with another win or two, however.)
Fighting Through It: A. I am struck how this team has been handed nothing.
Head coach Kevin Cahill's first win came against Merrimack at Harvard, after venue changes, time changes and torrential downpours and wind. Injuries, weather and strange circumstances - like a trip to Dartmouth after legendary Big Green head coach Buddy Teevens passed away - just seem to indicate that this team is going to get everyone's Hero Game, with no help from officials, turnovers, or anything. Everything they get they have to earn.
I hate calling it "adversity", but you could make that case with this team. And despite the tough record and the circumstances, the kids seem to be battling and getting back to it every week. They could quit, but as coach Cahill actually told me, "they won't". He's right.
Underclassmen: B+. If there's one thing I know about coach Cahill is that he's not a guy who tolerates excuses. Having said that, Lehigh's injury list has been extensive, forcing underclassmen into key roles.
Putting aside the fact that QB Brayten Silbor and WR Geoffrey Jamiel are only sophomores, last week at Fordham the starting offensive line was senior OL Renach Gena, senior OL Christian Jablonski, senior OL Jackson Wiles, freshman OL Austin Huff, and sophomore OL Langston Jones. Only two of these players started the first game at Villanova - Jones and Jablonski - and neither of them were starting at the same position on the O line.
In fact, due to injury Lehigh lost team captain OL George Padezanin the first week of the year and every week since the Mountain Hawks have been starting different O line combinations. But Huff did a great job against Fordham, as did freshman RB Luke Yoder, who won Patriot League Offensive Player of the Week with a 100 yard rushing effort behind that O line.
It's not just the offense. Only sophomore DB Nick Petelkian in the secondary has started all season long. Last week, three freshmen started alongside him. Sophomore LB Tyler Ochojski went out with injury in the middle of the Fordham game and freshman LB William Parton had to step in and did a really good job, with 2 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble and 1 sack.
Lehigh has had to play a bunch of underclassmen out of necessity, and for the most part they have really done a phenomenal job jumping in due to the circumstances. They've had to grow up fast.
Tackling: C. Against Monmouth, I winced a bunch of times when I saw Mountain Hawks try to arm tackle RB Jaden Shirden and RB Sone Ntoh. You simply can't do that against grown ass men like Shirden and Ntoh, who are not just seniors and great athletes but two of the best runners in the CAA and maybe FCS as a whole.
Overall it's been a concern, and it really was an issue in a close game vs. Fordham, where just one more stop or one fewer yard might have been the difference between a win and a loss, or maybe just overtime. Maybe it's partially chalked up to youth, but it's definitely an area for the whole defense I'd like to see improved.
Finishing: D. Finally, the toughest lesson and grade of them all. Putting aside the very tough games against Villanova and Monmouth for a second, closing out halves and closing out games have been a consistent problem with this team.
In the win against Merrimack, at the end of the first half up 14-3, the defense gave up a drive that went the length of the field to give up a FG to be down 14-6 at half. It could have really come back to haunt this team, but thankfully it didn't. This team, however, has made a habit of giving up a lot of points at the end of the first half. The defense is averaging giving up more than 14 points in the second quarter, most of them during the last five minutes.
Against Fordham with a 35-24 lead with 10 minutes to play, too, the tendency reared its ugly head and it cost Lehigh the win. It wasn't just on the defense - the offense couldn't get a couple more first downs that might have run out the clock. Lehigh had a chance to go for it on 4th and 1 in Fordham territory, but the staff elected to try to punt and pin them deep. It didn't work, and instead, Fordham drove the length of the field to tie the game with an improbable 42 yard FG.
It's easy find moral victories in the loss against Fordham. Almost half the team out there were underclassmen, many of them in their first game action. Lehigh wasn't picked to win by anybody, including me. By any measure the Mountain Hawks overperformed. But in the end, all that wasn't enough.
A win against Fordham would have been an instant reputation-changer. The Rams, after all, are still the league's best shot at ending Holy Cross' reign of terror atop the Patriot League, and they have an FBS win to their credit too, a 40-37 win over Buffalo. But the team couldn't finish, and thus the 1-5 record still says who the Lehigh Mountain Hawks are at this moment.
In order for Lehigh to finish strong, and to achieve the visible goals still in front of them at the moment - winning at least three more games, playing meaningful league football in November, and beating Lafayette - finishing, more than anything else, needs to be improved.