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Air Lehigh still needs defense to keep foes grounded
With league play to start, defense still may hold key to season
A flashy passing attack is again eye candy for Lehigh football fans.
Air Lehigh, so it seems, is back in flight with receivers Ryan Spadola and Jake Drwal providing the wings and quarterback Chris Lum in the pilot’s seat.
The latest air show came on Saturday in an impressive 37-7 win over Yale.
But while the Mountain Hawks concluded the non-league portion of their schedule — the Oct. 15 game at Fordham is technically a Patriot League game although it won’t count in the standings — with their third straight victory, they move forward knowing that it’s the defense that may hold the key to their season.
The 37 points registered against the Bulldogs was not a surprise. It was just eight-tenths of a point below Lehigh’s season average and the 378 yards passing was just another day at the office for Lum.
The surprise was that Yale, which had put up 37 points in each of its first two games, both wins, was limited to seven points and just 203 yards of offense by Lehigh’s so-called “bend, but don’t break” defense.
Finally, it appears, the Mountain Hawks are taking the “bend” out of that moniker.
“We felt we were getting better last week [against Liberty] and this week we really played good defense,” Lehigh coach Andy Coen said. “Getting five turnovers was big. The defense created those turnovers. Our secondary hit them hard a few times and they started dropping a few passes.
“[Cornerback] Bryan Andrews was fabulous. Yale had some good receivers and Bryan locked their guys down.”
In addition, Yale quarterback Patrick Witt was sacked four times and hurried several other times.
“Harassing Witt was a big part of not allowing them to do what they’ve done offensively the first couple of weeks,” Coen said. “He wasn’t very comfortable back there.”
Four different players came up with sacks, including one by safety Jonathon Littlejohn.
Yale scored just once on three red-zone visits and was turned away 10 times on 14 third-down opportunities.
Lehigh’s defense did its part to stabilize things in a crazy first quarter, which featured five turnovers and plenty of crazy twists and turns.
“We’ve got good kids who know what’s expected and try to do what’s asked of them,” Coen said. “We’ve got outstanding leadership. A lot of it is a continuation of what we had last year, but I like how this group handles adversity.”
And there’s plenty of adversity and challenges still ahead.
Lehigh’s 4-1 start is the program’s best first half of a season since another 4-1 beginning in 2004. It’s the best of Coen’s tenure.
And yet, it will mean nothing if the Mountain Hawks can’t sustain things through league play.
First up is a trip to Lewisburg on Saturday to play a vastly improved Bucknell team that moved to 4-1 with a resounding 35-18 win over Georgetown in its league opener.
The Bison led the game 28-0 late in the first half and then let up a little bit.
Bucknell, which won one game in 2010, is off to its best start since 2001 and looking forward to seeing the defending Patriot League champs come into Christy Mathewson Memorial Stadium.
“There’s no question they’re going to be sky high for us,” Coen said. “[Bucknell coach] Joe Susan is a good coach and there’s a definite plan in place now. Last year, the personnel didn’t match what they wanted to do offensively, but they stuck with it and now you’re seeing the fruits of their labor. They have the same quarterback [Brandon Wesley] but he is a lot better and making better decisions.”
Wesley threw for three touchdowns against Georgetown, becoming the first Bison to toss three TDs in a game since 2002.
Bucknell has scored 30 points in consecutive weeks for the first time since 2006 and the Bison defense, among the best in the country against the run, stuffed Georgetown, which had minus-three yards on the ground.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but our kids know what’s at stake,” Coen said. “The stakes get higher now that the league schedule is here.”
Beyond Bucknell there’s a visit to Colgate that will be difficult despite the Raiders’ 2-3 record. Colgate routed Fordham 38-14 on Saturday as Nate Eachus, who was injured earlier this season, ran for 228 yards.
“They’re going to get things back together with Eachus back,” Coen said. “You look around the league and see challenges. Holy Cross played really well at New Hampshire [losing 39-32], so we’ve got a lot tough games to play. We’re very pleased to be 4-1 because we’ve played some good football teams. But we’ve got everything in front of us and just have to keep getting better.”
By Keith Groller, Of The Morning Call