It is going to be David versus Goliath this weekend when Yale visits Lehigh at Goodman Field Saturday.
Although Lehigh (4-2) is coming off a 23-19 upset loss to Towson last Saturday, the Mountain Hawks have not dropped two games in a row since 1997 and will want to redeem themselves this weekend.
Over the past four years, Lehigh is 46-3 in the regular season including undefeated seasons in 1998, 2000 and 2001. The Mountain Hawks have won 26 straight games at home, not losing a game in Bethlehem, Pa. since 1997.
Coming into this season Lehigh was ranked No. 2 nationally in Division I-AA by the College Sporting News’ 2002 Consolidated I-AA Preseason Rankings. Despite its two early-season losses, Lehigh is still ranked No. 19 in Division I-AA by both the ESPN/USA Today and The Sports Network polls.
“Lehigh is a really tough opponent,” Yale quarterback Jeff Mroz ’05 said. “They lost two games and they’re still No. 19 in the country. That really shows
you what kind of respect they have as a program.”
While Lehigh commands a significant amount of respect at the national level, Yale (3-1, 1-1 Ivy) was picked to finish sixth in the Ancient Eight by IvyLeagueSports.com’s preseason media poll. Although Yale has had a great deal of early success this year, including its first 3-0 start since 1981, last week’s 20-17 loss at Dartmouth raised some doubts about the Bulldogs’ ability.
A point of particular concern has been the play of Yale’s special team units. In the game against Holy Cross two weeks ago, special teams blunders allowed the Crusaders to stay in the game despite the superb performances of both the Yale offense and defense.
Last week, the special teams mistakes were still there, and this time they cost Yale a come-from-behind win against Dartmouth. Punt and kickoff returner Barton Simmons ’04 turned the ball over twice, including a key fumble with 5 minutes left in the game and the Bulldogs down by three. With 7 seconds left, Eli place-kicker John Troost ’05 ended Yale’s desperate hopes of sending the game into overtime when his 35-yard field goal sailed low, ending up in the hands of a Dartmouth defender.
“I thought the special teams played well,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “The specialists did not.”
Unlike past Lehigh squads, this year’s Goliath has been showing signs of vulnerability. In the fourth game of the season, Lehigh lost to the University of Pennsylvania 24-21, snapping its 15-game winning streak against Ivy League teams and its 26-game winning streak against all teams. Last week against Towson, the Mountain Hawks came up short on a fourth-and-inches play in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter to give Towson the upset victory.
Besides a pair of early season defeats, a string of injuries has created another chink in Lehigh’s armor. There are currently 11 players on Lehigh’s injury list. Three of these are quarterbacks, including the Mountain Hawks’ top two signal callers, Chad Schwenk and Matt Shiels. These injuries have forced Lehigh to adopt a five-quarterback rotation rather than sticking with one starter. In eight of their last nine games, Lehigh has used two or more signal callers.
Lehigh’s injury headaches also extend to defense, where the Mountain Hawks will likely have to do without two of their defensive starters, linemen Tyler Hart and Royce Morgan.
“We’ve had our share of adversity this year with injuries and turnovers,” Lehigh head coach Pete Lembo said. “We’ve got to regroup and bounce back against a very good Yale team this weekend.”
Yale has also proven that their weapons include more than just a shepherd’s slingshot. Despite a tough loss against Dartmouth last week, the Elis still rank fourth in rushing and total offense and sixth in scoring in Division I-AA. Running back Robert Carr ’04, who put up 108 yards last week, remains the top Division I-AA all-purpose runner and the division’s second leading rusher.
The Elis will also get two weapons back this weekend. Running back Pat Bydume ’04 — who missed last week’s game because of a hamstring injury — will be in the lineup this Saturday. Bydume has cumulated 207 yards over three games.
On defense, the Bulldog secondary will get an extra boost from the return of veteran defensive back Stephen Ehikian ’04. Ehikian, who started eight games last year and had 40 tackles and one interception, missed the first four games of this season because of a tear in his left hamstring.
“Watching my teammates play without me was painfully frustrating, but I just tried to stay positive and keep myself physically ready to play,” Ehikian said. “Going into the first game, I felt confident that the Yale defense was going be excellent, and I continue to feel that we are a really good defensive unit.”
If the Bulldogs want to improve to 4-1 Saturday, they will have to do two things. First, they will have to find a way to stop Lehigh running back Jermaine Pugh, who rushed for a career-best 176 yards and a touchdown against Towson last week. This season, Pugh has broken his own personal best for yards in a game four times and currently leads the Patriot League in rushing yards and yards per game.
Another thing the Bulldogs have to do is build an early lead and then weather Lehigh’s late-game surge. With 30 touchdowns in six contests, Lehigh’s offense, which is seventh in the nation in points scored per game, is something that the Eli defense needs to control early.
But even if the Elis get an early lead, they will still have to find a way to preserve their advantage, something Princeton and Harvard did not manage to do against the Mountain Hawks. Although Lehigh has trailed early in its last four games, they have outscored their opponents 74-6 in the fourth quarter this season.
“Its going to be very important to come out and play hard,” Mroz said. “Putting points up early is going to allow us to dictate the game. We have to make them adjust to what we are doing. We can’t afford to wait and adjust to what they are doing.”
Regardless of which one is which, both David and Goliath will share at least one thing in common.
“We’re both coming off tough losses, we’re both in the same situation,” Yale defensive end Mark Patterson ’03 said. “The key is who can be the first to put that behind them. [Our players] are anxious to get out into another game and prove that we are not the same team that came out last week.”
Despite the tough challenge ahead, the Bulldogs realize that a win against the Mountain Hawks will redeem the Elis and send a message to their remaining Ivy League opponents.
“[Lehigh is] such a good team that they’re almost the measuring stick to see if you are legit,” Mroz said. “When Penn beat them, everyone started saying ‘Penn’s for real.’ When Princeton gave them a game, people said, ‘Princeton’s got a good team.’ It would be great for us to come up with a win against Lehigh. It would really open some eyes around the league.”