It’s been a few years since Villanova has faced Lehigh in football. The series took a hiatus a few years back to allow the ‘Cats to bring in a few new non-conference opponents to the rotation and the series with the relatively close regional Patriot League opponent — that dates back to 1903 (when Lehigh were still the Engineers) — was temporarily put on hold in 2010. Andy Talley’s respect for the school in Bethlehem, however, meant that it was perhaps inevitable that the Mountain Hawks would get back on the slate.
In their last meeting, the Wildcats easily defeated Lehigh, 35-0, behind an inspired effort by the then-reigning National Champions. Overall, Villanova holds a 7-5 series advantage over the opponent.
Things have changed a bit for Lehigh and the Patriot League since 2010, however. The Mountain Hawks went to the FCS playoffs in 2010, making it past Northern Iowa to the second round. They got all the way to the quarterfinals a year later in 2011, being knocked out by the powerhouse North Dakota State. The Patriot League followed by voting to allow up to 60 football scholarships for its schools in 2012, a move that has seemed to strengthen the league’s talent base.
1. Villanova and Lehigh are resuming a series this year that we were used to in the past. Does this game have any special meaning for the fans in Bethlehem?
For the knowledgeable fans, yes. In a broad sense Villanova is seen as one of the stronger teams in the CAA in the last ten years and a really big test for the Mountain Hawks in any given year.
Back in the day it was seen as a battle between Lehigh's not-everyone-is-on-full-scholarship team versus the big, bad, "full-scholarship" Wildcats. There were a lot of losses for the Mountain Hawks, and one stunning win in 2006, when Lehigh shocked the Wildcats at Villanova stadium, 31-28. That win came off a stunning loss the week before vs. a lightly-regarded Albany team. Quite a few Lehigh fans are hoping that narrative repeats itself.
2. Lehigh rallied in the second half against Monmouth in their opener but fell short. What can we take from that? Which Lehigh are we likely to see on Saturday?
The Mountain Hawks really didn't come out well out of the gates strong on Saturday. Down 7-0 at half and down 14-0 before their first offensive possession of the second half, the general feeling was that the Mountain Hawks were very close to digging themselves out of that large hole they put themselves in, but couldn't. I don't anticipate that Lehigh will come out that flat again.
It's also worth noting that Monmouth has the potential to be a very solid team in the Big South, and perhaps make a run at a playoff spot, a fact that most people seem to miss. They were very solid to close out the season last year, putting punishment to Liberty and Gardner-Webb, and very nearly knocking off Coastal Carolina when they were the No. 1 team in the nation. Their big 2016 question mark, their defense with a lot of kids returning from injury, was extremely solid Saturday.
3. Some folks thought Lehigh's offense would be very strong coming into this season, but Monmouth seemed to put the brakes on their progress. What happened, and is what will be the Mountain Hawks' key to rebounding offensively?
The expectations of Lehigh fans were through the roof on the heels of the end of last season, putting up 42 points against Colgate (in a loss) and 49 points against Lafayette (in a critical win against their most bitter Rivals). Were those justified? Whether justified or not, getting shut out of the first half seemed to stun everyone. Critical to their struggles was the relentless pass rush of Monmouth, who put constant pressure on QB Nick Shafnisky. The key to Lehigh rebounding from that is to put that first half in the rear-view mirror, and Mountain Hawk offensive line coming out with something to prove.
4. Linebacker Evan Kaufmann had 12 tackles and a sack for Lehigh last weekend, which stood out for the defensive effort. Who are the other key players to watch for Lehigh this Fall?
Linebacker Colton Caslow is an all-Patriot League player who suffered an injury to start the preseason. When he comes back from his injury, and it could be this week, he's an exciting player to watch. Along with Kauffman and linebacker Pierce Ripanti, the Mountain Hawks' linebacking unit has the potential to be much better than last year.
5. After one week, what are your expectations for the Mountain Hawks in 2016?
In reality, like most Lehigh fans I was stunned by the Mountain Hawks getting shut out in the first half on offense. This upcoming game against Villanova is only the first of a gauntlet of games that will be big challenges for Lehigh: Penn, the Ivy League champs (and a challenge I don't need to tell Villanova fans about), Princeton, who walloped the Mountain Hawks last year, and Yale at the Yale Bowl, a place where Lehigh hasn't won since 2004.
Given that run of games, the hope is that the Mountain Hawks can possibly scrape a couple of wins out of that stretch of games - three would be even better - before Colgate, the defending Patriot League champions, come to town. How Lehigh emerges from this group of games will set the tone for that huge matchup.