When the season started off 0-5 in non-conference play, chances of regaining the title of Patriot League Champions for the Lehigh football team looked slim to none.
However, an increase in defensive consistency has sparked a turnaround in which the team has won three of its first four league games and now sits in a three-way tie for first in the conference.
Coming off a 42-21 win at Bucknell University last Saturday
, the Mountain Hawks (3-6, 3-1 Patriot) are set to take on Holy Cross (4-6, 3-2 Patriot) at home Saturday in a game with championship implications.
Lehigh is tied for first place in the league with Colgate University and longtime rival Lafayette College. Holy Cross is following close behind in second. If Lehigh wins Saturday and against Lafayette on Nov. 18, the team will win the Patriot League and be granted a berth to the FCS playoffs for the second year in a row.
“All we got to do is just keep winning, and we kind of control our own destiny, which is a great thing to be able to do,” linebacker coach Tyler Ward said. “We’re most successful when we keep things simple so that guys can get out there and just play fast, understand what their job is and not have to think too much.”
Lehigh wouldn’t have been in this position without improved defensive performances from the entire unit. Many of the performances have been sparked by this year’s new starting linebackers, junior Mark Walker and sophomore Keith Woetzel.
“If you just look at the first couple of games to now,” Ward said, “they’ve made vast improvements in terms of just being where they’re supposed to be and just doing their jobs.”
Walker had a standout day against Bucknell with a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception.
Woetzel came up with 10 total tackles during the game, with five solo ones, bringing his solo tackle tally up to 50 for the season. Bucknell’s 21 points were the least amount of points the Mountain Hawk defense has surrendered in a game this season.
“The differences in how each of them play and their personality add to their chemistry on the field and the increase in consistency that they’re finding on the field in recent games,” Walker said.
Walker said Woetzel is more conservative and honed into his role, whereas, Walker said he describes himself as more of a wildcard.
He said the pair works well together.
Since the struggles of non-conference play, Ward said both players have developed into their newfound roles as starters and have adjusted to fit into the defensive system.
Ward said Woetzel hadn’t played much at the linebacker position before this season, so he needed time to adjust and learn the game. He said Walker, on the other hand, has learned to play with more discipline, which has led to his production on the field.
“It was two different paths for both of them, and they both have progressed a lot,” Ward said. “Mark early in the season was a guy that maybe I didn’t fully trust out there, but now I know he’s going to be in the right spots and do the right things and continue to be his aggressive self but in more of a disciplined way. Whereas, Keith is turning into a really good football player. Starting as a sophomore is tough, because usually you’re just not quite ready.”
Against a well-rounded Holy Cross team, Walker, Woetzel and the rest of the defense will be tasked with containing fifth-year quarterback Peter Pujals, who has completed 220 of 394 passes this season for 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Holy Cross senior wide receiver Blaise Bell has chipped in 44 receptions for 546 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Walker said if the defense contains the Holy Cross offense by staying connected through communication and making sure their mistakes don’t result in big, touchdown-generating plays, they will put themselves in a position to win.
Walker said communicating more effectively as a unit has been key to the defense’s development, because both players have had to develop as leaders in the short amount of time they’ve had this season. They’ve also learned to be more vocal in their linebacker roles.
“As an underclassman, I didn’t think that I would have to be a vocal leader,” Woetzel said. “But as the season went on with injuries to other leaders on the team, Mark and I definitely stepped up through leading by example and stepping up and making plays and making the defense come together as one.”