The last time the Mountain Hawks started out the season 0-2 in the Patriot League, current sophomore quarterback Nick Shafnisky was 13 years old. The year was 2007, and the Hawks finished the season at 5-6 (2-4), starting their league play off with a 28-18 loss to the Fordham University Rams.
Now, in 2014,the Hawks sit at 1-6, winless in the Patriot League after a 48-27 homecoming spoiler courtesy of the Rams, who lead the Patriot League with a 3-0 record. Inconsistent defense has plagued Lehigh all season, and the second-ranked passer and second-ranked running back in the FCS kept it that way, moving Fordham to 7-1 on the season. Senior quarterback Michael Nebrich has thrown for 2,596 yards this season, good enough for second in the country. Lining up behind him is freshman running back Chase Edmonds, whose 197 yard-day moved him also to second in the FCS for rushing totals.
Edmond’s five rushing touchdowns led the way for Fordham, solidifying the Rams’ title as the fourth best offense in the country. The Rams’ prolific offense didn’t come as a shock for the Hawks, however, as sophomore linebacker Pierce Ripanti and his defense were prepping all week.
“They were definitely an explosive offense,” Ripanti said. “We came in thinking they were going to throw the ball a little more, as coach said.We weren’t able to stop their running game, so we didn’t even put them in a position to have to throw the ball. Too many third downs, too many fourth down conversions really hurt us.”
After managing to tie the Rams in the second half 13-13, the Hawks’ loss on Saturday served as a microcosm of their inconsistent play throughout the entire season. Senior wide receiver Josh Parris echoed his frustration of not being able to put together a complete 60-minute effort in the post-game press conference.
“We came out and didn’t really get a rhythm,” Parris said. “As the game went on, we started to progress, and we were able to move the ball. It just wasn’t enough. That’s the frustrating part — when we are progressing and we are getting better, it’s just not consistent throughout the whole game.”
The overwhelming positive from Saturday’s loss, however, was the growing tandem of Shafnisky and Parris. Connecting for a 32-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter, the Hawks aerial attack showed signs of cohesiveness.
“We had a wheel route and broke free for a little bit, and Shaf put the ball where it needed to be, and I did my job and made a play on the ball,” Parris said.
The Coopersburg, Pennsylvania, native finished the day with eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. Shafnisky threw for 127 yards, completing 16 of 25 passes, tossing three touchdowns.
Settling down after an opening quarter of offensive futility, Shafnisky was able to cope with the relentless pass rush of the Fordham defense.
“They were blitzing like crazy in the first quarter,” Shafnisky said. “Coach Forman and I talked about it all week: The only way to win was to throw the ball and to get them loose and stop them from blitzing so much.”
The 32-yard touchdown between Shafnisky and Parris, through double coverage, was a testament to how much the tandem has grown this season.
“We keep growing more and more,” Shafnisky said. “He got moved from X to Z, and nothing’s changed. We’ve (become) more mature together.”
The window is closing for the tandem, however, as the team has four games left to change the dynamic of its season. After the game, Parris presented his team with a choice: Roll over or keep chugging.
“After the game, I addressed the team and told them they had a decision to make,” Parris said. “We can either pack it in or play with pride and play because you love the game. This game has definitely been a blessing, and I’m not ready to give it up yet.”
It is the aforementioned blessing that drives coach Andy Coen to keep working for his seniors, the last remaining class of the 2011 championship team.
“We love to play football — particularly the seniors,” Coen said. “You have a very finite window here. You have four weeks of football left to be played for the rest of your life. They’ll feel that as each week ticks away now. Everyone else needs to play for the seniors.”
Those four weeks culminate with Saturday match ups against Georgetown University, College of the Holy Cross, Colgate University and, of course, Lafayette College at Yankee Stadium.
Facing off against the Hoyas (3-6, 1-2) next Saturday at noon in Washington D.C., Lehigh fans will see what decision the Hawks have made: Pack it in or play with pride.