Lehigh looks to become first team to clinch FCS playoff spot
(STATS) - No FCS team has wrapped up a spot in the playoffs. Sure, many traditional powers like North Dakota State, Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington are almost certainly headed there.
Yet, none of them can become the first to punch their ticket to the postseason.
The team with a chance to do it doesn't have a rich playoff history. It didn't get one first-place vote in its conference's preseason poll. It wasn't even part of the STATS FCS Top 25 until this week.
That team is none other than Lehigh.
The 24th-ranked Mountain Hawks have mostly flown under the radar despite putting up huge offensive numbers and winning seven consecutive games, a run which puts them in the company of the FCS' big boys. The streak is tied for third-longest nationally with No. 16 North Dakota, behind only top-ranked Sam Houston and No. 5 The Citadel.
A victory Saturday afternoon over Bucknell would give Lehigh (7-2, 4-0) the Patriot League title and an automatic playoff berth for the first time since 2011.
"The coaching staff, all of our players have done a great job working to get our program back to the caliber of where we wanna be and we're on the doorstep of getting another ring here," coach Andy Coen said. "That's what we talk to our players about. If you're gonna work hard and do the right things, you're gonna have an opportunity to win a championship. That will be in our hands here on Saturday."
The only other team with a chance to earn a playoff spot this weekend is The Citadel if it beats Samford, but that game begins 90 minutes after the Mountain Hawks kick off the final home game for their seniors.
Many of them were around for past heartbreak against Bucknell (3-5, 2-1), so the Mountain Hawks won't take this game lightly even though the Bison appear to be far inferior. Their only league wins came against Holy Cross and Lafayette, which have a combined 5-13 record.
Lehigh was 6-1 in 2013 before being blown out 48-10 by a Bucknell team which entered with a 2-4 record.
"We already had that conversation with some of our veteran guys," Coen said. "They remember what happened here three years ago. We're not gonna make that mistake again."
The Bison do boast the Patriot's No. 1 defense, surrendering 372.6 yards per game. However, when they did have to face a high-powered offense last week against eighth-ranked Charleston Southern, they were torched for 548 yards and 49 points.
Lehigh's offense is just as potent if not moreso. The Mountain Hawks are averaging more than 500 yards and 40 points per game, and the scary part is that they're finding better balance.
It was the passing attack which fueled the win streak until the past two games, when sophomore Dominick Bragalone rushed for a combined 374 yards and five touchdowns on just 32 carries. Plus, dual-threat quarterback Nick Shafnisky was back last week after missing 2 1/2 of the previous four games with an ankle problem, and he rushed for a season-high 108 yards and three TDs while throwing for 238 and a score in a 58-37 whipping of Fordham.
"For the future, it's gonna cause more problems for opposing defenses," senior fullback Kenny Crawford said of the ground game stepping up. "Dom's really been picking it up. The O-line has been playing tremendous. Our offense has become very dangerous and explosive."
It doesn't seem like the Bison can keep up. They've topped 28 points and 400 total yards only once all season.
However, if they somehow pull off a shocker at Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem, Pa., the Patriot title will be back up for grabs because Lehigh, Bucknell and either Colgate or Fordham - which play each other - will all have one league loss.
Coen isn't letting his team think much about what's at stake Saturday.
"We talked about it briefly at our team meeting on Sunday, but then it was right back to work," he said. "You wouldn't have known if it was Week 3 or Week 5, and certainly you wouldn't have known it was for a championship this week. We'll start revving up the energy level and those types of things as we get closer to the game."