TheMidReport - The Lehigh Preview
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The Lehigh Preview

If you're a fan of cars, or if you follow the automotive industry, you probably already know about the "Malaise Era."

Detroit's golden age is generally considered to be the '50s and '60s, an age of style and performance that gave birth to cars like the Corvette and the Mustang, and to events like the Daytona 500. Muscle cars ruled American roads. Engines got bigger and bigger, as did the cars that were wrapped around them.

World events, though, brought the glory days to an abrupt end. The 1973 OPEC oil embargo caught American car manufacturers entirely off guard. To consumers, bigger no longer meant better. Drivers wanted smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, and they were finding them from Japanese and German manufacturers. To remain competitive, Detroit's Big Three had to rush compact car designs into production, and the results were not pretty, both in design and quality. For the next decade, Americans were fed the Chevette, the Mustang II, and 5.0L V8s that made 160 horsepower. That decade has somewhat recently come to be known as the Malaise Era.

The unofficial end of the Malaise Era is generally accepted to be around 1983, but that end coincided with the beginning of a similar decade of misfortune for Navy football. While the Mids struggled for longer than just ten years, the Navy "Malaise Era" is a specific timeframe that can be defined by losing seasons coupled with a particular mindset.

The Vietnam years were hard times for Navy, but they regained a measure of national prominence under George Welsh, who was the head coach in Annapolis from 1973-1981. Things went downhill quickly after he left, though, and one could argue that Welsh's decision to leave was in part because he saw it coming. Navy posted a winning campaign in 1982, but it was all downhill from there.

The streak of losing seasons that began in 1983 led many to believe that big-time college football had left Navy behind, and it wasn't long before the people in charge in Annapolis were thinking the same way. Their solution was to tiptoe a fine line between I-A and I-AA football; while the Mids would retain their I-A designation, their schedules became peppered with 2-4 games against I-AA competition each year. Unfortunately for Navy, that only made things worse, as they appeared even less dedicated to fielding a true I-A team. Charlie Weatherbie, for all of his faults, recognized the need for Navy's scheduling to reflect their ambitions. It wasn't until he was hired that Navy's Malaise Era of quasi-I-AA scheduling came to an end. (The losing, sadly, lasted a bit longer).

There are a number of games in the Navy Malaise Era that could be considered low points, and I doubt that any of you are especially interested in reliving the memories that would be brought on by such a woeful list. Any such compilation, though, would undoubtedly include Navy's 1987 matchup with Lehigh.

There was a little bit of optimism surrounding the Navy program as they headed into the 1987 season. It was Elliot Uzelac’s first as head coach, and he was installing a wishbone offense. Both Army and Air Force were having success running the wishbone at the time, and the thinking in Annapolis was that the scheme would do the same for the Mids.

The plan hit a snag in Navy’s opener, a 27-12 loss to I-AA William & Mary. Transitioning to a new offense was always going come with some growing pains, though, so one loss— even as bad as one to William & Mary— wouldn’t be enough to derail the promise of a young season. Besides, they had another I-AA game a week later to help them right the ship.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the wheels completely fell off the wagon as Navy lost to Lehigh, 24-9. The Mids moved the ball, rushing for 277 yards, but the seemingly endless stream of mistakes was far too much to overcome. Navy fumbled the ball nine times, losing two of them, while quarterback John Nobers added an interception for good measure. Even when the Mids did something right, they found a way to mess it up. Nobers broke loose for a 37-yard run in the third quarter, only to have the drive end on a mishandled snap on the subsequent field goal attempt. Navy couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone until the fourth quarter, and their only other points came when a bad snap on a punt forced Lehigh to give up a safety.

Suddenly, the Navy faithful was forced to confront a stern reality. Navy was not on the brink of success. The wishbone was not the last piece of the puzzle. The program had a long, long way to go.

(The ’87 Lehigh game was also notable in that a young freshman out of Green Run High School in Virginia Beach entered the game in the fourth quarter in his first meaningful action at quarterback for the Blue and Gold. Alton Grizzard would take over as the Mids’ starter by the end of the season.)

That was the last time Navy faced Lehigh. When the two teams meet on Saturday, almost exactly 31 years later, the situation will be very different. Navy is no longer hearing calls from the football-watching public suggesting that they drop down to I-AA. Instead, they are one of the most successful programs at the FBS level over the last 15 years. Navy didn’t schedule Lehigh as part of a broader strategy of playing lesser opponents. Instead, they play in one of the most competitive conferences in the country and use one game each season to show solidarity with their Patriot League friends.

Had this game come earlier in Navy’s season as originally planned, then perhaps Navy’s record would be a little better at this point. As things stand, though, things are looking pretty good for the Mids after a dramatic victory over one of the favorites in their league. Lehigh enters the game with an identical 1-1 record, but without the rosy outlook. The Mountain Hawks held on to beat St. Francis (PA) in the season opener, 21-19, but were dominated last week by a strong Villanova squad, falling 31-9.

It’s an alarming start for a proud program. Lehigh is the most successful program in the history of the Patriot League (and its predecessor, the Colonial League), having won at least a share of 12 league titles, including the last two. Last year’s conference championship, however, was a little unconventional. Lehigh finished the regular season with a 5-6 record, but all five wins came against Patriot League competition, which was enough to win the league. The team had the distinction of entering the FCS playoffs with a losing record (not the first time for a Patriot League champion), and they fell to Stony Brook in the first round, 59-29.

The question facing the Mountain Hawks is whether their early-season struggles are part of a downward trend, or if their fortunes will once again improve once the team enters Patriot League play. Right now, it’s hard to tell.

For the last several years, Lehigh has had one of the most prolific and balanced offenses in the country at the FCS level. Last year’s squad averaged nearly 150 rushing yards per game and 326 ypg through the air. This year’s team, though, hasn’t come close to that production. The Mountain Hawks have yet to throw for more than 200 yards in a game in 2018, including a paltry 144 yards a week ago. Their 176 total yards against Villanova were the program's fewest in nearly eight years.

On the surface, it’s somewhat of a mystery as to why Lehigh has been unable to move the ball. Quarterback Brad Mayes is a returning starter and a credible threat, having been named as an all-Patriot League selection after throwing for 3,886 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. Running back Dom Bragalone is even better. After leading all of FCS with 1,388 rushing yards, Bragalone was named the conference's Offensive Player of the Year and was a first-team All-American. He is the school’s all-time leading rusher and still has another season to play. To have players like this returning is an offensive coordinator’s dream.

Look a little closer, though, and you can start to see some of the problems. Lehigh’s offensive line has three new starters this season. The players they lost were each all-league honorees, and their replacements are two sophomores (Chris Fournier and Jackson Evans) and a freshman, Justin Gurth. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, Evans has missed the last two games due to injury, putting that much more strain on Lehigh’s depth. The Mountain Hawks also lost a pair of 6’3”, 1,000-yard receivers, while the largest among their three starters this season is only 6’0”, 190 lbs. Making matters worse this week, Bragalone left the Villanova game with an injury in the first half and isn’t expected to play against Navy. He will be replaced by a freshman, Rashawn Allen.

While Lehigh’s offense has yet to find its stride, the defense appears to be improved compared to last year’s unit. The Mountain Hawks were one of the worst teams in FCS last year when it came to stopping the run, surrendering 242 yards per game. While they haven’t faced a team as dedicated to running the ball as Navy, they have only given up 124 rushing ypg through two games. Even that statistic is a little misleading, though; they gave up 190 yards last week to Villanova in a game that saw five different Wildcats have runs of 15 yards or more.

Against Navy, it’s difficult to predict how the Mountain Hawk defense will line up. Navy’s run game coordinator, Ashley Ingram, faced Lehigh head coach Andy Coen twice as the offensive coordinator at Bucknell, but it’s unlikely that will have any bearing on Saturday’s game. Coen is an offensive coach, and the Mountain Hawks had a different defensive coordinator back then. Their current coordinator, Craig Sutyak, has only held the position for two seasons, so there isn’t much of an option history there for Navy’s coaches to study.

One safe bet, though, is that whatever Lehigh does defensively against the Mids, it will be aggressive. Sutyak is not going to sit back and let the Mids pick his team apart. The Mountain Hawks have one of the most aggressive defenses in the FCS, averaging ten tackles for loss per game so far in 2018. The approach is new for this season, but so far it’s working; Lehigh allowed a pretty terrible 41 points per game last season, but through two games this season that number is down to 25 ppg. It’s a small sample size, of course, but it’s still significant. Considering the problems the team has had on the offensive side of the ball, the defense has been on the field a lot. They’ve managed to hold their own in games that would have ended up as blowouts a year ago.

Nevertheless, Saturday’s contest will be a tall order for Lehigh. This will be the third time in four years that Navy has played a team from the Patriot League, and it won’t be the first time that they’ve faced the conference’s best. In 2015, Colgate went 6-0 in the conference and won nine games overall. Navy beat the Red Raiders that year, 48-10. In 2016, Navy faced a Fordham team that was coming off of their own nine-win playoff season and would proceed to win eight more games that year. Navy won that game, 52-16. Neither of those teams had the kind of question marks heading into their matchup with the Mids as Lehigh does this year.

Short of a complete offensive meltdown on Navy’s part, it’s difficult to see how Lehigh can keep this game close. One thing that Navy fans have done over the years to keep from getting too frustrated after a loss (or a lackluster-looking win) is to remind themselves that the coaches probably weren’t winning many recruiting battles against the team the Mids just played. That won’t be the case against Lehigh; this will be one of those rare occasions when Navy passes the eye test relative to their opponent.

While the Mids are the overwhelming favorites and likely to win fairly easily, style matters here. A win is a win, but Navy doesn’t want to fall back into the bad habits of last year. Playing Navy football— not making mental errors like turning the ball over and committing penalties— is crucial. Doing so will help the Mids to build some momentum for the grueling schedule that awaits them.