Despite an impressive performance by the football team on Saturday, particularly in the first half, the Tigers left their first game disappointed, blowing a 19-point lead to end up losing by only one. The loss highlights a problem that plagued the Tigers all of last season and one that they will need to correct if they hope to challenge for the Ivy League title. That problem is the Tigers’ inability to win close games.
Though last season was probably the best in recent memory, the Tigers lost all three games that were decided by a field goal or less. This included the first two games of the season — a 17-14 loss to the same Lehigh team and a 21-20 loss to Georgetown, whom the Tigers play this weekend. The third close loss was a more crucial one, coming against Cornell as the Big Red gave the Tigers their first Ivy loss of the season, 37-35.
Their loss against Lehigh last year is the least like the rest of the bunch. In that game, the Tigers were on their way to being blown out, down 17-0 at the half, and did not get on the board until the start of the fourth quarter. Good defense and another touchdown allowed the Tigers to get within three points, but the Tigers were unable to get a first down when they had a chance to tie the game with over three minutes to go.
The Georgetown loss was more frustrating, as the Tigers were leading until the Hoyas made a field goal with under a minute to play. Additionally, the Tigers were 0-3 in field goal attempts, with two of the misses being attempts of over 40 yards. The biggest problem in that game, however, was that the Tigers converted on only one of their seven third downs in the second half.
Unlike the first two, the loss at Cornell was a shootout. They lost on a last-minute field goal, but in this game, the Tigers did their job on the offensive end, putting up one of their highest point totals of the season, but the defense did not do as well, allowing the Big Red to move the chains on nine of its 15 third downs.
Finally, this year’s season-opening loss against the Mountain Hawks had many similarities to last year’s close losses. For one, the Tigers did not convert either of their two field goal attempts, with both being blocked. Additionally, the Tiger defense, despite playing well early, was not able to stop Lehigh on either of its last two drives.
“We’re going to look at that on film. I gotta see what the issue was,” head coach Bob Surace ’90 said of the blocked kicks. “The kicks were low, and that has not been ever an issue for [sophomore kicker] Nolan [Biek].”
“It was a couple busts in coverage — some guys just not being in the exact spot where they need to be,” senior safety Phillip Bhaya said of the defense’s problems in the second half. “We’ll have to watch the film to see exactly what happened.”
In all four of these games, the defense was unable to get a stop in the end of the fourth quarter, either allowing a game-winning score or making it so that the offense didn’t have one last shot to tie or win the game. This has primarily been due to a pass defense that has been unable to stop the opposing offense in late-game situations where the other team is focusing primarily on passing the ball in an (ultimately successful) attempt to regain the lead.
What will have to happen for this issue to be resolved is working on discipline. This type of issue tends to occur because defenses tend to be more tired later in the game, making them more susceptible to blowing an assignment. This is even more of an issue if the opposing offense is behind and playing in hurry-up mode.
It should be noted that the Tigers did show the ability to perform in close late-game situations at times last year. The come-from-behind win against Harvard is proof of this. While the offense played arguably its best quarter of the season, the defense also was huge, as it consistently stopped Harvard and gave the offense more shots to make the comeback possible. That is how the defense will have to play late in games in order to win close games in the future.
“We’ll have to look at it on film to see if our energy was the same,” Surace said of the defense. “My initial impression was that no, it isn’t, so we’ll see if we have to rotate more guys or what that is. They were on the field a lot.”
While the Tigers do not like seeing these problems return from last year, they can still be fixed. The coaches will have to instill more discipline or try a rotation as Surace suggested.
However, there are definitely also positives to take away from the game. The defense seemed to do a good job rushing the passer, although it was not able to take advantage as Mountain Hawk quarterback Brandon Bialkowski was effective at quickly finding an open man in these situations. In addition, the offense had a great showing, as it consistently was able to move the ball downfield, even if it didn’t always result in points. The offense also showed resilience, as it managed to score a touchdown on the very next drive after Lehigh had completed its comeback to take its first one-point lead.
“I thought that was a really good drive, and we showed a lot of heart in that drive,” Surace said. “There are positives you can take against a team like Lehigh, but the bottom line is we had to take a chance to make a statement and we didn’t.”