By Tom Housenick
The Daily Item
Lehigh's chances to accomplish what it expects every season — win a Patriot League championship — came crashing down in front of the Goodman Stadium faithful late last month.
Visiting Holy Cross obliterated Lehigh's shot at the top spot with a 59-10 whitewash.
It was an aberration in a season that started wrong and really hasn't straightened out.
"It's been that way since August," Mountain Hawks coach Andy Coen said.
Lehigh (4-5) limps into Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium on Saturday to face an equally hurting Bucknell (2-7) team.
Lehigh, the league's all-time winningest team, is in danger of its first losing season since 1997, so it comes as no surprise that Coen's voice these days is stressed. The former Lehigh assistant has been through a tough two-year stretch as head coach, returning to Bethlehem after a successful run as an assistant coach at Penn.
The 2007 season started bad, with as many as 30 players turned into spectators at practice.
Junior tailback Matt McGowan was supposed to be the go-to back, but he got hurt the first practice in full pads and hasn't been near 100 percent since.
"He played effectively last year. I thought he'd be one of the top backs in the league this year," Coen said. "Tailback is where the injury bug has hit us the most."
The ball now is in the hands of a pair of freshmen — Kwesi Kankam and Jaren Walker.
"Fortunately, we did recruit very good backs who have had a bunch of snaps and done some good things," Coen added. "But they are freshmen.
"There hasn't been any reliability there."
With a recent change at quarterback, Lehigh has made a real effort to establish the running game. The Mountain Hawks have averaged 44 carries and 180 yards in the last three games. Walker leads the team in rushing this season with just 281 yards.
Senior quarterback Sedale Threatt, the PL's preseason offensive player of the year, has struggled and been battered since the first game.
Sophomore Chris Bokosky threw for 220 yards in his first start last week in a loss at Colgate and is expected to start the last two games.
Quarterback was another position Coen didn't expect to sweat about.
"(Threatt) played with a lot of grit in the first game (against Villanova). He took a pounding," Coen recalled. "The next week against Princeton, he started real well again, then got hit again. He fought through it. Against Harvard, he got hit hard and never really has been healthy since.
It's hurt his productivity. The last couple weeks aren't what he's capable of doing."
Coen made the tough call to replace a senior captain with an unproven underclassman, but not without some reservations.
"In fairness to (Threatt), it's not all his fault," the Lehigh coach said. "There have been dropped balls, protection breakdowns with the young backs.
"The quarterback is scrutinized most. On top of that, Threatt hasn't been healthy. Against Holy Cross, with his shoulder and right arm, I don't know if he could have played.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd be in this situation with him."
Threatt is contributing in other ways, as a wide receiver or running the ball. But, most of all, Coen said he has remained a positive leader.
"He's been Chris Bokosky's biggest fan the last two weeks," he said
Lehigh is hoping to salvage the last two weeks of its season with wins over Bucknell and rival Lafayette a week from Saturday.
The Mountain Hawks have owned the series against the Bison the last nine years, with many of the more recent games barely competitive past halftime.
"In relative terms, it can be a positive to win the last two games," Coen said.
But, judging from his voice, it will only take a little of the sting away from what has been a painful season from the get-go.