Bucknell head football coach Dave Cecchini had certainly made the rounds at Lehigh’s Goodman Stadium before. After all, it’s highly familiar turf for the accomplished Mountain Hawk alumnus, who was a consensus First Team All-American wide receiver for the Brown and White before spending two stints on the coaching staff in Bethlehem, PA.
But Bucknell’s quick bus trip to Lehigh on Saturday for a game contested in the spring in front of 447 spectators? That was a different experience entirely, to say the least.
“Everything is a little surreal, a little bit kinda like you’re out of a Twilight Zone episode,” Cecchini told HERO Sports.
In that case, the episode had more than a happy ending for Bucknell, as its 6-0 win over Lehigh clinched the Patriot League South Division title. The Bison, who have never made the FCS playoffs, will represent the South in the Patriot’s first-ever football conference championship game on April 17 versus Holy Cross. The league’s automatic bid (and projected sole bid) to the 16-team spring postseason will be decided by the inaugural title bout.
“I’ve had a lot of experience here in the league and I’ve got a lot of members of our staff who have been involved on a number of Patriot League championship teams, but we’ve never played in an actual championship [game],” Cecchini said. “So it’s gonna be a lot of fun, a great reward for all the hard work and the effort that our players have been through, all the adversity that they’ve faced here over the past year. So to be able to know for sure that you get to play football for at least one more week is a great feeling right now. And I’m just really happy, especially for our seniors.”
Bucknell rode a smothering defense to the win at Lehigh, stifling the Mountain Hawks in their long-awaited return to action after multiple shuffles of the schedule. Lehigh managed only 190 yards of total offense and 1.2 yards per carry as a team against the Bison.
“You can play ultra conservatively as well offensively when you know how well your own defense is playing, and that changes the chemistry of the game,” Cecchini observed, noting that it became apparent in the first half that 10-17 points would likely be sufficient to get the win in the defensive slugfest.
While Bucknell ended up with only six on the scoreboard via a pair of Ethan Torres field goals, that, too, proved to be enough given the shutout of Lehigh being performed by the stingy Bison defense, which was led in tackles by senior linebacker Gerrit Van Itallie (seven total with one sack).
Elsewhere, Bucknell junior quarterback Tarrin Earle, who works in a platoon with senior Logan Bitikofer, out-rushed Lehigh by himself, netting 33 rushing yards on seven carries to Lehigh’s 23-yard team total.
“There’s no doubt we were struggling with our tailback run game and it’s something we gotta do better at, but having Tarrin in there, you now have an extra blocker in front of you,” Cecchini commented. “He did a great job on a couple of drives extending plays, making big plays with his feet. And obviously, he’s talented enough to beat you with his arm as well, so you can’t just treat him as a wildcat quarterback and just throw a bunch of guys up in the box and play nothing but run.
“He does present an interesting bind to a defense and forces defenses to think in different ways because they know he’s going to come in and they know he can come in on any play.”
Bucknell has one more regular-season game Saturday against Fordham. The Bison then take on the PL North champ Holy Cross. The Crusaders, headlined by sophomore linebacker and Stats Perform FCS National Defensive Player of the Week Jacob Dobbs, await Bucknell in the league title game after their scheduled April 10 game versus Colgate was called off due to COVID within the Raiders’ program.
Cecchini, a well-regarded mainstay in the conference, rightly knows just what his Bucknell squad is getting into as it challenges the defending Patriot League champion in search of its first FCS playoff appearance in BU program history.
“They’re the league champs. They did a great job back in 2019, and they’re at the top of the mountain right now. It’s a different year, different set of circumstances, but they’ve got the confidence, they’ve got the experience, they’ve got talented players. They’re going to be a tough team to beat. We’re young and up-and-coming and hungry to climb to the top of that mountain.”