In the FCS Huddle: Sloppy play limits Liberty in loss to Lehigh

Due to all the rain in the Lehigh Valley the past three weeks a tarp was laid out Friday at Murray H. Goodman Stadium so the natural grass field would be ready for Saturday.

As it turns out the field was superb - neither team slipped or complained about field conditions after the game - but the play between Liberty and Lehigh was far from perfect.

A Week 4 match-up, between arguably the best team in the Patriot League (Lehigh) and the best in the Big South (Liberty), looked more like a Week 1 contest - when penalties, special team mistakes and poor decision making would have been somewhat understandable.

To make so many mistakes - many of which could be classified as mental errors - was quite embarrassing for a pair of programs that have a history of crisp play and conference titles.

In the end, it was Lehigh who prevailed 27-24, but not until a last second 54- yard field goal attempt by Liberty's Alex Kacere fell short as time expired.

"There were a lot mistakes on both sides," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said. "A big, big part of being a successful football team is being able to deal with the ebb and flow of the football game."

If the combined four turnovers, a snap over the punter's head and questionable play calling on crucial third downs wasn't enough, the combined 13 penalties for 135 yards also hurt both teams, including four infractions that took touchdowns off the scoreboard.

It was also the second week in row Liberty was flagged for untimely penalties, also getting called for 11 infractions that totaled 120 yards in a loss to James Madison in Week 3.

"Penalties always kill teams," Liberty cornerback Walt Aikens said. "It's part of the game and we just have to move on."

The penalties and mistakes overshadowed what was supposed to be offensive explosion between two of the FCS' best quarterbacks, as Lehigh's Chris Lum and Liberty's Mike Brown each entered the weekend ranked in the top 10 for total yards.

While each had his moments - exhilarating the homecoming crowd with four long one-play scoring drives - Lum's 300-yard, two-touchdown performance and Brown's 297 yards and two scores would have been even more impressive if penalties had not negated touchdowns.

Brown had a pair of touchdown strikes to Pat Kelly called back - one for an illegal hands to the face penalty, another for offensive pass interference - turning what should have been 14 points into a pair of failed red zone appearances. Liberty also had an interception return for a touchdown called back due to an illegal block, but stilled scored off the change of possession.

"We certainly did not makes ourselves hard to beat," Liberty coach Danny Rocco said. "We had those three touchdowns called back for penalties, I've never seen that in all the time I've coached football."

Lum also had a touchdown negated due to pass interference, but at least the Mountain Hawks were able to turn the field position into a field goal.

"That's a huge thing," Coen said of winning the red zone turnover battle. "We work had on red zone offense and defense and that's how we win championships, we had the best red zone defense in the Patriot League the past four or five seasons."

While Lehigh was able to salvage the blown touchdown with a field goal, special teams also contributed to the sloppy play, as Liberty failed to recognize a pair of gimmicky plays - an onside kick in the second quarter and quick-kick punt downed at the 1-yard line late - and the Mountain Hawks' backup long snapper sailed a delivery over the punter's head - setting up a Liberty touchdown.

In addition to missing the potential game-tying kick, the Flames also missed a 31-yard field goal in the first quarter - the second week in a row Liberty missed a pair of kicks and lost on a last second field goal.

At 1-3 any chance of Liberty earning an at-large berth to the FCS playoffs has already evaporated, and the Flames will have to win the Big South to keep their postseason hopes from getting doused.

But, even with the tough losses to James Madison and Lehigh in back-to-back weeks, the Flames are still a confident group and one that could learn from the close setbacks.

"We're a great team and once we put everything together, nobody's going to be able to touch us," Aikens said. "We're going to start blowing teams out. No more close games, because the offense is going to start running right and the defense, we are going to handle our business.

"Wait till conference starts, we're going to start sweeping everybody."