Saturday, November 05, 2011
Lehigh 14, Holy Cross 7, Final
It was reasonable to believe, too, that the outcome would have hinged upon the many Mountain Hawk offensive stars that have emerged over the course of the season: notably, senior QB Chris Lum, junior RB Zach Barket, or junior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola.
But it did not.
In a game where Lehigh would get shut out in the first half and not log a single passing touchdown, they would win the football game - thanks to three unlikely heroes.
A scoreless, punt-filled first quarter - the first scoreless quarter for either Lehigh or Holy Cross this entire season - was notable in that two Lehigh players went down on the Goodman grass.
The first, junior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola, got crunched on a hit by Holy Cross LB C.J. Martin, making the crowd of 9,000 quiet for a moment - followed by a giant sigh of relief when he got up and jogged off the field on his own power.
But the second, a serious lower leg injury to junior CB Gabe Johnson, was a lot more significant.
After the air cast was put on his leg, and he was carted off the field, senior CB Kenyatta Drake would see his first serious action of the year at corner.
And that's because Holy Cross went "right at him", according to head coach Andy Coen.
On the next drive, Holy Cross QB Ryan Taggart drew a pass interference penalty by throwing his way to WR Gerald Mistretta. This would allow the Crusaders to escape their territory and create a sustained drive into Lehigh's side of the field.
After Mistretta would lose three yards on a reverse - thanks to a great open-field tackle by Drake - Higgins would find WR Kyle Toulouse on the right goal line to give Holy Cross a 7-0 lead.
"Our defensive coaches had confidence in him," Coen said, "and he settled down. He knocked some balls down, and I thought he did a really nice job."
After a frustrating first half, ending with a missed field goal attempt by sophomore PK Tim Divers that hit off the left goalpost, Lehigh fans were left wondering if the Mountain Hawks would be able to come back and win the game.
"I grabbed Kenyatta right before the start of the second half," Coen noted, "and said, 'man, this is what you came here for. This is your opportunity; you've been dreaming about this opportunity to be out here - just play with confidence, go out and play.'
"I loved the team's attitude during halftime. I didn't have to say a whole lot to them. I asked which guys were going to show up, and to a man, every guy couldn’t wait to get back on the field for the second half."
In the beginning of the second half, Lum tossed his second interception on the afternoon, this one to FS Cav Koch that saw frustrated senior OL Troy McKenna hit Koch late on the play, tacking on 15 extra yards to the play and electrifying Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore and the entire Crusader sideline.
But the Lehigh defense would stuff that drive, and every other Crusader drive, the rest of the game.
Senior LB Mike Groome would, unsurprisingly, seem to be in on a tackle every single drive, sacking Taggart once for an eight yard loss here, punching a sure reception from a Holy Cross wideout there.
Senior DE Ben Flizack, too, was a sonsistent disruptive force, batting down two passes and ruining Taggart's passing lanes all afternoon, either through tipped passes at the line of scrimmage or his pressure on the Holy Cross quarterback, flushing him out of the pocket.
"Lehigh was getting some good pressure at times," Gilmore said after the game, "and the pressure caused our quarterback to get rid of the ball, and Lehigh players made some good plays. It wasn't just one thing."
"We knew that they were a hard-fought passing team, and we had to make some good plays on that," Groome said. "The quarterback couldn't be comfortable, he's at his best when he's comfortable. We had to get him out of the pocket, put a lot of pressure on him, make him make bad throws."
And when a 41 yard field goal attempt by Holy Cross PK John Macomber would hit the crossbar, Lehigh's offense would leap into gear - thanks to another senior.
The drive would be started with the names we know: Lum connecting to Spadola for 20 yards, hitting senior WR Jake Drwal with a rifle over the middle for a 23 yard gain, and junior RB Zach "Bracket Buster" Barket getting some huge runs up the middle.
Behind the efforts of Liebler and the rest of the "O" line, Lehigh would get 143 rushing yards on teh afternoon - 100 of them coming from Barket - and none of them were easy.
And it was the change-of-pace back - senior RB Matt Fitz - that would tie the game with an extremely gutty three yard run.
With the "O" line surging forward, he seemed to will himself into the end zone through the Holy Cross defense through great individual effort.
Lehigh's defense would hold Holy Cross to a huge 3-and-out - thanks to a giant 3rd down incompletion, defended by Kenyatta Drake - which would set up another huge clock-eating drive that would end up being the decisive score.
It wouldn't come without drama, however.
After moving the ball well with Barket, Drwal and sophomore WR Sergio Fernandes-Soto, an atypical fumble by Barket put the ball on the ground - where senior OL Jim Liebler, yet another unsung hero, reached out with one hand and kept the ball in Brown and White hands.
"We drill this in camp," he said of his huge fumble recovery, "a fumble recovery drill where we have to dive on the ball. The thought did cross my mind to scoop and score, but I said, 'you know what? No, I'll just jump on it.'"
The very next play, Fitz tried to dive into the end zone - and was stuffed by LB Ricky Otis as he tried to jump the line.
"The first play I thought I could jump over the pile," Fitz said. "Obviously it didn't work."
The call went to Fitz again on the next play. He'd bounce to the outside, and seem to slip - but used his free arm to hold himself up, keep his feet, and cross the goal line for the winning score.
"That was more of a high school drill," he said after the game. "We do a lot of other drills, but the stiff-arm down drill, that was high school."
The rest of the game wouldn't be without some more twists and turns, but it would ultimately be a 4th down interception by Groome - including a 59 yard return that put the ball inside Lehigh territory - that would finally have Lehigh fans feeling like this game was finally theirs.
As a result, Lehigh, thanks to the efforts of three lower-profile seniors, got the most important victory of the season to date.
"We knew all week that this was going to be a real physical game," Liebler said. "We were in a war, and every yard that we got, we earned it. It was a real gritty, hard-fought game, and that's how we like it."
"That was two good football teams going against each other," Gilmore said, "and it was closely contested."
"I am happy we won a game like this," a relieved Coen said. “I think it’s very important. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a lot of good football teams and every one of those teams has a game like this where you have to find a way to win the game. I'm very proud of how our football team hung in there and showed some resiliency."
"We won a very, very good game against a very, very tough opponent. I'm proud of our guys, and looking forward to win another championship here next week."