Image By Hugo)
It's an old saw, but one of the ancient adages of football is that the difference between winning and losing comes down to one play, one caught pass, one first down made or denied.
In football specifically, no matter what the score, no matter when it happens - the opening kickoff, two minutes to halftime, or with the final seconds ticking off the clock - "that moment" can come anytime. Frequently, it's a moment you don't even know is important even when you're watching it.
On Saturday, that time came on a critical 4th down-and-half-a-yard conversion opportunity for the Tigers in the first half, deep in Lehigh territory, which was resoundingly stuffed by senior DT Sajjad Chagani, and the Mountain Hawks took over on downs.
It didn't feel like the play of the game at the time - Lehigh up 7-0, with more than a half of football to go. But after Lehigh cruised to a 17-0 lead, and Princeton held firm in the second half and cut the deficit to 17-14, that stop, you could argue, was the difference in this game between a Mountain Hawk win and and Mountain Hawk defeat.
"I thought in the first half we took great strides," a relatively calm Andy Coen relayed in the post-game press conference. "The first half defense was probably the best half of defensive football we've seen at Lehigh."
Even with the excitement of "who will be lining up at QB?" for the visitors, a question that Princeton head coach Bob Surace didn't answer until about 1:15 on Saturday, the Tigers couldn't translate that excitement into much offense, in large part thanks to the Lehigh defense.
In the six Princeton drives of the first half, the Tigers only gained one first down, a light-touch pass from the surprise starter, QB Connor Michaelsen, to RB Will Powers that went 13 yards.
By halftime, Princeton had only gained 40 yards from scrimmage, had been sacked twice, and ran the ball 16 times for a net of 5 yards.
The Tigers, who were sporting a new reverse-color black-and-orange helmet, might have wondered if it was their offense reversing direction instead, as Lehigh senior WR Ryan Spadola outgained the entire Princeton offense at halftime as well - he had 4 receptions for 74 yards.
It took the Mountain Hawks their third drive of the first half to score first, after senior QB Michael Colvin pump-faked and delivered looping 37 yard pass to junior WR Lee Kurfis to set up 1st and goal at the 5 yard line, with senior RB Zach Barket finishing the drive off with a typical Barket power run up the middle.
But it was a fumble off a punt on Princeton's next drive,, recovered by Tiger FB Dan Freund, that set up Princeton in golden field position at the Mountain Hawk 17 - and the difference-making play would end up occurring.
Surace elected to pound away at Lehigh's front seven with RB Akil Sharp, gaining 7 on first down, getting batted back for a loss by junior LB Nigel Muhammad, and getting stopped about 1/2 hard short of the sticks by junior LB John Mahoney.
On fourth and 1//2 a yard, Surace could have done the safe thing and kicked a field goal - three critical points that would have been extremely useful later in the game.
Instead, he decided to go for it - where Sharp ran right into a charging Chagani, where the Elmont, New York native and Lehigh took over on downs.
"It was kind of funny, because on that play we had checked to a different one at the last second," he said after the game. "But I ran the wrong play... I came free, I saw the running back. He started lowering his shoulder at me, and I wasn't going to let him get that first down."
Planned or not, the fact that the defense held Princeton scoreless after that golden scoring opportunity would lift both the offense and defense the rest of the first half, with the Lehigh defense making stop after stop and the Mountain Hawk offense connecting for a couple more scores before halftime.
On one scoring drive, Colvin, under big pressure all day, found a wide-open Spadola on the right side, who ran about 30 yards side-to-side to gain about 10 more yards on the catch. And the very next play, hit as he threw, Colvin connected with.sophomore WR Josh Parris for a 31 yard strike to set up a 23 yard field goal by senor PK Jake Peery to put Lehigh up 10-0.
The other first-half scoring drive, pushing a gassed Princeton defense, saw the Mountain Hawks mount their best offensive drive of the day, with Colvin hitting Spadola and Kurfis, and junior RB Keith Sherman pulling out an 11 yard gain before capping off the drive with a 2 yard touchdown run.
With the ball back, three timeouts and up three scores, Coen decided to take a knee rather than take a shot at Princeton's jugular, happy with the 17-0 lead.
"We ran out for the second half thinking we were going to continue," Coen said afterwards. "But we got backed up in the 3rd quarter, and we were our own worst enemy back there."
"We did not come out and play well in the first half," Surace said after the game. "We struggled all-around, they did a great job getting off blocks, and we really weren't giving ourselves a chance. But the veteran guys, kept this thing where there was no panic.
For all of the good Lehigh execution of the first half, the 3rd quarter instead saw a festival of punts, and also saw the Mountain Hawks backed up in their own side.
Penalties played a critical part in Lehigh's struggles, too, losing 36 yards of offense in four offensive drives.
"We had six penalties, but I swear, I thought we had 26 penalties," Coen said after the game. "It seemed like every time I looked up I saw holding, or jumping offsides. We have to get that squared away. Football is always a game of field position."
Backed up deep in Lehigh territory, junior P Tim Divers, with the wind at his back, booted three kicks of 56, 55, and 42 yards, keeping Princeton from taking full advantage of Lehigh's backup offensively - and making the battle of field position a bit harder for the Tigers.
Additionally, Lehigh's Muhammad, with a big 8 yard sack of Princeton QB Connor Michaelsen, drove Princeton back on one critical drive, keeping the Tigers unable to capitalize.
Even though the 3rd quarter was scoreless, you could feel in the stadium things could potentially start to turn Princeton's way.
It started after the Tigers' first scoring drive, a 58 yard drive punctuated by a big 3rd-and-1 conversion by RB Akil Sharp, leading to his first touchdown of the day, a 13 yard burst through the Lehigh defensive front.
After that drive gave the Tigers the breath of life, midway through the 4th quarter, a Lehigh turnover off a Princeton punt would make this very much a ball game.
"We came out in the second half, and we did a real good job getting some control of the football game," Surace said. Next thing you know, we get a turnover, we have the ball at the 30, and it's a 3-point game."
Suddenly, the 3rd down conversions that weren't happening for the Tigers in the first half suddenly were coming all at once, with a 12 yard out pattern to WR Roman Wilson and yet another big run by RB Akil Sharp, with a big 4 yard gain to keep the drive alive and the 2 yard bounce to the outside to cut the deficit to 17-14.
Despite ample opportunities to do so, Lehigh did not put the Tigers away - so, just like the game against Monmouth, the Mountain Hawks would need to come up with big defensive plays late in the game in order to win a football game at home.
And after a Colvin pass would be batted down at the line of scrimmage by Princeton DE Mike Catapano, it would be up to the defense - again - to put this game away.
"We have a really good group of senior leaders on defense," Surace said after the game. "We have such high expectations for those guys, and I was really pleased with them. Before the game, as a team we talked about
the word 'believe' before the game, and I didn't feel like we really
did. And then they came together, and it was nice to see."
Fortunately for Lehigh fans, the Mountain Hawk defense did just that.
As the Mountain Hawks brought the heat from Chagani, Muhammad, senior DE Tom Bianchi and senior DE Anthony Verderame, Michaelsen's passes fell incomplete, and it was the Lehigh offense's turn to get the two critical first downs to put this game away.
On 3rd down, Colvin would roll right - under heavy pressure from Princeton's front seven, as usual - and find a wide-open sophomore TE Dylan Colgate, who cradled the ball with both hands to deliver the next-to-final blow to Princeton's upset chances.
“The pass to Colgate was the biggest play of the game, Coen said after the game. "It’s not a primary read for Mike, but he did a great job finding Dylan in that situation and ultimately won the football game for us.”
Finally, a Colvin 10 yard designed run would finally put the game away - and make Lehigh fans heave a huge sigh of relief.
"Once you have some positive things going, you start saying, 'Wow, I know Lehigh is a great team'," Surace said. "We started playing football, and it was nice to see. After this game, there's going to be some 'attaboys', 'good efforts' and everything else, but for us to improve as a team it's got to go beyond the great effort, the good effort, the hanging in there. It's not enough. It can't be the case. It needs to be winning a game that we gave ourselves an opportunity to win."
Thanks to Chagani, Mahoney (4 tackles, 1 pass breakup), senior LB Sam Loughery (9 tackles, 6 solo tackles), senior FS Billy O'Brien (7 tackles, 1 tackle for loss), and the rest of a stout defensive unit, Lehigh did the most important thing - getting to 3-0.
"We take away from this game that there's a lot of film to watch, and a lot of things we can improve on," Chagani said, despite his 6 tackles, 1 sack, blocked extra point, and his seemingly-constant presence harrassing Tigers quarterbacks. "Myself, personally, I made some bad plays, and there's something to learn from it."
"Our offense isn't where we know it could be right now," Spadola said in the post-game press conference. "It's kind of disappointing to walk off that field knowing that the defense did the majority of the work in the second half to keep us in that game. We had a lot of three-and-outs and a lot of penalties that pushed us backward. As explosive as we were last year, you want to live up to that standard and knowing that we didn't execute too much in the second half and didn't get points on the board. … it's a little disappointing."
“We still haven’t reached our potential,” Colvin said. “If we keep taking the mentality that we left plays on the field, it makes us hungrier during the week. We’re finding ways to win when it counts. Being 3-0 is great, and we're excited about being 3-0, we've played some pretty good teams, and to be in that position going to Liberty is where we wanted to be."
"Offensively, I still think we're a bit behind," Coen said. "We'll have to get a whole lot better. But obviously, the most important thing is that we got a win. For fifteen years I've competed against Princeton, and I know the level of personnel that is always playing for the Tigers, so it's not a surprise that they play us so tough. We're finding ways to win. Winning helps you find ways to win. We've been tested here, and our kids have answered those tests."