Saturday, November 10, 2012

Colgate 35, Lehigh 24, Final


After the weatherman promised a mostly sunny day on November 10th, the day of the Patriot League championship game at Murray Goodman stadium, there was instead a gray haze that persisted throughout the football game.

Like the weather, the game was also a story of the unexpected. 

Few thought the Colgate offense would be held to just 35 points, after creaming Lafayette for 65 points the previous week.  Many also were surprised that Lehigh could only manage 90 rushing yards against the No. 7-ranked rushing defense in the Patriot League.

The grey weather didn't affect the outcome.  It didn't affect the passing game, the running game, or the kicking game. 

But on a damp, strange, overcast day in November, the magic ran out for Lehigh.  The undefeated Mountain Hawks fell in a war on Saturday, 35-23, busting up a season that almost seemed predestined to be Lehigh's from the outset.

The strategy for senior NG Sajjad Chagani and the Lehigh defense was very clear from the outset; make Colgate earn every yard.  They'll score their points, but every time you're hit in the mouth, hit them back.  Whether a 1 yard loss, or a 15 yard gain, pound 'em.

When Chagani's defense forced a early 3-and-out, punctuated by Chagani's big sack up the middle, it looked like Lehigh's defense was going to be ready for the challenge of containing one of the top offenses in all of FCS.

Grabbing that early momentum, Lehigh from the first play stuck fast, with senior QB Michael Colvin finding junior FB Zach Hayden for a 44 yard strike that set up a 3 yard touchdown run by senior RB Zach Barket.

The defense would stop the top-ranked offense of the Raiders cold in their first three possessions, too.  Senior DE Anthony Verderame would force a fumble on the next drive, which was recovered by Colgate but made a very difficult 3rd-and-long situation and forced the Colgate punter, P Evan Goldzach, to kick it away.  The drive after that, a fumble by WR Ryan Morrison would see junior DB Tyler Ward pounce on the football, stopping another drive.

Lehigh  would capitalize on the turnover, with a combination of Colvin designed runs and and a big 21 yard completion to senior WR Ryan Spadola - just another amazing catch, with a defender hanging all over him, behind his body - and ending with a bull rush by junior RB Keith Sherman to get into the end zone to make it 14-0 in the early part of the second quarter.

“If you would have told me before the game, 'Coach, we're going to hold them to 400 yards on offense,' I would have told them, 'Guess what?  Give me the trophy,'” head coach Andy Coen said after the game.  "We didn't do it.  I thought the defense played awesome.  We prevented the quick drives, the big plays, that they've been getting over the past few weeks."

While Lehigh fans might have hoped that Colgate would come apart after going up by two scores, the Raiders bounced back impressively.

Aided immensely by an over-aggressive try at a blocked punt, resulting in a 15 yard penalty, Colgate took full advantage of the gift set of downs, with a steady diet of the two offensive stars for the Raiders, junior QB Gavin McCarney and senior RB Jordan McCord.  Banging the ball through the impressive Raider line six straight times, McCord seemed to have broken the plane of the end zone on 3rd and goal, but instead was spotted at the 1/2 yard line.  Not even hesitating, head coach Dick Biddle went for it on 4th and 1, banging the right side of th eline yet again, and the Raiders were on the board.

"I think it was a great win for Colgate, and a great win for our players, coaches, and athletic director," Biddle said in the post-game press conference, a tiny smile escaping his normally stoic game face as he went to sit down.  "This senior group hadn't won a championship, and it would have been the first group that didn't get a ring while they were at Colgate.  This is probably the best win I've had in my career under the circumstances."

Lehigh got another big play in the first half when Colvin would find wide-open junior WR Lee Kurfis for a big 65 yard strike, setting up a strange touchdown, where a Colgate defensive lineman tipped Colvin's rifle pass that bounced upwards for a jump ball, but sophomore TE Tyler Coyle would come down with the grab, allowing Lehigh to go up 21-7.

With momentum in their favor, and a need to really heap on the pressure, Coen then elected to go for an onsides kick with 3:37 left in the half.  Had it connected, and had Lehigh drained the clock in the half, it might have really deflated the Raiders in a big way, especially if it led to a touchdown.

The kick went to senior CB Gabe Johnson, but as sometimes happens on onsides kicks, the ball bounced off the Lehigh special teams players and nobody could get a hold of it. 

It was oh-so-close to happening, and had it been successful, it could have been the play of the game.  But it wasn't, and Colgate took advantage of the short field, and thus kept the Raiders in it.

With a perfect, efficient drive, and a particularly timely pass to McCord for a big gain, McCarney would run the ball in for a 10 yard touchdown, cutting the lead to 21-14.

A two-minute drill would end the half, ending on senior PK Jake Peery's career-long field goal, a 43 yarder that had plenty of distance, to give Lehigh a 24-14 lead at half.  But with Colgate's offense, not a single fan in the 9,000-strong crowd would feel comfortable.

*****

"We didn't panic on offense," coach Biddle said after the game.  "We just kept going.  It was a tough, physical game today, and we kind of wore them out in the fourth quarter.  And the defense really stepped up.  In the games before, we had to score on every possession.  We didn't do it this time, and our defense rallied.  It was great."

Down by two scores, Colgate's defense held Lehigh's offense scoreless in the second half, including three critical drives in the 3rd quarter with the Mountain Hawks nursing a two-score advantage.

"We knew coming into the game we had to step up," Colgate DT Chris Horner said after the game, "In the second half, we were really able to take control, and we shut them out, and let our offense keep rolling."

In a game where coach Coen said "possessions are like gold," Colgate held Lehigh on three consecutive drives to start the quarter.

One particular drive, where Colvin overthrew the pass into the waiting hands of SS Mike Yeager, Lehigh's defense again held strong, forcing a 4th-and-19 which caused the Raiders to turn over the ball on downs.

After an ineffective drive, junior P Tim Divers saw his punt go into the end zone - and then saw the greatest Patriot League drive this season, an absolute war, and ultimately, in my opinion, where this game was won by Colgate, and lost by Lehigh.

Twice, Lehigh forced 3rd-and-long situations for Colgate, and twice, they succeeded.  After punishing Colgate on runs up the middle, McCarney found WR Dan Cason with a spectacular catch and also saw Dan power past the sticks to get the 1st down.

On second down on the next set of downs, Ward had position on Cason and seemed to have an interception in hand - but Dan got his hand inside of Ward and barely managed to force the ball to dribble incomplete.

McCarney then lofted a perfect pass to WR Chris Looney, a 40 yard strike in a place only Chris could get it, giving Colgate another big first down.

It's at this point you could see the beginnings of Lehigh's defense wearing down as McCarney would again power it in from 9 yards, cutting the deficit to 3, and it increasingly looking like Lehigh was holding on for dear life.

"That touchdown took it down to a one-possession game," Biddle said.  "I felt if we could make it into a one-possession game, we'd have a chance."

In Lehigh's next two offensive possessions, the Mountain Hawks would net -4 yards. 

On Colgate's next two offensive possessions, the Raiders would grind up 12 minutes off the clock, gain 156 yards of offense, and score the two touchdowns that would ultimately lead to the Patriot League championship and autobid.

It seemed like countless times on both drives, Colgate would make it 3rd-and-2, or, a couple of times, 4th-and-1.

Each time - whether they were in field goal range or not - Colgate went for it, and made it each time.

"We made up our mind that we weren't going to kick field goals," Biddle said afterwards.  "Once you let your players know that, the players buy into it.  Especially on the road, we felt we needed to do that."

McCord converted almost all of them, at one point making a 4th-and-1 into a 12 yard push behind his trench men in front of him.

"The offensive line just kept pushing," a soft-spoken McCord said afterwards.  "We told them all game this was going to be a grind, they kept grinding away, and we were able to pick up those tough yards."

McCord also credited his tough field general next to him, Gavin McCarney.

"Our quarterback is the toughest player I've ever played with.  He kept getting knocked down, but he kept shaking it off."

Their gutty performance is why they're Patriot League champions, and will be playing in the FCS playoffs again.

*****

While Colgate was celebrating on Lehigh's field - complete with Tweeted pictures of Colgate's travel team posing with the trophy, under Murray Goodman's scoreboard - it was tears, of course, for the home side.

Chagani and Colvin were still stunned as they sat in the post-game press conference, as Lehigh now has to win, and wait, to see if they make the FCS playoffs.

"We were just unable to execute offensively in the second half," Colvin said, looking downwards.  "To not execute in the second half in a game like today, it's hard, and I'll take the blame.  I'm the quarterback on that group.

"We'll get some things fixed, because we've got a lot of football left to play."

"They made the plays they needed to win the game," a downcast Chagani said.  "In the second half, they started attacking us in different areas, and..." he trailed off.  "We shouldn't have them in short third downs in the first place."

“I feel bad for my seniors, especially,” Coen said, at one point covering his head with his hands. “They’ve been tremendous leaders, and they still are. This season’s not over yet. I plan on playing a lot more football. It’s never a lack of effort. Sometimes the execution doesn’t fall the way you’d like it to.

"[But[" the second half we had like 80 yards of offense and 25 plays. You don’t deserve to win a championship with that."

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