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Lehigh 27, Lafayette 21, OT

Murray Goodman has been the source of some of the most thrilling chapters of "The Rivalry", and today's heart-stopping overtime win was no exception to that rule.

I have been going to see "The Rivalry" every year since 1988, missing the big game against Lafayette only once. Of all the games I've seen, the one I saw this weekend at could have been the craziest one of them all.

There have been close finishes before. Lafayette QB Rob Curley two years ago found WR Kyle Roeder on a slant pattern in the end zone in 2007 to deal Lehigh a 21-17 defeat. In 2005, Leopard QB Pat Davis' heave was found by RB Jonathan Hurt for a dramatic touchdown pass to ruin Lehigh's shot at a playoff autobid in a 23-19 defeat - and in the process put Lafayette in the playoff field as an at-large bid. In 1999, with Lafayette head coach Bill Russo coaching in his last game, his Leopards came very close to upsetting the Mountain Hawks - but were stopped short in a 14-12 defeat.

Overtime also happened before at Murray Goodman - in 1995, when Lehigh overcame a 16 point deficit to force the first overtime game in "The Rivalry". And when WR Brian Klingerman caught that touchdown pass in the end zone with a leaping one-handed grab, Kevin Higgins' Lehigh team would win a Patriot League championship and cap off one of the most thrilling Rivalries ever. (Had they needed a second overtime, it was debatable if they could conduct it - the sun had already set, and darkness has just started to envelop the stadium.)

But in all of those games, Lehigh were either heavy favorites over "the boys from Easton", or at worst their equals. In today's game, 3-7 Lehigh's only role in the larger picture was to be a spoiler over the 8-2 Leopards. Frank Tavani's team, who was looking for revenge for last year's loss, also had to have had an eye towards the playoffs if they finished 9-2.

A win by Lehigh would have clearly been a huge upset. It would be a win against a nationally-ranked opponent, something Lehigh hadn't done since they beat Harvard in 2007. It would be against the same Rob Curley that bedeviled them two years ago - and the same Rob Curley that very nearly made it on the Walter Payton ballot this year.

And - somehow - this team did it. They didn't do it pretty; but in the end, Lehigh just kept making play after play after play after play. They hung around when Lafayette threatened to really get rolling. Despite Leopards hanging all over him all day, junior QB J.B. Clark got the ball where it needed to go. The defense stopped the Leopards when they had to.

And they won.

On paper, this was a mismatch. Yet somehow this team kept coming back out there and making plays to win this football game.

*****

It didn't look like Clark would get his second consecutive MVP trophy early after he fumbled in the red zone on the opening drive.

Lafayette took that turnover and proceeded to march right down the field. But junior FS John Venerio picked off a trick play pass from Lafayette sophomore WR Kyle Hayes in the end zone to stop their first drive, setting the tone early for a defensive battle.

After a drive stalled at the Lafayette 48, sophomore P Alex Smith booted a 46 yard punt, downed at the 2 by freshman DB Bryan Andrews. After that, however, Lafayette would get their offensive engine going. Curley would take off to convert for one big third down and find junior WR Mark Layton to convert another. He'd then find sophomore WR Mitch Bennett with a picture-perfect pass the right corner of the end zone to give the Leopards a 7-0 lead.

After a fumble on a muffed punt, Lafayette looked like they would take control of the game. But after senior DT B.J. Benning stood up Lafayette senior RB Tyrell Coon on two straight runs, on fourth down sophomore LB Devin Greene would make a great defensive play to prevent Coon from catching the ball around the sticks, thwarting another drive.

After another Lehigh offensive drive stalled, Lafayette was soon knocking on the door once again - with a 14 yard screen pass to senior RB Maurice White and a 29 yard Curley-to-Bennett connection to get to the edge of Lehigh's red zone. But - again - Lehigh would make a play, with Andrews' interception in the end zone to stop another Leopard drive.

Four drives. One became seven Leopard points, but the defense forced two end-zone turnovers and made a play on fourth down to stop another drive, which for all practical purposes was another turnover. This time, Lehigh would respond.

In the drive that could have summed up the game, Clark went to work, still down 7-0 and without much to show for his effort. After he found sophomore WR Jake Drwal twice for a total of 34 yards two get to midfield - both times with leaping grabs - three more times on the drive he would overcome sacks to convert on third down and more than ten.

Once, he found junior TE Alex Wojdowski wide-open on the right side for a 25 yard gain that looked until the last moment to be doomed to failure. The second time, he willed a ball to junior WR Craig Zurn to get a first down in the red zone. And the third time, he tried to find Drwal in the corner of the end zone - and might have had him, too, if Lafayette junior DB Donald Ellis hadn't grabbed him for an easy pass interference call for the officials.

1st and goal at the 2 - and even then, it still wasn't easy. An incompletion to Drwal, then a zipped ball over the head of Craig Zurn that bounced the padding behind the goalpost. But Clark fought though it and - finally - hit a wide open freshman WR James Flynn for the game tying score right before halftime.

*****

By all rights, Lehigh should have been down by at least two touchdowns. Yet somehow the Mountain Hawks were in this thing.

It made for a strange experience in the stands, too. Normally in these Lehigh/Lafayette games, there is energy to spare pouring out of the stands, but many of the Lehigh faithful seemed to hold back some of their energy - almost not sure whether to get behind the team. Granted, they had seen a lot this year: too many close losses, the first time Lehigh was ever shut out at Murray Goodman stadium, and not a single win against a team with a winning record.

Sure, there were still the students - loudly cheering the first downs, getting pumped when the T-shirt cannon shot up at the crowd, and oohing on the big defensive hits. But it's as if they'd been burned by their last boyfriend - would they ever learn to love with reckless abandon again?

On the other side, the Lafayette fans seemed to have more of the unrestrained energy. There was a confidence about them that Curley would somehow do it all again, that the number of sacks by senior LB Mark Leggerio, senior DT Ian Dell and senior DT Andrew Poulson would ultimately take their toll and take apart the Mountain Hawks. They'd seen it before so many times this year - why not in this game, too?

Tentatively, the second half began - Lehigh fans still hoping for the best, but secretly expecting the worst.

*****

Lehigh's worst fears were realized in the third quarter when Curley and the Leopard offense went on a methodical 9 play, 82 yard drive that seemed to demonstrate that the Lafayette machine was simply going to overwhelm Lehigh in the second half. Big runs by sophomore RB Jerome Rudolph, interspersed with four perfect passes, including a 29 yard strike to sophomore WR Greg Stripe and a 3 yard pass to senior TE Michael Bolton on the back edge of the end zone that would give Lafayette a 14-7 lead.

A Lehigh 3-and-out in other games would have given most fans that "here we go again" feeling. But this ensuing 3-and-out would change everything.

After a booming 51 yard punt by Alex Smith, Leopard junior WR Nathan Padia tried to run across the field and someow lost the ball - which would be pounced upon by gratefully be Lehigh's John Venerio in the end zone.

The scoreboard didn't lie: Lehigh, 14, Lafayette 14, even if the extra point - for effect - would bounce off the right post, and through, for the score.

"I didn't even see the play," coach Andy Coen said after the game. "I saw the ball go over his head, and then a mad scramble. I'll be looking forward to seeing that one on the tape!"

The 3rd quarter would wind to an end after both defenses stepped up. While Padia would redeem himself with a 18 yard punt return that set the table nicely for the Leopards next drive, B.J. Benning simply refused to lose underneath, stuffing interior run after interior run. But Curley would do just enough to move the sticks: finding Layton for one first down, and Tyrell Coon would break free outside for another to set up a first and goal at the six.

First down. Senior LB Matt Cohen. Stops Tyrell Coon cold.

Second down. Benning and senior LB Troy Taylor. They stop Tyrell Coon after a two yard gain.

Third down. Coon looks like he's going to break through for the touchdown, but then senior LB Al Pierce and B.J. Benning deliver a crushing hit to stop him short. Again.

Fourth down - and Tavani, in a move that might be second-guessed for quite some time, elects to go for it instead of kick the field goal. Junior DT David Brown and Troy Taylor knock Coon back 1 yard! Lafayette turns the ball over on downs.

Slowly, the Lehigh crowd starts to believe that maybe, just maybe, this might be their day.

*****

Clark then led Lehigh on the best offensive drive of the year. Again Lehigh would find themselves with third downs to convert on the drive, and again Clark would will the ball to convert them. 3rd and 7? Clark to Drwal, 14 yards. 3rd-and-3? Clark to Wojcowski, right at the sticks. 3rd and 8? Clark threads a ball to sophomore WR De'Vaughn Gordon, who then evades two tacklers and rumbles down the center of the field to the Lafayette 6 yard line. After the 63 yard pas play, suddenly, there are even more believers in the Lehigh stands.

Lehigh hasn't run the ball all that effectively - but when they need it, senior FB Anthony Fossati drives through with the 1 yard TD to put Lehigh up 21-14. (Was that his first carry of the year?)

But there's loads of time left - and Rob Curley has been here before. While it was a lead in the fourth quarter, at n time did it ever feel safe.

With two minutes to play - and the Lehigh fans holding their collective breath - Curley did exactly what he did in 2007. He engineered a 75 yard drive, ending with a 34 yard grab by Hayes to tie the game at 21. Curley did what Curley does during that dive: he went a brutally efficient 4-for-5, with a 21 yard scramble thrown in for good measure.

With the tying touchdown, the Lafayette fans exploded on the other sideline, and any Lehigh energy in the stands was gone at this point. Momentum all pointed Lafayette's way. The Leopards had the quarterback. They had the defense. They would find a way to win this, just like they had all year in so many ways. And Lehigh, who had found a way to lose these types of games all year, would do so again.

Overtime.

*****

In reality, the overtime consisted of exactly four plays. But it felt like the entire period was played in slow motion. Each play brought such momentum swings it's hard to put it into words.

Play One. Clark finds Drwal over the middle and gains 17 yards to get into the red zone. It looked like it could have been picked off - but somehow the ball gets past the Lafayette defender, and Drwal hauls it in and makes it to the seven yard line.

Play Two. After evading pressure, Clark finds an streaking Wojdowski who finds his way in the end zone for the TD. Relief pours over the Lehigh crowd; Lafayette will have to score a touchdown to keep up.

Play Three. A high snap on the extra point - and it sails wide right. No good. A six point lead. Hearts stopped. Now, all Curley would need to do is do what he's always done - drive to win the game, and give Lafayette sophomore PK Davis Rodriguez a chance to deliver a humiliating end to the Lehigh season.

Play Four. Curley, under pressure, tosses the ball. Al Pierce fakes a rush, reads Curley's eyes, and drops back into coverage. He reaches up. He pulls the football in.

He runs with the ball. Game over. He holds onto the ball tightly. Game over? He falls down. Game over!

"Coach [Kotulski] challenges us on that play every week in practice," Pierce said in the post-game press conference, making it seem as matter-of-fact as if he were describing what he ate yesterday. "We did it every day, I can't tell you how many times. It got me the first couple times, biting on the running back."

"Our defensive coaches this year were awesome," coach Coen said. "The amount of injuries, the pieces they've had to move around, the people they've had to plug in, the changing schemes - guys were in and out. It was great getting Al back today."

It almost didn't seem safe to root for Lehigh until Pierce came down with the interception. But then - everything changed.

A year's worth of energy rushed out of the Lehigh stands with that interception. All those times that Lehigh fans had sat in frustration this year after close losses vanished. All at once the fans got behind the team - even if they didn't quite believe what they saw. They stormed the field. They surrounded the team. Senior DT B.J. Benning was carried off the field on their shoulders. Senior LB Matt Cohen celebrated by doing a bit of crowd surfing.

"It's only fitting we had a chance to win one this way," Coen said. "This was such a tough season for our guys, I'm so happy for them we were able to get the win today. It (my hair) got a lot grayer all year, I'll tell you that. To win the game in OT after all the tough losses we had all season, it speaks volumes of these guys."

Unbelievable. It's one folks will be talking about for a long, long time.

Comments

Anonymous said…
to be honest, win or lose, you have to recognize how great of a game that was. winning made it that much better...
Anonymous said…
Ya, Nice to know there is another coach that is just as stupid as our's!

Must be something in the Greater LV air!
Anonymous said…
For one game, one incredible game on a beautiful Lehigh Valley fall day, Andy Coen did a good job of coaching. He knew the Sr class was ready for bear and had years of pent up anger and frustration ready to explode, and knew the D would no. He had the smarts to concede the running game trenches to LC early on, and go right after the LC weakness at DB. Yes indeed, we were going to win the game on the 49% arm of JB Clark and our depth at WR, and he let on in his pre-game interview that JB was going to win it or lose it today. I thought he was insane. He was RIGHT. On that glorious late fall day, he was right.
Anonymous said…
LFN, How about a poll to see if Coean should stay, or he should go.

My bet, 80% say Odios!
Anonymous said…
Odios

and even Adios if you like.
Anonymous said…
great job by coen and the offense in the final two weeks. hopefully providing some momentum and confidence for next year with a developed QB and a solid WR core. if our running game could be consistent. not including our stout D. i think were in the making for a good year
Anonymous said…
ok. so we all know when the spotlight is shining on him JB Clark lives up to the hype, but what he needs to do is to show up in the games that aren't as spectated and prove that he can be the premier QB of the Patriot League.
Anonymous said…
Congratulations to a resilient bunch of kids who truly exemplify the character and spirit of Lehigh Football. Teams success is usually measured by win and losses, but the success of this team should be measured by heart, pride, team unity, faith, and a never give up attitude. To deal with weekly adversity, injuries, and constant scrutiny of their performance, makes this team a winner in my book. This team is talented and battled tested, with proper coaching this team will compete for a Patriot League Championship, as crazy as this may seem, with or without Coach Coen. In fairness, Coen did recruit these players and from what I can see, this talented team will rise from despair to prominence.
Anonymous said…
What's up with the MVP decision? Clark had is usual inconsistent, but good enough game to contribute to the victory. However, "Mvp" performance I think not! The offense was rewarded by the defense and special team play. My selection would have been given to a defensive player, like a John Venerio or BJ Benning. Clark should share that award with his receivers Drwal and Potocnie who were laid-out after he hung passes or a pass to Zurn that either went sailing over his head or into the dirt or Drwal, Gordon, and Zurn who made his stats look good on paper, or the fumble in the red zone. Defense did it all year and they certainly did it a can yesterday. The MVP should have gone anyone the great defensive performers. The same people that voted don't even read their owns write-ups. Somebody explain to me how this happens? Nothin personal, I'm very happy for JB's turn around, but credit where it's due.
Anonymous said…
You could've taken last year's comment after The Game and just repasted them here. As long as Lehigh wins this one game all is forgiven. Those of us that actually sat through the other ten games of crap football hope for better. All this optimism for next year and the argument that Andy's recruiting class is "coming of age" is played. We heard it all before. Andy's recruits generally don't stick around long enough to become seniors. Rumor already has it that Lum and others are looking to transfer.
Anonymous said…
Just read all the comments on the Lafayette Bd. Among the usual idiotic remarks, were several disturbing ones. Numerous statements were made about one of our players taunting Curley as he knelt after the game,as well as other unsportsmanlike acts I for one did not see.
The players # is cited in posts by several seemingly sane parents and fans as well as the usual nut jobs.
They forget their actions and foul mouth chants at this game and other games when they stomped on the field like crazed monkeys. However if true a class act would be for the player or players involved to apologize and for Andy who is always a class act to follow up.
Anonymous said…
Agree on comments on Clark. Areal OB would have put up at least two more TD's
Anonymous said…
Put your personal relationships aside!! It's a huge WIN. And Clark played great! Way to step up DEFENSE! Hell of a goal line stand.
Anonymous said…
Some of you aren't happy unless you're complaining. I think there are some "fans" who wanted the team to lose so they could be miserable until next season. Lehigh had a great win!
Anonymous said…
Around FCS: Coen Saves Job With Win Over Lafayette

POSTED: 9:11 am EST November 22, 2009

Bethlehem, PA -- (Sports Network) - For the past two years, the questions surrounding Lehigh coach Andy Coen's job security multiplied down the stretch of the each season. However, with wins over Lafayette in two consecutive season finales, Coen has escaped to breathe another day up in Bethlehem.

Last season, the Mountain Hawks were 3-5 going into the final two weeks of the season when doubts began to swirl about Coen's status for the 2009 season.

However, much like this season, Lehigh won two games to end its 2008 campaign, including a 31-15 victory on the road against Lafayette, ultimately securing Coen's place on the Mountain Hawks' sideline for one more year.

This season, Lehigh began the season 2-7 and once again, Coen's future became the hot button topic of discussion.

But despite all of that negativity of how the 2008 and 2009 seasons started, Coen has figured out a way to get his players to end the season on high notes, ultimately saving his job for another season.

The 145th meeting between the two Lehigh Valley FCS teams once again proved that statement.

Lehigh and Lafayette battled into overtime when Leopard senior quarterback Rob Curley hit Kyle Hayes with a 34-yard touchdown strike with 1:43 remaining in regulation.

Mountain Hawk quarterback J.B. Clark (22-of-38, 292 yards passing, two TDs) found tight end Alex Wojdowski for an eight-yard touchdown pass on the first possession in overtime to put Lehigh back on top.

Then Curley (21-of-28, 300 yards passing, three TDs, two interceptions) underthrew his receiver on the first play of the Leopards' overtime drive to end the game at 27-21.

Lehigh finished the season at 4-7 overall and tied Lafayette and Colgate for second place in the Patriot League at 4-2, one game behind conference champion Holy Cross.

"This was such of tough season for our guys," said Coen in jubilation, after the game. "I was happy to see them win the way they did."

Lehigh lost close games all season against Central Connecticut State (28-21), Princeton (17-14), Yale (7-0), Colgate (27-20) and Holy Cross (24-20). But Coen kept telling his team that their time would come.

"I told them this is our game. It's only fitting for us to win this game."

However, Coen was sure to be uneasy as the game was tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter, knowing that Lafayette and its scrappy offense could win the game at any point.

But when regulation ended, Coen instilled a sense of faith and togetherness entering the extra frame.

"I thought it was important to call the guys together and for us to be on the same page," said Coen. "I thought we were due for plays to go our way."

Of course questions surrounding the coach's future found their way into the post-game press conference. And for a second straight season, Coen faced the questions with a positive outlook.

"I expect to be the head coach at Lehigh next season," said Coen. "I expect to be back and I want to be back."

Lehigh sources told The Sports Network on Saturday that Coen would indeed be back for 2009.

As for Lafayette, the Leopards' heads were down after a second-straight loss to a Lehigh team that wasn't expected to beat them. Also, Lafayette's playoff chances disintegrated after the Leopards started the season 8-1, only to finish at 8-3.

"This season had a lot of highs and not too many lows," said Lafayette coach Frank Tavani. "Today was a low."

Curley made it known how big of a game this is to every player on the field after throwing the game-ending interception.

"The ball was underthrown. That throw will be with me for a very very long time."
Anonymous said…
Lafayette needed to beat Lehigh soundly in order to have any hope for a playoff berth. Tavani knew that and went for the TD instead of the FG which would have given them the game with a 3 point win. Even a 7 point win may not have been enough.

Great job by the defense throughout the game and good work by the offense in putting points on the board. And special teams did their part too, making it a great all-around effort.
ngineer said…
I have heard about some of our players taunting Curley after the game. I did not see it, but have heard enough from multiple sources to make it plausible. If so, I think our player(s) should be made to apologize publically, for what they did, publically, that embarrasses all of us, and tarnishes a glorious day. Yes, LC players have done some insulting things in the past, but that doesn't justify. A bigger person or team stays classy. Of course, in this country, having good manners and acting with class is becoming a lost art.

This was a great win for all the adversity overcome. We had the best team on the field Saturday because it made the least mistakes. LC shot itself in the foot all game in a manner LU had all year. The worm finally turned.

Still this was a 4-7 year--the worst in 12 years, yet with good talent. With as many as 18 starters coming back next year, we should be primed for a big run. It will only happen if both Clark and Lum step up their game. Having watched Randolph and Skelton, as well as Curley, there needs to be improvement. I don't think we have a 'real' QB coach and it shows. The OC may be into 'X's and 'O's' but we need some 'coaching up' on technique and reading a defense.

It would be nice to think that we're turning a corner. We thought we were last year at this time. I think the HC and many supporters failed to appreciate that the talented underclassmen weren't necessarily ready for prime time. However, we have seen significant growth and maturity the past few weeks...especially at the WRs. There were some big-time catches on key third down situations out there that would not have been converted early in the season. These players need to realize what is possible for them next year, with a very challenging schedule that includes Villanova, New Hampshire and Harvard. There is no reason expectations about winning the PL should not be held. Winning against some elite FCS programs is what can vault Lehigh back into the national discussion. The Committment must begin now.
Anonymous said…
Nice win..about time dontcha think?

Probably saves Coen for another year. He should receive the following pep talk from Sterrett:

"I expect the record to turn around (7 - 8 wins); I expect to win close games consistently; I expect the offense to contribute four TD's a game."
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said...
great job by coen and the offense in the final two weeks. hopefully providing some momentum and confidence for next year with a developed QB and a solid WR core.


Here we go again. Is this not pretty much where we were going into 2009? It's almost exactly the same scenario, except we managed to will fewer games in '09.

Put me in the column with "We don't think Andy's the man for the job".

Hope I'm wrong...

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