What wasn't to love about the first quarter? Junior QB Chris Lum completes his first five passes - and starts the game off orchestrating two amazing drives that justified all the confidence that head coach Andy Coen had in him.
On defense in the first half, Lehigh was money. As a unit, they held the Bulldogs to only 38 yards and one first down - that Drake WR Nick Rosa had to earn severely after senior LB Al Pierce and the rest of the Mountain Hawk defense pounded him good.
And yet - this was a game that was dangerously close to being lost. (more)
Please don't misinterpret me. That's not to say that Drake didn't play a great game: they did a whale of a job regaining their composure after a disastrous first half. Their coaching staff saw some openings, and created some points from these openings. And they came scarily close to pulling it off. QB Mike Piatowski kept getting up, and getting up - and eventually got results. He worked hard to get those results, and he got them.
But after watching a dominating first half - in which Lehigh gave up zero sacks, and gave up zero points - it was stunning to see Drake to be able to get back into this game.
After seeing Lum connect with sophomore WR Ryan Spadola (6 receptions, 99 yards) and senior WR Craig "Braveheart" Zurn (5 receptions, 76 yards) so effectively in the first half - including a pretty 23 yard rollout play thrown across the body, to Zurn for the touchdown - it was hard not to think "blowout". At this point, I was sipping my Lord Chessy - and, unlike me, unnaturally calm.
I was not calm in the second half.
Penalties, by definition, are setbacks to the team. But the sheer number of them and the circumstances behind them in the second half defied belief. There isn't any other way to put it.
To begin the third quarter, Lum completes a pass to Spadola, a 20 yard pass that would have had Lehigh set up shop inside the Drake red zone. But a holding penalty would negate that, instead ending a drive out of field goal range resulting in a punt.
Drake gets the ball, Lehigh's defense forces another three-and-out with a momentum boost in the form of a crushing sack by junior LB Tanner Rivas. The ensuing punt results in a great punt return by senior CB/PR Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs - which is negated by another holding penalty on Lehigh. The net loss of yards means rather than try a field goal after the ensuing three-and-out, junior P Alex Smith now needs to trot out again for another punt.
Special teams were far from special in this game for Lehigh. Last year, the return unit was one of the best bright spots on the entire team. This week, Drake nearly doubled our return yards thanks to -22 yards on a muffed punt return. An opportunity for a crucial 43 yard FG by sophomore PK Jake Peery was blocked. (I'm certain special teams coordinator R.J. Ryan will have some choice drills ready for his players this week after their performance.)
Even so, it seems like the game is in hand - until the next Drake drive is largely kept alive not by Bulldog positive yardage but by Lehigh pass interference penalties. When Bulldog FB Tom Kostek punched in the first Drake touchdown, Drake had only produced six first downs all game - the other two were gift-wrapped by penalties.
The negative momentum just kept going. After another nifty catch by Spadola, the offense stalled again - and Drake again marched down the field, and again were immeasurably aided by 25 yards of gifts from the Mountain Hawks. Once WR Drew Blackmon grabbed a 12 yard pass from QB Mike Piatowski and the extra point sailed through the uprights, what once seemed like a blowout was, all of a sudden, a thin 21-14 lead.
Drake then tried an almost-pooch kick to the 25 yard line - which, admittedly, bounced funny - and landed in the hands of a Drake player. Now - incredibly - Lehigh was 22 yards from self-destruction.
Lehigh played incredible in the first few minutes. Then, they didn't play so great. But when it mattered, key Mountain Hawks stepped up and made plays and won the football game.
Start with senior DT Ben Flizack, who batted down a pass on second down and tackled WR Joey Orlando from behind on a wide receiver screen on third down, forcing a 4th-and-4 situation for head coach Chris Creighton and the Bulldogs. Flizack had 3 tackles and 1 pass break-up on the evening, and boy did they count.
And senior NG David "Big Daddy" Brown, with the play of the night - a bull rush up the middle that got into Piatowski's face to sack him on 4th down and grab the momentum back from the Bulldogs. Brown would have 4 tackles, but none bigger than that one.
Then, senior RB Jay Campbell - who already had a monster game - took it over on the offensive side. A nine yard reception followed by a 17 yard scamper got out of Drake territory, and the 28 yard touchdown run - his third on the evening, following the two exclamation points on the first two Lehigh touchdown drives earlier in the game - put the game to bed. Campbell would end the day with 93 yards rushing and 3 TDs. Last year, he didn't have a single rushing TD, even though he led the Mountain Hawks in rushing.
Campbell would also get tackled a few times for losses - something that didn't happen to him very often last year - but the other story was Lehigh's "O" line, led by senior OT Will Rackley (the birthday boy) who set the stage for Campbell's 3 rushing TDs and a clean sheet as it came to sacks. If Drake hoped to make money to get to Africa by getting sacks against Lehigh, they were out of luck.
Against a Drake team that makes its name with tackles for loss, Lehigh's defensive front seven also outperformed Drake's in that department. Notably, senior LB Al Pierce (9 tackles, 2 sacks) and junior LB Tanner Rivas (7 tackles, 2 sacks) were four of the Mountain Hawks' seven on the evening.
And Lum - despite making some mistakes here and there - had a very solid start for Lehigh as the triggerman of the offense. 23-of-36 passing for 288 yards - and adding 23 on the ground - was a great way to start the season, as was the most important statistic - 0 interceptions, and 0 fumbles.
It will never be confused for a perfect win, but in the end, there were more Mountain Hawk plays that resulted in the victory, even though the final score may have been closer than it should have been given the incredible first half. The best part is head coach Andy Coen found some football players this weekend that will win Lehigh some football games. Now it's Coen's time to clean up those mistakes and get ready for a huge challenge: a pissed-off No. 1-ranked Villanova team that barely lost a 25-24 heartbreaker to Temple on Friday.
There was plenty to be pleased - and aggravated - about in this game. Let's hope that there will be lessons learnt from the mistakes in the coming weeks in practice - yet revel, a bit, in the win, too.