If you came looking for subtlety, it probably wasn't your cup of tea.
If you came to the UNI Dome to root, root, root, for the home team, you were definitely not a happy camper.
But what you did see is a pretty damned good Lehigh defense shut down the University of Northern Iowa 14-7.
You saw a Panther team get more and more scared as Lehigh kept stopping them drive after drive, making huge interceptions in key spots, blocking field goals, seemingly tackling UNI QB Terrell Rennie behind the line of scrimmage every play. You didn't see an offense that achieved 44 points against Colgate - but you did see one that made two gigantic big plays exactly when they counted the most.
You saw a team that won the first postseason game for the Patriot League since Colgate went to the national championship game in 2003.
Lehigh, you have the national stage. (more)
Most people who cared to make predictions of the outcome of this game did not choose the Brown & White.
They apparently thought, like one Northern Iowa message board fan, that Lehigh was comprised of - and I quote - "a bunch of PA kids that no body wanted to offer a scholarship to coming out of high school."
Northern Iowa, so well tested in Missouri Valley Conference football play, were so loaded with talent, so the story appeared to go, that Lehigh would be simply overwhelmed by the talent mismatch and could not keep up with the hometown Panthers. The Panthers would pack their Dome, and pound the Mountain Hawks by three touchdowns.
The conventional wisdom was: UNI never loses in the first round of the playoffs. In sixteen years, they hadn't lost a first round game. And the Patriot League doesn't win in the first round of the playoffs. Since 2003, there had been plenty of moral victories but no real victories - you know, where the Patriot League team ended up with more points than the other team.
But this group of Lehigh players did not go slack-jawed once they made it to the UNI-Dome.
For starters, the attendance was barely 6,000 fans - not even half the number of loud, screaming fans that showed up at Fisher Field to see Lehigh beat Lafayette 20-13 last weekend.
And that wasn't the only surprise on the afternoon in Iowa.
They ended up shocking an awful lot of fans around FCS nation, including a whole lot in the state of Delaware who were searching for early scouting reports on Northern Iowa over their Thanksgiving turkey.
Few thought Lehigh would be 2-0 in the state of Iowa this year. Lehigh proved them wrong. Very wrong.
All things considered, it was a pretty well executed day of football - if you enjoy punts, tackles for loss and turnovers.
Both teams combined for 8 of 30 on third-down conversions - which resulted in fifteen punts on the afternoon in the 72 degree climate-controlled environment in the UNI-Dome. The whole game seemed like a battle of field position at times - with both defenses coming up with big third-down stops and forcing the punting unit to be on the field often. Not content with junior P Alex Smith to get all the credit, even junior QB Chris Lum got in on the act with a late quick-punt in the 3rd quarter as well - a nice 36 yard boot that was close to being downed at the 1, but instead was a touchback.
On a host of different occasions in the game, sacks and tackles for loss played a huge role in loss of field position or punts. Junior LB Colin Newton, who ended the afternoon with 10 tackles and 3 1/2 tackles for loss incliding 2 1/2 sacks, had a huge statement sack late in the game where he met junior DT Andrew Knapp when sacking UNI QB Tirrell Rennie for a three-yard loss - and the resulting 31 yard FG would be hooked right by PK Billy Hallgren.
But it was turnovers that really were the story of this game.
Midway through the first quarter, a Lum interception at midfield, where Panther DB Craig James read the Mountain Hawk junior quarterback perfectly and stepped right in front of junior WR Jake Drwal for the pick, set up a beautiful 19 yard TD run on the ensuing drive by QB Tirrell Rennie on a broken play. Lehigh blitzed and put pressure on Rennie, but the athletic Panther quarterback got free and avoided three Lehigh tacklers on his way to the end zone.
That would be the Panthers' last score on the afternoon.
In the second quarter, after a career-long 44 yard attempt by senior PK Tom "Razza-Dazza" Randazza would go wide left, and Northern Iowa would have a golden opportunity to put pressure on Lehigh with a score before halftime with the minutes ticking down in the first half.
But senior FS John Venerio - seen sporting a mohawk on the sideline - would make some of the biggest plays in his football career to prevent Panther points.
His first huge play came when he picked off an pass attempt by Rennie, where the strong-armed Panther tried to throw across his body on a deep pass pattern, but was instead an underthrown ball and was instead snagged by Venerio at the Lehigh 8 yard line. He stopped the drive cold when Northern Iowa was driving and seemed poised to make it a bigger lead with a big play.
A three and out by Lehigh would give UNI another chance at a score before halftime - and would have given Northern Iowa some serious momentum. But Venerio on the next drive would also make another huge play - that will show up as lost Lehigh yardage in the box score, but it might in reality have even been the play of the game.
Rennie threw a long pass to Panther WR Jared Herring, who had slid behind the secondary and seemed to have the step necessary to catch the ball and give UNI that 14-0 lead at halftime. But rather than give Herring any chance of catching the football, Venerio bulldozed him in the end zone - and Lehigh gladly took the fifteen yard penalty for pass interference.
Two plays later, Rennie, under pressure, would throw an interception to senior SS Casey Eldemire keeping the deficit at seven at halftime - and momentum on Lehigh's side.
"We were confident coming in, but I was real impressed with how we played," Veniero told the Morning Call's Keith Groller after the game. "This is probably the best opponent we've beaten and we were just relentless. We shut down their run, didn't let them throw the ball. A game like this reassured me of how good our defense is."
Lehigh would get the ball first in the third quarter, but a rare fumble by sophomore WR Ryan Spadola, forced by Panther DB Tre'Darrius Canady and recovered by LB Jamar Thompson, would allow Northern Iowa to set up shop deep in Lehigh territory to give the Panthers a real chance to get that big score to give the Panthers momentum.
But stuffing UNI short of the sticks on third down - thanks to a gang-tackle spearheaded by senior LB Al Pierce and senior NT Billy Dokouslis - led to a 44 yard FG attempt that was no good from Panther PK Billy Hallgren.
Having dodged that bullet, Lehigh then got their biggest offensive play on the year from the one of their two players on their roster from nearby Nebraska.
Lum threw a great pass to junior WR Jake Drwal down the right sideline, who turned towards the pass at the exact right moment to grab the ball, then spun around the linebacker covering him. He would get free - and run the rest of the way in bounds for the game-tying score.
"The linebacker had man coverage on me, and I caught the ball and he hit me, but didn't tackle me," Drwal said after the game about his 62 yard TD reception. "He tried to push me out of bounds real quick, but didn't get enough of me, I guess."
Now knotted at seven, the familiar pattern of 3-and-outs continued - including a huge knock-down from Venerio on third down that would have been a certain touchdown to TE Schulyar Oordt - until a huge interception that would change the course of the game.
Rennie would attempt a rifle throw to his wideout - but senior CB John "Prez" Kennedy reached out with both hands to snag Rennie's pass and return the ball to the UNI 28. As the plays got bigger and bigger, it seemed like the plays by the seniors on defense kept getting bigger and bigger as well.
And on the very next play, Lum went for it all to Spadola - who made a catch in plenty of space and ran it in easily for the 28 touchdown strike.
Suddenly, the same looks of concern that swept over the UNI-Dome crowd in the 2008 semifinal loss to Richmond seemed omnipresent once again today.
Playing with urgency, the Panthers' offense started to get yardage in chunks - with RB Carlos Anderson ripping off some nice runs for first downs - but saw all their fourth-quarter drives turn up empty.
Two of those drives ended in Hallgren field-goal attempts, who went 0-for-3 on field goal tries and was dogged by a stellar field goal block team on all three of his attempts. A block by senior CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs, who came in clean from the right edge on a 26 yard try. Cribbs - the other Lehigh player from Nebraska - kept crucial points off the board and kept up a seven-point deficit that seemed larger than it actually was.
But even with this prizefight winding down, a failed trick play by Lehigh - a lefty pass by senior RB Jay Campbell that was intercepted by LB Jordan Smith at midfield - would give Northern Iowa one last shot at tying the game.
Lehigh's defense - as they were all game - were more than up to the challenge of stopping the UNI offense.
On third down, QB Zach Davis - who had come in for Rennie - was sacked for a twelve yard loss by junior LB Colin Newton. On 4th and 18, Davis tried a short pass to Anderson - who intended to lateral to QB Tirrell Rennie, who was an eligible receiver on the play - never was able to do so thanks to Pierce's tackle of Anderson before the play could develop.
It seemed fitting - not a single trick play on either side worked, and the winning team was the one that played the better defense on the afternoon.
That is, Lehigh.
“This is a very good football team that we played,” said head coach Andy Coen after the game. “We’ve had some very good wins this season and this is without a doubt the best, the best football team that we’ve beaten. They're champions of a conference that we have a tremendous amount of respect for. It’s great that we could come and represent the Patriot League and Lehigh University very well today. I’m very proud of our team and everybody associated with our program.”
"To play such a good football team in a tough environment was something I'll never forget," Venerio added. "I'll never forget the look on the faces of our fans when it was over."