This year in Easton, bearded senior LB Al Pierce, a man of fewer words than J.B., didn't have the hardware with him after Lehigh's 20-13 victory over Lafayette in the 146th edition of "The Rivalry". He won the MVP trophy, though - the first defensive player to do so since 2000, when CB Matt Salvaterra did so - but when he spoke to the media after the game, the trophy was nowhere to be found. When asked about the award, he said that it hadn't really "set in yet".
Somehow, that was fitting for a senior leader that is a lot more about letting his play do the talking on the field than in a press conference. (more)
It was destined to be a day of defense, and a couple of hard-hitting inside linebackers could have been the MVP of the 146th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette. They were on the field thirty-six minutes, and never let a tough Lafayette run game wear them down.
"It's all about the senior class," the defensive captain Pierce said after the game, in his typical team-first sort of statement after the game. "There's 23 seniors, and we do a really good job of getting the entire team. A lot of young guys step up, too. We're playing as a single unit, a solid unit right now."
"Over the last couple weeks we've had some good stops on defense," Pierce said. "We've been playing really physical and that's something we pride ourselves on defensively."
Almost right out of the gates, Pierce seemed to want to put his mark on this game. The first three defensive plays featured three straight tackles by Pierce - Leopard RB Alan Elder - would get the first down, but would get three straight punishing tackles by Pierce, and he would change tack on the passing plays and hurry QB Ryan O'Neil into a rushed pass as well.
All on the first drive. And it only got better from there.
On a 3rd and 2 in Lehigh territory, Pierce wrapped up RB Marcelus Irving behind the line of scrimmage for a two yard loss - and forced Lafayette's third punt of the first quarter, wrapping up a scoreless, defensive-minded first half.
And after Pierce's big third-down play, the Lehigh offense sprung to life, seemingly feeding off the defensive energy. Junior QB Chris Lum started off by finding junior WR Jake Drwal on a pretty 27 yard sideline passing route to convert a big third down. Then, a screen pass that sophomore RB Zach Barket would somehow create into a 16 yard first down. A conversion on 4th and 3? No problem: sophomore QB Michael Colvin lines up and runs behind senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley for the first down.
A sliding catch by senior WR Craig "Braveheart" Zurn for 16 yards, and a perfect pass to sophomore WR Ryan Spadola in the right corner of the end zone for a 16 yard strike would cap off an impressive 16 play, 92 yard drive for the first score of the afternoon.
But Lehigh/Lafayette games tend to swing on emotion, and you could feel the Leopards trying to grab the emotional aspect of this game back after the score. A punt - and a whole lot of Lehigh penalties - would help the Leopards, decked out in maroon jerseys, maroon pants, grab all the emotion in the game in a game-tying drive.
A personal foul penalty caused Lafayette to set up shop at the Lehigh 39, and a facemask penalty gave Lafayette another first down. Finally, O'Neill would find WR Mark Layton open in acres of space to get the tying score. The pass itself was ten yards; the two longest yardage gains on the drive before that play were the two penalties.
Helped by the penalties or no, momentum was wearing maroon at that point, and despite a beautiful 25 yard return by Zurn, Lum's pass right into the hands of LB Michael Schmidlein instead set up a 50 yard FG attempt by PK Davis Rodriguez - which he nailed at the end of the half with some room to spare.
It was eerily like the Georgetown game the previous weekend - Lehigh had outgained the opposition, but mistakes had given Lafayette the lead - and a huge helping of momentum - going into the locker room.
Fortunately for Lehigh, the similarities to the Georgetown game didn't stop there.
As Lehigh's defense set the tone of the game early, it would be defense and special teams which would suck the momentum away from the Leopards in the second half.
Senior DT Phil Winett's two-yard stuff of Elder and junior LB Mike Groome's stop on second down set up a nice pass defense the next play - and a play that changed the course of the game.
Senior LB Shane Ryan twisted through the punt protect unit and got his hand on the ball, blocking the kick - which landed in the hands of sophomore DB John Littlejohn, which he scooped and ran in for the score.
Just like that, momentum wore brown.
"We had momentum, I thought, going into halftime," Lafayette coach Frank Tavani said. "We came out and not only gave it up, we turned it over. It took the air right out of us and put it back in them.
The very next drive, behind the running of RB Patrick Mputu, Lafayette embarked on an impressive drive - the conservative running game seemed to be starting to work as designed, wearing down Lehigh's defense - but senior CB Jarard "Main Man" Cribbs got under a deep O'Neil pass at the 2 yard line and stopped Maroon offensive momentum cold once again.
Again, Lum and the offense went to work.
In huge, twenty yard chunks, Lum would find new receivers every other play. Spadola, off a right-hand side screen, for 11 yards. Zurn, off a deep cross, for 25 yards. When everyone was covered Lum took off with the ball - for 11 yards.
Then, two big pass plays to senior TE Alex Wojdowski the last one, a 14 yard strike down the right hand side for the touchdown.
"We're always drawing up plays for him to get touchdowns," Lum said. "We're on the same page. When we practiced that play during the week, it didn't look that good, but it looked good today."
But the game wasn't over then, not by a longshot.
Lafayette would slowly grind out more yardage - winning the time of possession battle, seeming to wear down Lehigh's defense, a little, to get a first and goal at the Lehigh 2.
Then, junior LB Mike Groome went to work.
1st and goal. Mputu runs into the line - stuffed by Winett and Groome. Mputu comes out, a fresh Elder comes in.
Second and goal. Elder tries to surge through the line - and is met by Groome short of the goal line, who uses his arm strength to simply fling him back through the hole in which he came. Elder comes out, a fresh Marcelus Irving comes in.
3rd and goal. Quick snap, and Tavani tries another run - but is met by, who else? Groome, leaping over the offensive line - really! - and meeting Irving like a brick wall, for a 1 yard loss.
Rodriguez would make the 19 yard FG, but it sure didn't feel that way on the Lehigh sideline. Lehigh players and coaches were chest-bumping after Groome single-handedly stopped the Maroon and maintaining a 20-13 lead.
"Emontionally [the stand] was huge for the whole team," Groome said, who ended the day with 16 tackles, and no three bigger than the ones made on the goal line stand. "It's always good for the defense to come up with a huge stop. Every one made their assignments, and I was able to do my part. I love being out there and playing."
Groome was sporting a beard to match Pierce's. Before the Harvard game - seen as the turning point of the season, Pierce and Groome started growing them, and they now should be carrying their undefeated beards into the FCS playoffs. (I'm not sure if that means they were meant to be playoff beards at the time, but it sure looks like they are now.)
"I talked to Mike after that goal-line stand and we both love it when they run the ball on the goal line," Pierce said after the game, more comfortable talking about his teammates' play than his MVP-award-winning effort with 15 tackles - including 10 solo stops - along with two tackles for loss. "We set up for that all week and put an extra linebacker in there. Mike stepped up huge on those three plays."
"You find a way to make the stops you need to win the game," Coen said. “You’ve got to be out of your mind to think this game would be any different. You knew it was going to be a competitive game. We were in the same situation last year and played our best game of the year so we expected Lafayette’s best. Defensively they did a great job and on offense they did some nice things but we came up with the stops when we needed to.”
In the fourth quarter, Pierce and Groome seemed to be competing with each other in a positive way to find out who would be making the next big tackle - and the entire Lehigh defense seemed to be competing with each other to who would make the next play to win the game.
After one drive would be stopped by senior SS Casey Eldemire's interception - set up by a big tip by senior CB John "Prez" Kennedy's defended pass - another would be set up by a big sack of O'Neil by Winett and junior LB Tanner Rivas, forcing a punt.
Groome and Pierce, it seemed, was in on almost every stop. Groome, forcing an errant pass by O'Neil. Pierce, sensing exactly where the sticks were and punishing RB Alan Elder one yard short of the sticks on third down.
Yet - as it seems, now, every year - this game would end up coming down to the wire, with Lafayette finding ways to convert third downs and hanging in there, finding ways to move the ball, through rotating fresh backs, well-timed passes to their senior-laden receiving corps, hanging around and using the energy from the partisan home crowd to stay in this game.
O'Neil would shred Lehigh's secondary in a last-second drive - 12 yards here, 15 yards there - and get to the Lehigh 37 yard line.
But, as so many other times this year, Lehigh's defense bent but did not break.
Fittingly, the final offensive play was a 7 yard pass to Elder - where he was met by Groome, three yards short of the first down marker.
Or maybe it was Pierce. It would have been fitting if both of them were around the play that ended up sealing the win for Lehigh.
"They've been the heart and soul," Coen said after the game. "What's amazing is I think these guys are the perfect complement to each other."
Few would argue that after the game today.