So the first team to 21 points indeed was the team that ended up winning, as I predicted.
And Delaware - to their immense credit - put up 40 points on Lehigh's defense. (So much for my bold prediction that the Blue Hens wouldn't put up 40 on the Mountain Hawks.)
But heading down the tunnel off the field after the Lehigh football season came to a cold end in the FCS playoffs in Newark, Delaware, there were no hung helmets from the Lehigh players. Some disappointment, sure. But no tears. No humiliation, as a different type of swarm came around the Lehigh players - a group of Lehigh fans, who silently gave their support for a season that exceeded all fans' expectations.
Lehigh came out of the gates with some momentum and kept the game close early on - but Blue Hen QB Pat Devlin, who looked an awful lot like a first rounder in the NFL draft this afternoon, kept making play after play to shred Lehigh's defense. (more)
"We lost to a better football team today," head coach Andy Coen said to Steve Lomangino after the game. “Obviously today didn’t work out the way we would have liked it to. We knew we were going to have to take advantage of the opportunities that were out there for us. They were able to break some tackles. Their offense was outstanding, especially Devlin, and they were able to get some big plays on us which we hadn’t been giving up since early in the season.”
The Devlin show started on the Blue Hens' 11 play, 68 yard opening drive, where he would find WR Mark Schenauer with a strong pass where only he could catch it near the sticks on the left sideline. Two plays after that strong-armed catch, RB Andrew Pierce would burst through the Delaware "O" line to give the Blue Hens a 7-0 lead.
Impressive as Delaware's drive was, Lehigh responded.
In what seemed almost like a mirror to Delaware's opening drive, junior QB Chris Lum found himself with a 4th and 11 to convert deep in Delaware territory - and connected with a strong-armed reception by junior WR Jake Drwal for 23 yards to set up a first and goal. It would take three plays, not two, but Lum threaded a perfect needle to sophomore WR Ryan Spadola - in between two Delaware defenders - to knot the game at seven.
A break for Lehigh on Delaware's next drive gave the Mountain Hawks a surge of emotion - and made this a ball game.
After a catch near the left sideline by WR Tommy Crosby, senior LB Al Pierce flew to the receiver and made a textbook move to pop the ball out - which was recovered by senior SS Casey Eldemire at the Lehigh 49 yard line.
Lehigh had Delaware on their heels, with Lum completing passes to seven different Mountain Hawks, including senior TE Alex Wojdowski, who took a break from catching touchdowns to instead convert a some key first down on the drive.
But a golden opportunity was missed on 2nd-and-14 where freshman FB Sean Farrell found himself open in the end zone but couldn't haul in a Lum pass that really would have put Lehigh up by a touchdown and would have put some serious pressure on the Hens. Instead, a 28 yard FG attempt from senior PK Tom "Razza-Dazza" Randazza" would make Lehigh's lead only 10-7 early in the second quarter.
Devlin and the Blue Hen offense would quickly atone for their error on the previous drive with another methodical, efficient score to take the lead once again.
Going 5 of 6 passing on the drive - and getting two full yards on a QB sneak on fourth down that needed maybe half a yard to convert - Devlin would end the drive, under strong Lehigh pressure, delivering a beautiful throw over the middle of the field to Schenauer, running a post pattern, for a 29 yard touchdown.
It's one thing to be able to be efficient, and another thing to be athletic. But Devlin made the touchdown pass look so natural - 25 yards through the air, placed perfectly, - and it even had a little touch as well, with control to go with the velocity. If he had all day to throw, it still would have been pretty enough - but he also was facing junior LB Mike Groome up near him when he threw it. I'm not sure any collegiate secondary in America could have stopped the play. It was that good.
"The play actually wasn't supposed to go to me," Schenauer said. "I was more of a decoy route to set up a different route for WR Tommy Crosby. The safety actually rolled over and Pat saw me. It was a nice pass."
On the next drive - after an impressive 41 yard kickoff return from senior CB/KR John "Prez" Kennedy - Lum would go 4 for 4 on passing, finding Delaware native senior RB Jay Campbell for a big 17 yard pass and senior WR Craig Zurn for a big 25 yard reception to get into the Blue Hens red zone. The final reception to Drwal, however, would end up 3 yards short of the end zone, and Randazza would boot a 25 yard FG to make it a one point game.
After the kickoff Devlin would again efficiently dissect Lehigh's defense - and it's not like he had all day to throw. After finding Schenauer once again on a 34 yard strike - he would end the day with 5 catches for 114 yards and a TD - on 3rd and 1 Devlin would get free and find TE Chris Campbell in the end zone to give the Blue Hens a 21-13 lead.
“I have confidence in all the wideouts and Shenny (Schenauer) has such great hands,” said Devlin after the game. “We had four touchdowns with four different guys today and that just shows you what kind of receiver core we have. "Defensively, Lehigh does a lot of stuff up front that we don't see; stuff that's unorthodox, really. That gave our offensive line a challenge. So, the biggest thing was to get the line into the right protections. When we were able to protect, the wideouts were able to do their job. I have a lot of confidence in all of the wideouts."
Lum would have a chance to narrow, or even close the lead at halftime, as they drove to the Delaware 22 before halftime with about 24 seconds to play. Even without senior WR Craig Zurn, who got sandwiched on a helmet-to-helmet contact call that was not flagged by the officials, the Lehigh offense still had a chance to grab some momentum going into halftime.
He threw a pass to Spadola in the end zone - who was open for a split second for a running catch - but whether the wind caused the ball to lose some zip or the pass was underthrown, the ball instead found its way into the hands of an alert FS Anthony Walters, who returned the ball to midfield as the clock ran out in the half.
“I knew that if we settled down after Lehigh got the lead in the second quarter we would be fine and we were," Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler said. "The plays by Campbell and Walters were huge because it gave us a lot of momentum heading into halftime.”
"I don't second-guess that at all," Coen said after the game. "Field goals weren't going to win this game. We were in the red zone there, and it was worth taking the shot there before the half."
Lehigh got the ball in the second half, but a 3-and-out instead set up another efficient, methodical drive for Delaware that gave the Blue Hens a crucial two-score lead - and ultimately would be enough momentum to end Lehigh's season.
7 plays, 74 yards. A 12 yard Devlin rush. An 11 yard strike to WR Phillip Thaxton. Some small gains - almost always positive yardage, nothing for loss. And then - a 38 yard perfectly-thrown rainbow pass to WR Tommy Crosby to give Delaware a 28-13 lead.
"I was impressed by Devlin coming into this game," Coen said. "He made some great throws, fitting the ball into some tight windows, and his receivers made some great catches."
Lum would try respond on the next drive, as the Lehigh coaching staff emptied out the playbook looking for the series of plays to get the Mountain Hawks back in the game. Junior RB Matt Fitz, who had only five catches going into the playoff game, would start getting a hot hand, getting a first down on the drive and hauling another pass to get to the Delaware 22. But Lum would get no further, as a slow-developing pass to sophomore RB Zach Barket was stopped short of the sticks.
“Offensively we did some nice things throwing the ball,” Coen said. “But we weren’t able to finish some key drives. A lot of times we were down in or near the red zone and came away with no points.”
Lehigh's offense never seemed to recover from that chance to grab the game, and after a few punts and a couple of great runs by RB Andrew Pierce (25 yards) and RB David Hayes (16 yards for the touchdown, interior counter runs that seemed near-identical), Lehigh would fall behind 35-13.
And despite a second Walters interception that would be converted into Devlin's fourth touchdown pass on the afteroon - a 20 yard strike to WR Nihja White that was just as pretty as the others - Lum and the offense would battle their way all the way until the end.
Lum would find Fitz for 19 yard strike to close the gap - and Lum would keep battling, attempting 58 passes, completing 35 of them for 362 yards. All those numbers were single game Patriot League postseason records, besting Holy Cross QB Dominic Randolph's numbers against national champion Villanova a year ago. He'd also set the records for total yards of offense (367) and total number of plays (65).
"We know we can play with any team in this country," senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley said. "I'll go to war with these guys any time. Even today, we fought every single down. Even though we were down 20 points on the last series and knew we weren't going to win, we went out there and fought hard anyway. That's what I will take away from this team."
“Our kids battled the whole game,” Coen said. “Their effort never waned. We’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. We had a great season. We won the Patriot League, won ten games, won at our archrival and went out and beat the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference.
"There are eight teams left in the playoffs, and our three losses came to three of those eight teams. We played thirteen games, and five games came against nationally-ranked opponents. That's the definition of a great year.
"I think we’ll have a good football team coming back next year than can build off this experience."
“Lehigh gave us everything we thought they were going to give us,” said Keeler. “We always say that the CAA prepares us for tournament play and I think that was certainly true today. I don’t think Lehigh saw a passing game like ours in the regular season this season. Pat is the best quarterback in the country and does such a great job reading the field. The offensive line did a great job protecting him today like they have all season.
“All we know is that Monday they are going to be collecting their equipment and it could have been us.”