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Lehigh 27, Liberty 24, Final

(Photo Credit: Brian Freed/The Express-Times)

It's said an awful lot about the game of football: it's a game of momentum.  Sometimes, one play, or one series, give a team that mystical force that just carries them through the game and wins it for them.

There are others, though, much like the game played this Saturday - an incredibly hard-fought, physical, matchup, ultimately won by Lehigh, where the momentum shifts back and forth so often you're wondering when the roller coaster ride is going to end.

As head coach Andy Coen entered the postgame press conference, he simply sat down and said, "Whew!" - as if he had just gotten off the Green Lantern roller coaster at Great Adventure.  For in a way, he - and a whole legion of Lehigh folks - had been.  (more)

"Football is a such a game of momentum", Coen said, "Such a big part of having a good football team is the ebb and flow, how you manage that when it's going your way, and probably more importantly when it swings against you, when you need to refocus youselves, and get back to what you were doing.  I think both teams experienced that in this game."

In this game, momentum, though, seemed to shift from play to play - with four one-play scoring drives, four scores called back on penalties, and a series of big special teams plays - good and bad - that had folks watching the game dizzy with all the stops and starts.

Liberty, who got the ball first, proceeded to march down the field to start the game, in large part due to the talented tandem of senior QB Mike Brown and senior WR Chris Summers

But - in the first in the series of many, many momentum shifts - a false start would take a Liberty touchdown off the board.  Almost immeditely after that, junior CB Bryan Andrews would grab the leg of Summers on a second and goal, and not let go - saving a sure touchdown, and leading to a big third down sack of Brown by junior DE Tom Bianchi.

After an ineffective Lehigh offensive drive, Mike Brown and Liberty marched down the field again, getting yardage in chunks and getting back into the Lehigh red zone, going 66 yards in 10 plays

And on the 11th play of that drive, on 3rd and 5, it seemed like the Flames had scored a touchdown strike to WR Pat Kelly.

But a giant flag took the points off the board - hands to the face, on Lehigh's weakside blitz - and ultimately resulted in a missed FG attempt.

As Lehigh drove down the field during the next drive, ultimately cumulating with a 30 yard field goal by sophomore P/K Tim Divers, you could feel that elusive momentum start to shift to the guys in Brown.


Capitalizing on the shifting momentum, Coen called for an onsides kick by junior PK Jake Peery - which was executed flawlessly.  Turning at the point of the kick, and catching Liberty flat-footed, the perfectly-situated sophomore DB Courtney Jarvis cradled the ball, and Lehigh kept possession.

"We knew at a certain point of time, we were going to try to grab momentum," Coen said after the game. "It was something we worked on all week, and Jake did a really super job on it [in practice]. We had a lot of confidence in it, and the one he hit it the game looked even better than the ones he hit in practice."

And only one play later, senior QB Chris Lum would find junior WR Ryan Spadola in a gap in coverage with a perfectly situated pass - and just like that, one play and 55 yards later, Lehigh was up 10-3 early in the second quarter.

After that, both teams played seemed to be playing tennis in regards to the momentum of the game until the very end.

Three plays after the Spadola touchdown, Brown would find Summers on the right side - and after a twisting, turning return, would find the end zone.  Deuce.

On the next drive, Lum would find senior WR Jake Drwal on a couple of key receptions, and result in a 30 yard FG by Divers.  Advantage: Guys in Brown.

After an interception by Lum by CB Walt Aikens - who made it to the end zone, but an illegal chop block on the return took the points off the board - Brown wasted no time rolling right and finding Summers in the end zone to take a 17-13 lead.  Advantage: Fallwell's Guys.

Lum then found a wide-open sophomore RB Keith Sherman about 10 yards downfield, and then it was off to the races - and another Lehigh touchdown, ultimately making it 20-17.  Advantage: Coen's Crusaders.

"It was really every series," Coen said.  "I know how I felt when they were on offense, and I'm sure for them it was the same way.  There were so many weapons on the field [for both sides]."

****

With all the quick plays and offensive firepower of the first half, probably no one in the stadium though that both teams would only score one touchdown apiece the rest of the way.

But that's indeed what would happen, as both defenses would clamp down in the second half by ratcheting up the physical play, and forcing turnovers.

With the reappearance of junior QB Michael Colvin and some critical runs out of the Wildcat formation, Lehigh scored on a 4 yard push by Colvin behind the efforts of the "O" line, making it a 27-17 game.

Sherman and junior RB Zach Barket, who was reportedly a game-time decision to play, made some key rushes on the ground in Lehigh's 12-play, 70 yard drive.

In the post-game press conference, Barket said it was never in doubt in his mind that he was going to play.

"I planned on playing the whole time," he said.  "I never miss a game for anything, and I didn't want to start now, especially against a great team like this.  I wanted to be out there so bad."

During Liberty's "return volley", on the very next play, an interception in the end zone by junior CB Bryan Andrews seemed to keep momentum on the side of Lehigh.

But a high snap on the ensuing punt allowed Liberty to grab momentum right back.  Set up deep in Lehigh territory, Flames sophomore RB Aldreakis Allenwas set up by Brown off a power sweep on the first play from scrimmage, making it Lehigh 27, Liberty 24.

From there, it seemed like the game was going to be there for the taking - by Liberty or Lehigh - the rest of the way.  And in all three phases of the game - offense, defense, and special teams - Lehigh's units had just enough to get things done.

On the kickoff after Liberty's touchdown, freshman DB Jason Suggs would get a huge return to the Flames 36, and while Lehigh wouldn't score on the drive, it would start the field position battle deeply in Lehigh's favor.

Additionally, after junior LB Billy Boyko and the defense would hold the Flames to a 3-and-out, senior WR Jake Drwal would return a Liberty punt 30 yards, again keeping the Flames pinned deep in their end.  Twice, huge punt returns by Drwal would keep Liberty out of Lehigh's end.

Defensively, Lehigh was trying everything to slow down the Brown-to-Summers connection - making Brown pay physically when rolling out of the pocket, and making sure that whenever Summers caught the ball, he didn't break free for any long gains.  Summers, WR B.J. Hayes and Kelly were making plenty of highlight-reel grabs, but Lehigh's containment after the catch made sure that no highlight-reel touchdowns were involved, either.

And when Liberty did finally cross midfield and seemed to have converted a critical 3rd-and-3, junior LB Fred Mihal forced a Mike Brown fumble, which was pounced upon by junior LB Billy Boyko, to stop a huge drive.

"Fred forced the fumble, and I was at the right place at the right time," Boyko said after the game.  "I finished it."

"They played real hard, and were able to make key plays when they needed to make key plays," Liberty head coach Danny Rocco said of Lehigh's defense after the game.  "They were able to make some plays in the backfield to put us off track, off schedule, a number of times.  They gave up some shots earlier in the game, but not later in the game, and made it hard for us to score points.

"We had a lot of blitzing to keep contain on him, make him uncomfortable," Boyko said.  "I think we did an OK job with that, but there were a few big plays that we gave up, and we have to get better at that. "

And to close the game offensively, while Lehigh didn't get points out of their final 13 play, 67 yard drive, they did chew up more than five minutes of the clock, only leaving Liberty a desperate chance to tie the game at the end of regulation with a 59 yard field goal that would fall short.

Arguably, the most thrilling play of the drive was on a 4th down conversion, with Colvin heading to the outside - and finally pitching to Barket at the last possible second, where he'd get five critical yards and keep the sticks moving.

"We practiced it this week.  Did I practice it?  No," Barket said in the post game press conference.  "When they called it, I said, 'I haven't practiced this all week!'  We made some adjustments to it later in the week, and I was wondering what the adjustments were.  But there are some situations where you just can't think about it, you just gotta do it."

But true to form, Zach was a lot more comfortable talking about another key play on the drive: a 25 yard pass to sophomore FB Sean Farrell that also kept the drive alive.

"Sean's a good player.  It doesn't surprise me that he'd makes big plays.  He does his job, and makes big plays when we need him to."


“We talked to the kids last night about being a team, not just 'this guy is a good player, that guy is a good player'.  In all three phases the kids really fed off each other,” Coen said. “We preach to the kids about physical toughness and mental toughness and showed a lot about both those things today. That gave us the opportunity to beat a good football team.”

In a game this close, with momentum shifting around like a ride at a carnival, with two evenly-matched teams, you could argue that this was a quintessential team win.  Lehigh's "team" was more cohesive than Liberty's "team" - and that's why the Mountain Hawks left Goodman yesterday with a real gut-check win over a Top 25 squad.

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