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Lehigh 41, New Hampshire 48, Final OT

The picture is grainy, thanks to my video software and the video report from WFMZ 69.

But it's clear enough to show what happened: New Hampshire WR Joey Orlando, in overtime in one of the most thrilling games ever played at Murray Goodman stadium, was not in bounds when he made his game-winning catch.

And it was deeply, unfortunate, too.  For it would have been great to see if Lehigh could have been beaten without the help of the guys in the striped shirts on Saturday.  (more)


In the post-game press conference, I asked head coach Andy Coen when was the last time he was a part of a shootout like the one he witnessed this Saturday afternoon.

He sat a moment, and couldn't think of one.  "Probably a loss," he quipped.

It was an honest answer - and probably, too, a correct one.  For it's been an awfully long time since Lehigh fans were treated to an offensive fireworks display like this one.

"I bet you have to look back in the annals pretty good to see the last time New Hampshire gave up a 18 point lead and then got taken to overtime," Coen said.

"[But] we came to win the game. There are no moral victories here - I'm not playing that game.  I thought we had a chance to win going in. We talked last night to the kids about having confidence in everything we’re doing and believing in yourselves and they did that to the letter. We’ll learn from this and come back and be better from it next week."

The game took three and a half hours to complete, but it felt more like a six-hour marathon with all the lead changes and momentum shifts.

After the Wildcats would efficiently slice and dice Lehigh's defense in the first series - and finish on a broken play, where QB Kevin Decker would cooly roll left, then zip right to score a 2 yard touchdown run - Lehigh would respond with a drive of their own.

With senior QB Chris Lum matching Decker's cool on his opening drive, on 4th-and-5 from the UNH 26 he'd find junior RB Zach Barket at the sticks - and then the "Man Beast" turned and bowled into the end zone to tie the game.

On the next series of downs, a corner blitz by junior CB Gabe Johnson forced Decker into hurrying his pass, and junior CB Bryan Andrews stepped up and nabbed an interception.

Lum and senior WR Jake Drwal then went to work - connecting for 3 receptions for 26 yards, to set up a 3rd down conversion that would also end up to Barket for a touchdown.

But the extra point from junior PK Jake Peery was blocked, and  Decker would lead the Wildcats on a 75 yard drive the next time the offense had the ball - making the Lehigh defenseman miss on a beautiful stutter step at the 2 yard line and running it in for his second touchdown of the afternoon - making it 14-13 New Hampshire.

"He's got great mobility," New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell told about his starting quarterback after the game.  "He scrambles with a purpose for the most part when he finds that escape hatch, and he did a pretty good job again.  The thing I've got to try to figure out is: is he doing that because there's pressure, or he's doing that because he's Kevin Decker? "There's a fine line there."

The pinball match was on in the first half, when - on the ensuing drive - Brket would break a 24 yard gain on 3rd and 1 to keep a 7 play, 78 yard drive alive.  This time it would be Lum finding junior WR Ryan Spadola on a 12 yard slant to the end zone to give Lehigh a six point lead once again.

But Decker would find local product junior WR Joey Orlando for a pretty 17 yard strike to give the Wildcats the lead once again, and after Lehigh's first punt on the afternoon at 3:13 left in the first half, New Hampshire would close out the scoring with a 25 yard boot from PK Mike MacArthur to enter halftime with a 24-20 lead.

Starting the second half, it looked like the wheels might come apart for the Mountain Hawks as New Hampshire would score 14 points in 36 seconds.

WR Joey Orlando - there's that name again - would zip through Lehigh's punt coverage on a 56 yard touchdown runback, and when Lum would loft an interception on the next Lehigh offensive play, Decker would find a wide-open WR R.J. Harris to help extend the Wildcat lead to 18 points.

"When you play anybody, you don't want to do those things," Coen said after the game.  "You don't want to turn over the ball in your neck of the woods.  It gets maginfied when you play a team like New Hampshire, but I don't care who you're playing.

"But our kids responded. We got ourselves behind coming out in the second half but never once wavered. Our coaches and the players on the sidelines were into the game. They fought their tails off. We got right back in there and took the lead, and went into overtime."

That they did.

Starting things was a fumble off a punt by Orlando deep in Lehigh territory - the break they needed to get back into the game.

True to form, Lehigh would have their proverbial backs against the wall on 3rd-and-10 - when Lum found Drwal in the end zone to cut the deficit to 11.

"The fumble really got us up," Drwal said after the game, "and after that, I was sure we were going to win."

Certainly you could feel the momentum pull back the way of the Brown and White, as they'd force another punt and Lum and company would trot back on the field.

Lum would get sacked once on this drive by DE Brian McNally - he'd be only taken down for a loss twice on the day - but otherwise, he engaged on a fantastic drive, hitting 5 for 5 passing.  Two key plays was a beautiful 34 yard pass downfield to junior TE Jamel Haggins to move teh sticks, and converting a beautiful 3rd down run where senior OL Keith Schauder forced McNally to the outside, and Lum just tucked and converted the third down.

The final pass of the drive was a rifle shot to the outstretched arms of sophomore RB Keith Sherman, who cut the deficit to 5.

"I took a deep breath after the interception, and said to myself to take it one play at a time," he said.  "We're not going to score 18 points in one play, but we're dangerous.  We can score on three straight drives."

After UNH was forced to punt again, Lehigh would, indeed, make it three straight scores on three straight drives- and, once again, convert on two fourth downs to keep the drive alive.

On 4th and 1, sophomore FB Sean Farrell got the call, and seemed to get stuck behind the line of scrimmage - but moved the sticks on pure second effort, getting those two extra yards where none seemed to be found.  (Maybe Saints RB Mark Ingram ought to look at tape of that play on how to get a yard, but I digress.)

And on 4th at 3 from the 10 yard line Drwal would grab the ball out of the air from the UNH defender - and use every bit of arm strength to wrestle the ball into the end zone to give Lehigh the lead.

"It's not even a play that's even designed for me," Drwal told Michael LoRe of the Express-Times.  "I just had to get that will to get in there, and I slipped him off me."

Unfortunately for Lehigh, though, the game didn't end there.

Decker would find Harris again for a quick strike to get the Wildcats in field goal range, and while Lehigh's defense would stiffen, New Hampshire PK Mike MacArthur's 35 yard field goal tied the game at 41 with 3:17 to play.

Two uncharacteristic drives - ones that ended in punts - ended regulation tied at 41.

****

In overtime, it was all about the divot.

Decker took the ball first, and lofted the ball in the corner of the end zone.  Junior CB Bryan Andrews forced WR Joey Orlando out of bounds, but, according to the referees, came back in bounds to catch the ball.

The letter of the rule is that, yes, if a player is forced out of bounds, he can come back in bounds to make a catch.  But the problem was that Orlando never made it all the way back in bounds.

It was obvious from the footage from the TV broadcast and the sideline cameras - but instant replay is a tool that was not able to be used by the officials in this game (nor could they use my picture).

Three officials surrounded Orlando and raised their hands - but, apparently, missed the divot out-of-bounds where you could clearly see where Orlando's leg slid from underneath him.

With the pressure to score a TD, Lehigh's offense would have another chance to extend the game - but were unable to do so - adding to the controversy of that final play.

To be fair, it's impossible to know if the Wildcats wouldn't have scored on the next play anyway, and the same course of events wouldn't have happened in some form.

But the call was clearly incorrect.

And the touchdown gave UNH that extra burst of momentum they needed to close out the game.  It absolutely had an impact on the game in the sense that it deflated Lehigh's momentum at a critical time of the game, and boosted UNH's offense, who hadn't scored a touchdown since 11:45 left in the 3rd quarter.

The officials ended up inserting themselves in the spotlight.

It was an awful way to end a football game - and left a whole multitude of fans and media, on both sides, wondering what might have happened if the officials got the call right.

*****

When writers talk about football games, it's almost a cliche to say that a loss leaves a "bitter taste in your mouth". 

On this Saturday, it didn't seem like it could get much more bitter than this.

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