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Lehigh 37, Lafayette 13, Final

This year, I had the good fortune to attend my 23rd  "Rivalry", the most-played  rivalry in college football with 147 meetings.

And as a Lehigh fan, I was immensely pleased with the outcome.

And yet, I cannot recall a stranger edition of this game in my experience.

To the seniors who played in this historic game, it was a shining moment in their football season - something they had wanted to do since they came to Lehigh in the first place.

But I don't think anybody thought it would go down like this.

The day before Lehigh entered the one-game season against Lafayette, Michael Lore of the Express-Times published an interview he had with senior LB Colin Newton.

In that piece, he talked about a newspaper headline that he and his rommates put on the refrigerator: a headline where Lafayette had won four straight games over Lehigh.  A "four-peat" - going the other direction.

"That's been up since the day I got here," Newton said. "We've been saying how we plan to have one of our own and now we have the opportunity right in front of us and hope to take full advantage of it to go 4-0 and be one of the teams to not lose to Lafayette.

"You can win the national championship and lose to Lafayette and there's still that little glitch on the record that people talk about. They'd say, 'It's great you won the national championship, but you lost to Lafayette.' It's an integral part of every season, whether you go 1-11 or you win the national championship."

With Lehigh wrapping up the Patriot League championship the weekend before - and thus meaning that the game against "that school in Easton" would only be for pride - it would have been too easy to take a mental vacation and mail in that game in order to focus on different goal: a national championship.

But Newton, and the rest of this senior team, remembered that heartbreak of the class before them - and how close they came to losing all three games in Lehigh's current three game win streak.

You got the impression that the newspaper clipping was a constant reminder for the defense, and the rest of the team, to keep focus - and to manage the emotion of "The Rivalry" as well.

"This is a huge emotional game, from the first play on," Newton told me after the game.  "You can feel it from the first play on, everybody's antsy even after the first drive in a game like this.  It's a great feeling to be out there with such a huge crowd and so much on the line, but senior leadership helps just to remind everyone to play their game."

I got the impression that senior leadership and managing the emotion of "The Rivalry" played a huge part in the outcome this Saturday.

*****

Lafayette coach Frank Tavani had used the uniform trick before.  So had head coach Andy Coen.

To give his Leopards an emotional boost, Tavani arranged for some new uniforms to replace the black shirt, black pants combination that worked so well in 2004 for Lafayette in "The Rivalry".

While many in the stands were scratching their heads about the new helmets with gray numbers (making them very hard to make out on TV), as well as the white shirts and silver pants, the new uniforms did appear to have their desired effect on the Leopards when the game kicked off.

An underthrown interception to sophomore DB Courtney Jarvis resulted in a 3-and-out on the first possession by the Mountain Hawks - and a taunting personal foul on Newton, away from the TV cameras.

The penalty would be more emblematic of the 147th version of "The Rivalry" than anyone would realize at the time.

A blocked punt of Lehigh sophomore P Tim Divers resulted in great field position for the Leopards - and momentum squarely wearing, er, silver pants as the Lafayette faithful dreamed of the upset.

And after a stalled Leopard drive at the Lehigh 38 resulted in a downing of a punt by P Ethan Swerdlow at the 1 yard line, Lafayette fans were still feeling pretty good about their chances.

But soon thereafter, it would all start to unravel for the Leopards.

After three pinpoint passes by senior QB Chris Lum to senior WR Jim Jefferson, senior WR Jake Drwal and sophomore RB Keith Sherman, it would be the sophomore who would burst through the right side of the line - and get Lehigh's longest rushing touchdown of the season, a 52 yard surge that swung momentum the Mountain Hawks' way.

And after that, things started getting weird - partially thanks to Lehigh's defense.

Through the end of the first half, the Leopard offense would only manage two first downs that they actually earned.  Senior LB Mike Groome, senior LB Fred Mihal and senior DE Ben Flizack all made huge tackles for loss or no gain in three straight series.

They would receive three first downs, however, thanks to Lehigh penalties - some justified, some not, in this reporter's opinion.

"Contrary to the stat sheet might read, we are not the Oakland Raiders of the 1970s," Lehigh head coach Andy Coen joked after the game.  "The number of penalties were staggering."

Meanwhile, Lehigh's offense continued to work to pick apart Lafayette's defense - a pass to junior WR Ryan Spadola here, a pinpoint throw to Jake Drwal there - and the Mountain Hawks would convert ten more points, with a 30 yard field goal from Divers and a 3 yard connection to sophomore FB Zach Hayden in the corner of the end zone for a score.

With each drive, Lafayette's offense seemed to come apart little by little.  The snaps seemed to come to QB Andrew Shoop lower and lower.  The Lehigh section of the crowd got louder and louder - as the Maroon side of the crowd sat in stunned silence.  With players like senior LB Tanner Rivas causing havoc on the outside, Shoop would need to throw the ball away often.

Lafayette fans probably hoped head coach Frank Tavani, with a 17-0 deficit at halftime, peeled the paint off the walls at halftime to fire up his team to get them back in the game.

But it would get much, much worse for Lafayette in the second half, when the turnovers came.

It was bad enough with Lum would pick apart Lafayette's defense again on their opening drive in the second half, which would end with another surge through the line for a touchdown, this time with senior RB Matt Fitz notching a 16 yard score.

The very next drive, a successful 8 yard pass from Shoop would end up in the hands of WR Mark Ross - but senior LB Fred Mihal would rip the ball free, and the ball would end up in the hands of LB Colin Newton.

His 37 yard touchdown run, ending with a leap into the end zone over a Lafayette defender, electrified the crowd, gave Lehigh a 30-0 lead, and seemed to be the final, crushing blow to the Leopards.

But the flag on the field, for unsportsmanlike conduct, would result in Newton's unfortunate - and, in this reporter's opinion, unjustified - ejection.

By rule, two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties result in an automatic expulsion.  The player could remain on the sidelines, but only under "coach supervision" to make sure he didn't re-enter the game.

But Newton needed to hurdle a Lafayette defender to get into the end zone, and in fact there were two Leopards around the play.

"I was going to do anything to get into the end zone," Newton said of his ejection after the game. "It was the first time I touched the ball in four years. I thought I had to dive to get in. I was very surprised at the ejection. I didn't know what was going on."

With the game in hand, and the pace of the game slowed to a crawl thanks to the number of incompletions, penalties, and ejections, many Lafayette fans made for the exits near the end of the third quarter, as well as a significant number of Lehigh fans as well.

It was the first time I had seen so many people leave a "Rivalry" game early - though perhaps it's hard to blame people with the game so much in hand.

But those that stayed got to see Lum add a 4 yard touchdown run to his scoring - his second such touchdown in consecutive weeks - and would also see his bid to break Lehigh's single-season touchdown passing record thwarted with his lone interception on the afternoon, nabbed by Lafayette CB Darius Safford to prevent the blowout from being worse than it actually was.

They also saw another record fall on Saturday as well, as a 50 yard Lum-to-Spadola connection would result in his ownership of the Patriot League single-season receiving yards record, formerly held by Fordham WR Javarus Dudley.

"Records are records, but the most important thing was the 'W'," Spadola said afterwards. "We have a lot more goals to accomplish."

Winning the MVP award was well-deserved senior QB Chris Lum, with his brutally efficient 20-for-35 performance against the Leopards, with 279 yards passing and two touchdowns.

It was interesting that he would win the MVP award on Saturday when the quarterback he replaced two years ago, QB J.B. Clark, was the last Lehigh quarterback to win the award.

"I highly respect J.B. and he totally earned those MVP awards that he won," Lum said. "He had great games, but I don't think about that too much. I just focused on my game and winning today and it's a great honor to be added to that list.  It's a great honor to have your name put on the trophy with many of the great athletes and players that have played here and it's awesome to be a part of this rivalry."

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