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Lehigh 40, Towson 38, Final

It was billed as a shootout between two of the top offenses of FCS.

And it was, indeed, a shootout between the the powerful running game of Towson, and the powerful passing game of Lehigh.

It was billed as a game for supremacy in the East.

It was, indeed, a showcase between the champions of the Patriot League and the champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA, for Beast of the East.

But with all that was billed and all that was hyped the last two weeks regarding this game, played in front of a sellout, standing-room crowd of 11,196 at Johnny Unitas Stadium, nobody could have anticipated that the outcome of the game, the game-winning play, would come on Lehigh junior DE Tom Bianchi sacking Towson QB Grant Enders in the end zone.

Befitting a game that faced the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the ECAC Lambert Trophy poll, the poll for the best team in the East, it was an instant classic that featured six ties and seven lead changes.

The amount of momentum shifts and offensive responses to touchdown drives in the game resembled a classic Ali vs. Frazier title fight.

As Towson walked through their inflatable Tiger tunnel, a player held up a championship title belt - setting the stage for this game to be a championship heavyweight fight from the start.

After Lehigh sophomore PK Tim Divers started the scoring with a 23 yard field goal - assisted by a line judge that got in the way of a pass from senior QB Chris Lum to junior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola at the 2 yard line, potentially stopping an early touchdown - Towson responded with a 45 yard boot from PK D.J. Sowen to make the score 3-3.

With the first counterpunch of the afternoon, Lum went to work on Towson's secondary, hitting some big plays to senior WR Jake Drwal and sophomore RB Keith Sherman, before finding a place where only Spadola could catch the ball in the end zone for a 7 yard TD strike.

It would be the second quarter before Towson would be able to knock down Lehigh to grab the momentum back in this game.

At the Towson 48 yard line, and 2 yards to go, Lehigh tried to run the ball twice with senior RB Matt Fitz, but Towson DT Marcus Valentine stuffed him at the line on 4th down, giving the Tigers badly-needed momentum - and the ball.

After Bianchi nearly sacked Enders on third down, Towson's sophomore quarterback would connect with WR Leon Kinnard for a big 4th down conversion.  That would get the ball rolling on Towson's offense, finishing with two tremendous, slashing runs by RB Terrance West, one which would find the end zone for another tying score.

With momentum firmly in Towson's favor, and a miscue on special teams to place the ball at the 1/2 yard line, it seemed like Lehigh was in a standing eight count, ready to go down.

But that didn't stop Lum and and the Lehigh offense.  Hardly.

Starting with a 15 yard strike to Spadola, Lum proceeded to complete seven of eight passes, slicing the Towson secondary with Fitz, Spadola, and sophomore FB Zach Hayden, setting up a 4th and 1 on the Towson 23.

Then, a flawlessly-executed trick play grabbed the momentum back for the Mountain Hawks.

Fitz got the handoff, appeared to bear down to run for the first down, then quickly hucked the ball to a wide-open junior TE Jamel Haggins, who virtually walked into the end zone to give Lehigh a seven point lead again.

It capped an 11 play, 99 1/2 yard drive.

But Towson was hardly finished.

From Lehigh's trick-play punch, Towson went back to jabbing with their power rushing game to close the half, grinding out 55 yards of rushing with RB Sterlin Phifer, RB Trea Jones, and RB Tre'Mayne Dameron to get back into Lehigh territory.

From there, Enders would scramble right, and find Kinnard, who had worked his way free of coverage in the end zone, for the touchdown that would ensure that both squads would enter the locker rooms tied at 17 at halftime.

*****

On the first play of the second half, Lehigh's Keith Sherman started the drive with a rush up the middle, but DE Brian Boeteng punched the ball out, forcing a fumble.  And when Towson DB Jordan Dangerfield pounced on the loose ball, the sellout crowd picked up a sudden jolt of energy.

With the momentum back on their side, Towson wasted no time in using it to their advantage, using some great runs from West to get back into the Mountain Hawk red zone - ending with a 1 yard run to give Towson their first lead of the game.

ESPN's announcing team of Bob Picozzi and John Gregory would say on their broadcast, "A seven point deficit doesn't mean a lot to this Lehigh team."  True to that statement, Lehigh's offense would counterpunch after Towson's touchdown punch.

On this counterpunch drive, the critical element was big third-down strikes by Lum to move the sticks.  A 3rd-and-3 connection to Spadola, fighting for a first down.   A 3rd-and-8 connection to a streaking Fitz for 14 yards.  And a third connection to Spadola on a screen, setting up Matt Fitz' six-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 24.

Spadola would end the evening with 13 catches for 152 yards, with the Howell, NJ native answering with big play after big play.

It would be Towson, however, that would respond with a big play of their own on the next drive.

With a 3rd-and-15, Enders found Kinnard once again in a seam, where he'd rumble 63 yards to set up Enders' quaterback keeper to give the Tigers a 31-24 lead.

Punch.

Lum pumps and finds Spadola, who bounced off of his defensive back, downfield for a 39 yard strike, as Fitz would finish the drive by bouncing twice to the outside with a 1 yard run to tie the game at 31.

Counterpunch.

Enders, now finding some holes in Lehigh's defense, finds Sheppard has beaten his man down the left sidelines for a 52 yard touchdown, making it a 38-31 game

Punch.

Lum would go 4-4 with beautiful passes to his tight end, Haggins, while mixing the run with Fitz and - finally - Lum would sneak it in to tie the score again.

Counterpunch.

"It was awesome," Lum said afterwards.  "We knew we could do it, a lot of us were here last year (against the CAA champions Delaware) and we knew we could do it.  We stayed the course, and we kept making plays."

Almost lost in the shuffle was the play of PK Tim Divers, nailing the opening field goal and going a perfect 6-for-6 on extra points on the day.  Why you expect your kicker to make extra points, each conversion was critical in making sure Lehigh never had to play any additional catch-up.

And then, the "onsides" kick.

With Lehigh PK Jake Peery kicked a squib kick on the ensuing kickoff - something he had been doing all game, to prevent big returns - this particular kick smacked a Towson player in the facemask.  The ball careened fifteen yards back to Lehigh's side, where an alert senior TE Mark Wickware caught the football - and Lehigh kept possession.

(Coach Coen admitted after the game that it was not a designed onsides kick.)

While Lehigh wouldn't score on the possession, they would punt and force Towson backwards to start their drive at their five yard line and set up the Mountain Hawks' unlikely game-winning score.

It was second down and 7 from the 8 yard like, Towson head coach Rob Ambrose called a naked bootleg, which essentially leaves the quarterback unprotected from one side.  It was a particularly gutsy call by Ambrose, but a risky one.

On the particular play, Lehigh senior LB Colin Newton and DE Tom Bianchi had switched assignments so when Enders turned to run right, where there was no protection, he turned into a full-speed Bianchi for the safety.

“It was a perfect play call,” Bianchi said after the game. “All of a sudden, I saw the quarterback spin outside, and I was right there.  As soon as I tackled him, I wasn’t sure it was a safety. Once I got up and saw everyone celebrating, I knew it was a safety.”

“I think they just had our number on that play," Enders said after the game. "I wish I could have made a move to avoid that. I think they were just in the right defense for that play.”

“The defense was pretty disciplined," Ambrose added. "Probably a bad call on my part. You guys want to go back to the Maryland game; if you want a chance to win, you’ve got to be a little unorthodox. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”

Bianchi was credited with 2 1/2 sacks during the regular season, but it's his one sack in this game that has put him in Lehigh's history books.

Equally as crucial, the safety gave Lehigh the ball back - where Lum would take over, hitting Haggins, Drwal, and Hayden to move the sticks three times to seal the Mountain Hawk victory.

No three first downs were as exciting as those conversions by Lum and the offense in the closing minutes.

It would be Lehigh's first win over a CAA squad in the Andy Coen era, Lehigh's first win over a CAA squad in the playoffs since they beat Hofstra 27-24 in overtime at Murray Goodman stadium in 2001, and it was the first time they beat the CAA champions on the road since their thrilling 24-23 victory over Richmond in 1998.

"The emotions are too strong to describe with words," said Colin Newton, who ended the day with 12 tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss.  "We told the defense that we were going to get punched in the mouth twenty times, and we're going to have to get up twenty-one times.  And that's what we did."

“I’m very proud of my football team for hanging in there against an outstanding Towson team,” Coen said after the game. “We knew it was going to be a high-scoring game. I was concerned because we hadn’t had to play a full four quarters in a few weeks, but we hung in there with all the momentum shifts. I’m proud of my football team and the way we handled ourselves today. It was a great environment.

"My hat’s off to Towson. We beat the CAA Champions and represented the Patriot League well. I couldn’t be happier.”

It was one of the best Lehigh games I have ever witnessed in person.

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