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Lehigh 27, Monmouth 17, Final

(Photo Credit: Donna Fisher/The Morning Call)

The TV broadcast team of Mike Zambelli and Mike Yadush sounded out the alarm early in Saturday's game.

After the Mountain Hawks had jumped to a 7-0 lead and smashed the Monmouth offense in the mouth in their first possession of the game, Lehigh resembled in every way a team that deserved to be ranked the No. 11 in the nation.

But Yadush, a member of the Lehigh linebacking class of 1993, had seen similar efforts before in the many Lehigh games he's covered and the many football games he's been a part of.  He saw what might happen, and he let the viewers know.

"College football games are long games," Yadush said.  "And sometimes things that go right early don't go right as the game goes on.  You take the brand-new starters out there.  And right now, they're thinking, 'Man, this is easy!'  But you have to keep battling every play.  Plays are six seconds.  You have to bring it hard every play, because you never know."

He was right.

Lehigh would jump to an early 14-0 and 21-7 first-half leads on the scrappy Monmouth Hawks from the NEC, but anyone who came to Murray Goodman in the 90 degree heat expecting a shootout instead got something else.  They saw a defensive struggle in the second half that saw Lehigh squeak out a 27-17 victory - and very nearly were defeated in the home opener.

On senior QB Michael Colvin's first extended offensive drive of the year, he and the rest of the Lehigh offense indeed made it look easy.

It was a different style of quarterbacking than that of last year's starter, QB Chris Lum, but the results were equally, and brutally, efficient.

Finding senior WR Ryan Spadola three times with passes and riding some powerful rushing from senior RB Zach Barket, Colvin's offense grabbed yardage in chunks.  Junior RB Keith Sherman showed off his daunting athletic ability on the drive as well, mowing over a Monmouth defender to get a big first down as well.

Barket didn't just run the ball - he also opened up some big holes for Colvin to operate with his blocking on the drive as well, which ended with a option run which Colvin tucked and ran through the center of the Monmouth defense for a 5 yard touchdown.

On special teams and defense, too, the contest started out like gangbusters for the guys in Brown.

After a special teams tackle behind the 20 by junior FB Zach Hayden, Lehigh's defense would take over and hold Monmouth's senior-laden offense, led by senior QB Kyle Frazier, to 5 total yards on two consecutive drives.

Junior SS Rickie Hill, in his first time as the starting safety, started off with a critical pass defensed on 3rd down on Monmouth's first drive, forcing a punt.  On the next series, with Frazier seriously hurried by blitzing Mountain Hawks, Hill would turn and react to nab the underthrown pass from the Monmouth QB.  After the interception, on the sidelines defensive back coaches Gerard Wilcher and Jarard Cribbs celebrated among the mob of Mountain Hawks celebrating Lehigh's first takeaway of the year.

With momentum on their side, Lehigh struck quickly.

Colvin would start another impressive drive, with a 17 yard pass over the middle to Spadola and a QB keeper that rumbled 14 yards down the middle.

He'd then find the lightning-quick freshman WR Derek Knott, who took a short screen pass and zipped down the left side for a spectacular 19 yard touchdown run that left five or six Monmouth defenders eating his dust down the left sideline.

"A win is the most important thing and that's what we were able to accomplish," Coen said after the game.  "It certainly wasn't the prettiest out there, but there were a lot of good things." 

So far, so good.

But up 14-0 and with Mountain Hawk injuries mounting to senior OL Mike Vuono and senior TE Jamel Haggins, the crisp play offensively and defensively that marked the early going started to wilt in the heat for Lehigh.

Colvin's first interception came, frankly, on a great individual play by Monmouth CB Reggie Hildebrandt, who timed Mike's throw perfectly and came up with the football. 

But then the Lehigh defense, having stopped Monmouth one yard short and one down to go, had a key chance to really step on the throats of the Hawks - and failed.

Instead of stopping RB Julian Hayes short of the sticks, the Mountain Hawks mistimed the blitz and jumped offsides on 4th and 1 at midfield - which ultimately led to Frazier's methodical picking apart of the Lehigh defense and Hayes' 2 yard TD run to cut the deficit in half, 14-7.

"Lot of first-game issues," coach Coen remarked in the post-game press conference.  "Some miscommunication things there, some critical penalties.  There are a lot of things to learn from this."

Before the first half ended, Lehigh would jump ahead once again with some heady play once again.

After a key 21 yard punt return by speedy sophomore DB Jason Suggs, Colvin would respond after a hit from a Monmouth defensive tackle by placing a perfect pass to a streaking junior WR Lee Kurfis to get Lehigh ahead 21-7 at halftime.

'I thought Mike played well," head coach Andy Coen said at halftime.  "I thought that was the big question going it, and I think he did well. Defense has played well, but we lost the momentum after that turnover.  We've got to get better in the second half."

Whether it was adjustments from Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan, first-game jitters or just the heat, the Lehigh offense did not get better in the second half, and it took two great defensive stops to have the Mountain Hawks hold on to get the victory.

"I thought we started a little slower in the first half than I might have liked," Callahan said the the post-game presser.   "I thought in the second quarter we started to balance the field a little bit."

To open the second half, Monmouth embarked on an 11-play, 53 yard drive, ending in a 39 yard FG by PK Eric Spillane to chink away at the deficit.

The next time Monmouth would get the ball, the Hawks would be stopped on a 4th and 6 to turn the ball back to Lehigh, but Colvin would toss an interception on the very next play - the third Lehigh turnover on the afternoon - and it would give Frazier and the Hawks a lifeline, along with consecutive pass interference calls against Lehigh.

Aided by the turnovers and the penalties, Frazier would ultimately find WR Neal Frazier to make it 21-17, and the Lehigh fans in attendance certainly started to bite their nails.

"I thought in the 3rd quarter we overcame that two touchdown deficit," Callahan said.  "I felt we played defense extremely well in the second half, we put ourselves in a position to win the game, and we didn't finish off the game the way we would have liked to."

"I never thought this game was going to be easy," Coen said.

 The Hawks had two opportunities to "finish off" the Mountain Hawks, but didn't, thanks to some critical defensive plays in Lehigh territory - and one in the red zone.

With Frazier and the Jersey Hawks knocking on the door, RB Julian Hayes lined up on a critical 3rd and 2, and found himself stuffed a yard shy of the sticks, thanks to sophomore DT Tim Newton and senior DE Anthony Verderame, setting up a critical 4th and 1.

The Lehigh defense then stuffed Hayes for no gain, thanks to a giant hit from senior LB Billy Boyko - and when the ball came loose, heady senior CB Gabe Johnson pounced on the ball to prevent a freaky play to lose the lead.

After Lehigh's offense stalled again, Monmouth would drive again in Lehigh territory, but after a Frazier pass was tipped by TE Tyler George, junior LB John Mahoney would nab the tipped pass and once again kill a Jersey Hawk drive.

“I definitely was surprised (the ball came to me),” Mahoney said. “The defense did what they needed to do -- the D-line forced pressure, it got tipped and I was in the right place at the right time.”

On the ensuing drive, a critical 3rd down conversion to sophomore WR Josh Parris allowed the Mountain Hawks to run down the clock  to 20 seconds left, which left the Jersey Hawks to try a hook-and-ladder, lateral play to try to get a victory.  But the attempt was quickly squashed by the Lehigh defense, and senior LB Jerard Gordon recovered Monmouth's final fumble and returned it for a game-ending touchdown to seal the game.

"We put ourselves in a hole, down two scores at the half," Callahan said after the game.  "I thought we did a tremendous job, fighting, clawing back to get ourselves back in that game.  We put ourselves in a position to win the game.  But regardless of who you play, you got to finish it out.  Saying 'we game the No. 11 team in the nation to a good game, that's selling our team a little bit short.  We expect more of ourselves than that."

"We did some good things in the first half, but it was a long game and it was hot out there," Colvin said. "It started to wear on a lot of our players, me included. We just had to find a way to persevere and win and that's the most important thing. We're going to get right back in there [Sunday] and learn from it."

"I feel better than I did after my last game last year," Coen said after the game, referring to the 24-0 shutout in the FCS playoffs to the eventual FCS national champions North Dakota State.

That's because, despite the first-game issues and the troubles of the second half they key objective was met - victory.

"What I am really proud of is that a lot of teams would have folded their tent and given up touchdowns down there and we would have lost," Coen said. "There were teams here five years ago who would have lost that game 27-21, but these guys found a way. When it came time for us to step up and make a play, we did."


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