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Lehigh 35, Central Connecticut State 14, Final

(Photo Credit: CCSU Athletics)

They had heard it all last week.

Why didn't the Lehigh offense put up more points last weekend against Monmouth?  Shouldn't Lehigh have played much less sloppily?  Where was the offense that put up 38 points at Towson last year and swept through Patriot League play?

While the Mountain Hawks didn't play the perfect game last Saturday in New Britain, there was enough big plays and ample improvement to demonstrate to the Lehigh faithful that their team more than justifies their placement in the FCS Top 25.

After jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead, the Mountain Hawks survived some first-half turnovers to leap out to a 21-0 halftime lead before cruising easily to a 35-14 victory over an outmatched Blue Devil squad.

Most encouragingly for Lehigh fans, though, could be the fact that senior QB Michael Colvin recovered from his early turnovers to show, in the second half, why he's the No. 1 quarterback.

“It’s good to be 2-0 but we still have a lot of guys who haven’t played a lot so we’re going through some inconsistency,” head coach Andy Coen said in Lehigh's post-game recap. “The kids are competing hard. The defense played very well even though we gave up some plays. Offensively we came in at halftime and really wanted to run the ball in the second half; and we were able to do that so that makes me feel good.”

Not wanting to fall behind to Central Connecticut State's "Fire Up" triple-option, the Mountain Hawks needed to jump out to an early lead, just like Stony Brook did last week against the Blue Devils.  They couldn't have scripted up a better start.

On a day when there was a tornado watch in the area, Coen elected to defer the choice of possession to the second half, giving Central Connecticut State the ball first.  But Lehigh's defense forced a quick 3-and-out, headlined by a great pass defensed by junior SS Rickie Hill on 3rd-and-6 to force the punt, which sophomore DB Jason Suggs zipped down the right side to get to the CCSU 40.

Lehigh's offense then went to quick work against the Blue Devil defense, with Colvin first connecting with junior WR Lee Kurfis for a big 15 yard gain, and senior RB Zach Barket running off right tackle for a big 21 yard gain.  He would later power in a touchdown through a couple CCSU defensive linemen on 3rd-and-1 to give Lehigh the early lead, a 6 play, 40 yard drive.

The dream beginning continued when, after the ensuing kickoff, junior LB Nigel Muhammad popped the wet ball out of CCSU RB Nate Pagan's hands while senior CB Gabe Johnson pounced on the ball.

“We knew coming in that any option team is susceptible to turnovers with the pitches and exchanges,” Muhammad told Michel LoRe of the Express-Times. “We knew there was a good chance to do that (force turnovers), but we had to capitalize on it when the ball was on the ground.”
 
With a short field, Colvin went to work again, this time to sophomore TE Tyler Coyle for 12 yards, and - in a move out of Michael's Windcat days, a fake handoff for a 12 yard run off guard to get to 1st and goal at the one.  From there, junior RB Keith Sherman bowled over the Blue Devil defensive line to secure a critical 14-0 lead.

"We started out moving the ball, and that was great," Colvin told the press after the game.  "It was great to go out and execute the way we worked all week long."

Just as it looked like the Mountain Hawks would run away with the game in a laugher, however, the Lehigh offense missed three critical opportunities to go up by three scores to make it a more exciting first half than some Lehigh fans wished.

The culprit?  Turnovers, including a couple in the red zone.

After a muffed pitch by CCSU QB Andrew Clements was scooped up by senior DE Anthony Verderame and returned to the Blue Devil 4 yard line, CCSU LB D.J. Radich sacked Colvin - it was unclear if he was hit as he threw the ball - and Central Connecticut State recovered.

The next offensive drive, after some big pass plays to Kurfis and junior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto, Colvin forced an ill-advised pass to Coyle - which was nabbed by CCSU DB Patrick Atkinson.

"What's frustrating, the downside is how we can look so good on one drive and then atrocious on the next," Lehigh coach Coen told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "The degree of consistency really has to improve."

Fortunately for Mountain Hawk fans, the consistency came back just in time after Muammad again stopped a CCSU 3rd down by nearly intercepting a short pass.

Shrugging off his struggles, Colvin engineered a 12 play, 55 yard drive to finally put Lehigh up 3 scores.  Hitting Kurfis and Fernandez-Soto and mixing it up with runs, Sherman would power through again at the 1 yard line to get the critical score - through a giant hole opened up by the "O" line over a gassed CCSU defense.

This made the Lehigh contingent, a significant portion of the 5,000 strong crowd at Arute field in New Britain, CT, (including the marching band), heave a sigh of relief - even if they agreed with coach Coen in the halftime interview with ESPN 1230's Matt Markus that it "should be a bigger lead".

There would still be some nailbiting moments left for Lehigh fans, alternatively seeing sun, rain, and wind on the field in short 2 hours and 36 minutes it took to get the game in.

After Central Connecticut State responded in their first drive of the second half with a 14 play, 72 yard drive to cut the deficit to 21-7, Lehigh's offense was stopped on 1 yard short of the first down for the second straight drive.

But it would be a gigantic 10 yard holding penalty on the Blue Devils to negate a 19 yard Pagan run, and yet another 3rd down stop by Muhammad on the option on 3rd down, that would force CCSU to punt and give Lehigh yet another chance to put things away.

"That play would have given Central a first down at the Lehigh 18 and, as coach Jeff McInerney said, 'would have changed the whole dynamic.'" Mike Anothony of the Hartford Courant noted.  "Instead, Central ended up punting, and Lehigh's first play was a 72-yard bomb from Michael Colvin to senior WR Ryan Spadola, setting up a touchdown that pushed the Mountain Hawks' lead to 28-7. That sequence took the air out of Central and knocked the hope out of a crowd of 5,098 that gathered under the rain at newly renovated Arute Field."

Spadola's catch - uncharacteristically, his first on the afternoon - set up Colvin's 3-yard touchdown run and effectively put the game away, but not until Lehigh would put in a final touchdown drive with Colvin, when an 11 play, 67 yard drive ended with Colvin passing across his body to junior TE Max Anderson for his first touchdown of the season, making the score 35-7.

Overall, behind Lehigh's reshuffled "O" line, the offense put up 35 points and 397 yards to spoil the Blue Devil's home opener- not a bad way to "rebound" against a less-offensive-points-than-expected Monmouth game.  Leading the way on defense was Muhammad, who was in on a lot of big stops, and senior LB Sam Loughery also notched 11 tackles, including 3 for loss.

In the end, Lehigh fans were the ones celebrating in front of Central Connecticut State's new scoreboard, listening to the Marching 97, who weren't allowed to perform at halftime but instead played after the game.

"Sometimes, we looked like an all-star team out there, other times, we looked like a pretty young team," Colvin said.  "But I have confidence we can rebound from all that and put it all together and drive together like the way we did."

“They’re a great team but it was definitely just mistakes that limited us from taking the game,” CCSU RB Rob Hollomon said in the post-game press conference. “I definitely think we could have played with them.”

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