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Lehigh Pulls Another Rabbit Out of the Hat, Beats Princeton 29-28

(Photo Credit: Justin LaFleur/Lehigh Athletics)

Last week, Lehigh beat Monmouth 28-25, partially thanks to a crazy blocked punt that landed behind the line of scrimmage and was caught in mid-air by senior FB Zach Hayden, which he advanced for 37 yards and set up the winning score.

After that game, I asked head coach Andy Coen whether Lehigh fans might be able to expect this type of cardiac win every week.

"Probably," he said. "I think they'll all be close. Some of them I hope will be close."

On a warm Saturday evening in late September, Lehigh pulled the exact same rabbit out the hat that the pulled in the first two games of the year, falling behind 22-3 at halftime before rallying to score 26 points in the second half to beat a tough Princeton team.


"This is a great group of kids," Andy told Keith Groller of the Morning Call and Mike LoRe of the Express-Times after the game.  "They're a tight football team, this team is getting tougher every day when they get through things like this."

He was referring to the specifcs of the game at hand, but he could have just as easily been referring to a week that, for most football programs, could have been a cataclysm, with their best defensive player out with injury and four players suspended indefinitely.

It almost seemed like the hangover from all that news contributed to a slow Mountain Hawk start, where senior QB Brandon Bialkowski's first offensive drive rifled a pass off the hands of senior WR Lee Kurfis, bouncing up and into the alert hands of Princeton S Phillip Bhaya.

Using a lot of trickery, including the "surprise" of RB DiAndre Atwater showing up as Princeton's feature back despite not being listed on the two deep, the Tiger offense moved the ball early and effectively against Lehigh's defense, jumping out to an 8-0 lead.

The two point conversion on Princeton's first conversion attempt was a tone-setter for the Tiger offense, hiking the ball quickly to LB Jason Ray to get the 2-point conversion.

Princeton frequently went with both their co-starting quarterbacks, QB Quinn Epperly and QB Connor Michaelsen in the game at the same time, sometimes for fun throwing QB Kedric Bostic in the mix as well.

It was tough to say whether Lehigh's sluggishness on defense came from the weird formations of Princeton or the adversity during the week, but coach Coen had a different explanation.

"We weren't really focused in the first half," he said.  "We were getting banged around, no question.  It was frenetic, and we weren't finishing drives."

After a first half that featured a couple of unsuccessful field goal attempts, and a Princeton drive stopped by an interception by senior FS Tyler Ward, Princeton finally got their rhythm in their hyper-fast offense midway through the second quarter.

An impressive 91 yard Princeton drive, mixing the pass and rush well, ended with a 4 yard rush up the middle by Epperley, making the score 15-0 Tigers spanning 12 plays and only taking 2:42 off the clock.

Lehigh's next drive moved the ball well against the Tigers, especially after head coach Andy Coen called a critical timeout in the first half after losing 10 yards on a penalty and a perfect read by Tiger LB Rohan Hylton to stuff RB Keith Sherman for a 5 yard loss.

Bialkowski would respond after the timeout with a 20 yard pass to - who else? - Kurfis, making the conversion and keeping the critical drive alive.

When the drive stalled at the 5, freshman PK Ryan Pandy nailed a 22 yard field goal to cut the deficit to 12.

But Epperley discovered WR Roman Wilson in the Tiger offense, finding him open again and again in a 14 play drive, connecting with him 4 times on the drive for 68 yards.

When Epperley found him on a pitch on 2nd and goal to get to the end zone, it seemed a fitting end to the half down 22-3 - a half which Matt Markus of ESPN Radio said coach Coen "thanked God" was over.

It was hard to identify which team had two games under their belts and which team was playing in their first game.  Thanks to the pass rush of DE Caraun Reid and the athletic Princeton linebackers, the Tigers were putting a lot of pressure on Bialkowski and got to him on a couple of occassions.

In the first half, that is.

*****

When you look at the Lehigh drive chart from the first half, you see seven drives.

The ends of those drives read: Interception.  Punt.  Punt.  Missed field goal.  Punt.  Field Goal.  Take a knee to end the half.

Keep the first half drive results in your mind, if you will, when considering Lehigh's offensive drives of the second half.

Princeton, who got the ball first, went on a methodical, potentially spirit-killing drive to start the second half, converting on several key 3rd downs to keep the drive alive and get all the way to the Lehigh 21.

Whether Princeton head coach Bob Surace wanted to go for the jugular or didn't have faith in his kicker it was difficult to say, but the Tigers went for it.

And it was junior CB Damien Brown, who had a rough first half with a couple penalties, who batted down the 4th down conversion and turned the ball back over to the Lehigh offense.

Drive No. 1.

Facing 3rd and 10, Bialkowski didn't find anyone open - and took off.  He got 11 yards, going out of bounds just before the sticks.  Move the sticks.

Facing 4th and 3, Bialkowski finds junior TE Dylan Colgate down the right side to convert. Move the sticks.

Facing 4th and 1, Bialkowski hikes the ball fast and surges ahead for 4 yards.  Move the sticks.

Find Lee Kurfis to set up 1st and goal.  Move the sticks.

Hand the ball off to senior RB Keith Sherman, to get Lehigh's first touchdown of the night.

Drive No. 1: Touchdown.

Princeton gets the ball back.  After three offensive plays, sophomore LB Noah Robb makes it around the edge and hits QB Connor Michaelsen as he throws, causing a Princeton punt.

Drive No. 2.

3rd and 8.  Bialkowski hits senior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto for the conversion.  Move the sticks.

3rd and 6.  Bialkowski.  Fernandez-Soto.  Again.  Move the sticks.

In the last play of the 3rd quarter, Bialkowski finds Hayden on the left side, who evades the Princeton tackler and steps into the end zone.

Drive No. 2: Touchdown.

Princeton gets the ball back and tries to respond, in their breakneck fashion, Epperley hitting Wilson with a huge pass play into Lehigh territory.

On a 3rd and 7, junior DL Tim Newton and sophomore LB Mat Verdon team up to stop DiAndre Atwater up the middle, setting up a makeable 33 yard field goal attempt.

Which was blocked.  By junior DE Arturo Gyles pushing up the middle.

(At this point, we know the magician is pointing at his hat, turning it over, showing that it's empty.  We know what's coming.  Yet we don't know why, or how.  We just know that it is.)

"Our drives were longer in the second half, and that kept our defense off the field longer," Coen said.  "That didn't happen in the first half."

Drive No. 3.

Bialkowski finds Kurfis up the middle.  To midfield.

Bialkowski finds junior WR Josh Parris, where he wriggles free, a bit, and gets to the Princeton 3.

3rd and goal.  Bialkowski finds Dylan Colgate in the right side of the end zone.

(The ears.  You see the ears coming out of the hat.  You don't know why it's happening.  But you see.)

"You could see the lift in the kids," Coen said.  "How they were flying around."

Drive No. 3: Touchdown.

Princeton responds with a 13 play, 71 yard drive, ending with a fantastic run by RB DiAndre Atwater's brute 17 yard run, dishing some punishment to senior CB Jamil Robinson right before crossing the plane of the goal line.

Michaelsen, hurried on the conversion, rifles a pass off the hands of the Princeton receiver.

(I see the eyes now...)

Drive No. 4.

(Stage left: rain, threatened all night, starts to fall.)

Bialkowski.  Kurfis.  Brandon would connect with Lee 13 times for 152 yards, never making the end zone but just putting reception after reception in the bank, moving the sticks.

Bialkowski.  Junior WR Derek Gaul.   A 9 yard reception where he carries tacklers four yards down the field.  (Is that teeth?)

Bialowski.  Fernandez-Soto.  7 yards closer to another comeback victory.  (Whiskers!)

Bialkowski.  Dylan Colgate.  Into the red zone.  (The neck!)

Two Keith Sherman runs.  (The paws!)

A Brandon Bialkowski run.  (The fuzzy, white body!)

Sean Farrell, through the line.

Drive No. 4: Touchdown.

Lehigh 29, Princeton 28.

Princeton tries one last drive.  Junior LB Isaiah Campbell reaches up and nabs Michaelsen's pass.

One more Keith Sherman first down.

(And then the rabbit comes out of the hat.  A live rabbit.  The hind legs dangle, showing that it indeed, is alive.  It's the same rabbit you saw last week, and the week before.  Yet it seems new.  Like you've never seen it before.)

The time reads 0:00.  Lehigh has 29.  Princeton has 28.

(You know the rabbit is coming.  Yet every time, you doubt it's coming out.   Yet every week, there it is.  The rabbit again comes out of the hat, and Lehigh is 3-0.)

"By the end of the game, we were the tougher team," Coen said.

Maybe that's true.  But it sure felt like Lehigh was the more magical team on this Saturday night.

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