(Photo Credit: Matt Smith/The Express-Times)
It's pretty remarkable how routine it's all getting.
To Lehigh watchers, this come-from-behind 34-27 victory resembled all the others. They'd seen this movie before.
Fall behind early, by double-digits if possible. Regroup. Mount a comeback. Make huge defensive stops. Win.
For the fourth straight game, Lehigh came from behind to win.
For the third time this season, Lehigh overcame a double-digit deficit to win.
It's as if all of Lehigh Nation simply expects the Mountain Hawks to fall behind in the first half, and recover in time to win. You could feel it in the crowd of nearly 9,000 people at Murray Goodman Stadium. Amazingly, down by 16, the game never felt out of reach.
But this particular come-from-behind win was different in one very important respect.
In beating the 7th-ranked New Hampshire Wildcats this weekend, the Mountain Hawks finally got to silence the critics across the country saying they haven't played anyone tough, can't beat anyone tough, and won't beat anyone tough.
They did. They can. And now, they have.
Going into the game this weekend, Lehigh was 2-11 against the Wildcats in their history.
To put this in perspective, their last win over New Hampshire came in 1982 with QB Marty Horn leading the team. And since that victory, Lehigh had lost nine straight to the Wildcats, and many weren't all that close.
As good as Lehigh had been this season, the narrative went, a team in the mighty CAA is a different animal, way too tall a order for the Mountain Hawks.
They had no chance against New Hampshire, who had been to the FCS playoffs nine straight seasons. The Wildcats, ranked in the Top 25 an amazing 130 straight weeks, were just too tough for the Mountain Hawks. Too much history of losing to New Hampshire, and the CAA, and the Really Big Important FCS conferences, they claimed, to beat one of these teams again.
One guy who was not at all convinced by the hype was New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell, who was very well aware of the test Lehigh would be for his Wildcats.
"Tough game. Tough game. Really impressed again with the resiliency of Lehigh," he said afterwards. We talked about it an awful lot in the two weeks we had leading up to this game. They're a good football team that can stay the distance, have gone the course in all their games."
Coming out of the game, Lehigh simply went out and did exactly what they did in the first three games.
They fell behind.
After exchanging field goals to start the game, they gave up 16 unanswered points.
Aided by a Lehigh fumble, the Wildcat offense, led by QB Andy Vailas, moved the ball and ran the ball devastatingly against the Mountain Hawk defense.
With frequent, effective connections by Vailas to WR Justin Mello and WR R.J. Harris, many fans wondered whether Lehigh would be able to stop New Hampshire at all this afternoon.
But Lehigh would pull a critical page out of Chip Kelly's playbook to start turning the momentum in the Mountain Hawks' favor.
Kelly, a former New Hampshire coordinator, had a saying: "We want to run 80 offensive plays a game. If we haven't run 80 plays, we've failed."
Lehigh's offense started moving the sticks, and executing more and more offensive plays.
Down 19-3, the Lehigh offense embarked on a 13 play, 55 yard drive, ending with a beautiful connection by senior QB Brandon Bialkowski to an off-balance senior RB Keith "Tank" Sherman in the end zone. The pass was lofted just over the outstretched hand of leaping UNH LB Shane McNeely, missing his fingers by perhaps six inches.
And right before the end of the half, Lehigh would embark on a 24 play, 71-yard drive that would chew up four and a half minutes and end in a 19 yard FG by freshman PK Ryan Pandy, allowing Lehigh to chip away at the lead by halftime, only down 19-13.
"It was huge," Brandon said. "We would have liked to have punched it in for 7, but any points at that point was a win. I felt that was a big momentum-shifter going into halftime. Coming out of halftime, we knew that if it was a close game, we would be able to pull it out."
Where have we seen that before?
Not content with a 6 point deficit, the Mountain Hawks would allow another New Hampshire touchdown, a 4th-and-1 run by RB Chris Seitan that was a clinic on offensive line blocking by the Wildcats that would end up being a 4 yard burst into the end zone.
Head coach Sean McDonnell liked the play so much he ran it again for the 2-point conversion, making it a 14 point game.
But that would be the end of the Wildcat offensive attack the rest of the afternoon, as Lehigh came out after that score and did what Lehigh has been doing in the second half all season.
"The last few days we've been talking a lot about why we win these games," Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said. "It's all about becoming a team. Being committed to yourself and committed to your teammates. Coming together as a team and building on that each week and getting tighter and tighter. There wasn't one guy who left this locker room that didn't 100 percent think that we were going to win this football game. That never wavered during the course of the game."
What coach Coen didn't say, and what was, to some degree more remarkable, was how much the fans in the stands knew this was the case, too.
There was no grumbling about strategy in the stands you could hear in the open air of the press box, angrily asking to bench anybody. As the players believed, so did the folks in the stands. They knew some magic was going to come from somewhere. It was just a matter of where.
Down 14 to a team from the CAA, the conference commonly referred as the "SEC of the FCS", there wasn't any doubt in the stadium. Against a team that Lehigh hadn't beaten since 1982. few fans and students heading for the exits.
The very next drive, the offense torched the New Hampshire defense, gaining large chunks of yardage with a big catch by senior FB Zach Hayden here, a huge wide-open catch by senior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto there, to get to the 2.
When senior FB Sean Farrell plowed through the middle to cut the deficit to 7, everyone in the stadium knew what was about to happen.
"The guys are doing a good job of constantly reminding me how close I was to having two touchdowns," he told me. "The only one not really teasing is Sean, considering he got two touchdowns out of it."
You could feel the energy in the stands as senior LB Nigel Muhammad found a hole through the middle of UNH's offensive line and brought down Vailas with a giant 10 yard sack.
"We didn't 'wake up' in the second half to make adjustments," Nigel said. "We started to make some big stops before the end of the second half, but we really needed to win first downs, prevent the big plays, then execute on third downs, we were able to hold them."
That win on first down set up a different sort of win on offense.
Brandon would connect with a wide-open Fernandez-Soto in the middle of the field, getting all the way down to the 2 before Farrell would put the Lehigh offense over the top, erasing - yet again - another double-digit deficit.
"It's kind of like clockwork with the offense and defense," Nigel said. "We're attached at the hip in a way, once the offense scores it give the defense life, and we get some more confidence. That's something that's been happening the last three games, and something that came out today."
After blanketing UNH receivers in the next drive, Farrell started his most important work on the afternoon - despite already having converted two touchdowns.
On a 4th and 1 on Lehigh's next drive, Farrell got a big 3 yard gain, keeping the sticks moving and helped the Lehigh offense capitalize with a 17 play, 80 yard drive, ending with a laser from Bialkowski to sophomore WR Derek Knott in the middle of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Farrell's stat line read a grand total of 23 yards, with his longest rush being 9 yards and only 2.6 yards per carry. But it felt like every one of those 23 yards was critical, whether converting drives into touchdowns, or converting critical downs to extend the drives.
"I don't think they were all that big - they were only a couple of yards each," Sean said, though coach Coen mimed the first down call of a referee, noting correctly that his runs were, indeed, critical to the team success on the day. "It was good," Farrell continued. "It was a great job by the guys up front. All eleven of us were executing really well."
After Lehigh had chewed up a good portion of the 4th quarter, Bialkowski, hit as he threw, was intercepted by UNH DB Keith Parkinson, setting up yet another thrilling finish.
All on the ground, UNH drove the length of the field, but the Lehigh defense didn't let the Wildcats get loose for the game-tying touchdown.
And when New Hampshire got to the Lehigh 11, they stiffened, feeding off the energy of the Lehigh crowd, all on their feet.
With two big stops on designed UNH runs by sophomore LB Cody Kondas, Vailas faced a 4th and 10 at Lehigh's 11.
Flushed out of the pocket by Kondas again, Vailas rolled out, tried to find Mello in the corner of the end zone, and the ball was just off the UNH receiver's hands.
Bialkowski would take a knee, and Lehigh would finish a game that looked like, pretty much, every other game Lehigh has played this season.
It would finish with Lehigh being undefeated.
"Hat goes off to Andy," McDonnell said. "They executed all their stuff late in the game and did a hell of a job. Another game they came (from) behind and won in the fourth quarter."
"The kids played very well," Coen said. "They were tough. They were together. We made some mistakes, but we forced them (New Hampshire) to make a lot of mistakes. I thought in the second half we were the better football team and we were able to come out of here with a win."