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The Bronx Cheers As The Mountain Hawks Fall, 52-34

(Photo Credit: Justin Lafleur/Lehigh Athletics)

It was a real Yankee crowd in the Bronx this afternoon - a sellout, overflow Bronx crowd of over 7,800.

Without a Yankee postseason to worry about, the nationally-ranked Fordham Rams had something they hadn't had on an October afternoon in a very long time: the undivided sports attention of the local area, playing against another Top 25 team on national television.

When the calls didn't go the Rams' way, the fans stood up the same way they might in New Yankee Stadium, arguing the call.  And when a play didn't have yellow laundry on the field, indeed, the "Bronx Cheer" the Borough made famous did indeed ripple through the crowd.

Not that Fordham needed help from the refs.

The Rams may have had some doubters going into this weekend with their 5-0 record, but there sure aren't any more after a resounding, offensive clinic that made Lehigh pay desperately for two turnovers and ultimately had Fordham go to 6-0 with a 52-34 victory.

In a game which was billed as a duel between the two top offenses in FCS, the first half lived up to billing.

It would be a first half which saw 38 points scored and only 3 punts, and a close game most of the way through.

Fordham QB Michael Nebrich started the game off strong, leading his team from the opening kickoff down the field on a 15 play, 78 yard drive, capped off with a beautiful 25 yard pass to WR Sam Ajala in the left corner of the end zone.

A 26 yard FG by Fordham PK Michael Marando gave Lehigh yet another double-digit deficit they would need to overcome, falling behind 10-0.

As has been the case all season, Lehigh responded.

Senior QB Brandon Bialkowski, along with a steady diet of running from senior RB Keith "Tank" Sherman, drove the ball downfield quickly, and, on 3rd and 7 in the Fordham red zone, escaped pressure and found senior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto over the middle to make it a 3-point game.

Fordham and Lehigh traded touchdowns and then traded punts to make the score 17-14 when the first critical play of the game occurred.

As the first half was ticking down, Fordham was driving, but well outside of field goal range with under 30 seconds to play in the half.

Nebrich faded back to pass, pump faked, and found Ajala behind Lehigh's pass coverage on the left side again, easily nabbing the reception and galloping into the end zone for a 40 yard touchdown.

Instead of a 3-point game at halftime, Lehigh was down by 10, 24-14, with Fordham's offensive confidence growing by leaps and bounds.

"If you've got the stop, you have to take advantage of it," head coach Andy Coen said afterwards of Lehigh's missed opportunities, of which this was just one.

Fordham's offense at halftime was clinically taking apart the Lehigh defense, impressively balancing running and passing, with WR Brian Wetzel doing a lot of damage, and converting third downs, (9 of 12 to be exact).

Nebrich was the best quarterback I've seen Lehigh face this season, impressing me with his footwork and his ability to step out of the pocket when pressure came, and throwing the ball far away out of bounds when nothing materialized.

*****

Three times in this game the Lehigh offense made 10 point deficits into 3 point deficits, but couldn't take advantage of opportunities to take the lead at any point.

Coming out of the second half, behind more running from the Tank, Lehigh went on a 14 play, 79 yard drive capped by a touchdown pass to senior FB Zach Hayden to cut the deficit to 3 for the second time.

Lehigh's defense stiffened and forced a Fordham punt, but the offense couldn't capitalize and gave the ball right back - which Nebrich turned into Ajala's third touchdown of the afternoon, faking twice and finding Ajala deep again with another perfect pass.

After doing such a great job preventing big plays against Princeton and New Hampshire, the two big passes the Mountain Hawk defense gave up to Ajala were killers.

Lehigh would respond with yet another drive, aided by two large pass interference penalties on Fordham, as Bialkowski and the offense would methodically drive down the field and set up another touchdown run by senior RB Sean Farrell to cut the deficit to 3 again for the third time that day.

The defense would then stiffen and force a punt - but that's when a pair of turnovers doomed the Mountain Hawks.

On the punt return, junior WR Josh Parris misjudged the swirling punt, lunging in to fair-catch but it fell through his hands, and in the ensuing scrum Fordham recovered.

One play later, Fordham RB Carlton Koonce ran the ball up the middle and made it once again a 10 point game for the third time that afternoon.

The next drive QB Brandon Bialkowski drove to the Fordham 41 before forcing an ill-advised pass that was nabbed by Fordham S Levon Williams, which was subsequently turned into points on the other end by another clinical, morale-killing drive by Fordham, capped by Nebrich's 1 yard TD run.

"The game flipped on the back-to-back possessions with the turnovers," Coen said. "That's one thing we haven't been able to do a great job of. We haven't forced many turnovers and we seem to commit one or two per game. That's what happened here. We fumbled a punt where, if we got the ball back, we would have had an opportunity to take the lead."

Fordham racked up 630 yards of offense on the Mountain Hawk defense and cracked 50 points on Lehigh's "D", the first time that happened since 2007, when a Holy Cross team led by QB Dominic Randolph gave Lehigh one of the biggest beatdowns in recent memory, a 59-10 shellacking at Murray Goodman Stadium.

It wasn't only Fordham's third-ever win against the Mountain Hawks - it was also Lehigh's first regular season road loss since 2010, when Lehigh traveled to New Hampshire and lost 31-10.

"We kind of have to refocus everything," Coen said.  "A lot of kids here don't remember what this feeling's like.  We weren't as tough or as focused or tough or as together as a team as we have been over the last four weeks, and that showed on the field. We got beat pretty bad. How we respond to that is going to be critical."

The defense showed signs that they were already responding to the wake-up call.

“For a defense that’s embarrassing,” senior FS Tyler Ward said after the game. “We really need to refocus, come back next week and show we’re not a team who is going to give up 630 yards and 52 points in a game.  I’m hoping it kind of pisses some people off and makes them realize you can’t walk out on the field and just get a win. Everyone was pretty upset and it shows we love winning and hate losing with a passion.

"If you can find one positive from this, it will show we’re just as vulnerable as everyone else and have to be 100 percent ready to go every snap.”


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