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Can You Dig It? Shaf Helps Lehigh Dominate Holy Cross, 38-20

If you went into Murray Goodman Stadium and said you knew exactly what to expect from this Lehigh Mountain Hawks team, you were lying.

Everyone involved with the Mountain Hawks football program had seen, or heard about, the loss to Bucknell.

If they had sharp eyes, too, they saw the former starting quarterback, Brandon Bialkowski, on the sidelines in a jacket, his arm immobilized so his collarbone can heal.

You had to go back a long way to find a Lehigh team with this much uncertainty, with this much at stake, with three games left.

And in this environment, this Mountain Hawk team responded.

The Mountain Hawks would never trail in this game, though the Crusaders would tie the game twice, at 7-7 and 13-13.  But then, after filling in permanently after what seemed to be a rib injury to junior QB Matt McHale, freshman QB Nick "Shaf" Shafnisky came into the game and guided Lehigh on three touchdown drives in a convincing 38-20 victory.


"It definitely felt like a long time, but we got the right amount of work in," sophomore LB Noah Robb said of the two weeks in between games.  "But we said - I don't know which day it was - that it was a new season.  This is three games right here that we need to win out to accomplish what we need to accomplish.  The coaches  prepared us extremely well for Holy Cross."

Lehigh's "new season" started very well after Holy Cross got the ball on the opening kickoff, the defense got the party started when a run by Crusader freshman QB Peter Pujals went seven yards, but senior FS Tyler Ward poked the ball out with junior LB Isaiah Campbell jumping on the loose ball.

Interestingly, right off the bat it looked like it might be a great day for junior QB Matt McHale from that point, executing a handoff fake/keeper that created a 21 yard gain and set up his own 2 yard touchdown not that much later.

But Holy Cross would respond with a big play, as freshman RB Gabe Guild burst through the interior of the Lehigh defense to see daylight, surging for a 48 yard touchdown run to tie the game.

All week it was unclear how head coach Andy Coen was going to be handling the quarterbacks this weekend.  Would McHale get most of the snaps?  Would he alternate quarterbacks?

The answer came in the second quarter, where "Shaf" came in to show what he can go in a real game situation with something on the line.

His assignment on that very first play wasn't difficult - just hand off the ball to senior RB Keith "Tank" Sherman.

"My eyes lit up on that play call, I thought 'awesome, man,'" he said afterwards, a little gleam appearing in his eye again as he said it.  "Senior FB Zach Hayden made a great block, the line blocked their butts off, I saw a seam, and knowing we were in a situation where we needed to get the momentum going, I just put on the jets, and decided not to get caught this time."

He wasn't caught by anyone on that 60 yard touchdown run, as he jetted into the end zone to give Lehigh a 13-7 lead - and he wouldn't be caught much by Holy Cross the rest of the afternoon as the Bucksport, South Carolina native was headed towards a career day.

After Pujals and Guild would tie the game with their own 17 play, 77 yard touchdown drive, Lehigh would get the ball back again on offense, and McHale, as expected, came back in the game to lead the two minute drill at the end of the half.

But after a tough interior run past midfield, McHale didn't get up initially after two Crusader linebackers crunched him in what appeared to be the ribs.

Though he got up under his own power after several minutes on the ground,, McHale headed straight to the locker room, and Shaf, already warmed up and ready to go after two prior series on offense, took over.

"When I saw Matt go down I didn't know what to think," he said.  "But the line picked it up for me, and junior WR Derek Gaul made a nice catch.  I missed Lee with that pass, but we finished off the drive nicely."

After Shaf's only incompletion on the afternoon, with 40 seconds left in the half he expertly faked right, then passed it left on the screen to a wide-open Sherman with two blockers flanking him, who rolled into the end zone for his second touchdown.

That half-closing drive showed that Shaf was just getting warmed up - he'd finish 11 for 12 passing for 136 yards, adding 55 yards rushing.

Shaf didn't say if Brandon Bialkowski gave him any pointers on that particular play, but he did mention that he was there for him on the sidelines to help him however he could.

"When I would come off, he would talk to me about my reads here, should I take the route one way or the other, stuff like that.  He was actually a huge help, more than people think."

*****

Questions about the starting quarterback position weren't the only thing that Lehigh fans wanted answered on Saturday.

The defense, last seen two weeks ago giving up a lot of points to Bucknell, needed to come out with a solid performance in order to convince the fans that this Mountain Hawk squad was still in the Patriot League race.

Led by Laub and his 2 1/2 tackles for loss, they did just that.

Laub made his biggest plays in the middle on 3rd downs, stopping the Crusaders short multiple times and contributing to their 5 for 12 on 3rd downs, but overall an emphasis on physical play and forcing more turnovers had a positive effect.

"We felt we had to dictate the game more and we definitely did that," Laub said. "Having the quarterback on his back that much and getting those turnovers are the keys to a game. We were rushing a lot more with our schemes and we were physical all 60 minutes."

In the second half with the Crusaders trying to get back in it, the defensive pressure ramped up and stymied the Holy Cross offense most of the way.

"Defensively we felt like we really needed to dictate things," Coen added. "We really did that today. I don't know how many times number 6 [Pujals] had to pick himself up off the ground. The kids executed really well and really gave up just two big plays. We made them work for everything they got today."

The defense also helped set up Shaf's final touchdown on the afternoon, after senior LB Nigel Muhammad jumped Pujals' route perfectly and returned the ball to the Holy Cross 11, setting up an 11 yard connection from Shaf to - who else?  Sherman to go up by 3 scores.

Sherman ended with the type of day that running backs dream about, 166 yards rushing, 30 yards receiving, and 3 touchdowns.

"I'm so proud of him, his leadership, how he's grown in the past couple of years," Coen said after the game.  "If he had to put the other 87 guys on his back to win this game, he was going to do it.  You can win a lot of games when you have guys like him."

And that, ultimately, is what made this game so rewarding and so satisfying for the fans in attendance, I think.  Going into the game, the path towards the players' goals of winning the Patriot League and getting back to the playoffs seemed so murky, and so laced with uncertainty.

The fans forgot, for a couple of weeks, that "we weren't a fluky 6-2", as Coen reminded me in the postgame press conference.  There were student-athletes on this team, ready to step up or continue to step up to reach their goals for the season.

This weekend, behind a leader on offense trying to put the team on his back and another who got his first significant playing action, they did.

This weekend, behind a defense that needed a vast improvement from the game two weeks ago, they did.

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