|Express-Times File Photo, Lehigh 20, Lafayette 13, 2010|
Lehigh's defense was on the field thirty-six minutes, and never let a tough Lafayette run game wear them down.
Almost right out of the gates, Lehigh's defense seemed to want to put their mark on this game.
The first three defensive plays featured three straight tackles by senior LB Al Pierce, pounding Lafayette's RB Alan Elder and hurrying QB Ryan O'Neil into throwing the ball out of play.
And it only got better from there.
"It's all about the senior class," the defensive captain Al Pierce said after the game, in his typical team-first sort of statement after the game. "There's 23 seniors, and we do a really good job of getting the entire team. A lot of young guys step up, too. We're playing as a single unit, a solid unit right now."
He remarked on how the defense had stepped up, especially in the weeks leading up to the game.
"We've had some good stops on defense," Pierce said, in his concise way of speaking. "We've been playing really physical and that's something we pride ourselves on defensively."
After the first of Pierce's big third-down stops, the Lehigh offense sprung to life, seemingly feeding off the defensive energy.
QB Chris Lum started off by finding WR Jake Drwal on a pretty 27 yard sideline passing route to convert a big third down, and ended Lehigh's first scoring drive with a perfect pass to sophomore WR Ryan Spadola in the right corner of the end zone for a 16 yard strike.
It was a methodical, 16 play, 92 yard drive for the first score of the afternoon.
But Lehigh/Lafayette games tend to swing on emotion, and you could feel the Leopards trying to grab the emotional aspect of this game back after the score.
Helped by Lehigh penalties and an interception by Lafayette LB Michael Schmidlein, over the span of two minutes the Maroon and White would take a 10-7 lead at halftime, thanks to a successful 50 yard FG attempt by Leopard PK Davis Rodriguez - which he nailed at the end of the half with some room to spare.
Lehigh had outgained the opposition, but mistakes had given Lafayette the lead - and a huge helping of momentum - going into the locker room.
But as the Mountain Hawks emerged from there, Lehigh's defense and special teams would suck the momentum away from the Leopards.
After the defense stopped Lafayette deep in their own territory to start the second half, LB Shane Ryan twisted through the punt protect unit and got his hand on the ball, which landed in the hands of sophomore DB John Littlejohn, which he scooped and ran in for the score.
Just like that, momentum wore brown, despite the missed extra point that would keep the score close.
After CB Jarard Cribbs intercepted O'Neil's pass in the red zone, Lum would lead a 10 play, 98 yard touchdown drive, finding senior TE Alex Wojdowski for Lehigh's final score on the afternoon, a 14 yard strike down the right hand side for the touchdown, giving the Brown and White a 10 point cushion.
But the game wasn't over then - not by a longshot.
On the next drive, Lafayette would slowly grind out more yardage, seeming to wear down Lehigh's defense as they pushed to a 1st and goal at the 2 yard line.
Then, LB Mike Groome went to work.
1st and goal. RB Patrick Mputu runs into the line - stuffed by DT Phin Winett and Groome short of the goal line.
Mputu comes out, a fresh running back, Alan Elder comes in.
Second and goal. Elder tries to surge through the line - on Al Pierce's side of the line, away from Groome - and is met by a flying Groome short of the goal line, who uses his arm strength to simply fling him back through the hole from which he came.
(In the video clip below, with the call from Lehigh announcers Mike Yadush and Steve Degler, you can see Pierce, No. 6, pounding the ground because Groome got to Elder to make the tackle before he did.)
Elder comes out, another new, fresh running back, Marcelus Irving comes in.
3rd and goal. Quick snap, and Tavani tries another run. Same place in the line, away from Groome. But he's met by, who else? Groome, leaping over his offensive lineman - really! - and meeting Irving like a flying brick wall, for a 1 yard loss.
Rodriguez would make the 19 yard FG, but it sure didn't feel that way on the Lehigh sideline. Lehigh players and coaches were chest-bumping after Groome single-handedly stopped the Maroon and maintaining a 20-13 lead.
"Emontionally [the stand] was huge for the whole team," Groome said, who ended the day with 16 tackles, and no three bigger than the ones made on the goal line stand. "It's always good for the defense to come up with a huge stop. Every one made their assignments, and I was able to do my part. I love being out there and playing."
Groome was sporting a beard to match Pierce's - playoff beards. Lehigh had already qualified for the FCS playoffs, having clinched the spot against Georgetown.
"I talked to Mike after that goal-line stand and we both love it when they run the ball on the goal line," Pierce said after the game, more comfortable talking about his teammates' play than his MVP-award-winning effort with 15 tackles - including 10 solo stops - along with two tackles for loss. "We set up for that all week and put an extra linebacker in there. Mike stepped up huge on those three plays."
In the fourth quarter, Pierce and Groome seemed to be competing with each other in a positive way to find out who would be making the next big tackle - and the entire Lehigh defense seemed to be competing with each other to who would make the next play to win the game.
Groome and Pierce, it seemed, were in on almost every stop.
Yet Lafayette kept finding ways to convert third downs and hanging in there, finding ways to move the ball, through rotating fresh backs, well-timed passes to their senior-laden receiving corps, hanging around and using the energy from the partisan home crowd to stay in this game.
O'Neil would shred Lehigh's secondary in a last-second drive - 12 yards here, 15 yards there - and get to the Lehigh 37 yard line.
But, as so many other times this year, Lehigh's defense bent but did not break.
Fittingly, the final offensive play was a 7 yard pass to Elder - where he was met by Groome, three yards short of the first down marker.
Or maybe it was Pierce. It would have been fitting if both of them were around the play that ended up sealing the win for Lehigh.
"They've been the heart and soul," Coen said after the game. "What's amazing is I think these guys are the perfect complement to each other."
Few would argue that after watching this edition of the Rivalry.
"You find a way to make the stops you need to win the game," Coen said. “You’ve got to be out of your mind to think this game would be any different. You knew it was going to be a competitive game. We were in the same situation last year and played our best game of the year so we expected Lafayette’s best. Defensively they did a great job and on offense they did some nice things but we came up with the stops when we needed to.”
Box Score: Lehigh 20, Lafayette 13, November 19th, 2010