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Lehigh Rewrites Recent History And Throws Aside Lafayette In #Rivalry151, 49-35

All the Rivalry games are memorable in their own way for everyone in attendance, from the seniors playing in their last game to the kids playing on the grass embankment.

The there will be four plays that will be remembered the most, the four plays that defined this game for Lehigh and really demonstrated how tough this team was in 2015, and how tough they might be in 2016.

Most importantly, though, was the fact that Lehigh finally was able to chuck aside any doubts about winning a big game.

Wins against Lafayette are always important for the many Lehigh fans in the near-16,000 people who attend these games.  But winning this particular game was doubly important for this Lehigh squad that seemed to almost desperately need the win in order to demonstrate to the fans in the Valley who they are, who they were, and where they're headed.

On the Lehigh side, there will be lots of great, little things to remember about this weekend's 49-35 win over the Leopards, a win that finally formalized the fact that the Lehigh football program had finally recovered from the gutting, dejecting, darkness from the 27-7 loss to Lafayette in the 150th meeting of the Rivalry.

Things that won't make Vines, or highlight reels. like senior OL Matthew Cohen opening a huge hole on a big run, senior OL Matt Ford stuffing Lafayette's pass rush, or oft-injured senior RB D.J. Kee, running the last few plays on the field to put the cherry on top of Lehigh's victory.

Coach Coen gets soaked (Sue Beyer/lehighvalleylive.com)
There was a key third-down conversion pass to senior TE Chris Ruhl, which helped keep a second quarter drive alive that allowed the Mountain Hawks to take an early 28-7 lead and make what would end up being an insurmountable hole for the Leopards to climb out.

On defense, there were stuffs by senior RLB Randall Lawson, senior LB Noah Robb, senior LB Cody Kondas and senior LB Matt Laub, stopping the Lafayette running game in the very first Leopard offensive series in the first half.  They might not get all the press, but they set up everything to come.

You also may not see vines of senior NG Greg Palma pumping up the 16,000 fans on hand as Lafayette would line up on offense to run a play, but trust me, I saw them. Aside from his efforts in stopping Lafayette's running game early, his actions woke up the crowd frequently and made them a part of the game.

There was also senior CB Olivier Rigaud, ejected for targeting on a somewhat questionable ruling where his helmet hit a Lafayette offensive player's helmet incidentally.  Having to spend the remainder of his collegiate career in the locker room, senior WR Stefan Sansone, who already was unable to suit up one last time due to injury, consoled him on his way to the locker room.

Several other seniors - senior OL Steven Camasta, senior OL Rob Ford, and senior DE D.J. Bourgeois - watched the game from the sidelines as well.

Those moments don't make the recaps, but they were all a part of the 151st meeting of the Rivalry, some of the many stories of the Lehigh football family on Saturday.

"Last year, there was just a disconnect among the teammates that we had," senior WR Derek Knott said. "This year, our motto is family. What we wanted to do was make sure everyone was being tighter, a closer-knit group at practices and everything. Senior DL Grant Jamgochian was telling me that when he looks around, he doesn't even see class no more. He feels like everyone is the same age, freshmen, seniors, everyone's got their mindset on the same page. We all work toward the same goal."

After losing in heartbreaking fashion to Colgate the prior weekend, there was some concern going into the game that the low of that defeat might bleed over into the big Rivalry game.

"I told them, 'If you win [this] game, you won't even remember what happened at Colgate,'" Coen said. "I'm pretty sure all those seniors would corroborate that today."

In a game with 49 points, there were a lot of Rivalry moments, but the first one that will stand out could have been the first offensive play from scrimmage for the Mountain Hawks.

Senior WR Derek Knott
On first down, junior QB Nick Shafnisky did a quick fake handoff to freshman RB Dominick Bragalone, and threw a perfect pass 34 yards downfield to senior WR Derek Knott, putting immediate pressure on Lafayette's defense - "softening them up," coach Coen said - and, equally as important, setting the tone of a big play, high-scoring affair.

"I knew it was a possibility that I would get the ball," Knott said in the postgame press conference, "If I see that ball coming my way, I'm just going to do my best to grab it."

That play would set up the Shafnisky's first touchdown of the day, the first of many.  Shaf would rifle a pass to junior WR Trevor Soccaras, at the 1 yard line, where he would lean forward and cross the goal line.

After a missed Lafayette field goal attempt, Shafnisky would leave no doubt that he would be on everyone's MVP ballot as he would find the end zone again and again.  A 5 yard TD pass to Knott, lofted to a place where Derek could leap up and bring it in for the touchdown.  A 5 yard TD pass to sophomore WR Gatlin Casey, where Shaf was flushed out of the pocket and he fired a laser to Casey near the back of the end zone.  A 5 yard Shaf run to the right side, ending in six.  A nine yard TD pop to sophomore WR Troy Pelletier.

But the second play that everyone will be talking about all offseason was a different sort of throw by Shaf.

On one offensive drive, Shafnisky rolled right, and took off with the ball, as he so frequently does.  On one run he ran into Lafayette defensive back CB Matt Smalley, who didn't have solid footing.  Instead of sliding, he simply used his free arm, took Smalley, and threw him to the side, out of bounds.

It was a play that electrified everyone wearing Brown in the stadium.



Shaf didn't comment on the play himself, in the postgame press conference, but he didn't have to.  When asked whether it fired up the team, junior CB Brandon Leaks, with a huge smile, said, "Of course it did!"

"That play didn't start the fire," Knott added.  "I think the fire was already going before that play."

It certainly was, and yet, the play seemed to also typify exactly what this Lehigh team needed to do - to toss aside Lafayette in order to get things right.

Shafnisky said many times during the 2015 football season that he didn't want to talk about last year's Rivalry game, the Rivalry game anticipated by so many, and one one that caused so much disappointment.  In tossing aside Smalley, he was tossing aside a year of frustrations, small and large, of everyone associated with the Lehigh football program.  That's why The Toss - and that's how it really should be referred, as The Toss - will be the type of Vine that will be played over an over for plenty of offseasons to come.

"We wanted to show the people that put us down that we're a talented team," Shafnisky said. "I told Matt Ford and Matt Cohen that we were one touchdown from winning a ring this season after we were picked to finish fifth or sixth."

It was pretty telling that, even with the MVP trophy at his feet, even with such a season-defining and even career-defining play to brag about, his biggest words and even a twinge of emotion came when he was talking about the seniors.

"I think everyone had a hand in what we were doing on offense," he said.  "You have no idea how much I love this senior class.  Some of them are my best friends, and I hate to lose them.  When I get hit late, Matt Cohen is on that guy, protecting me.  Matt Ford, he's the heart of our offensive line, our leader.  He pretty much pulls the younger guys at practice, and gets them going.  We're going to miss them.  And Chris Ruhl, he's one of the most fundamental guys you'll ever meet.  I think he should be a football coach.  He did a lot for this offense, dotting the i's and crossing the t's, even though it might not look like that on paper."

Lafayette didn't fold up like a cheap tent after falling behind 21-0.  The Leopards battled all game to make it a contest, in large part through a much-maligned offensive line opening some large holes for RB DeSean Brown, who made a truly heroic effort for the Leopards to try to keep up.  He would get 160 yards rushing, 3 touchdowns, and add 88 yards receiving, with several receptions that helped convert some critical 4th downs.

Up 35-14, Lehigh fans still didn't totally feel safe, especially when Lafayette QB Drew Reed had the ball on the Mountain Hawk doorstep.

Leaks Fumble Recovery (Chris Knight/The Morning Call)
That's where sophomore DE Tyler Cavenas and Brandon Leaks came in with the third play that everyone will be talking about.

On a 1st and goal, Brown went right, but Cavenas lunged out and punched the ball out of his hands.  Leaks then scooped the ball, and returned the ball 84 yards for a touchdown to make it 45-14 Lehigh, with WFMZ's Mike Yadush calling the scene "bedlam".

"Once I saw the ball pop out," Leaks said excitedly, "I knew the first thing I had to do was pick up the ball, pick up the ball and catch it clean. Once I scooped it, I knew my speed was going to take me.  The main thing was picking it up.  Picking it up was the hard part."

"It's a good thing that it wasn't the opposite, that you didn't make the tackle and Cavenas picked it up," coach Coen said.

Lafayette still wouldn't say die, scoring two more touchdowns to cut the deficit to 42-28, but the fourth and final huge thing that people will remember is one particular run by a freshman.

No Lehigh freshman had ever had a 1,000 yard rushing season, and coach Coen knew it was going to be a tall order to get the 80 yards he needed to be the 11th player to get 1,000 rushing yards in Lehigh record books, and the first freshman to do it.

All game he would battle, earning every yard against the Leopards' tough defensive front, but he'd break through on Lehigh's final touchdown to break the 1,000 yard barrier.

With 44 grueling rushing yards on the day, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would get the record, especially after an onsides kick was recovered by junior RB Mackenzie Crawford.

On the very next play, though, he'd push through a big hole on the right side of the line and surge through the defense for a 44 yard touchdown run - putting his season rushing total, amazingly, at 1,008 yards.

Bragalone Celebration (Sue Beyer/Express-Times)
"Every week, we'd run the ball well, sometimes with Shaf being a big part of it and other times just the tailback," Coen said, echoing The Morning Call's Paul Reinhard in calling it a "storybook" way to break the record. "As we started watching Lafayette this week, we were like, 'These guys are different.' They're a very talented group of guys in the front six. We knew it would be tough sledding, which is part of the reason we started throwing the ball around more.  But way in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'Boy, I hope we can get Dom this record. It would be really cool for him.' Then he broke the long one and he just made it by eight yards."

For Lehigh fans, the 151st meeting of The Rivalry was a lot of positive moments that overcame the big frustrations of 2014.  All season it seemed like the team was slowly, methodically, lifting and tossing the frustrations off one by one, coming so close to fully casting off the gloom, but not quite doing so.  After the win to close the 2015 season.  The seniors, and this 2015 football team, finally got the storybook ending they've been working for.

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