Once upon a time, Lehigh's offense had the nickname "Air Lehigh", and players like QB Scott Semphiphelter, QB Phil Stambaugh and many other Mountain Hawk quarterbacks hucked the ball around Murray Goodman Stadium like kids in a sandlot, and posted some serious passing numbers that made the place a very fun spot to watch college football on Saturdays.
Today at Murray Goodman, senior QB Nick Shafnisky brought us back to those Air Lehigh days with a game with the same type of offensive firepower.
Pairing up with junior WR Troy Pelletier and junior WR Gatlin Casey for more than 100 yards receiving apiece, the Whitehall, PA native brought Lehigh fans back to the future with a 461 yard passing performance, coming oh-so-close to setting a Lehigh record in the process.
In the end, Lehigh fans left Murray Goodman stadium with a lot of pleasant memories about a beautiful, unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon and a resounding 42-28 win over a Princeton team that hung 50 points on them last season. Not that winning football games at Murray Goodman stadium the past few seasons wasn't fun, mind you - but few wins evoked the sandlot quality that this game did.
Shafnisky clearly came out to Murray Goodman stadium looking to change the history of his last game vs. Princeton.
"I had three turnovers myself in that game, so all week I couldn't wait for this game," Shaf said afterwards, a hint of a smile on his face.
What he couldn't have know going into the game is how close he might get to the all-time Lehigh single-game passing record of 480, set by Scott Semphiphelter in 1992 vs. Lafayette.
"I didn't know (I was close to an all-time Lehigh passing record) until my mom came down," Shafnisky said after the game, head coach Andy Coen smiling at his side. "My mom is huge into all of that. Mama came down, she was excited all around, that was probably one of the most favorable games that I'll ever play here."
Right off the initial kickoff, Shaf got the party started with a 26 yard pass to Pelletier, and in what would be a preview for the rest of the afternoon, would spread the ball around to Casey and senior WR Trevor Soccaras before finding senior WR Derek Knott in the end zone for the opening score.
How I like to enter a stadium - with a Shaf to Knott TOUCHDOWWWWWNNNN! pic.twitter.com/ezgg4uphEB— LehighFootballNation (@LFN) September 24, 2016
"The whole game, I think what opened it up is that we were moving the ball on the ground," Shaf said. "I think that opened up big-play opportunities, they started sitting back in cover-2 and dropping eight guys. We had such a balance today that they didn't know how to stop us."
After Princeton would tie it at 7, Lehigh would take the lead for good after another offensive drive that brought the Mountain Hawks to midfield, and then, after a drop back, Shaf would put throw the ball 45 yards in the air right into the hands of a diving Casey, who hauled in the ball as his dive carried him into the end zone.
"Shaf put it right on the money," Gatlin added, "all I had to do was catch it," in a quote that could have come from one of Lehigh's 1992 "Air Lehigh" teams.
After going up 14-7 and seeing yet another stop of Princeton's offense, Lehigh would see a punt downed at their own 2 yard line, but that didn't slow down the offense as they proceeded to engage in a 14 play, 98 yard touchdown drive that methodically mixed the pass and run and didn't contain a pass play of over 12 yards. In fact, the biggest plays on the drive were runs - a couple of big rushes from sophomore RB Dom Bragalone, who would go over 100 yards rushing on the day, a big scramble by Shaf that got to the Princeton 3 yard line, and then sophomore RB Micco Brisker powering the ball in from there.
"Cornerbacks get the blame on completions, but we didn't get enough pressure up front," Princeton head coach Bob Surace said afterwards. "He's a terrific quarterback, and it's a very balanced offense, but we need to do a better job of getting a pass rush moving forward."
The second half's scoring would start after a pair of personal fouls, one on a late hit out of bounds and a fifteen yard unsportsmanlike conduct on Surace, would gift thirty yards to the Mountain Hawks.
By then, Shafnisky, who was nursing a leg injury, was given the directive to not run with the ball - which helped lead to his near-record passing total.
"Today he got a little banged up on the knee," Coen said afterwards, "and we said, 'don't run.'"
With that in mind, Shaf would take quick advantage of the short field with a 15 yard strike to Pelletier, who would end the afternoon with 9 catches and an amazing 190 yards receiving.
Then, after another defensive stop, Shaf would use the big play again to get a real back-breaker touchdown, but it wasn't even a designed play.
"I was just in space," Gatlin said, "I saw the guy coming at my back, and I thought he was going to hit me, and I just braced, and bounced right off of him. When I turned upfield, I knew I was going to get there."
After that initial contact, Casey kicked in the afterburners, with four Princeton defenders chasing him, and with a final dive scored his second big-play touchdown of the afternoon.
"He was like a deer!", Shaf added in the middle, to laughter.
"He has eight brothers and sisters, so they'd make fun of him if he didn't make it to the end zone," Coen added.
The big plays, the pitch-and-catch aspect of the afternoon, had many people thinking back to the air-it-out days of the past.
Shaf would end the day 29-of-36 passing, with 461 yards and 4 TDs. Fifteen of those pass plays would go got ten yards or more, and three of those would go for big-play touchdowns.
"He stood back there, [took shots] and he's a tough man," Coen said afterwards, with particular emphasis on that last word. "He takes hits, he gets up. He's become a real good leader for us. The rest of his teammates have tremendous confidence behind him, which is really, really cool. I wish I could have him for another couple years."