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Villanova Wins A Game of Inches, Defeats Lehigh, 26-21

"It's a game of inches," head coach Andy Coen said after the Mountain Hawks had just fallen to nationally-ranked Villanova on a hot, humid, thick September evening.  "I just told these two guys walking across the field here (senior LB Colton Caslow and junior WR Troy Pelletier), it really is a game of inches. We were this close to beating a very good football team."

Indeed they were, even if, after a disappointing loss last week to Monmouth, many across the nation had written off Lehigh's chances of an upset of the team ranked No. 19 in the FCS Coaches' Poll.

Stung from a first half against Monmouth when they failed to score a single point, Lehigh battled hard in the first half and played "outstanding" Coen said, as the Mountain Hawks jumped to a 14-6 lead.  After missing a field goal falling behind 20-14, Lehigh rallied to retake the lead, and after falling behind one last time, the defense forced a stop and handed the ball back to the offense, with a chance to win.

But it came down to one play - converting a challenging 4th and 10, and a big pitch-and-catch that ended up just short of the yardage necessary to keep the drive going.

Last week, it seemed to many fans for it to be nearly impossible for the Mountain Hawks to be able to compete with the No. 19 team in the nation.  Instead, here was Lehigh, inches away, just short of sending the home fans to bed without victory cigars.

"I thought Lehigh played great," head coach Andy Talley said afterwards.  "We knew they would come in and give us their best game, which they did.  We preached to the team that what they saw on tape against Monmouth was not what we would see tonight, we would see a better football team, well prepared, and ready to play, and they certainly were.  They gave us all we wanted and more, actually, I was very impressed with them.  They are well coached, and they played hard."

Indeed, the fight was there at the very beginning.

The tone was set when, after an exchange of punts to lead things off, Caslow exploded through a hole opened up by Villanova's offensive line, starting Wildcat RB Javon White for a four yard loss.

"It's definitely great to be back," Caslow said.  "None of those plays I made would have been possible if I didn't have the fantastic teammates I have around me out there.   Everyone's just been flying around, we're getting all eleven players to the ball, everyone has a lot higher energy out there, and we're in a lot better shape than we were last year."

That four-yard loss set the tone for a defensive stop near Lehigh's red zone, leading to a missed field goal attempt and setting the tone for the rest of the game.

After another 3-and-out, Villanova would eventually score on a drive featuring a big play busted by RB Aaron Forbes, who broke free of a few tackles and rumbled for a 54 yard gain to set up White's 3 yard touchdown run.  But the extra point - which appeared to be partially blocked by a Mountain Hawk - meant that the lead was only 6-0.

Then it would be the turn of the Lehigh offense to spring into action, as senior QB Nick Shafnisky orchestrated a methodical, yet brisk 9 play, 74 yard drive to allow Lehigh to take back the lead.

It wasn't a drive of spectacular big plays or a particular dagger - just a workmanlike drive, with a 13 yard slip through the offensive line by sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone here, a short slot pass to junior WR Gatlin Casey there - that ended with a 1 yard Bragalone plunge and a critical extra point by sophomore PK Ed Mish to give Lehigh the lead.

The defense then would stop Villanova's next drive on a 4th-and-1 in Lehigh territory, with junior CB Quentin Jones and a slew of Mountain Hawks stacking up White at the line of scrimmage to put the ball back in the offense's hands.

In the first half, the game of inches and the game of the line of scrimmage would be won by Lehigh.

The ensuing Lehigh drive would end with a Shafnisky interception - an interception that would end up working as well as a punt - Villanova couldn't get out of the shadow of their own end zone, setting up Lehigh's next drive.

But this time, Shafnisky would mix in a steady diet of throws to junior WR Troy Pelletier, who made a couple of leaping grabs before Shaf would use a quarterback draw to put it in himself.

"We had a lot of respect for their defense," a crestfallen Pelletier said afterwards.  "We knew we were going to need to compete at a high level.  We had a lot of one-on-one matchups, and just wanted to take advantage of them."

In the second half, a different Villanova team came out of the locker room.

"The second half we got after it a lot more in terms of telling our players at halftime, that frankly, we were a little embarrassing," Talley said, "and I told them that at a very high voice level.  I never do that with a team.  But it's almost anticipated when you come off a I-A game, you have to play up here, just to survive.  And then you come back no matter who you're playing, no matter how much to you preach to them, and there's a dropoff.  That's not an excuse, but that played to what happened."

The gameplan for the Wildcats was to shift the emphasis towards battering the Mountain Hawk defense with the run, almost abandoning the pass completely.  After making 10 pass attempts in the first half, completing five of them, Villanova QB Zach Bednarczyk would only throw the ball three times in the second half, completing one.

And after a missed 40 field goal to end the second half by Ed Mish - a kick with plenty of leg, but just missed to the left - Nova put their plan in action.  The three-pronged attack, mostly Bednarczyk and White but also with a liberal amount of WR Jarett McClenton thrown in - the Wildcats would reclaim control with two consecutive scores.

The second drive took five runs, four of which were more than 10 yards.  The fifth run, scored on a Wildcat play by the backup quarterback, QB Adeyemi DaSilva, brought down the average but game Villanova the lead.

"They executed their gameplan in the second half a little bit better than we did," Caslow said, "and they were able to get big plays."

In the fourth quarter, though, Lehigh would rally again and take the lead, in large part to the Shaf-to-Pelletier connection, which ended up connecting 13 times for 121 yards and a good portion of Lehigh's first downs.

It set up a big 20 yard touchdown to senior WR Derek Knott, who found a lasef from Shaf in the middle of the field, squeezing through a wall of defenders and crossing the goal line, with Mish's point after, again, giving Lehigh a 21-20 lead.

Again, playing from behind, Talley took no chances when trying to get the lead back.  All on the ground, aided by a breakaway run by White, whose 162 yards rushing and 2 TDs were career highs, Villanova would drive the length of the field again, and even though Lehigh's defense would force a 4th and 1 at the goal line, White's 2 yard surge, behind the powerful blocking of Villanova's offensive line, would push through the inches necessary for the go-ahead score.

Lehigh got the ball back and drove to the Villanova 31 yard line, with under two minutes to play. Bragalone, who caught a pitch-and-catch from Shaf, made a great play where he hurdled a low Villanova defender to get a first down.

Three incompletions, and it is 4th and 10.

Shaf, as he's done most of the game, scrambles and gets free of Villanova's pass rush.  He sees Pelletier, and tosses him the ball.  Complete.

Troy turns, and needs to find the yardage after catch to get the first down marker.

"I thought our kids executed the two-minute drive very, very well," Coen said.  "It's something we practice quite often. Our guys are dialed in with that and I thought they performed that very well."

He needed about six yards.  He got about five.

A game of inches.

"I had a crossing route, and I needed to make a play to make a first down," Pelletier said, "and came up a little short."

It's supposed to be a moral victory.  Lehigh wasn't supposed to hang around against the 19th-ranked team in the nation.  The Mountain Hawks weren't supposed to be in a position to go ahead and pull off the upset with two minutes to play.  Instead, defying the expectations of even their most diehard fans, there they were.

Yet there was no place for moral victories in the interview room after the game.  It's a game of inches.

"It was a top 25 team here, nationally-ranked team," Coen said.  "That's where we want this program to be. In order for us to do that, we need to not only schedule these guys, but we also need to beat these guys. We had a real good chance to beat this team and we didn't finish that job. I'm not taking anything away from Villanova. I always credit the other team.  We had our chances, but we didn't finish the job. As we continue our process and go into week three, we need to start finishing things so we can keep getting better."


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