(Photo Credits: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Athletics)
Nearing the end of the first half, the Huntington Beach, CA native lined up on a 4th and 1 play in the Lehigh red zone. Faking the handoff to RB Tre Solomon, he instead took it himself, running through an enormous hole on the left side of the line for a 8 yard touchdown run.
The touchdown and extra point put Penn back ahead, 28-21, but with 1:14 left, and three timeouts, it wasn't a question whether Lehigh was going to try to drive the length of the field to tie up the game, or at least try to cut the deficit a little. Head coach Andy Coen was going to try. Definitely.
So the experienced senior QB Nick Shafnisky took the field, knowing what needed to be done - the same thing that Lehigh's offense had already done three times in the same half - drive the length of the field and make something happen.
But that was just it; the fans were in the stands, doubting. They had seen this Lehigh team twice this year already, on the brink of turning things around, but coming up short. All this Lehigh team needed was a stop against Monmouth, they said. Nope. All the Mountain Hawks needed was to convert that 4th down and 10 against Villanova, they said. They got eight and a half yards.
They had seen this last season, too. Lehigh had the ball first and goal against Colgate, ready to tie the game near the end of a game that would have given them a chance at a Patriot League championship. On 4th down, a few yards from the goalline, the pass would be batted down. The Raiders won, clinching at least a share of the Patriot League championship.
Why should this critical drive be any different? Why wouldn't it also be a dollar short, like we had seen before?
The funny thing is, it wouldn't be a dollar short, a stop short, a yard short, a second short. It would get exactly the right number of yards and, with 0.3 seconds left, either a touchdown or nothing the result, the Lehigh offense did not end up getting stopped short, and in so doing seemed to do a lot more than simply tie the game.
On the play that needed one precious yard, a gaping hole opened up on the left side off the tackle, junior OL Tim O'Hara, with senior OL Micah Tennant helping seal the outside. There were linebackers that needed tending to, the responsibility of senior FB Mackenzie Crawford and junior TE Drew Paulsen, two of the guys with jerseys in the 40s that don't often enough get mentioned in terms of making the type of play on which games and sometimes seasons turn.
Crawford and Paulsen handled their assignments perfectly, but there's the matter of one Penn linebacker, appearing in the opening and needing one lead blocker to handle. That was the job of sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone, who had a great day rushing the ball but made no more important play than the block of that final defender.
Shafnisky started to roll left, but then planted. He saw the whole thing develop. He switched from lateral to forward, following Bragalone's block. The blue and red end zone was there. There was enough room. There would have to be.
Four yards away from all or nothing. Another Pennsylvania lineman, coming from the right side, tried a shoestring tackle. He couldn't get Shaf.
Nick leaned forward, as he had in so many of these goal-line situations before, pushing through momentum. With no time on the clock, he would do it again - touchdown, Mountain Hawks.
Everyone knew the touchdown was important.
Sure, they had already seen Shafnisky's first three touchdowns, two runs similar to the one at the end of the first half. They also saw the 30 yard strike to junior WR Gatlin Casey, the one where Shaf started to run right as if it were a designed run, then threw a perfect 30 yard pass, all through the air, to Gatlin's outstretched arms.
But every time the Lehigh offense had scored, it was simply to try to keep up with Penn's offense, who was every bit the Mountain Hawks' equal, with Torgerson finding star WR Justin Watson for 4 catches, over 70 yards and 2 TDs, as well as Alek running for two more, including the potentially devastating one at the end of the half.
Head coach Andy Coen and the rest of the team knew that the Mountain Hawks would get the ball first to start the second half, so that certainly played a part in the decision to go for the touchdown, to put the faith in the offense to get that yard.
"I think what it came down to was, we were more physical than they were," he said afterwards. "They jumped on us early in the game, both on offense and defense, but it was great to see not only the players step up and get it done, but the coaching staff as well."
There was something about this one play that seemed to go beyond tying the game - it set up an amazing momentum that carried the way through the entire second half.
Right out of the gate, with strong sophomore RB Micco Brisker rotated into the running back mix, the Mountain Hawk offense picked up where they left off, with Shaf finding senior WR Trevor Soccaras on a key 1st down play, hitting leaping junior WR Troy Pelletier on another, and riding Brisker for the go-ahead touchdown.
"We were just able to pound and pound and pound," Coen said, "and it opened up some passing game for us. We didn't use a lot of our deep throwing this week, but we did what we needed to do."
Then, being asked to protect a lead, the defense, who had given up four touchdowns in the first half, became the Monstars from Space Jam, suddenly, stopping Penn on consecutive drives. Senior LB Pierce Ripanti would surge up the middle for a critical sack, a fired-up senior ROV Evan Harvey would be all over the field breaking up passes and delivering big hits.
"[Evan] was flying around, he's a very charismatic guy, and he brings a lot of energy to the defense, as well as senior LB Colton Caslow. A lot of guys on the defensive line did a nice job today. I was really proud about how that group reacted at halftime. We got on them pretty good, and they responded. It was a great product in the second half."
"We went in the locker room and came out doing what was expected of us," Harvey said after the game. "It feels great. Once we got a two touchdown lead, it freed us up to fly around the ball."
And by then, the ball was rolling the Mountain Hawks' way. Mixing in an effective running game, Shaf would go 4-for-4 passing, including a 20 yard rifle into the back of the end zone to a streaking Pelletier. Lehigh 42, Penn 28, and momentum was clearly Lehigh's.
Again, the defense would ride that momentum. Caslow would make two key stops, again, and Penn would punt. Penn would only gain 77 yards in the second half, and most importantly, would score 0 points.
And Shafnisky, who would add a 10 yard strike to Paulsen to conclude the scoring on the evening, would have the sort of day of dreams for quarterbacks, with a ridiculous stat line: 3 rushing touchdowns, 3 passing touchdowns, 71 yards rushing, 28 passing completion in 41 passing attempts for 317 yards. There was only one blemish on the record: an interception in the first quarter, the type of interception that in games past seemed like they were going to be the difference between winning and losing.
"The amount of weapons we have, it helps me out so much," Shafnisky said afterwards. "When it all comes together, we're a really scary offense. I feel like this is on the up."