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Chase Who? Shafnisky, Bragalone Combine for 6 Rushing TDs, Beat Fordham, 58-37

(Photo Credit: Amy Herzog/The Morning Call)

When people think Lehigh football, they rightfully think of a powerful air attack.

After all, the Mountain Hawks boast the top two receivers in all of FCS in regards to receiving yards, junior WR Troy Pelletier and junior WR Gatlin Casey.

What they don't necessarily think of is a grinding rushing attack, something more out of a triple-option team or perhaps a run-heavy Wing-T team.

Yet in Lehigh's 58-37 statement win over Fordham, the same Ram team with potential future NFL player RB Chase Edmonds, the main headline wasn't the aerial show, though there were a few highlight-reel plays there, too.

Instead, the headline became Lehigh's six rushing touchdowns, three from senior QB Nick Shafnisky and three more from sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone, and 349 yards on the ground.

I looked through the record books last night, and combed through recaps of a lot of football games, and the last time I found that Lehigh scored six rushing touchdowns in a game was in 1971, when FB John "Jack" Rizzo and RB Don Diorio combined for six rushing TDs in a 48-19 win over Lafayette.

That's some pretty good company.

Lehigh RB Jack Rizzo
"Our offensive line," head coach Andy Coen said after the game, "Those guys are so dialed in on what we do every weekend.  Every week we talk about certain things before we get into the game and every week, these guys are doing what we ask them to do. It's a tremendous group of guys. They trust in each other."

When I asked Shafnisky and Bragalone about the play of the offensive line yesterday, both sets of eyes lit up.  They couldn't wait to heap praise on the big guys up front.

"Those guys up there, they're workhorses," Shaf said, smiling.  "We only passed the ball 21 times, which obviously is a little different from what we were doing.   For Dom to put up the numbers he did (a career-high 192 yards rushing and 3 TDs), for junior RB Nana Amankwah-Ayeh to put up the numbers he did (a tie of his career-high of 54 yards rushing), it's awesome, and it's a credit to those guys."

Bragalone, too cracked a smile.

"The offensive line has been doing a great job this whole year," he said.  "They just keep working hard each week, and keep getting better and better.  That helps us out, they're making the holes for us, and we keep taking 'em."

Offensive linemen don't show up too much on the stat sheet, but when you look at the team stats for Lehigh in the game this week, you see the big influence of junior OL Tim O'Hara, senior OL Micah Tennant, senior C Brandon Short, senior OL Zach Duffy and sophomore OL Liborio Ricottilli.

28 first downs, including 18 coming from rushing plays.  632 combined offensive yards, including 364 on the ground.  An average of 9.4 yards per offensive play, including 7.6 yards per rush.

Punts: Zero, the first time that's happened since November 13, 1999, a game when Lehigh walloped Bucknell 48-27 in Lewisburg.  (In that contest, RB Ron Jean racked up 370 all-purpose yards, rushing 21 times for 105 yards and 3 TDs and added 2 more receiving touchdowns.)

"The offensive line is the best core-five guys jelled together in the league," Shaf added later. "You have our receivers and running backs, how do you not just be unstoppable? Or at least consistent."

Almost from the very first series it was clear that Lehigh's goal was to put the foot on the gas and pretty much not let up.

It started with a defensive stop, aided by some forced penalties and a couple of broken up passes by senior CB Brandon Leaks.

Then, after a Fordham punt, it took the Mountain Hawks all of 1 minute and 36 seconds to get their first score, Bragalone's first TD, a 19 yard run where he zipped past a sea of brown blockers on his left and a perfect sealing block by Pelletier on his right.

WR Derek Knott on his 86 yard TD catch (Brent Hugo/Lehigh Athletics)
The next Lehigh scoring drive was one that brought the 6,000 fans in the stadium to their feet: a perfect pass by Shafnisky to senior WR Derek Knott, thrown only where he could catch it, a step beyond the Fordham safety playing man-to-man.  Once Derek got the step on his man, he made it untouched to the end zone.

Total elapsed time: 10 seconds.

"This season, everything is clicking," Knott told Steve Lomangino.  "It doesn't matter what we call, our offensive coordinator and receivers coaches are putting us in a great position to be successful on every single play.  We're just going out there and doing what they tell us to do.  It's just easy, man.  We're just having a good time."

Fordham would cut the deficit to 13-6, and would exchange field goals to make the score 16-9.  But a tremendous second quarter, fueled by an incredible 10 minutes of play, would essentially make the Rams' task to claw their way back into the game impossible.

It started with Shafnisky back to pass, his pocket collapsing but a wide opening in front of him.  He tucked the ball away and ran with it, gaining 24 yards, with Bragalone making a key block to give him the time to take off for that big gain.

In large part pounding on the ground, Bragalone and Shafnisky continued to pile up yards on the ground, and in the red zone, Shaf seemed to hand it off to him again, and the Fordham defense reacted accordingly.  Except Shaf didn't hand it off, holding onto the ball, and was able to almost walk into the end zone untouched for his first touchdown on the afternoon.  Total time elapsed: 3 minutes and 14 seconds.

When Fordham got the ball back, a sea of Lehigh defenders swarmed on Chase Edmonds on the very first play - first senior LB Colton Caslow, then senior LB Evan Harvey, and then junior DE Harrison Johnson.  Somewhere in all of that contact, Edmonds coughed up the ball - something that happens very, very, infrequently - and sophomore CB Donavon Harris leaped on the ball and got the turnover.

"I think for us, we obviously were preparing for him, but he's another player on the field," junior DE Tyler Cavenas said after the game. "We just had to make sure we didn't get too far upfield to create seams for him to cut on. Basically our game plan was to stay on the line of scrimmage and let our linebackers come up and fill the holes where he's going to cut to."

The Mountain Hawks got the ball back quickly, and, aided by a huge defensive holding play on Fordham, would by 34 yards in 7 plays, punctuated by Bragalone's second TD on the afternoon, a 3 yard surge.

Fordham would get the ball back, and drive into Lehigh's red zone, but Cavenas and the rest of the defense would dig deep and push on three straight plays, driving the Rams back on three straight plays.  Cavenas would stop Edmonds after a four yard play on 1st down, be a part of the surge that would cause Fordham QB Kevin Anderson to lose yardage on a rush, and be a big part of forcing an incompletion on 3rd down.

After a missed FG by Fordham, one minute was plenty of time for Bragalone to get his third TD on the day.

It was set up by a very big run on 1st down, a 9 yard run with dominant blocking up front, that set up the backbreaker, a run that started with Bragalone zipping past his first defender, following a sealing block of three Fordham defenders on his left side, and then using his breakaway speed down the sideline that meant no Fordham player would end up within ten yards of him as he streaked 70 yards to the end zone.

"I knew [Edmonds] was going to be a good back," Bragalone said afterwards.  "I just continue to go out there and just do the same thing I do every week."

"Something about that sideline," coach Coen said, noting that second gear that Bragalone showed.

Somehow, the perfect capper to that display was a sack of Anderson by Cavenas, which would end the first half and cause Lehigh to leave the field at the half with a raucous standing ovation from the Lehigh crowd.

DE Tyler Cavenas (Brent Hugo/Lehigh Athletics)
It would statistically be his first sack on the day, but his tackles on Edmonds in the first half set up the dominating 37-9 halftime lead, and would bring a tidal wave of emotion going into the locker room.

"I have to account it to the guys around me," Cavenas said. "We were running our schemes like we always do and it was just opening up this week. I account it to my other defensive linemen and our linebackers just running our blitzes. We come into each week thinking that each of us have to give our one-eleventh on each play. When one play is over, it's right on to the next play. That's our mindset and it makes it easier on us when our offense is scoring pretty much on every drive. It takes the pressure off us and lets us relax."

Cavenas would end the day with 9 tackles - "that's almost unheard of, for a defensive lineman," Coen would say - and would end with three sacks,

The second half ended up being very relaxing for Lehigh fans.  Two Shafnisky rushing touchdowns would balloon the score to 51-9 before Fordham would rally for three late touchdowns to make the score look more respectable.

It would all end up with a resounding, three touchdown victory - and a chance to, next week, wrap up a chance at no worse than a co-Patriot League championship and a guarantee of postseason play in the FCS playoffs.

"It's an awesome feeling," Shafnisky said. "For us to be in this position, it's all a credit to us and our coaches. We put ourselves in this position, we earned it. But we didn't earn anything yet. Next week, when you ask that question again, hopefully I'll be the happiest man."


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