About ten minutes into the game, the 7,049 fans in attendance had probably figured out that if Lehigh was going to win a championship, it wasn't going to be won like that.
It was going to have to be earned. It was going to have to be grabbed from Bucknell, smashing them in the mouth the same way they were smashing us.
It cannot be emphasized enough how Lehigh had to earn every single inch of this Patriot League victory, how not easy this win really was.
How the Mountain Hawks fell behind, clawed and scratched back to get the lead. How they had to stop the Bison stampede at key spots, get crucial turnovers, and fire up critical, difficult field goals by sophomore PK Ed Mish. Even extra points, normally considered automatic, took on new dramatic tension.
The offense got punished on every single play up until the final couple of victory formations. But in the end, it was not only a victory, but a victory of the most beautiful, rare sort - the type of win that officially buries the past.
"Sometimes the hardest ones are the ones you enjoy the most," Coen said. "When you're winning a championship, it should be hard. Bucknell made it hard on us today, but we're the ones with the trophy and I can't be more proud of a group of guys than I am of these guys."
In the post game press conference, a thrilled, smiling, somewhat emotional Andy Coen was greeted with a lot of descriptions of different football games over the past few years he would have rather have never had spoken of again.
To be fair, not a single one of those game outcomes were brought up out of malice.
It was more like every reporter in that room wanted to help shovel dirt on those games for coach coach Coen's sakes as much as their own.
For many, the memory they thought should be thrown into the grave first was the memory of the 150th meeting of The Rivalry in Yankee Stadium. It certainly was a game narrative I did not enjoy, because, after all, lack of perspective is a character flaw of mine.
For others, it was the five yards that Lehigh was short last season against Colgate. That game, too was agonizing. But as agonizing as it was, the Mountain Hawks made the Raiders earn every yard of their Patriot League Championship.
As such a long-standing Lehigh fan, I obviously have seen many highs and some bad lows, of course - this comes with the territory of caring very deeply about a football team.
But the 2013 game still really stands out to me because four years later, reading the recap of that contest, I still want to treat it like the rewrite of a book whose ending I want to change.
I still want to tear up the part of the narrative where Lehigh closes the game to within one score, and then gives up the back-breaking touchdown on a huge Lafayette pass play. I still want to rewrite the scene to, "FS Tyler Ward intercepts QB Drew Reed's pass, setting up the game-tying score!"
Even more astoundingly, occasionally, I read my 10,000 line description of that game, that unique, agonizing, painful game. And it still happens. I stillwant to change the outcome not just for myself, but for all the Lehigh kids playing in that game. It still sucks. It still hurts.
And somehow, it describes everything.
Life, like sports, isn't all championships and wins. It's giving it every last ounce of everything, and still coming up short. But you never stop trying. It's important to know not to take it for granted, and it's something you have to keep reminding yourself constantly.
Of course, the narrative of that 2013 football game can never change. The touchdown still happened. RB Keith Sherman never did go four-for-four against Lafayette, and never did get a chance to bulldoze over anyone in the FCS Playoffs. There are no trophies for the Lehigh championship of 2013, no happy photo of 2015 of Lehigh players rocking white hats saying "Patriot League Champions" on them, because those narratives didn't happen. Instead, the losses were real. The agonizing near-misses happened.
But by competing, Lehigh can throw shovelfuls of dirt on those broken narratives, those tough games, those close losses, those near misses, and instead establish brand-new narratives. The best way to get over the bumps in the road in football, as in life, is to keep giving it everything and getting those new narratives that allow you to bury the old.
Curious, I looked at the participation report from that 2013 Lehigh/Lafayette game.
The freshman playing in that fateful game included senior QB Nick Shafnisky, senior LB Colton Caslow, senior LB Pierce Ripanti, senior ROV Laquan Lambert, senior CB Brandon Leaks and senior OL Micah Tennant.
All of them went into the game this weekend not only as starters, but as players being asked to be major parts of bringing this long-awaited title home.
"Reflecting back on that game in 2013 against those guys from Easton where we had another ring in our sights and we let it slip," OL Ashton Hood, one of those 2013 seniors, posted on Facebook to his followers. "To my boys playing for a title this weekend remember that feeling. Remember what you saw. Remember how shitty it was. And don't let it happen to you. If this is your last time strapping up in Goodman Stadium, do not waste your opportunity to carry on the tradition. I still can't believe we lost. Don't let it happen to you. Go get your ring fellas."
It felt like this game, this Saturday, was about showing the world that these disappointments would not define them as men, would not define Andy Coen's coaching record, and would not define Lehigh's football history.
Throughout this 2016 football season, it seems like the phrase "much maligned" seemed to always precede the word "defense".
Certainly going into the season, the expectations for that unit, were modest: hold 'em to 28, most secretly felt if never said, and Lehigh's offense will carry the day.
But all season the defense has played with a chip on their shoulder. Much-maligned? Well, lets see how maligned we are when we hold Georgetown to 3 points, and Fordham to 9 points in 3 quarters. They have always been better than the term much-maligned has implied. They just needed to find that story, to find that narrative, to finally put that term "much-maligned" behind them.
That's why the reporters in that post-game press conference brought up some of the disappointing near-misses afterwards. They knew this Lehigh team had buried the old narratives - they proved it, on the field. They knew how important it was for the core of this team, especially for two of the players, Ripanti and Shafnisky, that were in the post-game press conference.
They knew that the players had already shoveled dirt on those games. They just wanted to help.
The best part, though, was not the simple fact that this Lehigh football team shoveled dirt onto those disappointing narratives. It was the way they did it on this picture-perfect Saturday afternoon in a surprising, spectacular fashion.
"All night [on Friday]... I'm like... OK, they're not a very explosive offense," head coach Andy Coen said, after coming into the press conference late after changing out of his gameday attire, soaked with postseason Powerade. "In my mind, if we get up on these guys, it would happen quick."
"The first [Bucknell] drive of the game, I knew," he continued. "Once it was unfolding, I knew this was going to be a tough, tough game."
The Lehigh fans that thought that this football game would a big party, an easy coronation, that would have the fans dancing in the aisles at halftime, were mistaken. Somebody forgot to tell Bucknell what the narrative was supposed to be.
After stopping Lehigh on downs on the Mountain Hawks' first drive of the day, the Bison offense slowly, and methodically, drove 64 yards down the field, ending a touchdown drive with a 6 yard run by RB Joey DeFloria to take the lead.
If you look at the drive chart, you don't see anything that's very fancy. "Joey DeFloria 5 yard run. Joey DeFloria 5 yard run." If you were watching the game live, though, you say Bucknell OL Julie'n Davenport get an amazing push on Lehigh's defensive line, carving out significant yards.
|WR Trevor Soccaras (Doug Kilpatrick/The Morning Call)|
On the ensuing drive, it looked like a Lehigh drive was going to stall with a big 3rd and 11 call.
Lehigh fans held their collective breath until senior QB Nick Shafnisky rifled in a perfect pass to senior WR Trevor Soccaras to get a huge 31 yard gain and to move the chains.
The momentum that play generated cannot be underestimated, one of the rare offensive plays in the first half where a Lehigh receiver snuck behind Bucknell's tough pass coverage and generated big yardage.
Though he wouldn't score any touchdowns on the afternoon, the running of sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone on this drive, and every subsequent drive, was essential to Lehigh getting anything done on offense. Seemingly not at 100%, he still routinely ground out yardage and first downs.
|QB Nick Shafnisky (Roshan Giyanani/Brown and White)|
Bucknell would strike next, cashing in an 11 yard run from RB Chad Freshnock, on a very familiar-looking, physical drive by the Bison. But an extra point hitting the upright would only make the game 13-7, as the Bucknell defense would do a brilliant job the rest of the halh holding the No. 1 offense in the Patriot League to that one touchdown.
They didn't only did a phenomenal job against the same offense that had just racked up 58 points on Fordham last week, they did so by getting incredible pressure on Shafnisky, giving him little to no time to get things going. Bison DT Abdullah Anderson, along with DE Doug Whitlock, who ended Lehigh's first half with a sack, were having a fantastic day, holding the Mountain Hawks to 158 yards of total offense, most of it coming off of that 31 yard pass to Soccaras.
The formula for defensive success against the Mountain Hawks was discovered by the Bison - the formula that had eluded Georgetown, Holy Cross and Fordham in successive weeks.
Nobody in the stadium was thinking of a party. They were wondering if the Mountain Hawks might survive.
"We need to get our shit together," a frustrated Andy Coen let slip to Matt Markus on the ESPN Lehigh Valley halftime radio interview, while at the same time every Lehigh fan in the stands and following wherever they were following the game were desperately hoping as well.
Most nervy Lehigh fans who have been following this team had one word on the tip of their tongues: "Monmouth".
|Bucknell sack (Bucknell Athletics)|
By the time Lehigh got it together both offensively and defensively, they couldn't come all the way back, unable to stop Monmouth's offense at the end of the game to snatch a victory from an unexpected 23-21 defeat.
The first half had some of the same look and feel of that Monmouth game, which had many Lehigh fans quiet and concerned.
But there was also the sense that Lehigh was a lot closer than they could have been, too. If Soccaras drops that pass, it's 13-0. If Bucknell's kicker had made a field goal and that missed extra point, it could have been 17-7. As tense as things were for Lehigh, there were within a score.
"At halftime, we closed the doors and we said let's not worry about the championship," Shafnisky said. "We said, 'Let's be loose and let's play the game we've been playing since we were 6 or 7 years old.' It's not about the championship, it's about us coming together. We're a family. When you have trust and a relationship with your boys, you just have that extra incentive to do well and not let each other down."
If Lehigh were to come back and win this game, they would need to rely on the defense to reverse what had happened in that first half Bucknell drive - they couldn't afford to have Bucknell do what Monmouth had done in Week One, embark on a lengthy, eight minute drive to start the second half and then put them up by two scores.
The championship would be in the defense's hands, in the truest sense of the word.
"There was no yelling, screaming, anything like that," Coen said. "They said 'we know what we can do and we need to do it better than we were doing."
It would be in the hands of senior LB Colton Caslow, senior ROV Laquan Lambert, senior LB Pierce Ripanti, and senior CB Brandon Leaks - the four guys that suited up and were on the field during that agonizing 2013 Lehigh/Lafayette game where the Mountain Hawks lost the championship at home in some part due to the inability to make a key defensive stop.
"It was composed," Ripanti added. "We've played from behind before. Teams have gotten off to a good start before. Colgate scored on their first drive. Holy Cross scored on their first drive. Teams have gotten touchdowns early; we were used to that. We told ourselves, 'Get ready to win the game.'"
It would also be in the hands of sophomore CB Donavon Harris, who inherited the starting cornerback job when CB Quentin Jones was carted off the field at Yale on a stretcher. It would also be in the hands of senior LB Evan Harvey, whose emotion and passion has infused every defensive play this season. It would be in all of their hands, and the names of the players whom I'm not listing here. It wasn't in the offense's hands. It would be on the defense. The much-maligned defense.
"You wonder if those missing four points will haunt Bucknell," the Campus Insiders broadcast crew said at the start of the third quarter.
The ensuing second half kickoff by Mish was short. Unsurprisingly, sophomore LB Mark Walker and senior WR Jarrod Howard were right there on Bucknell's return man, shoving the wedge blocker right into him and taking him down at the 20.
It set the stage for what was going to happen next.
|LB Pierce Ripanti and DE Harrison Johnson (Morning Call)|
Second down and seventeen. As expected, a run by Defloria down the right side, tracked down by freshman FS Riley O'Neil.
Third down and eleven. Nitti finds DeFloria on a short pass over the middle, and asks him to get the extra yards for the first down, but Ripanti flies in and solo tackles him from behind at blazing speed - two yards short of the sticks.
"When we come out, we have a gameplan, they have a gameplan," Ripanti said afterwards. "Sometimes, it might be working, they might have some success with that early, but one thing this team has been good at all year is making adjustments, and when we make adjustments, we make those adjustments work. We were able to do that today. We kind of bowed our necks, all got together, and realized we needed to step up."
Lehigh got the ball back, and didn't make one really big play to score, but made a lot of little plays to make things happen - a 3rd and 2 completion to junior WR Troy Pelletier here for five yards, a big run by sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone here - to inch, to claw, to earn the yards to put the Mountain Hawks into field position.
Well in field goal range, Anderson busted through Lehigh's offensive line, sacking Shafnisky and setting up a very challenging, no-gimme, 37 or 38 yard field goal attempt by Ed Mish.
Everyone in the stadium knew how important this kick was, for Lehigh to get points out of this drive, to make this a field-goal game.
The kick from the sophomore from Old Bridge, New Jersey, with the wind at his back, would have made it from 47 yards. Critically, it was now only 13-10 Bucknell with so much of the game left to play.Multi-Patriot League Special Teams Player of the week @EddieMish22 hits from 37 yards and Lehigh cuts Bucknell lead to 13-10. #lvvarsity pic.twitter.com/lmG44hODy0— Keith Groller (@KeithGroller) November 5, 2016
Lehigh's defense would be asked to make Stop No. 2 once again.
Nitti wouldn't find much going to WR Will Carter, Bucknell's most dangerous man on offense, because Brandon Leaks had him shadowed most of the second half. Instead of big plays, Bucknell had to settle for safety valves.
|ROV Laquan Lambert (Roshan Giyanani/Brown and White)|
Another heavy pass rush, and Nitti's pass slipped right through the hands of Carter, and Lehigh would get the ball back again.
The offense would get the ball back at their own six, and once again, Soccaras would be the spark to get the Lehigh offensive furnace going.
On third and six, the offensive line starting to really hunker down, gave Nick Shafnisky the time he needed to roll left, and then throw across his body to the center of the field. The safety, going for the pick, undershot the ball, while a leaping Soccaras grabbed the reception and took the ball 40 yards, past midfield.
Even in the crowd you could sense things starting to come around - that somehow, some way, Lehigh was going to come back in this game. There was no party yet, but the possibility that this might end well suddenly came into focus.
On their heels, Bucknell gave up some big pass plays to Pelletier to move the chains, putting the New Hampshire native at over 1,000 yards for the season.
|WR Gatlin Casey (LehighSports.Com)|
The emotion in the stadium on the Lehigh side, bottled up for almost three whole quarters, was ready to pop like a champagne cork.
Shafnisky dropped back to pass, and he saw a wide-open junior WR Gatlin Casey, and he threw the perfect pass to him in a place only he could grab it. Right on cue, the end zone cannon went off like a champagne cork. The Mountain Hawks would have the lead, and after an unusually tense extra point try, Lehigh would be up 17-13.
Lehigh's defense would be asked to make Stop No. 3.
It would end up being one play.
|LB Pierce Ripanti (Doug Kilpatrick/Morning Call)|
Pandemomium reigned as the Mountain Hawks tried to put things away, but Bucknell continued to not make it easy.
The Mountain Hawk offense would get all the way to the 3 yard line, but this time, Shafnisky's pass would get just past the outstretched arms of Casey, forcing yet another tense 20 yard FG attempt by Mish.
Mish would once again nail the field goal, making the score 20-13 and putting just that much more pressure on Bucknell's offense to come up with a touchdown rather than a field goal.
Lehigh's defense would be asked to make Stop No. 4.
But Bucknell, once again, would make it hard for Lehigh earn their championship.
The Bison calling card on offense is ball control, smashmouth, time-consuming drives. Bucknell would do just that, driving 70 yards downfield on 17 plays, most of them of the 3 yard, 5 yard run variety, trying to wear down the front line of senior LB Colton Caslow, junior DE Tyler Cavenas, senior NG Jimmy Mitchell, and junior DE Harrison Johnson.
Freshman DE Colin Nace, senior LB Evan Kauffman, sophomore NG Julian Lynn, sophomore DE Harrison Kauffman would all get subbed in and out of the churn, trying to slow the stampede; they'd slow them up, but Bucknell would still find themselves first and goal, on the brink of tying it up.
Bucknell RB Chad Freshnock, with what looked like could be a broken nose, wouldn't be denied. He sat out, got a bandage on his nose, and went back out there and ploughed right into Lehigh's defensive front, gaining more first downs. Sophomore SS Mike Gies stopped Freshnock on one run, preventing a near-certain touchdown.
Once again, it didn't feel like a party. It didn't feel like a coronation. It felt like it could all be over in an instant.
On second down and goal, senior LB Evan Harvey took down Freshnock, and the music started to build, amplifying the tension.
Third down. Nitti throws it in the corner, but Lambert, with tight coverage, gives Carter no room to get his feet in bounds. Everyone in the stadium holds their breath. Incomplete.
Fourth down. 5:56 to play. Three yards. Bucknell, one of the best teams in all of FCS on fourth-down conversions, hike the ball.
Nitti tries a quick slant. I have seen this play before. I have seen Lehigh's championship and playoff dreams get crushed by a very similar play by Colgate, where WR Pat Simonds came down with a quick slant and allowed Colgate to steal away a victory.
|CB Donavon Harris (Doug Kilpatrick/Morning Call)|
"They had two receivers split out," Harris said, "and I saw [Will Carter] in the slot. I figured it was coming this way because [he's] one of the best receivers in the league. I said he's either running a fade or a slant, and I jumped it, came up with the ball, and just got down with it. I didn't know what to do, but it was a great feeling, very excited."
It felt like it might be time to celebrate, and after a 39 yard pass to Troy Pelletier, it felt like a matter of time before Lehigh was finally going to celebrate a championship on their home field.
But Bucknell wasn't done. It was destiny that they were going to make it hard for Lehigh to clinch that championship.
At the Bucknell 37, Shafnisky and Bragalone made a rare mistake of a handoff exchange, and the ball came loose. Bison NG Troy Glenn came down with the ball, and with 3:36 to play, they had one more chance to tie or win the game.
Lehigh's defense would be asked for the 5th time, and likely the final time, to get one more stop.
The Bison offense would get past midfield. The Mountain Hawk defense would have to dig in. Under two minutes to play.
On 1st and 10, Jimmy Mitchell shed his blocker, and punched the ball out for a critical eight yard loss. Bucknell would recover, but it would make things harder.
Two more passes, one a 5 yard safety valve, the other an incompletion.
4th and 13. 1:12 to play.
Pierce versus a guy who is projected to be a future NFL offensive lineman, Julie'n Davenport.
Davenport didn't have a chance.
That should do it! Big sack on 4th down gives ball back to Lehigh with 1:06 left and LU up 7. #lvvarsity pic.twitter.com/pHHevbaW9j— Keith Groller (@KeithGroller) November 5, 2016
Ripanti literally just blew by him on his right. With blazing speed, Nitti never had a chance to try anything. Pierce tackled him perfectly, getting the sack.
And just like that, Lehigh were Patriot League Champs.
Lehigh earned it. They had to work the entire game to earn this championship, and they did it.
Once Pierce's sack made it official, the party could actually begin.
In short order, coach Andy Coen was doused with Gatorade on the sidelines. Players, and students, mobbed the players on the field. It was over. It was done.
There would be no disappointment on this day, no Patriot League Championship Trophy being loaded into a truck and brought back to Patriot League offices. Lehigh is the 2016 Patriot League football champion. It's not the outright championship - not yet, anyway - but the Mountain Hawks are guaranteed at least two more bowl games - one two weeks from now in Easton against Lafayette, and another in the FCS playoffs, whenever that is.
It wasn't just an outpouring of emotion for one set of kids, one coach, or one player. It was putting shovelfuls of dirt on the disappointments, the near-misses, the almost-celebrations, the parties that never were.Your 2016 Patriot League Champions. pic.twitter.com/zpAHJmA3Gk— LehighFootballNation (@LFN) November 5, 2016
That it was done on the backs of the "much-maligned" defense, the guys that were supposed to be holding Lehigh back, the guys who had heard so much from fans, media, and from me, even, at times about how the Mountain Hawks would possibly do well in spite of them.
"Just coming off of last year, we had so many doubters, so many people that didn't believe in us," Ripanti said. "This was just an amazing opportunity for us to step up, show what we're about. I feel like this is just a culmination of all the hard work we've put in, all the hours, all the film we've watched and just the change in mentality we've had."
|QB Nick Shafnisky (Roshan Giyanani/Brown and White)|
"My mom ran up to me right after the game and was crying," Shafnisky said. "She said we should have three of these [league championships], but we finally came away with the most important one. The 17 guys who have been through everything with me these last four years, I credit all of them. I credit the freshmen who bought in even if they're not playing – the scout team – little things like that. We have the best coaches in the nation - the hours and the work they put in its second to none. It's a whole team effort that people don't really realize."
As Joe Sterrett, Lehigh's athletic director, shook the hand of every Lehigh football player that entered that locker room, congratulating them, he took the time to give a hug to Shafnisky.
|LB Colton Caslow Celebration (Roshan Giyanani/Brown and White)|
Amidst the tears and screams of joy, the photos and trophies, and the hugs and conversations -- "It's surreal," senior captain and linebacker Colton Caslow said, "I've never felt anything like it on the football field" -- defensive backs coach Craig Sutyak was carrying around his iPhone. On the other end of FaceTime conversation was Quentin Jones, the junior cornerback who was knocked out for the year earlier in the season after suffering a serious concussion.
Jones was back in Georgia, surely after watching the game online, and wanted to celebrate with his brothers. Sutyak took the phone to Caslow, who told him he was getting a ring.
Later, while the postgame press conference with Ripanti, Harris and Shafnisky was delayed for Coen as he searched for a new sweatshirt not dripping with Gatorade, Jones FaceTimed Ripanti. The three players quickly huddled around Ripanti's phone and talked to Jones, all beaming and celebrating again.
Coen walked into the room and heard Jones on the phone. The 11th-year head coach leaned in to see his cornerback, who had helped lead the defensive turnaround through the first part of the season. He had a message.
"Congratulations, man," Coen smiled. "You're a champion."
|Head coach Andy Coen (LehighSports.Com)|
Coach Coen seems to naturally give everyone who has the honor to meet him or know him the ability to root for him. His emotion and his passion for the game and his kids permeates through the entire Lehigh football program, as amply evidenced by his postgame comments about his team and the University that has him as head football coach.
Coach Coen could have spent the time just as easily making it all about himself, but of course, he didn't, because he knows, in the end, what was the most important thing - bringing out the best in his team.
He could have spent the post-game presser talking about he personally redeemed he felt after we all talked about "the game at Yankee Stadium", or the 2015 championship, or, as I mentioned, the disappointments in 2013, and even 2012, losing to Colgate.
But he didn't. Of course, the focus was on what makes Lehigh great, and the great kids he and the coaching staff are blessed to have in the program, with coach Coen even getting a little emotional, once all the players had left.
"That's the best part of coaching," he said. "We push these kids hard and we have high expectations for them. You have to high expectations if you're going to be successful in football, or in life. What we're about and what this university is about is bringing out the best in young people. It's a great institution for people to grow and learn from. Football is a tremendous way to teach people."
When you spend a lot of time covering Lehigh football, it's amazing how many people there are out there that want Andy to achieve his goals with the Lehigh football program, how many people truly ache with him when things aren't so great, and how many people are just busting out to thank him and congratulate him when he achieves a tremendous goal, on his own terms. In a world where snark and criticism is king, in the middle of a nasty, awful Presidential election season, Andy somehow finds a way to make you forget about the rest of the world and want to go through a brick wall for him.
When he lets slip at halftime that he wants his team to "get their shit together," you laugh, but at the same time you are absolutely dying, almost aching, to have it happen for his sake. You want everything to turn out right for him. For all the players who work incredibly hard for him, the coaching staff, too, but for him especially.
And when it does - when the Patriot League Championship is earned in the best, most beautiful, almost karmic way possible - it's a rare, beautiful thing.
"Incredible," senior OL Zach Duffy told Greg Joyce of Lehigh Valley Live. "It's almost like someone scripted it."