By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
FARGO, N.D. — In the end, not having junior WR Ryan Spadola didn’t matter for Lehigh
In front of more than 18,000 loud North Dakota State fans, and a fearsome Bison defense, the Mountain Hawks couldn’t overcome the injuries, the noise, and their own miscues in the 24-0 defeat in the NCAA Division I Football Championship quarterfinals.
It would be the furthest Lehigh had made it in the FCS playoffs since 2001, when it travelled to Furman and were defeated 34-17 by the Paladins.
When Lehigh looks back on this game, they will rue a multitude of missed opportunities, especially in the first half.
Senior QB Chris Lum moved the team well on two early drives in the first half, getting inside the Bison 30 on two separate occasions.
Senior RB Matt Fitz, filling in for the injured junior RB Zach Barket, ground out some great first down runs on one drives, while sophomore WR Lee Kurfis and junior TE Jamel Haggins made key grabs on the other.
But the noise clearly disrupted Lehigh’s precision on offense, causing a false start on one drive, and forcing head coach Andy Coen to burn a timeout on another.
And when Lum did get a chance to throw the football, he found himself flushed from the pocket by a variety of different Bison, notably NG Ryan Drevlow, DB Christian Dudzik, LB Preston Evans, and LB Travis Beck, who sacked Lum on a critical third-and-one play early in the second quarter.
“The atmosphere was definitely tough,” Lum said after the game. “Just relaying with the offensive line, the receivers, was very difficult. They had a really, really good defense that threw everything at us.”
Getting pressure on Lum was the key to the North Dakota State defensive game plan.
“We were hitting and hitting and hitting,” North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl said That really takes a quarterback out of his rhythm.”
Meanwhile, Lehigh’s defense was doing a great job with several stands of their own.
Two Bison drives ended in fumbles, one forced by junior LB Billy Boyko that grabbed early momentum back Lehigh’s way after an early interception, and by senior LB Mike Groome as the Bison were driving to score at the Lehigh 10 yard line.
Junior CB Bryan Andrews, too, made some critical stops in the first half as both heavyweights duked it out in the early going.
But Lehigh couldn’t capitalize, and early in the second quarter, North Dakota State would strike on a beautifully-thrown ball from QB Brock Jensen to WR Warren Holloway for a 37 yard touchdown.
The Bison receiver came down with the ball and didn’t have complete control, but did a great job steadying the catch and still getting one foot in bounds.
After DE Cole Jirik would force Lum into another third-down incompletion, North Dakota State would be pinned back on their own three yard line.
But it would be the Bison’s turn for a 90 yard drive this week, after a second-and-seven incompletion by Jensen was flagged for a questionable call for roughing the passer on senior DE Ben Flizack.
Jensen heaved the ball out of bounds just before Flizack made contact with him, but momentum carried him out of bounds with Jensen in his arms and roughing the passer was called.
There was no late hit, no unnecessary contact, no spearing, just a clean hit and continuation of the play.
Given that gift, North Dakota State proceeded to capitalize.
RB Sam Ojuri and RB D.J. McNorton would showcase their quickness and acceleration through North Dakota State’s beefy offensive line, to drive deep into Lehigh territory, and while Lehigh’s defense stood up a Jensen sneak at the half-yard yard line, the Waupaca, WI. native would keep his feet and, on second effort, get the touchdown.
Senior CB Kenyatta Drake’s interception near the close of the end of the first half provided another opportunity for Lehigh to get back into this game, but on a pass Lum will likely want to always have back, he fired a pass a bit to high into the hands of CB Christian Dudzik, which set up a 31 yard field goal by PK Ryan Jastram to make it 17-0 at halftime.
Along the way, players like Boyko and sophomore RB Keith Sherman came out with injuries, and senior WR Jake Drwal was taking incredible punishment every time he caught a pass over the middle.
He finished with 10 catches for 111 yards, but the punishment he took for those yards was immense.
“We had the yards, but we weren’t able to sustain them like we usually do,” Drwal said after the game. “They threw a lot of blitzes, kept Chris from going through his reads.”
One sustained drive at the end of the third quarter would bring Lehigh to the red zone for the first and only time all game — but disaster would strike when the Wildcat quarterback, junior QB Michael Colvin, would get picked off in the end zone and result in no points for Lehigh.
North Dakota State would make Lehigh pay for their turnover, too, turning the turnover into a clock-killing, game-grinding 16 play, 80 yard drive that would result in another Bison touchdown on a Brock Jensen sneak.
Lehigh’s defense played hard until the bitter end, though, with Groome wowing the ESPN announcers with a hurdling stop of D.J. McNorton at the 1 yard line to temporarily stop the Bison drive.
“We played hard the entire game,” Groome said. “We just didn’t make those big plays to stop them when we needed to.”
“Toughest to me now is saying goodbye to the three guys up here with me now, [Lum, Groome, Drwal],” Coen said. “The relationships you develop with the kids you coach is the most important thing to me.”
Coen also reflected on the growth of the program.
“It’s good we’ve gotten the program to the point where it is,” Coen explained. “We’re going to have a strong team again next year, kids are going to have to work hard.”
While Lehigh won’t be thinking about this now, Lehigh’s win, along with Maine’s loss to Georgia Southern, will almost certainly make the Mountain Hawks the winner of the Lambert Cup, given to the best FCS football program in the East, for the first time since 2001.
Assuming the Lambert Cup voters don’t do anything crazy, it will be Lehigh’s seventh in their history, and only their second at the Division I level.
The Mountain Hawks won the Lambert Cup five times as a “small school division” and Division II program in 1957, 1961, 1975, 1977, and 1980. They also won the Division II national championship in 1977.
The Lambert Cup adds another historic moment in a historic season for Lehigh.
As for the rest of the FCS playoffs, they will continue next weekend.
If the old adage is true that “defense wins championships”, North Dakota State would sure seem to have an awfully good shot at one this year with their incredible defense. It wasn’t one player — though LB Travis Beck’s hard hitting and blitzing stood out – but the Bison’s complicated 4-3 blitzing, along with the noise and pandemomium at the ThunderDome (yes, I do realize it is really called the FargoDome), make them a defense that no team wants to face.
They proved to be a great team this Saturday — and may even be national champions when all is said and done.