By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
TOWSON, MD. — It was billed as a shootout between two of the top offenses of the Football Championship Subdivision.
And it was, indeed, a shootout between the the tough running game of Towson, and the precision passing game of Lehigh. But no one would have predicted the way the Mountain Hawks would come back for a 40-38 victory.
This second-round game in the NCAA Division I Football Championship was viewed as a game for supremacy in the East.
It was, indeed, a showcase between the champions of the Patriot League and the champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA, for Beast of the East.
But with all that was billed and all that was hyped the last two weeks regarding this game, played in front of a sellout, standing-room crowd of 11,196 at Johnny Unitas Stadium, nobody could have anticipated that the outcome of the game, the game-winning play, would come on Lehigh defensive end Tom Bianchi sacking Towson quarterback Grant Enders in the end zone.
Befitting a game that faced the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the ECAC Lambert Trophy poll, the poll for the best team in the East, it was an instant classic that featured six ties and seven lead changes.
The amount of momentum shifts and offensive responses to touchdown drives in the game resembled a classic Ali vs. Frazier fight.
As Towson walked through their inflatable Tiger tunnel, a player held up a championship title belt – setting the stage for this game to be a championship heavyweight fight from the start.
After Lehigh kicker Tim Divers started the scoring with a 23-yard field goal,Towson responded with a 45-yard boot from kicker D.J. Sowen to make the score 3-3.
With the first counterpunch of the afternoon, Lehigh’s senior quarterback Chris Lum went to work on Towson’s secondary, hitting some big plays to wideout Jake Drwal and running back Keith Sherman, before finding a place where only wideout Ryan Spadola could catch the ball in the end zone for a seven-yard TD strike.
It would be the second quarter before Towson would be able to knock down Lehigh to grab the momentum back in this game.
At the Towson 48-yard line, with two yards to go for a first down, Lehigh tried to run the ball twice with running back Matt Fitz, but Towson defensive tackle Marcus Valentine stuffed him at the line on fourth down, giving the Tigers a badly-needed break and the ball.
After Bianchi nearly sacked Towson quarterback Grant Enders on third down, Towson’s sophomore quarterback would connect with wideout Leon Kinnard for a big fourth down conversion.
That would get the ball rolling on Towson’s offense, finishing with two tremendous, slashing runs by running back Terrance West, one which would find the end zone for another tying score.
With momentum firmly in Towson’s favor, and a miscue on special teams to place the ball at the half-yard line, it seemed like Lehigh was in a standing-eight count, ready to go down.
But that didn’t stop Lum and and the Lehigh offense. Hardly.
Starting with a 15-yard strike to Spadola, Lum proceeded to complete seven of eight passes, slicing the Towson secondary with Fitz, Spadola, and fullback Zach Hayden, setting up a fourth and one on the Towson 23.
Then, a flawlessly-executed trick play grabbed the momentum back for the Mountain Hawks.
Fitz got the handoff, appeared to bear down to run for the first down, then quickly hucked the ball to a wide-open tight end Jamel Haggins, who virtually walked into the end zone to give Lehigh a seven point lead again.
It capped an 11-play, 99 1/2 yard drive.
But Towson was hardly finished.
From Lehigh’s trick-play punch, Towson went back to jabbing with their power rushing game to close the half, grinding out 55 yard of rushing with a trio of running backs, Sterlin Phifer, Trea Jones, and Tre’Mayne Dameron, to get back into Lehigh territory.
From there, Enders would scramble right, and find Kinnard, who had gotten free in the end zone, and ensure that both squads would enter the locker rooms tied at 17 at halftime.
On the first play of the second half, Lehigh’s Keith Sherman started the drive with a rush up the middle, but defensive end Brian Boeteng punched the ball out, forcing a fumble.
And when Towson safety Jordan Dangerfield pounced on the loose ball, the sellout crowd picked up a sudden jolt of energy.
With the momentum back on their side, Towson wasted no time in using it to their advantage, using some great runs from West to get back into the Mountain Hawk red zone – ending with a 1 yard run to give Towson their first lead of the game.
ESPN’s announcing team of Bob Picozzi and John Gregory would say on their broadcast, “A seven-point deficit doesn’t mean a lot to this Lehigh team.” True to that statement, Lehigh’s offense would counterpunch after Towson’s touchdown punch.
On this counterpunch drive, the critical element was a big third-down strikes by Lum to move the sticks.
Then, there was third-and-three connection to Spadola, who fought for a first down.
A third-and-eight connection to a streaking Fitz gained 14 yards.
And a third connection to Spadola on a screen, set up Matt Fitz’ six-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 24.
Spadola would end the evening with 13 catches for 152 yards, with the Howell, NJ native answering with big play after big play.
It was Towson, however, that responded with a big play of its own on the next drive.
With a third-and-15, Enders found Kinnard once again in a seam, where the receiver rumbled 63 yards to set up Enders’ quaterback keeper to give the Tigers a 31-24 lead.
Lum pumped and found Spadola, who bounced off of a would-be tackler and raced downfield for 39 yards.
Fitz finished the drive by bouncing twice to the outside for a one-yard run.
Then Enders began finding some holes in Lehigh’s defense. Enders located Sheppard had beaten his man down the left sidelines for a 52-yard touchdown.
Lum would go 4-of-4 with beautiful passes to his tight end, Haggins, while mixing the run with Fitz and — finally — Lum sneaked it in to tie the score again.
“It was awesome,” Lum said afterwards. “We knew we could do it, a lot of us were here last year (against the CAA champions Delaware) and we knew we could do it. We stayed the course, and we kept making plays.”
And then, the “onside” kick.
With Lehigh PK Jake Peery squibbing kick on the return, something he had been doing all game, to prevent big returns, the kick smacked a Towson player in the face mask.
The ball careened 15 yards back to Lehigh’s side, where an alert senior tight end Mark Wickware caught the football and Lehigh gained possession.
While Lehigh wouldn’t score on the possession, it would punt and force Towson backwards to start the next drive at the five-yard line.
It also set up the Mountain Hawks’ unlikely, game-winning score.
It was a naked bootleg, a gutsy call by Towson head coach Rob Ambrose, but it left Enders unprotected. As Enders turned to run right, he turned into a full-speed Bianchi for the safety.
“It was a perfect play call,” Bianchi said after the game. “All of a sudden, I saw the quarterback spin outside, and I was right there. As soon as I tackled him, I wasn’t sure it was a safety. Once I got up and saw everyone celebrating, I knew it was a safety.”
It left the disciplined Towson quarterback stunned.
“I think they just had our number on that play,” Enders said after the game. “I wish I could have made a move to avoid that. I think they were just in the right defense for that play.”
Towson coach Rob Ambrose,— who calls plays for his team, just as he did as the offensive coordinator at Towson and Connecticut in the past — was quick to put the blame on himself.
“The (Lehigh) defense was pretty disciplined,” Ambrose added. “Probably a bad call on my part. You guys want to go back to the Maryland game — if you want a chance to win, you’ve got to be a little unorthodox. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
Bianchi was credited with 2 1/2 sacks during the regular season, but it was his one sack in this game that has put him in Lehigh’s history books.
Equally as crucial, it gave Lehigh the ball back after the ensuing free kick from the Towson 20.
Lum took over, hitting Haggins, Drwal, and Hayden to move the sticks three times to seal the Mountain Hawk victory.
It was Lehigh’s first win over a CAA squad in the Andy Coen era and the Mountain Hawk’s first victory over a CAA squad in the playoffs since they beat Hofstra 27-24 in overtime at Murray Goodman Stadium in 2001.
It was the first time Lehigh had beaten the CAA champions on the road since its thrilling 24-23 victory over Richmond in 1998.
“The emotions are too strong to describe with words,” said Colin Newton, who ended the day with 12 tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss. “We told the defense that we were going to get punched in the mouth twenty times, and we’re going to have to get up twenty-one times. And that’s what we did.”
Probably no one was happy than Lehigh coach Andy Coen, whose job was in serious jeopardy just a couple of years ago.
“I’m very proud of my football team for hanging in there against an outstanding Towson team,” Coen said after the game. “We knew it was going to be a high-scoring game. I was concerned because we hadn’t had to play a full four quarters in a few weeks, but we hung in there with all the momentum shifts. I’m proud of my football team and the way we handled ourselves today. It was a great environment.
Coen and company knew they had dispatched a very strong team.
“My hat’s off to Towson. We beat the CAA Champions and represented the Patriot League well. I couldn’t be happier.”