By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
BETHLEHAM, PA. — It was billed as the Patriot League championship game — a winner-take-all contest between the two best teams in the Patriot League in 2011.
In the end, though, the game ended up looking a lot like the last 11 times the Hoyas lined up against the Mountain Hawks.
Lehigh’s offense racked up over 500 yards of offense and held onto to ball nearly 38 minutes as they took home their second consecutive Patriot League championship with a fairly convincing 34-12 victory.
The Hoyas fought gamely, but ultimately ended up not being able to capitalize enough times on Lehigh’s mistakes to come away with the win.
But for Lehigh, it became a day of many milestones for the student-athletes on the field as well as the program.
The Mountain Hawks became the first team since the 2000 and 2001 Lehigh squads to win back-to-back Patriot League Championships outright.
And with a reception in the third quarter, junior wideout Ryan Spadola broke the single-season Lehigh receiving record in this game — which was held by the Mountain Hawls’ current offensive coordinator, Dave Cecchini, in 1993.
“My mom knew [I was about to break the record], she follows everything,” Spadola said after the game. “I kind of knew about it too, but I threw that to the side.”
Spadola was quick to give props to Cecchini.
“It”s an honor to have gotten the record while he’s here coaching me. I’m very humbled the have beat coach Cecchini’s old record, he’s a great coach. He congratulated me. Before I got it, he joked with me, said ‘You’re that close, so I’ll run the ball a few more times.'”
As for Georgetown, the Hoyas have to be kicking themselves thinking about the opportunities they didn’t take advantage of early in the game.
The first opportunity the Hoyas had came after CB Jeremy Moore stripped the ball loose from a Mountain Hawk on the Lehigh 40, setting up shop for the Hoyas in great field position.
But aside from a well-executed screen pass by Georgetown quarterback Isaiah Kempf to Nick Campanella for a 29 yard gain, Lehigh’s defense would hold firm with a fearsome pass rush, and the normally-reliable Hoya kicker Brett Weiss would push a 23 yard field goal wide right.
Given another chance to get the scoring started, Lehigh quarterback Chris Lum went to work.
He’d go a perfect 6-for-6 passing, slicing the defense with a multitude of first down passes. Once in the red zone, Lehigh running back Matt Fitz would run right into his “O” line — who pushed the Georgetown defense into the end zone, giving Lehigh the first score on the afternoon.
“This week we had early success with the pass, so we kept doing it”, Lum said after the game. “Guys were open, there were great play calls, and good protection, so it worked out this week. We have great playmakers.”
After Lehigh took advantage of a shanked punt to convert on a 24-yard field goal attempt by kicker Tim Divers, Georgetown kept things interesting with its special teams play.
A 43-yard return by Moore would give Georgetown excellent field position again, and after a big sack to prevent Kempf from getting a key first down, Weiss nailed a 38-yard attempt to give the Hoyas a score.
Then, however, Lum and Spadola went back to work.
In their first connection, Lum found Spadola over the middle, where he went vertical over several Georgetown defenders and gained about five extra yards before being brought down for a 16-yard gain.
Then Lum lofted another beautiful pass downfield to his favorite receiver — and Spadola almost made it to the end zone, before being stopped at the one-yard line.
Instead it was Michael Colvin who earned credit for the touchdown instead of Lum or Spadola, running the ball in from the Wildcat formation from the one.
Divers and Weiss traded field goals near the end of the first half, with Lehigh’s field goal being set up by the first of two interceptions by cornerback Bryan Andrews, whose family was in the stadium from Georgia to watch their son help clinch the Patriot League championship.
But coming out of the locker room in the second half, Georgetown made things interesting with another good return by Moore and a sustained drive.
On third and goal from the six, Kempf’s pass in the end zone was defended well by senior strong safety Jon Littlejohn, but bounced off the Georgetown receiver and ultimately landed in the hands of receiver Max Weizenegger for a touchdown that cut the deficit to 20-12.
“You could feel it on the sideline,” Hoyas coach Kevin Kelly said to Washington Post’s John Feinstein after the game. “We could hear our fans behind us. The momentum was definitely on our side at that moment. We felt like we were right where we wanted to be.”
But on the Hoyas’ next drive, Andrews intercepted Kempf and return it for a pick-six, making the score 27-12. Lehigh would not look back, adding a five-yard touchdown sneak by Lum to finish the scoring.
“It was a basic slant route,” said the designated receiver, Patrick Ryan,. “The guy [Lehigh safety Billy O’Brien] just jarred it loose and unfortunately [Andrews] was right there and we had nobody close to him. We scored on a deflection right before that, then they got a deflection for a score. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
It turned into a special moment for Andrews and his parents.
“I thought the quarterback had actually overthrown him, but the wind got a hold of it, luckily the receiver tipped it, and I was in the right place at the right time,” Andrews said. “It was a great thing to make (my family’s) trip worth it to see not just my success, but also the whole team’s success. I wouldn’t have wanted them to come up here if we hadn’t have won.”
In a game that hinged on turnovers, Lehigh fumbled the ball twice, but forced three interceptions, including Andrews’ two picks.
Lehigh won the Patriot League championship game and thus guaranteed it will be playing somewhere after Thanksgiving.
But Kevin Kelly saw a bigger picture for his Hoya squad, who have never had an eight-win season in their 10-year, Patriot League history.
“This team will be remembered at Georgetown for a long time to come,” Kelly said. “People are going to look back on this senior group and say they were the ones that got us turned around in the right direction. Today was a disappointment but these guys deserve to celebrate this season. We don’t feel that right now but down the road we will.”
As for Lehigh, it felt like the Patriot League championship was just one stop on the way to something a whole lot more important, the playoffs — after beating arch-rival Lafayette next weekend, of course.
“I’m very, very proud of these guys,” said coach Andy Coen, still wet from the dousing of Gatorade he got from Andrews and one of his teammates after the game. “There was a mindset with this team that developed at the end of last year. The seniors have been great leaders and I can’t say enough about how these guys approach the game and how important it is to them and everyone. You have to have that mindset to be successful.”
For a coach that was on the hot seat before last year’s success, Coen has seen the mindset change rapidly at Lehigh.
“I thought we had a chance to repeat when the season started and I saw some really good signs early in the year but it was just a matter of trying to get better. I really felt that we should win this championship.”
The Mountain Hawk players have also been rewarded for all of their hard work.
“This was an exciting thing,” Andrews said. “When you’re recruited, the first thing you want is to win a championship. That was our goal from day one when we first came in, and it feels good to achieve our goal.”
The win was particularly gratifying to the seniors.
“It feels great, being a senior and doing this twice,” Lum said after the game. “It feels great being Patriot League champions again.”
Photo Credit: Matt Smith/The Easton (PA) Express-Times)