BETHLEHEM, PA – As sports fans, people tend to try to organize their passions within narratives they understand. They understand things like national championships, conference championships, and wins and losses, and when a sporting event doesn’t feature the stakes of a championship, or next year’s draft, they sometimes miss the story.
There was no Patriot League championship on the line – undefeated Holy Cross took care of that last week on Worcester, when they dominated Lehigh 42-14 in what amounted to a coronation, their fourth consecutive Patriot League title. There was no high level draft pick on the line when 1-8 Lehigh played 2-7 Colgate yesterday at Murray Goodman Stadium, no benefit for either side to lose, because that’s not how college football works.
But college football defies the narratives that a crowded sports fandom imposes on people. On Twitter, Facebook, and all media, the message that seems to be broadcast to sports fans is to not care about the games where a 1-8 team plays a 2-7 team, because the hivemind can’t seem to figure out why it’s important, why it’s meaningful.
Ask anyone who stayed to the end of Lehigh’s (2-8, 2-3) thrilling 36-33 win over Colgate (3-7, 2-3) this weekend, though, and you would know exactly why.
The Mountain Hawks’ win finally saw Lehigh break out of a frustrating seven game losing streak, one that saw them find new and more excruciating ways, it seemed, to lose every week. It was Senior Day, one of the critical days of a college football player’s career where they absolutely, positively, want a victory. And no matter what the media and the hiveminds say, Lehigh and Colgate have the type of rivalry that truly does transcend the won-loss record. Sure, Lehigh won, but beating Colgate was special in a way that many won’t understand.
Tribute to Andy Coen
Before the game, there was a video tribute to the late great Mountain Hawk head coach Andy Coen, who died earlier this year after a brief battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.
He is the winningest coach in Lehigh football history (tied with Bill Leckonby), and over the course of his head coaching career the Colgate/Lehigh rivalry had some of the most exciting, high-stakes encounters of its history. In the vast majority of those meetings, the game had mid-season Patriot League title implications.
Additionally, the 2016 and 2017 Patriot League Championship teams were honored at the game as well, Andy’s two final Championships.
“Yeah, I mean it felt great,”, LB Nate Norris said, the only player on the field that had played under coach Coen. “I played with a lot of those guys. I actually still keep in touch with a lot of them. I couldn’t imagine a better game for them to be honored and Coach to be honored.”
Initially, Lehigh fell behind 14-0 after the Raiders, behind QB Michael Brescia, orchestrated two touchdown drives – one a typical clock-grinding 11 play, 75 yard drive ending in a 2 yard TD run by RB Brendan Cassamajor, the other coming from a 51 strike from Brescia to WR Treyvhon Saunders that was too easy.
But unlike recent weeks, the Lehigh offense responded with a touchdown of their own.
Set up by a leaping 43 yard grab by WR Eric Johnson, QB Dante Perri finished off the drive with a 27 yard strike to TE Alex Snyder and a 1 yard TD sneak at the goal line.
“It was a funny feeling. I had that feeling. I think the whole sideline had that feeling,” head coach Tom Gilmore said after the game. “There was just this energy, this confidence that we were going to get it done and there just was no doubt. It was really neat and it started right away. It was our players trusting the calls and Dante just taking what was there. It was really neat to see, and I think they competed so hard during the game they were not going to let it get away from them.”
Colgate kept up the pressure on the Mountain Hawks, scoring twice more in the first half with a pair of field goals by PK Spencer Biscoe.
But Lehigh’s offense also kept things close, too, with another 11 play, 75 yard drive ending in another 1 yard TD sneak by Perri. The halftime score was 20-14, but Lehigh was definitely right there.
In the first half, Perri and Eric Johnson connected 6 times for 134 yards, which seemed to heat up the entire offense.
“We just kept trusting the process,” Perri said after the game. “We talked about that a couple weeks ago, just trusting what we’re doing, and eventually we’re going to come into our own and I think we saw that today. We didn’t really change who we were – guys were making plays all over the place, and that’s what we can be if we just keeping trusting the process and keeping rolling with it.”
But again the Lehigh offense would respond, this time with a 9 play, 75 yard drive ending with a 18 yard strike by Perri to Jalen Burbage to make it a 26-21 game. It was a mix of running with Perri and RB Gaige Garcia, while distributing the ball effectively through the air.
“I mean [Eric], I don’t what he ate for breakfast, but he was making every every single play. Geoff [Jamiel], Burb [Jalen Burbage], guys were making plays all over the place, and we’re blocking our asses off upfront, and that’s what we can be, if we just trust the process and keep going with it.”
It was as if fans were watching an “Air Lehigh” display from 2016 or 2017.
Going into the fourth quarter the game entered a defensive phase before going crazy in the final five minutes. Buck Buchanan award candidate LB Mike DeNucci was stopping Brescia play after play, while LB Nate Norris broke up a key 3rd down pass to stop another Colgate drive.
“Mike’s amazing player,” Norris said, “He’s always doing what he needs to do on the field to make people right. And we prepared for [Brescia’s rushing and passing game] all week in practice, the coaches definitely put us a good good situation. We all felt good going into the game.”
After those two stops, in what might have been Lehigh’s best offensive drive of the season, Perri went 3-for-3 to all three of his top receivers for 59 yards, and RB Jack DiPietro would rumble in to the end zone to give Lehigh their first lead of the game. The 2 point conversion pass to Eric Johnson was on the money, making it a 29-26 lead with 3 minutes left.
Brescia bounced back from the touchdown, not to be denied, with a 7 play, 45 yard drive that ended with him sneaking in the end zone with their own go-ahead touchdown with 1:33 left.
Did Lehigh have another offensive drive in them? As it turned out, the answer was yes.
Perri required five passes to win the game, none of which was bigger, or more thrilling, than the touchdown pass thrown to EJ.
Perri wouldn’t throw an incompletion in the 4th quarter, going 10 for 10. Overall he’d finish 25 for 333 for 424 yards and 4 TDs, two on the ground and two through the air. Eric Johnson would end with 10 catches for 194 yards, but no catch was bigger than the dramatic touchdown to give Lehigh the lead with under a minute to play.
“Just make a play,” Johnson said when asked about the game winner. “We talked about it. We’ve been talking about it since camp, you know, that we’ve got to be playmakers, and I always want to be the one to make that play. My number was called, and Dante gave a ball, I made up and made a play, and sealed it.”
Colgate drove past midfield on the last play, but – poetically – it would be Nate Norris who caught Brescia’s interception – the only turnover on the afternoon. On a day where former head coach Andy Coen was honored, it wold be Nate, the last active member of the team who played for him, who made the play to ultimately win the game for the Mountain Hawks.
It was the type of game Andy would have loved – a back and forth affair, with plenty of offense, against a team he both respected and wanted to beat resoundingly every year.
“This was a great win,” Gilmore said. “I’m really proud of our guys and the resilience they’ve shown not only in this game but all season long. We felt like we were getting better but we weren’t playing as consistently as we wanted to and we came out today, we didn’t play a perfect game but we made a lot of plays across the board and we competed really hard until the end. The resilience at the end was great to see.
“Any time you give up a late score like that and then just turn around and go right down the field it really says a lot about your toughness, your resilience, about your competitive spirit and I couldn’t be more proud of the players for that,” Gilmore continued. It was awesome to see. Nate grabbing the interception at the end to seal the deal so all of those things just really contributed to an awesome afternoon.
“This is still a rivalry. Now it doesn’t top the Lehigh/Lafayette rivalry, of course. But you know, if there’s a close second it would definitely be Colgate. There’s been many, many years that this was the de facto championship game. That’s not the case this year, but it still feels like a rivalry game. It still feels like there’s a lot at stake, regardless of records.”
|1st||09:13||COL – Cassamajor,Brendan 2 yd run (Biscoe,Spencer kick), 11 plays, 75 yards, TOP 05:47||7||0|
|1st||04:45||COL – Saunders,Treyvhon 51 yd pass from Brescia,Michael (Biscoe,Spencer kick) 3 plays, 62 yards, TOP 01:20||14||0|
|1st||03:11||LEH – Perri,Dante 1 yd run (Van Dusen,Dylan kick), 4 plays, 75 yards, TOP 01:34||14||7|
|2nd||14:47||COL – Biscoe,Spencer 24 yd field goal 9 plays, 68 yards, TOP 03:18||17||7|
|2nd||08:55||LEH – Perri,Dante 1 yd run (Van Dusen,Dylan kick), 11 plays, 75 yards, TOP 05:52||17||14|
|2nd||03:58||COL – Biscoe,Spencer 44 yd field goal 10 plays, 34 yards, TOP 04:50||20||14|
|3rd||10:24||COL – Oakey,Garrett 3 yd pass from Brescia,Michael ( ) 6 plays, 38 yards, TOP 03:04||26||14|
|3rd||06:19||LEH – Burbage,Jalen 18 yd pass from Perri,Dante (Van Dusen,Dylan kick) 9 plays, 75 yards, TOP 04:05||26||21|
|4th||03:58||LEH – DiPietro,Jack 17 yd run (Johnson,Eric pass), 6 plays, 80 yards, TOP 02:13||26||29|
|4th||01:15||COL – Brescia,Michael 1 yd run (Biscoe,Spencer kick), 7 plays, 45 yards, TOP 02:32||33||29|
|4th||00:22||LEH – Johnson,Eric 11 yd pass from Perri,Dante (Van Dusen,Dylan kick) 5 plays, 73 yards, TOP 00:48||33||36|
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
Reach him at: this email or click below: