By Matt Markus
College Sports Journal
BETHLEHEM, PA. —
By now most people understand that FCS stands for Football Championship Subdivision.
After this past weekend, for half of the Patriot League, it could also stand for Football Comeback Subdivision.
Fordham, Lehigh and Lafayette were all involved in games that needed a rally on Saturday. Unfortunately for the Leopards, they found themselves on the wrong side of the score after nearly capping their own comeback with two minutes to play.
We’ll start with the game that ended last as the Leopards hosted Sacred Heart under the lights at Fisher Stadium in Easton, PA.
All knotted up at 17 apiece heading into the fourth quarter, Sacred Heart kicked a field goal 4 seconds into the last stanza and added another with 10:22 remaining in the game for a six-point lead.
After an 11-play drive that resulted in a turnover on downs, it was up to the Lafayette defense to give their offense another chance.
The Leopard “D” was up to the challenge, forcing the Pioneers into a 3-and-out punt situation, giving the ball back to the offense with 3:20 to go.
Lafayette then embarked on a 4 play, 72-yard drive that ended in the end zone in just over one minute of elapsed game time.
A Ryan Gralish extra point gave Lafayette a 24-23 lead, their first since the second quarter.
But the quick score gave Sacred Heart 2:02 to try for the winning score.
Two minutes and two seconds decided which team is on the right side of this comeback story.
On the seventh play of the drive, Sacred Heart was aided by a roughing the passer call.
Your thoughts on this call would be determined by which color you were wearing in the stands that day. Lafayette fans thought it was a terrible call, butSacred Heart fans gladly accepted the extra 15 yards.
A first down completion brought the ball to the Lafayette 21 yard line.
Two incompletions and a third-down sack put the ball at the 25. Sacred Heart called time out with three seconds to play.
A 42-yard field goal attempt from an 18 year old kicker attempting his first-ever collegiate kick would decide which team was on the right side of this comeback story.
Amazingly, Alec Finney’s field goal was good as time expired – barely – and the comeback was complete: Sacred 26 Lafayette 24 from Fisher Stadium.
“I had no idea before (the last minute) that I’d be kicking,” Finney said after the game. “I didn’t even practice field goals in warmups. I thought when the kick was off my leg that I hit it well.”
“If we score two more touchdowns, the [roughing the passer call] at the end doesn’t matter,” Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani said afterwards. “We left too many points on the field.”
What could have been the biggest upset of the week took place in the Bronx as Fordham hosted a Villanove team that began the season ranked 8th in the nation.
The Rams were looking for a 2-0 start, trying to pin a second loss on the Wildcats to start the season.
Both teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter and both changed the scoreboard twice in the second, but Villanova went into the locker room up 21-17 at the break.
A Wildcat field goal early in the second half extended the lead to 7 but that is the last time Villanova would score.
Fordham would answer the field goal with one of their own on the very next possession and they went to the fourth quarter down by 4.
From there it didn’t take long to regain the lead for good.
On a drive that overlapped the final two quarters, Fordham capped off a 96-yard drive with quarterback Michael Nebrich taking it in himself for 4-yard touchdown run.
The extra point gave the Rams a 27-24 lead, having scored 10 straight points. It was then up to the defense to hold off the Wildcats the rest of the way.
Villanova would fumble the ensuing kickoff, but Fordham could do no more than run off a few minutes and punt.
Fordham would then force a fumble on a Villanova offensive drive on the next possession, but again, Fordham could not add to their lead and was forced to punt.
It was the third Villanova fumble, and the second consecutive forced fumble by the Ram defense, that sealed the deal and the Rams were able to take three knees and a big victory.
The upset was complete – Fordham 27 Villanova 24 from Coffey Field in the Bronx.
“We turned the ball over five times, and you can’t beat anybody doing that,” Villanova head coach Andy Talley said after the game. “We gave a good team way too many opportunities. Fordham deserved all the credit, deserved to win the game. Their quarterback was great and was the star of the game.”
“I challenged our kids for this game,” Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead said. “When defining moments occur in your life, either the you define the moment or moment defines you. I told them that they had a opportunity to make history for themselves and this school, and show we’re a legitimate Top 25 team and compete for a national championship, and they did it.”
The most exciting game was also the most improbable and took place at Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem.
Who would have thought that Lehigh would fall behind so much to Central Connecticut State?
Who would have thought that the highest-scoring game in stadium history would have ended with the Mountain Hawks pulling out a stunner in double-overtime?
After a tentative first half with a brand new quarterback, Lehigh found themselves trailing at halftime 21-10 but the talk around the press box was “they get the ball back to start the second half, score and it’s a brand new ball game.”
And that’s exactly what happened. It took 42 seconds to pull within 4 points as Brandon Bialkowski found Josh Parris for a 57-yard score.
Back in the game, the Lehigh defense forced a punt and the Mountain Hawks had a chance to take their first lead of the game.
A third-down interception foiled that plan and two plays later the Blue Devils were up by 11 again.
On the very next possession, another third down interception gave the ball back to CCSU and again a two-play drive ended in the end zone.
The ensuing PAT was blocked, but the Mountain Hawks found themselves trailing 34-17 just 7 minutes after pulling within 4 points.
CCSU would tack on a field goal with 10:46 to play and Lehigh was down by 20 points. That’s when the offense reverted back to Air Lehigh and began their comeback.
Three plays. 50 yards. Lehigh Touchdown. Down 13. The defense holds CCSU to a 3-and-out and a punt.
Two plays. 62 yards. Lehigh Touchdown. Down 6.
The Blue Devils were able to get off 6 plays before punting and the Mountain Hawks had the ball yet again.
Three plays. 82 yards. Lehigh Touchdown. Tie Game.
It would remain tied as the Mountain Hawks’ extra point after attempt hit the upright and fell to the ground in front of the crossbar.
With 3:32 remaining Lehigh would not take their first lead of the day and would need their defense to hold on to force OT.
They did just that, by the skin of their teeth.
A first down run of 35 yards almost made the missed PAT a moot point. A field goal would win the game either way and CCSU was in business.
The Blue Devils got the ball to the Mountain Hawk 22 yard line where the drive stalled, setting up a 39-yard field goal try for the win.
It was no good.
Lehigh took a knee and the momentum into overtime.
CCSU got the ball first and took five plays to find the endzone. Lehigh responded on its first play with a TD strike of their own. We go to a second OT tied up at 44.
This time Lehigh needed 3 plays to grab their first lead of the game. An 11-yard TD run for Sean Farrell, his second score of the game, gave Lehigh a 51-44 lead in the second overtime.
It was time for the defense to step up one more time.
It came down to a 4th down try from the 23 yard line.
CCSU had the option of gaining a first down, they wanted a touchdown and nearly got it.
Scott Benzing had the pass from Nick SanGiacomo in his hands but Isaiah Campbell swatted it away before a touchdown could be awarded.
The comeback was complete. Lehigh 51 Central Connecticut State 44 in Double Overtime from Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem.
“The number one most important thing is how these kids hung in there together,” Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said afterwards. “They never quit for one minute. We were down 20 then the offense makes a big play and the defense makes stops, on and on down the line. I’m incredibly proud of our guys for hanging in there. They never quit.”
“That game was not over and I knew it,” Central Connecticut State head coach Jeff McInerney said. “When we kicked the field goal to go up by 20, I was worried. It was a fun game to be a part of. You don’t like to be on the short end of it because there are no moral victories, but I’m proud of the guys.”
Fordham needed stops the entire fourth quarter and forced fumbles each and every drive. They scored the final ten points to knock off a tough Villanova team who gave Boston College all it could handle the week before.
Lafayette used a 72-yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes but Sacred Heart was able to use some questionable officiating and the leg of it’s kicker to steal one at the horn.
Lehigh ushered in the Brandon Bialkowski era and combined with Central Connecticut State for the most points ever scored at Goodman Stadium. The senior quarterback who had never thrown a collegiate pass showed the Lehigh faithful that being down 20 with 10 minutes to go was not ideal, but also not impossible.
For one Saturday, the Patriot League was at the lead story of the FCS – the Football Comeback Subdivision.