Lehigh squeaks past Towson
Bianchi’s sack helps secure the win for the Mountain Hawks
TOWSON, Md. -- On a night where both offenses moved the ball and scored points at will, a defensive play propelled Lehigh into the NCAA quarterfinals. Junior Tom Bianchi sacked Grant Enders for a safety with 5:14 to play to lead the Mountain Hawks to a 40-38 win against Towson Saturday night in front of 11,196 at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
Lehigh then successfully killed off the final 5:14 on the clock with a 12 play drive as the Mountain Hawks improve to 11-1 on the season. The Mountain Hawks will now faceNorth Dakota State in the quarterfinals next weekend.
In a wild, back-and-forth game that featured six ties but just two lead changes senior quarterback Chris Lum completed 36-of-48 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown. He also ran four times for 23 yards and a score. Lum’s top target was junior wide receiver Ryan Spadola, who caught a Johnny Unitas Stadium record 13 passes for 152 yards and a score. Senior Matt Fitz led Lehigh on the ground rushing for 49 yards and two touchdowns, and also threw his first career touchdown pass on an option play in the second quarter.
The teams combined for over 800 yards of total offense, with the Mountain Hawks holding a 482-339 edge.
“I’m very proud of my football team for hanging in there against an outstanding Towson team,” said Lehigh head coach Andy Coen. “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.”
Lehigh won the toss and deferred to the second half. The Tigers went three-and-out on their first possession. On fourth and two from their own 42, the Tigers faked a punt, but sophomore fullback Zach Hayden stopped Tyler Wharton short of the first down to give Lehigh the ball in Towson territory.
“It was something we talked about and our guys stepped up and made a play,” Coen said. “Towson has done a great job all year with special teams. There was a lot to prepare for. I was very pleased with how we handled that one.”
The Mountain Hawks moved the ball inside the Towson ten yard line, but following a seven-play, 37-yard drive, Lehigh settled for a 22 yard Tim Divers field goal to take an early 3-0 lead.
Towson answered Lehigh’s score with a nine-play, 40-yard drive, which stalled inside Lehigh’s 30. D.J. Soven came on to kick a 45 yard field goal to tie the game at three halfway through the opening quarter.
The Lehigh offense went back to work on its next possession, going 68 yards in six plays. The Mountain Hawks were helped by a pair of passes from Lum to sophomore Keith Sherman and a 15-yard personal foul against the Tigers. Lum hit Spadola on a fade from six yards out to give Lehigh a 10-3 lead late in the first quarter.
The Tigers seized momentum early in the second quarter, stopping Fitz on a 4th-and-1, and then marching 52 yards in ten plays. Terrance West scored his nation-leading 28th touchdown on an 11 yard run and the extra point tied the game at ten five minutes into the second.
On the ensuing possession, Lehigh found itself backed up at its own one yard line but the Mountain Hawks were unfazed as they methodically moved the ball down the field in 11 plays. Faced with a fourth down situation, Lehigh kept its offense on the field. Lum handed the ball to Fitz, ran forward and then lobbed a pass to junior tight end Jamel Haggins for a 23 yard touchdown to put Lehigh back in front.
For the third time, Towson answered a Lehigh score with a score of its own, as the Tigers moved 67 yards in 13 plays. Enders hit Leon Kennard on a three yard touchdown pass and the extra point left the game tied at 17 at halftime.
Lum was a very effect 18-for-24 for 170 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Spadola was his top target with seven receptions for 76 yards. Towson’s offense was primarily ground-based as the Tigers picked up 102 of their 168 first half yards on the ground. West gained 30 yards on six attempts.
Lehigh opened the second half with the football, but the game’s first turnover led to Towson’s first lead. Sherman fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. Towson recovered and nine plays later West plunged in from a yard out to give the Tigers a 24-17 advantage.
Down for the first time in the game, Lehigh showed its resiliency, marching 64 yards in 11 plays. A pair of third down passes from Lum to Spadola kept the drive alive and then Fitz ran the ball in from six yards out, and Tim Divers’ extra point tied the contest at 24 with 6:05 left in the third quarter.
The two teams traded punts, before Towson came through with its biggest play of the game. On 3rd-and-15 Enders hit Kennard for a 68 yard pass down to Lehigh’s five yard line. On the next play Enders ran it in himself for the go-ahead score to put the Tigers back up by a touchdown late in the third quarter.
Lehigh answered once again to tie the game for the fifth time. Lum and Spadola set the Mountain Hawks up with a 39-yard connection. Early in the fourth quarter Fitz scored his second rushing touchdown of the game, this one from one yard out to make it a 31-31 game.
It didn’t take long for Towson to respond as two plays later the Tigers hit another big play in the passing game. This time Enders hit Gerrard Sheppard down the left sideline for a 52-yard touchdown to put Towson up 38-31 with 12:36 to play.
The back-and-forth play continued as Lum moved the Mountain Hawks 72 yards in nine plays and evened the score once again with a one-yard run on a quarterback sneak.
Junior Jake Peery’s ensuing kickoff hit one Towson’s Alex Blake and bounced directly to senior Mark Wickware to give Lehigh the ball at its own 41. The Mountain Hawks’ drive stalled but a Divers punt pinned the Tigers at their own eight yard line. Facing second and nine, Enders dropped back to pass and Bianchi worked his way into the backfield, tackling the Towson quarterback in the end zone for the go-ahead safety.
“It was a perfect play call,” Bianchi said of the safety. “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.”
After receiving the ball on a free kick, Lehigh successfully milked the last 5:14 off the clock to clinch their first quarterfinal berth since 2001. Lum had three key conversions on third or fourth down, connecting with Haggins for six yards on 3rd-and-2, hitting senior Jake Drwal for 18 on 3rd-and-6 and then facing 4th-and-3 from the Towson 24; hit Hayden in the flat for 10 yards. Towson was out of time outs, and Lehigh was able to put its tenth consecutive win away with one more Lum kneel down.
For Towson, Enders finished 12-of-21 for 214 yards and two touchdowns. Kinnard was his top receiver with 94 yards on five receptions. West was limited to 52 yards on 11 carries, while Tremayne Dameron rushed seven times for 34 yards.
Seniors Colin Newton and Mike Groome led Lehigh’s defensive effort with 12 and 11 tackles respectively.
“I’m proud of my football team and the way we handled ourselves today,” Coen said. “It was a great environment. My hat’s off to Towson. We beat the CAA Champions and represented the Patriot League well. I couldn’t be happier.”
The Mountain Hawks will now faceNorth Dakota State next weekend at Fargodome. Game time and broadcast information will be announced on Sunday.