CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – For the third straight week Lehigh found itself down at halftime, and once again the Mountain Hawks delivered a superb second half performance to come away with a victory. The No. 18/19 Mountain Hawks scored 14 third quarter points and the defense took care of the rest in a 14-7 win over No. 16/16 Northern Iowa in front of 5,990 Saturday at UNI-Dome. With the win Lehigh improves its record to 10-2 and more importantly, the Mountain Hawks advance to the second round where they will face No. 3 Delaware.
Lehigh out-gained UNI (7-5) 336-251 on the day and limited the Panthers to just 188 yards rushing, nearly 30 yards below their season average. The Mountain Hawks intercepted UNI quarterback Tirrell Rennie three times and benefitted from three missed Panther field goals as Lehigh becomes the first Patriot League team to win an NCAA playoff game since Colgate in 2003.
"I’m obviously thrilled with the effort our football team put forth through four quarters," said head coach Andy Coen. "I can’t say enough about how our defense played and swarmed to the football [with] relentless pressure on the quarterback. They did a great job of bottling up an explosive offense all day.
"I thought our special teams were very important [as well]," he continued. "We had a stretch when we weren’t moving the football. We kept getting the ball around midfield and our punter Alex Smith did a great job of keeping them to a long field. The blocked field goal was also huge and took momentum away."
In a game of mistakes, Lehigh made the first one on its second drive of the game as junior quarterback Chris Lum was intercepted by Craig James at midfield. UNI moved the ball 50 yards in nine plays, and Rennie gave the Panthers the lead when he scrambled left and tiptoed down the near sideline for a 17-yard touchdown.
From there both defenses took over as there was no more scoring in the first half. Midway through the second period, Lehigh moved into UNI territory courtesy of a 31-yard hookup between Lum and senior Craig Zurn on third down, but senior Tom Randazza missed a 41-yard field goal. Lehigh’s defense came up with a pair of interceptions late in the first half, the first by senior John Veniero and the second by senior Casey Eldemire, as the Mountain Hawks trailed by just seven at halftime.
Through the first 30 minutes the teams were just about even with UNI holding a slim 118-115 advantage in yards. Lum was 10-of-21 for 94 yards and an interception. He was also Lehigh’s leading rusher with 23 yards on five carries. Sophomore Ryan Spadola was the top receiver with four grabs for 33 yards.
For Northern Iowa, Rennie was 5-of-10 for 60 yards and two interceptions. He also rushed 11 times for 31 yards.
The second half started dubiously for Lehigh as Lum and Spadola connected for 15 yards and a first down on third and ten but Spadola was stripped of the ball and Northern Iowa recovered at the Lehigh 36 yard line.
The Mountain Hawk defense clamped down after stopping UNI on three rushing plays and Lehigh remained down just 7-0 after Billy Hallgren missed a 44-yard field goal wide to the right.
With newfound momentum Lehigh needed just four plays to tie the game. On a first and ten from the Lehigh 38, Lum found junior Jake Drwal along the far sideline and after eluding a defender; Drwal sprinted towards the end zone to complete the 62-yard score. Randazza’s extra point tied the game at seven.
Late in the third quarter Rennie was picked off for the third time as senior John Kennedy stepped in front of a pass and returned it to the UNI 28. On the very next play, Lum hit Spadola on a skinny post for a 28-yard touchdown, which gave Lehigh the lead.
Aided by a Lehigh penalty, Northern Iowa put together a drive to answer the Mountain Hawks’ go-ahead score, but after settling for a field goal attempt, senior Jarard Cribbs raced off the edge to deflect the kick and give Lehigh possession.
Lehigh tried to run out the clock but when an eight-play drive stalled, the Mountain Hawks were forced to punt. UNI answered with a 12-play drive of its own as Rennie and Carlos Anderson found creases in the Lehigh defense. With three-and-a-half minutes remaining, Northern Iowa opted for a field goal attempt, which Hallgren pushed wide to the right.
The Mountain Hawks gave the Panthers one more opportunity as a second-down halfback option pass by senior Jay Campbell was ruled an interception for Jordan Smith. Rinnie was knocked out of the game after a two-yard run. Zach Davis came in and after a short pass on second down; he was sacked by junior Colin Newton for a loss of 12 on third down. Senior Al Pierce stopped Anderson for no-gain on fourth-and-18 to seal Lehigh’s first playoff win since 2001.
"The kids have a confidence; we’re a second half team," said Coen. "We’ve done it all year. The third quarter was huge. The character of our football team, how the kids work and believe in each other and believe in what we’re doing [helps lead to the comebacks]. It gets rewarded when you all work hard, plays come to you and you capitalize."
Lum finished 18-of-37 for 267 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Spadola was the top target with nine catches for 127 yards, while Drwal finished with three grabs for 80 yards. Campbell led Lehigh with 47 while Lum added 32. Pierce led Lehigh with 11 tackles, while Newton had ten tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Rennie finished 6-of-14 for 61 yards passing and gained 86 yards on 27 rushes. Anderson added 94 yards on the ground for the Panthers.
"This is a very good football team that we played," said Coen. "We’ve had some very good wins this season and this is without a doubt the best, the best football team that we’ve beaten. They're champions of a conference that we have a tremendous amount of respect for. It’s great that we could come and represent the Patriot League and Lehigh University very well today. I’m very proud of our team and everybody associated with our program."
The Mountain Hawks will now travel to Newark, Delaware to face the No. 3 national seed Fightin’ Blue Hens next Saturday at noon. Tickets can be purchased through Lehigh beginning Monday at 10 a.m. by calling 610-7LU-GAME or by visiting the Lehigh ticket office, located in Grace Hall.
EXTRA POINTS… Saturday’s game was just the second indoor game in Lehigh football history… Lehigh lost 77-14 at Idaho in the next-to-last game of the 1993 season… The Mountain Hawks reached the ten-win mark for the first time since the 2001 squad finished 11-1… Lehigh is now 2-0 against members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference… The Mountain Hawks beat Western Illinois 37-7 in the 2000 playoffs and went on to face Delaware the following week… UNI lost at home in the playoffs for just the fifth time in 19 games at UNI-Dome… Lehigh’s defense recorded four sacks, with Newton securing 2.5 and three other players credited with 0.5.
Photography (c) 2010, Molly M. Wade. Used with permission.