Bethlehem, PA – With a chance to win the Patriot League title and an automatic FCS playoff berth, Colgate not only silenced the critics by beating Lehigh on the road, 35-24, but the Raiders did something no league foe has done in over two years against Lehigh.
That is, defeat the Mountain Hawks in league play.
Lehigh entered the game one short of the Patriot record of 19 consecutive league victories and it had won an FCS-best 18 straight regular-season games. That all ended Saturday as coach Andy Coen's team perhaps had to painfully watch its own postseason hopes slip away, while Colgate celebrated with the Patriot title trophy and its own spot into the field of 20.
The Mountain Hawks fell to 9-1 - becoming the last FCS team to suffer a defeat in 2012 - and are now in serious trouble of making the FCS playoffs. A game at rival Lafayette looms next Saturday, leaving a chance of finishing 10-1, but Lehigh now has to earn an at-large spot, which wont be easy. Plus the team's strength of schedule isn't great.
Colgate improved to 7-3 and claimed its seventh overall Patriot League title, and its first since 2008. Although the Raiders play Fordham next week, the Rams are ineligible for the league race, so Colgate automatically finishes league play undefeated.
"It's a great win for Colgate, great win for our players, our coaches and for our school," Colgate coach Dick Biddle said. "But I'm really happy for this group of seniors because if we didn't win a championship, it would have been the first group that didn't win a ring while they were at Colgate, so it's great for that. They can cherish that for the rest of their lives."
To put the significance of the loss in perspective, it was the first Patriot League defeat for Lehigh since Nov. 7, 2009, versus Holy Cross. Before Saturday's loss, the Mountain Hawks had gone through the Patriot League undefeated and made the FCS playoffs the last two seasons.
After the first half, which the Mountain Hawks controlled on both sides of the ball, it looked liked their will to win would once again lead the team to victory.
The Mountain Hawks forced a three-and-out and a punt on Colgate's first possession - something that Lafayette didn't accomplish one time in last week's loss versus the Raiders - and after a Zack Hayden 52-yard reception, running back Zach Barket scored from 2 yards out to make it 7-0 Lehigh with 12:09 left in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, a Keith Sherman 1-yard touchdown run made the score 14-0 in favor of the home team. It even looked as if fate would help Lehigh yet again, as quarterback Mike Colvin's 4-yard pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and floated in the air helplessly, before it somehow landed in hands of Tyler Coyle for a touchdown. Lehigh led, 21-7.
After a Colgate score made it 21-14, Lehigh place-kicker Jake Peery nailed a career-high 43-yard field goal to give his team a 10-point halftime lead.
The Raiders were held relatively in check in the first half, managing just 150 yards and 14 points. The "Double-Mac Attack" of quarterback Gavin McCarney and running back Jordan McCord rushed for 63 and 56 rushing yards, respectively, and one touchdown each. Still, at halftime, the Raiders offense struggled to find a rhythm.
The second half, however, was a different story.
"I just thought out kids battled back and played great football in the second half," Biddle said. "They never got down, they dealt with injuries and made adjustments. This is probably the best win I've had in my career under the circumstances."
Like most of the season, the team looked to McCarney and McCord to literally carry it to victory. The duo finished the game with 121 and 118 rushing yards, respectively, while McCarney scored three rushing touchdowns and McCord scored two touchdowns on the ground.
However, while the offense kept grinding away with its run game, it was the play of Colgate's defense which made adjustments and stifled Lehigh in the second half. It shut out Lehigh and limited the Mountain Hawks to just 90 rushing yards on 20 attempts in the contest. Colvin completed 15-of-29 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown, but he threw to interceptions to Colgate strong safety Mike Yeager.
"All the credit goes to the defense, they played tremendous. That's why it's a team game," McCord said. "When the offense doesn't step up, the defense has to, and they did what they had to do. Mike Yeager's two interceptions, that was really key. All the credit goes to the defense for this win."
Colgate came into Saturday's contest having won five straight games and it averaged 53 points per game during that span. The Raiders ranked third in the FCS in total offense (510 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (41 points per game). The explosive offense might not have kept up with that pace against Lehigh's league-leading defense - finishing with 401 yards, 221 on the ground - but the Raiders stayed with their grinding run attack. And it paid off.
The win was special for Colgate linebacker Kris Kent, who grew up in the Lehigh Valley, not only because it guaranteed a spot in the postseason, but because his defensive unit came up huge.
"We knew coming into the game we had to step up, I mean, the offense has carried us literally on their backs for the past four games, so we knew coming in we had to step up," Kent said. "Everyone had to do their own job and just control what you can control. In the second half, we really did that and were able to shut them out.
"We knew we could just let our offense keep rolling. We knew we were going to score points, it was just up to us to stop them. It's definitely sweet to win it here, I had 50 friends and family here to celebrate, not only with them but also to celebrate with this awesome team. We put in so much work in the offseason and through the season working hard. It's just a great team win and I couldn't be happier."
A disappointed Coen gave all the credit to Colgate after the game. He said he believes his team still has a lot of football left to play, no matter what their playoff chances are.
"Overall I though our defense played awesome ... those kids hung in there and did exactly what they needed to do on the defensive side of the ball to give us an opportunity to win a championship today," Coen said. "In the second half, we just didn't get it done offensively, too many three-and-outs, we kept putting the defense back on the field. Given the nature of that offense, they are going to be able to grind it out.
"If you would have told me before the game, 'Coach, you're going to hold them to 400 yards of total offense,' I would have told you, 'Guess what, give us the trophy,' But we didn't do it. I've been saying all along it's a team game - offense, defense and kicking game. The offense made some plays early, but we didn't move the ball in the second half."