In the FCS Huddle: Lehigh finally breaks through against CAA

Entering Saturday's FCS second-round playoff bout with Towson, Lehigh had lost seven straight meetings with teams from CAA Football.

On Saturday, that streak finally ended as the Mountain Hawks not only knocked off a CAA team, but the conference champion, 40-38, in a shootout that was clinched, ironically, by a defensive play.

"We knew it was going to be a high-scoring affair, kind of felt that way going in," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said. "We hung in there, so many momentum shifts and ups and downs in the game. Beating a very good team, beating the CAA champion and represent the Patriot League, couldn't be any happier."

Coen hadn't beaten a CAA opponent since 2006, his first career victory in a 31-28 showing against Villanova.

In those past meetings with CAA opponents, Lehigh had come close, but could never make the crucial play to clinch the victory, which includes the only loss of the season, a 48-41 overtime setback against New Hampshire in Week 2.

While that loss put a blemish on the Mountain Hawks' record, it did provide a blueprint for winning a shootout and making the key play, something defensive end Tom Bianchi did with 5:14 remaining.

"I thought it was really good that we were able to play a CAA team earlier in the year, because it was actually a similar game," Bianchi said. "Our defense has had to keep hanging around. No matter how many times they score we still have to come back and do our job and hold them down."

With the game tied at 38, Bianchi brought down Towson quarterback Grant Enders in the Tigers' end zone for a safety.

"It was a perfect play call," Bianchi said. "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."

It wasn't the only big play the Mountain Hawks made Saturday, as Walter Payton Award (sponsored by finalist Chris Lum passed for 351 yards and running back Matt Fitz accounted for three total touchdowns, two rushing and one passing.

One of Fitz and Lum's finest moments came late in the second quarter, as they helped execute a 99-yard drive to erase any momentum Towson had developed on a touchdown run by Terrance West.

On the drive, all 99 yards came through the air, with Lum completing 7-of-9 attempts to get the Mountain Hawks to the Towson 23-yard line. Fitz did the rest, taking a handoff, stopping before the line of scrimmage and throwing a touchdown pass to Jamel Haggins on the fake play.

"That was definitely a highlight and the longest one I've ever been a part of," Lum said. "It felt good and it gave us the confidence to keep going on for the rest of the game."

The confidence was evident late in the fourth quarter, with Lehigh clinging to a two-point lead on a 4th-and-3 from the Towson 24, Lum moved the pocket and found a wide open Zach Hayden for the first down. The next play, he took a knee and ended the Mountain Hawks' frustrations against CAA teams.

"To beat the CAA champs says a lot about the Lehigh's football program and says a lot about the caliber of Patriot League football," Coen said. "I think sometimes our league doesn't get the notoriety that it should on the national level. I think the Patriot League handles itself very well this time of year."

The next step for the Patriot League champions is a playoff quarterfinal meeting with North Dakota State, the Missouri Valley Conference champion and second seed in the playoffs.

Knocking off the MVC champion wouldn't be a first for Lehigh. Last year, it defeated Northern Iowa, 14-7, in the first round of the playoffs.

It's a win, along with the victory against Towson, that North Dakota State should take notice of - Lehigh is a team not to be underestimated.

"Hopefully, maybe people will start taking us a little more seriously," Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola said.