The Lehigh football team ran onto a soaked Goodman Stadium field on Saturday with raindrops hitting its helmets and soaking every player to the bone as the Mountain Hawks were preparing to take on rival Lafayette College in the 153rd matchup between the two teams.
But whether it was because of the rain or the opponent, the Lehigh team that fans had seen at the beginning of the season reared its head once again in the first half.
The Mountain Hawks had solid start to the game as they quickly put points on the board, but as the game progressed, the momentum was lost as Lafayette gashed the Lehigh defense and capitalized on every one of the Mountain Hawks’ mistakes.
After senior wide receiver Troy Pelletier set a new Patriot League record for career touchdown receptions with 35 in the first quarter to put Lehigh up 14-7, the momentum swung. Lafayette scored 17 unanswered points and the panic started to set in as Lehigh was at risk of losing to its longtime rival and a chance to be crowned Patriot League champions.
“I tried to talk to them about the environment of this game, and the excitement of this game to to keep your composure,” coach Andy Coen said. “I pulled one guy off the field because he got a 15-yard (penalty) because I had given them that song and dance already that this is a game and you can’t do that. That hurt us. We were driving and we wound up having to give up the ball because of that penalty.” coach Andy Coen said.
Lehigh completed the first half looking like a team without a vision. The Mountain Hawks had fumbled the ball four times, allowing the Leopards to recover three. These fumbles left Lafayette in prime position to score and take advantage of Lehigh’s defense and the Leopards entered their locker room with confidence, up 24-14 over Lehigh.
“They were running a lot of unbalanced stuff,” Coen said. “They were running tackles over so you’re not expecting that, but things started to settle down and it felt like we had a handle on the whole thing.”
Coming out of the break, Lehigh started to return to its top form and played with a sense of urgency. The offense, which has posted some of the best numbers in the entire country through its first 10 games, started to find a rhythm. Junior quarterback Brad Mayes was the catalyst to the comeback as he continuously led the Mountain Hawks down the field in the second half.
But Mayes had help with weapons like Pelletier and senior wide receiver Gatlin Casey to go along with sophomore running back Dom Bragalone. The core group, that has led the Mountain Hawks all year, refused to relent.
“A lot of our plays are designed for Troy, that’s how it goes, but they were giving us a look towards the field where Jorge (Portorreal) and Gatlin (Casey) were and we taking advantage of the field throws which is just what happened in the second half,” Mayes said. “It’s not like I was out there deciding who I was going to throw it to. Its progression based and who came open on that certain play so I think at that time we started hitting those field throws and Gatlin exploded for his huge second half.”
Perhaps the biggest contributor outside of Mayes to the comeback was Casey, who led the team in receiving yards with 154. Casey and Mayes were responsible for the the defining moment of the game and season. Casey ripped through the Lafayette secondary as he sprinted down the field toward the goalpost and caught a 41-yard touchdown that put Lehigh on top 38-31 with 7:49 left in the game.
“All week we’ve been practicing that situation. It was one-on-one with the safety, and Brad (Mayes) said he was in the pocket looking left, then he looked right and he saw me one on one with the safety,” Casey said. “He threw it up perfectly, I ran under it and made the catch and that’s the game-winning touchdown.”
The touchdown embodied everything that Lehigh wanted to be when it faced a deficit. It was graceful, calm and coordinated.
After throwing for 397 yards and three touchdowns, Mayes was named the MVP of the 153rd Rivalry game. He becomes the second straight Lehigh quarterback to win the award after former Lehigh gunslinger Nick Shafnisky won the award the past two years.
The Mountain Hawks have now won the last three Rivalry matchups and seven of the last 10 games. Lehigh will now wait to see its opponent in the FCS Playoffs after clinching its second straight Patriot League title.