With Lehigh’s offense performing so well this season, the defense perhaps hasn’t received the recognition it deserved.
Lehigh (8-2, 5-0 Patriot) defeated Bucknell University 20-13 on Saturday behind a second-half shutout by the defense, clinching the Patriot League title and a spot in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2011 in the process.
“Obviously, this was not an easy football game, we knew that coming in,” coach Andy Coen said. “Sometimes the hardest ones are the ones you enjoy the most, and when you’re winning the championship it should be hard. Bucknell made it hard, but we’re the ones with the trophy and I can’t be more proud of this group of guys.”
After surrendering 13 points on Bucknell’s first three drives of the game, the defense held the Bison scoreless on their last seven drives and came up with two interceptions and four sacks.
With the offensive struggles Lehigh endured today, especially in the first half, the defense needed to have a big performance in order to get the win.
“It’s true when you say defense wins championships — they won it today,” senior quarterback Nick Shafnisky said. “Our offense, at halftime we were talking about it, we let them down. So for us to come back, score those 13 points, and them to pitch a shutout — they just keep cranking it up every week. Every week they’re getting better and better.”
The Mountain Hawks scored just 20 points Saturday, their lowest total all season. Shafnisky, who came into the game completing 69 percent of his passes, connected on just 18 of his 37 attempts today for 264 yards.
Shafnisky was responsible, however, for both of Lehigh’s touchdowns on the day. After tying the game on a one-yard run in the first quarter, he found junior Gatlin Casey in the end zone in the third.
Casey’s touchdown reception gave Lehigh a 17-13 lead, which was ultimately the game-winning score for the Mountain Hawks.
On Bucknell’s first play of the subsequent drive, senior linebacker Pierce Ripanti pressured quarterback R.J. Nitti and forced him into a quick throw. Ripanti deflected the pass into the air before coming down with the interception.
The turnover eventually led to a Lehigh field goal, which put the Mountain Hawks up 20-13, the eventual final score.
“Coming off of last year, we had so many doubters, so many people that didn’t really believe in us, and this was just an amazing opportunity for us to step up and show what we’re about,” Ripanti said. “I feel like this is just a culmination of all the work we’ve put in, all the hours, all the film we’ve watched.”
Bucknell threatened to tie the game at the end of the third quarter, pushing the ball all the way to Lehigh’s 4-yard line. Lehigh’s defense was able to get three stops before sophomore cornerback Donavon Harris came up with an interception on fourth down to preserve Lehigh’s seven-point lead.
Lehigh gave the Bison one last chance to make a comeback after Shafnisky fumbled the ball on a handoff with 3:36 left. However, sacks by Ripanti and senior defensive lineman Jimmy Mitchell ended what could have been a game-tying drive for Bucknell.
From there, the offense needed only one first down before the formality of taking three knees to end the game.
Lehigh will have a bye next week before coming back to play Lafayette in the final game of the regular season Nov. 19 in Easton. Because of the rivalry between the two teams and the uncertainty that comes with it, Coen was happy to get the win and the trophy today rather than leaving it up to the final week.
“We never want to go into that situation, we’ve been in that a couple of times, and we’ve always been able to win the trophy before having to play Lafayette,” Coen said. “That game will be as hard as the one we just played.”