When Lehigh’s football players finally took to their beds Saturday night after the end of the regular season, a thin layer of snow had blanketed the campus.
The first snowfall in Bethlehem meant it was not just the football team and the school that had waited all year for this day — Mother Nature had been waiting as well.
The cold flakes poured down like confetti, celebrating a 9-2 regular season that ended with a dominating performance by the Mountain Hawks against Lafayette in the 152nd Rivalry meeting.
Although Lehigh calmly and confidently won its last nine games of the season by an average of 21.4 points per game, including the 45-21 win over Lafayette, it’s easy to forget that the Mountain Hawks started the year 0-2.
“I don’t know if I saw a 9-2 season coming,” coach Andy Coen said. “But I felt that after the loss to Villanova — knowing that Villanova is a very good football program — I really believed that we could’ve and should’ve beaten Villanova that night. And that just gave me a lot confidence and our players a lot of confidence.”
Though Lehigh dropped the contest to the Wildcats 26-21, the team started to believe it was cut out for success despite having just lost its first two games. The Mountain Hawks proceeded to turn their 0-2 start into a Patriot League title, with the key being confidence.
“That’s the way we play here at Lehigh now,” defensive back LaQuan Lambert said. “That’s how we established ourselves during the offseason. We worked extremely hard to be here, and we feel as though we deserve to be on top.”
Perhaps the most confident player for the Mountain Hawks in Rivalry 152 was senior quarterback Nick Shafnisky, who was named the MVP of the game for the second consecutive year.
Playing in his last matchup against Lafayette, Shafnisky threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns while also adding a four-yard rushing score in which he eluded three Lafayette defensive players and dove into the end zone.
His rushing touchdown embodied the free-spirited nature Shafnisky had in the game, as he was willing to take risks all afternoon. Not only was he aggressive with his legs, but he also attempted throws off of his back foot, with a sidearm form and even underhanded.
“I trust the heck out of my guys out there, the five guys in front of me every game,” Shafnisky said. “And then you have our dangerous weapons like Troy (Pelletier), Gatlin (Casey), Trevor (Socarras), Derek (Knott), Dom (Bragalone), and Nana (Amankwah-Ayeh) showed you what he can do today. When you have all those guys, I guess it’s easy to be confident.”
The defense did not hold back against the Leopards either.
Though the Lafayette offense put together two efficient drives to begin the game, the first ended in a fumble and the second was cut short by an interception. Dylan Wadsworth, the Leopards’ leading wide receiver in the game, said the game could have turned out differently had Lafayette finished off its successful opening drive.
This season, the defense has contributed to a +10 turnover differential for the Mountain Hawks, led by difference-makers like Lambert, who recovered the fumble on Lafayette’s first possession. Lambert, along with linebacker Pierce Ripanti, shut down the Leopards, combining for 14 total tackles and 3.5 sacks.
“We really wanted to come out this year and make a statement with our defense,” Ripanti said. “We’re blessed to be able to go against such an explosive offense everyday in practice . . . we get on to the field, and we can never be scared of anybody or see anything that we haven’t seen all week in practice.”
When Lehigh was backed up at its own 2-yard line with four seconds left in the first half, Lambert blitzed Lafayette’s Drew Reed without hesitation, sacking him for a 13-yard loss that left the Leopards demoralized heading into halftime down 31-7.
Following the game, Lehigh (9-2, 6-0 Patriot) learned Sunday morning it will be facing the University of New Hampshire (7-4) in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Division I Football Championship. The last time the teams played was 2014 when the Mountain Hawks were dominated in the first half and lost 45-27.
With Colgate representing the Patriot League last year and making it to the quarterfinals, there is plenty of opportunity for Lehigh to make a run in 2016 if it can perform at the right times.
After an unexpected loss against Monmouth, Shafnisky called the performance the worst game in his career. Amidst the ups and downs, Shafnisky has learned one thing: “It’s not about who we play, it’s how we play.”