November, 18, 1995: In his 43-year coaching career, it was the hardest decision Kevin Higgins has ever had to make.
The sky around the lightless Goodman Stadium was quickly turning dark as the fourth quarter dwindled down to its final minutes. Fighting back from a 16-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter, the Lehigh football team had clawed its way back to within eight points of Lafayette — but still faced the unlikely feat of a comeback with approximately five minutes to go.
The fans and players were on edge as Lehigh’s hopes of a Patriot League Championship were beginning to slip away into the night.
Tasked with a fourth-and-5 from Lehigh’s own 40-yard line, Higgins made a quick, but firm decision.
He elected to punt the ball, foregoing the chance of a fourth down conversion.
“I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope this is right,’” Higgins said. “We punt the ball, and Steve Ludwig, ’99, a freshman at the time who came in as a quarterback, and we converted to an offensive tackle, comes down at the very end of the play, and the ball pops out of their punt returner, and (Ludwig) recovers it.”
In the first year of overtime in college football, Lehigh would come back to win 37-30 in double overtime over arch-rival Lafayette — one of the most iconic finishes to a game in Lehigh sports history.
Clinching a Patriot League Championship in the most unlikely of scenarios, Lehigh won the contest with a one-handed touchdown catch from senior wide receiver Brian Klingerman, ‘96, in the second overtime period.
Two draw plays to junior running back and eventual Super Bowl Champion Rabih Abdullah, ‘97, helped Lehigh get the touchdown and two-point conversion necessary to send the game to overtime. Once there, Lehigh (8-3, 5-0 Patriot League) never looked back.
“We had a decent first half but had a really bad third quarter,” said quarterback Bob Aylsworth, ‘96. “They went up by 16 points with like eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. I just remember looking at the scoreboard and was like, ‘There’s no way we can lose this game.’”
To spark the eight-minute comeback, junior tight-end Dave Meurer, ‘97, caught a touchdown pass on a short crossing route from Aylsworth, cutting the deficit to 30-22 before Abdullah’s runs extended the game.
Meurer remembers making a quick read on the defense to spring open for the catch.
“We called this pass play, ’76,’ and as a tight end, I’m supposed to stay and block unless I see the linebacker blitzing, and that’s what happened,” Meurer said. “So, I released, caught a short pass, and then rumbled up the sideline to score. At that point, we could see a comeback coming on.”
In overtime, Lehigh won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball second. Their defense, led by senior safety Roman McDonald, ‘96, stopped Lafayette from scoring in the first overtime period.
As Higgins puts it, McDonald was the unsung hero of the game. He racked up two interceptions, including one in the first overtime period to quell Lafayette’s attack.
Lehigh couldn’t capitalize, however, as Lafayette blocked the potential game-winning field goal attempt, and the game was sent to another overtime period.
“We were running out of light,” said junior offensive tackle Doug Yates, ‘97. “The magic of that game is that, on that final drive where (Brian) Klingerman makes the catch, it was basically dark. I remember thinking, ‘What are we going to do if we have to do this again? Are people going to pull their cars up and shine lights on the stadium?’”
Meurer remembers there being a nervous energy in the stadium. Once in overtime, though, he said the players were confident they could find a victory.
The connection of Klingerman and Aylsworth had put on dazzling performances in previous games, including another Klingerman one-handed catch against Columbia earlier in the season where Lehigh won 37-35 in a comeback victory over the Lions. That game was a turning point in the season, Yates said.
“Bob (Aylsworth) had this way, much like I’d imagine Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, of coming into the huddle and saying, ‘Ok, we’re going to win this game now,’” Yates said.
Aylsworth and Klingerman executed an option pass play, where Klingerman chose to run a post route, and Aylsworth hit him in the back of the end zone for the game winning pass.
Hit from his backside as he threw, Aylsworth couldn’t see Klingerman finish off the play but heard the positive roar from the crowd and knew that Klingerman caught the ball. He and the entire offense sprinted to the end-zone to celebrate.
As had been custom since the 1980s, Yates said, 1950s-style goal-posts had been implemented at Goodman Stadium the week prior to the Rivalry Game to stop fans from tearing them down in celebration. He vividly remembers worrying that fans storming the field would net Lehigh a penalty flag.
“The place went berserk. It was dark,” Yates said. “I was running in, and I remember all of us linemen telling the crowd to stay back and off the field. There’s a video of this somewhere documenting me trying to be a policeman of sorts.”
After the play, Lehigh’s defense halted Lafayette’s ensuing overtime drive with a fourth down stop and cemented their place in the history books.
“We had a lot of gutsy players that stepped up and made plays,” Higgins said. “Our offensive line played well, our defense made critical stops when they needed it. They wanted that game more than anything.”
Where are they now?
Higgins: Now the associate head coach and wide receivers coach at Wake Forest University, Higgins has served as an assistant at the school since 2014, coaching under former Lehigh offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, who served as Higgins assistant in 1994 and 1995. Higgins was an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions from 2001-2004 and the head coach at The Citadel from 2005-2013.
Aylsworth: He is CEO and a managing partner of Tri-Search, a recruiting firm that assists companies in hiring top employee talent. “Companies that need to find a world class CFO, head of sales, head of marketing, they come to us to go find the best talent,” Aylsworth said. The inspiration for his company’s name actually comes from the No. 3 jersey that he wore for Lehigh.
Yates: A writer and musician who graduated from Lehigh with a B.A. in English, Yates recently launched “Yates Writing Consulting” after spending several years running the writing center at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. Prior to moving to South Carolina, Yates spent nearly 12 years as a classroom English teacher.
Meurer: He is now specializing in security on the IT side around emerging technologies. Meurer recently started a new job at Red Hat, a company bought by IBM, where he serves as partner solutions architect. Meurer said the company is a leader in providing open source software for companies.