On the far side of the field, dejected Lehigh football players walked off the field and into the locker room. At the same time, hundreds of Lafayette fans were in the process of swarming their team as they lifted the Patriot League title for the first time in 10 years over their rival’s logo.
Lafayette won the 159th meeting between the two teams Saturday afternoon when they defeated Lehigh 49-21 at Goodman Stadium.
The scene on the Lehigh bench at the end of the game was the opposite of halftime when a motivated Mountain Hawks team pumped up a crowd of nearly 15,000 as they ran off the field leading 21-14.
What happened? There were 35 unanswered second-half points and a 326-yard offensive onslaught by the Leopards.
The effort was led by sophomore running back Jamar Curtis who had three rushing touchdowns in the second half as he finished with 166 yards on the ground. Curtis entered the game having missed the previous Lafayette game against Colgate due to an injury but having run for over 1,100 yards on the season.
He had 34 yards and no touchdowns in the first half. On both of Curtis’s last two scoring drives for the Leopards, the team took advantage of starting beyond their 40-yard line.
Lehigh’s senior linebacker Mike DeNucci said the short field position and Lehigh’s two second-half turnovers allowed for Lafayette’s offense to eventually prevail.
“At first we were stopping them,” DeNucci said. “I think the biggest thing was the turnover battle that stopped us. We put ourselves in this bad situation — not just the offense but the defense as well.”
The second-half turnovers by Lehigh, an interception on the half’s opening drive by senior quarterback Dante Perri and a fumble on a kick return by junior Dylan McFadden, both resulted in ensuing touchdown drives for Lafayette.
Lehigh turned the ball over once in the first half as well when Perri fumbled while trying to escape from a sack. That drive was Lehigh’s only one in the first half that did not end in them scoring a touchdown.
Lafayette’s sophomore quarterback Dean DeNobile, named afterward as the game’s most valuable player, threw a touchdown to senior tight end Mason Gilbert on the game’s opening drive. This was before Lehigh put together two consecutive scoring drives.
Senior running back Jack DiPietro caught a pass from Perri and ran 25 yards down to the one before punching the ball into the end zone to tie the game at seven.
On the next drive, Perri aimed downfield on a third-and-five play before looking to his right and finding sophomore wide receiver Geoffrey Jamiel open on the swing route for a 21-yard score to give Lehigh the 14-7 lead.
After starting last year, Perri lost the quarterback battle with sophomore Brayten Silbor and sat as a backup for most of the season until Silbor got injured last week against Colgate.
In what might have been his final collegiate game, Perri threw for another touchdown as the half was winding down to give Lehigh the 21-14 lead. Perri had 110 passing yards at the halftime break.
“Throughout the year I didn’t really know if I would get the chance (to play),” Perri said. “I was excited to get a chance to represent Lehigh out there.”
By the end of the third quarter, DeNobile had another passing touchdown to sophomore tight end Dallas Holmes to tie the game and Curtis scored his first touchdown to take the lead.
Lafayette continued to force Lehigh into punting the football or committing turnovers. Lehigh did not punt at all in the first half but punted three times in the second half.
“We didn’t complement ourselves offensively or defensively,” Lehigh coach Kevin Cahill said. “A team like (Lafayette) is just waiting for a spark and they found it.”
In the fourth quarter, Lafayette turned their lead into the largest margin of victory the Leopards have secured in the rivalry since 1994 when they put three more touchdowns on the board to take the 49-21 win.
Lafayette’s Patriot League title will be shared with Holy Cross as the two teams are crowned co-champions, both finishing with a 5-1 conference record.
Due to Lafayette’s win over Holy Cross, the Leopards also secured an automatic bid into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Finishing his first season with a rivalry loss, Cahill enthusiastically remarked after the game he was “ready to go” for next season and he’s ready to use 2024 to shred the team’s label of being in a rebuilding phase.
“I’m tired of hearing it,” Cahill said. “We’ve got to get to work and play better football.”