Story and photo courtesy of Colgate Athletics
BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Dick Biddle calls it his best championship ever.
Actually, Biddle included the word “probably” in his postgame assessment of Saturday's 35-24 Colgate win over Lehigh here Saturday – just in case one of his six other Patriot League titles was just as sweet.
But Biddle and the large Raiders contingent that swarmed the Goodman Stadium field at game's end seemed to be in seventh heaven as the conference championship trophy was passed among players, coaches and fans.
“It was a great win for Colgate and for our assistant coaches, but I'm really happy for the players,” Biddle said. “This senior group hadn't won a championship and would have been my first one not to get a ring while they were at Colgate. Now they will cherish it for the rest of their lives.”
The win, Colgate's sixth in a row, qualifies the Raiders (7-3, 5-0 Patriot) for the NCAA playoffs that begin Nov. 24.
All on the Line
Saturday's combination of a terrific road atmosphere, national television audience, undefeated opponent and league title in the balance – not to mention one heck of a second-half comeback – will be talked about long and loud in Raiders lore for many years to come.
“Our kids battled back and played great football in the second half,” Biddle said. “They never got down and that's a tribute to them. I'm so proud of the players.
“This is probably the best (championship) I've had in my career under the circumstances. To do it on somebody else's field in front of a big crowd – it doesn't get much better than that.”
Colgate won its seventh Patriot League football championship Saturday by rallying from a 10-point halftime deficit and shutting out the Mountain Hawks in the second half. Not only did Lehigh not score again after taking a 24-14 lead to end the first half, but Colgate held its hosts to just 80 yards of total offense the last 30 minutes.
“There weren't really a lot of adjustments at halftime,” senior defensive tackle Chris Horner said. “It was just players not doing their jobs. The coaches told us to just do our jobs and we could start containing them. That's exactly what happened.”
A closer look at the numbers shows an even more dominant performance for the Raiders defense. Lehigh gained exactly 33 yards of offense in the second half until a garbage-time drive netted another 47 – after Colgate had taken its 11-point lead with just over a minute remaining.
“I just feel redeemed,” Horner added. “The way our offense has been playing the last month, we haven't really been needed. But this was our day to impact the game and it sure felt good to make a difference out there.”
Colgate's offense, meanwhile, strung together consecutive second-half scoring drives of 80, 94 and a clinching 62 yards to completely turn the tables on previously undefeated Lehigh (9-1, 3-1 Patriot).
“It was a tough, physical game today and we kind of wore them down by the fourth quarter,” said Biddle, whose team held nearly a 44-16 edge in time of possession. “We didn't panic on offense and the defense really stepped up.
“The key for us was to not go away from what we do. Maybe our offense struggled a little in the first half, but our kids believe in the system and we just kept running and throwing it. That kept them off balance.”
Colgate's Mac-n-Mac attack of Gavin McCarney and Jordan McCord scored all five touchdowns and both went over the 100-yard rushing mark for the fifth game in a row and sixth time this season. McCarney rushed for 121 yards on a season-high 24 attempts, while McCord added 118 yards on 35 tries.
McCord gained 60 of his yards in the fourth quarter as the senior topped 100 yards rushing for the 10th time in 10 games this year. He also provided the clinching score with a final bulldozing run of 8 yards.
“We told the offensive line all game that this was going to be a grind, and they kept pushing,” said McCord, who now has 1,486 yards rushing this year. “We kept grinding away and we were able to pick up those tough yards. And our quarterback is the toughest player I've ever played with.”
McCarney scored three times to increase his NCAA-leading scoring average to 13.1. The junior signal-caller has scored 21 touchdowns, and his 2-yard run with 9:14 to play handed Colgate its first lead of the game at 28-24.
“Lehigh definitely got the better of us in the first half,” McCarney said. “But we settled down and started moving the chains, and our defense was unbelievable in the second half.”
Colgate finished the game 11-of-19 on third-down conversions and 3-of-4 on fourth down. Most of those successes were at the hands of either McCarney or McCord.
“You're not going to hold Jordan to less than three yards on any rushing play, especially with our offensive line pushing like it was,” McCarney said of his backfield mate. “We like our chances when we get it to third-and-short or fourth-and-short.”
Quick Strikes the Other Way
The first half was a contrast in styles, with Lehigh scoring quickly and Colgate the more methodical offense. Colgate also was stymied by poor starting field position for its first four drives, which started at an average of the Raiders 22-yard line.
Lehigh broke on top on its first possession. After forcing Colgate to punt for the first time in two weeks, the Mountain Hawks needed only two plays to make it 7-0. Quarterback Michael Colvin hit a wide-open Zach Hayden for 52 yards to the Raiders 2-yard line, and Zach Barket carried it over from there with 12:09 to play in the first quarter.
Lehigh then made it 14-0 early in the second quarter by taking advantage of a Colgate fumble near midfield. The Mountain Hawks drove 53 yards in seven plays, scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run by Keith Sherman with 13:46 to play in the half.
Suddenly, it was Colgate's largest deficit since the Raiders trailed 17-0 at Stony Brook in September.
“We knew they were a good team and they were going to come and fight,” McCord said. “They did a tremendous job, but we were able to keep pushing and keep pushing.”
Colgate's first break of the game came midway in the second. Lehigh went for the punt-block but instead roughed Colgate's Evan Goldszak, giving the Raiders first down at the Mountain Hawks 33-yard line.
From there, the Colgate rushing attack took over and covered the remaining distance in six more plays. McCord was ruled not to have scored on third-and-goal from just outside the 1-yard line, but he made it for sure on fourth-and-goal and it was 14-7 with 5:53 left in the half.
Lehigh went back on top by 14 when Tyler Coyle won a jump ball in the end zone off a deflected pass Colvin. The 5-yard TD pass made it 21-7 with 3:39 to play before halftime.
The Mountain Hawks then gambled again on special teams and came up empty. Lehigh tried a pooch-onside kick that failed and gave Colgate possession at its own 47-yard line. Colgate needed only six plays to cover the distance, with McCarney scoring from 10 yards out and Andrew Burgess adding the PAT to make it 21-14 with 1:07 left.
Which happened to be just enough time for Lehigh to tack on three more points. Mountain Hawks kicker Jake Peery capped a quick, seven-play drive by making a 43-yard field goal at the halftime horn.
Colgate for the first half held the ball for 21 minutes and 41 seconds, yet trailed in total offense 252-150. And although McCarney was 7-of-10 passing, those connections accounted for only 44 yards and neither of his ace wide receivers – Chris Looney and Daniel Cason – had a reception.
Not surprisingly, those two wideouts played a key part in Colgate's second-half rally.
Pounding Pays Off
The third quarter began as a stalemate until Colgate finally broke through in the final minute with an 80-yard scoring march. McCarney hit key passes of 11 yards to Cason to move the chains, and then 40 yards to Looney down to the Lehigh 25-yard line. From there, McCarney finished the drive from 9 yards out for his 20th rushing touchdown of the season and it was down to 24-21 with 26 seconds left in the third quarter.
As the period ended, Colgate defensive end Vince Myers sacked Colvin to push the momentum squarely in the Raiders' favor. Colgate's defense held to open the fourth but then the Raiders faced terrible field position after Lehigh's Tim Divers blasted a career-long 72-yard punt to pin Colgate to its own 6.
But 94 yards was no barrier with a championship on the line. McCord converted a third-and-3 by inches, and then McCarney hit C.J. Stempeck for another first down at the Colgate 29. Two plays later, McCarney hit a wide-open Ryne Morrison for 57 yards to the Lehigh 14.
The Mountain Hawks made it tough sledding from there, but McCord converted on fourth-and-inches to the 2 and McCarney carried it over the very next play to give Colgate its first lead of the game, 28-24, with 9:14 remaining. The drive consumed 11 plays and took 5:27 to complete.
Colgate's defense continued its second-half assault, forcing a quick three-and-out to hand the ball back to the offense. The Raiders took over at their own 38 this time and proceeded to record three consecutive first downs that milked precious seconds off the clock.
McCord's plowing run against a wall of Lehigh defenders somehow made it to the end zone and euphoria reigned over the Colgate sideline and stands.
“We preach four yards a carry,” said McCord, who helped the Raiders average 3.6 yards per rushing attempt. “We were able to pick up those tough yards and keep the chains moving.
“But all the credit goes to the defense for this win. They played tremendous football, and that's why this is a team game. They did what they had to do. Mike Yeager, two interceptions, that was really key.”
Yeager, a senior reserve, earned extra playing time because of the absence this week to linebacker Patrick Friel. And Yeager made the most of his chance with his first two interceptions of the season, both in the second half.
Yeager's pick with 31 seconds left iced the game.
“Today was big for the defense as whole,” Yeager said. “We knew everybody had to contribute. On both of my interceptions, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Because of the discrepancy in time of possession, Yeager and fellow safety Chad Frey led the Raiders with five tackles apiece. Vincent Russo added four and Lehigh Valley native Kris Kent was among those who added three tackles.
“It's definitely sweet to win it here,” Kent said. “I had about 50 friends and family here and I celebrated with them and with this awesome team. We've put in so much work. It's just a great team win.”
The Raiders finish the regular season next Saturday at Fordham in a 1 p.m. kickoff.
The NCAA Division I Football Championship bracket announcement takes place Sunday, Nov. 18, at 1:30 p.m. on ESPNU.