Football Drops Pivotal Game at Lehigh

Originally published in The Fordham Ram on November 2, 2016.

kevin-anderson-v-lehigh-courtesy-of-fordham-athletics

Kevin Anderson and the Rams offense had a lackluster day against the Patriot League-leading Mountain Hawks. (Courtesy of Fordham Athletics)

The Rams are no longer in control of their own FCS Playoff destiny after their 58-37 blowout loss to the Patriot League-leading Lehigh Mountain Hawks on Saturday. Fordham and Lehigh both came into the matchup undefeated in league play, with Lehigh in first place due to having played – and won – one more game than Fordham. However, a win for Fordham would have catapulted them into first place, and put them in the driver’s seat. Instead, the Rams need Lehigh to lose their final two games while also winning their own final three to win the Patriot League.

The script for the game was written in the first two drives for both teams.  “It was mostly in the beginning. Those first two drives, we killed ourselves,” said senior quarterback Kevin Anderson. “We got ourselves in situations where we’re facing first-and-30, first-and-25, and that, as a play caller, is a nightmare. As a quarterback I’m like, ‘Geez, what are we going to do to get back?’”

The Rams, and particularly junior running back Chase Edmonds, looked solid early in their first drive. Edmonds took the team to right around midfield with a few strong runs against a stout Lehigh defense before the penalties that have haunted the Rams the last few weeks once again reared their head. First there was a hold called on a completion to sophomore receiver Austin Longi, backing the Rams to a first-and-18. But then, before the snap to try and dig themselves out of an already-deep hole, there was a false start penalty. The Rams went from a promising drive to backed up on their own 35-yard line with a first-and-23 and eventually punting.

The Fordham defense, which had been incredibly stout against Georgetown last week – including holding the Hoyas to -2 yards on the ground – was decidedly less so in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Mountain Hawks used multiple big plays en route to a quick first score. Running back Dom Bragalone found the end zone for Lehigh on a simple run to the outside, where he covered 19 yards essentially unbothered by the Rams front seven for the score.

Hoping to answer on their next drive, the Rams once again shot themselves in the foot before even snapping the ball. They broke the huddle prior to the first play with 12 players, which set them back five yards. And then before the snap on their second attempt, there was another holding call, setting them back to a first-and-25 and eventually another punt.

Lehigh only needed one big play to score on the ensuing drive. Quarterback Nick Shafnisky found Derek Knott streaking down the middle of the field, having beaten junior defensive back – and reigning Patriot League Defensive Player of the Week – Caleb Ham off the line for an 84-yard touchdown. A missed two-point conversion resulted in Lehigh quickly being up 13-0.

“It was a big storm of us hurting ourselves and them making big plays,” said Anderson.

The Rams put together their best drive of the game on the next possession. Edmonds had carries of 20 and 30 yards, and Anderson eventually found the end zone on a 3-yard keeper to cap off the 10 play, 91-yard drive. However, senior kicker Makay Redd pushed the extra point, so the Rams still trailed 13-6.

The Ram defense stood tall on their next drive despite giving up a big play on a bobbled handoff by Shafnisky. With the Mountain Hawks deep in their territory, the secondary was able to break up a pass in the end zone and force a field goal, which Lehigh converted.

Fordham strung together another strong drive, but this time it was Lehigh’s turn to stand tall in the red zone. They managed to stop Edmonds on a third-and-3 on their own 4-yard line and made the Rams kick a field goal of their own, which Redd converted to bring the score 16-9. The Rams would not get the score within seven for the rest of the game.

The Mountain Hawks repeatedly beat the defense for huge plays, ending the game averaging over 9.4 yards a play. Lehigh ripped off 21 straight points to end the first half and go up 37-9 headed into the half. The Rams final three drives ended with a fumble, a missed field goal and the end of the half.

The defense actually had Lehigh stopped before their second straight touchdown, with freshman defensive lineman Max Roberts having sacked Shafnisky on third down. However, senior linebacker George Dawson was flagged for a defensive holding, giving Lehigh new life and eventually another seven points.

The weakness the Rams had against the run was evident in Lehigh’s third unanswered touchdown. On the first play, Bragalone gained a pretty easy 10 yards. On the next play, he burst into the secondary and raced of the remaining 70 yards for the score.

The first half stats looked like those of a totally different Fordham team than has been on the field this season. The Mountain Hawks picked up 213 yards on the ground, 141 of them from Bragalone. Additionally, they committed seven penalties for a total of 55 yards lost.

“We played bad football in the first half, and it proved to just be too much,” said head coach Andrew Breiner.

The halftime break did not improve Fordham’s chances. Lehigh scored another two quick touchdowns on their first two possessions of the second half, pushing the score to 51-9, all but ending the game with 8:23 left in the third quarter.

Fordham finally got back on the board, scoring touchdowns on their next two possessions – an 18-yard rushing touchdown for senior running back Kendall Pearcey and a 39-yard receiving touchdown for senior receiver Jorge Solano – to bring the score to 51-23. After another Lehigh score, the Rams picked up two more garbage time scores, 11-yard and 46-yard receiving touchdowns for sophomore tight end Isaiah Searight and senior receiver Robbie Cantelli, respectively, to bring the score to its 58-37 final.

“My expectation of the offense is that when we have the ball, we’re scoring points. We put ourselves behind the sticks in the first half and made that difficult,” said Breiner. “But in the second half, when we stay ahead of the sticks and we make plays in the passing game, you saw what we were capable of doing.”

While the Rams will not make the postseason without help from Lehigh, that does not lessen this week’s matchup with Colgate.

“Colgate’s coming to town, and we have a lot to prove against them. They knocked us off last year,” said Anderson. “And it’s our Senior Night. If you sulk on it, we’re going to get beat again, so we have to put our foot in the ground and get working.”

The Rams lost in a heartbreaker after being unable to send the game to overtime following a failed two-point conversion with no time left on the clock. That was also Cantelli’s final game of the season, as he tore his ACL.

“For him [Cantelli], for me, for the offense, it’s a huge game because we started out that whole first half stalled and just not doing well,” said Anderson. “It was similar to this Lehigh game. We came out in the second half and erupted, stormed back to almost tie it and lost. It was a heartbreak loss in a game we thought we should have won last year and now we’re definitely looking for a little revenge.”

The Senior Day game against Colgate kicks off at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5, at Jack Coffey Field.

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