BETHLEHEM, Pa. - The No. 19/21 Lehigh football team bounced back from a tough outcome before its bye week to down Holy Cross 34-20 for a big Patriot League victory on Saturday at Goodman Stadium. Senior Keith Sherman enjoyed a monster game with a career-high 166 rush yards and a touchdown while adding two touchdown catches as well. With two games remaining, the Mountain Hawks control their own destiny for the Patriot League Championship and a bid to the NCAA Playoffs.
After losing senior Brandon Bialkowski to injury two weeks ago, freshman Nick Shafnisky saw the majority of time at quarterback. He relieved junior Matt McHale who suffered a late first-half injury. Shafnisky impressed, completing 11-of-12 for 136 yards and two touchdowns while adding a rushing score as well.
Senior Lee Kurfis had 74 yards on five catches to lead the receiving efforts while junior Derek Gaul added three for 33 and senior Tyler Coyle had three catches for 29 yards. The defense forced two big turnovers as well - a fumble recovery from junior Isaiah Campbell and interception by senior Nigel Muhammad.
"This was a great win for our guys," said Lehigh head coach Andy Coen. "We got back to winning as a team. The offense did some really nice things given the quarterback situation. Matt (McHale) was doing a nice job and Nick came in and did a super job in a tough spot in a tight ballgame. I'm really proud of how both of those guys stepped up and moved the football team."
The Mountain Hawks won the coin toss and deferred as Holy Cross received the opening kickoff. The Crusaders marched to the Lehigh 44, but Lehigh senior Tyler Ward stripped the ball out of quarterback Peter Pujals' hands and Campbell recovered the fumble to set up the Mountain Hawks' offense.
The Mountain Hawks took advantage of the turnover as McHale began with a 21-yard rush. McHale followed with a 17-yard pass to Kurfis to give the Mountain Hawks another first down at the Crusader ten-yard line. After a Sherman rush and Crusader penalty, McHale scampered two yards into the end zone. With the extra point from freshman Ryan Pandy, Lehigh took a 7-0 lead with 10:50 to play in the opening quarter.
Campbell and senior Courtney Jarvis stopped the Crusaders shy of the 50-yard line on the ensuing possession to give the ball back to Lehigh. The Holy Cross defense forced a three-and-out, before Lehigh forced one of its own with the help of a quarterback hurry from freshman linebacker Pierce Ripanti.
After a Lehigh punt, the Crusaders received the ball at their own 34. Pujals completed two passes for 17 yards before Gabe Guild took off on a 48-yard march to the end zone to knot the score at seven with 3:07 to play in the first quarter.
The Mountain Hawks began to string together a drive of their own, going 30 yards in eight plays before the first quarter clock expired. However, two incomplete passes ended the run for the Mountain Hawks as the Lehigh punt gave the Crusaders the ball back.
Lehigh's defense stood tall to shut down the Holy Cross rush attempt on a third-and-two. The Mountain Hawks took the ball back at their own 40 as Shafnisky stepped in at quarterback. The Whitehall native handed the ball off to Sherman who sprinted down the sideline and into the end zone. The 60-yard rush was the longest of Sherman's career. After Pandy's first PAT miss in 28 tries, the Mountain Hawks took a 13-7 lead with 12:37 left in the second quarter.
The Crusaders responded on the ensuing possession, marching 77 yards on 12 plays to eat 5:25 off the clock. They capped the drive when Guild rushed two yards into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game. Connor Fitzgerald missed the extra point to tie the game at 13 with 7:01 to play in the second quarter.
The Mountain Hawks responded on the following possession, as Shafnisky strung together three straight first downs with a 12-yard pass, 13-yard rush and 11-yard pass. A pass interference call set up Lehigh on the Holy Cross 18-yard line. A 10-play, 67-yard drive was capped off with a five-yard touchdown run from Shafnisky; as the Mountain Hawks took a 20-13 lead with 2:26 to play in the second quarter.
Lehigh's defense stood strong, once again, forcing a Crusader three-and-out. McHale reentered the game and put together a drive of 21 yards before leaving the field with an injury. Shafnisky stepped back in to complete two passes, including a 19-yard throw to Sherman for his first-career touchdown pass. That made it 27-13 Lehigh with 13 seconds left in the half.
Shafnisky completed 4-of-5 first-half passes for 60 yards and a touchdown while McHale completed 5-of-12 for 52 yards. Each had a rushing score as well. Sherman accumulated 93 rushing yards in the first 30 minutes, along with one of his two touchdown receptions. The Mountain Hawks held a 265-205 edge in total yards.
Lehigh opened up the second half by marching down to Holy Cross' one-yard line under the guidance of Shafnisky. However, the Crusader defense stuffed rush attempts from senior Sean Farrell and Shafnisky to take over possession and keep Shafnisky from scoring on his fourth straight possession.
Pujals and the Crusaders marched 27 yards before Muhammad intercepted a Pujals pass to set up Lehigh's offense on the Holy Cross 11-yard line. Shafnisky connected with Sherman in the end zone for the senior running back's third touchdown of the day as the Mountain Hawks took a 34-13 lead with 5:21 left in the third quarter.
The Crusaders responded with a five-play, 50-yard drive that was capped off by a 25-yard touchdown connection from Pujals to Mike Fess. After the extra point, the Crusaders trimmed Lehigh's lead to 34-20 with 3:25 to play in the third quarter.
After a Lehigh punt, Holy Cross marched to Lehigh's 30, but a holding penalty and two sacks (from sophomore Matt Laub and junior Tim Newton) forced a punt.
The Mountain Hawks punted, then in similar fashion, the Crusaders reached the Lehigh 19-yard line, but a strong Mountain Hawks' pass rush sent Holy Cross backwards. A fourth-and-13 on the Lehigh 22 fell incomplete giving Lehigh the ball back with 3:11 on the clock.
"Defensively we felt like we really needed to dictate things," Coen said. "We really did that today. I don't know how many times number six (Pujals) had to pick himself up off the ground. The kids executed really well and really gave up just two big plays. We made them work for everything they got today."
Sherman continued his strong play, running for a pair of first downs as the Crusaders never got the ball back.
Lehigh held a 448-360 edge in total yards, highlighted by a 260-91 edge on the ground. Holy Cross held the advantage in passing yards, 269-188. The Mountain Hawks gained 26 first downs to the Crusaders' 21 and had the edge in time of possession, 31:03 to 28:57.
"Our staff did a great job and the kids really played their hearts out today," Coen said. "There's going to be a lot of tired guys tonight as they should be. This was an important game for us to get, but the way things unfolded I just loved the way these guys played and that's what it's all about."
The Mountain Hawks return to action next Saturday when they head to Colgate to face the Raiders. Opening kickoff is set for 1 p.m. from Andy Kerr Stadium in Hamilton, N.Y.
The win gave Lehigh its fourth straight victory over Holy Cross … The Mountain Hawks avoided losing back-to-back games, which would have been the first time since the 2009 season… Lehigh registered a season-high four sacks, with Laub leading the way with 1.5… Lehigh's 260 yards rushing and 91 rushing yards allowed were season bests… senior Tyler Ward led Lehigh with ten tackles.