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(Lehigh Athletics)

Some teams schedule easy games early. Lehigh and Villanova don’t.

In this matchup of FCS heavyweights, #17 Lehigh University Mountain Hawks opened their 2017 season hosting #9 Villanova Widcats. Although coming out on the wrong end of a closely-contested 38-35 battle, Lehigh’s high-flying offense looked in mid-season form.

Coming into the game, the Mountain Hawks looked to reverse their five-game skid against a talented and deep Wildcats squad. Things did not get off to a good start for Lehigh however, as Villanova took an early 7-0 lead with a game opening four play, 67-yard drive—capped off by a 13-yard completion from Zach Bednarczyk to tight end Ryan Bell.

Lehigh found themselves facing a familiar problem—an inability to slow the Wildcats rushing attack. Villanova’s offensive line began to set the tone early and open wide rushing lanes. Quarterback Zach Bednarczyk’s scampered for an 18-yard score followed on the next drive by Matt Gudzak gashing the Lehigh defense for 70 yards during a 3 play 77-yard touchdown drive.

Lehigh was down 14 points at home. The natives were restless. Brad Mayes, looking the part of a seasoned starter, calmly marched Lehigh down the field on a 13 play 70-yard touchdown drive bringing the Mountain Hawks to within a touchdown—21-14.

Lehigh’s offense found its rhythm. The Mountain Hawks had the Villanova defense reeling. Lehigh was once again marching down the field as the half was drawing-to-a-close. The home stadium was buzzing, with a tie score going into halftime all but a given.

2nd and 10. Thirteen yards to the tying score. Mayes hands to running back Dom Bragalone. He fumbles. A Wildcat player breaks loose, streaking unabated towards the opposing end zone. A block in the back penalty on the return negates the touchdown, but Matt Gudzak takes care of the cleanup with a nifty 33-yard jaunt to put Villanova up 28-14.

Bad penalties cost Villanova 30 yards on the ensuing drive—an unsportsmanlike conduct on the touchdown and a personal foul on the ensuing first down—and gave Lehigh a last chance for points to close out the first half. Mayes put the Mountain Hawks in position for a 43-yard field goal—but kicker Ed Mish was short on the attempt.

Although Lehigh was down 2 scores to a highly ranked opponent—they were not out. This scrappy Bethlehem bunch came out ready for the second half—fully knowing they had let opportunities slip through their grasp.

Brad Mayes and the Lehigh offense scored quickly with a 2-play touchdown drive to open the second half. A 9-yard Dom Bragalone run set up a 66 yard Mayes to Luke Christiano touchdown pass. The Lehigh faithful began to believe their beloved Mountain Hawks were going to pull this own out.

Not to be outdone, the WiIdcat offense quieted the crowd with a 3 play 76-yard drive—with Lehigh’s secondary missing an assignment and yielding a 75-yard Bednarczyk to Taurus Phillips touchdown pass to put Villanova up by 2 scores once again, 35-21.

Lehigh seemed to be climbing uphill from the opening kickoff—never quite getting over the hump. Momentum was shifting and Lehigh’s veteran receiving core was finding open spots in the Villanova secondary. The question lingering in the 3rd quarter was could Lehigh stop the Villanova offense.

Lehigh pulled within a touchdown—the score standing at 35-28—with 2:06 left in the 3rd quarter. Both offenses were finding open space and taking advantage of lapses in coverage and missed assignments, and it seemed that the team who had the ball last would win.

Villanova is up by 2 scores—38-28—with a little over 14 minutes left in the game. With an offense like Lehigh’s offense no lead is truly safe. Facing a 4th and inches on the 41, head coach Andy Cohen decides to roll the dice. His offense has been moving. Brad Mayes is stuffed for no gain on a quarterback sneak. Close call. Another day it could have gone another way. Today it didn’t.

The Wildcats, with a 2-score lead, take possession and move the ball. On the 6th play of the drive, Villanova faces a field goal. It’s 4th and 7. They go for the first down—they go for the win. Lehigh has a prayer.

Down 10 points with time running, Mayes leads Lehigh on a 11 play 79-yard touchdown drive. Lehigh is within a field goal with 4:38 left to go. They need to stop the Villanova rushing attack. They need to get the ball back. They don’t. Villanova runs out the clock. Final score 38-35.

While Lehigh didn’t come away with a ‘W,’ they showed their mettle. They showed last year’s Patriot League title and FCS playoff berth were not a fluke. Brad Mayes—who threw for over 400 yards—and the talented Lehigh offense will put up plenty of points this year, and if they continue to play like they did today, Lehigh will contend for another Patriot League title in 2017.

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Paul is the Lehigh Football beat writer for
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