TOWSON, Md. - In a back-and-forth game dominated by two potent offenses, a safety by junior defensive lineman Tom Bianchi of Lehigh with 5:14 remaining in the fourth quarter proved to be the difference as the No. 6 Mountain Hawks (11-1) came from behind to edge No. 8 Towson University (9-3), 40-38, in an NCAA Division I FCS playoff second round game before a sell-out crowd of 11,196 at Johnny Unitas® Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Patriot League champion Mountain Hawks, who won their 10th straight game, advance to the quarter-finals next Saturday and will face second-seeded North Dakota State, a 26-14 winner over James Madison.
After the Colonial Athletic Association champion Tigers took a 38-31 lead on a 52-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Grant Enders to junior wide receiver Gerrard Sheppard with 12:36 left in the fourth quarter, Lehigh came back to tie the game with a 72-yard, nine-play drive. When senior quarterback Chris Lum scored on a one-yard touchdown run with 8:17 left, the game was tied for the sixth time.
On the ensuing kickoff, junior place kicker Jake Peery lined the kickoff off the facemask of Tiger junior Alex Blake. The ball bounced up in the air and senior tight end Mark Wickware recovered. Although the Mountain Hawks failed to convert a first down, they punted from midfield. Sophomore Nick Divers' punt backed the Tigers up inside their own ten-yard line.
On second down from the nine-yard line, sophomore quarterback Grant Enders rolled out and Bianchi was waiting for him. He sacked him in the end zone for a safety that gave Lehigh a 40-38 lead. It was Lehigh's first lead since the Mountain Hawks owned a 17-10 advantage in the second quarter.
"It was a bad call on my part," said Towson Coach Rob Ambrose, the CAA Coach of the Year. "If you think back to the Maryland game, we ran a naked bootleg from near the end zone. It went for 20 yards. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. We didn't get this far by being vanilla and we're not going to change now."
After the ensuing free kick, Lehigh took over at its own 33-yard line. Lum directed a masterful drive as he converted two third downs and a fourth down to run out the clock.
The Patriot League Player of the Year, Lum completed 36 of 48 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown. He also directed a Lehigh offense that generated 482 yards of total offense against a depleted Tiger defense that was missing three starters.
The teams traded field goals in the first eight minutes of the game before the Mountain Hawks took a 10-3 lead with 3:50 left in the first quarter when junior wide receiver Ryan Spadola caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Lum to cap a 68-yard drive.
After stopping Lehigh on fourth down-and-inches near midfield, the Tigers drove 52 yards in ten plays to tie the game for the second time. Freshman tailback Terrance West completed the drive by scoring his 28th touchdown of the season on a ten-yard run.
With 5:29 left in the first half, Lehigh regained the advantage when senior running back Matt Fitz threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Jamel Haggins on a trick play. Sophomore Tim Divers added the conversion to give the Mountain Hawks a 17-10 edge.
With 49 seconds left in the first half, Enders threw a three-yard touchdown pass to sophomore Leon Kinnard tie the game at 10-10.
On the first play of the third quarter, Lehigh's Keith Sherman fumbled and junior Jordan Dangerfield recovered for the Tigers at the Lehigh 42-yard line. A 13-yard pass from Enders to Sheppard set up West's second touchdown of the game, a one-yard run that gave the Tigers their first lead at 24-17 with 10:50 remaining in the third quarter. On Lehigh's next possession, Fitz capped off a 64-yard drive by scoring on a six-yard run to tie the game at 24-24.
A 68-yard pass from Enders to Kinnard late in the third quarter set up the Tigers' next score. With 1:25 left in the third quarter, Enders gave the Tigers a 31-24 lead when he scored on a five-yard run.
Early in the fourth quarter, Fitz scored his second touchdown of the game on a one-yard run to tie the game at 31-31, the fifth tie of the game.
Enders led the Tigers with 222 yards of total offense. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns while West, the 2011 CAA Offensive Rookie of the Year, rushed for 52 yards on 11 carries with two touchdowns.
"It's hard to say this, but it's the honest statement," said Ambrose. "I don't think I could have imagined being more proud to be a head coach of an institution than I was today when I came out and saw my guys and saw this community. I'm usually pretty good at this, but that was awe-inspiring. Not only am I proud to be the coach here. I'm proud to be a member of this community. My hats are off to the seniors. They deserve a degree of respect that most people will never understand except their brothers. I'm proud of my staff for fighting an uphill battle. I'm proud of my team for fighting even harder."
The most improved NCAA FCS team in the nation, the "Turnaround Tigers" finished the season with a 9-3 record, only one season after compiling a 1-10 mark. After going winless in the CAA in 2010, the Tigers won the CAA championship with a 7-1 league record.