Lehigh intercepts three passes and Northern Iowa misses three field goals in a surprising first-round FCS playoff upset
By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
CEDAR FALLS, Ia — It wasn't supposed to be like this in Cedar Falls this weekend.
Northern Iowa, so well tested in Missouri Valley Conference football play, was so loaded with talent, so the story appeared to go, that Lehigh would be simply overwhelmed by the talent mismatch and could not keep up with the hometown Panthers.
UNI would pack its dome, and pound the Mountain Hawks by three touchdowns, went the conventional wisdom.
UNI never loses in the first round of the playoffs, you see. In 16 years, the Panthers hadn't lost a first round game.
And the Patriot League doesn't win in the first round of the playoffs. Since 2003, there had been plenty of moral victories but no real victories — you know, where the Patriot League team ended up with more points than the other team.
But this group of Lehigh players forgot all that bad history, and did not go slack-jawed once they made it to the UNI Dome.
All things considered, it was a pretty well executed day of football - if you enjoy punts, tackles for loss and turnovers.
Both teams combined for 8-of-30 on third-down conversions — which resulted in fifteen punts on the afternoon in the 72-degree, climate-controlled environment in the UNI-Dome.
The whole game seemed like a battle of field position at times, with both defenses coming up with big third-down stops and forcing the punting unit to be on the field often.
But it was turnovers that were the real story of this game.
Midway through the first quarter, Lehigh quarterback Chris Lum was picked off near midfield by Panther defensive back Craig James. James read the Mountain Hawk junior quarterback perfectly and stepped right in front of wideout Jake Drwal for the interception.
That set up a beautiful 19-yard TD run on the ensuing drive by UNI quarterback Tirrell Rennie on a broken play.
Lehigh blitzed and put pressure on Rennie, but the athletic Panther QB got free and avoided three Lehigh tacklers on his way to the end zone.
But ahead 7-0, the Panthers had managed their last score of the afternoon.
In the second quarter, after a career-long, 44-yard attempt by Lehigh kicker Tom Randazza went wide left, Northern Iowa would have a golden opportunity to put pressure on Lehigh with a score before halftime.
But Lehigh free safety John Venerio, seen sporting a mohawk on the sideline during the game, would make some of the biggest plays in his football career to prevent Panther points.
His first huge play came when he picked off an pass attempt by Rennie where he tried to throw across his body on a deep pass pattern.
The underthrown ball was snagged by Venerio at the Lehigh eight-yard line.
A three and out by Lehigh would give UNI another chance at a score before halftime and would have given the Panthers serious momentum.
But Venerio came through with another huge play.
Rennie threw a long pass to Panther wideout Jared Herring, who had slid behind the secondary and seemed to have the step necessary to catch the ball and give UNI that 14-0 lead at halftime.
But rather than give Herring any chance of catching the football, Venerio bulldozed him in the end zone and Lehigh gladly took the 15-yard penalty for pass interference.
Two plays later, Rennie, under pressure, would throw an interception to Lehigh safety Casey Eldemire to keep the deficit at seven at halftime and momentum on Lehigh's side.
"We were confident coming in, but I was real impressed with how we played," Veniero told the Morning Call's Keith Groller after the game. "This is probably the best opponent we've beaten and we were just relentless. We shut down their run, didn't let them throw the ball. A game like this reassured me of how good our defense is."
Lehigh would get the ball first in the third quarter, but a fumble forced by Panther safety Tre'Darrius Canady and recovered by LB Jamar Thompson would allow Northern Iowa to set up shop deep in Lehigh territory.
But Lehigh's defense stuffed UNI short of the sticks on third down, thanks to a gang-tackle spearheaded by Lehigh seniors Al Pierce and Billy Dokouslis. That led to a 44-yard field goal attempt that was no good from UNI's Billy Hallgren.
Having dodged that bullet, Lehigh then got their biggest offensive play on the year from the one of the two player on their roster from nearby Nebraska.
Lum threw a great pass to wideout Jake Drwal down the right sideline. Drwel turned towards the pass at the exact right moment to grab the ball, then spun around the linebacker covering him. Drwel broke free and run the rest of the way in bounds for the game-tying, 62-yard score.
"The linebacker had man coverage on me, and I caught the ball and he hit me, but didn't tackle me," Drwal said. "He tried to push me out of bounds real quick, but didn't get enough of me, I guess."
Now with the game knotted at seven, the familiar pattern of three and outs continued until a huge interception changed the course of the game.
Rennie rifled a throw to his wideout, but Lehigh cornerback John Kennedy reached out with both hands to snag Rennie's pass and return the ball to the UNI 28.
On the very next play, Lum went for it all to Spadola, who made a catch in plenty of space and ran it in easily for the 28-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, the same looks of concern that swept over the UNI Dome crowd in the 2008 semifinal loss to Richmond seemed omnipresent once again.
"A lot of things, we didn't execute, mainly on my part," Rennie said. "But I guess we'll just have to look forward to next year for now. For the seniors, they had a heck of a year."
It wasn't really all on Rennie.
"You can't look at any one person and say, 'They did wrong, I did wrong.'' Panther running back Carlos Anderson said. "Tirrell didn't lose the game, UNI lost the game."
Playing with urgency, the Panthers' offense started to get yardage in chunks, with Anderson ripping off some nice runs for first downs. But all of the Panthers' fourth-quarter drives turn up empty.
Two of those drives ended in Hallgren field-goal attempts, but the veteran kicker went 0-for-3 on field goal tries on the night and was dogged by a stellar field goal block team on all three attempts.
A block by Lehigh cornerback Jarard Cribbs, who came in clean from the right edge on a 26-yard try. Cribbs, the other Lehigh player from Nebraska, kept crucial points off the board and allowed Lehigh to maintain a seven-point edge that seemed larger than it actually was.
But even with this prize fight winding down, a failed trick play by Lehigh — a lefty pass by running back Jay Campbell that was intercepted by Panther linebacker Jordan Smith at midfield — gave Northern Iowa one last shot at tying the game.
Lehigh's defense proved to be more than up to the challenge of stopping the UNI offense one more time.
On third down, quarterback Zach Davis, who had come in for Rennie, was sacked for a 12-yard loss by Lehigh linebacker Colin Newton, who had a monster 10-tackle, 2 1/2 sack day for the Mountain Hawks.
On 4th and 18, Davis tried a short pass to Anderson, who intended to lateral to Rennie in a play that brought back memories of UNI's final play against Richmond two years ago in the semifinals.
But Lehigh linebacker Al Pierce tackled Anderson before the play could develop.
It seemed fitting. Not a single trick play on either side worked and the winning team was the one that played the better defense on the afternoon.
That team was Lehigh, whose tribute to the noisy, but small crowd at the UNI Dome was to deliver a loud L-E-H-I-G-H cheer that was heard by everyone still there in the southwest corner of the stadium.
"This is a very good football team that we played," said Lehigh coach Andy Coen. "Weíve had some very good wins this season and this is without a doubt the best, the best football team that we've beaten."
It was a stunning exit for the Missouri Valley Football Conference champion.
"They're champions of a conference that we have a tremendous amount of respect for," Coen said. "It's great that we could come and represent the Patriot League and Lehigh University very well today. I'm very proud of our team and everybody associated with our program."
The Mountain Hawk players were also impressed with their performance in one of the most difficult road venues in FCS.
"To play such a good football team in a tough environment was something I'll never forget," Venerio said. "I'll never forget the look on the faces of our fans when it was over."
UNI coach Mark Farley pointed to his team's mistakes as the major reason for the loss.
"The missed field goals and the intercepts, if you have three of each, you're not going to win a lot of football games," Farley explained. "We battled to the end. I felt we had that game all the way to the last seconds."