The St. Lawrence University football team made the plays in its 2013 season opener when it mattered most. The Saints' defense stopped Coast Guard on 3rd-and-short to get the ball back with 2:09 remaining, which in turn allowed junior quarterback Mike Lefflbine to orchestrate a 6-play, 47-yard drive capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass on 4th down to Joe Battaglia as the home team escaped Leckonby Stadium with a dramatic 21-17 victory over the Bears.
St. Lawrence (1-0) quickly turned the page from a winless campaign despite several mistakes and over 150 yards of penalties thanks to a stingy defense that caused five Coast Guard turnovers. The Saints finished with 450 yards of offense to the Bears' 276, while first-year Jayson Leigh had a pair of interceptions including one for a pick six.
"I'm very proud of this football team. They stuck together and came through when we needed it most under pressure," said St. Lawrence head coach Mark Raymond. "We had to overcome a lot of mistakes today in order to beat a very well-coached, tough football team. We will need to cut down on those mistakes next week on the road against Norwich."
Sophomore running back Maurice Irby had a career and game-high 77 rushing yards for St. Lawrence, while Jake Wawrzyniak had 74 yards and a score for the Bears. Lefflbine finished 25-for-41 passing for 244 yards and two touchdowns in his St. Lawrence debut, including eight completions to senior Mike Tateosian for 76 yards. Defensively, rookie James Holley-Grisham had a game-high 16 tackles for the Saints while junior Dillon Knight added nine stops. Joe Rizzardi led Coast Guard with 14 tackles.
The season couldn't have started on a much better note for St. Lawrence, as they took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards in 11 plays to take a 7-0 lead. Lefflbine found rookie Mitch Gallagher out of the backfield for an easy score to cap the drive that took 4:15, while Collin Shapiro added the extra point.
On the very first offensive play from Coast Guard, quarterback Blake Thompson was intercepted on a screen pass by Leigh, who went into the end zone untouched from 37 yards out for a 13-0 lead only 4:30 into the first quarter. Shapiro again added the extra point.
St. Lawrence would had numerous chances to add to their total in the red zone, but would have three field goals blocked by the Bears, allowing the visitors to hang around despite only mustering three points in the first half on a 32-yard field goal by Tyler Henning near the end of the first quarter. Coast Guard was plagued by three first-half turnovers, as they went to the locker room at intermission down 14-3.
The Bears would turn it over again twice early in the second half, as sophomore Leondre Simmon picked off Thompson at the Saints' 15-yard line to end a scoring drive before Alex Oswald muffed a fair catch on a punt to give St. Lawrence the ball in Coast Guard territory.
Though it appeared the Saints were coasting towards victory, the third blocked field goal of the game sparked the Bears, as Evan Rothfeld returned the block 58 yards and a 15-yard penalty gave Coast Guard new life at in the red zone. Four rushing attempts later, the Bears were celebrating in the end zone as Wawrzyniak took it in from 1-yard out for the score. Henning added the extra point to pull the visitors within four at 14-10 with 4:33 to play in the third quarter.
The two teams battled back-and-forth for field position throughout the fourth quarter before Coast Guard used some trickery to take the lead for the first time. After converting three straight third downs, the Bears used an end-around to wide receiver Collis Brown, who rushed the ball down the sideline and leaped for the pile on with 4:12 remaining in the contest. The score gave Coast Guard the lead, while Henning's extra point made it 17-14.
The Saints were forced to punt after failing to pick up a first down on the ensuing drive, but tremendous tackles by Holley-Grisham allowed the home team to use their timeouts and get the ball back at the Coast Guard 47 with 2:03 left. Lefflbine completed 4-of-5 passes, leading the Saints to the Bears' 15 before facing a 4th-and-5. Having had three field goals already blocked, St. Lawrence opted to go for it on 4th down. The call paid off, as the offensive line provided time for Lefflbine to find a wide-open Joe Battaglia in the end zone, as the Saints erupted on the sideline now back in front 20-17. A running-into-the-kicker penalty gave Shapiro a second try at the PAT, which he converted for a 21-17 lead with 1:21 to play.
Coast Guard moved the ball into St. Lawrence territory at the 45-yard line, but Thompson fired three incomplete passes before a 4th down trick play failed, assuring the Saints of the dramatic 21-17 non-conference win.
St. Lawrence will look to build momentum next weekend when they head to Northfield, VT to square off with Norwich University on Saturday, September 14. Kick-off is scheduled for 1:30pm.