It was a day of firsts for the Bulldogs.

First 5-0 start since 1981. First Mike McLeod ’09 fumble in 353 carries. First time trailing the whole season.

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The Elis got off to a slow start against Lehigh, but an opportunistic defense and a bruising running game carried the Bulldogs to a 23-7 victory over the Mountain Hawks. Running back McLeod broke his own school record for rushing yards in a game — set two weeks ago against Holy Cross — with 276 yards on the ground. As a whole, the Eli rushing attack dominated the Mountain Hawks all four quarters, combining for 421 total rushing yards.

“You’re not going to stop a guy like that running behind the guys he’s running behind,” Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said. “It’s just a matter of containing him.”

The Bulldog offense committed to the running game early, starting the first series with seven consecutive rushes. After three handoffs to McLeod, an impressive 30-yard scamper by quarterback Matt Polhemus ’08 brought the Bulldogs to the Lehigh 15-yard line.

Although the Bulldogs looked as if they were already on their way to a fourth consecutive blowout, the Elis squandered a golden opportunity to put points on the board with an uncharacteristic McLeod fumble on the Mountain Hawk 4-yard line. McLeod’s last fumble came against Dartmouth on Oct. 7, 2006.

“When you do fumble at first you’re down on yourself and it’s really bad, but everybody on the team does a great job of helping you forget about it,” McLeod said. “I forgot about it quickly and came back out and we were able to run the ball effectively.”

After the two teams traded punts on the next two possessions, Lehigh returned a short 36-yard punt by Tom Mante ’10 to their 42-yard line. The Mountain Hawks then methodically marched down the field, relying on the athleticism of quarterback Sedale Threatt and freshman running back Kwesi Kankam. On first and goal from the Yale 1-yard line, Threatt ran into the endzone to give the Bulldogs their first deficit this season.

“You can come out and you can beat us but you have to play 60 minutes to beat us,” captain Brandt Hollander ’08 said. “You might score a touchdown early, but I don’t think you can play 60 minutes and be better than us as a team. It was nice to get tested like this. It was good to face some adversity and I think we found out more about who we are.”

On the ensuing possession, the Bulldogs nearly committed their second redzone turnover of the day when Polhemus’s intended pass to Langston Johnson ’08 was almost picked off by cornerback Julian Ahye.

The mistakes continued for the Elis as a holding penalty on tight end A.J. Haase ’10 wiped out a touchdown run by Polhemus and pushed the Bulldogs back to the Lehigh 14-yard line. The Bulldogs were forced to settle for a field goal, cutting the Lehigh lead to 7-3.

“We had a couple of scoring opportunities taken away from us but our defense came up big every time,” head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “They stopped them on fourth down a couple of times to take the momentum away.”

The Bulldog defense was helped out by an inept Lehigh receiving corps. The Mountain Hawk wide receivers did little to help their quarterback as they continually dropped Threatt’s passes. Facing third and eight from his own 25-yard line, Threatt avoided a heavy Bulldog rush and found junior wideout Mike Fitzgerald streaking downfield. With no one between him and the endzone, Fitzgerald let the pass fall right through his hands, costing the Mountain Hawks an opportunity to stretch their lead to 14-3.

“There were plays to be made today on both sides of the football and the plays weren’t made,” Coen said. “You’re not going to beat a team like this if there are opportunities for touchdowns and you don’t score them or opportunities for interceptions and you don’t catch them.”

The Bulldogs took advantage of the missed opportunity by responding with an impressive drive of their own. McLeod capped off a 12-play drive with an impressive 16-yard touchdown run behind strong blocking by guard Jeff Monaco ’08, giving the Elis their first lead of the game, 10-7.

The rest of the first half was no cakewalk. The Bulldogs dodged another bullet when defensive back Travis Henry ’10 recovered a fumble by Reid Lathan ’10 on a Lehigh punt.

On their next drive, the Mountain Hawks started off on their own 15-yard line with less than two minutes to play. Threatt effectively managed a no-huddle offense, completing five straight passes to bring Lehigh to the Yale 16-yard line.

With the Mountain Hawks threatening to take back the lead, safety Steve Santoro ’09 made one of the most crucial plays of the game, coming up with a huge interception on the Yale five-yard line and preserving the Bulldog lead heading into the second half.

“That was big-time,” linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 said. “They were driving the ball there and things seemed to be going their way, but those are the plays that change the course of the game. That was big — big-time.”

The Bulldogs ran away with the game in the second half. After the Eli defense forced a three and out, McLeod showed why he leads the Football Championship Subdivision with 199 yards rushing per game. The star tailback broke the game open with a 55-yard touchdown run and the Elis never looked back.

The Bulldog defense clamped down and held the Mountain Hawks to 111 yards in the second half while also recording two more interceptions. Two more field goals by Alan Kimball ’08 provided the final margin, 23-7. In their final non-conference game, the Elis showed that they had the resilience to overcome early mistakes.

“We faced some adversity today and we hadn’t in the last three weeks,” Siedlecki said. “We had to play for four quarters and we hadn’t had to do that since the first game.”