OWINGS MILLS, Md. - Mike Clark sulked away from the Lycoming postgame huddle Saturday afternoon with a look of dejection draped across his face. There was no joining in on the hugs being shared by his Warriors team strewn about the south end of Stevenson's Mustang Stadium.
It wasn't that he wasn't happy to have just seen Lycoming capture a share of its second Middle Atlantic Conference championship in his six-year tenure. He was elated.
But the Warriors weren't able to get ahold of everything which was possible Saturday afternoon following a 36-20 win over Stevenson. Lebanon Valley's 40-25 loss to Albright meant the Warriors earned a share of its 15th MAC title with the Flying Dutchmen, but Delaware Valley's 50-28 win over Widener mean Lycoming's season is likely done.
The Aggies' win over Widener gave Lebanon Valley the MAC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament which begins next week. As a three-loss team, there's very little chance Lycoming will be able to claim one of the at-large berths into the tournament.
That's why Clark walked away, sullen, while the rest of his team celebrated.
"This is awesome, and it's what I just said to the kids. This is how the best teams are measured," Clark said as his eyes began to well with tears. "I just wish we could keep playing. I'm happy, but at the same time, it's bittersweet."
Lycoming (7-3, 7-2 MAC) played maybe its most complete offensive game of the season yesterday. The defense made great second-half adjustments, holding the Mustangs without a second-half offensive touchdown for the fourth consecutive week.
Safety Tanner Troutman recorded three of the Warriors' four interceptions. Running back Craig Needhammer carried 41 times for 162 yards (27 for 126 in the second half). It was the type of performance a playoff-caliber team puts on when it's only option is to win or guarantee a trip home.
But the consolation prize Saturday was worth it. Every motivational phrase or word of encouragement tweeted from the Lycoming Football twitter account this year has ended with the hashtag, #chasing15. Following the win, Lycoming had finally caught it's 15th MAC title.
"It's our goal every year coming in, a MAC championship. It's what we preach," said Needhammer, who also tied the school's single-season record with his 14th touchdown. "If we don't go to the playoffs, it kind of sucks. But for our seniors to go out like this, it's awesome."
"Honestly, it hasn't set in," Lycoming senior tight end Greg Kovacs said. "I just played my last football game and I get to leave here with a championship. It's truly special."
And Lycoming did it by finally conquering the demon third quarter which it's been haunted by all year. Holding a 22-20 lead at halftime, the Warriors still didn't hold the momentum.
It wasn't until a near-perfect drive to open the third quarter that Lycoming began delivering its knockout blow to a third-year Stevenson program with a grind-it-out running game.
Needhammer averaged only 3 yards per carry on the opening drive of the second half, but it set a tone. And an offensive line playing without starters Matt Patterson and Matt Bloom began to assert its will on a big, physical Stevenson defensive line.
The Warriors converted two third downs on the methodical 68-yard drive which ate up 7 minutes. Quarterback Tyler Jenny capped the drive with a 4-yard scramble.
The Warriors defense forced a three-and-out on Stevenson's ensuing possession and the offense went right back to work, covering 52 yards on eight plays in just under 4 minutes to push its lead to 36-20.
Needhammer had two 8-yard runs on the drive which ended with a 12-yard scoring pass from Jenny (17 of 23, 207 yards, 3 TDs) to fullback Nick Mongiello, who scored his third touchdown in the last two weeks.
Jenny was 8 for 9 for 78 yards and a touchdown combined on the two third-quarter scoring drives.
"That's been such an obstacle for us all year," Needhammer said of the third quarter. "It took until Week 10 for us to finally put it together. It took long enough, but better late than never, I guess."
"Against a good team, that's what we needed to do," Clark said. "How we play offense helps the defense and vice versa. Any time you keep the ball away from the other team, they can't score. It all works together."
And the two scoring drives seemed to light a fire under a defense which was torched for more than 200 passing yards in the first half. Two of Troutman's three interceptions came on deep balls in the second half after Lycoming began dropping eight players into coverage to better take away the short routes.
The Warriors began rushing just three down linemen and still found ways to put pressure on Stevenson quarterback Zach Jefferson. They were also still able to keep the Mustangs' running game in order.
After giving up 257 yards of offense in the first half, the Warriors allowed just 72 yards in the second half. The Mustangs' best drive of the second half ended in a turnover on downs at the Lycoming 17.
"When we went to that three front, it brought us another linebacker to help us out on the flat, curl, and hook," said Troutman, whose eighth interceptions this year are tied for fourth-most in a Lycoming single season. "That took a lot of pressure off us in the secondary. We stopped the three-step drop and forced them to try and throw it down the field where we were able to make some plays."
Jefferson had thrown a 63-yard touchdown pass on a post pattern in the first quarter. He went back to the well in the fourth quarter, overthrowing his intended target. Troutman tracked down the ball for his second interception.
Lycoming then went on a drive lasting 6:19 in which Needhammer carried eight consecutive times. The drive netted no points, but it all but ended Stevenson's hopes of a comeback.
"They hit some plays on us early, but it's all about adjustments," Troutman said. "To be a good team you have to make the proper adjustments and I think we did that in the second half."
And because of those second-half adjustments, Lycoming walked out of Stevenson a champion Saturday.