The Cougars ended the season with a 7-4 record, the best in school history and also the first ever winning season for the program.
“They’re a good team. I give them credit,” Lafayette coach Nick Nehring said after the game. “They played well and they’re moving on. I’m proud of our guys. We fought in the second half and got a score.”
The team was full of hope going into Friday’s game even though the Cougars knew they were up against a good team, but just how good the Lions were didn’t become evident until after the Praise’s first possession of the game when its speed and runner acceleration was far and above what anything they had seen all year.
The Cougars were unable to move the ball after receiving the opening kickoff and were forced to punt.
On Praise’s first play from scrimmage, running back Deqawon Harden took a handoff and rambled 42 yards, cutting and dodging until he was brought down at the Cougar 22-yard line. Teammate Delon Watson ran the following play, going 22 yards for a touchdown, making it 6-0 after the two-point conversion failed with 9:06 in the opening stanza.
Nehring decided on the second series to attempt a little trickery after failing to get a first down. The team lined up for a punt, and instead, quarterback Matt Brown ran the ball to his own 30-yard line, gaining the first down.
Three plays later, Lafayette was in the same position, fourth down and three yards needed for a first down, but this time the Lions were ready and stopped the Cougar effort to take over on downs.
Harden then took a handoff for Praise and ran 59 yards for a touchdown, which this time added the two-point conversion to make it 14-0 with 4:11 in the first quarter. The Cougars’ offense never really got going with running the ball, especially on wide plays.
Praise’s lateral pursuit was too quick and responsive for Lafayette.
The Cougars were more successful on basic dive plays with Trey Kirkland doing a lot of the running as he grinded out some tough yards.
The Cougars just didn’t seem to get many breaks. In the first half, Brown heaved a pass to receiver Caleb Casey, who caught the ball on a tip as he was heading toward the sideline. Officials ruled Colby was out of bounds, though, and on top of that the Cougars were assessed two penalties - one for unsportsmanlike conduct and one for holding - to push them back further.
Praise added two more touchdowns on runs of 51 and 50 yards to go up 30-0 at the half. Praise added a 4 yard touchdown run in the third quarter and officials allowed the game clock to run the rest of the way. Praise went up 46-0 with 3:22 in the third quarter.
Lafayette scored its only touchdown of the game on a 1-yard quarterback keeper by Brown with 5:30 remaining in the ball game.
On the ensuing kickoff after the Cougar touchdown, the game took an unfortunate turn.
Sean McClendon delivered a bell-ringing hit on the Praise player handling the kickoff.
McClendon was hit hard with what assistant coach Nate Shaw would later say was a “cheap shot.”
Tempers flared and that brought Lafayette coaches up in arms and on the field to protest. Shaw argued with officials and in the end, Shaw and McClendon were ejected and officials ended the game with 1:47 remaining.
Later, Shaw would say it was the first time he was ever ejected from a game after 20 years of coaching.
“We felt Sean McClendon had a solid hit inside the context of a play and was retaliated against violently,” Shaw said. “It was a classic cheap shot and he took his own helmet off and was going to take a swing and he restrained himself, but I think he was rightfully penalized and based on the tone of the game was probably rightfully ejected from the game.”
Fortunately, players and coaches were all able to meet on the field, shake hands and let bygones be bygones.
“Unfortunately, Sean (McClendon) pulled his helmet off and got tossed,” Nehring said. “Bottom line, I mean there was a lot of hitting going on and it was a tough game, they’re a good team. I hated that it ended that way, but our thing was we want the players protected, we’re going to protect our players and they’re going to do the same thing for their guys. I was glad we were able to shake hands in the end and part ways.”
Nehring said the team’s plans to contain Praise’s running game, especially Harden who had more than 100 yards rushing in the game, went awry early.
“Our plan was to try and contain him (Harden),” Nehring said. “We didn’t do a very good job of it. He was a great athlete, a tough runner. We wanted to tackle him in the legs and we were tackling him up high and he bounced off everybody.”