Saturday, November 18, 2006

Lafayette 49, Lehigh 27, final

Where to begin?

I'm tossed. Part of me wants to lay into Lehigh's inability to tackle today, and their inability to stop 3rd down conversions. Letting the Leopards drop 49 points on us is something that is incredibly disappointing, with an eye-popping 6-for-6 in the red zone. Not to mention the 466 yards of offense. It was a bad day for us in "The Rivalry" defensively, to put it mildly. I can't remember a day when our defense got such a butt-whoopin'. 1994 leaps to mind - of course, that was the last time Lafayette pounded us in Fisher by scoring more than 40 points. (That game was 54-20.)

Yet, it wasn't 1994. The team didn't simply turn over and play dead down 28-7. They came all the way back and rode the momentum back to 28-27. The team battled back, and that shouldn't be forgotten. Midway through the 3rd quarter, we all had serious hope. There is no doubt about that.

But that was the end of the line. In crunch time, the offense didn't make plays to keep up in the track meet, and the defense, well, was a matador. You don't win many games forcing only 4 incompletions all game while yielding almost 5 yards a carry and trying to arm-tackle 220 pound backs.

Losing to Lafayette is becoming depressingly familiar, and it was clear who the better team was out there. Hint: it wasn't the Brown and White.

There were heroic performances on Lehigh's side that should not go unnoticed. WR Frank "Al Del Greco" Trovato had a great game. QB Sedale Threatt, overall, had a very good day in spots. NT Eric Rakus came out spirited and played like a champion out there. RB Josh Pastore did yeoman's work out there returning kicks. If you look at the drives where we did well, the "O" line made some fantastic holes.

But something keeps rattling inside my head: "YALE". The same inconsistency that was present in the Yale game ultimately reared its ugly head in the most important game of the year. The similarities with both games are eerie. Stomping on the logo and saying, "Our House". Being annihlated off both lines of scrimmage. The only difference was that Lafayette's Brad Maurer is a better QB than Yale's QB Matt Polhemus and they were able to take control in the 3rd quarter and stomp on our throats.

I will hand it to Lafayette - they are a good team. Coach Tavani had their guys ready to play. They executed and made fewer mistakes. They studied the film, knew how to exploit our defense and did so. They were clearly better than us on this day, and our goal in this long offseason really needs to be how to catch them.

Yep, I can't believe I typed it, but there it is. We've lost three straight to Lafayette. I've got some news: We're no longer the hunted. The sooner we realize that we now have to be the hunter, the better off we'll be.

The I-AA Bracket
It' sort of anticlimactic, but I also wanted to put my predictions for tomorrow's I-AA playoff bracket. Lafayette wins the autobid from the Patriot, and my projection is that they will be playing in Amherst next weekend. I don't know if they'll be able to handle mighty UMass, but I think they will get the opportunity to find out.

Coastal Carolina at #1 Appalachian State
Eastern Illinois at Illinois State

Lafayette at #2 UMass
Portland State at Furman

Southern Illinois at #3 Montana
Tennessee-Martin at McNeese State

New Hampshire at #4 Youngstown State
Hampton at James Madison

Friday, November 17, 2006

Friday Happy Hour: Lehigh/Lafayette

With apologies to the NYC Lehigh Club of 2003, it's time for this weekend's Water Cooler... I mean, Happy Hour! Lehigh and Lafayette alumni are undoubtedly getting their final arrangements together to either head back to Bethlehem and Easton to catch the 142nd, or you can make like these folks did and go to a Lehigh/Lafayette telecast party anywhere around the country.

If you haven't gotten your plans ready, you can just surf on over to the Lehigh Alumni web site for information. A list of locations for the Lehigh/Lafayette telecasts are listed, directions to Lafayette, and a link to the best unofficial news source on Lehigh football. (One guess.)

As to tailgating at Easton, I only have a couple of suggestions, namely: Get there early. The parking garage next to Fisher is a great place to tailgate, but it's the pros that generally get there early (if it's not for season-ticket holders - I'm not sure). If you miss that (like I probably will), you'll have to park on the many streets in downtown Easton. (Click here for a Google Map of what I'm talking about.) If you're meeting people, get those cell phone numbers, since you'll need it!

Having said all that, tailgating this day is the best in America. The atmosphere will be electric, with boatloads of Lehigh folks there - students, fans, residents, it will be incredible. Add to this the fact that it's a 1PM start (NOT a 12:30 start like it has been in the past) should only make things even better.

Had Enough Lehigh/Lafayette Hype?
Then by all means don't listen to the I-AA Waves podcast this week, featuring audio interviews of Lehigh NT Eric Rakus and Lafayette QB Brad Maurer. And certainly don't browse my latest column on I-AA.org, talking about four rivalries, but saving the best for last. (No, it's not Pitt/West Virgina, the most cloying, artifical faux-rivalry I've ever seen in print.) The best part? Calling "The Rivalry" Armageddon.

Friday Happy Hour: Patriot League, Week 12
Fordham over Georgetown. Hoya Coach Kelly will get the turnaround started, but it will be clear that the Rams are further down the road to getting back to Patriot League championships. Also-Rams 20, Humbled Saxa 10.

Bucknell over Colgate. This is really for the one Bucknell fan on the Any Given Saturday message board that picked this game in the preseason. It seems like it could happen. What the hell! Bison Burgers 30, Out-Run Raiders 17.

Friday Happy Hour: Top 25, Week 12
#13 Montana State over #2 Montana. Bank on it. The 'Cats always have more to play for than the Griz, and they will embarass the Griz. Again. Cats 30, Griz 10.

#3 UMass over Hofstra. The Minutemen simply have too much talent to lose this game, and I'm sure they want to secure a seed. ZooMass 34, Ooof!-stra 8.

#4 North Dakota State over #17 South Dakota State. "The Dakota Marker" is becoming quite a rivalry, and there is just no stopping a stampeding herd of Bison. Stampeding Bison 49, Jumpin' Jacks 12.

#6 Illinois State over #21 Northern Iowa. I have a feeling I will regret this, but I think the Redbirds want some momentum carrying over into the playoffs, and even though it's a last-gasp game for the Panthers, I think they just fall short. Rallying Redbirds 29, Plucky Panthers 26.

#24 Towson over #6 James Madison. Why not? Why not have Towson in the I-AA playoffs this year? They have the QB to put them in, and they simply thrashed Richmond last week. Why not? Tremolo Tigers 42, Duked Dukes 35.

#25 Maine over #9 New Hampshire. I just get the feeling that if the Black Bears can slow down this game enough, and get the "Black Hole" working, Santos-to-Ball will just be a memory. Man-Eating Killing Machines 27, Wounded Wildcats 17.

#10 Southern Illinois over Southern Utah. Should be a formality. Saluki Salute 49, Chunderbirds 7.

#12 Tennessee-Martin over Murray State. The Skyhawks will emphatically tell Murray State what they think about their former coach jumping ship. Carrier Pigeons 49, Run-Over Racers 3.

#14 Princeton over Dartmouth. The Tigers get the silver dollar here, and clinch that Ivy championship. Top Tigers 49, Green With Envy 7.

Charleston Southern over #15 Coastal Carolina. Methinks that the Chanticleers are confident going into this game. They shouldn't be. Chuck South, the anti-Coastal, gets this rivalry going right with another last-second upset. You heard it here first. The Anti-Coastal 31, Beach Chickens 30.

#16 Cal Poly over Savannah State. Poor Tigers. Mad Mustangs 70, Tamed Tigers 0.

#19 Eastern Illinois over Jacksonville State. This game will be interesting early, until the Tennessee State and Murray State scores start rolling in. Then, the Panthers will start pouring it on, looking for that at-large bid. Proud Panthers 49, Game Gamecocks (for a half anyway) 21.

#22 Harvard over Yale. RB Clifton Dawson in his last collegiate game simply won't let the Crimson lose. Crimson 29, Yale 28.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Memories of "The Rivalry"

"The Rivalry" means different things to different fans. To some, it's an extension of the high school rivalries between Bethlehem and Easton. To others, it's a fun party and a way to blow off steam after a tough semester at Lehigh or Lafayette: the last big blowout before Thanksgiving or the Christmas holidays. To others it's being a part of history: something that has been here long before us.

Everyone can agree that "The Rivalry" is simply something that trancends a mere football game.

Lehigh and Lafayette are only separated by 13 miles along historic Route 22, which means that the fans, students and alumni of both schools don't have to travel far to see the game. If you're a student, you can leave your fraternity in the morning, get to the game, and be back in time to celebrate on Saturday night.

More than other rivalries, the Bethlehem, Allentown, and Easton communities are also flush with "The Rivalry" as well. It transcends "Lehigh" and "Lafayette" and becomes "Bethlehem" versus "Easton" as well. Folks who live locally yet don't have any connection to Lehigh or Lafayette still go to identify with the communities they represent. Easton residents root for Lafayette and Bethlehem residents root for Lehigh - the same way it's been done since 1884.

It's the most-played rivalry in football history. This year it will be the 142nd meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette, with "the bad guys" holding a slight 62-74-5 edge.

It's been the subject of a book (Todd Davidson's and Bob Donchez' "Legends of Lehigh/Lafayette"), a TV documentary, and was recently ranked #8 on ESPN's Greatest Football Rivalries. Sports Illustrated called it "something you have to do once in your life", and once featured one of Lafayette's QB on it's cover. By staying true to what it is, and staying grounded in its roots in the Lehigh Valley, it's become not only a historic, emotional game - it's also become a real American story rooted in northeastern Pennsylvania.

History
"The Rivalry" has thrilled Lehigh and Lafayette fans alike with great individual performances, classic games, and strange stories.

In 1977 "Rieker-to-Kreider" led the way to a 35-17 victory over Lafayette on the way to Lehigh's Division II championship. In 1987, the last-ever game was played at Taylor Stadium as the fans started tearing up old Taylor Stadium early in the 4th quarter. (Lehigh would win, 17-10).

In 1988, Lafayette beat Lehigh 52-45 in a shootout featuring Lafayette's Sports Illustrated cover boy, QB Frank Baur. 1994 was Lafayette RB Erik Marsh's swan song as he rewrote the Leopard record books as they crushed Lehigh 54-20. In 1995, Lehigh fans at Goodman saw a thrilling 37-30 OT victory with WR Brian Klingerman catching the game-winning pass with one hand in the corner of the end zone.

As the Patriot League started to have an autoqualifier into the I-AA playoffs, another bit of fissile material was heaped onto an already-nuclear rivalry. Now, the games started to mean I-AA playoff berths were also on the line. In 2004, Lafayette needed to beat us to get into the I-AA playoffs, and did so, beating us 24-10. And just last year, RB Jonathan Hurt got "The Catch" which gave Lafayette a 23-19 victory, denying Lehigh a Patriot League championship and allowing Lafayette to sneak in the I-AA Playoff field.

My Experiences
My first "Rivalry" was back in 1988, my freshman year. Back then, not having the I-AA playoffs to play for, the goal of the game was twofold: 1) for Lehigh to win, and 2) to storm the field to get souvenirs from the game, such as the end zone markers and bits of the goalposts. This postgame riot was considered a "tradition" of Lehigh/Lafayette. In anticipation of the amount of people who would be storming the field, security had been beefed up, and the metal goalposts were replaced by wooden ones to make for easier tearing-down. Even though security was tightened, there were always fights between fans, and ultimately there were scores of arrests.

That day in 1988, it seemed like every time the offense touched the ball either Lafayette or Lehigh scored. Ultimately Lafayette prevailed 52-45, although Lehigh never really took the lead as much as they kept the game close. Lafayette won the Patriot championship that year, and after storming the field with my buddies, I managed to get one of the end-zone markers. (Which was stolen from me by some girl, but that's a story for another time.) It was exhilirating: fraternities scored large chunks of the goalposts, and hung them proudly in their living quarters. Stories on the way home involved how many Lafayette fans were punched out, and how you managed to grab that elusive piece of the goalpost, and - oh yeah, we'll get 'em next year. All of us generally froze our tails off in an all-day and all-night party.

In 1990, I hitched a ride to Fisher Field with a few friends in a VW Bus. Yes, a VW Bus. I don't know at this time how we got to the game alive and in one piece, but we got to the game early, sang the song "Magic Bus", loaded up on other people's hotdogs and hamburgers, had lots of "Natty Bo's" (National Bohemian, the cheapest brew on the market at that time), and saw Lehigh dominate the Leopards 35-14. This game was my first Lehigh victory, and during the postgame melee I got a "piece" of the goalpost. I say "piece", for my goalpost shard couldn't have been more than 3 inches long - as 2 fraternities were fighting over a huge piece, a little shard came off in my hands. Triumphantly, I headed back to campus on a much safer bus, my souvenir tucked away in my coat pocket.

The Lehigh/Lafayette game during my senior year in 1991 could be considered the final days of this "riot" era. In that game, in defiance of the "traditions" of the wooden goalposts, Lehigh erected metal goalposts, and got the local authorities involved in keeping order. (No Patriot League title was on the line since Holy Cross had the championship wrapped up.) Even though students and fans were repeatedly warned not to storm the field (in which Lehigh dominated, 36-18), many fans still did storm the field (me and my friends not being among them). The fans on the field, frustrated at not being able to rip down the goalposts, picked up hunks of turf and started to throw them at the cops trying to restore order on the field. Not surprisingly, the cops went out and beat up a lot of the "fans" on the field that day, in front of many horrified students and alumni. Not a banner day for "the Rivalry".

Every year, my friends and I reunite for an annual "reunion" of sorts for Lehigh/Lafayette. It's always a lot of fun to see "the old gang" tailgating at the game and afterwards, even though those days of drinking beers at 9 in the morning and choking down burgers that tasted like hockey pucks are a distant memory. At our tailgate, the food and drinks have gotten better, there are now kids at the tailgates, and it's a time to catch up with everyone - to see pictures of that new house, talk about the family, the new babies, and to talk about Lehigh football too.

It's something I look forward to every year. And today, only 43 hours before the rivalry, the excitement is yet again at a fever pitch.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Preview of Lehigh/Lafayette

This picture, taken just after the end of the Lafayette/Georgetown game, lends itself to the imagination as to what exactly head coach Frank "GQ" Tavani is telling his players. It probably involves the words "focus", "championships", and "climbing higher". But the point is clear. Just like 2004 and 2005, he will have his troops focused and ready for "The Rivalry".

The 5 game losing streak, the struggles against the Ivy League, the loss to Holy Cross, the slow start. All history to the Leopards now. The only history they will be looking at is 2004 and 2005.

2004. A year where Lehigh fans remember getting pummled by Lafayette 24-10 in what will end up being the last Lehigh/Lafayette game in an unrenovated Fisher field, complete with "Woodrow Wilson Era" bathrooms and a pressbox you couldn't shoehorn your grandmother into. A game where we went into halftime with a 7-0 lead, a hungry Leopard team took control with some tough play and some timely turnovers to make this game end up in a rout.

2005. Going into the 4th quarter clinging to a 13-10 lead, two offensive drives lead to field goals that push Lehigh to a comfortable 19-10 lead - or so we thought. Lafayette reserve QB Pat Davis (who came in early for injured QB Brad Maurer) had other ideas, orchestrating a TD drive to cut the deficit to 19-17. Then, after our offense went 3-and-out, Davis drove the Lafayette offense to the Lehigh yard line with 37 seconds to play. On 4th down, Tavani at first elected for the field goal try, and then ultimately decided to go for it. Davis, absolutely crushed as he threw the ball, lofted almost a hail-mary pass... which was hauled down by RB Jonathan Hurt. Leopards get the TD, and break our hearts, to put it mildly. The Lehigh side sat in stunned silence; I saw grown fans crying in the stands. No Lehigh fan wants to remember it.

That's some pretty damn good history for the Leopards. Two games where we simply couldn't get it done. To those Leopard teams in '04 and '05, it didn't matter that they struggled in September, or even that they lost games to Colgate, putting themselves behind the 8-ball in the bid for the playoffs. They played with pride, and played for the win over Lehigh, and played the games of their lives. And they won.

All the Leopard's pain early in the year, all the uncertainty, washed away with big wins versus Lehigh. Even Tavani's critics have to acknowledge that he has gotten his teams ready for Lehigh/Lafayette consistently, with great results. Tavani manages the emotions of this game perfectly, and he will on Saturday once again, and Lehigh will have to be ready for that.

For all of Lehigh's success in the league - 5-0 going into this weekend - it would be a mistake to just treat this as any other game. It's Lehigh/Lafayette: strange things will happen. Mistakes are magnified. The Mountain Hawks have played much much better in recent weeks, yet even an untimely penalty, or a big turnover, could be the difference between a win and a loss - on either side.

On our side, we've got a lot of experience with juniors and seniors who haven't tasted the same success of the teams in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001 who almost went into Lehigh/Lafayette expecting a blowout win. These guys are hungry for the victory after experiencing the heartbreak twice on the sidelines the past two years. You would think that although Lafayette would be hungry for a win on Saturday, Lehigh must be starving.

Let's break it down, shall we?

Injury & Weather Report
OUT:
OL Ben Harden
DB Jarvis Lewis
DB Courtney Elder
LB Al Pierce

Probable:
WR Mike Fitzgerald
DB Julian Austin
The only real surprise in this injury report is that, well, it's different than the injury report for the last two months. WR Mike Fitzgerald had been banged up for a couple of weeks, and DB Julian Austin had been struggling with a foot injury, but it looks like they both should be ready to go for the 142nd meeting. Since this is Austin's last Lehigh/Lafayette, I'd be shocked if he didn't play.

The weather calls for a sunny, mid-40s day, so it will be a bit chilly. I'm sure if you crawl around the streets of Easton looking for tailgating fare you'll probably find a little of everything for tailgate drinks - just be sure to look for Lehigh fans there. If you wander to the wrong Lafayette tailgate you might find fans that may want to, well, "taint your drink" if you know what I mean. You may want to insist on bottles or cans of Yuengling that you have to open yourself - avoid drinks that are "conveniently" poured for you. (This also applies to cans of Coke or bottles of spring water for those younger fans. Beleive me, the depravity of Lafayette fans are not known to have any bounds.)

You could be putting yourself at risk of hitting a Lafayette tailgate if:
* If Zima if being consumed.
* Pinkie fingers are extended, and teacup and saucers are in hand.
* It's occuring in the back of a Chevy Caprice.
* If you hear the words, "Please pass the goose liver pat-ay."
* Quiche.
* Tailgating music involves Perry Como.
* Deep fried Twinkies.
* Any deep fried food that isn't meat and isn't easily recognizable.

Please, tailgate safe and keep your eyes open for these warning signs! Don't say Lehigh Football Nation didn't warn you!

A Word On Lafayette
The opportunities for humor here are staggering. What word describes Lafayette? Smelly? Evil? One of the seven deadly sins? Actually, Lafayette is more like us than we realize, which means Lafayette actually isn't evil, smelly, or one of the seven deadly sins.

Despite their struggles this year, including an 0-5 stretch after a 2-0 start, this Leopard team is clearly in the class of the Patriot League and well deserve their shot here this weekend. Faced with a must-win game in Hamilton, they went and dominated Colgate 27-10 - a team they hadn't beaten since Independence Day was a summer blockbuster. Many seniors remain from the teams that beat us in '04 and '05, including the MVP from the '04 game.

Like Lehigh, they are hitting their stride at the right time and will play their best game of the year on Saturday. The players treat the game with a heaping helping of respect, just like Lehigh, and will do everything in their power to prevent any bulletin board material hitting the airwaves. Like Lehigh, they will be working hard to make their seniors go out winners and go to the I-AA playoffs. Anyone who thinks we can show up and out-talent them to victory are simply kidding themselves.

Offense
Although the book on coach Tavani is that he likes to "run the ball, and stop the run", Lafayette's offense is a nearly perfect balance of running and passing. They will mix up a lot of offensive sets and have a plethora of offensive weapons at their disposal, even if they like to give the rock to a big, bruising RB. We'll probably see a little of everything: single back, empty backfield, two wide, four wide. But what we will see is an attempt to wear down our defense with every play, especially running the ball.

The triggerman, senior QB Brad Maurer, is what makes this offense churn. The Lehigh/Lafayette MVP in 2004, he has been somewhat inconsistent all year passing (8 TDs and 9 interceptions) but has been his usual elusive self running the ball (250 yards and 5 TDs). I'd look for designed runs, especially up the middle, to really take advantage of his running ability. That's not to say ignore his passing ability - he's clearly a dangerous player and an effective triggerman of the offense.

In the backfield, senior RB Jonathan Hurt has been a consistent workhorse all year, grinding out 959 yards and 15 TDs as well as 24 catches for 254 yards. Built like a fullback at 6'0 220 lbs, he's a very good "north-south" runner who isn't super-speedy to the corner, but can do it on occasion. He's also got surprisingly soft hands and is able (as anyone who say the '05 game knows) to catch the ball well out of the backfield. Behind him is sophomore RB Maurice White and junior RB Anthony D'Urso, two pretty good backs in their own right combining for 320 yards and 5 TDs, but without Hurt's good hands. At FB is sophomore Joe Russo, a 5'11, 235 lb behemoth who not only blocks well, he has proven to be a good counterpoint to Hurt with 121 yards and 5 TDs of his own. Russo and Hurt could be called the "Bash Brothers".

Where Lafayette's bug-a-boo has been this year is the receiving corps, though the problem is hardly lack of talent. Senior WR Joe Ort, with 740 yards receiving and 2 TDs on the year, is the leading receiver, but keep in mind that 274 yards of this came against Georgetown last week. Still, he's the go-to guy we're going to have to shut down. He's a wily guy that doesn't have gamebreaking speed, but has a knock of finding a way to get open. Highly-touted sophomore WR Shaun Adair and junior WR Duaeno Dorsey rounds out the receiving corps with a combined 444 yards and 2 TDs. I think Leopard fans were expecting either Adair or Dorsey to become dominant players this year, but so far it hasn't happened yet. Both have good speed, and if they get things together, watch out. Finally, senior TE Kevin Ganascioli rounds out the staff. A good blocker, he's also been known to slip in between the coverage and catch a ball or two.

(A special note here: Senior WR Archie Fisher, injured most of the year, could also be a factor here, though he hasn't been healthy all year.)

The "O" line, though, is really where Lafayette fans should be the proudest. Senior T Mike Saint Germain is the leader of these hogs who, quite simply, are huge across the board. With the smallest guy in the unit weighing 295 pounds, it's no wonder that they've been able to pound the ball against a lot of teams. The longer our defense is on the field, the better chance Lafayette has of wearing down our front seven with these behemoths.

Defense
The second part of coach Tavani's mantra, "stop the run", has been executed with less success than his offense. Their 4-3 base defense has been giving up 137.5 yards per game - only 4th in the Patriot League. Meanwhile, in pass defense they've been giving up 194.5 yards a game, meaning that although this unit is pretty good, it's not the same dominating unit featuring Bennett,Witherspoon and Costanzo last year.

That's not to say that they lack athletes. The front four could be the best in the Patriot League this year, with a powerhouse unit featuring senior DE Marvin Snipes, junior DT Kyle Sprenkle, senior DT Dan Liseno, and senior DE Keith Bloom. This unit accounts for 10 1/2 sacks and a slew of tackles for defensive linemen. They are big, and good. Period.

The linebacking unit features senior LB Justin Stovall (who forced a key Eric Rath fumble in the '04 game) and sophomore LB Andy Romans. Both are do-anything linebackers who will rush the QB, force turnovers, and also play well in pass coverage. Romans has an incredible 96 tackles already over the middle - he's clearly a guy that needs picking up.

Senior FS Torian Johnson is the class of the secondary, with 26 tackles and 2 interceptions - but the rest of the secondary have had some problems this year. The corners are on the shorter side, and have been picked on in the past. Perhaps hay can be made.

Special Teams
Senior PK Rich Ziska has a great leg, having booted a 42 yard FG already this year while going 6-for-10 on FGs. The punt unit, however, has struggled after first going to junior P David Yankovich and then to Ziska. Only averaging 38 yards a punt, this could be another chink in the Leopard armor. Returning kicks is the dangerously fast WR Shaun Adair, and if you kick away from him (most have), you get sophomore RB Tim Watson who also has done a great job returning kicks. If you take away the struggles punting the ball, this is another great special teams unit.

Keys To The 142nd
1. Keeping Mistakes Down. If Lehigh keeps the penalites and turnovers down, we will have an excellent chance to win this game. In a huge game like this, control and execution are extremely important.
2.Hurt Hurtin' For Yards. If Hurt doesn't get over 100 yards rushing, we will be having a good day in the trench and will have an excellent shot at winning.
3.Kick Contain. Their kick and punt units many not have scored - yet - this year, but they are dangerous. Laquan and the special teams 'Hawks will have to do their job keeping people like me from writing about these guys.
4.Smacking the Mouth. The "O" line will have to smack these talented Leopard front four around in order to move the sticks, keep possession and keep the Leopards from playing the ball-control, rushing game they want to play.
5.21. The team that reaches 21 points first have won six of the last nine chapters of "The Rivalry" (with the other three games having no team reach that number). If we score 21 points - especially requiring Lafayette to come from behind to beat us - I like our chances.

Fearless Prediction
Is it Lehigh's year? Can they win this trench battle against Lafayette's "hogs" and Lafayette's front seven? Can they establish the run? Can they stop Jonathan Hurt? It's hard to say.

It's so hard to say... that for the first time ever, I'm not going to predict a score in this game. All I will be able to say for sure is that it will come down to crunch time. Some sort of fourth-quarter drive, some tremendous stop, some very long FG. Two inconsistent teams will enter play in this installment of "THE Rivalry", and the team with more guts, the team that makes the plays in the 4th quarter, the team that makes the few mistakes, will win.

Which team will that be?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Press Roundup: Fordham/Lehigh

We can't get to Lehigh/Lafayette without celebrating the week that was: the Fordham game which got us to this game for "all the marbles" in the Patriot League. There will be plenty of time for breaking down "THE Rivalry" (Wednesday), talking about the personal side of "THE Rivalry" (Thursday), and, of course, what folks are saying around the water cooler (Friday). For now, we give out game balls for last week's game.

On offense, it's fitting that we give balls to senior RB Marques Thompson and the "O" Line, junior T Jimmy Kehs, senior G Pete Morelli, senior C John Reese, senior G Jim Petrucelli, and senior T Jason Russell. The line simply smothered the Fordham defensive line and forged 237 net rushing yards for our offense, while Thompson scorched the Rams to the tune of 144 all-purpose yards and 3 TDs. A completely dominating performance for a boatload of seniors who are the reason why we're here this year.

Defensively I'll give the ball to three more seniors: LB Micah Greene, LB Chris LaMont, and CB Brannan Thomas. Micah's pursuit inside and outside and Chris LaMont's pass rush were especially disruptive to Fordham's young QB, with LaMont getting 2 sacks and Micah getting 8 tackles. For momentum-changers, you can't get much better than Brannan Thomas' two huge interceptions in the first half, directly leading to 10 unanswered Lehigh points. Overall, a great effort.

Since I'm not being stingy with the game balls today, I'm also going to give out two special teams game balls this week too. Senior WR/PR Frank "Al Del Greco" Trovato gets one, while sophomore RB/KR Josh Pastore gets another. Not only did they both combine for 140 return yards, they also added 2 TDs on offense as well. Before this game I said Fordham's special teams were an advantage over Lehigh, but they went out and proved who the better unit was today.

Congratulations to all the seniors who really made "Senior Day" special! Now, all we need is one more big day from them...

Press Roundup
Allentown Morning Call:
Lehigh's Marques Thompson Earns Marquee Status
Upshot: ''We lost the last two years, and for the seniors, this is our last go-around,'' Marques said. ''We just have to step up and make the plays necessary to win this game. We want to go to the playoffs. Losing to Lafayette is unacceptable.''

Groller: Lehigh Has Rallied From Poor Start, But Next Week Is True Test
Upshot: The frustration of '04 and the despair of '05 haven't been forgotten by Lehigh's players [against Lafayette].''Those two losses have been on everyone's mind,'' said senior wide receiver Frank Trovato. ''We can finally talk about it now. We know what we have to do. If we play our football, Lehigh football, I think we'll come out on top.'' ''It would be hard,'' Coen said when asked if he'd consider the season a success even with a loss in Easton. ''We know what's at stake. Whoever loses next week, that taste will be pretty sour. I'll still respect the kids no matter what happens and appreciate the work they've put in. But they want to win. I do, too.''

Easton Express-Times:
Lehigh/Lafayette For Playoffs
Upshot: "I'm obviously very excited," said Lehigh coach Andy Coen, whose team moved to 6-4 overall and 5-0 in league play with its fourth straight win. "The goal this year was to play well so our seniors could walk off Goodman Stadium with a good memory and at least part of a championship. But we all know there's bigger fish to fry coming up."

Brown & White:
Win Sets Up Pivotal Lafayette Clash
Upshot: Lehigh Head Coach Andy Coen said [RB Marques "Mud"]Thompson can make something out of nothing. “His vision is as good as any back I’ve coached.” “As a team we’re beginning to put four quarters together,” Thompson said. “The guys are working real hard in practice and I think that’s transferring over to the game.”

Monday, November 13, 2006

Playoff Speculation, T-6 Days

Last week I engaged in some I-AA playoff speculation, and it was so popular I figured I'd revisit this today, 6 days before the selections will be announced on ESPN News.

The full rules for playoff selection were explained in this post, but the basics are: eight conferences (including the Patriot League) have an autobid into the I-AA playoffs, and eight teams will be selected as at-large qualifiers. For Lehigh fans, it's really simple: win, and we win the Patriot League title outright and will be playing the weekend after Thanksgiving. Lose, and the season will be over. The chance of Lehigh getting an at-large bid is super-remote.

Let's run down what we know. First, the autobid qualifiers.

Atlantic 10: With James Madison losing and UMass winning last weekend, the Minutemen wrapped up the autobid, no matter what happens next weekend vs. Hofstra.

Gateway: Youngstown State wrapped this up by beating Western Kentucky in their final regular-season game.

SoCon: Appalachian State clinched this last week, and also made a pretty damn good case for home field throughout the playoffs after thrashing Western Carolina last weekend.

Big Sky: This comes down to the "Brawl of the Wild" as to whether Montana or Montana State takes the autobid. This is a game which will get attention, as a Montana State win would take a precious at-large bid away from another team. For now, I'm still picking Montana.

Ohio Valley: With Tennessee-Martin losing to Eastern Kentucky last week, the race has been thrown into a mess that could come down to a number of combinations of Tennessee-Martin, Eastern Illinois or Tennessee State winning the title. The whole thing has the potential to come down to a random drawing or coin flip.

MEAC: Message read loud and clear: Hampton made it in with an emphatic 59-7 win over Florida A&M.

Patriot: Lehigh, or Lafayette. The winner of the 142nd meeting wins it.

Southland: If 6-4 McNeese State wins over 4-6 Nicholls State, they get the autobid. If they falter, 6-4 Sam Houston State is in with a win over 4-6 Texas State. If somehow both fall, McNeese would take it by virtues of head-to-head tiebreakers with Sam Houston State and 4-7 Stephen F. Austin.

Here's who's defintely in the race for the at-large bid in my estimation:

#1: Illinois State. Even if they lose to Northern Iowa in their Gateway finale., they are a lock to be in the field with an 8-3 record.

#2: Furman. They have finished the year at 8-3 and have wrapped up an at-large bid from the SoCon.

#3: James Madison. Though a loss in the final week to Towson wouldn't look great, I see them as a lock from the A-10 with a 9-2 or 8-3 record in any case.

That leaves five spots up for grabs. Two teams last week killed their chances: Charleston Southern (out of the Big South) and Holy Cross (out of the Patriot) by losing last weekend. That leaves the odds for the final spots as follows:

#4: Southern Illinois (1-4). The third team of the Gateway gets in with a win over 3-7 Southern Utah. At home, they've got to be favored to get this done.

#5: A Second Placed OVC team (1-4). If the dust settles and Tennessee-Martin wins the OVC autobid, I still think Eastern Illinois gets a bid. If Tennessee State or EIU gets the autobid, Tennessee-Martin will absolutely get a bid as long as they beat lowly 1-9 Murray State. I continue to like these odds.

#6: A Third Placed Atlantic 10 team (1-2). This requires either New Hampshire beating Maine OR Towson beating James Madison. Although nothing seems to ever be settled in the wacky world of the A-10, this would seem to have a pretty decent shot at happening.

#7: Montana (3-1). If Montana State beats Montana in the "Brawl of the Wild, Montana then will take up a precious at-large bid from another school.

#8: Coastal Carolina (3-1). All they need to do is win their last game against Charleston Southern, win the Big South, and do a lot of scoreboard watching. If the Chanticleers win, they'll be rooting for Montana, Maine and James Madison - if all three win along with Coastal, you've got to love their chances. If New Hampshire, Towson, and Montana State all win, it will be one nervous Sunday.

#9: Delaware State (4-1). Beating 4-6 Howard needs to be accomplished in their final MEAC game, but if they succeed, they'll be doing some scoreboard watching to see how many spots will be open. A loss by Coastal would help immensely, too.

#10: A Fourth Placed Atlantic 10 Team (6-1). This requires Towson beating James Madison AND New Hampshire beating Maine to happen, putting New Hampshire, James Madison and Towson all at 8-3. If this happens, I think all four make it.

#11: Portland State (8-1). With 7 D-I wins after scheduling 3 I-A teams to start the year, there are a lot of folks who have surprised me by saying that the Vikings have a real chance to qualify. If they do, I think it's due to a lot of things that are out of their control.

#12: Monmouth (12-1). The 10-1 NEC co-champion (who has completed their regular season) could be selected if a lot of things happen on Saturday, but it's just looking awful slim.

#13: San Diego (14-1). The 10-0 Pioneer League champions would only be selected if absolutely everything falls correctly... and even then might not make it. If they don't, they'll probably play UC-Davis during the first round of the playoffs and then play Monmouth or Albany in the inaugural Gridiron Classic.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sunday's Word: Rivalry

The Lehigh/Lafayette rivalry - what I like to refer to as simply "The Rivalry" - is the purest and greatest rivalry in the world. And this year it's for all the marbles - a I-AA playoff berth.

Sure, Lehigh clinched a Patriot League co-championship by blowing out Fordham in an impressive display on Saturday. But it sure would be awfully empty sharing it with Lafayette, losing to the Leopards in "The Rivalry" and sitting at home Thanksgiving weekend. Lehigh/Lafayette is always more than just a game, but with a I-AA Playoff game on the line, "The Rivalry", in effect, is another playoff game. Win, we survive and play on. Lose, we're done.

Lehigh and Lafayette have played each other more times than any other rivals in the history of college football. This will be the 142nd meeting between these two schools, who are separated only by about 13 miles along old Route 22. There are other rivalries are considered big games: Michigan/Ohio State, Alabama/Auburn, or USC/Cal - but those teams play games in the higher reaches of Division I athletics that are completely corrupted by money. Many of these players are using these games to shore up their resume for a possible NFL career, and too many don't graduate.

There are other rivalries that stake themselves out as "pure" - like Harvard/Yale or Amherst/Williams. But since they play no postseason, these great games get relegated to the level of "strange oddities" that simply don't have much relevance in the football world. More often then not the games are meaningless to their conference championships; they never have postseason ramifications.

There are other rivalries that are "old" - like Richmond/William & Mary, Montana/Montana State, Appalachian State/Western Carolina. But they can't touch 142 meetings. Montana's "Brawl of the Wild" are playing their 106th meeting on Saturday, and that's the closest of this bunch. 106 meetings is a long time to have developed hate, but it's nothing compared to the hate after 142 meetings.

Finally, there are some schools that are pretty close together. But it's hard to top a 13 mile journey. Theoretically you could walk the entire distance. It's not easy to hate someone who's hundreds of miles away. But Lehigh and Lafayette seem to share the same plot of land. Whatever you do when following Lehigh, you cannot escape the view of Lafayette, and vice versa. Lehigh's wins are generally followed by... "... and what did Lafayette do?" This doesn't happen anywhere else. Even Michigan fans ignore Ohio State sometimes.

It's got everything. Hatred. Proximity. Too many meetings to count. And not only conference championships at stake, but a Golden Ticket to a possible I-AA championship.

Coaches, players, and fans will all tell you this is the best "rivalry" in America. And they're right.
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