Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lehigh 27, Lafayette 21, OT

Murray Goodman has been the source of some of the most thrilling chapters of "The Rivalry", and today's heart-stopping overtime win was no exception to that rule.

I have been going to see "The Rivalry" every year since 1988, missing the big game against Lafayette only once. Of all the games I've seen, the one I saw this weekend at could have been the craziest one of them all.

There have been close finishes before. Lafayette QB Rob Curley two years ago found WR Kyle Roeder on a slant pattern in the end zone in 2007 to deal Lehigh a 21-17 defeat. In 2005, Leopard QB Pat Davis' heave was found by RB Jonathan Hurt for a dramatic touchdown pass to ruin Lehigh's shot at a playoff autobid in a 23-19 defeat - and in the process put Lafayette in the playoff field as an at-large bid. In 1999, with Lafayette head coach Bill Russo coaching in his last game, his Leopards came very close to upsetting the Mountain Hawks - but were stopped short in a 14-12 defeat.

Overtime also happened before at Murray Goodman - in 1995, when Lehigh overcame a 16 point deficit to force the first overtime game in "The Rivalry". And when WR Brian Klingerman caught that touchdown pass in the end zone with a leaping one-handed grab, Kevin Higgins' Lehigh team would win a Patriot League championship and cap off one of the most thrilling Rivalries ever. (Had they needed a second overtime, it was debatable if they could conduct it - the sun had already set, and darkness has just started to envelop the stadium.)

But in all of those games, Lehigh were either heavy favorites over "the boys from Easton", or at worst their equals. In today's game, 3-7 Lehigh's only role in the larger picture was to be a spoiler over the 8-2 Leopards. Frank Tavani's team, who was looking for revenge for last year's loss, also had to have had an eye towards the playoffs if they finished 9-2.

A win by Lehigh would have clearly been a huge upset. It would be a win against a nationally-ranked opponent, something Lehigh hadn't done since they beat Harvard in 2007. It would be against the same Rob Curley that bedeviled them two years ago - and the same Rob Curley that very nearly made it on the Walter Payton ballot this year.

And - somehow - this team did it. They didn't do it pretty; but in the end, Lehigh just kept making play after play after play after play. They hung around when Lafayette threatened to really get rolling. Despite Leopards hanging all over him all day, junior QB J.B. Clark got the ball where it needed to go. The defense stopped the Leopards when they had to.

And they won.

On paper, this was a mismatch. Yet somehow this team kept coming back out there and making plays to win this football game.

*****

It didn't look like Clark would get his second consecutive MVP trophy early after he fumbled in the red zone on the opening drive.

Lafayette took that turnover and proceeded to march right down the field. But junior FS John Venerio picked off a trick play pass from Lafayette sophomore WR Kyle Hayes in the end zone to stop their first drive, setting the tone early for a defensive battle.

After a drive stalled at the Lafayette 48, sophomore P Alex Smith booted a 46 yard punt, downed at the 2 by freshman DB Bryan Andrews. After that, however, Lafayette would get their offensive engine going. Curley would take off to convert for one big third down and find junior WR Mark Layton to convert another. He'd then find sophomore WR Mitch Bennett with a picture-perfect pass the right corner of the end zone to give the Leopards a 7-0 lead.

After a fumble on a muffed punt, Lafayette looked like they would take control of the game. But after senior DT B.J. Benning stood up Lafayette senior RB Tyrell Coon on two straight runs, on fourth down sophomore LB Devin Greene would make a great defensive play to prevent Coon from catching the ball around the sticks, thwarting another drive.

After another Lehigh offensive drive stalled, Lafayette was soon knocking on the door once again - with a 14 yard screen pass to senior RB Maurice White and a 29 yard Curley-to-Bennett connection to get to the edge of Lehigh's red zone. But - again - Lehigh would make a play, with Andrews' interception in the end zone to stop another Leopard drive.

Four drives. One became seven Leopard points, but the defense forced two end-zone turnovers and made a play on fourth down to stop another drive, which for all practical purposes was another turnover. This time, Lehigh would respond.

In the drive that could have summed up the game, Clark went to work, still down 7-0 and without much to show for his effort. After he found sophomore WR Jake Drwal twice for a total of 34 yards two get to midfield - both times with leaping grabs - three more times on the drive he would overcome sacks to convert on third down and more than ten.

Once, he found junior TE Alex Wojdowski wide-open on the right side for a 25 yard gain that looked until the last moment to be doomed to failure. The second time, he willed a ball to junior WR Craig Zurn to get a first down in the red zone. And the third time, he tried to find Drwal in the corner of the end zone - and might have had him, too, if Lafayette junior DB Donald Ellis hadn't grabbed him for an easy pass interference call for the officials.

1st and goal at the 2 - and even then, it still wasn't easy. An incompletion to Drwal, then a zipped ball over the head of Craig Zurn that bounced the padding behind the goalpost. But Clark fought though it and - finally - hit a wide open freshman WR James Flynn for the game tying score right before halftime.

*****

By all rights, Lehigh should have been down by at least two touchdowns. Yet somehow the Mountain Hawks were in this thing.

It made for a strange experience in the stands, too. Normally in these Lehigh/Lafayette games, there is energy to spare pouring out of the stands, but many of the Lehigh faithful seemed to hold back some of their energy - almost not sure whether to get behind the team. Granted, they had seen a lot this year: too many close losses, the first time Lehigh was ever shut out at Murray Goodman stadium, and not a single win against a team with a winning record.

Sure, there were still the students - loudly cheering the first downs, getting pumped when the T-shirt cannon shot up at the crowd, and oohing on the big defensive hits. But it's as if they'd been burned by their last boyfriend - would they ever learn to love with reckless abandon again?

On the other side, the Lafayette fans seemed to have more of the unrestrained energy. There was a confidence about them that Curley would somehow do it all again, that the number of sacks by senior LB Mark Leggerio, senior DT Ian Dell and senior DT Andrew Poulson would ultimately take their toll and take apart the Mountain Hawks. They'd seen it before so many times this year - why not in this game, too?

Tentatively, the second half began - Lehigh fans still hoping for the best, but secretly expecting the worst.

*****

Lehigh's worst fears were realized in the third quarter when Curley and the Leopard offense went on a methodical 9 play, 82 yard drive that seemed to demonstrate that the Lafayette machine was simply going to overwhelm Lehigh in the second half. Big runs by sophomore RB Jerome Rudolph, interspersed with four perfect passes, including a 29 yard strike to sophomore WR Greg Stripe and a 3 yard pass to senior TE Michael Bolton on the back edge of the end zone that would give Lafayette a 14-7 lead.

A Lehigh 3-and-out in other games would have given most fans that "here we go again" feeling. But this ensuing 3-and-out would change everything.

After a booming 51 yard punt by Alex Smith, Leopard junior WR Nathan Padia tried to run across the field and someow lost the ball - which would be pounced upon by gratefully be Lehigh's John Venerio in the end zone.

The scoreboard didn't lie: Lehigh, 14, Lafayette 14, even if the extra point - for effect - would bounce off the right post, and through, for the score.

"I didn't even see the play," coach Andy Coen said after the game. "I saw the ball go over his head, and then a mad scramble. I'll be looking forward to seeing that one on the tape!"

The 3rd quarter would wind to an end after both defenses stepped up. While Padia would redeem himself with a 18 yard punt return that set the table nicely for the Leopards next drive, B.J. Benning simply refused to lose underneath, stuffing interior run after interior run. But Curley would do just enough to move the sticks: finding Layton for one first down, and Tyrell Coon would break free outside for another to set up a first and goal at the six.

First down. Senior LB Matt Cohen. Stops Tyrell Coon cold.

Second down. Benning and senior LB Troy Taylor. They stop Tyrell Coon after a two yard gain.

Third down. Coon looks like he's going to break through for the touchdown, but then senior LB Al Pierce and B.J. Benning deliver a crushing hit to stop him short. Again.

Fourth down - and Tavani, in a move that might be second-guessed for quite some time, elects to go for it instead of kick the field goal. Junior DT David Brown and Troy Taylor knock Coon back 1 yard! Lafayette turns the ball over on downs.

Slowly, the Lehigh crowd starts to believe that maybe, just maybe, this might be their day.

*****

Clark then led Lehigh on the best offensive drive of the year. Again Lehigh would find themselves with third downs to convert on the drive, and again Clark would will the ball to convert them. 3rd and 7? Clark to Drwal, 14 yards. 3rd-and-3? Clark to Wojcowski, right at the sticks. 3rd and 8? Clark threads a ball to sophomore WR De'Vaughn Gordon, who then evades two tacklers and rumbles down the center of the field to the Lafayette 6 yard line. After the 63 yard pas play, suddenly, there are even more believers in the Lehigh stands.

Lehigh hasn't run the ball all that effectively - but when they need it, senior FB Anthony Fossati drives through with the 1 yard TD to put Lehigh up 21-14. (Was that his first carry of the year?)

But there's loads of time left - and Rob Curley has been here before. While it was a lead in the fourth quarter, at n time did it ever feel safe.

With two minutes to play - and the Lehigh fans holding their collective breath - Curley did exactly what he did in 2007. He engineered a 75 yard drive, ending with a 34 yard grab by Hayes to tie the game at 21. Curley did what Curley does during that dive: he went a brutally efficient 4-for-5, with a 21 yard scramble thrown in for good measure.

With the tying touchdown, the Lafayette fans exploded on the other sideline, and any Lehigh energy in the stands was gone at this point. Momentum all pointed Lafayette's way. The Leopards had the quarterback. They had the defense. They would find a way to win this, just like they had all year in so many ways. And Lehigh, who had found a way to lose these types of games all year, would do so again.

Overtime.

*****

In reality, the overtime consisted of exactly four plays. But it felt like the entire period was played in slow motion. Each play brought such momentum swings it's hard to put it into words.

Play One. Clark finds Drwal over the middle and gains 17 yards to get into the red zone. It looked like it could have been picked off - but somehow the ball gets past the Lafayette defender, and Drwal hauls it in and makes it to the seven yard line.

Play Two. After evading pressure, Clark finds an streaking Wojdowski who finds his way in the end zone for the TD. Relief pours over the Lehigh crowd; Lafayette will have to score a touchdown to keep up.

Play Three. A high snap on the extra point - and it sails wide right. No good. A six point lead. Hearts stopped. Now, all Curley would need to do is do what he's always done - drive to win the game, and give Lafayette sophomore PK Davis Rodriguez a chance to deliver a humiliating end to the Lehigh season.

Play Four. Curley, under pressure, tosses the ball. Al Pierce fakes a rush, reads Curley's eyes, and drops back into coverage. He reaches up. He pulls the football in.

He runs with the ball. Game over. He holds onto the ball tightly. Game over? He falls down. Game over!

"Coach [Kotulski] challenges us on that play every week in practice," Pierce said in the post-game press conference, making it seem as matter-of-fact as if he were describing what he ate yesterday. "We did it every day, I can't tell you how many times. It got me the first couple times, biting on the running back."

"Our defensive coaches this year were awesome," coach Coen said. "The amount of injuries, the pieces they've had to move around, the people they've had to plug in, the changing schemes - guys were in and out. It was great getting Al back today."

It almost didn't seem safe to root for Lehigh until Pierce came down with the interception. But then - everything changed.

A year's worth of energy rushed out of the Lehigh stands with that interception. All those times that Lehigh fans had sat in frustration this year after close losses vanished. All at once the fans got behind the team - even if they didn't quite believe what they saw. They stormed the field. They surrounded the team. Senior DT B.J. Benning was carried off the field on their shoulders. Senior LB Matt Cohen celebrated by doing a bit of crowd surfing.

"It's only fitting we had a chance to win one this way," Coen said. "This was such a tough season for our guys, I'm so happy for them we were able to get the win today. It (my hair) got a lot grayer all year, I'll tell you that. To win the game in OT after all the tough losses we had all season, it speaks volumes of these guys."

Unbelievable. It's one folks will be talking about for a long, long time.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Video Rivalry: Watching The 145th

If you can't be at the game (or you're only going to the tailgate), there are lots of places around the country to watch the game at telecast parties. Nationally and internationally, "The Rivalry" is broadcast everywhere for Lehigh alums to get together, share a cold one and also sing the old Lehigh alma mater with friends.

There's also, of course, your TV (FCS Central, and Channel 69) and computer as well though Yahoo! Broadcast if you want to host your own viewing party. (If you're technically savvy - and I've done this before - you can route your laptop through your TV and watch the Yahoo! Broadcastt on your regular TV.)

And that's only half the story, too.

One of the more underreported parts of "The Rivalry" involve the media surrounding both schools. It could be the only game in America where there are two full staffs of commentators, play-by-play and cameras covering the game at the same time.

Lehigh and Lafayette both sponsor TV broadcasts of almost all their games - something unusual in a landscape where conferences tend to own the rights and announcing. For example, when Michigan plays Ohio State, you get ESPN announcers, period. You don't have the Ohio State TV people and the Michigan people with their own perspectives.

That means that you can also get the game on the local stations that carry the Lafayette Sports Network - and ESPN360 Online, too, if your cable company provides it.

Two computer outlets, almost every local station in the Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton area (and beyond, in Berks County, upper Bucks and elsewhere), and nationally on FCS Central - and a bunch of individual stations on DirecTV for telecasts, too.

Think about that a minute. I don't think any other game in the country can rival that. Sure you get Army/Navy, but with one set of announcers on one station. Sure, you can get USC/UCLA, but there aren't two places to get distinct streams of the game with full announcing staff.

What drives it is - you guessed it - "The Rivalry". Both broadcasts are sponsored and produced by the schools themselves - with some sponsorship, but mostly paid for by the athletics departments themselves. Like everything else involved with Lehigh and Lafayette, there's competition involved. Lafayette holds LSN up to be the biggest coverage area; and Lehigh claims them to be the best quality broadcasts.

And the idea of leaving the big rival to give them a feed of the game so that they don't need to pay to produce it themselves? Please. We'll do it ourselves, thank you very much. After all, we wouldn't want that (Lehigh, Lafayette) bias to infect the coverage.

It's kind of like Fox and CNN covering the same Obama press conference. It happens all the time in the world of news, but almost never in the world of sports.

In many ways, Lehigh and Lafayette are poster children for free markets and capitalism. "The Rivalry" causes innovation, originality, and drives each other to increase the quality and quantity of coverage each year. For an FCS TV junkie like me, it's paradise.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Preview of the 145th: Lafayette at Lehigh, "The Rivalry"

(Photo Credit: Joe Gill/The Easton Express-Times)

How can a game be at once so similar and so different from last year?

For sure the similarities include the run-up to this game for both teams.

Lehigh suffered through a disappointing regular season, and will finish at under .500, just like last year. They did poorly in out-of-conference play, beat up on the lower echelon of the Patriot League, and played the best teams in the Patriot League close but couldn't get over the hump to win the games that would put them in title contention. All that Lehigh can do to make the season a success is beat the boys from Easton - an almost mirror image of what happened last year.

"That school in Easton", in contrast, started out the year gangbusters. For the first time in recent memory, the Leopards swept the Ivy League (including a great overtime 20-17 victory over this year's Ivy League Champion Penn). Only an early loss to FCS playoff contender Liberty was the only blemish on their schedule. Like last year, they cruised into Week Ten with a real shot at the Patriot League title.

But just like last year, Randolph broke the Leopard hearts with a victory where missed extra points were the difference. (How similar? 2008: Holy Cross 28, Lafayette 27; 2009: Holy Cross 208, Lafayette 26.) With a disappointing loss at their backs, Lafayette looks to salvage their season - and a very possible at-large playoff bid - with a win over their bitter rival.

For sure, it's not a perfect analogy. Lehigh wasn't shut out last year. By the time the 144th rolled around last year, the Leopards were unranked and out of playoff contention. Lehigh's probably a step behind where the were last year, and Easton U. is a big step ahead.

And there's another huge difference, too: the 144th itself. Last year, Lehigh had to be going into "The Rivalry" wondering what they needed to do to break the four-year doldrums against "that school in Easton. The question wasn't how will they win - but can they win?

You know the rest of the story. Junior QB J. B. Clark won the Lehigh/Lafayette MVP trophy, junior DB John "Prez" Kennedy returned that interception 93 yards to finally break the four-year hex. The outpouring of emotion from the visiting stands in beautifully renovated Fisher Field was palpable. (And the outpouring of emotion on the other side, ending with that late hit from Leopard senior LB Andy Romans, was palpable too.)

This year, Lehigh's coming off a wondrous one game winning streak against the boys from Easton. They know it can be done - with this quarterback and this defense. While this Lehigh team is young, many of the key components have been here before. They don't need to be tought how to beat "that school in Easton": they've already learned that lesson.

That's not to underestimate the challenge this weekend. Lafayette is an exceptional team, with an exceptional QB and their perennially awesome defense. They're battle tested. They've got more to play for. And anyone will tell you that a wounded animal is more dangerous than a healthy animal. The Cats will be more than ready for this one.

But Lehigh will be loose, because they know they can beat Lafayette, and because they've done it before in almost exactly the same circumstances.

Game Notes
The game notes show a lot of neat facts about "The Rivalry", but they don't show a single change on the two deep from last week to this week. There are two big names, however, coming back according to Michael Lore of the Express-Times: sophomore LB/DB Colin Newton and senior LB Al Pierce. For many of the seniors this will be their last football game, but not Pierce: he has a medical redshirt year and he's already planning to come back next season.

With Pierce and Newtown back, and senior LB Matt Cohen and senior LB Troy Taylor starting tomorrow, it should be an awfully tough four linebackers for Lafayette to handle - and with some depth, too.

Game notes from "that school in Easton" can be found here.

Weather Report
Weather for the third week in November tends to be a crapshoot, but this year the forecaster has some good news: partly cloudy skies, with a high of 56. There might be a slight breeze, but as Rivalries go this one is going to have some great weather it looks like.

A Word on Eastonites
With all the build-up to the game at Murray Goodman, with its beautiful green grass, ample area for tailgating, and breathtaking views of South Mountain, it's odd that a blog posting from Keith Groller of the Morning Call has been making the most news this week.

Leopard head coach Frank Tavani took time out of his busy preparation to invite Keith to a guided tour of the Death Star* I mean the Bourger Varsity Football House, and Mr. Groller was truly dazzled by the place:

The coaches' offices alone are jaw-dropping. No expense was spared, from the carpeting, to the closets to the huge high-def screens that are in virtually every room. This is a first-class, well-designed, brilliantly-conceived, top-notch facility that has to be the envy of any FCS (I-AA) school in the country. There might be a few NFL teams that may not have a place as classy as this one.

You put this together with the press box and what's available in Kirby Fieldhouse, the sparkling field turf, the renovated seating areas and you have, simply, the best football facility of its kind anywhere and I've probably visited at least 25 I-AA schools and even some small Division Ones in my nine seasons on the Lehigh football beat.
I've been there too, and it's a beautiful place for the press to watch a game for sure. He goes on - and this is what has Eastonites cackling and Lehigh folks gritting their teeth:

I wish I could have taken some people with me on the tour: Lehigh alums.

I think they would have been just as impressed as I was and left wondering: "Why don't we have anything like this?"

Look, Lehigh doesn't have terrible facilities. But there's a definite need for an upgrade in some areas, especially at Goodman Stadium. It's time to pump some dollars into the program.

Instead, people assume the status quo is good enough and just go along year after year with no improvement taking place.

Lafayette is now running circles around Lehigh with its state-of-the-art palace and the energy and enthusiam surrounding the program is palpable.

There's no doubt that the Death Star is quite a feat of modern engineering - and certainly I have my own ideas for upgrading Murray Goodman stadium. But the idea that Lafayette is "running circles" around Lehigh is a tad overstated to me. Many of the improvements Lehigh has done in the past few years haven't been the flashy kind - they've been facility improvements like improving the drainage in the field, improving the training facilities so the NFL's Eagles can continue to come to Lehigh every summer, and the like.

In the end, though, articles like this are healthy for both programs. There's not just a rivalry with students, alums, or even the football players. It's with the programs themselves, and the constant comparing can only help both schools get the best facilities of our kind at our level.

LFN's Drink of the Week
As any regular reader of this blog will tell you, if nothing else when it comes to "The Rivalry" I'm superstitious. Last year, I made a poll to ask what the "Drink of the Week" should be, and the answer that won was an unknown drink called the "Birkie Bloody." I still have absolutely no idea what it is - I'm guessing it involves bloody mary mix, and possibly a slightly bruised cucumber - but if it worked last year, dammit, I hope it works this year too. I know that I'm going to be personally looking for the Rumplemintz and Hot Chocolate as I make my way towards the stadium.

As always, Drinks of the Week have their place in responsible tailgates - meaning, be over 18 and don't do anything you'll regret the rest of your life - like sip that tea (with outstretched pinkies) they have over at the Lafayette tailgates.

Breaking Down Lafayette
Offense
Lafayette isn't fancy: they want to win the ball game with a big, physical presence, running the ball, and pinpoint passing to keep the defense off balance. After starting this year with some questions in this area, the Leopards have answered them emphatically.

Hard to believe that last year senior QB Rob Curley was in a quarterback controversy, and even before their first game it was unclear whether he was the starter. He went from questionable starter to a player that can say that he equals or betters two QB that could find themsleves playing on Sundays next fall (Holy Cross senior QB Dominic Randolph and Fordham senior QB John Skelton).

Curley is mobile and (when healthy) is very hard to bring down. He's most like Colgate junior QB Greg Sullivan in that he's athletic, tough as nails and makes great decisions on the run. His 68% completion percentage (210 for 308, 2,744 yards passing, 25 TDs) is mostly of the dink-and-dunk variety, though he does go deep on occasion. One thing to keep in mind is his 10 interceptions - but Curley all year has had a great ability to get over his mistakes to lead his team. Disrupting him has to be Job One of the defense.

What makes this hard is the fact that Curley has so many passing options. Thirteen different Leopards have caught passes from Curley, with 5'8 junior WR Mark Layton leading the charge with 740 yards and 11 TDs. Another target to watch for is 6'4 sophomore WR Mitch Bennett, who has hauled in 560 yards and 3 TDs in more of a possession receiver role. Sophomore WR Greg Stripe (266 yards) and senior TE Michael "When a MAAAN Loves a Woh-Man" Bolton (179 yards, 3 TDs) around the goal line round out this sure-handed receiving corps.

The three-headed backfield of the Leopards has only had modest success this year. Oft-injured senior RB Maurice White is their leading rusher with 567 yards and 7 TDs, but he hasn't eclipsed the 20 carry mark since Halloween. The rest of their stable of running backs have been somewhat of a disappointment this year. Senior RB Tyrell Coon (154 yards, 1 TD) didn't start last week with an injury, senior RB DeAndre Morrow (312 yards, 2 TDs) hasn't had more than 11 carries a game all year, and sophomore RB Jerome Rudolph (157 yards, 1 TD) hasn't broken out either. Look for White, the between-tackles back, and Coon and Morrow, the speedsters, to play if they're able. All three, however, can catch the ball out of the backfield; every play is a risk to see a running back screen pass.

The Leopards always seem to get some huge hogs on their line, which is the engine that makes this offense go. This year, 6'3 297 lb senior OL Ryan Hart-Predmore is the heart and soul of these trenches that have given Curley lots of time to pick apart defenses. Senior OL Brian Wycinowski and senior C Michael Wojcik are two more big boys on an "O" line that has been steady as she goes all year.

Defense
Like last year, this base 4-3 is one fearsome unit. Most of the year they had been listed in the Top 20 defenses in the country in terms of scoring. They are a team that mixes up their blitzes well and always brings the heat.

The front four are very tough, starting with senior DT Andrew Paulson (46 tackles, 7 tackles for loss including 3 sacks). The 275 Poulson is a great Patriot League lineman who is effective in the middle at stuffing interior runs and has expanded his game against the pass as well. I honestly think some NFL team might steal him as a free agent. Senior DT Ian Dell (41 tackles, 10 tackles for loss including 7 sacks) may not get the same looks as Poulson, but he helps form an amazing interior rush for the Leopards. This will be Lehigh's "O" line's biggest test.

Senior LB Mark Leggerio (86 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT) and junior LB Michael Schmidlein (93 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 2 INTs) and lead up an always-fearsome linebacking corps as well. This aggressive front seven anchors the best scoring defense in the Patriot League, and they're only allowing just over 100 yards a game rushing. They will be daunting to face.

If there's a weakness in this unit, it's the secondary, who have only grabbed six interceptions on the year and who have given up 226 yards a game, which is 92nd out of 125 FCS teams. Two of those interceptions came from junior FS Donald Ellis, who plays an able centerfield.

Special Teams
Senior RB De'Andre Morrow hasn't returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown yet this year, but with 261 return yards he has some speed to bring it to the house. Punt return units, with sophomore WR Greg Stripe and junior WR Nathan Padia have combined for 87 punt return yards on the year - about average.

Junior PK Davis Rodriguez has always had a great leg, but he has also struggled to be accurate this year as well (his two missed extra points against Holy Cross certainly hurt them in that game). Junior P Tom Kondash is the middle of the Patriot League pack in punting, with a 36.1 average.

Keys to the Game
1. The Physical Battle. Why did Lehigh win last year? The "O" and "D" lines won the physical battle in the trenches. Controlling the line of scrimmage will be huge in establishing some sort of rhythm on offense and disrupting Curley's rhythm on defense.

2. Bring The Heat. Lehigh will not win if they sit back and let Curley pick them apart. If senior LB Matt Cohen, senior LB Troy Taylor, senior DT B. J. Benning and sophomore LB Colin Newton are harassing Curley every down, there is potential for good things to happen for the Hawks.

3. Bombs Away? Against that secondary, I'd be tempted to test them deep a few times early with senior WR Jimmy Potocnie to see if we can get a qiuick strike touchdown. The passing game - if junior QB J.B. Clark can recapture the magic from last year - could be the deal-breaker that gives Lehigh their second straight win over the Leopards.

4. No Sur-"Prez" Here. Junior DB John "Prez" Kennedy, last year's hero, could once again be a factor - not only on defense, but returning kicks as well. Prez, along with junior DB Jarard "Fearless" Cribbs, could give Lehigh a big edge on special teams that might be the difference in the game.

5. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. No doubt about it: Lehigh needs to play a clean game with fewer mistakes if they hope to topple the Leopards. Last week's turnover-filled penalty-filled game was enough to beat Fordham, but it will not be nearly enough to beat the boys from Easton. It doesn't have to be perfect, but the mistakes will have to be at a minimum to have a chance.

Fearless Prediction
On paper, this game is a no contest. The statistics show that Lehigh shouldn't be on the same field as Lafayette and hope to win.

Looking closer, however, there's more here than meets the eye.

The Mountain Hawks are a better team than the one that lost 7-0 to Yale. In the Patriot League - in a title chase they had no business in - they came very close to pulling off the upset of the century against Holy Cross and also took Colgate to the brink as well. When it would have been easy to give up on the season and the coach, nobody did. They played hard, won football games, and gave two nationally-ranked teams a scare.

Can they do it again? Put everything together, and send the seniors out with their second win against Lafayette in two years? Put a disappointing year behind them, and play one game where everything comes together in order to ensure that Lafayette sits at home on Thanksgiving?

Yes. They can.

Lehigh 20, Lafayette 17

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"The Hate"

(Photo Credit: Brown & White)

The picture to the left certainly isn't politically correct. It's raw. It's irreverent. And it sums up the feelings between these two schools perfectly.

Why is it that we hate what we most resemble? It's not unique to Lehigh and "that school from Easton": Harvard and Yale are both schools with global academic brands that are more similar than different. Army and Navy detest each other, but both share in that armed forces life and face the same challenges as institutions.

Demographically, Lehigh and "that school from Easton" are very similar: most of their students come from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They are schools that are known for their hard-studying, hard-partying attitudes - and have had rocky relationships with the towns that host them in Bethlehem and Easton, both with echoes of a blue-collar past.

Yet there are differences. Lafayette is a college, focusing on a liberal arts education. Lehigh is a university, with a top Engineering department and business school. Lehigh has traditionally been male-dominated; Lafayette's ratio of men to women is close to 1:1. Lehigh's enrollment is almost 5,000: Lafayette's is just over 2,400.

It's the similarity - but also the differences -that characterizes the craziness that centers around "The Rivalry".

History of "The Hate"
There are lots of great sources for all the crazy traditions of "The Rivalry". PBS 39 produced an excellent documentary called "The Lehigh/'Lafayette Legacy produced in 2003 (recently put, in its entirety, on YouTube), and the book "Legends of Lehigh/Lafayette", written by Todd Davidson and Bob Donchez in 1995. Both talk a little bit about the "tradition of excess", to put it mildly, around "The Rivalry". In addition, the best tradition is that the staff on the Brown & White student paper open up their archives to talk about the craziness around "The Rivalry". I always look forward to their take on it every year, and it's invaluable in putting together this blog posting right here.

What happens on the Bethlehem and Easton campuses the week before the game? In 2004, the Brown & White's Nora Mattern in this article described it as "the energy across campus has intensified." That's the best way to describe a lot of this excess around the rivalry: a buildup of energy.

For players, especially the seniors, it's a cumulation of their football playing careers and will almost certainly be the top of their competitive lives in football. For passionate alumni, it's the last throes of the year and the one chance a year many alumni get to see many of their own outside their busy lives.

And for students, this could mean the nearing of the end of a semester of tough classes, which all comes together with an outpouring of directed energy that leads to things like the banner above. It is a way to deal with the stresses of being away from home, being away from the nest, and to be individuals. It's the one thing that unites everyone who is or has been Brown or Maroon. It's unadulterated school spirit, frequently tinged with alcohol, inundated with emotion and coming of age all at once in a common direction. It's Hunter Thompson meets The Beach Boys meets "Animal House".

In this year's Brown & White, one recollection only makes sense if you think about it as energy buildup around campus: ">'07 left me with the hazy recollection of racing shopping carts up and down East Fifth, pushing Delta Gamma girls clad in bird costumes as neighbors climbed onto their roofs and danced to the hit single, 'Soulja Boy.'"
Energy, indeed.

Traditions
Some of the original traditions involved pep rallies called "smokers". For two all-male schools, you couldn't get much more macho: smokers involved wrestling matches, boxing matches, coaches' and players' speeches, and lots and lots of tobacco products being consumed (hence the name "smoker"). They were present on both campuses: in the New York Times in 1913, a smoker was described at Lafayette: "All week long there have been daily demonstrations. To-night there was a smoker, at which the building literally rocked with the vehemence of the cheers."

Another common aspect of "The Rivalry" which continued well into the 1960's was the idea of raiding the other campus, sometimes resulting in riots. Over the years, these campus raids were a right of passage at the all-male schools, complete with the occasional fistfight. On the Lehigh side, those demonstrations involved storming the Easton campus to vandalize statues, notably Lafayette's Leopard or the statue of the Marquis De Lafayette near the opening of Fisher Field. The New York Times reported that "since 1933, the statue of the general has been minus a sword when a student riot on campus preceded the game". One year, recounted Al Pedrick '43, the statue was painted purple. “Anyone who was caught got dismissed from school for three days,” Pedrick said. “I know that for a fact because my brother got caught.”

Bonfires
For Lehigh, the bonfire is linked to Lehigh's first-ever win in "The Rivalry", a 16-0 win in 1887. To quote Legends of Lehigh/Lafayette, to celebrate the victory freshmen set fire to the grandstand that were seen as “an eyesore and a disgrace to the athletic grounds.” (Mercifully, after that administrators thought that maybe an official bonfire was a better idea.)

The bonfire became a Thursday or Friday tradition before the big game. And Lehigh and Lafayette students would frequently try to sneak to the other campus to "light the fire before its time". Freshmen were assigned to guard the fire to keep opposing students out. A typical early-year bonfire from 1919 was retold in this photo album.

The tradition was banned in 1968, a year with lots of campus unrest across the nation, but was resurrected in 1998. This year, the Thursday Bonfire is a big multimedia event this Thursday at 8PM, complete with step team, Fraternity/Sorority contests, and "Pie a Lehigh Celebrity in the face." (As of this blog posting, I am not, repeat not, the "Lehigh Celebrity" being "pied.")

Parades
Linked to the Bonfire was the also Lehigh's "Marching 97". All throughout "The Rivalry" the Brown & White marching band has been involved with parades on campus and in Bethlehem for over 100 years.

Traditionally, the band would make their first appearance in a "pajama parade" after the bonfire was lit. Band members, dressed in pajamas, marched over the Lehigh river using the "Penny Bridge" to serenade the ladies of Moravian College (then an all-female school). The "Penny Bridge" was now in the site where the Fahy bridge is today, and cost a penny to cross; the band would play the song "We Pay No Tolls Tonight" as they crossed.

Nowadays, the "Marching '97" still parades around campus the Friday before "The Rivalry", famously stopping first at the legendary 8:00AM "Eco 1" class that nearly every Lehigh student attends. As a result, it's unofficially called the "Eco 1 Flame".

Bed Races
Four years ago, an old Lehigh tradition from Greek Week was revived: the bed race. Traditionally down "fraternity row", it was cancelled years ago due to safety concerns, but returned for the second-straight year. It doesn't go around the deathly curves around fraternity row anymore, however: it starts on the lower part of the Mountain. (This year's moniker? "Pimped-out Beds." Nice!)

Another new tradition on campus involves the "brown-out", meaning on Friday students, faculty and alumni are supposed to wear their Brown with pride, as I will definitely be here at my place of employment.

Turkey Trot
Another rite of passage on the Lehigh side is the "Turkey Trot", an intramural run which involves a run up and down South Mountain. It's been around at least since the 1960's, and is a great way to stay in shape. Hard to believe the winner three years ago ran the course in 14:46! That's about the time it would take me to get halfway up South Mountain. If I could do it in an hour and a half I'd be pushing it.

Before the drinking age laws were strictly enforced, fraternities used to hand out beers to contestants going up and down the mountain.

Drinking
No article on the history of "The Rivalry" would be complete without the mention of drinking. Whether we adults like to think about it or not, somewhere along the line drinking to excess became one of the rites of passage of the week. "The Lehigh/Lafayette tradition has extended way beyond football over the years," said the Brown & White's Alexis Novick ('00) in 1999. "I’m not saying it’s right, but this weekend has become a tradition to most students to get wasted beyond belief."

Stories abound of sunrise cocktails, shots, and other dangerous drinking activities that could take them near death take place on this weekend, more so than other weekends. Even students who have no intention of going to "The Rivalry" use it as an excuse to get plastered and become "rebels without a cause" for one week.

Beirut, the unofficial drinking game of Lehigh, is common during this week - even among alumni of both schools. Seeing a Beirut table during a tailgate isn't an uncommon sight, as is plastic cups, cans of National Bohemian and other cheap beers. For the more well-off young alumni, Yuengling. For the well-heeled, imported Heineken.

Not everyone likes it, but it happens. I don't have any personal stories of wasted mayhem - ones that I'll share, anyway - and the stories I do have involving other people, well, let's just say that I know where they live. There's no need to display them to the world... yet. But I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention my trip to Lafayette in an old VW Bus with a bunch of buddies and about six cases of beer. That's the game I remember the least.

NOTE: I am a great proponent of "drinking responsibly" and do not condone people drinking to the point of self-poisoning and generally making an ass of themselves. (And yes, we had a designated driver of the VW bus.)

Goalposts & Postgame Riots
In the past, a postgame tradition was to tear down the goalposts after the game - the caveat being "after the game" was generally optional. Some years - like 1975 - they came down at halftime, meaning the football teams would have to go for 2-point conversions instead of kicking extra points.

"A lot of fraternities would take those pieces of wood and put them up on the wall like an award," QB Mike Rieker said in this year's Brown & White piece.

Since at least 1943 the postgame riot and tearing down of the goalposts was a violent rite of passage. Lehigh and Lafayette students (and others) stormed the field to secure parts of the goalposts, specially constructed of easily-torn down wood. Fistfights were commonplace in the anarchy that ensued. Some years, the riot was the big story of the day, the competition on the gridiron coming a distant second place to the action on the sidelines.

In the late 1980s, I caught the tail end of this tradition. In a 52-45 marathon won by Lafayette, I nabbed one of the end-zone markers which I proudly brought back to my freshman dorm.. and had it sweet-talked away from me by some girl. In 1991, in which would turn out to be the last year for the postgame riots and goalpost grab, I ended up with a sliver which couldn't have been more than four inches long. Proudly, I put my piece of goalpost in my pocket and got my ride home - amidst other fraternities fighting each other for pieces of the post that just a bit longer.

In the 1991 game, Lehigh erected metal goalposts, and got the local authorities involved in keeping order. Even though students and fans were repeatedly warned not to storm the field (in a game 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, pepper sprayed 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" when the president of Lehigh at that time, Peter Likins, got a whiff of pepper spray.

"The Hate"
It's fashionable to say these days that Lehigh and Lafayette students and alums really only don't like each other for one or two weeks a year. A couple weeks of obscenity, and then the Leopard lies down next to the Hawk and sits around and sings "cum-ba-ya". For some that might be true, but let's not downplay it: there is genuine dislike here. The obscenities don't simply come out of thin air; there's really something to it.

While Lehigh and Lafayette alums work and live next to each other - and we're cordial. love our families, are kind to our dogs and whatnot - when it comes to the Mountain Hawks and the Leopards, we're different. If Lehigh wins, we'll be sure to mention it to them. Often. And if Lafayette wins, you're going to hear about it. Often.

And with internet message boards, blogs like this one and Facebook and the like, fans don't need to simply limit their gloating to a couple weeks a year. The banter and competition lasts all year round. (Banter which really starts to get going two weeks before kickoff.)

This year, if the message boards are any indication, the Rivalry seems to be in fighting form, with Lafayette fans crowing about their great record, awesome facilities and such, with Lehigh fans saying that we haven't seen the best of this Mountain Hawk team yet - and when we do, the Leopards are in trouble. (I'm paraphrasing here; I try to keep this blog at least somewhat PG-rated.)

And it's good to have a rivalry like this, even if it veers out of PG to R-rated territory at times. It gives folks a rallying point, pride in their school, and a lifetime of fun memories and experiences, as long as you're not totally demented about it. It's unique; you never forget it the rest of your life.

It's something worth experiencing.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"The Rivalry"

(Photo Credit: Jane Therese, 2004, New York Times)

"The Rivalry" is more than just a Lehigh Valley game that is sold out.

For those of you that are going to be attending one of the telecast parties from all around the country, those of you who are going to be catching "The Rivalry" on Channel 69 or on LehighSports.Com, those of you who will be seeing it for the first time in person, or those of you who are grizzled veterans approaching the coveted "50 Game Club", before trying to tackle the emotional side of things it's (still) helpful to get your mind around the numbers of times Lehigh and "that school from Easton" have played each other over the years.

The raw numbers about "The Rivalry" are only a Wikipedia click away, but even those written words and article don't totally capture the history that entwines these two schools.

No two football teams have faced each other as often as Lehigh and Lafayette have. They've met each other 144 times, with the 145th meeting occurring in a sold-out Murray Goodman Stadium this Saturday. It's been sold out since August - just like it is every year. There have been grumblings about the number of tickets available to the opposing side - just like every year.

This year, Lehigh made multi-game ticket packages available to fans with guaranteed seats for the game this weekend. And who can blame them? With a game this big, it's a worthwhile endeavor.

Other rivalries pale in comparison this one, THE Rivalry to which all others pale in comparison: Harvard/Yale (meeting for a mere 126th time this year), Army/Navy (109th), Montana State/Montana (their 108th "Brawl of the Wild"), Richmond/William & Mary (117th), or even Ohio State/Michigan (the baby of the bunch with their 105th meeting coming up).

Lehigh and Lafayette started their rivalry in 1884. To give that year in history some perspective, the cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty was laid down in the summer of 1884 on Beldoe's Island. Mark Twain, in a house just outside Hartford, Connecticut, penned Huckleberry Finn in that year. The president at that time was an ailing Chester Arthur, who was ending his term as the 21st president of the United States as he was suffering from Bright's Disease, a kidney ailment. A couple of weeks before the first-ever meeting of Lehigh and Lafayette, Grover Cleveland defeated James Blaine in a presidential campaign that was filled with mud-slinging.

The first game occurred only one year after football rules were standardized, and was won 50 to 0 by Lafayette over a team that had been playing for three years. Lehigh, on the other hand, had formed their first football team that year for the expressed reason of playing Lafayette. (Their fledgling team would go 0-4, losing twice to Lafayette.)

The New York Times described the game in that year: "The first inning was very interesting, as Lehigh frequently got the ball dangerously near Lafayette's goal line, but each time was beaten back, the point being made by the home team." A hundred games later, as quoted in the New York Times a Lehigh fan recounted that "We did not win... but we did give Lafayette the worst lickin' she ever had and many, many a sore head went back to Easton that night."

Football in this early era was very different than the game is today. As it evolved out of its roots in rugby and soccer, the game was becoming more violent - and popular. Predating the NCAA's, college teams would spring up even at tiny (comparitively speaking) colleges and universities like Lehigh and Lafayette.

Lehigh was a pioneer of the early game. The Engineers were one of the first colleges (along with Princeton) to be credited with using the "V" Trick, or Wedge (or "Lehigh V") in 1884. With no passing game, players would fly down the field behind a big "V" of linemen, trying to physically overwhelm the competition.

After reimplementing the "Lehigh V" in 1888, the results were dramatic. The Engineers went 10-2, only losing to powerful Penn and Princeton, but beating Lafayette twice, 6-4 and 16-0. They'd go 11-2-1 against Lafayette from 1888 to 1894, when the "Lehigh V" was banned.

These teams would play any comers, including semi-professional "athletic clubs". In addition, with few standardized rules on the game or limitations, gambling on the games was rife. In 1892, the New York Times would report on a 15-6 win by Lehigh over Lafayette: "Lehigh showed her superiority from start to finish, and the college men won much money on the result."

The only year since 1884 that Lehigh did not face off against Lafayette was 1896. That year, Lehigh refused to play Lafayette over a dispute about the eligibility of their best player, Charles "Babe" Rinehart. Rinehart was a hall-of-fame lineman on Lafayette's (paper) national-champion 1896 team, while the team also featured halfback George "Rose" Barclay, who is widely credited for inventing the football helmet so teams like Lehigh wouldn't make his ears look like cauliflowers. Rinehart was named one of the finest players of the first half-century by Walter Camp, one of the early pioneers of the game.

Since 1902, Lehigh and Lafayette started the tradition of playing only one game per year, only a year before the Wright Brothers took their historic flight at Kitty Hawk and six years before the first Model "T" would come off the assembly lines in Detroit, Michigan. The teams and fans used to travel by train from Bethlehem to Easton to play and watch the games, making their proximity a big bonus.

1905 saw president Theodore Roosevelt get involved in college football, amid increasing concern with the increasing number of injuries - and deaths - resulting from football games. His meetings with the highest officials from the top football schools of the time were the precursor to the modern NCAA and in the thought of many historians saved the sport entirely. (Lafayette and Lehigh were two of the twenty schools that regularly attended these meetings, alongside schools such as Army, Haverford, RPI, Michgan, NYU, and other giants of the time.)

The forward pass, which was still formally banned, was legalized as a result of these meetings, well as the implementation of other key changes (making plays like the deadly "Flying Wedge" illegal, where eleven men focused on one ballcarrier in the shape of a wedge with a 5 to 25 yard headstart, the source of many of these injuries). Lafayette, using a devastating wedge attack, had some of their more lopsided victories in "The Rivalry" at this time: beating Lehigh 40-6 in 1904 and 55-0 in 1905.

In 1915, Lehigh/Lafayette games moved from "Lehigh stadium" (which, I believe, is now the vacant field next to Brodhead Avenue, though I haven't confirmed this) to a proper stadium: Taylor Stadium, which used to sit where the Rauch Business Center now stands. Lafayette ruined the home opener for Lehigh in a dominating 35-6 victory. The Maroons used a new "spread" formation to beat the Brown & White - spreading the field with receivers and a long passing game.

The Easton Express-Times nicknamed Lafayette the "Leopards" in the 1920s, and in 1926 old March field was replaced by a state-of-the-art facility (at that time) by the name of Fisher Field at Fisher Stadium. Lehigh was unable to repay Lafayette the favor from their stadium christening in 1915: they walloped Lehigh 35-0. This era was dominated by Lafayette, with the Leopards getting two paper "national championships" as a result.

Through World War II and beyond, "The Rivalry" has thrilled Lehigh and Lafayette fans alike with great individual performances, classic games, and strange stories.

In 1950, Lehigh won the "Middle Three" championship from Rutgers and Lafayette with an easy 38-0 win over the Leopards. It was the Engineers' first-ever undefeated season in 67 years of trying, and was played in front of a crowd of over 20,000 people at Taylor Stadium. Backs Dick Gabriel and Dick Doyne combined to bowl over opponents - Doyne in 1949 held the record for rushing yards in a season with 1,023 yards, with Gabriel in 1950 finishing just 30 yards short of Doyne's record. After their season, Lehigh vetoed a chance to play in the Sun Bowl in Texas - while no official reason was given, a common reason why northern teams refused to play in Bowl games in the South was that it was still segregated at the time.

The 1961 game featured a Lambert Cup-winning Lehigh team who had a game-winning field goal in the final minute booted by Andy Larko's first successful FG attempt (that hit the crossbar AND the post) in a thrilling 17-14 victory.

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. Lehigh would win, 17-10, in one of the coldest days in Bethlehem history as the fans started tearing up old Taylor Stadium early in the 4th quarter. (I played pickup football games on the field, still standing, but partially torn up, a year after the last game was played.)

In 1988, Lafayette beat Lehigh 52-45 in a shootout featuring Lafayette QB Frank Baur (who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's national college preview the following year).

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.

1997 saw RB Rabih Abdullah's 4 touchdowns, 2 rushing and 2 receiving, for a 43-31 come-from-behind victory over the Leopards that set the tone for the big undefeated regular season in 1998. (Lehigh would crush Lafayette that year 31-7.)

2003 saw Lehigh RB Jermaine Pugh had 265 all-purpose yards, including a big punt return for a TD, in a 30-10 victory. It's the last time Lehigh has ended the regular season with a victory, and would be the last win by Lehigh in "The Rivalry" for four long, bitter years.

2004 saw Lafayette earn their first co-championship in football with their 24-10 victory over the Mountain Hawks, giving Lafayette their first-ever trip to the FCS playoffs (they were rewarded with a trip to Delaware, where they game a major scare to the Blue Hens in a 28-14 defeat). Lehigh, who shared the Patriot League title with the Leopards, also got an at-large bid to the playoffs, hosting eventual champion James Madison in the last playoff game at Murray Goodman (losing a thrilling 14-13 struggle).

In 2005, Lafayette snatched the Patriot League title from Lehigh. Under a minute to play, backup QB Pat Davis heaved up a prayer on fourth-and-ten heave. Drilled as he released the ball, the 37 yard air ball floated into the hands of Lafayette RB Jonathan Hurt, where he twisted into the end zone for the game-winning score in a 23-19 victory. Not only did Lafayette deny Lehigh the Patriot League autobid (which went to Colgate instead), the playoff committee rewarded the Leopards with a playoff game of their own, sending them to eventual national champion Appalachian State. (They would give the eventual national champions their biggest scare of the playoffs, leading after three quarters before finally falling 34-23.)

2006 also saw Lehigh and Lafayette battle for a co-championship, with the winner taking the Patriot League autobid at a newly-renovated Fisher Stadium. After falling down early, coach Coen in his first "Rivalry" as head coach battled back to 28-27 - but after missing the extra point, the Mountain Hawks would give up three straight touchdowns as Lafayette would not look bask in a 49-27 victory. Lafayette was rewarded with a trip to UMass, where they would fall 35-14.

While the 2007 game didn't have any championship implications, Lehigh's 21-17 loss last year meant the class of '08 was first time since 1950 that a graduating class hasn't enjoyed a win over Lafayette. True to form, it was a fourth-quarter drive and TD pass by QB Rob Curley to WR Kyle Roeder that was the difference in this close game.

Last year, Lehigh finally ended Lafayette's four-game winning streak with a 31-15 victory that was still in doubt until junior DB John "Prez" Kennedy intercepted a pass and returned it 93 yards for the game-clinching score. Junior QB J.B. Clark was named MVP of the game as well, with going 12 for 22 passing with 201 yards and 2 TDs.

Overall, Lafayette leads Lehigh 76-62-5. It goes without saying that a win by Lehigh this weekend might set off some legendary parties on South Mountain.

For more information on "The Rivalry", the good folks at PBS 39 made the entire content of the documentary "The Lehigh/Lafayette Legacy" available on YouTube. (It was instrumental in the preparation for this blog posting).

Monday, November 16, 2009

Housekeeping before the 145th

With a staff report from the Express-Times and a re-mixed report from the official school recaps on the Morning Call, my blog recap of the game was once again the only independent recap this week. The Brown & White did not file any story either and as far as I know, and no New York media outlet had a recap of the game either. Granted, it was a rainy matchup between two sub-.500 teams, but it still strikes me when I'm really the only person out there doing an independent recap from a Lehigh perspective.

Happily, Keith Groller of the Morning Call still weighed in on Monday.

Lehighsports.com: Campbell's career day, Lehigh D leads to road win


“It wasn’t the prettiest game I’ve ever been a part of, that’s for sure, but it feels a lot better than the last two weeks,” Lehigh head coach Andy Coen said afterwards. “The kids did a great job all day. We had our moments where we weren’t taking care of the ball or committing silly penalties but the defense rose up when it needed to and the offense made plays.”

He continued, “Junior RB Jay Campbell did a great job of running the ball for us on a wet field and junior QB J.B. Clark had several nice runs and some great passes. I can’t say enough about the character this team has shown all season long. I know it feels good for them to be rewarded for all of their hard work.”

Morning Call: Hawks Pleased With Strong Finish vs. Rams

'It was kind of sloppy and we could have done everything better,'' Coen said. ''But I was happy it worked out like it did because our kids now have confidence that they can find a way to win close ones like this.''

''The defense did another stellar job; I really can't say enough about those guys,'' Coen said. ''We had nine sacks and now have 37 on the season and we've done a really good job against two terrific quarterbacks the last two weeks and we'll see another one this week [Lafayette senior QB Rob Curley].''

''When you look at the top four teams in the league, and throw in Fordham, too, even though they're 1-4 in the league, there have been a lot of close games within the league this year,'' Coen said. ''Every game is competitive and coming down to who makes the plays late. We just haven't made enough of them at the end of games this season, but we've competed hard, practiced hard and our kids have shown a lot of character.''

Coen said last week that he has no idea what next year holds for him.

''We're going to have to talk about it after the season ends,'' he said.

This is the fourth year of his four-year contract and no matter what happens against Lafayette, this will be the worst season -- record-wise -- of his tenure and Lehigh's worst since a 4-7 mark in 1997.

But this is a team that starts just five seniors. It stayed together and never let the season get away after a string of disheartening defeats.

''The season hasn't gone the way we thought it would, but the kids never quit trying to get better,'' Coen said. ''We have a lot of young kids who are playing much more than we thought they would and they're contributing and improving."

While I'm at it, let me finish my housekeeping and give my Player of the week nods (unsurprisingly, they will resemble the trio of Mountain Hawks that earned Patriot League Player of the week honors this week).

Offensive Hawk of the Week: Junior RB Jay Campbell (27 rushes for 155 yards, 5.7 yards per carry)

Defensive Hawk of the Week: Senior LB Troy Taylor (11 tackles, 2 tackles for loss including 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass break-up)

Special Teams Hawks of the Week (tie): Junior DB/RS Jarard Cribbs (6 tackles, 1 INT, 7 punt returns for 107 yards) and freshman DB Bryan Andrews (4 tackles, 3 pass break-ups, 1 blocked FG)

Finally, "that school in Easton" comes back from the Patriot League title game in Worcester, Mass on the losing end of a tough 28-26 loss, ensuring a fired-up Leopard crew in Goodman this weekend. With a win against Ivy League champion Penn and a win over another Top 25 school in Colgate, they have a real-chance at an at-large FCS playoff bid if they win. And head coach Frank Tavani is still thinking about last year's game, too:

''We can't afford to do what we did last year,'' Tavani added. ''We sulked and we sulked and it started with me ... and we never prepared properly ... We came out and didn't even play a football game last year in the last game. There's a lot on the line [at Lehigh]. There's still a huge opportunity for two teams from our league to get a [postseason] bid, but the only thing we need to be concerned about is taking care of next week. … And after that, the politics may be what they are.''
Wait a minute - did I read that right? Lehigh didn't actually win last year, Lafayette simply wasn't prepared properly? Lehigh deserves no credit for their 31-15 victory, breaking the four game losing streak to Lafayette?

Uh oh.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday's Word: Evil

Lafayette isn't really "evil". Or maybe they are. Maybe this week, anyway.

I think any fan of a team with a true historic rival can understand this mentality this week. How the rival becomes Darth Vader. General Moff Tarkin. Emperor Palpatine. "Evil".

Lehigh, of course, casts themselves as the plucky rebels in this scenario, willing to take on the "big bad Empire". I've found that every team tries to do this, no matter how ridiculous it is in reality. (See: "New York Yankees, 2009 World Series", playing the "Empire Theme" when Philadelphia was introduced. If the Yankees - with a budget bigger than the two cheapest MLB teams put together - are the "plucky rebels" in any plausible scenario en route to their 27th world title, I'll gladly eat a shoe.)

"The Rivalry" has definitely taken a true black hat vs. white hat, Empire vs. Rebels feel to it this year. I don't know if it's part of the normal psychology of "The Rivalry" over the generations or not, but I do know that it wasn't always the case.

Part of the reason is that in this decade, Lehigh and Lafayette have alternatively embraced the role of "Empire" or "plucky Rebels". For years Lafayette positioned themselves as "little Lafayette on the hill in Easton" when big, bad Darth Lehigh was successful in the Patriot League and the I-AA playoffs. But when Lafayette started donning the black jerseys - and building a football "Death Star" in Easton in their renovated Kirby Field House and Fisher Field - it's the boys from Easton that seemed a lot more like the Empire, while Lehigh has seemed like the team that has needed the "one shot in a million" to defeat the "Evil" Empire.

I think a lot of it, too, came from the businesslike head coach during that time, coach Pete Lembo. I remember distinctly one year hearing Lembo say in a press conference that his coaches and Lafayette's coaches "shop in the same stores" or something like that, and I cringed. Lembo tried to take that emotional side out of "The Rivalry", I think, and maybe it infected the coverage of those games, too.

When coach Coen was hired, one of the reasons his choice was lauded was that he understood the emotions of "The Rivalry", that football is a passionate game and that only by summoning that passion could one hope to beat "that school in Easton". After Lehigh had (horror) lost their second game to Lafayette in the last three years, this made perfect sense.

Fast forward to the present. For the third time in the last three years, no title will be on the line: only, perhaps, a chance for "that school in Easton" to make the playoffs if they put away the Mountain Hawks. A Lehigh victory would almost certainly destroy any chance that the Leopards have at the postseason. For a long time, "The Rivalry" seemed to have Patriot League title implications almost every year. Maybe that's another reason why the view of "The Rivalry" has been different the past three years: playing to ruin someone else's season is a far cry from playing for a title.

The teams themselves have played into the psychology through jersey selection. For several years, Lafayette looked for an edge for the team by unveiling all-black jerseys during the "big games" against Lehigh. Last year, in an effort to bust through a four game losing streak, Lehigh donned all-white jerseys - and won. No word if this year's game will once again be black vs. white, but it wouldn't be surprising - it's worked for both sides.

Even the fans seem a bit more worked up about each other than usual. Lehigh/Lafayette week is always intense, but the intensity seems to have been ramped up a little higher and little more rapidly than usual. Look at any message board: it's dangerous out there.

Certainly Lehigh fans, already resigned to a losing record after the Colgate loss, have been looking to this game for weeks to have some sort of redemption for a losing season. And Lafayette fans - heartbroken after a tough 28-26 loss to Holy Cross which has them wondering what could have been - are clearly venting their frustrations out on the Mountain Hawks.

Another reason could be that for the first time this year, a weekend has contained a Lehigh win and a Lafayette loss. For ten weeks in a row Lafayette fans could rightly claim that they had all the momentum on the year. For one, brief week, Lehigh can claim all of a sudden that they have more momentum than "that school in Easton".

Certainly, good old-fashioned hatred and casting schools in the roles of good vs. "evil" are part of what makes college football great. With 144 games played against each other - more than any other schools - there's plenty of opportunity to see the "evil" in the other side in this rivalry.

Yet Lafayette is not "evil" per se. They're, after all, a Patriot League school. They graduate their students, just like Lehigh. They produce great human beings that are successful in the world. There's no coasting in Lafayette - or any Patriot League school for that matter. Lafayette is a great school. (Of course, who were the rap artists that once said: "Don't get me wrong... They [Lafayette] was good.... But We [Lehigh] was FANTASTIC!)

But all those feel-good facts graduation rates, scholar-athletes and the like become cloudy in the fog around "The Rivalry". Lafayette - and that stupid Maroon color and that ugly Leopard statue and those loudmouthed alums who can't seem to grasp that their team hasn't won a playoff game, not once, not ever - becomes "evil" in the literary sense. What I am (Brown, White, Engineering Mountain Hawks,winner of playoff games, product of South Mountain) is "Good"; what they are (Maroon, Leopards, winners of the paper 1896 championship, products of Easton) is "Evil".

In other words, Lafayette isn't really "evil". Or maybe they are. Maybe this week, anyway. And it should lead to one hell of a football game this Saturday.
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