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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
OL Ben Harden
DB Jarvis Lewis
DB Courtney Elder
LB Al Pierce

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.

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.

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?


Anonymous said…
Excellent piece of writing; as per usual

In my opinion whichever QB has the better game will dictate who wins this game.

Anonymous said…
Enjoyed your column.....You seem to be a little intimidated by LC's weapons....maybe I'm reading too much between the lines...Bodes well for the good guys

65 Pard
Anonymous said…
Great break down. I think it's clear this year that LC has more talent. But recent history shows talent alone doesnt win the game for you. This is why we play the games!!
Ngineer said…
On paper, I think Lafayette does have more talent. That is why they were picked ahead of Lehigh pre-season. We all know (at both schools this year) that knowing you are good gets you nothing. It's the perseverence and perspiration that makes a winner. This Lehigh team has shown it has both. It refused to get down and pack it in after the 2-4 start and the snake-bitten losses. Then, again,Lafayette's season has been very similar having rebounded from a 5 game losing streak. I do agree it should be a close nail biter to the end, with a Jason Leo field goal being the difference, 31-28.
Go Lehigh TU owl said…
I don't agree that it's clear that Lafayette has more talent. The only place i might say they do is at wr. Where else do you see this talent advantage? At QB? No, At RB? equal, OL? equal DL? equal, DB? equal, Lafayette's secondary has struggled more than Lehigh's this year and with Thomas healthy Lehigh has a legit lockdown CB LB? not this year.

PS. has anyone heard about Lehigh's potential successer to Threatt at QB? From what i gather there's a very good chance that a certain highly touted QB will be comming back to Bethlehem to finish out his playing career.
Anonymous said…
no way lafayette has more talent than lehigh does. Lehigh has a bunch of talented guys. Only place i would say lafayette has more talent is on Offenseive nd defensive lines. Qb, Rb, Wr, Db is all lehigh. Lehigh should win this game 24-17. Lehigh gets a lead in the 3rd quarter and under Coen ....DOESNT GIVE IT UP!
Anonymous said…
Go Lehigh TU owl - Can you give us a hint of who you might be talking about? Becahi, Liberty or Freedom? Or are you talking about an ex-Lehigh underclassman coming back? Doesn't Threatt still have another year?
hawkineer said…
There's a rumor going around the HS forums at the Express-Times site.
Try this link for the answer (hint: doesn't have to change nicknames):
Go to thread 41850 on the Statewide HS Forum for more information.

Us Bethlehem Liberty-Lehigh alums are having some fun this week.
Anonymous said…
Great piece...Hope Lehigh wins very BIG...(smile)
Anonymous said…
You are all underestimating this powerful Lehigh team, it is no longer a finesse group of boys, this is a solid team. Lehigh will NO DOUBT win by at least 14.
Anonymous said…
"You are all underestimating this powerful Lehigh team, it is no longer a finesse group of boys, this is a solid team. Lehigh will NO DOUBT win by at least 14."

Nice bit of prediction there.

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