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Sunday's Word: 1997

If you're coming to this site, you're probably already aware that next weekend is going to be the 143rd meeting of the most-played rivalry in all of football. Whatever you call it, "The Rivalry", "The Game", "Lehigh/Lafayette", "Lafayette/Lehigh" - it's a huge deal.

It's also the last game of the season, and in a year when Patriot League titles and possible playoff bids are not on the line, it's a day to honor the seniors who gave their body parts up for the honor of playing some football at Lehigh. Having them come out with a win - especially for the long-suffering seniors of this year who have not enjoyed the taste of a win over "that school in Easton" - would be very sweet.

But as a Lehigh fan, I also look at next year as well. Getting a win over Lafayette would end up being a salve on what could be considered a tumultuous season. It's been a season filled with some intrigue, a nightmarish run of injuries, and a dizzying number of freshmen and sophomores on the roster.

Kind of like "1997".

Going into that season, the team led by third-year coach Kevin Higgins was thought to have a chance to compete for the title. But a 42-35 loss to Fordham in the Bronx effectively made Lehigh's chances at a Patriot League title (which, for the first time, would allow the winner to compete in the I-AA playoffs) difficult at best.

It got worse. Starting quarterback Seka Edwards, a senior who had seen some success in 1996, suffered a season-ending injury versus Harvard in a 35-30 loss. (The Crimson would go 9-1 and win the Ivy League.) The answer to the questions about a possible Patriot League title were answered in Week 4, as Ryan Vena and the Colgate Raiders pasted Lehigh 61-28 in their worst loss in recent memory.

To replace him, offensive coordinator Andy Coen worked with sophomore QB Phil Stambaugh as he slowly but surely improved as the season wore on. The young team took some lumps, but did see improvements even if it wasn't in the win column. Some good wins (24-7 over Penn and 46-26 over 8-2 Dartmouth, the Ivy League runner-up) were interspersed with tough losses while playing a brutal schedule. This team kept most of the games close, playing No. 3 ranked Delaware to a close 24-19 defeat at Murray Goodman stadium and losing a 45-38 shootout to 9-2 Hofstra (who played as an at-large team in the I-AA playoffs).

By "The Rivalry", senior RB Rabih Abdullah didn't have any illusions of the postseason or titles, despite the fact he was an all-American candidate and was the top rusher in the league. He did, however, have a very interesting core of players that would pave the way for the future - players like Stambaugh, sophomore FB Brett Snyder, WR Kody Fedorcha, freshman LB James "Bubba" Young, sophomore LB Ian Eason. Along with a very talented junior in DB Sam Brinley, there was a sense of disappointment about this team, but also a thought that the future could be bright.

"The Rivalry" on November 22nd ended up being a blend of the young players and the offensive star in his last game teaming up to give Lehigh fans a taste of victory going into the offseason. But like a lot of Lehigh games that season, it didn't start out well. Lafayette surged to a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter behind Todd Stahlnecker's short touchdown runs, and the Leopards took advantage of three Phil Stambaugh interceptions.

But Stambaugh and Abdullah would not be denied. The Brown & White would score 22 fourth-quarter points to secure a wild 43-31 victory, behind Abdullah's incredible sendoff game: 2 receiving touchdowns from Stambaugh, and two late rushing touchdowns to seal the game for the Mountain Hawks.

Despite the losing record - the 4-7 record that would be the last losing record Lehigh has had since - there were a lot of happy endings after this cornerstone win. Higgins would win three consecutive Patriot League championships. Abdullah would go on to play in the NFL, eventually finding a place on special teams and getting a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots. And the young guns would ride the momentum from that game into 1998 to a perfect 11-0 regular season and carry that into the Patriot League's first I-AA playoff win since 1979 with a shock 24-23 win over Richmond on a last-second field goal. Their only blemish that year would be a narrow loss to UMass, the eventual national champions, getting denied the end zone with 2 minutes to play in a 26-21 defeat.

But it all started with a team with an injured quarterback, a brutal loss to a conference foe, a team filled with youngsters in key positions, and a 21-0 deficit with a team that had struggled to score most of the year.

A win against Lafayette might look a lot like "1997". And that wouldn't be a bad thing at all.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Stambaugh was the starting QB at the beginning of 1997. After the loss to Fordham, Edwards started against both Towson and Harvard, but threw three INTs in both games. Edwards was pulled at half time against Harvard and Stambaugh nearly rallied Lehigh to a win with four TD passes in the fourth.

It was the 1996 Penn game in which Edwards was injured and frosh Stambaugh made his first appearance.
Anonymous said…
Hope the similarities hold up. Nice article, even though Stambaugh's freshman season was 1996.

Ngineer

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