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.
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 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.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:
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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