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Monday's Word: Norris Division

So how do you come up with a "Word" that includes the 146th version of "The Rivalry", the state of Lehigh's football program, and an upcoming trip to Cedar Falls, Iowa for the football team - their second trip to the Hawkeye state this year? If you're me, you choose a word that - on the surface, anyway - has nothing to do with football at all.

Look into it further, though, and trust me, it will make complete sense.

Don't worry, Flyers fans, we won't be talking about Red Wings or (shudder) Blackhawks today. We'll be sticking with football - and how this Lehigh team, and their defensive-minded group, will be travelling to the heart of America to play the champion of the conference that could be considered FCS College Football's "Norris Division". (more)

The NHL's "Norris Division" was named after owner James Norris, who was born into a family of a Canadian shipping tycoon in 1880. (Four years before Richard Harding Davis, incidentally, would gather the money to get brown and white striped uniforms to take on Lafayette in the first-ever game played between the two schools.)

As owner of the Detroit Red Wings in the 1930s through the 1950s, he presided over five Stanley Cup-winning teams - though he rarely got to see many of those games late in his life, due to ill health. Nevertheless, it was his moves as an owner that would cause Detroit - and, to a lesser extent, Chicago - to become hockey towns in the midwest. There is little doubt that the current NHL would not exist today if it wasn't for people like James Norris.

In 1974, the NHL - after a round of expansion - created two conferences and four divisions. Instead of calling them "North", "South" or "Frozen", they named each division and conference based on history and pioneers of the game. The division that housed the Red Wings (and, later the Blackhawks) were named for Mr. Norris.

Until 1993 - when the NHL made the idiotic decision to go to the same old, cookie-cutter, boring division names (Atlantic? Northwest? Give me a break!) - the Norris Division meant bruising hockey between rivals that predated the modern NHL. Chicago. Detroit. Toronto, which is a short drive from Michigan. The Minnesota North Stars. Even the St. Louis Blues seemed to fit with the tough, gritty teams, though they were a tiny touch of finesse that the Blackhawks lacked.

When you thought "Norris Division", you thought about physical beatings. Games that were more like wars than contests, involving bitter, local rivalries and decades of pent-up frustrations. Beating each other up in the division, and the team who gave the most bruises were the teams that went to the NHL playoffs.  Scoring? What's that? You thought about forechecks, Ed Olczyk and Bob Probert when you thought of the "Norris Divison". Let the Wayne Gretzky's play their prissy hockey out in Los Angeles or something. He wouldn't last a day in the Norris.

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Getting back to football, ESPN's Chris Berman calls the NFC North the "Norris Division", and has done so for years. I love his reference to it, because the "Norris Division" in hockey has always had a "football" feel to it anyway, with it's love of contact and its roots in the heart of the Midwest. It didn't hurt that it contained the Chicago Bears (read: Blackhawks), Detroit Lions (read: Red Wings), Minnesota Vikings (read: North Stars), and Green Bay Packers (while there's no Green Bay or Milwaukee NHL franchise, the Pack are a useful proxy for the Maple Leafs).

In FCS football, I've been fond of calling the Missouri Valley Conference the "Norris Division" as well, for many of the same reasons.

Want proof? Just take a peek at the standings, which feature six teams with 4-4 records in the conference. Only two games separated the Missouri Valley champions, Northern Iowa, and the "MVC Six", who finished at 6-2 in the conference with an overtime loss to Southern Illinois and Western Illinois.

Northern Iowa is only allowing 21.73 points per contest - but that's only third in their own conference, behind the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State and the Bison of North Dakota State.

The Bison, in fact, who backed into the playoffs with a 7-4 record, lost on the final day of the season 3-0. That's Missouri Valley Conference football in a nutshell.

But the similarities don't end there.

The MVC seems to embody that midwestern, tough brand of football - and the communities they represent.

Youngstown State in Ohio, a former steel town, reflects in some ways the trials and tribulations of Pittsburgh - who house a one-time "Norris Division" member in the Pittsburgh Penguins.

While Illinois State (Normal, Illinois), Southern Illinois (Carbondale, Illinois) and Indiana State (Terre Haute, Indiana) are not steel towns, they epitomize smaller, recession-hit towns in the midwest with mid-sized colleges and athletics programs with big dreams. While Larry Bird (Indiana State) and NCAA tournament teams that average, it seems, 39 points of offense a game (Southern Illinois) leap to mind, football programs, too, are big interests, too.

North Dakota State and South Dakota State - home to a lot of hockey players, incidentally - also share a big rivalry of their own, for the "Dakota Marker" trophy.

Missouri State - not too far from where the St. Louis Blues play - also fits in well with the "Norris" theme of the Missouri Valley.

Western Illinois - in tiny, drab Macomb, Illinois - is in a small town named after a famous general in the War of 1812, Alexander Macomb. The school's sports teams are called the "Fightin' Leathernecks", after former U.S. Navy member and Western Illinois athletic director 'Rock' Hanson to use the Marines' official seal and bulldog mascot (named "Rocky") to use in their athletics program. (Any school with the Marines involved in their creation has to belong in the "Norris Division", right?)

While Cedar Falls, Iowa is a relatively small population, when combined with nearby Waterloo, Iowa, the metropolitan area encompasses 163,000 people. (To put it in perspective, it's more than twice the size of Bethlehem and its surrounding area.) Continuing the hockey analogy, the Panthers have traditionally played the role of the pre-2010 Chicago Blackhawks in the MVC - legendary teams that somehow find legendary ways to lose deep in the playoffs. Few teams can rival the Panthers when it comes to appearances in the FCS playoffs, no team has appeared in as many FCS playoff games and never won the championship.

So Lehigh, if nothing else, will be able to expect that their second trip to Iowa this year is not going to to be anything prissy. It will be physical. Intense. It won't be much of a mystery as to what's coming offensively - or defensively. Offensively, the Panthers will try to ram it down Lehigh's throat. Defensively, they'll come from here, there, and everywhere to try to bring Lehigh down. And they've historically had depth and athletes to spare. You don't rise to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference - FCS' "Norris Division" - for nothing.

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Fortunately for Lehigh, this year's Mountain Hawk team is one that's worthy of a "Norris Division" matchup. For proof, you don't have to look very far. Just look at the effort last weekend versus Lafayette.

The MVP of "The Rivalry" is not often a defensive player. This year, the two players that jumped off the page on the ballot were not one, but two, defensive players. Senior LB Al Pierce, and junior LB Mike Groome were monsters in the middle, making huge plays of the Leopards. Lafayette's offense was on the field 36 minutes, but Pierce, Groome and the rest of the defense were making plays out there as if it were the middle of the first quarter.

Groome's goalline stand - helpfully - has been posted on YouTube, to give you a flavor.



Groome's two straight hurdles over the Lafayette offensive line to meet the ballcarriers were ones that will be seen over and over on Youtube by Lehigh fans, I'm sure, with announcer Mike Yadush belting, "Are you kidding me?". (Furthermore, with their matching beards on the podium this Saturday, Groome and Pierce looked not a little bit like hockey players waiting for their next matchup with the Carolina Hurricanes.)

It also shows how this Lehigh team - in a past life, "Air Lehigh" with a high octane offense - has become a defensive, "Norris Division"-like team over the past few years. One that feeds off of plays like junior LB Mike Groome hurdling offensive lines like Edwin Moses and meeting ballcarriers like a brick wall was dropped in front of them. One that feeds off of huge hits on 3rd down by senior LB Al Pierce short of the sticks.

"The Rivalry" this time around - happily - was not about head football coach Andy Coen's job security. It was all about the seniors in the program, which was an extremely welcome change of pace from years past.

But it's also been, slowly, been one that has been defined by defensive plays rather than offensive explosions.

In 2008, Pierce's blitz forced QB Rob Curley to underthrow his ball a little - and put it in the hands of senior CB John "Prez" Kennedy, who returned it 93 yards for the game-clinching score.

Last year - in overtime, up by only six and needing a big play to win the game - Pierce faked the blitz, and faded back into pass coverage where Curley - in an underthrown ball that he will want back the rest of his life - was grabbed by Pierce in an athletic play, to win the game for the Mountain Hawks.

And this year, the goal-line stand at the 2. (And note Pierce's No. 6 around the ballcarrier, too, on two of those stops.)

Sure, there were the long drives by J.B. Clark in 2009, and junior QB Chris Lum this year. There were some decent plays on offense. But the big plays that have given the most juice to "The Rivalry" in the last three years have all been on defense, all won by Lehigh, and all worthy of "Norris Division"-like physical play.

It also embodies a continuing worry to Lehigh - their chippy play that has gotten them in trouble in the last three weeks, and will affect the game this weekend in Iowa.

Sophomore DB John Littlejohn, who was jawing at Lafayette on special teams, threw a senseless punch on a special teams play, got ejected from the game, and as a result will be unable to play against the Panthers. While he was goaded by the Leopard player, it in no way justified the fist - and might affect the game this weekend. Fighting belongs in hockey, not football.

Worse, their chippy play also directly led to Lafayette points. Three of the penalties were needless personal foul calls - including a senseless one on a punt return away from the ball that set up the Leopards on the Lehigh 39 yard line. While this team plays physical and with a lot of emotion, sometimes that emotion seems to run over into foolish fouls. Against Lafayette, fouls like that can be overcome. Against Northern Iowa, those types of things are a recipe for a long, long afternoon.

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But like the teams in the old "Norris Division", Lehigh emerged from the regular season - and, importantly, a physical, bruising game against Lafayette - with fewer bruises than they gave out. That will serve them well in Cedar Falls this weekend, against a team that will be big, physical, and as good or better than the Villanova and New Hampshire teams that served Lehigh their only two losses on the year.

A 9-2 season, and a lot of hockey-like bruises to two Wildcats from the CAA, seem to have prepared Lehigh well for a Patriot League championship and a shot at the national championship. Whether it will be enough for the Flyers Mountain Hawks to enter the heart of "Norris Division" country to get a win remains to be seen.

What I will say is this: This team will not be intimidated going into the UNI-Dome this Saturday.  You can talk about crowd noise, the atmosphere of the dome, scholarships, whatever - it won't work.  This Lehigh team is a confident group, and they will bring their absolute best to the Panthers.  And it may even be enough to win the game.

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