But for Lehigh's players and fans, this return to Fisher Field represents a kind-of victory tour to the place where - arguably - the tides turned for this program.
Two years ago, Lafayette was 7-3 going into this age-old "Rivalry" game, looking for an outside shot at an at-large bid to the playoffs. Lehigh, at 4-6, already was resigned to the fact that they were playing out the string - and that a win in a "bowl" atmosphere at Lafayette was the only thing that could salvage the season.
Now, the tables are turned. It's not a perfect analogy - since Lafayette cannot ruin Lehigh's postseason hopes - but they sure can establish this entire offseason and hope for next year if they beat the Mountain Hawks this weekend. After all, that's exactly what happened in 2008. (more)
In that season, Lehigh's 34-33 loss to Colgate had guaranteed that they were just playing out the string - and also guaranteed a losing record. Only a win against their bitter local rivals - just under twenty miles away - would alleviate the sting of their fourth straight disappointing season.
The whispers were that head coach Andy Coen may not have his job for much longer if he went 4-7 and lost to Lafayette for the third year in a row. Counting the losses to Lafayette 2004 and 2005 under former head coach Pete Lembo, Lehigh had lost four straight to the Leopards and patience was running very thin with the head coach among the anonymous folks on internet message boards. Coen had been brought in because he understood the emotion of "The Rivalry". Two losses made folks question that. A third might have been the end of the road.
It would have been easy for Lehigh's football players to pack it in for their head coach. I've seen it happen before - not so much for Lehigh, but for a lot of other football coaches over the years. Yet not a single player did so.
It would be sealed by a rushed pass by Lafayette QB Rob Curley that was anticipated by senior CB/KR John "Prez" Kennedy perfectly - a 94 yard interception return for a touchdown that would officially, dramatically, make the losing streak to Lafayette a thing of the past. It was not only that - QB J.B. Clark's pass to WR Sekou Yansane that set up a late touchdown would also be a huge momentum boost for the Mountain Hawks, too, and a host of other big plays - that would win this game of games for Lehigh.
It's impossible to say whether coach Coen would have kept his job had Lehigh lost the game. But it's clear that the win would breathe life into the entire program - and, ultimately, lead to the Patriot League championship we have today. After all, it was on this offseason that sophomore WR Ryan Spadola, a budding star in the Patriot League this season, and sophomore QB Michael Colvin, Lehigh's Wildcat QB, would be recruited by Coen and the face of Lehigh's offense changed.
These champions of 2010 have those winners of the Lehigh/Lafayette game in 2008 to thank for the moment they have here today. Part of the championship they earned was due to the efforts of those student-athletes back in 2008.
Which leads us to to this weekend.
Sure, it's Lafayette, the team that Lehigh wants to crush every single year. But for this team, at this moment, I think it means a little bit more, too.
First of all, it would mean that Lehigh did not fall into the trap that Lafayette did that day, the team with the better record losing to the team with the losing record.
A win today against their most-played rival means the season is a success; a loss, means the season will always taste bittersweet, a lifetime of explaining why they couldn't beat a struggling 2-8 team. A win would also put Lehigh at 9-2 and give them a fighting chance for a home playoff game - if the chips fall just right.
In addition to that, a win here for the Mountain Hawks in Easton - the scene of the crime in 2008 - also honors those players back then that were only playing to beat Lafayette just one time. Those players who have set up the success of this team today - and who will definitely be watching from the sidelines and TV screens nationwide this weekend.
The game may not mean anything in the Patriot League championship or FCS playoff race - but you can't convince me that this game doesn't mean anything to Lehigh. It's Lafayette, after all.
This week's game notes mention one real unfortunate note: that starting senior DT Ben Flizack is "day to day" with a hamstring injury. Lehigh rotates their "D" linemen, though, so it's likely that both senior DT Phil Winett and sophomore DT Tom Bianchi will rotate there instead. Also, senior OL Keith Schauder is still off the depth chart and senior OL R.J. McNamara, who has filled in extremely well for Schauder, returns once again this week.
Senior FB Bryce Arruda, too, will get the nod as the starting FB this week, replacing promising freshman FB Sean Farrell.
A nice touch in Lafayette's game notes this week was the idea of putting all the references to Lehigh with a lower case 'l'. Just in case you forgot, it's Lehigh/Lafayette week, and everything. Matters.
It looks like Lehigh's football season will end with yet another beautiful day for football. While it would take an August level of sunshine intensity to brighten up the faces of Lafayette fans this year in Easton, Lehigh will certainly take this weekend's forecast: mostly sunny, with a high of 57.
A Word on the Eastonites
To say that this season for Frank Tavani's crew has not worked out to plan would be the understatement of the year. You could say the Leopards' season was possibly derailed in the first game of the season, never to totally get back on track the rest of the way.
"Lafayette's last-minute drive was a microcosm of the Leopards entire season-opening game," Lafayette's official recap of Georgetown's shock 28-24 upset win said. "They deftly moved the ball 60 yards with the end zone in sight before an interception ended the potential game-winning drive in a 28-24 loss to Georgetown on Saturday night at Fisher Stadium."
In retrospect, this performance would be more than a microcosm of the game, but also the season. Lafayette could move the ball on offense quite well, at times, but a once-stout defense was now getting shredded for big yardage and critical miscues - such as the ill-fated interception - caused an awful lot of defeats that could have been wins.
Slowly, the team that was picked to challenge for the league title lost game after excruciating game, often in dramatic fashion. The last-minute defeat against eventual Ivy League champion Penn. The double-overtime loss to Princeton, in which the Leopards missed a critical third down on OT and instead had to settle for a FG.
If the Leopards lost all their games like this, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that this was just a bad football team. And yet, there have been glimmers that this team is better than their record.
In a 28-21 win against Stony Brook - who have a real good chance to be in the playoffs this year as the Big South champion - they controlled the powerful Seawolf ground game to sixty yards below their average and controlled the line of scrimmage. Lafayette found their groove against Bucknell in a dominating 33-12 victory, too.
In a way, though, their solid performance against Stony Brook only serves as a reminder as to what could have been. What if the Leopards had just managed to put away 1-8 Princeton, a much better team earlier in the year before they fell apart? What if they had turned over the ball less against Colgate a few weeks ago, a game where the Raiders won 24-14 and essentially knocked the Leopards out of the title race?
The Leopards, too, only had their leopard print socks blown off in a 35-10 loss to Harvard, really - in every other game you can point to one thing here, another thing there, that was the cause of their downfall. There were a lot of winnable games there.
It's not hard to picture, in another reality, this game this weekend being for the Patriot League championship
LFN's Drink of the Week
You'd think after doing these previews for so long, I would know that the South Side Boosters historically have Bloody Mary's to celebrate the Lehigh/Lafayette game every year - perhaps renaming it the Bloody Leopard for good measure. Not wanting to ruin a good thing - and anyway, bloody Leopard could equally be a microcosm of their season - the Bloody Leopard is this week's official drink. Enjoy them responsibly.
Breaking Down That School In Easton
The Leopard faithful are best known for saying that this year, the questions going into the year are still questions even going into this game, their most important game. About all that can be said with certainty about the Leopard offense is who their starting QB is - but even that question was only answered by Wednesday of last week.
Junior QB Ryan O'Neil, who has battled one concussion, a leg injury, and plain-old ineffectiveness, established himself in - by all accounts - was an open tryout for the QB position going into the Holy Cross game. Going into the season, O'Neil was seen as an accurate passer, with a bit more mobility than his other options - senior QB Marc Quilling and sophomore QB Andrew Shoop - but clearly his leg injury had limited his effectiveness in that area most of the year.
But by Wednesday of last week, he finally seemed all the way back from everything - his dings, his bouts of ineffectiveness, and even his running game. Against Holy Cross, he went 35 of 42 for 335 yards and 4 TDs - and added 11 rushes for 41 yards. It's safe to say that we will see the best O'Neil possible this Saturday.
His great day passing the ball last weekend - albeit in a losing effort - highlights, too, the great strength of this 2010 Leopard team, a talented, senior-laden receiving corps. Senior WR Mark Layton (683 yards receiving, 5 TDs) and senior WR Mitchell Bennett (329 yards, 3 TDs) are still a formidable 1-2 punch when it comes to receiving, and junior WR Kyle Hayes (547 yards, 5 TDs) also poses a strong possession receiving threat underneath, too, as does junior TE Kevin Doty (191 yards, 1 TD). Junior WR Greg Stripe, once seen as a guy who could maybe crack the top lineup, is now in a backup role but still has big-play capability.
Last week, Lafayette spread the ball around their receivers well. But all year their offense has been thrown asunder with different strategies - not all of which were the Leopards' fault, as a rash of injuries have forced players like junior RB Jerome Rudolph and sophomore RB Vaughn Hebron out of the lineup. The run-first, pass-second strategy that worked for so long for offensive coordinator Mickey Fein has become more of a hodge podge of strategies, a tinkering process that has not totally resulted in a consistent winner.
The running game right now consists of freshman RB Pat Mputu (338 yards) and freshman FB Pat Creahan, who has mostly been just a 6'1, 235 lb extra blocker on this team so far. Seven freshman are on the two-deep for the offense, and five sophomores, making this the youngest Leopard offense in recent memory.
On the offensive line, 6'5 junior OL Anthony Buffolino has been as monstrous as advertised, but the rest of Lafayette's 'O' line has been neither deep nor effective at protecting their QBs. They've been giving up on average 2 1/2 sacks per game, and only carving out 114 yards of rushing per game as well.
More surprising than Lafayette's offensive production, though, is the sudden decline of Lafayette's defense. Sure, they still sport the same 4-3 that gave, it seemed, the Leopards one of the Top 25 defenses year in and year out. But it's not the same fearsome unit that gave us guys like LB Andy Romans.
Lafayette's front four features senior DT Doug Gerowski (39 tackles)and senior NT Mike Phillips (35 tackles), and are bookended by junior DE Mike Grimaldi (29 tackles, 3 sacks) and sophomore DE Rick Lyster (11 tackles, 1 sack). None of these guys have made Leopard fans forget about DT Andrew Poulson and NG Ian Bell last year, two rocks that plugged the run outstandingly. This years' Leopards have given up on average 184 yards per game on the ground - inconceivable in past years.
The heart of this Leopard defense is their linebacking unit, though, including senior LB Michael Schmidlein (100 tackles), senior LB Nick Nardone (47 tackles) and junior LB Ben Eaton (76 tackles). Junior LB Leroy Butler (35 tackles, 3 sacks) also frequently comes in the Lafayette defensive scheme as a fourth linebacker or down lineman to deliver blitzes from anywhere and everywhere. They are solid tacklers, and they're aggressive blitzers in general, coming from all directions.
A bit worryingly for Lehigh, Lafayette's pass defense is young and effective, with the second-best unit behind Colgate's. Junior CB Brandon Ellis (61 tackles, 1 interception) and sophomore CB Kyni Scott form a good pass protection unit, with junior FS Kyle Simmons playing a great center field (70 tackles, 2 picks) and junior SS Evan McGovern (46 tackles) also providing good run support.
All year - perhaps partially due to their injury situation - Lafayette's special teams have not been very special at all this year. Junior P Tom Kondash has averaged 34.5 yards per punt - putting the Leopards at dead last in that category in the Patriot League - and punt returns have been little better, with junior WR Greg Stripe averaging 2.4 per return. Lafayette has also given up 5.8 yards per return as well.
Kickoffs (60.3 yards per boot) and field goals have been ably handled by the big leg of junior PK Davis Rodriguez. He's been automatic inside the 30 yard line, and he has the capability of nailing long ones - notably a 45 yarder - but he's been inconsistent, going 5 of 11 outside that range. Stripe and freshman WR Jet Kollie have provided a real spark for the Leopards in kickoff returns, and as his name implies Jet is a speedy guy who can leave guys in the dust.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Attack the quarterback. On defense, Lehigh needs to be aggressive and get after Lafayette's "O" line and force O'Neil out of his comfort zone early, preventing any sort of offensive rhythm. I'd attack from all directions, with senior LB Al Pierce, junior LB Mike Groome and others, and really harass all phases of Lafayette's offense.
2. Caution: Big Plays Ahead. Preventing big plays, especially in the passing game, will be crucial to a Lehigh victory. "The Rivalry" is so tied to emotion that every big play carries with it crucial emotional weight. Remove the big plays from the other side, remove the emotional momentum that could be created.
3. Don't Forget Campbell and Barket. Senior RB Jay Campbell and sophomore RB Zach Barket could go a long way towards winning this game if they can get some rhythm running the football. Mix in those runs with sophomore QB Michael Colvin, and a grinding offense could create some problems for the Leopards.
LFN's Fearless Prediction
It's a cliche to say about these teams, "Throw out the records when they play each other", but it's true. Lafayette will be no 2-8 team when they hit the field this weekend, and Lehigh will not be an 8-2 team. They'll be 0-0, playing in their Super Bowl. And - to be honest - Lafayette hasn't always looked like a 2-8 team this year, and I can attest that Lehigh has not always looked like an 8-2 team either.
It's a game different than any other. It will have big emotional swings, and every play will be a little big bigger, every yard just that more important.
It seems inconceivable, but the danger of a letdown is real in this game for Lehigh, too, with the playoffs the following week and the only title in this game being bragging rights for the next year.
I think this is going to come down to the wire - just like it has for the last three years. But I think, too, that Lehigh will win this game this weekend because a whole lot of these players on the field today - senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley, senior CB/KR John "Prez" Kennedy and a lot of others - remember playing on that field two years ago, with nothing to play for but a win over Lafayette. They will remember those players - who didn't taste any postseason - and they'll deliver the win this weekend.
Lehigh 31, Lafayette 30