Before the 2011 football season got started, it was easy to circle October 29th on the calendar and say, "This will be a big game on the Patriot League schedule."
And CBS College Sports, too, agreed, making it one of their two nationally televised games on the year.
Somewhere along the way, though, the Raider season jumped off the tracks.
And now, with two conference losses and their chances at the Patriot League title basically having evaporated, Colgate is now playing to get back to .500, protect a perfect 3-0 record in "their house," Andy Kerr Stadium, and finish out the year strong.
There would be no better way for the Raiders to do that than to upend a Top Ten team - and a pretty good rival, at that - in Hamilton this weekend.
It's no secret who Lehigh's biggest rival is in the Patriot League.
And no, it's not Colgate.
As sweet as every victory is during a football season, for Lehigh fans, nothing beats beating "that school in Easton" in "The Rivalry", right in the Mountain Hawk backyard.
But this game in Hamilton, the 50th meeting in this series between the once-Engineers and the once-Maroons, has also developed into a particularly intense rivalry over the past decade.
Even if the run-up to the game is called, affectionately, "Hate the 'Gate" week among folks close to the Lehigh football program, it's a rivalry with a surprising amount of mutual respect - among fans, anyway.
"Hate the 'Gate" was first attributed to Lehigh LB Matt Mohler, in a year when Colgate was in a mad dash to the Patriot League championship and the Mountain Hawks were simply playing for pride.
And in many years, this game looms as important as to determining the champion of the Patriot League - and for precious bids to the FCS playoffs.
There have been times when both the Raiders and Mountain Hawks were both nationally-ranked, and playing what was seen as a de-facto Patriot League Championship game. (Like in 2004, where Lehigh won a thriller at Murray Goodman against Colgate, 21-14, in front of nearly 14,000 people.)
There have been close games - like Lehigh's narrow 27-20 defeat a couple years ago at Andy Kerr stadium - and blowouts, like last year's 44-14 beatdown of the Raiders at Murray Goodman. ("I really enjoyed today, I ain't gonna lie," Coen said after last year's win. "Because our seniors hadn't beaten Colgate.")
You have to believe that Colgate players have circled that game since last year, wanting to make amends.
And with a perfect home record to defend, a national TV audience, and the historic nature of this particular game, you know the home team will be riled up for this one.
"We've had great games with them," coach Coen said of the Colgate rivalry last year. "The Lehigh-Colgate games, you know what types of games they are. If you love football, you love watching this game, you love playing in this game and you love coaching in this game."
Looking at this rivalry over the years, it's fairly amazing that every time they've played, one, or both, teams have been on target to compete for the Patriot League Championship. No time over the last ten years have both teams been simply playing for pride - someone has always had a championship at stake.
With Lehigh's dream season thus far, with a 6-1 record and a Top Ten national ranking, that streak remains alive.
But Colgate's "Super Bowl" this weekend will be to try to take out their rival - on national television, no less, on CBS College Sports in front of Rich Rodriguez (yes, that Rich Rodriguez) and Dave Ryan - to make their season a success.
These Lehigh/Colgate games are always a grudge match, and this weekend will be no different.
Even if it's a rivalry with a little "r".
This week's game notes see some extremely welcome sights on Lehigh's depth chart.
Thanks to the bye wek last week, a variety of dinged players got the chance to heal for the Patriot League championship stretch run.
The biggest name to return is senior OL Jim Liebler, who will go right back to the center position on the "O" line and move senior OL Keith Schauder back to right guard and junior OL Mike Vuono back to right tackle. Amazingly, only once this year has Lehigh's offensive line not changed from week to week, but even with all the weekly changes the "O" line has performed at a very high level.
As we learn from Michael LoRe's report in the Express-Times, too, senior TE Mark Wickware returns on the offense, as does senior LB Tanner Rivas on defense. They'll both be behind junior TE Jamel Haggins and senior LB Fred Mihal on the depth chart, however, as they get back into game action for the first time in a few weeks.
Finally, senior LB Sam Loughery is one player that won't be playing in Hamilton - but again, as a testament to Lehigh's amazing depth at the position, junior LB Billy Boyko will be stepping in, and that corps isn't expected to miss a beat. It's incredible that Lehigh's linebacking unit is missing two Game One starters, and yet still perform at a high level as if nothing has happened.
Could there be snow on the pumpkins in Hamilton? The possibility does still exist.
With the cold snap coming through our area today and tomorrow, the Chenango Valley is instead experiencing their first hard freeze of the year tonight, with lows today and tomorrow falling well below freezing, at 28 degrees. On Saturday, the forecast is for a "balmy" high of 48, but it's three days of frozen FieldTurf that should make the playing surface extra-hard - and, potentially, extra-fast, as long as the snow holds off.
As of right now, the forecast is for partly cloudy weather - no snow for the noon kickoff. But it will be worth checking to see how things progress this week. We may very well see a "White Halloween" up at Colgate.
CBS College Sports
The Lehigh/Colgate game, kicking off at noon, will be televised nationally in HD, thanks to the Patriot League TV deal signed with CBS College Sports.
It can be found on a variety of cable systems, as well as Dish Network (152) and DirecTV (613). On my cable system, FiOS, it's channel 94.
If you aren't sure if your cable carrier has CBS College Sports, you can check here as to its availability in your area.
Interestingly, former Michigan head football coach Rich "Rich Rod" Rodriguez will be on hand to provide color commentary for CBS College Sports, as well as Dave Ryan providing the play-by-play.
A Word on Colgate
This rivalry has come a long way from that first game in 1922, which was played in Johnson City near Binghamton, NY.
It was set up by William Fisher, the athletics director of the Endicott-Johnson corporation, and Lehigh's athletics director at the time, H.R. Reiter.
The New York Times reported at the time that the game "will be of great interest to all Central New York and Pennsylvania, and will probably result in an annual contest in Johnson City."
The yearly meeting in Johnson City wasn't meant to be, of course.
But both national powers at that time battled fiercely, by the Times account.
Lehigh center "Wild Bill" Springsteen recovered a fumble for a touchdown to go up 6-0, but the Maroons (as they were then called) piled up 35 unanswered points to win that inaugural game 35-6.
In modern times, instrumental in setting up the annual game against Colgate was former Lehigh head football coach Fred Dunlap, who also was a star football player at Colgate.
Even back then, he saw how similar Colgate and Lehigh were in terms of academics and athletics. You could say that his foresight paid off with a conference affiliation, too. When the Patriot League formed in 1987, it seemed only natural that Lehigh's northern rival be included along with Holy Cross, Lafayette, Bucknell, Lehigh and Davidson - thanks to Dunlap's efforts.
It's also worth noting that when it comes to recruiting high-academic football players, Lehigh and Colgate are always in the same conversation to prospective students.
The Patriot League's academic index ensures that prospective football players are academically qualified to handle Lehigh's and Colgate's challenging workload, and of all the players in our region that meet those standards, the recruiting battles are fierce.
For example, former Lehigh RB Matt McGowan out of Hazleton went to Lehigh, but the next big back to come out of there is currently the Raiders' record-setting running back.
It's not just highly coveted western Pennsylvania/Coal region recruits, either: such battles are also happening across the country, in Florida, California, and other football hotbeds as well.
Many times, football players that go to Lehigh have to wonder what might have been had they matriculated at Colgate - and vice versa.
It definitely plays a big role in the intensity of this rivalry.
LFN's Drink of the Week
It dawns on me that I've never proposed a "winning" Drink of the Week when it comes to trips to Hamilton. But when I think of winning mixed drinks and the maroons of Colgate, I think of a beverage that was a particular favorite when I was an undergraduate at Lehigh - Red Death. As it's almost completely alcohol, it lives up to its name - use discretion when sipping this tailgating treat, though it should warm one up on a frigid Chenango Valley morning.
As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that.
Breaking Down Colgate
Going into the season, Colgate head coach Dick Biddle was going to field an offense that relies on a power running game, time of possession, and moving the sticks on third and fourth down.
Despite a multitude of injuries that have decimated this team over the course of the season, Biddle's basic offensive philosophy has not changed, and is unlikely to change.
Before Lehigh senior QB Chris Lum chucked his way into Walter Payton award consideration, Colgate senior RB Nate Eachus, the workhorse of this Colgate rushing attack, was considered the most likely Patriot League candidate for the most valuable player in FCS.
"He may be the best player I've coached as a football coach," Biddle said of his senior Payton Award candidate before the season. For him to say that, a guy who has coached not only a Payton Award winner (RB Jamaal Branch) but the leading rusher in Patriot League history (RB Jordan Scott), that's saying something.
"He does it all," he also said. "I don't think people realize that while we've had a lot of great players at Colgate, they were surrounded by a lot of other great players. I think Nate's just taken the bull by the horns. I think he's outstanding, he's easy to coach, and he's a great leader."
Eachus is a gamer, plain and simple. A former wrestling champion, he doesn't shy away from contact, yet he has a second gear that allows him to rip off some great runs in the open field as well. He's a rare combination of power and speed that is extremely difficult to contain when he's at full strength. And as if that isn't enough, he's also a decent receiver, too, adding 179 yards in catches to his 666 yards rushing.
But therein lies the rub - "at full strength".
Eachus has missed three games this year - including a big game two weeks ago against Cornell. He returned last week against Georgetown - but wasn't his same old self, only netting 38 yards in 19 carries, or an un-Eachus-like 2.0 yards per carry.
If he's at 100%, he'll shoulder the bunk of the action for the Raiders. But if he's not able to go full tilt, the Raiders will likely go with a committee approach with Eachus,
junior RB/DB Jordan McCord (87 rushing yards two weeks ago vs. Cornell), or junior RB Zauhn Lewis (333 yards, 2 TDs). They are both similar in size physically to Eachus, but don't yet have those same football instincts that Eachus enjoys.
Injuries have taken a toll on Colgate quarterbacks, too.
Sophomore QB Gavin McCarney, a rangy, 6'2, 193 lb passer, was a large part of the running game as well (599 yards, 8 TDs) - until he, too, got hurt against Monmouth.
After sitting out the game against Cornell, he started at quarterback last weekend against Georgetown - but was benched in the second half in favor of third-string freshman QB Ryan Smith. Whether it was due to injury or ineffectiveness is unclear, but with junior QB Josh Hasenberg sitting out the Georgetown game with his own injury, it's a real shell game as to guessing whom the starting QB will be for the Raiders.
If McCarney is at 100%, he will spread the field with his speed, take off with the ball when holes open up, and throw the ball underneath at the sticks most of the time. Smith, built almost the same as McCarney, will probably do the same. If the 6'2 213 lbs Hasenberg takes the field, however, he'll likely be a run-first, chuck second type of quarterback - against Cornell, he notched 185 yards and 2 TDs.
At receiver, 6'3, 193 lb sophomore WR Dan Cason (305 yards, 3 TDs) is listed as the starter - though he too (!) did not suit up against the Hoyas, meaning the Raiders did not have their leading receiver available to them. Junior WR Chris Looney (253 yards, 1 TD), their second-leading receiver, got injured against Towson earlier in the year - and since his return, hasn't been the same player.
This puts a large burden on 6'3 junior WR Jonathan Mputu (16 catches, 184 yards, 1 TD) to make things happen for the Raider passing game. Mputu, like his brother who plays for Lafayette, is a big talent that hasn't busted out yet, but could certainly do so in the right circumstances. It would be wise to pay him a lot of attention.
Rounding out the receiving corps is 6'5 freshman TE C.J. Stempeck (6 catches, 51 yards, 2 TDs), sophomore WR Siddiq Cornish (4 catches, 38 yards in his first game action of the year), and senior WR Dan Basil (8 catches, 72 yards). So far this season, all three have been role players in this offense. Another underclassman, freshman FB Ed Pavalko, is primarily used as a blocking or 4th down back.
The offensive line, anchored by senior OL Vittorio Otanelli, is a very large bunch of guys, built for power running. Overall, too, they have done that job very nicely, too, as the Raiders, despite all the injuries, are still the 10th best rushing offense in the nation, averaging 232 yards per game.
Its been said about the Raiders that the best part of the Raider defense is the Raider offense - when the offense is going strong, chewing up the clock with ten minute drives, the defense is always fresh and ready to make plays with their multiple 4-3 defense.
Like Lehigh, they'll rotate out their front seven to keep things fresh. On the defensive line, sophomore DE Andrew Nairin (25 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) and 295 lb junior DT Tyler Danielsen (21 tackles) feature on their front line. Uncharacteristic for Biddle-coached teams, they are 6th in the Patriot League when it comes to rushing defense.
The strength of their front seven lies in the linebacking unit, with senior LB Adam Lock (37 tackles, 5 sacks), and senior LB Chris DiMassa (70 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception) making up the heart and soul of the Raider defense. Junior LB Pat Friel would make a tough trio for Lehigh to contain - but Friel, hampered by injury, has made way for junior LB Austin Dier to start in his place.
If you thought Colgate's offense was a M*A*S*H unit, just take a look at their defensive backfield, where preseason all-Patriot League candidate junior CB Demetri Diamond hasn't played a down, and the Raiders have juggled four different cornerbacks and two different safeties. Senior SS Vinnie Nicosia (35 tackles, 1 1/2 sacks) starts, while a pair of underclassmen, freshman DB Vinnie Armiento and sophomore CB Chad Frey, start at corner. The duo has combined on four interceptions this season thus far.
How bad has the injury situation been for Colgate this year? Junior RB/FS Jordan McCord started on both offense and defense vs. Cornell. McCord has 2 interceptions as well.
Freshman PK Joe Uglietto has been anything but ugly this season for the Raiders, hitting two 40+ yard field goals thus far, while junior P Evan Goldszak, with a 36 yard net, have provided at least one tiny bit of stability in a season filled with instability thus far.
Similarly, freshman QB Danny DeCiccio (20 returns, 471 yards) and sophomore WR Ryne Morrison (7 returns, 62 yards) have done a fine job for the Raiders as well. (No, that's not a typo - DeCiccio, who is probably the fourth string QB, is indeed returning kicks.)
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Go for the Throat. With senior QB Chris Lum and junior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola, and a young secondary for the Raiders, it's tempting to start out early and see what that group is made of. More importantly, though, it will be critical to come out early and score a touchdown, to put the Raider gameplan of sitting on a lead on the shelf early. If I win the coin toss, I'm taking the ball.
2. Manage the emotions well. It's the week after the bye for Lehigh, and it's the week after a crushing loss for the Raiders. On national TV, though, momentum and emotions will be huge, especially in a grudge game like this. Keep the emotions level, and come out crisp, and it should mean good things for Lehigh on Saturday.
3. Guard those Sticks. The key stat I'll be looking at defensively for Lehigh is 3rd down conversions on the Colgate side. If Lehigh can slow down the 'Gate from converting on 3rd down and anything, it will be a giant help: not only for defensive pride, but for Lehigh's offense as well. More third down stops equals more Lehigh offensive opportunities.
You can look at Colgate's struggles in Patriot League play. You can look at the Raiders' injuries. You can even look at their struggles stopping the run.
But the truth is that in rivalry games - especially those on national TV - and you can throw out the records and the statistics.
Lehigh has to be prepared for Colgate to give a prime time performance against them, no matter what the numbers might show, especially at home. And the last two trips up to frigid Hamilton, 21-7 and 27-20 losses, the football gods were not kind to the guys in Brown.
But this Lehigh team is different than the ones that have ventured up to Hamilton in 2007 and 2009. Even though Colgate will likely put up a solid performance, it won't be enough against this incredibly special Lehigh team - if they jump out to a quick lead, and get their offensive motor going.
Lehigh 45, Colgate 23