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Breaking Down the Boys of Easton: The 147th Meeting

It's "Rivalry Week", the games of Beirut have been going strong (around both Bethlehem's and Easton's campuses), and there's a rival to defeat on what is scheduled to be a clear, beautiful, late November day.

Below the flip, see Lafayette broken down, as well as my "Keys to the Game" - and, of course, the "Fearless Prediction".

Breaking Down That School In Easton
Offense
Going into the season, the Leopards had an issue at quarterback that wasn't really resolved until the game against Penn.  Do they go with experience, senior QB Ryan O'Neil, or the kid with the best arm, junior QB Andrew Shoop?

Ultimately it was the junior from Danville, PA that won the starting nod, and he's had his stellar days (262 yards passing vs. Colgate, 3 TDs) and his not so stellar days (3 interceptions vs. Stony Brook, 3 interceptions vs. Holy Cross.)  In three games this year with multi-interception games, the Leopards have lost all three.

At 6'1 210 lbs, Shoop (1,953 yards passing, 65 yards rushing, 18 TDs) has been more of a dropback passer for the most part, but last week against Holy Cross he showed a different facet to his game, running for 71 yards.  It's clear he's maturing as a signalcaller - and it's very likely that he'll come out gunning against the Mountain Hawks in this game.  For Lehigh, it will be crucial to force him into mistakes, as the more mistakes the Leopards have made, the more games they've lost.

While running back has been an issue this year for the Leopards - the top three backs going into the spring have either retired, been suspended or gotten hurt - the issues have been a silver lining for the boys at Easton U. as speedy 6'0, 190 lb true freshman RB Ross Scheuerman (448 yards) has emerged as a real rushing threat in the Leopards' backfield by committee, and also has been a key dumpoff receiver in screens and the short passing game.  Junior RB Vaughn Hebron (231 yards, 2 TDs) is the hard-nosed, between-the-tackles runner to complement Scheuerman, while sophomore FB Greg Kessel is a useful blocking back and has shown promise catching the ball out of the backfield as well.

Going into the season, Lafayette was supposed to have a leader, fifth-year senior WR Mitch Bennett, that was supposed to be the steady leader that had actually played in a game where the Leopards beat Lehigh, but has not played much since Harvard in Week 6 due to injury.  He's not listed on the depth chart, but if I know this Rivalry, I'd say that Lehigh should plan for him to not only play but to be a key part of the Leopard offense on Saturday.

With Bennett, Shoop has some interesting targets in Lafayette's multiple offensive set.  Tavani went with a more conservative two-wideout set most of the year, but against Holy Cross unveiled a three wideout set that was more efficient, so it seems logical that they will go with it again.

Sophomore WR Mark Ross (640 yards, 9 TDs) is Easton's answer to Lehigh junior WR Ryan Spadola, and his big-play ability, especially last week, was a large reason why the Leopards almost beat Holy Cross.  Rounding out the Leopard receiving corps is senior WR Kyle Hayes (480 yards, 2 TDs) and senior WR Greg Stripe (180 yards).  Add Bennett back there, and there's a whole lot of different targets to choose from.

Easton U.'s offensive line is large, anchored by 310 lb senior OL Scott Biel, but they've been a source of criticism from the Leopard faithful.  They are 99th in FCS in rushing offense, and are giving up more than 2 1/2 sacks a game on average.

Defense
When you play Easton U., you know you're going to be playing against a fearsome multiple 4-3 defense.   But injuries have also conspired to make a potentially devastating unit into one that has been a lot more ordinary during the 2010 season.

Three of Lafayette's four starting defensive linemen are underclassmen, with junior DT Rick Lyster (39 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble) being the strongest statistically.  Running up the middle can be tough with Lyster and 280 lb sophomore NT Jason Marshalek (29 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups), but Lafayette is also 106th in the nation in sacks, so they haven't gotten a lot of pressure on opposing QBs this season.

The Leopards linebacking corps is the one place on the team where Easton has survived relatively unscathed with injuries and also boasts three senior leaders in senior LB Ben Eaton (80 tackles, 1 interception), senior LB LeRoy Butler (84 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks), and senior LB Tyler MacFarlane (72 tackles, 6 tackles for loss).  Easton U.'s 4-3 defense seems to grow solid linebackers on trees every year, and this is no exception - this is a very good unit.

Going into the season, the Leopards seemed to have a solid, experienced secondary as well, anchored by senior FS Kyle Simmons.  But two weeks ago, Simmons got hurt, and did not play the last two weeks.  If he's back for the "second season", his return will make a big difference in an already-strong Leopard secondary, with junior CB Darius Safford (44 tackles, 3 interceptions), senior SS Evan McGovern (47 tackles, 2 pass breakups), and senior CB Brandon Ellis (49 tackles, 11 pass breakups).

Special Teams
Like everything else on the Leopards, their special teams have been maddeningly inconsistent, though their return game, anchored by junior CB Darius Safford returning punts and freshman RB Ross Scheuerman returning kickoffs, has been solid.  It will be crucial to keep them from breaking big returns.

Freshman PK Austin O'Brien reminds me of a Patriot League version of Raiders PK Sebastian Janikowski - a large (250 lb) kicker with a heck of a leg, but frustratingly inconsistent.  He's 9 of 15 on field goals, including a 48 yarder, and is 23 for 25 on extra pounts.  Junior P Ethan Swerdlow (39.7 average) has been an above-average punter in the Patriot League this year.

LFN's Keys to the Game


1. Patience.  With Lafayette's pass rush, there's no need to rush the passing game.  It's worth it for senior QB Chris Lum to take his time and choose the wide-open guys instead of forcing balls into coverage.  With  two senior targets in senior WR Jake Drwal, senior WR Jimmy Jefferson and Spadola, it may be worth taking the time to wait for the right pass play to develop

2. Pressure.  The knock on Shoop is that he can be forced into mistakes, and those mistakes are more likely to be forced through a strong pass rush.  With senior LB Colin Newton disrupting Easton's offense routinely, it's much more likely Lehigh will win this second season.

3. Poise.  Special teams have been an adventure at times this year for Lehigh, but in this game more than ever poise will be critical in order to prevent long returns and touchdowns.  The unit has played much better of late - but in order to win, they'll need to be even better.

Fearless Prediction
On paper, statistically, Lehigh, it's fair to say, would be favored to win this game.  But when Rivalries come about, nothing is safe.

A hundred years ago in 1911, a heavily favored Leopard team barely held off a game Lehigh squad 11-8.

Fifty years ago in 1961, a heavily favored Lehigh team needed a heave and a miracle field goal to win 17-14 and win the Lambert Cup.

And just four years ago, Lehigh entered into the game 4-6 against their rival - the same record the Leopards have today - and used it to pull off an upset on the road that seemed to put new life into the program, and bring it to the heights it is today.

But as I've repeated all year, this Lehigh team is all business.  They've talked an awful lot about goals, and achieving them.  They expect to win, and have a business-like approach to the game.  There is a cohesion to this unit that promises to take them far into the playoffs.  Teams don't know it yet, but I already do.

The question for Lehigh is - will they let their guard down against their bitter rivals?  Will they take this game as a season unto itself, or as just another game?  Will they take it to the Leopards, or will they be surprised by their fighting spirit?

I keep asking myself this question about this Lehigh team every single game.

And this year, I've been getting the same consistent answer.

Lehigh 32, "That School In Easton" 21

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