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Game Preview: The 147th Meeting Between Lehigh and Lafayette

(Photo Credit: File Photo/The Express-Times)

It's tempting, if you're a Lehigh fan, to look ahead.

After all, no matter what happens on Saturday, Lehigh will be playing football again after the 147th meeting between Lehigh and "that school in Easton".

There's a school of thought to close up the playbook, play not to lose, and find a way to keep the injuries down, rather than play an entire football game.

But this is not going to happen on Saturday.  For "The Rivalry" is a season unto itself.  It means a lot more than playoff position or bragging rights.

And this Lehigh team knows that the Leopard team that lines up against them is 0-0 in this season, and so are they.  They've won one championship; and they have two more to go.  Another championship is for the taking this Saturday.

It's tempting to look at the records and statistics of both teams, and think mismatch.

Senior QB Chris Lum is a Walter Payton Award candidate, and - shh, don't tell anyone - he might actually win it.  No other quarterback in the country is close to him statistically, and it's hard to argue with a 9-1 record, the No. 1-rated offense in the country, and the No. 3-rated passing offense to boot.

Junior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola ranks second in the nation in terms of receiving yardage, while senior WR Jake Drwal and Spadola are sixth and eighth, respectively, in receptions per game.

Compare that to the Leopards.

At 4-6, they've been far more inconsistent than the Mountain Hawks, though they've been playing better lately.

In the Patriot League, they sit at the bottom of many categories, notably rushing offense, sacks allowed, and turnover differential.

But there is no way that Lehigh is hungrier than the Leopards right now for a win in this one-game season.

I know this because I remember 2008.

In that game, Lehigh, like Lafayette this season, went into that game 4-6.

Also, similarly, the Leopards played the week before in a game for the Patriot League Championship.  (Though Lafayette lost a heartbreaker in the rain to Holy Cross, 27-26, the week before.)

Like the current crew of Leopards, Lehigh didn't have a single team member on the field who remembered beating Lafayette.  From 2004 to 2007, Lehigh had lost four straight to the Leopards.

And like the current Lehigh team, Lafayette held out hope of appearing in the FCS playoffs with a win over the sub-.500 Mountain Hawks.  Though it wasn't something that was announced, I am almost certain had they won, they would have made the (then) sixteen-team field.

While there hasn't been even a tiny whisper of Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani losing his job should he lose his fourth straight to Lehigh, head coach Andy Coen most certainly was seen at the time as needing to win a game against "that school in Easton", just to have a chance to come back the following year.

The 2008 game, a 31-15 win by Lehigh, was won by a staunch defensive effort, led by LB Tim Diamond - unusual for Lehigh, a team that has been known more for stellar offense rather than punishing defense through the years.  And the final exclamation point was made by CB John Kennedy, who reacted in front of a pass by Lafayette QB Rob Curley and took it to the house, 93 yards, for the game-clinching touchdown.

"Lehigh simply had to get the Easton monkey off their backs - that pressure that seemed to enclose this team like a vise not only this year but in previous years," I wrote at the time.  "Four games were lost in the last five minutes of the game this year, including two on the last play of the game. You wondered if this team would ever be able to win a close, pressure-filled game like 'The Rivalry'. You wondered if this team would be able to hold itself together, pick itself up, and be able to win a game like this."

The same words could be said about Lafayette this year, for they wear the exact same shoes Lehigh did back then.  They need to get the Lehigh monkey off their backs, to set up future success next year and beyond.  They need to show that they can win games like this next year.  They need an offseason of something positive to focus on instead of injury, losses to Bucknell and Georgetown, and a missed pass interference call against Holy Cross.

They need this game, and they want it bad.

"You come to Lehigh for two reasons: to win championships, and beat Lafayette," senior TE Mark Wickware said this week in the run-up to the game.  "And that's what we're setting out to do.  We have all our goals in line, and I couldn't be happier."

If Lehigh wants to win this game, they'll need to want to win it more that the players from "that school in Easton".  That's the giant challenge for the Mountain Hawks this week, in the 147th edition of the best Rivalry in all of college football.

Game Notes and Injury Report
With all the smiles and good headlines from this magical 9-1 season, Lehigh did, unfortunately, receive some terrible news as it regards junior RB Zach Barket.  As reported in both the Express-Times and Morning Call, Barket suffered a broken leg and possible torn ligaments in the final quarter against Georgetown last weekend, and he will be out for the remainder of the season.  As Lehigh's leading rusher and tough between-the-tackles runner, he's a multi-faceted presence that can't help but be missed the rest of the way.

The game notes tell us that it's going to be senior RB Matt Fitz that gets the starting call in Barket's place, with sophomore RB Keith Sherman backing him up.

There are a couple more questions on defense - will senior CB Kenyatta Drake start at corner, or junior CB Gabe Johnson?  Will senior LB Tanner Rivas start at outside linebacker, or senior LB Fred Mihal?  But aside from a huge void at running back, Lehigh is largely healthy and ready to go against their big rivals.

Weather Report
Not that you were thinking of backing out anyway, but considering it's the weekend before Thanksgiving, it should be a gorgeous afternoon of football.  With a high of 50, it's going to be perfect football weather.

Broadcast Information
Can't make the game?  The game will be broadcast on WFMZ 69 in the Lehigh Valley, with Mike Yadush and Steve Degler calling the action, and will also be viewable live on Fox College Sports.  Through Lehigh Athletics' website, you can also get a live stream of the game anywhere in the world as well.

For more extensive satellite information an viewing party information, click here.

From the Lehigh Side
Excerpts from this week's Brown & White serve as an excellent representation of the view from Lehigh this week.

“Our ‘first season’ of the year ended on Saturday against Georgetown,” head coach Andy Coen said. “Lafayette week is a season all in itself. That being said, we expect them to throw everything they have at us. We are preparing for a very physical and exciting game.”

“The secondary has been doing a tremendous job as of late,” senior LB Mike Groome said. “Every player has been playing at a pretty high level. Senior CB Kenyatta Drake has impressed everyone by stepping right up when junior CB Gabe Johnson started to struggle with his injury. I think it shows the true depth to our defense and how well we’ve been coached at every position.”

As the student body prepares to wage a verbal war against the Leopards, the Lehigh football team will go through a relatively normal practice week. They will prepare for this game as they do for most others. At stake this Saturday is a potential first-round bye for the FCS Playoffs. The Hawks know how valuable a week of rest can be this late in the season and are not prepared to give that away and allow Lafayette to upset them.  

“They hate us as an organization from top to bottom, and we feel the same way,” senior OL Jim Liebler said. “When you sign your letter of intent to come to Lehigh, one of the first things you learn is to hate Lafayette – those feelings build.”  

Don’t fear, Lehigh fans, nothing has changed and the hate is still there. 

A Word on Lafayette
If there's one word that sums up this year's Leopards, it's the word "inconsistent."

The same team that showed grit in beating Colgate in overtime, 37-24, also got pummeled by Bucknell in the snow 39-13.  The same team that was humbled by North Dakota State 42-6 on the road also dominated Penn 37-12.

As Paul Reinhart of the Morning Call pointed out, much of Lafayette's problems have come from a truckload of injuries, and a couple of suspensions of key players.  No fewer than three starting tailbacks at one point of another have retired due to recurring injuries; at least one starting cornerback; and one of the co-captains of the offense, WR Mitch Bennett.

That's a hard thing to absorb for any team.

On top of that, the team has been accused by their own fans of packing in the season early - but also come up with some gems of performances, even in a 29-24 loss last weekend to Holy Cross that could easily have gone the other way.

Last week, the Leopards clung to a slender lead against the Crusaders, who then went on a 15-play, 97-yard drive to come away with the victory.

“I’ve never seen a team battle that hard,” Lafayette WR Mark Ross said after the game. “We battled all 60 minutes. To come out with a loss is tough to take.

“Penalties killed us today (overall Lafayette was penalized nine times for 69 yards), whether they were pass interferences or not. Coach Tavani said you’ve got to ignore what the refs do. We had a bunch of possessions where we could have scored and finished off the game and we didn’t do that. That’s not the refs’ fault.”

Their spirited performance last weekend certainly didn't look like a team that had packed it in and was playing out the string.  QB Andrew Shoop, who was praised by Tavani after the game, has settled into the starting quarterback position and will be a force in 147th this weekend, he hopes.

But as in many other games this year, turnovers did in the Leopards in the end, including three picks from Shoop, a junior.

“I’m going to try to spit out this taste next week and try to end this thing the right way,” he said after the game.

The Leopards have shown flashes of greatness - but have also frustrated with inconsistency.  Knowing "The Rivalry", you can count on the fact that this team will look a lot more like the "greatness" team than the "inconsistency" team - which makes them dangerous.

LFN's Drink of the Week
The South Side Boosters, the fanatical booster group that has backed Lehigh's football teams since forever,  historically have had Bloody Mary's to celebrate "The Rivalry" every year.  (I rename 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 this week. Enjoy them responsibly.

(Besides, it worked last year!)

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