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Game Preview: The 148th: Lehigh at Lafayette, 11/17/2012

(Photo Credit: Ed Koskey, Jr./Special to the Morning Call)

When you study "The Rivalry" as long as I have, the overall trends of Lehigh students, Lafayette students, the football players, and the citizens of Bethlehem and Easton break apart, and the individual stories from each specific instance come to the fore. 

Specific "game to end all games", detailed game riots,  freezing games, or unusually hot games get broken out, sometimes breaking from the normal expectations of The Rivalry in general.  The Rivalry endures, and there are similar stories of seasons being made, or broken, or riots, or order, but occasionally games do have variation.  Not every Rivalry game is the same..

The story of the 148th meeting of the most-played rivalry in all of college football is probably more different than anyone might have ever imagined before the season.

For Lafayette, the story is one of unmet expectations, unbelievable tragedy, and, ultimately, they hope, redemption.  For Lehigh, the story is one of nerves, loss of destiny, and, ultimately, they hope, redemption.

In any other year Lehigh and Lafayette fans would normally be in the middle of their annual insult-fest between the two schools, whom are separated by less than 17 miles.

This year, though, for a host of different reasons, a lid has been squarely placed on the off-color ribbing between the two ancient rivals.

Part of the reason appears to be that Lehigh has been slow to shake off the effects of their loss last week to Colgate, 35-23. 

A hugely emotional game, the fact the Mountain Hawks lost the Patriot League title and autobid on their home field seems to have taken something out of this Lehigh squad this week, even if, in the pregame comments, head coach Andy Coen and the players seemed to be saying all the right things.

"The guys seem to still have a bit of the 'woe is me hangover', whatever you want to call it," Coen said.  "A little slow, to be honest with you, on the practice field, but we responded through the course of it, had an efficient practice.  I told the kids that they have so much to play for, to be part of this game, the 148th renewal of this game, you're blessed to be here."

"If it wasn't Lafayette week, it would be extremely hard," senior FS Billy O'Brien said.  "It definitely took us an extra day to get over it.  It was very upsetting to watch [Colgate] celebrate on our field.  But this is the biggest game of the year.  If you can't get up for this game, you shouldn't be be at this school."

"It was definitely unfortunate," senior TE Jamel Haggins said.  "Especially with the season we were having.  We're just focusing on bouncing back right now, the Lehigh/Lafayette tradition, the Rivalry, it means a lot to everyone, and especially us, the seniors.  Winning the game, and redeeming ourselves, that would mean a lot this week."

While everyone around Lehigh would feel redeemed if they made it back to the FCS playoffs for the third consecutive year, the simple truth is they need to beat Lafayette if they want a realistic shot at a precious at-large bid.  At 10-1, their resume for an at-large bid is much, much stronger than at 9-2 with losses in their last two games.
“I’m playing this game like it’s the last game I’m ever going to play and this is the only one that’s guaranteed,” senior LB Billy Boyko told Mike LoRe of the Express-Times. “It’s how I’m going to play every play and that’s how most of these seniors are going to play, too. We’re going to enjoy it because we have no idea what’s going to happen in the future."

"Billy goes 100 percent all the time," O'Brien told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "I don't know how anyone can go through games and have 13 tackles like he does and then you see him on Sunday and ask him how he feels and he says 'good.' I can't comprehend that. I make six tackles and I can't walk the next day."

The uncertainty about the playoffs, not to mention the lost Patriot League championship, and the extremes of emotion in the run-up to the Colgate game and the letdown afterwards, seems to have extended to the fans as well - a type of tiredness, or lethargy, that hangs over the Mountain Hawk family.

As for Lafayette, they've had much bigger things to deal with as well that go well beyond football that have on their side, too, muted the usual banter.

After getting to 5-2 and seemingly poised to make a run at the Patriot League title, they lost three straight to Georgetown, Colgate and Fordham in the run-up to the 148th meeting between the two teams.

But records didn't seem to matter much once it was learned last week that QB Zach Zweizig's father was hospitalized with a stroke.
Zweizig, who comes from West Lawn, Pa., outside of Reading, found out Thursday that his father, Jonathan, had suffered a stroke, a stroke that with its complications proved fatal late Sunday night.

Lafayette coach Frank Tavani's first reaction was to immediately release Zweizig from football worries such as Saturday's game at Fordham.

"We urged him that if he thought he had to be with his family to go; we understand that family comes first," Tavani said.

But Zweizig stuck with his teammates.

"Zach and his mom (Sandra) and his sister (Hannah) decided he was staying and there was no bones about it," Tavani said. "At that time his dad was stable in the hospital."
Suddenly, sophomoric pranks didn't seem so important anymore - from both the Lehigh and Lafayette fans, especially after it was learned that the senior Zweizig, a day trader, died late Sunday evening.  (My thoughts and prayers have been directed towards Zach and his family.)

The Morning Call's Paul Reinhard talked to Lafayette's star reciever, WR Mark Ross, about the tragedy, and Zach.

Zweizig, who will be making his fifth start on Saturday although his father passed away Sunday night, "is a really good kid, a tough kid," said Ross. "You see the hits he takes and he gets up every time. I respect his toughness. He's one of the nicest kids I've ever met. He's quiet. You wouldn't think it [by looking at him], but he's a football player."

So is Ross. He was hoping his team would be playing for more tangible goals this week, but that went by the boards with a three-game losing streak. Still, it's Lehigh, and college football's most-played rivalry was one of the factors in his decision to come to Lafayette.

"We can't play for a championship, so we're playing for our pride," he said. "We want to get a winning season and a win over Lehigh and for the community and so we can send the seniors out as winners and build on that momentum for next year."

"We've certainly had our ups and downs," Tavani said in his pre-game comments, "and at 5-5, it's always important to get a win over our arch-rival.  The most enjoyable thing for me about this football team as a head coach is how resilient they've been, no matter what has happened.  Both on and off the field, we overcome it all, we get back to work, and we're onto the next task."

When Tavani talked about resiliency, too, he might have also been talking about the many players on his team - and Lehigh's, for that matter - who have family and friends still dealing with the fallout from the wreckage caused by superstorm Sandy and the subsequent storms that have knocked out power and kept some families in the dark for weeks.

"I know there's a lot of excitement surrounding this week," Tavani continued, not sounding entirely convinced of his own words, "but my job is probably to keep everyone on an even keel, don't get overly excited, you have to prepare the same way you've prepared all year through Wednesday, Thursday, Friday's walkthough, and some events."

This year was the first time in more than a decade that both Lehigh and Lafayette are coming into their big Rivalry game after suffering a loss. 

It's also the first time since 1975 that Lehigh suffered a loss going into their final weekend of the season needing a win over Lafayette to make the postseason. 

Lehigh fans certainly hope that the 1975 precedent will hold, at least to some degree. 

After losing 32-25 to Bucknell in the week before The Rivalry, bringing their record to 8-2 (their only other loss coming to Army at West Point), they beat Lafayette 40-14 and were rewarded by hosting a playoff game versus New Hampshire in the Division II playoffs.

Two teams looking for redemption, trying hard not to put anything on the other teams' bulletin board.  Two fan bases, normally in high gear, but muted, with football more in perspective than usual.  Two shots at making the season a success, or failure.

Game Notes
With no official injury report from the press so far this week, all we have are the game notes this week for injury information.  Fortunately for the Lehigh faithful, all the key players are listed in their regular team slots, most notably senior RB Zach Barket, senior WR Ryan Spadola, senior CB Bryan Andrews, senior FS Billy O'Brien, senior CB Gabe Johnson, senior DT Sajjad Chagani, senior LB Billy Boyko, and, of course, senior QB Michael Colvin

Weather Report
At Fisher Field this weekend, it's about as nice a day in November as anyone might have a right to expect: sunny, a high of 52, with the temperature dipping into the near-freezing temperatures after nightfall.

A Word on Lafayette
I have been working on "Flashbacks" to historic games in "The Rivalry" this week, and I think both games talk about some of the fun stuff and the excess around "The Rivalry" over the years.

In 1922, one of the best-ever Lehigh teams beat Lafayette with a team filled with all-stars.

In 1962, a riot marred the playing of the 98th installment of "The Rivalry".

In 1987, the last game ever at Taylor stadium, it was one of the coldest games ever.

I've also talked a lot in the past about some of the overall history of "The Rivalry" as well.  Here are some excerpts.

The early Rivalry:
A couple of weeks before the first-ever meeting of Lehigh and Lafayette, Grover Cleveland defeated Arthur's secretary of state, James Blaine in a presidential campaign that was filled with mud-slinging.

At Lehigh, "New Journalism" pioneer Richard Harding Davis, a student at Lehigh at the time, enthusiastically took Mr. Welles up on his offer - after using his many charms to convince Lehigh's administration to pay the $52 for eleven brown and white striped jerseys.

Lafayette and Lehigh would play twice in that year - both losses.

The New York Times described the first game in that year: "The first inning was very interesting, as Lehigh frequently got the ball dangerously near Lafayette's goal line, but each time was beaten back, the point being made by the home team."

Much later, reflecting on that game, a Lehigh fan recounted that "We did not win... but we did give Lafayette the worst lickin' she ever had and many, many a sore head went back to Easton that night."

The excess:

Stories abound of sunrise cocktails, shots, and other dangerous drinking activities that could take them near death take place on this weekend, more so than other weekends. Even students who have no intention of going to "The Rivalry" use it as an excuse to get plastered and become "rebels without a cause" for one week.

Beirut, the unofficial drinking game of Lehigh, is common during this week - even among alumni of both schools. Seeing a Beirut table during a tailgate isn't an uncommon sight, as is plastic cups, cans of National Bohemian and other cheap beers. For the more well-off young alumni, Yuengling. For the well-heeled, imported Heineken.
There's also the well-produced documentary of the Lehigh/Lafayette Legacy, which (in ways) now shows its age,  but is available to view any time, any place, on YouTube for a great introduction about The Rivalry throughout the years.

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!)

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.  Especially since underage drinking does not seem like it will be tolerated this time in Easton.

My Mixtape for the 148th
I made a decision a while ago that Lehigh-based Kap Slap, with this incredible "Back to School" mix he made three months ago, would be my mixtape for this critical week on the calendar.  It's all I will be playing in my Prius on the way to the game.

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