We break down the Lafayette game, the 149th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.
Some key things you'll need to know before the Game of the Year:
* The Lehigh Football Partnership will be opening at 9:00 AM for tailgating at the Rust Pavillion with former football players and families, and at 10:00 AM there will be a "special guest".
* Out of town and want to watch Rivalry 149 with friendly Lehigh fans? Click here and find a telecast party across the country. There's even one in London!
* The game will be on the following TV/Radio and streaming places:
Patriot League Network (Lehigh Broadcast: Free)
ESPN3 (Lafayette Broadcast: Free if ISP provides it)
WMFZ 69 in the Lehigh Valley
Lafayette Sports Network (WBPH-60 in the Lehigh Valley Area and other networks across the country)
Fox College Sports Pacific (Live; Lehigh Broadcast; Available Nationally On Many Cable Systems)
Radio: AM 1230/1320 with Matt Kerr, Marty Horn, and Tom Fallon, Stream Here
I'd list other games that are being broadcast this day but - let's get real - there's only one game this weekend, right???
Breaking Down Lafayette
The first week of the season, I had the opportunity to sit in on Lafayette's game against Sacred Heart, since it was a night start after Lehigh's afternoon game. (Note to Phil LaBella: Thanks again for letting me in on such short notice.)
The offense I saw that first weekend was clearly one that was trying to find its identity - one that started junior QB Zach Zweizig, and honestly seemed to be looking at what might work with this particular squad.
You could say that this process went on this entire season for the Leopards, as they lost quarterbacks to injury, and ineffectiveness. But when they went to the "next man up", freshman QB Drew Reed, they found something out: that this kid can play.
The Lafayette offense didn't become the West Coast offense or anything - they still like to run the ball, and run it a bit more often than they pass it - but Reed's splash into the starting lineup was the burst of energy that Lafayette seemed to need in order to make this run that gives the Leopards this opportunity to win all the marbles.
If you look at Reed in highlights or in a game, it's real evident real fast that the freshman from Tennessee is a quarterback that has a great amount of physical gifts. He's got a great arm that can haul the ball 30 yards downfield to a receiver and he can also pass across his body surprisingly well. He's not a primary running threat like, say. former Lafayette QB Brad Maurer was, but he is big enough to get loose and make good things happen with his feet, so you can't just have your defensive linemen pin their ears back and assume he'll be in the pocket.
Head coach Frank Tavani had a glimmer in his eye when talking about Reed this week, saying how "nothing shakes him" and how composed he is, and how well he handles pressure. Certainly Lafayette has had a lot of pressure early in the year, and you have to believe that Reed will be able to take the pressure of this weekend's game in stride.
What has also helped the Leopards put themselves into this position is the fact that they now, finally, have a true feature back in junior RB Ross Scheuerman (928 yards rushing, 311 yards receiving, 16 TDs). He ranks ninth in the nation in all-purpose yards, and he's a speedy multidimensional threat that slips with ease to the outside as an outlet receiver. That's not to underplay his ability as a rusher, though, especially since Reed has established himself as passer that's a threat to throw downfield.
If Scheuerman is more of the speed guy, 248 lb senior RB Greg Kessel is the battering ram (163 yards) that they use to get the tough, physical yards, and senior RB Marcelus Irving (87 yards) also coming in to spell Scheuerman at times. Senior FB Pat Crehan is the prototypical blocking fullback, 6'1, 233 lbs, 1 carry on the year, and an occasional receiving threat out of the backfield.
Reed has one of the top receivers in FCS, senior WR Mark Ross (920 yards, 7 TDs) to throw to, a guy who is the Leopards' answer for senior WR Lee Kurfis, namely, a tough receiver that just knows how to get open and make the big yards. Starting on the other side of him is junior WR Mike Duncan (279 yards, 3 TDs), who to date has functioned more as a possession receiver. Junior WR Justin Adams (223 yards) and a host of other receivers have auditioned to be the biggest complement to Ross on the other side, with Duncan - to date - winning that battle this far.
Lafayette has a top tight end in the conference in senior TE Brandon Hall (368 yards, 1 TD), another key outlet for Reed, and 6'5, 260 lb senior TE Morgan Donohue is a key blocker and can also slip through and get a big reception or two as well.
Lafayette's ground game comes about thanks to their offensive line, and they've really come around the last few weeks, with senior OL Brad Bormann leading a unit with a beard that looks uncannily like the one of Lehigh's founder, Asa Packer. Against Fordham last weekend, the unit gave up 0 sacks, a crtical reason why the Leopards won.
A key reason Lafayette has improved so much in the past few weeks is that their patented multiple 4-3 defense has been producing pressure on opposing quarterbacks and generating turnovers that the offense has been able to turn into points. Three of their five scores last weekend against Fordham were set up by turnovers.
Tavani believes in running and stopping the run, which is why he stacks two giant 280 lb defensive linemen, senior DT Darius Glover and sophomore DT Steve Mercado, in the middle of the "D" line. That opens up senior DE Jake McTighe and junior DE James Coscia to wreak havoc on rushes - and they have, combining for 10 1/2 tackles for loss on the season.
The linebackers come from everywhere, and senior LB Ben Aloi (35 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), senior LB Mike Boles (76 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for loss), and senior LB Tyler Robinson (56 tackles, 5 1/2 tackles for loss) headline a very experienced unit that can come at you from a lot of different angles.
The pressure they put on Fordham's backup QB, QB Peter Maetzold, was a critical reason why they beat Fordham last weekend. If they get pressure on the quarterback, that makes the entire Leopard engine go.
That pressure has resulted in a lot of interceptions for Lafayette's secondary, who have shown remarkably few weaknesses in the last few weeks with sophomore CB Matt Smalley, freshman FS Draeland James, junior S Jared Roberts, and senior CB DeOliver Davis. Together, they've combined for 10 interceptions.
Sophomore KR Matt Smalley has been a revelation for the Leopards returning kicks. His 527 yards in returns - and 2 touchdowns - .make it an obvious choice to avoid kicking the ball his way on kickoffs, though with junior RB Ross Scheuerman on the other side maybe the best option for freshman PK Ryan Pandy is to boot the ball out of the end zone every time. Freshman PR Tim Vangelas returns punts, where he's averaged a respectable 6.1 yards per return.
Sophomore PK Ryan Gralish has been outstanding booting field goals, converting 9 of 10 this season, though he hasn't been tested outside of 40 yards. Freshman P Ryan Forrester has averaged 35.5 yards per punt, which is under the average of all of Lehigh's opponents this season.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. The War At The Line of Scrimmage. Lafayette's strength is defense, and specifically, the pass rush. Lehigh's offense gets going thanks to the big guys up front, like senior OL Matt Lippincott, senior FB Zach Hayden, and too many other players up front to mention. If Lehigh wins the war on this line of scrimmage, it will go a very, very long way towards Lehigh winning the marbles.
2. Minimizing Mistakes. In these Rivalry games, its's the mistakes that provide giant jolts of energy for the other team - interceptions, untimely penalties negating big plays, and the like. The team that minimizes these mistakes will put themselves in the best position to win the game.
3. Colgate head coach Dick Biddle. You probably weren't expecting this one. Every Lehigh football player, and a good portion of Lehigh football fans, remember the picture of Colgate's head coach, and the rest of his team, holding up the Patriot League Championship hats from Murray Goodman stadium, holding up the championship trophy. What it comes down to for Lehigh is: how badly do they want to make sure that it doesn't happen on Saturday, but this time, with Lafayette and head coach Frank Tavani?
It all comes down to this for all the marbles, against teams, at first glance, look very similar. Running backs named Sherman, or Scheuerman. Freshman quarterbacks, named Reed, or Shaf. Both teams have had big wins in November to get them to this point. Both teams have have adversity, losing starting quarterbacks.
But in truth, the teams are not similar.
Lafayette's defense, frankly, has been much, much better than Lehigh's, especially recently. They blitz a lot, and have created a boatload of turnovers. Though Lehigh has played better, they're not at Lafayette's level.
But Lehigh's offense, though, has been more potent than Lafayette's, too. Though Lafayette has some strong playmakers, and it seems like QB Drew Reed is a very good quarterback, it feels like Lehigh has more weapons to call upon to win a game, especially with the emergence of senior RB Keith "Tank" Sherman as a monster the last two games.
I think this game will be won, frankly, on the three "Keys to the Game" that I laid out.
Lehigh 32, Lafayette 30