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Game Preview, Lafayette at Lehigh, #Rivalry149, 11/23/2013

(Photo Credit: The Express-Times)

If there's one word we've heard a lot in the media, and from both schools this week, it's "marbles".

"We're playing for all the marbles," head coach Andy Coen said in the Lehigh Football Report this week, echoing what seems to be anyone following the game in the Lehigh Valley.

It is true that the winner of the game this weekend will be Patriot League champions, with a 4-1 conference record.

It is also true that the winner will, beyond a shadow of a doubt, head to the FCS playoffs this weekend.  (While Lehigh could sneak in the field with a loss, it seems real unlikely.)

But more than that, the winner of this yearly Rivalry battle will indeed win something more than just a Patriot League Championship trophy to keep in Bethlehem or Easton another year.

It really does feel like an old-fashioned game of marbles, where the winner really does take everything they were looking to achieve that season, and the loser comes away with none of the goals they set out to achieve and instead the have to wait until next season.

Most Rivalry games through time have been about The Game itself, with the regular season just a prelude to the one, season-ending game to either validate, or frustrate, the players and fans for the entire offseason.

But with the Patriot League's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs on the line for the winners this time around, you can add playoff implications to the overwhelming emotion, conference championship implications, and all the rest of the excess in and around the Rivalry.

Both head coaches mentioned the same word - adversity - in describing their teams' state through the 2013 season.

"From a coach's perspective and as a teacher and mentor, these are the kind of years that are really rewarding because you get to see kids develop," Coen said this week. "You get to see how kids go through adversity, whether it's personal adversity or watching their buddy go through something.

"How the kids have rallied around each other, how they have come together and become a team through that, that's what's most rewarding. To be 8-2 and having gone through a lot of things, I am very proud of this football team. The icing on the cake would be a win over Lafayette and the cherry would be the chance to go to the playoffs."

For Lafayette, their adversity had involved suffering through two starting quarterbacks, injury, and some tough losses during the early part of the season.

"We went through a lot of adversity, and a lot of teams would have packed it in," Lafatyette head coach Frank Tavani said on Tuesday. "A lot of people have written us off and nobody would believe, except us, that we should be here."

Playoff implications in the Rivalry are nothing new, though with all of Lehigh's and Lafayette's Patriot League championships over the last fifteen years, you'd think there'd be more games with playoff trips on the line.

Last season, a Rivalry win seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle for Lehigh to get an at-large bid to the playoffs.  But their 38-21 win over the Leopards didn't end up with the playoff implications Lehigh fans thought: at 10-1, they were denied the opportunity to compete.

In 2009, many - myself included - thought that all Lafayette needed to do was to beat Lehigh, and they were in the playoffs as an at-large bid.

One amazing overtime and an interception by LB Al Pierce later, Lehigh escaped one of the more classic Rivalries with a 27-21 overtime victory - and in many ways, set in motion the success that the Mountain Hawks have enjoyed ever since.  (Similarly, after falling out any chance at the postseason that year at 8-3, Lafayette's football program hasn't really recovered.)

You have to go all the way back to 2006 to find a game which was truly one that was winner-take-all, in head coach Andy Coen's first season at the helm, where he guided the Mountain Hawks to a 6-4 record and a 5-0 record in the conference.

Going into that game, it was clear: the winner was going to the playoffs, and the loser would stay home. 5-5 Lafayette, coached by Frank Tavani, struggled mightily in the first half of the season before turning it around dramatically in the second half, guiding the Leopards to a 4-1 record.

Both teams then are similar to the Lehigh and Lafayette squads today in that they both struggled a bit early but have come on in the last few weeks of the season.

But Coen saw his team get walloped 49-27, though the out-trenched Mountain Hawks did close the gap to 28-27 before the Leopards pulled away in the second half.

"Letting the Leopards drop 49 points on us is something that is incredibly disappointing," I wrote at the time, "with an eye-popping 6-for-6 in the red zone. Not to mention the 466 yards of offense. It was a bad day for us in "The Rivalry" defensively, to put it mildly. I can't remember a day when our defense got such a butt-whoopin'."

The Rivalry is truly a unique thing.  There really is nothing else like it.

Harvard and Yale (and, for that matter, Princeton) have the same level of football history.  But Lehigh and Lafayette are tied to their regions in a way that these other schools are not.

Michigan and Ohio State, USC and Notre Dame, Georgia and Florida, are big-time college football rivalries.  But Lehigh/Lafayette is more intimate, more accessible, than those games that involve millions and involve different States.

It gives the Rivalry the intimacy of a super-duper high school rivalry game, yet still big enough to feel like it has a national reach.  It's bigger, and smaller.  It's perfect.

For passionate alumni, "The Rivalry" signifies the last throes of the year before family items occupy the schedule, where the focus comes on turkeys, hams, and presents. The weekend before Thanksgiving offers the one chance a year many alumni get to see many of their own outside their busy lives.

It unites people - and not just alumni - in a unique way, the gathering of the tribes, one maroon, one brown.

For students, "The Rivary" means the nearing of the end of a semester of tough classes, which all comes together with an outpouring of directed energy.

It is a way to deal with the stresses of being away from home, being away from the nest, and to be individuals. It's the one thing that unites everyone who is or has been Brown or Maroon.

The energy, the volume of people that come together to gather in their tribes, whether they're one of the more than 16,000 fans in the stadium or the many more that follow the game elsewhere, make this a huge game for the players.

And that's without the Patriot League championship and FCS Playoff bid on the line.

Football is a game of emotion, and in a unique sort of game like this one, emotions will be running wild out there this weekend.  It makes the game hard to predict.  It is not hard to see either a Lehigh or Lafayette winning all of those marbles out there on anything - a crazy play, a flukey interception or fumble, or maybe even a fake punt.

It makes this game at once one on a wondrous stage, and at the same time one that should make fans of either team nervous as hell.

This is borne out by an odd silence between the two schools, at least on Twitter and the Internet universe.  The loathing, the dislike, is there, of course, but you get the impression that the taunting, and the heavier stuff, has been left off the taunting table.

It's as if the fans know this could be one of the classic games, with two well-matched teams with marbles to win, and don't want to put anything that could go on a bulletin board, even inadvertently.

Everything, and I mean everything, is pointing to this being a terrific game on Saturday.

Game Notes

There's that "or" again in the game notes.  With junior QB Matt McHale reportedly better, finally, from his bruised ribs against Holy Cross, the starting quarterback is officially McHale "or" freshman QB Nick Shafnisky, which remains an interesting development.  The possibility of playing both QBs at different times in the game has to remain an option.

Aside from that - and the nature of this game has to play a huge part - there are no other injuries listed on Lehigh's two deep, meaning these seniors will be starting in what could be their final games as Mountain Hawks:

Senior FB Zach Hayden
Senior OL Matt Lippincott
Senior OL A.J. Hood
Senior OL Shane Rugg
Senior LS Kyle Lechner
Senior RB Keith Sherman\
Senior RB Sean Farrell
Senior WR Lee Kurfis
Senior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto
Senior DL Rickey Layton
Senior LB Nigel Muhammad
Senior FS Tyler Ward
Senior CB Courtney Jarvis
Senior SS Rickie Hill
Senior P Tim Divers

Weather Report

It's been a strange, evolving weather forecast for this weekend, starting with a perfect, partly sunny day in the 50s to possible snow to a potentially cold Rivalry game with highs in the mid-40s.  Dress warm - and stay tuned for further updates.

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.

Since I've renamed the Bloody Mary the Bloody Leopard, and it's worked every other time I've used this as my "Drink of the Week" in The Rivalry -, I've concluded that to buck tradition now would be a huge mistake.  So by all means, enjoy your Bloody Leopards on Saturday 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.

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