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Game Preview, Lehigh at Colgate, 11/16/2013

(Photo Credit: Stephen Flood/The Express-Times)

Not that I'm counting, but it's been 369 days since Lehigh lost everything they worked for in the span of game of football.

You could say that it was just one loss in an otherwise stellar year.  After all 10-1 is 10-1, a season with a whole lot of success.  (Ask Lafayette whether they would trade many of their seasons for a 10-1 campaign, losing to Colgate and missing the FCS playoffs, but beating Lehigh.)

But it was one solitary loss - heck, one half - that was the difference between a Lehigh Patriot League championship, and none.  The difference between a spot in the playoffs, or none.  The difference between the sweet feeling of receiving championship rings, or none.

As it stands now, it's a giant game for both sides.  A Raider win gives Colgate the Patriot League title (sans Fordham) and autobid to the FCS playoffs.  A Mountain Hawk win allows Lehigh to survive, and continue, in their quest for the Patriot League title and autobid.

But Lehigh could have been 7-2 or 2-7 going into this November game in Hamilton, New York, and it still would have been a big game for this particular group of Mountain Hawk seniors.

It's funny how two different surrounding areas look at a huge Patriot League game.

It's probably too much to say that the Lehigh Valley is obsessed with Lehigh and Lafayette coverage, but aside from my own ramblings on the state of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, there's also the coverage from Keith Groller and Michael LoRe of the Morning Call and Express-Times, respectively.

Between the two they've written seven pieces on Lehigh football, including four pieces on Lehigh's 34-20 win over Holy Cross and three pieces previewing the big game up at Andy Kerr stadium.

Colgate' home newspaper, the Oneida Times-Dispatch, too, has Colgate sports coverage, but not this week.

Instead, the big news is opening of "Southern Deer Zone" on Saturday, meaning that deer hunting season (with rifles, instead of just bowhunting), is officially underway the same day as this weekend's clash.

Perhaps that's why Colgate Athletics decided to have a giveaway this weekend.

"The man wakes up and has a bowl of nails for breakfast... without any milk!" pretty much sums up the video, and sums up the man Dick Biddle - a great coach, and a consistent thorn in Lehigh's side in his 18 years in the Chenango Valley.

(Though I'm wondering if Colgate is going to regret having a giveaway for the first 1,000 fans at the ticket office with a bobblehead doll with the head coach holding up a presumptive Patriot League trophy.)

Lehigh and Colgate's programs are similar in a lot of important ways.  They're both Patriot League schools, of course, so their athletes have standards to meet in order to be true student-athletes.  They both pull from the same pool of football players, too, so generally one athlete that was recruited by one is also recruited by another.

Where Lehigh and Colgate differ the most, though, is the profile of their football team in the surrounding area.

Lehigh competes for sports attention in the Lehigh Valley, a metro area that includes Lafayette, Moravian, and Muhlenberg Colleges, not to mention a huge variety of high school sports.  The Mountain Hawks are blessed with two independent media outlets (three if you count Lehigh Football Nation) which covers nearly a million people.

Colgate competes for local sports attention in Madison County, a rural area which only contains one Division I school - which is, of course, Colgate.  There's one independent media outlet, and that's it - and frequently, they're a lot more interested in covering the sports exploits of nearby Syracuse than the Maroon team in their own county.  The size of their metro area is 73,000 people, or in other words less than 1/10th the size of the Lehigh Valley.

As a result, both schools are quite different in terms of the way they go through their football campaigns.

With all the media attention, you can follow Lehigh football news on a near-daily basis through the season.  If a starting quarterback gets injured, it doesn't stay secret for very long.

When Lehigh wins a thrilling game against Princeton, it's worthy of four or five articles, including the coverage of the student paper, the Brown and White.  For Lehigh, all the highs - and the lows, too - are documented in great detail.

But at Colgate, it's different.

The Raiders operate "under the radar" most of the time - if they lose a close game, head coach Dick Biddle won't have a gaggle of sportswriters on his case about why he ran on 4th down instead of passing the ball.

This can be a good thing.

It means that a Biddle-coached team can quietly prepare for their football seasons, and even make mistakes now and again, before playing the important games of the year in the Patriot League.

September losses for Colgate are not deal-breakers for the season up in Hamilton.  In fact, Colgate purposely schedules extremely challenging Septembers to prepare themselves for Novembers.

Last year, the strategy worked to near-perfection.

After starting the season 1-3, thanks to tough losses to Albany, Stony Brook, and South Dakota of the Missouri Valley, they put together seven victories to end the year, eclipsing the 40 point barrier six times in those games.

The only time they didn't was in their 35-24 win over to Lehigh, where the Mountain Hawks carried a 24-14 halftime lead but got physically overpowered in the second half.

This year, Colgate was one of two Patriot League schools that put an FBS team on the schedule, opening with a hard-fought 38-13 loss to Air Force.

They also had three CAA schools on the schedule, Albany, Stony Brook, and New Hampshire, and for good measure including a game with their central New York rivals Cornell for a change of pace.

This season the Raiders have not been the uber-dominating offensive team they were last year - in large part, thanks to injuries - but they've got the job done, entering this weekend 3-1 in league play with a one-game playoff to get to the postseason.

In fact, their challenging schedule - coupled with their running into the same Bucknell buzzsaw that Lehigh ran into, losing 28-7 - means they have the odd distinction of being in control of their championship destiny while still being winless at home.

“Obviously, it’s a disappointing loss,” said Colgate senior LB Austin Dier of their loss to Bucknell. “Give credit to Bucknell; they came out and played more physically than we did, controlled the clock and played good defense.  It is nice that we still control our own destiny. We’ve just got to get rolling and come out against Lafayette and be more physical. We just weren’t very physical up front on either side today.”

The Raiders then turned around and ended up beating Lafayette in Easton last weekend, 28-24, setting up the exact spot that Andy Coen and this Lehigh team, whether they realized it or not last year, found themselves last year.

"I thought the key thing we did on defense was to not let them run the ball consistently," Biddle said. "I liked that we won the game with defense, we got the defensive stops when we had to. We haven't done that all year."

It sounds eerily like their trip to Murray Goodman last season, when they came down to Bethlehem and "got the defensive stops that they needed" to win the Patriot League Championship against Lehigh.

“This game is very important to us; it’s another championship game,” senior OL Shane Rugg said. “We’re approaching every game like it’s going to be our last. You have to focus on the most important game and the most important game is this week.”

They also know that stopping, or at least slowing down, Colgate's running game is the only way the Mountain Hawks have a chance to win this weekend.

"We only allowed 91 yards rushing against Holy Cross, which was a season low," sophomore LB Matt Laub said. "I'm happy about that entering the Colgate game because they're a huge rushing team. They ran the ball 63 times out of 80 plays against us last year. It's something we really need to focus on.

While it might not be a rivalry with a big "R", the rivalry with Colgate definitely qualifies as one with a little "r", and has developed into one of the league's best in football, and the only thing that's clear is that this weekend will be one of those games where another chapter is written.

“When it comes down to championship implications, these have been the two teams [Lehigh and Colgate],” Coen said. “We’re in the same situation again. We’re looking forward to it. It’s a big task, obviously. You come to Lehigh to play football and to play games like this in November.”

"We will treat this like a bowl game," Biddle said this week on his weekly coaches' radio show.  "For us it's a one-game season, and we've put ourselves in a position to win the title. If we win, we're the champions, and it doesn't get any better than that.   It will come down to who makes less mistakes."

Game Notes

The biggest word in Lehigh's game notes this week is the word "or".

Andy did not name a starter at quarterback this week, instead opting to put that word "or" in between the top two QBs on the depth chart, junior QB Matt "Matty Ice" McHale and freshman QB Nick "Shaf" Shafnisky.

"I really don’t want to name a starter yet," he said. "I’m hoping both will be able to play. Whether it’s Matt or Nick who takes the first snap, I feel very confident in both those guys. They both did a really nice job Saturday."

Aside from that, the depth chart looks very to that of last weekend, with the only change being junior OL Matt Douglas sliding back into the starting guard position over senior OL Shane Rugg.

It's not clear whether we'll see senior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto suit up this week, as last weekend against Holy Cross he was in street clothes.

Weather Report

In Hamilton in November, you never know what sort of weather to expect.  Snow?  Freezing temperatures?  Games that start with the line, "From the frozen tundra of Andy Kerr Stadium..."?

According to Weather.Com, it's supposed to be a pretty gosh-darned great afternoon for football, a sunny day with temperatures in the 40s, with a high of 51.  That could be good for the Mountain Hawks, who don't appear built for frozen tundra.

Famous Colgate Alumnus You Didn't Know About

Colgate has a lot of famous alums, most notably, in my mind, the late Andy Rooney, whom was unforgettable on "60 Minutes", of course, but was also very much a Raider football fan.  A fond memory I have of him was an appearance on the Tim Russert show in 2003, where he talked about the Raiders as they were headed to the I-AA championship game.

But another great Colgate alum whom you might not know about is the actor Bob Balaban, a great character actor who also happens to have a terrific comedic sense as an actor.  If you haven't seen the Christopher Guest movie "A Mighty Wind" and seen Balaban's performance as a high-strung PBS producer, it's worth it.

LFN's Drink of the Week
This week's "Drink of the Week" posed a particular problem - a particular problem in that, I (for obvious reasons) didn't want to repeat the mistake of last year's Colgate "Drink of the Week", which resulted in a loss, and I couldn't pull out the big Yuengling guns, because I did that last week.

I didn't want to go with the drink two years ago, either (Red Death, the hugely high-alcohol drink that resulted in a win two years ago) because, dear Reader, I care about your health.

It is with that thought that I stumbled upon Fulkerson Pinot Noir, a New York State Pinot that isn't grown in the Chenango Valley - it's actually grown quite a distance west of Hamilton, in the Finger Lakes area - and the site helpfully tells us that "The Finger Lakes Pinot Noirs have the highest concentration of resveratrol of any region in the world according to Cornell University."  Good wine, good health - a perfect combination for a cold-ish tailgate in Hamilton.

(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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