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Game Preview, #Rivalry150, Yankee Stadium, 11/22/2014

I know it's been several years in the making.  I know we are almost at the eve of the biggest edition of the Lehigh/Lafayette Rivalry yet, the one in Yankee Stadium, the 150th meeting, the one I've been waiting for years to arrive.

Yet it's one play, one play, that I keep thinking about in the run-up to this game.

Bubble screen.

I keep seeing that bubble screen in the 149th meeting of Lehigh and Lafayette, the one that put the game out of reach, the one that turned Lehigh's bid for a championship last season become one that fell just short of a championship.

I keep thinking back to that game last year, with RB Keith Sherman somehow willing his way into the end zone with 8:49 to play.

It was a narrative that had played itself out so many times during that season - the team, left for dead, that would somehow, improbably, come from behind and beat you every single week, and with an eternity left in the game - almost nine whole minutes - anything seemed possible.

But along came a simple play call, one that Lehigh's own Dave Cecchini had called many times as offensive coordinator, that became a back-breaking Lafayette touchdown.

This wasn't the play, but it sure looked like this
The short, simple bubble screen wasn't a special play, just a quick out from QB Drew Reed to WR Demetrius Dixon, followed by a cut across the middle of the field through the interior linebackers, and once Dixon got to the secondary with some downfield blocking by WR Mark Ross, he was gone.

"We missed the bubble screen one other time," Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani said after the game.  "We were just trying to move the ball down. I don't know if we've ever thrown the bubble for a touchdown."

It was that bubble screen that seemed to start things going wrong for this Lehigh team, even into the 2014 season.

It started the season off on the wrong foot, with the Mountain Hawks giving up lots of yardage to two likely FCS playoff teams, James Madison and Villanova.  The same play that scored on Lehigh on that November afternoon in 2013 also created points and huge gains for those schools, and others.

Lehigh's defense has improved a lot since those tough games to start the season, but at a disappointing 3-7 they still haven't totally gotten over that bubble screen that put them where they are today.

Senior DT Tim Newton and senior NG Arturo Gyles stopping JMU
One year later, in the biggest game in their lives, Lehigh finally has the chance to fully exorcise the demons of that damned bubble screen.

It just so happens it's on the Rivalry's biggest-ever stage.

It's difficult to put into words what the Rivalry moving to the Bronx has meant this week.

The Rivalry has always, of course, been about a lot more than the game played on the field.  It acts as homecoming, class reunion, school pride, and a visit back to the old campus stomping grounds.  When head coach Andy Coen says "tradition never graduates," one of the traditions he's talking about is that weekend before Thanksgiving - the giant party, the homecoming, the reunion.

There were those that feared that the Rivalry would not be able to fill Yankee stadium, but that ended up not being the case - it's a sellout, and tickets are still not easy to come by.

There are those that feared that taking the game out of the Lehigh Valley would rip that feeling out of the Rivalry, but that doesn't seem to have been the case at all.  Both schools have set up loads of events in the Big Apple and set up shop in hotels in Manhattan and will be engaging in tons of activities today, tomorrow, and Saturday.  Notably, Lafayette's president, Alison Byerly, and Lehigh's new president, John D. Simon, will be ringing the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.

Well Okay, We'll put Maroon on the Other Side
That, and the happy announcement that the Empire State building will be sporting brown and white and maroon and white this weekend, has given the Rivalry something it hasn't had in quite a while: scale.

It's that scale that has made this an even bigger game than usual, despite the fact that the game isn't helping determine the Patriot League championship this season, much to everyone's chagrin.  (If it had, there's a pretty good chance that ESPN's College Football Gameday might have broadcast from Manhattan or the Bronx to honor both teams.  Proud, dedicated Lehigh alumni had been lobbying for it all season.)

You can sense the buzz from the scale of this game, the scale of the venue (the Yankees! The franchise with the most scale in Major League Baseball!) the game taking over the media capital of the world for a few days.

It's fun, and has done it's job - it's injected excitement into the Rivalry.  A one-time, once-in-a-lifetime event, and everyone seems to know it.

Including the players.

"I do believe in momentum carrying over (from last week's defeat of Colgate)," senior DT Tim Newton told Brad Wilson of the Express-Times this week. "Maintaining momentum is a key. This is the last game we'll ever play as a defense. Once we realized we couldn't win the Patriot League championship it's been all about beating Lafayette. It's being ready for the moment, using the energy from the crowd, all the people there proud to watch you. You have to give it all you've got, let it go in the last game."

Newton has played around the energy before for all three of his years at Lehigh, but the energy at Yankee Stadium might have some extra wattage.

Senior OL Ned Daryoush
"I can't fathom what it's going to feel like walking out of that tunnel," senior OL Ned Daryoush told Keith Groller of the Morning Call this week. "The biggest crowd I've ever played in front of was Liberty [in Lynchburg, Va.] my sophomore year when we had about 20,000 or so. This is going to be something I've never experienced before. It's going to be a weird feeling to have my last game in this environment, but I don't think I'd rather have it any other way."

Throughout Lehigh's disappointing 3-7 season, the constant has been Daryoush, a three-year starter that has missed exactly one game in those three years and has some NFL teams potentially interested in him after graduation.

But this Saturday, it's all going to be about the one game season, the one game with scale that will determine the championship that everyone cares about.

I'm just hoping I'll be able to bury my nightmares of that bubble screen forever after this Saturday.

Game Notes

All he does is catch touchdowns!
This week's game notes see the last football game of a whole lot of seniors, all of whom are healthy going into this epic game.  Senior WR Josh Parris and senior RB Rich Sodeke will be looked at to shoulder a whole lot of the offensive load, while, everybody now, what is senior TE Tyler Coyle known for?  (That's right - catching touchdown passes against Lafayette.)

Rounding out the seniors in the starting lineup are senior FB Mackenzie Crawford and senior LB Isaiah Campbell, as well as Gyles, Daryoush, and Newton.  Look to see a lot of senior WR Derek Gaul, senior DE Reed Remington, and maybe even senior WR Alex Buford and senior PK Nick Marcello as well.

(Incidentally, the story of LFN fave Alex Buford, an aspiring sports journalist, had an awesome writeup in the Express-Times this week in the run-up to the game.)

Weather Report

No, Virginia, we won't get the eight feet of snow that is currently blanketing Buffalo, but bundle up, because it's going to be cold, with a high of 41 and a low of 37 after the sun goes down.  Think Lehigh sweaters, not Lehigh chest paint, but then again, I'm not a current student.  (Am I getting old?)

Famous Lafayette Alumnus You Sort Of Knew About

Can't beat Phillies, can't beat Red Sox, can't beat Lehigh in football.  He's OK in my book
You probably know that Joe Maddon, new manager of the Chicago Cubs, was a Lafayette College alum.  What you probably didn't know, though, is that he also played football on campus - freshman football, that is.

Let's hope he's going to be in the Stadium on Saturday - when he was an undergraduate at Lafayette, the Leopards went on one of their many winless streaks against Lehigh in football (0-4).

LFN's Drink of the Week (#DOTW)

This week's Drink of the Week could not have been any tougher.  Bronx-themed drink?  Done that.  Cold weather beverage?  Old hat.  Yankee-themed drink?  No, Virginia, this Bud's not for you.

Somehow, some way, the #DOTW needs to be appropriate to the season, not too cold, but something to warm you up.  Thinking pumpkin, Thanksgiving.... got it!

The Pumkpin Pie Shot (thanks to features 1/2 ounce Irish Cream, 1/2 ounce amaretto, and 1/4 ounce cinnamon schnapps to give the perfect jolt of warmth as you file into the gate of Yankee Stadium.

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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