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Know Your 2015 Opponents: Penn

Lehigh's relationship with the schools of the Ivy League go all the way back to the 1880s.

Yes, really.

In 1885, Lehigh's fledgling football team opened the season with the University of Pennsylvania, who throttled the Brown and White 54-0.

1887 was the year that Princeton first squared off against Lehigh, throttling them 80-0

And it would be 1890 when Yale first hosted Lehigh, 26-0 winners.

These three traditional Ivy League football opponents appear on Lehigh's football schedule for 2015 and will be a critical litmus test for this your Mountain Hawk football team.

But one opponent stands out more because of the fact that Lehigh hasn't played them in more than a decade.

We're going to be talking today about Penn, a rival (with a little r) that hasn't faced off against Lehigh in over a decade.

Penn and Lehigh share a long tradition as football opponents.

These Guys Lost to Lehigh In 1889
It was the Quakers who were the first victim of the mass-momentum play that the founder of Lehigh football, J. S. Robeson, created.  The "Lehigh V" was unleashed on an unsuspecting Penn team in 1886 and resulted in the Brown and White's first-ever win over them, 28-0.

That win would ring in the arrival of Lehigh as a legitimate football program.

In 1889, Penn, Lehigh, and Lafayette competed against each other as opponents in the "Championship of Pennsylvania", where each team would play each other in a home-and-home series for an actual silver trophy.  Despite the fact Penn competed with adult twenty-somethings with only a marginal link to the university, Lehigh would split against Penn - and win the "championship".

(You can read all about that series in my book, The Rivalry, which should be available in print sometime in the next two weeks.)

After those two high-water marks, however, Penn dominated Lehigh in the golden era of college football.  From 1890 to 1932, the Brown and White wouldn't only lose every game they played against the Quakers - only once would they score more than two touchdowns in a game.

After stopping the series, the Quakers and Engineers decided to renew their rivalry - with a little 'r' - in 1964.  The prior year, perhaps in response to some tough years, first Lafayette, then Lehigh, showed up on their schedule.

The overall trajectory didn't change much about the Lehigh/Penn "rivalry", as Lehigh kept losing.

Until 1975, the series was as lopsided as ever - until a quarterback named Joe Sterrett suited up for the Engineers.

"Victory Over Penn Ends 86 Year Jinx" read The Brown and White headline as Sterrett's squad beat the Quakers 34-23.

"For the first time since 1889," the article read, "the Engineer gridders defeated the University of Pennsylvania.  The 34-23 victory, set up by a 21 point outburst in the fourth quarter, ended a 34 game losing streak to the Quakers."

After that 1975 win, Lehigh would make up for lost time against Penn, winning 10 of the next 14 meetings.

Two of those losses, though, were very tough to swallow.

In 2002, Lehigh was riding the longest regular-season winning streak of the nation at the time of 26 straight games before travelling to Franklin Field for a night game against Penn.  Though the game was a nail-biter, in large part to a blocked punt returned for touchdown by RB Eric Rath, Lehigh's winning streak was broken, 24-21, by the Quakers.  QB Chad Schwenk was replaced by QB Matt Shiels in an effort to spark a comeback, but it was too little, too late.

When Penn beat Lehigh in 2002 it looked something like this
"I want to compliment the Penn football team," then-coach Pete Lembo said in the post-game press conference.  "They made the big plays, especially in the first half.  I'm extremely proud of our defense.  To hold Penn to 24 points given the bad field position our defense was in was a tremendous effort.  The bottom line is, you can't commit five turnovers against a good team like Penn and expect to win".

The following season, Penn's would win a return match at Murray Goodman the following year in 2003 - the only two games coach Lembo lost against Ivy League teams in his entire Lehigh head coaching career.

Then the games against the Quakers stopped.

It all started with a scheduling issue.

In 2004, Lehigh was slated to play Penn in Week 4 of the season.  However, Penn scheduled a different game during that time, and neglected to tell the Lehigh athletic department about it until the last possible minute.

If it weren't for then-coach Pete Lembo's relationship with one of his former mentors, hall-of-fame Albany coach Bob Ford, it's likely the Mountain Hawks would have had to have a 10 game schedule in 2005.  Instead Lembo and the athletic department were able to schedule Albany in place of Penn, who then competed in the limited-scholarship NEC conference.

It led to a frosty relationship between the two schools.

It may not have helped that the offensive coordinator for the Quakers during those two victories, Andy Coen, would succeed Pete Lembo at the conclusion of the 2004 season.

See You In October, Coach Priore - Al
That frostiness remained until this season, when finally Penn reappears on Lehigh's schedule for the first time in over a decade.

Lots has happened since then between Penn and Lehigh, not least the retirement of Penn's long-time head football coach, Al Bagnoli.

Last April, Bagnoli announced that he was going to retire after the 2014 season at the age of 62, at which point he would hand over the reins to his longtime head-coach-in-waiting, defensive coordinator Ray Priore.

After a frankly disappointing swan song season, where he went 2-8, Bagnoli stunned many Ivy watchers when it was revealed that he would be coming out of "retirement" to become Columbia's next head football coach.

It wasn't something that surprised Princeton head coach Bob Surace, though.

“I couldn’t imagine him sitting at a desk all day without just pulling his hair out,” Surace told The New York Times. “He’s a competitor, his teams have always been competitive. It was always, for us, such a big game because you knew you were going to be in for a dogfight no matter what team was better than the other."

One of the more interesting storylines in the Ivy League this year is now when Penn faces off against Columbia in October.  Two new teams, mentor vs. assistant.

*****

New Penn QB Will Fischer-Colbrie 2nd from left (Broomfield Enterprise)
Lehigh plays Penn in their home opener at 12:30 PM on September 19th.

One of the great myths of playing against Ivy League teams is that they're vastly inferior to, say, Delaware in terms of talent, and they always play four-year players.

Penn's latest press release puts that notion to bed, though, as they announced two transfers from Power 5 schools, including a player who could possibly be the Quaker's starting QB next season.

QB Will Fischer-Colbrie comes from Colorado, where QB Sefo Liufau seemingly has the starting position cemented down for the Buffaloes.

He should be immediately in position to compete with the incumbent starter, junior QB Alec Torgerson (2,689 yards passing, 61.8% completion percentage, 18 TDs).  The rest of the skill positions on offense, however, will be seeing a lot of youth in those positions.  Junior RB Brian Schoenauer (206 yards, 1 TD) and sophomore WR Justin Watson (487 yards, 2 TDs) are the top producers from last year's offense that are returning.

The defensive transfer student comes from Syracuse, a linebacker named LB Colton Moskal.

Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer stated, according to this article, that Moskal was looking to transfer closer to his home in Lake Zurich, Illinois.  Philadelphia is no closer to Illinois than Syracuse, and the Quakers play no football games outside the Northeast, but nonetheless Moskal will be playing on Penn next season.

Moskal should be able to team up well with Penn's second-leading tackler, senior LB Nolan Biegel (58 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss), to shore up the Quaker defense, which was 109th on all of FCS in terms of total defensive yards allowed.

In the end, Penn is a school with a first-time head coach, playing against a school (Lehigh) with a head guy that was a former Penn assistant coach, in the home opener of a school whose athletic director, Joe Sterrett, stopped Lehigh's 86 year winless streak against them in 1975.

That alone will make this game on September 19th one to watch.

Like Lehigh, Penn will be looking to recover their winning, championship ways with their trip to Muray Goodman.  The winner of this game may be well on their way to that goal.  The loser will be left with a lot of work left to do.

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