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Game Preview: Penn at Lehigh, 9/19/2015

Some college football opponents, no matter how many games between actual meetings, feel like backyard brawls.

Such is the case with the Penn game this weekend.

On paper, it's been twelve years since Lehigh has faced off against Penn.  The head coach in that game in 2003, Al Bagnoli, retired just last season, only to "unretire" at Columbia in an effort to turn around the moribund Lion program desperate to distance themselves from the Pete Mangurian error era.

On the surface, it would seem like much has changed - that little would remain from the remnants of that 2003 game in terms of links between the two schools.

But you'd be wrong.

When you look at this upcoming Lehigh and Penn game, you'll see a lot of faces - old and new - that show that this rivalry - with a little r - is rekindling itself at exactly the right time.

In regards to football athletes, Ivy League kids and Patriot League kids are largely recruiting the same types of kids: student leaders, great students, and great athletes.

This fact of life means that Penn coaches and Lehigh coaches sometimes are recruiting the same kids in their same living rooms, against each other, giving the reasons why their university is the right choice for them.

A Very Large Reason To Go To Penn
This takes on additional meaning in regards to Penn when it comes to athletes who want to become business majors.  Lehigh and Penn both attract business majors, and both bring up their respective business schools: while Lehigh can't boast a business school as world-renowned as Wharton, they do have a very strong business school.

What ends up happening is that a lot of kids that look like they could have been Penn students suit up for Lehigh, and vice versa, making for some extra emotion for the athletes trying to stick it to the school that they didn't want to attend.

There's also that history thing, too.

In 1884, Lehigh founded its first intercollegiate football team.  Their very first opponent was Lafayette (twice), followed by Rutgers and Haverford.  To lead off the 1885 season, Lehigh's first opponent was Penn, making them the fourth school to ever play Lehigh in football.

Like Lafayette, Penn made for a great opponent for Lehigh because they were a short train ride away, and as a result they could play each other twice in one season, one at home, one away.  That's precisely what Penn did in 1885 and 1886, until the founder of Lehigh football, J.S. Robeson, unleashed the "Lehigh V" mass momentum play on them in Bethlehem in 1886, giving Lehigh's first win in this rivalry, 28-0.

A Typical Lehigh/Penn Game In the 1950s?
Most years through 1891 Lehigh and Penn played home-and-home series, including several that were for the "Championship of Pennsylvania" series that never fully came to fruition.  But once the construction of Franklin Field was finished in 1895, Penn never returned trips to Bethlehem to play football.  Whenever the Quakers wanted to play football against the Engineers, it was going to be at the home of the Penn Quakers, the Penn Relays, and the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.

Lehigh went winless against the Quakers since Franklin Field came into existence,
and didn't beat Penn in the modern era until a quarterback named Joe Sterrett faced off against the Quakers at home and guided Lehigh to their first win over Penn in 86 years, 34-23.

Sterrett, now Lehigh's athletic director, will not be the only person at Murray Goodman Stadium at 12:30 PM for the Mountain Hawks' home opener with a history with Penn.

Lehigh's head coach, Andy Coen, was on Al Bagnoli's staff at Penn from 2000-2005, at the same time as Penn's new head coach, Ray Priore, was in his long, 28-year stint as a coach of the Quaker defense.

"In the six years I was there as the offensive coordinator, he was the defensive coordinator," Coen told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. "Ray has been there for 28 years. So, he has been a good soldier waiting for his opportunity. I'd wish him luck against anybody except us. He's a fiery guy and he'll have his kids fired up to play."

Additionally, Penn's new defensive coordinator, Bob Benson, is also quite familiar with Lehigh - he was head coach at Georgetown from 1993 to 2005, a time when the Hoyas became members of the Patriot League.

So you could say that even at the coaching level the ties between Lehigh and Penn are strong - and make the game maybe just a bit more emotional than just any old regular season opener.

Then there's also the element of surprise.

How Will They Line Up?
Priore will be coaching in his first collegiate football game, meaning that Lehigh will be the very first team that will see what type of offense and defense the Quakers will be in 2015.

"We seem to always be in this bind with our third game being against an Ivy team starting its season," Coen said. "One year, we faced Princeton when it had a new coaching staff and we had to scramble blind there on both sides of the ball."

Coen hopes familiarity will help a bit.

"Defensively, Penn will probably be similar to what they were a year ago because Ray was there running the defense," Coen continued.  "But I was disappointed that it wasn't the same defense they ran when I was there. The more concerning side is our defense against their offense. Their offensive coordinator John Reagan had been at Kansas, Air Force and Rice. And there's a lot of [spread] option football involved with that. When you go against a [spread] option team, you really have to be dialed into what they're doing."

Penn head coach Ray Priore talked a bit about the challenge of following a legend this week.

"The biggest challenge is taking a look at your strengths and weaknesses and bringing in new staff members and trying to plug players in on offense and defense," he said.  "I think we've put together a phenomenal coaching staff staff with a lot of experience, from former head coaches to coaches from the Big XII, Conference USA, and I think we have a very hungry team.  Nobody is happy where we were from last year.  I think those our strengths."

Priore noted that for the first time, more kids stayed over the summer for workouts, something that didn't always happen under coach Bagnoli.

"My focus is: What does tomorrow bring?," he said.  "You have to have your next-level kids stepping up, and believing each other, and then good things will happen."

What could also help Lehigh is a big home crowd, eager to see the Mountain Hawks take the field and get some momentum back after their 55-17 setback last weekend versus James Madison.

A win here gives Lehigh a head of steam going into two Ivy League games that promise to be big challenges, Princeton and Yale.  A loss will make it that much harder to get things going.

Penn's schedule also has an interesting quirk - it's going to be the first of two games in five days.  Penn will face off against longtime rival Villanova on Thursday, thanks to the Papal visit to Philadelphia this weekend.  Not that it should affect their preparations for the first game of the season, but preparing for a Top 5 team in during a short week can't help matters much.

Unlike Harvard, Penn has consistently played brutal out-of-conference schedules.  This season, Penn plays two Top 25 teams, Villanova and Fordham.  Going undefeated with their schedule would be a terrific accomplishment that would certainly garner them legitimate Top 25 consideration.

But for Lehigh, a win over Penn would be more than just any old win.  It would be a win against a school that has been a historical rival with Lehigh (with a little 'r'), looks a lot like Lehigh, against athletes that could be Lehigh athletes, with coaching staffs that have been intertwined and competing against each other for more than a decade.  A win would give serious annual bragging rights for a lot of people, a very important factor that shouldn't be ignored in this competition this weekend.

Game Notes & Injury Report

Unfortunately for Lehigh, injuries are going to be a paramount concern, especially on defense.

At Rover, senior LB Laquan Lambert has been confirmed to be out with an "undisclosed" injury incurred at the Central Connecticut State game, a leg issue (possibly an ACL tear).   But three more defensive injuries, to junior LB Joe Barrett, sophomore DE Tyler Cavenas and sophomore S Quentin Jones, are also of great concern because defensive coordinator Joe Bottiglieri will need to shuffle in some unproven names into the two deep.

The Doctor Will Be In On Saturday
This week's two deep shows senior DE Matt Laub and sophomore DE Harrison Johnson on the list, so it looks like speed will replace Cavenas' bulk on the defensive line.  Senior LB Randall Lawson continues his work at Rover, with junior LB Evan Harvey also stepping in behind him on the two deep.  Senior S Stephen Wilmington or freshman S Sam McCloskey takes over Jones' spot on the offense as well, making Lehigh Nation exhale a bit and be thankful that guys with a fair amount of starting experience are able to fill in at the top.

On the plus side, star sophomore WR Troy Pelletier is finally 100% after the knock he took in the Central Connecticut State game.  Look for him to have a very big day in the home opener.

Weather Report

Currently. the weather report couldn't be predicting a more perfect day for the home opener.  High of 81, abundant sun, in other words, a spectacular weather day.

Famous Penn Alumnus You Didn't Know About

Is that some Lehigh Blogger Breathing Down My Neck?
He's an author people love and hate, all at the same time.

Chances are you're heard of Buzz Bissinger's famous book "Friday Night Lights", even if you've never seen a picture of the 60 year old sportswriter.  A former radio host, columnist, defender of traditional media, and general agent provocateur, Buzz' style of writing is personal and delving at the same time, if a bit self-important at times (which doesn't at all resemble the writing of a Certain Football Nation blogger, certainly.  Certainly.)

Most recently he has endured the wrath of Penn State fans about the whole Jerry Sandusky/Joe Paterno mess, though his main crime seems to have been to have to be a bit strident, in his Buzz Bissinger way, in his condemnation of both Paterno and the "Penn State culture".

Buzz isn't only a world-famous writer on the correct side of history in the Penn State scandal - he's also an instructor at Penn this semester, teaching Advanced Nonfiction Writing at Penn.  He's also giving a great opportunity to a Penn student, sponsoring a writing residency at their vacation home in Washington State.  (Though I'd love to sponsor a writing residency, probably best if I actually had a vacation home first before I offered it.)

LFN's Drink of the Week (#DOTW)

Thanks to my loyal readers, I get great #DOTW ideas at times, and this week we get a great one to commemorate Penn's "Championship of Pennsylvania" years in the 1880s.

I wasn't aware that The Pennsylvania was an actual drink, but indeed it is - and, happily, it's extremely easy to make, with four parts rum (the recipe calls for Cuban rum; I am not that picky;) 1 part pineapple juice, and 1 part grenadine.  Personally I would also consider removing 1 part rum and adding another part of something less sweet, for example, lemon juice.

I'm looking at this picture from the article, and it's very easy to see this martini glass as a type of trophy for the winner of the Penn/Lehigh game every time it's contested.  Perhaps even with a slice of toast along the rim.  Too bad my photoshop skills are not up to the challenge.

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.  And leave plenty of time to sober up.  It's going to be way too nice an afternoon - and evening - to get arrested.

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