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Lehigh At Penn Narrative Street: The Franklin Field Hex

Saturday's game is a personal landmark for head coach Andy Coen: it marks the first time he's coached a Lehigh team at Penn since he was hired there from Al Bagnoli's staff back in December of 2005.

He'll be facing off against another former Bagnoli assistant coach, Ray Priore, who was a defensive coordinator at Penn when Andy was an offensive coordinator there.

Franklin Field, then, becomes one of the big #NarrativeStreet storylines going into Saturday, and for Lehigh, not a good reason.

Since 1895, when the enormous field was built in downtown Philadelphia, Lehigh has won exactly four times at the iconic venue, and the overall Brown and White record there is 4-28.  Along the way, among the many losses by Lehigh there, came one recent one in particular that snapped a long Lehigh regular-season winning streak.


"The football game between Lehigh and the University of Pennsylvania, postponed from last Saturday on account of the weather, was played on Franklin Field yesterday afternoon," The Brown and White archives say of Lehigh's first trip to Franklin Field in 1895.  "About 4,000 persons witnessed the game.  The day was an ideal one for football, but the field was in anything but an ideal condition.  It was very soft and muddy and small pools of water stood in many places, thus giving the team with the most weight considerable advantage."

With that "weight advantage" and effective use of "interference" behind the line, Penn's huge line and daunting backs rolled up a 54-0 win over Lehigh.  The undefeated eleven of Penn would be a national powerhouse that year, rolling up 14 wins and pretty much removing any doubt that they should be considered, unofficially or officially, the national champions of that year.

Lehigh was one of the first four teams to play at Franklin field, which has been designated by the NCAA as the oldest stadium still in operation for football games.  Originally built for the Penn Relays,  it also was the first venue with a permanent scoreboard, something that most likely wasn't too pleasant for Lehigh that afternoon.

Lehigh was one of the first four teams hosted by Penn in their stadium:  Swarthmore was the first, Bucknell second, and Franklin & Marshall third.

To get there, Lehigh students took a reduced rate train run by the P & R railroad from South Bethlehem to Philadelphia, taking the same 8:45 AM train that the players and coaching staff took.  In that way, it was a win/win for both the railroads and the athletic department: a guarantee of a filled train for the railroads, and a cheaper price for a block of fans.

Lehigh would have to wait 81 more years before winning their first game at Franklin Field, in 1976.

"Just when it looked like costly errors had doomed the Engineers to defeat, QB Mike Rieker spearheaded a fourth-quarter rally to edge the Quakers of Penn, 24-20, Friday night in Franklin Field," The Brown and White reported.  "The crucial play occurred on third down and thirteen from the Penn 42, when WR Steve Krieder cut over the middle and snared a 17-yard Rieker aerial."

FB Rod Gardner scored the historic go-ahead touchdown with a plunge at the 2 yard line, whose team, coached by legendary coach John Whitehead, was a year away from Lehigh's first (and only) NCAA championship in football, the 1977 D-II National Championship.

There has been only one blowout win by Lehigh at Franklin Field, a 35-6 win by Lehigh in 1980.

The rest of the games between the two teams in the modern era have been tight affairs, Since that game, every game at Franklin Field between Penn and Lehigh had a five point or less difference between the two teams.

A particularly tough Lehigh loss at Franklin Field came in 2002, a game I attended.  It was a beautiful night, a bit humid, and the Lehigh side had a fairly good turnout in the cavernous stadium.

Riding the longest regular-season winning streak in the country at 26 games, the No. 4-ranked Mountain Hawks couldn't overcome five turnovers, and despite a blocked punt returned for touchdown by RB Eric Rath, a late FG attempt would sail wide right and the 24-21 upset win was complete.

The team Lehigh faced was the one that had Priore and Coen on the coaching staff, but that's not something that senior LB Evan Harvey is too concerned about.

"I've never been to Franklin Field, but I've heard a lot about it and I have been to Philly a lot of times  and I'm a big Eagles fan," Harvey told Keith Groller of The Morning Call. "It's a big game. It's the biggest game of the year so far. It's going to be a great atmosphere. They're going to bring a lot of energy, but that's fine because we're going to bring a lot of energy as well. We've got to go down there and take care of business."

*****

Evan's story at Lehigh on why he has the Number 4 is a great one, one that was recently highlighted by a tremendous piece in The Brown and White.
This season, Harvey wears the No. 4 across his jersey in remembrance of a lost friend. Harvey dons the number in memory of Greg Bryant Jr., a former friend and teammate from high school who unexpectedly passed away last spring. 
“Junior year of high school, I was on the verge of losing my love for the game that I had played since I was 4 years old,” Harvey said. “(Bryant) encouraged me to transfer to his high school, American Heritage. I followed his advice and enrolled my senior year.” 
Harvey’s year at American Heritage ended up being the best season of his life with the help of Bryant and his father. Bryant’s father was his position coach and the greatest factor in helping him hone his skills, while Bryant was one of the best football players he had ever played with. Without the two, he says he wouldn’t be the football player he is today. 
“When I think of the number four I think of (Bryant) and think that his life and the possibility of him playing at the next level was cut short, and that really gives me my ‘why’ this year … other than the fact that I love football,” Harvey said. “I definitely want to pay homage to him and his family and make him proud as he watches over me this year.”
(I'd encourage you to click the link above and read the whole article, which also talks a bit about senior WR Trevor Soccaras and why he has the number 84 on his jersey).

****

The other student-athlete featured this week was sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone, a huge part of Lehigh's solid game last Saturday and, upon further review of the highlights last week, a big standout performer.  Both Lehigh Valley Live and The Morning Call had pieces on him.

"We had a lot to work on after the first week and we worked hard to fix our mistakes," Bragalone told Keith Groller. "We still have things to work on and this week should be even better. We just have to focus on reading our blocks."
"He's the type of guy, he wants the ball and he wants to bang around," Coen said. "He's like  RB John Riggins type of guy: you kind of get better the more carries you get."
Bragalone racked up six 100-yard rushing games in his freshman campaign, the first in a 129-yard and one-touchdown outing against Princeton in Week 4.
It's the small school football player inside of him that keeps him pushing.
"I do have a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I feel like me playing (Class A) really affected my recruiting. But I'm happy where I'm at now. I love Lehigh and I just want to prove to everyone that I'm able to do it."
****

“Obviously the most important thing for our football team right now, any way we can do it, is to find a way to win,” Coen told The Brown and White. “We are coming off of two tough losses, particularly the one last Saturday (against Villanova) because that was a game we really had opportunities to win and just didn’t finish the job.”

There's also a specific linkage between Penn and senior NG Jimmy Mitchell, as observed by Philly.Com's Mike Kern:

Speaking of personal, the 0-2 Mountain Hawks (who nearly won at Villanova last week) are coached by Andy Coen, who was also an assistant at Penn back in the day. This will be Lehigh's first game at Penn since 2002.
And then there's senior OT Nick Demes, one of Penn's captains. One of his best friends back home in suburban Chicago is Lehigh nose guard Jimmy Mitchell. Not only will the two probably get to hit each other a few times, but the trash talk has been going on since last September. If you're Demes, maybe that's a little too long to have to take. Even if it's among buds. Or it could be that just makes things worse.
"He's talked me up a bit on last year's result," Demes, a three-year starter, said with a smile. "I'd be lying if I said part of (the motivation) wasn't trying to get back at him. As a team, we're just looking to play our best. I know that sounds cliché. If we were playing a team we beat last year, it would be the same preparation. But we recognize what happened."
So . . .
"I talked to (Mitchell) last weekend," he went on. "He's in the middle, I'm on the end. We made some contact last year. That's my brother, but I'm going to be getting after him on the field. Afterward, it'll be all good. Until then, it's all business.
"He's come down to Penn a couple of times, I've gone up there (Bethlehem). It's nice to have someone from home nearby. But I've had to listen for 12 months. It's obnoxious. My friends back home are telling me all about it. There's not much you can do until you get another shot. We're all pretty competitive."

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