When you take away The Rivalry, when you take away the emotions, when you take away the craziness, the energy - what do we have? When you look at the Xs and Os, what do you have?
Certainly, this game, like every Rivalry game, will be dictated and informed by emotion. You can count on the fact, as a Lehigh fan, that Lafayette will play out of their minds. For their seniors, it is guaranteed to be their last game played together as a team. For them, there is no practicing on Thanksgiving.
Countless football teams have taken this "300" mentality and turned it into wins. Quarterbacks that used to struggle to not get intercepted suddenly become the second coming of QB Tom Brady. Linebackers that didn't wrap up their tackles before suddenly become LB Mike Singletary. It can happen to Lehigh. Don't think that it can't.
That shouldn't stop us, though, from looking over the Leopards and seeing what they're all about. They will put together a gameplan to come away with victory. It's up to the Mountain Hawks to keep that from happening.
Lafayette's offense has averaged 19.5 points per game during the 2016 Patriot League football season, only eclipsing Georgetown's 15.6 points per game.
Certainly some of this total is affected by the fact that they went up against some tough competition, notably Army-West Point (62-7) and Delaware (24-6), but it also was on display during the last three games of the season, where Lafayette scored 17 points in one win (Georgetown, 17-3) and two losses (42-17 to Bucknell, 31-17 to Colgate).
The Bucknell and Colgate games in particular showed a familiar narrative for the 2016 Lafayette football season: fall behind by multiple scores, rally to make it close, then lose the game in the 4th quarter.
|Lafayette QB Drew Reed|
But the book on him is that he's struggled with interceptions, part of that has come from constant pressure from opposing pass rushes. He also never was the prototypical Lafayette dual-threat QB, with the running ability of (for example) senior QB Nick Shafnisky, which is a critical component of a successful Lafayette offense as has been constructed in prior years.
Another problem with the Leopards has been their inability to develop a consistent running game, which also has been a hallmark of sucessful Frank Tavani teams. His propensity to love old-school, smashmouth football has led Lafayette fans to dub him the "Frankasaurus", but his Leopard team hasn't been able to get it established much this year, at least in part due to a M*A*S*H ward of a running game.
In the last two weeks, Lafayette's top back, junior RB DeSean Brown, did not get the start, but this week he's sitting atop the depth chart, and last week, he got the majority of rushing attempts (15 carries, 91 yards, 1 TD), with sophomore RB Tyler West and freshman RB Mike Dunn getting rotated in as well. Overall, the Lafayette rushing offense has gotten only 694 rushing yards on the season - which is remarkable for a Leopard team who historically have depended on it so much.
Also somewhat surprisingly, though all three backs can catch the ball out of the backfield, they haven't done so much up until this point this season (with a grand total of 14 receptions between the two of them. I can say, if I were Lafayette's offensive coordinator, I would strongly consider reverting to that this week, but during the 2016 season, the Leopards haven't done so.
|Lafayette WR Matt Mrazek|
But it might be a fool's game to read too far into these numbers, because it isn't out of the realm of possibility that Lafayette puts things all together for this one bowl game. It happens, and if Lafayette converts 100% on 3rd down this Saturday, most Lafayette fans will conveniently forget about the rest of the season.
|Lafayette DT Andy Labudev|
Last year, the calling card of Lafayette was a strong defense in the mold of Bucknell, but with the Week 5 season-ending injury of LB Brandon Bryant, the heart and soul of that unit, the Leopards really started to suffer.
Even taking out the 62-7 outlier against Army, Lafayette's 4-3 defense has averaged giving up more than 30 points a game, including 58 to Fordham, 42 to Bucknell, and 38 to Colgate.
Most of the yardage they've yielded have come on the ground, where the starting front four of junior DE Beau Bosch, senior DE Colin Albershardt, freshman DT Demetrius Breedlove and senior DT Andy Labudev have yielded on average more than 254 yards on the ground per game.
In the pass game, however, this front four has been effective in getting to the passer, and it's worthy of mention that the front four, junior LB Michael Root, junior LB Rob Hinchen, and sophomore LB Jerry Powe, have led a defense that has 50 tackles for loss on the season. The Lafayette defense has a pass rush that can come from anywhere, and it's hard to stop completely, and a highly motivated front seven will be eager to let loose on Lehigh's quarterbacks.
|Lafayette FS Dreland James|
Sophomore PK Jacob Bissell has continued to develop very well as a kicker, going 8 of 11 on the season and two of his misses coming from over 40 yards. About half of his kickoffs have been touchbacks, which also says something about his leg as well.
Senior P Ryan Forrester is also a strong punter in regards to the Patriot League, averaging 41.6 yards per punt and forcing 9 fair catches. If this game were to get close, Forrester's punting and field position could come into play.
The return game has been average so far this year, with senior WR Tim Vangelas, sophomore RB C. J. Amil and freshman CB Eric Mitchell all receiving kicks this year. If Lafayette were to run one back in this Rivalry game, it could be a huge gust of wind in their sails.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. The Killer B's. The temptation is to try to air things out against Lafayette's pass defense, but I think a good strategy is to use the killer B's, sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone and sophomore RB Micco Brisker, to grind down the Lafayette defense. Add in some designed runs by senior QB Nick Shafnisky and junior RB Nana Amankwah-Ayeh, and that should be a strong gameplan in terms of attacking this defense.
2. Defensive Front vs. Lafayette O line. Lafayette's offensive line will probably try to do the same thing Bucknell tried to do - dominate the line of scrimmage, play a run-heavy, not-to-lose offense, that chews up time of possession. It's up to Lehigh's defensive front to win that trench battle and to make sure Lafayette continues to struggle running the ball. That will go a long way towards a win.
3. Jumping up early. Rivalries can be lost when a team is allowed to hang around and believe they have a chance. If I'm head coach Andy Coen and I win the toss, I'd be tempted to receive the ball first and try to jump out to a 3-0 or 7-0 lead. If the game can become a two-score lead early, it will be a lot easier to defend the Leopards.
What makes this game so frightening for Lehigh fans is the fact that technically, the Mountain Hawks don't have to win. Sure, it's The Rivalry. Sure, no matter what the outcome, Lehigh will be playing football and will still have at least a share of the Patriot League Championship. Would it be a fitting, resounding end to the Lehigh football regular season, good momentum for a possible home game in the playoffs, and good momentum for a playoff run? Yes. Do they have to win? Technically, no.
You have to believe that Lafayette will be playing with their hair on fire for the final game of their football careers. That alone makes them dangerous. Every page of the playbook will likely be used. That makes them more dangerous. Head coach Frank Tavani might be playing in his last Rivalry game. That makes them even more dangerous.
What Lehigh will have to do to ensure victory is to keep the emotions in check, and go about a sensible gameplan, one that calmly, and methodically, breaks them down - and work Lafayette's emotions against them. A quick lead feels like it's going to be very important.
But above all, do not sell the Leopards short. They are 2-8, and playing for their pride and their college football careers. If Lehigh keeps that in mind and does their jobs, they will win. Ironically, respect for their opponents will be the key to victory.
Lehigh 31, Lafayette 17