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#Rivalry152 Game Preview: Two Different Paths For Two Ancient Rivals

It is an easy narrative to point at the 150th meeting of The Rivalry as the turnaround for the Lehigh football program, where the Mountain Hawks got together after that bitter, bitter loss and decided that enough was enough, and that they were going to not allow their team to be a cellar-dweller.  

For Lafayette, though, you need to go back further, past some very enormous wins over Lehigh, and wonder. 

"I can't believe I typed it, but there it is," I wrote back in 2006 after a crushing 49-28 loss where Lehigh was dominated on both lines of scrimmage.   "We've lost three straight to Lafayette. and I've got some news: We're no longer the hunted. The sooner we realize that we now have to be the hunter, the better off we'll be."

The co-championship they shared with the Leopards that year had the feel of the worst consolation prize imaginable.  For the second straight year, Lafayette had stolen the FCS Playoff bid right from under the Mountain Hawks, and it was Lehigh left to sit at home to stew.  The post game press conference was as down and dark as could be, the double indignity of losing to Lafayette, and losing any chance at a postseason bid, at the same time.

It felt like Lafayette was on the brink of becoming permanent contenders for the Patriot League championship, meaning their torture of Appalachian State and UMass in the playoffs in consecutive years would be a regular happening over the next decade.  

But it never happened.

This year, Lehigh travels to Easton in their big Rivalry game, sitting at 8-2 and having already clinched a portion of the Patriot League championship, only seeking to remove the "co-" from the word "championship".  As emotions go, the Mountain Hawks couldn't be riding more of a high, winners of eight straight.

And Lafayette sits at the opposite extreme, sitting at 2-8 and wondering how they've gotten to this point, with only three wins over the last two years.

In 2006, the Lafayette football program looked like it was poised to be an unstoppable force, when head coach Andy Coen, in his first year at the helm of the Mountain Hawks, saw what looked like it needed to be a multi-year rebuilding job.  

Insert Empire Strikes Back Theme Here
An expensive temple to football at the Patriot League level, the Bourger Field House, was to be completed in the following year, a place which I called, in typical tweaking, Rivalry fashion, the "Death Star".

It would be wrong to characterize as the last ten years of Lafayette football as being devoid of life, or without cheer.  The record over the last ten years in The Rivalry is 4-6, with one of those wins, the win over the Mountain Hawks in Yankee Stadium, feeling like about six Rivalry wins instead of one.

But when history looks at this Lafayette football program over this period of time, they have to put on the record that the completion of the Death Star did not end up the epicenter of a Patriot League dynasty.  

Instead, once Bourger was completed, two near-misses for Patriot League championships and possibly playoff bids happened, followed by losing records in 2010.

Only one freakish Patriot League title - won with a losing overall record but an undefeated record in league play - was earned by the Leopards.  Five straight seasons Lafayette finished below .500, and this year, will be its sixth.

Ironically, what may have seemed to be a part of the problem is the focus on a one game season - which is what makes this game, as ever, dangerous for Lehigh.

Coah Coen has always described The Rivalry as it's own football season, almost completely distinct from the rest of the schedule.  But he has always separated the two, made sure that the overarching goal is a "second" season, not the only purpose of the season.

Conversely, Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani at times has made it seem like that The Rivalry is the be-all and end-all of the season.  One year, he had a running timer installed in the Lafayette locker room: one with the time until the next game, and another with the time until the Lehigh game.

That's a good an explanation as any as to why, over the last seven years, Lafayette has won some big games in The Rivalry but haven't enjoyed winning records overall.  Viewing the situation as an outsider, it feels like the regular season - and even the postseason - seems secondary in the order of goals over there, and that doesn't seem like a good recipe for Patriot League championship success.  At times, that seemed to work.  But it doesn't appear to be working now.

This Lehigh Team Remembers
Having said that, Tavani has been very, very good at managing the emotions of his team at Rivalry time, meaning that the Mountain Hawks always seem to face the absolute best of Lafayette whenever they play.  The question this year is whether Lehigh is looking ahead to a guaranteed game after The Rivalry, and whether they might not be expecting a Lafayette team that's breathing fire.

"You are not watching history; you are making it," Lafayette S Dreland James said earlier this week. "Regardless of whether it's [in Fisher Stadium] or in Yankee Stadium, regardless of whether we're 2-8 and they're 8-2 and they're going to the playoffs and we're not, understand you only get so many of these moments in your college career and you're fortunate enough to come to a school that plays in a phenomenal rivalry like this. If you can't get ready to play in Lafayette-Lehigh, I don't know if football is the sport for you."

It would be foolish for Lehigh to overlook that pride that Lafayette will be bringing into the 152nd meeting between the two schools.  But it doesn't seem like they will.

During the last three years, the Mountain Hawks had come off one disastrous season, and two others where Lehigh was agonizingly close to a Patriot League championship.  They remember the suck and the hurt of the loss to Lafayette in 2013.  They remember "the game that is not to be named," rumored to have been played in the Bronx a couple of years ago.

"The (class of 2017) took that day at Yankee Stadium as a wake-up call," senior LB Colton Caslow told Brad Wilson of Lehigh Valley Live. "We had to do something. The football culture had to change right then. We started to work our tails off and we knew it was not something we could do overnight."

Even in this season, after starting the season 0-2, it didn't feel like the conversation was going to be about Patriot League championships and playoffs.  "Maybe we have a chance if we get two wins out of the next three," I told somebody at the time, "and maybe we have a chance against the defending champs Colgate at home."

Though I never totally gave up hope, some did.  At Lehigh, for better or for worse, expectations are always high, sometimes ridiculously so, and three years without a Patriot League championship made some fans very restless.  It's the double-edged sword of playing at Lehigh - the rewards are great, but so are the expectations.  You're not going to coast through the classes, nor are you going to coast through your time on the team.

Then something happened at Franklin Field in Philadephia, where Lehigh was to take on the defending Ivy League champions.

Down 28-21 near the end of the first half, Lehigh drove the length of the field and tied it up on a 1 yard touchdown run by senior QB Nick Shafnisky with no time left on the clock.
The fans were in the stands, doubting.  They had seen this Lehigh team twice this year already, on the brink of turning things around, but coming up short.  All this Lehigh team needed was a stop against Monmouth, they said.  Nope.  All the Mountain Hawks needed was to convert that 4th down and 10 against Villanova, they said.  They got eight and a half yards.   
They had seen this last season, too.  Lehigh had the ball first and goal against Colgate, ready to tie the game near the end of a game that would have given them a chance at a Patriot League championship.  On 4th down, a few yards from the goalline, the pass would be batted down.  The Raiders won, clinching at least a share of the Patriot League championship. 
Why should this critical drive be any different?  Why wouldn't it also be a dollar short, like we had seen before?
The funny thing is, it wouldn't be a dollar short, a stop short, a yard short, a second short.  It would get exactly the right number of yards and, with 0.3 seconds left, either a touchdown or nothing the result, the Lehigh offense did not end up getting stopped short, and in so doing seemed to do a lot more than simply tie the game.
The Moment The Spark Happened
In the second half, senior LB Colton Caslow and senior LB Evan Harvey played like their hair was on fire, stopping the powerful Quaker offense cold in the second half. Lehigh would come away with a hard-fought, physical, 42-28 win, and in so doing brought a sudden confidence that everything was going to be OK.  The defense had the capability of putting the hammer down on opposing offenses.  Together, this team still had the capability to have meaningful games through November - and beyond Thanksgiving.

You know the rest of the story - seven straight wins, including six games where the offense would score more than 35 points.  A tough, but physically overwhelming, win over Colgate.  A shockingly complete win over Fordham.  Bucknell giving every last ounce of their being against the Mountain Hawks, but falling just short after a late 4th quarter sack by senior LB Pierce Ripanti.

As a result, Lehigh is playing this game to remove the "co-" from the championship, and might also be playing to send a message to the FCS Playoff subcommittee that perhaps one more home game at Murray Goodman Stadium in the playoffs would be warranted.  Though it's difficult to predict what the FCS subcommittee might do, a decisive win over Lafayette certainly wouldn't hurt.

Unlike some Lehigh teams that have taken for granted a win over their bitter Rivals, I don't sense hubris from this team about this upcoming game.  Unlike some of Lehigh's teams over the years, they have experienced both extremes; the highs of of this championship, the lows of the aftermath of the "game that is not to be named."

"We really need to throw the records out the window," senior OL Zach Duffy told Greg Joyce of Lehigh Valley Live. "This game is bigger than any of us, on our roster or their roster. This is the 152nd game. This is about the alums, this is about the history and tradition between the two programs."

Not enough is made of the rebuilding job that Lehigh had to make after the 2014 season - the loss of both starting running backs, one homesick, the other just physically torn up by injury.  The evolution of the defense, which took years to come together.  Shafnisky overcoming a nagging injury late in the first half against Fordham in 2015, an injury that lingered and affected the offense.  These players, I think, remember.  They remember the game that is not to be named, the celebrations in the Bronx.  Some other fans also remember 2013, the one where Lafayette fans rushed the field and hoisted the Patriot League trophy on Lehigh's soil.

PL Champion, But 1-2 vs. Lafayette
Competitively, those memories of past seasons are painful, despite the fun Lehigh is having this year.  This group of seniors, especially, I think, know the pain and the work they've put in to savor this moment.  I don't get the sense that they will let Lafayette, playing for their Super Bowl, their raison d'etre, ruin their moment.  They do not want to be Patriot League champions, and lose three of four to the Leopards.

"If we win this game, this group of seniors will end up being 2-2 against Lafayette and that's important," Coen told Keith Groller of The Morning Call this week. "I tell our guys that years from now and they come back here as alumni, they're going to be asked what their record was against Lafayette.  We have a luncheon for the seniors on Friday and we bring back our '50 game members' and our kids usually are very impressed by that and get choked up. It helps make them see how important this game is to everybody, including the people who have come before them. My slogan is 'Tradition never graduates' and that's what this week is all about."

And The Rivalry, as I well know, is funny.  It is possible that both coach Tavani and coach Coen are right that is its own season and its own bowl game, and it is possible that one side wants to win the game more than the other.  It's up to these players to keep that from happening, especially for these seniors.

Game Notes And Injury Report

With the bye week last week, Lehigh not only will enjoy being the healthiest they've been since opening weekend, but they also will welcome back sophomore ROV Kareem Montgomery and sophomore RB Micco Brisker, who both didn't play in the Bucknell game.  More good news also might be found with sophomore RB Dominick Bragalone, who was nursing some dings going into the Bucknell game but should now be much better going into the 152nd.

"This bye week really helped," senior OL Brandon Short said. "We had a couple days off and then getting back to practice was almost like a new season. We talk about Lafayette being a new season, but this bye week right before it enforced that. Practice on Friday and Sunday last week was almost like the beginning of the season again."

Weather Report

As Rivalry veterans know, every possible weather forecast is possible for Rivalry day.  Folks have seen ice bowl conditions, snow, sleet, but also rosy, beautiful temperatures, too.  It is looking like this year will be more to the side of warmth.

As of right now, the forecast is for an unseasonably warm 67 degree high during gametime.  Though chillier fall temperatures will occur in the evening, all signs point to a partly cloudy day with some moderate wind.  Lehigh has totally lucked out all year in terms of weather for pretty much all its games, and on the 152nd version of The Rivalry, it looks like this luck will hold up yet again.

LFN's Drink of the Week (#DOTW)

Definitely Dead Leopard Punch
Here at LFN, we have a tradition: if a Drink of the Week delivers a victory, it deserves a chance to deliver another.  Last season, I repurposed a blood orange mixed drink and called it Dead Leopard Punch.  It worked.

Not too hipster, not too gruesome, it still seems to hit the perfect note for a Lehigh victory over Lafayette.  Even though the name of this is technically Blood Orange Punch - c'mon.  It's not.  It's Dead Leopard punch.  Everyone knows that.

2 bottle blood orange juice
3 cans seltzer (or natural orange soda)
3 tbsp. fresh lime juice
8 oz. light rum
5 dash bitters
1 blood orange or orange

Fill ice cube trays with 1 1/2 cups orange juice, and freeze. To make punch, stir remaining orange juice, soda, lime juice, rum, and bitters into a 16-cup punch bowl. Before serving, add frozen orange slices. Add ice cubes as needed to keep chilled.

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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