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1st Round FCS Playoffs Game Preview: Lehigh at Stony Brook: Playoff Return To Long Island For First Time Since '99

I remember the last game Lehigh played on Long Island; I was there. 

It also happened to be a FCS Playoff, or back then, I-AA Playoff, game. 

It wasn't against Stony Brook, who finished their very first season in I-AA that year with a 5-5 record and a win over St. John's (NY), 28-6.

It was against a team that used to be the biggest college football program on Long Island - an East Coast independent, Hofstra, that was led by head coach Joe Gardi.  Like Stony Brook, Hofstra had transitioned to I-AA football, but they had done so much earlier, and even with the challenge of scheduling as an independent, had developed into a playoff team quickly.

Hofstra used to have a national presence on the football stage.  Jets fans marveled at the diminutive WR Wayne Chrebet, and fell in love with his story - the local boy who led the Dutchmen in receiving, but only was on the Jets because he hustled his way into a tryout.  Legend has it that the security guard at Jets training camp stopped him on the Hofstra campus, not believing that he could possibly be a NFL wide receiver at 5 foot 10 - despite his success on that same field.

That was a big part of the story of Hofstra's football program, and 1999, when Lehigh played the Dutchmen in Long Island might have been Hofstra's peak not only as a football program but as an athletic program.  Since then, Stony Brook has passed Hofstra in about every measurable way, but in 1999, Hofstra, who was still looking for a football conference after the Patriot League would still not offer them an invite, loomed as Lehigh's opponent.

"Hofstra wants to add to this trophy case," Carl Rueter and Marty Lyons said at Shuart Stadium during their Fox Sports Net broadcast of the game back in 1999.  "We're talking about championship hardware, should they get to that championship game," as Marty, wearing a carpenter's belt, tried to find room in Hofstra's case for a hypothetical NCAA I-AA National Championship plaque.  (Thanks to the wonder of the internet, a video of the entire broadcast lives on the internet - the first half and the second half.)

For my part, I was happy to round up my friends again to head to Hempstead to see if Lehigh could win another I-AA playoff game on the road.  The prior year, Kevin Higgins and the 1998 version of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks stunned the I-AA world by beating Richmond on the road, 24-23, to go 12-0 for the first time in school history and, in the process, announce to the rest of the I-AA world that "non-scholarship" Lehigh would no longer be able to be dismissed so easily from the national stage.

The 1998 Lehigh squad's run to the national championship would end at Amherst, MA, where Lehigh gave the eventual I-AA National Champions, UMass, everything they could handle in a 27-21 loss.  But the Mountain Hawks' national credentials were made.  It was that success that made an at-large invitation to the 1999 I-AA playoffs, at 10-1 and co-champions with Colgate (who won the autobid), pretty much a given.

But in 1999, Lehigh was pretty banged up going into the game at Long Island.  LB Ian Eason, the heart and soul of the Mountain Hawk defense, was recovering from a fractured hand, while Lehigh's No. 1 receiver, WR Kody Fedorcha, was also not 100%.  But one of the all-timr great Lehigh running backs, RB Ron Jean, was ready, as was Walter Payton award finalist QB Phil Stambaugh, in a matchup that seemed to promise a lot of offensive fireworks.

QB Gio Carmazzi
That was due to the presence of Hofstra's own Walter Payton-award finalist, hotly-touted NFL prospect QB Giovanni Carmazzi.  "Many scouts have come through here talking about [him]," Higgins said in the run-up to the game.  "He's a great one."  (He ended up being drafted in the 3rd round by the San Francisco 49ers.)

There indeed was a line to get into Shuart Stadium that day, and the stands were indeed packed with both Hofstra fans and Lehigh fans.  The game was not a sellout - the official attendance was 6,770 - but as you can see from the video, it looks like there were a lot more fans than that in the stands.

The anticipated shootout never materialized, oddly enough.  After Lehigh jumped out to a 13-3 lead, Hofstra's defense took over, shutting down Lehigh's offensive attack the rest of the way as Carmazzi did just enough to get ahead of the Mountain Hawk defense.  Uncharacteristically for Stambaugh, he threw three interceptions, the last one down 27-13 deep in Hofstra territory that bounced off of two different defenders.  I remember that last interception well - our seats were in front of Lehigh's bench, where I saw the players throw their water bottles down on the artificial turf.

The game didn't feel like "peak Hofstra", but it ended up being "peak Hofstra".

Though Hofstra would win one more I-AA playoff game in the Gardi era in 2000, beating Furman 31-24, in 2001 Hofstra would welcome in their new president, Stuart Rabinowitz, and not coincidentally started to de-emphasize the football program in a misguided attempt to make Hofstra into a basketball school.  In 2009, Stuart Rabinowitz, citing a "two year process and a study" that to this say has never been seen by any other eyes that Stuart Rabinowitz, claimed that Hofstra didn't get any benefits from its football program.

“Three of the last four years, Appalachian State was the champion,” Rabinowitz said. “Last year, Richmond was the champion, I don’t know if too many people will remember that because of the lack of national coverage. In a sense, this subdivision of football is like football purgatory. It’s like you need to spend a lot of money to be competitive, but there are none of the benefits that a robust athletic program produces.”

Eight years on from Rabinowitz' decision, Hofstra has seen Stony Brook eclipse it athletically and academically.  Academically, the most recent US News and World Report rankings have Stony Brook at 97th in its national rankings with Hofstra at 132nd, and other major college and university rankings also have Stony Brook ahead of Hofstra as well.  Athletically, while Stony Brook is enjoying their time in the FCS playoffs this year and are poised for a possible run, Hofstra is still waiting for an NCAA Tournament bid in basketball since they pulled the plug on their football program.

It's a fact that Stony Brook has been trying to hammer home now for many years, their advertising seemingly becoming on giant troll job to remind Long Islanders what Hofstra is now missing.  Long Island's Top Family Destination - Stony Brook Football, read Stony Brook's promotional poster from 2015.  We Are Long Island's Team, 2016's accurately pointed out.

In fact, if anything, Stony Brook's biggest challenge has been how they've been able to expand so much so quickly.  In the last forty years, Stony Brook has expanded from a graduate school-heavy institution of about 15,000 students to a full-service undergraduate and postgraduate research institution of more than 25,000 students.  Oh yeah, and they've expanded their former non-scholarship I-AA football program to one that competes in the CAA, alongside the same schools that Hofstra used to rub elbows with in sports competition - Villanova, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island.

It's not correct to say that football has driven Stony Brook's academic expansion, but it is correct to say that football is a symbol of Stony Brook's presence in the field of higher education, as well as providing a driver of school spirit, diversity, and a fuller undergraduate experience to a significant number of their students. At least in Stony Brook's case, the investment in their school seems to be correlated with making additions to their stadium and building a decent football program.

And this Saturday, Stony Brook will gladly take the national opportunity to tell the world about their institution that Hofstra threw out on the side of the road.  I'm thinking that Stony Brook is still quite grateful that Stuart Rabinowitz killed Hofstra's football program back in 2009.

* * * * *

“We’ve got 19 seniors - they don't want to play their last game yet, so they’re certainly excited to get another game of college football under their belt,” coach Chuck Priore said after learning that Lehigh would be their first round opponent. “They feel like we accomplished obviously one part of what we wanted to do, which was sitting in that room today and hearing our name called, and it’s the start of the second season.”

In a lot of ways, this Stony Brook team does resemble that Hofstra team in 1999.

They have one of the best defenses in all of FCS, and even have one player that is a pro prospect, though he is hurt and won't play this weekend - OL Timon Parris, a 6'5 320 lb tackle that looks in every way like an NFL draftee. 

They also have a very good quarterback, QB Joe Carbone, who is both efficient (nearly 60% completion percentage) and accurate (only 3 interceptions on the year).  That's a huge improvement over his numbers from last year, where he threw 10 picks.

"At the end of the day, Joe worked on himself," Priore said this week.  "Our coaching staff have done a great job in bringing his attention to detail, and the fundamentals, and operating within the system.  He plays 'next play' as well as anyone I've seen in a long time.  He has not let anything bother him."

So Lehigh, champions of the Patriot League, find themselves in much of the same boat they found themselves in 1999 - a plucky underdog with a really strong offense going up against a team from Long Island with some incredibly talented FCS football players.  It's a big challenge on par with the challenge faced by that group back in 1999.

Not On The Injury Report
Game Notes And Injury Report

Last year, before facing New Hampshire in the 1st round of the playoffs, Lehigh had the absolute worst possible set of injuries known to any playoff team, simultaneously losing team captain LB Colton Caslow and seeing QB Nick Shafnisky seriously limited by Lyme disease in the run-up to the game.  The end result of that game, a 64-21 drubbing by the Wildcats, is not far from the minds of most of these Mountain Hawk football players going into this week.  After this weekend's win against Lafayette, junior QB Brad Mayes looked like he was ready to put his pads on again and play another four quarters of football.  I think that this team is eager to erase the memory of that embarrassment, win or lose.

I asked sports information director Steve Lomangino this week if there were any players with Lyme disease I should know about, and he confirmed to me that nobody has Lyme disease to his knowledge.  In fact, the Mountain Hawks exited last week's game reasonably healthy, with the secondary the healthiest it's been since opening weekend thanks to the return of junior CB Kareem Montgomery to the squad.  There may be lingering concerns about the health of senior WR Gatlin Casey, who has shaken off injury all season, but last week he was healthy enough to haul in the spectacular game-winner.

Weather Report

The weather at Stony Brook is supposed to be quite wonderful this weekend, oddly enough.  With a forecast of 56 degrees and periods of sun, it will feel like mid-September out on Long Island this weekend.

One thing to maybe keep an eye on is the wind, where 12 mph gusts are a possibility.  On the videos from Kenneth P. LaValle stadium, listening to the wind whistling during the interviews leads me to believe kicking might be an issue.

Getting To Stony Brook

Probably the best way to get to Stony Brook's Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium in Stony Brook, New York is to take the same route to Wagner, on 278 over the Verrazano Bridge and simply keep going, winding on the Belt Parkway through Brooklyn and through a series of parkways until you hit the Northern State Parkway.  From there you take the exit for Nichols Road which takes you up to the stadium.

LaValle Stadium is a pretty, modern, 12,300 seat stadium that is located not far from Smithtown Bay.  It is a larger than Monmouth's Kessler Stadium that Lehigh played at this year, and is probably most similar to Towson's Johnny Unitas Stadium down in Maryland.  It looks like a beautiful place to catch a football game.

If you don't already have tickets, they are still available to purchase online through Lehigh, according to the website (pickup at Will Call).  Tickets are $15 whether they are bought through Lehigh or bought the day of the game at Stony Brook.

An informal Lehigh tailgate is planned at the Gym Road Parking Lots next to LaValle Stadium, from when the lot is open at 10:00AM until kickoff, (which is at 2:00PM).

If you're in New York City, Dorrian's Pub on the
SE Corner of 84th St. & 2nd Avenue is hosting a viewing party for the game as well.

LFN's Burger of the Week #BOTW

Of course, how could we not have a Thanksgiving-inspired Burger of the Week?

One of the odd things about Thanksgiving burgers in general is how awful and unappetizing most of them actually look, even though there are few things that taste better. 

Wahlburger's Thanksgiving Burger is for sure one of the few that actually look appetizing as well as taste great.  It features a fresh-ground, seasoned turkey patty topped with stuffing, orange cranberry sauce, butternut squash and finished with a little mayo.  Best of all, if you just want to throw a slab of turkey instead of the ground turkey - your tailgate fare is all set with your leftovers.

LFN's Drink of the Week #DOTW

Finally, how can we avoid a Long Island Iced Tea as the Drink of the Week?  Answer: We can't.  It's this week's Drink of the Week.  (And it actually looks like it might be warm enough to actually have one this weekend.)

1 part Vodka, 1 part gin, 1 part rum, 1 part tequila, 1 part Triple Sec.  Throw in 1 part lemon juice, shake with ice, and pour, topping with enough cola to make the concoction look like iced tea.

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.


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