I have always felt like these Rivalry games are first and foremost about the seniors.
It seems like for the most part, it's the seniors who really answer the call and compete to their fullest potential in this bowl game at the end of the regular season. Guys like Lehigh QB Nick Shafnisky last year, who won the MVP award, or Lafayette RB Ross Scheuerman, who dominated a certain game in the Bronx that shall not be named.
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.
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, and though Lafayette head coach John Garrett could very well take their entire playbook up until this point and throw it in the trash, and it's up to the Mountain Hawks to figure out a way to stop them.
Lafayette has struggled to score points this year on offense, even more so than last season. The Leopard offense has scored only 10.1 points per game, and the most points they've scored this season in a game has been 24 vs. Sacred Heart, and two of those touchdowns came after the Pioneers held a 31-10 lead on the Leopards and maintained a three score lead.
Like Lehigh, Lafayette wants to be able to go with a balanced attack on offense, but there's no other way to say it - the Leopard offense has struggled mightily.
|QB Sean O'Malley|
Part of O'Malley's struggle is the inability of Lafayette to get an effective running game going. Three backs, senior RB DeShawn Brown, junior RB C.J. Amil and freshman RB Selwyn Simpson have been Garrett's three-headed rushing attack, but this group has only averaged as a unit 24.3 yards per game. Nationally, the Leopards are 122nd out of 123 FCS teams in rushing yards per game; only Mississippi Valley State, who actually averages negative rushing yardage, averages less.
Mitigating this somewhat is the fact that all three of these players can catch the ball out of the backfield. One of my critiques of the Leopards last year was they they didn't use their running backs as receiving threats often enough, and this season that has been corrected somewhat. Brown (108 yards, 1 TD), and Amil (171 yards) will be need to be covered on screens and in the flat. Amil, technically is somewhat of a "slash" back that can take the ball on runs and was a former receiver.
|WR Rocco Palumbo|
Certainly a big part of Lafayette's issue has been their offensive line, which has had a lot of different variations this season. The one constant has been 290 lb senior C Mike Donnelly, who has started every game at center this year.
Lafayette has won games this year by having one of the best defenses in all of FCS. One wonders if you combined Lafayette's defense and Lehigh's offense, whether you'd have a team that could give James Madison or North Dakota State a run for their money. Whatever the case, by a large margin this will be the best defensive unit Lehigh has faced all season.
Lafayette's conventional defense pretty much has it all: good pressure on the quarterback, a stellar secondary, and a good rushing defense. They are an aggressive team - they are averaging 5 tackles for loss per game - and are led by the best defensive back Lehigh has seen all season.
|CB Phillip Parham|
Even more worrying than the fact that Lafayette returns a corner of his caliber is that the rest of the secondary, sophomore SS Yasir Thomas, sophomore CB Eric Mitchell, and junior FS Trent Crossan have not only been here before, they've been tremendous as well, adding 4 interceptions, providing great run and blitz support, and have shut down some powerful offenses in the last month, most notably Fordham's.
But don't let the impressiveness of Lafayette's secondary distract you about what they have going on up front.
|LB Brandon Bryant|
He's surrounded by two more LBs that are his perfect complement: senior LB Michael Root (76 tackles, 4 tckles for loss), and junior LB Jerry Powe, (64 tackles, 6 tackles for loss). Adding to this a deep veteran unit on the defensive line in senior DE Beau Bosch (6 1/2 tackles for loss), senior DT Andy Labudev (3 1/2 tackles for loss), senior T Matt Rothrock (2 tackles for loss) and sophomore DE Andrew Chuma (21 tackles).
Something to keep in mind here is that every one of these defensive players have played in The Rivalry before. There are no freshman or sophomores here that are playing in their first-ever bowl-like atmosphere. This is a group that is a veteran bunch and shouldn't be surprised by much. That will serve them well on Saturday.
If there was an award called "Patriot League Special Teams Freshman of the year, freshman P Michael Turk would be a strong contender for that honor. Averaging 43 yards per punt, plunking the ball 18 times inside the 20 yard line, he's a tremendous punter that is a field position weapon in his own right.
Freshman PK Jacob Kordenbrock has not been that accurate this season - he's 4 for 11 - but he hasn't been put in the greatest of positions for scoring, with four of those misses coming from beyond 40 yards. His longest, a 41 yarder, was the game-winner against Holy Cross.
Lafayette's return game has been solid all year with junior WR Joey Chenoweth and junior RB C.J. Amil on returns. Neither have broken one for a touchdown yet this year, but Amil has come close.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Attack Aggressiveness. Lafayette blitzes a lot, which provides both risk and opportunity. If they blitz a lot, delayed screens and draws should catch the Leopards off guard potentially for some big gains. Junior RB Dominick Bragalone is a great back to take advantage of these holes, and hopefully he will.
2. Limiting big plays. Lafayette's offense has lacked explosiveness all year, and the most critical goal Lehigh's defense must have is to have things remain so. 5 yard runs can't become 50 yard runs. 5 yard passes can't become 50 yard passes. If the defense continues to do things like force turnovers, I love Lehigh's chances, but I'd rather see Lafayette try to plod along on offense and try to keep up.
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.
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. Lafayette has one of the best defenses in the country, and will be playing in front a powder keg of emotions. One well-placed turnover, and they will become 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, it would be infinitely foolish to sell the Leopards short. It is entirely too easy to look at last year, look at statistics, look at won-loss records, or look at the fact that if Lehigh wins, they're Patriot League Champions, and give the Leopards no respect. If the 4-6 Mountain Hawks go into this game with more hubris than they've earned, they will lose this game.
This game offers me a lot more worries than things that put me at ease. I'm worried about Lafayette's stupendous defense. I'm worried that a big play on special teams, or a big run for a touchdown, will swing momentum Lafayette's way. I'm worried that Lehigh is a younger team than they let on, despite the presence of a veteran offensive and defensive line, as well as senior WR Troy Pelletier and senior WR Gatlin Casey. Respect for the opponent, and playing with the same level as the last few weeks, will be key to victory. I hope that will be enough to see Lehigh through.
Lehigh 21, Lafayette 20