Something that sometimes gets lost in The Rivalry is the importance of seniors on both sides. For so many of these seniors, it's not only their final college football game, it is also their final time wearing a football helmet and a jersey. I've found that seniors find it in themselves to play the best games of their careers. So seniors in the starting lineup are of great weight to me.
Having said that, there have been occasional flashes of the same player that won the MVP of the Lehigh/Lafayette game last year, most notably against Bucknell. In that game his 335 yard performance was more reminiscent of the Brad from last season. One of the biggest questions of this game has to be whether he has another Bucknell-like game in him to help surge Lehigh to victory on Saturday.
For Lafayette, sophomore QB Sean O'Malley has continued his development as head signalcaller, but he has been little more than a game manager for most of the season. With only 4 passing touchdowns, one in the waning moments of the Army game last week, probably his best, most effecient game came against Bucknell, where he went 17/25 with 1 TD pass and 2 interceptions.
It didn't quite work out that way.
After a dominating performance against St. Francis (PA), Dom exited the Villanova game with a head injury, and by the time he came back vs. Penn Lehigh opponents had made it their life's mission to stack the box to make sure Dom didn't beat them on the ground, and for most of the season, they have succeeded. Bragalone has only 662 net rushing yards and 11 receiving yards in 2018, after being such a huge amount of the offense in last year's Patriot League Championship season. Dom had 3 touchdowns in the very first game against St. Francis (PA); he's had only one touchdown in the nine games since.
Freshman RB Rashawn Allen has shown a lot of potential when Bragalone was not able to go, earning 324 yards and 3 TDs in limited action. Allen had one of the most spectacular touchdowns of the season when he took it to the house at Navy after bouncing off a would-be tackle.
Running a base offense with a FB and TE, senior FB Will Eisler has only 1 carry on the season so far, but not only do the backs and QB carry the ball frequently, Lafayette will frequently run jet sweep-style running playes with junior WR Nick Pearson or sophomore WR Quinn Revere to get rushing yards. Same rules apply: if they get outside, their speed can cause problems.
Receiving: Both teams boast a young receiving corps that has struggled to pull together to be a cohesive unit, but both have members on their team with some superstar potential.
Joining him are TE Steven Stillanos, who is mostly used as a blocker, sophomore WR Quinn Revere, junior WR Julian Spigner, and junior WR Jake Liedtka in the receiving corps. Head coach John Garrett spreads out the targets - seventeen different Lafayette players have caught a pass this season, and the fullbacks, running backs, or wideouts can all be targets in this passing game.
For Lehigh the breakout superstar was sophomore WR Jorge Portorreal, who has 50 catches for 733 yards and 3 TDs. Most of that came during a breakout performance against Bucknell, a 216 yard, 2 TD performance that flashed the big-play ability that had been hiding all season, but the truth remains that if he heats up he can take over a game like he did a couple weeks ago.
But overall, for Lehigh, this felt like a unit that simply struggled to be as potent a force that they seemed on paper. And for Lafayette, though these units are built for speed they didn't result in a lot of scoring.
Offensive Protection: Both offensive lines struggled to carve yards out for their offenses, both rushing and passing, and though perhaps the "sacks allowed" numbers don't seem too big for either squad, both units struggled to protect their quarterbacks all season.
Lehigh's offensive line is one of the youngest in recent memory, thanks to injury. Freshman OL Justin Gurth and sophomore OL Chris Fournier are the bookend tackles, and though Lehigh faced a bunch of challenging defensive fronts this season (9-0 Princeton and FBS Navy leap to mind), as a unit everyone struggled until a working offensive front was finally found.
Lafayette's offensive line has much more experience, starting with senior C Kevin Zataveski. Though he sat out the 2017 season, whenever able he has started for the Leopards and he gives Lafayette some much-needed senior leadership and stability.
Lafayette's 3-4 boasts a defensive front that may not be as good as Colgate's, but is extremely solid overall and aggressive. Freshman DE Malik Hamm (7 1/2 sacks) stands out in the pass rush, but it's the three linebackers, senior LB Jerry Powe, senior LB Michael Root, and sophomore LB Major Jordan who are really good tacklers and sold guys in the middle.
Lehigh's 3-1- 3 hybrid defensive front has struggled to find consistency all season, despite a unit that has a lot of experience. Senior DT Harrison Kauffman has been the heart and soul of this line, while senior DT Juwan Morrow and senior DE Julian Lynn along with junior DE Davis Maxie have offered some good individual performances but, aside from the Bucknell game, has struggled to be consistent. The same could go with the linebackers, where junior LB Keith Woetzel and senior LB Mark Walker struggled all season with some injuries. Sophmore LB Pete Haffner and junior LB Jon Seighman came in and played well at times, but again, consistency was an issue.
Team captain DB Sam McCloskey, missed most of 2017 with an injury, but he along with junior FS Riley O'Neil formed a solid tackling combo in the defensive backfield - when he was healthy. Senior CB Donavon Harris and junior CB Marquis Wilson had some flashes of big-play ability, as did sophomore CB Divine Buckrham, but again the theme is consistency - when things broke down, the results ended up being big plays. All season it seemed like the coaching staff was tinkering with the formula on defense looking for something that worked, and even now in the biggest game of the year, it still feels like they're still tinkering.
Lafayette's secondary has a bunch of upperclassmen, most notably senior FS Trent Crossan who is an excellent tackler in the run game. Junior CB Eric Mitchell has been a solid corner as well, while junior SS Yasir Thomas and junior CB Tre Jordan, now finally healthy, round out the unit.
Kicking: PK Ed Mish has been fairly accurate with his kicks, but they have all been of the short variety (his longest has been 27 yards) and last week he had an extra point blocked that was a critical moment in the game. For Lafayette, PK Jeffrey Kordenbrock has nailed 4 field goals of more than 40 yards, though to be fair coach John Garrett has sometimes chosen some questionable times to unleash that weapon - for example, down 28-3 to Sacred Heart midway through the 3rd quarter.
Returns: Lehigh has truly struggled to get many returns this season, only getting 317 yards on kickoff returns. Sophomore DB Jaylen Floyd has provided some spark on punt returns, but that's about it.
Lafayette, on the other hand, has two returns for touchdowns, one a punt return from RB C.J. Amill and another a kickoff return by RB J.J. Younger.
LFN Keys to the Game:
1. Who's Hungry? Lafayette is facing the prospect of having their senior class go 0-4 against Lehigh. This is the motivation that the Mountain Hawks will be facing on Saturday, and Lehigh will have to match or beat that intensity over all four quarters. If they don't, this game will not be close.
2. The Cohesiveness of the Lehigh O Line. Everything Lehigh needs to do offensively funnels through the Mountain Hawk offensive line. They will have to match Lafayette physically and allow Dom Bragalone and the running game to get that 100 yard game to give Lehigh a chance to win.
3. Turnovers and Special Teams. Every kick return, every penalty, and every turnover is so vital in these Rivalry games and can cause violent momentum swings. It is Lehigh's job to make sure that they are on the right side of those. If Lehigh forces more turnovers than the opposition, I like Lehigh's chances.
Both of these teams are remarkably evenly matched. Anyone who thinks that either team has a huge advantage or disadvantage is sorely mistaken.
Where I wonder if Lehigh can keep things together, however, is in the area of special teams and just overall fire and brimstone. Lafayette's team is starving for a win over Lehigh. The seniors have worked their entire football careers for this very moment. They see the 2-8 record. It is completely within sight.
Somehow, some way, Lehigh is going to have to summon something inside to overwhelm that passion that Lafayette is going to bring to the table. They're going to have to channel the team that beat Bucknell and the team that blocked a field goal to beat St. Francis (PA). They're going to have to play turnover-free ball and need to blow Lafayette off the line of scrimmage.
Can Lehigh do it?
Lehigh 24, Lafayette 27