By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
BETHLEHEM, PA. — It’s tempting, if you’re a Lehigh fan, to look ahead.
After all, no matter what happens on Saturday, Lehigh will be playing football again after the 147th meeting between Lehigh and Lafayette at 12:30 p.m. at Goodman Stadium.
There’s a school of thought to close up the playbook, play not to lose, and find a way to keep the injuries down, rather than play an entire football game.
But this is not going to happen on Saturday. For “The Rivalry” is a season unto itself. It means a lot more than playoff position or bragging rights.
And this Lehigh team knows that the Leopard team that lines up against them is 0-0 in this season, and so are they.
The Mountain Hawks won one championship — the Patriot League title — last Saturday against Georgetown by and they have two more to go. Another championship is for the taking this Saturday.
It’s tempting to look at the records and statistics of both teams, and think mismatch.
Senior QB Chris Lum is a Walter Payton Award candidate, and — shh, don’t tell anyone — he might actually win it.
No other quarterback in the country is close to him statistically, and it’s hard to argue with a 9-1 record, the No. 1-rated offense in the country, and the No. 3-rated passing offense to boot.
Junior WR Ryan “The Answer” Spadola ranks second in the nation in terms of receiving yardage, while senior WR Jake Drwal and Spadola are sixth and eighth, respectively, in receptions per game.
Compare that to the Leopards.
At 4-6, they’ve been far more inconsistent than the Mountain Hawks, though they’ve been playing better lately.
In the Patriot League, Lafayette sits at the bottom of many categories, notably rushing offense, sacks allowed, and turnover differential.
But there is no way that Lehigh is hungrier than the Leopards right now for a win in this one-game season.
I know this because I remember 2008.
In that game, Lehigh, like Lafayette this season, went into that game 4-6.
Also, similarly, the Leopards played the week before in a game for the Patriot League championship. Lafayette lost a heartbreaker in the rain to Holy Cross, 27-26, the week before, unlike Lehigh’s title-clinching win over Georgetown.
Like the current crew of Leopards, Lehigh didn’t have a single team member on the field who remembered beating Lafayette. From 2004 to 2007, Lehigh had lost four straight to the Leopards.
And like the current Lehigh team, Lafayette held out hope of appearing in the FCS playoffs with a win over the sub-.500 Mountain Hawks. Though it wasn’t something that was announced, I am almost certain had they won, they would have made the (then) sixteen-team field.
While there hasn’t been even a tiny whisper of Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani losing his job should he lose his fourth straight to Lehigh, head coach Andy Coen most certainly was seen at the time as needing to win a game against “that school in Easton,” just to have a chance to come back the following year.
The 2008 game, a 31-15 win by Lehigh, was won by a staunch defensive effort, led by LB Tim Diamond — unusual for Lehigh, a team that has been known more for stellar offense rather than punishing defense through the years.
And the final exclamation point was made by CB John Kennedy, who reacted in front of a pass by Lafayette QB Rob Curley and took it to the house, 93 yards, for the game-clinching touchdown.
“Lehigh simply had to get the Easton monkey off their backs — that pressure that seemed to enclose this team like a vise not only this year but in previous years,” I wrote at the time. “Four games were lost in the last five minutes of the game this year, including two on the last play of the game. You wondered if this team would ever be able to win a close, pressure-filled game like ‘The Rivalry’. You wondered if this team would be able to hold itself together, pick itself up, and be able to win a game like this.”
The same words could be said about Lafayette this year, for they wear the exact same shoes Lehigh did back then. They need to get the Lehigh monkey off their backs, to set up future success next year and beyond. They need to show that they can win games like this next year. They need an offseason of something positive to focus on instead of injury, losses to Bucknell and Georgetown, and a missed pass interference call against Holy Cross.
They need this game, and they want it bad.
“You come to Lehigh for two reasons: to win championships, and beat Lafayette,” senior TE Mark Wickware said this week in the run-up to the game. “And that’s what we’re setting out to do. We have all our goals in line, and I couldn’t be happier.”
If Lehigh wants to win this game, it will need to want to win it more that the players from Lafayette. That’s the giant challenge for the Mountain Hawks this week, in the 147th edition of the best Rivalry in all of college football.
Game Notes and Injury Report
With all the smiles and good headlines from this magical 9-1 season, Lehigh did, unfortunately, receive some terrible news as it regards junior RB Zach Barket. As reported in both the Express-Times and Morning Call, Barket suffered a broken leg and possible torn ligaments in the final quarter against Georgetown last weekend, and he will be out for the remainder of the season. As Lehigh’s leading rusher and tough between-the-tackles runner, he’s a multi-faceted presence that can’t help but be missed the rest of the way.
The game notes tell us that it’s going to be senior RB Matt Fitz that gets the starting call in Barket’s place, with sophomore RB Keith Sherman backing him up.
There are a couple more questions on defense – will senior CB Kenyatta Drake start at corner, or junior CB Gabe Johnson? Will senior LB Tanner Rivas start at outside linebacker, or senior LB Fred Mihal? But aside from a huge void at running back, Lehigh is largely healthy and ready to go against their big rivals.
Not that you were thinking of backing out anyway, but considering it’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, it should be a gorgeous afternoon of football. With a high of 50, it’s going to be perfect football weather.
Can’t make the game? The game will be broadcast on WFMZ 69 in the Lehigh Valley, with Mike Yadush and Steve Degler calling the action, and will also be viewable live on Fox College Sports. Through Lehigh Athletics’ website, you can also get a live stream of the game anywhere in the world as well.
For more extensive satellite information and viewing party information, click here.
From the Lehigh Side
Excerpts from this week’s Brown & White serve as an excellent representation of the view from Lehigh this week.
A Word on Lafayette
If there’s one word that sums up this year’s Leopards, it’s the word “inconsistent.”
The same team that showed grit in beating Colgate in overtime, 37-24, also got pummeled by Bucknell in the snow 39-13. The same team that was humbled by North Dakota State 42-6 on the road also dominated Penn 37-12.
As Paul Reinhart of the Morning Call pointed out, much of Lafayette’s problems have come from a truckload of injuries, and a couple of suspensions of key players. No fewer than three starting tailbacks at one point of another have retired due to recurring injuries; at least one starting cornerback; and one of the co-captains of the offense, WR Mitch Bennett.
That’s a hard thing to absorb for any team.
On top of that, the team has been accused by their own fans of packing in the season early – but also come up with some gems of performances, even in a 29-24 loss last weekend to Holy Cross that could easily have gone the other way.
Last week, the Leopards clung to a slender lead against the Crusaders, who then went on a 15-play, 97-yard drive to come away with the victory.
“I’ve never seen a team battle that hard,” Lafayette WR Mark Ross said after the game. “We battled all 60 minutes. To come out with a loss is tough to take.
“Penalties killed us today (overall Lafayette was penalized nine times for 69 yards), whether they were pass interferences or not. Coach Tavani said you’ve got to ignore what the refs do. We had a bunch of possessions where we could have scored and finished off the game and we didn’t do that. That’s not the refs’ fault.”
Their spirited performance last weekend certainly didn’t look like a team that had packed it in and was playing out the string. QB Andrew Shoop, who was praised by Tavani after the game, has settled into the starting quarterback position and will be a force in 147th this weekend, he hopes.
But as in many other games this year, turnovers did in the Leopards in the end, including three picks from Shoop, a junior.
“I’m going to try to spit out this taste next week and try to end this thing the right way,” he said after the game.
The Leopards have shown flashes of greatness – but have also frustrated with inconsistency. Knowing “The Rivalry”, you can count on the fact that this team will look a lot more like the “greatness” team than the “inconsistency” team – which makes them dangerous.
Breaking Down Lafayette
Going into the season, the Leopards had an issue at quarterback that wasn’t really resolved until the game against Penn. Do they go with experience, senior QB Ryan O’Neil, or the kid with the best arm, junior QB Andrew Shoop?
Ultimately it was the junior from Danville, PA. that won the starting nod, and he’s had his stellar days (262 yards passing vs. Colgate, 3 TDs) and his not so stellar days (3 interceptions vs. Stony Brook, 3 interceptions vs. Holy Cross.)
In three games this year with multi-interception games, the Leopards have lost all three.
At 6’1 210 lbs, Shoop (1,953 yards passing, 65 yards rushing, 18 TDs) has been more of a dropback passer for the most part, but last week against Holy Cross he showed a different facet to his game, running for 71 yards.
It’s clear he’s maturing as a signal caller — and it’s very likely that he’ll come out gunning against the Mountain Hawks in this game.
For Lehigh, it will be crucial to force him into mistakes, as the more mistakes the Leopards have made, the more games they’ve lost.
While running back has been an issue this year for the Leopards – the top three backs going into the spring have either retired, been suspended or gotten hurt – the issues have been a silver lining for the boys at Easton U. as speedy 6’0, 190 lb true freshman RB Ross Scheuerman (448 yards) has emerged as a real rushing threat in the Leopards’ backfield by committee, and also has been a key dumpoff receiver in screens and the short passing game.
Junior RB Vaughn Hebron (231 yards, 2 TDs) is the hard-nosed, between-the-tackles runner to complement Scheuerman, while sophomore FB Greg Kessel is a useful blocking back and has shown promise catching the ball out of the backfield as well.
Going into the season, Lafayette was supposed to have a leader, fifth-year senior WR Mitch Bennett, that was supposed to be the steady leader that had actually played in a game where the Leopards beat Lehigh, but has not played much since Harvard in Week 6 due to injury.
He’s not listed on the depth chart, but if I know this Rivalry, I’d say that Lehigh should plan for him to not only play but to be a key part of the Leopard offense on Saturday.
With Bennett, Shoop has some interesting targets in Lafayette’s multiple offensive set. Tavani went with a more conservative two-wideout set most of the year, but against Holy Cross unveiled a three wideout set that was more efficient, so it seems logical that they will go with it again.
Sophomore WR Mark Ross (640 yards, 9 TDs) is Easton’s answer to Lehigh junior WR Ryan Spadola, and his big-play ability, especially last week, was a large reason why the Leopards almost beat Holy Cross.
Rounding out the Leopard receiving corps is senior WR Kyle Hayes (480 yards, 2 TDs) and senior WR Greg Stripe (180 yards). Add Bennett back there, and there’s a whole lot of different targets to choose from.
Easton U.’s offensive line is large, anchored by 310 lb senior OL Scott Biel, but they’ve been a source of criticism from the Leopard faithful. They are 99th in FCS in rushing offense, and are giving up more than 2 1/2 sacks a game on average.
When you play Lafayette, you know you’re going to be playing against a fearsome multiple 4-3 defense.
But injuries have also conspired to make a potentially devastating unit into one that has been a lot more ordinary during the 2010 season.
Three of Lafayette’s four starting defensive linemen are underclassmen, with junior DT Rick Lyster (39 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble) being the strongest statistically. Running up the middle can be tough with Lyster and 280-pound sophomore NT Jason Marshalek (29 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups), but Lafayette is also 106th in the nation in sacks, so they haven’t gotten a lot of pressure on opposing QBs this season.
The Leopards linebacking corps is the one place on the team where Easton has survived relatively unscathed with injuries and also boasts three senior leaders in senior LB Ben Eaton (80 tackles, 1 interception), senior LB LeRoy Butler (84 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks), and senior LB Tyler MacFarlane (72 tackles, 6 tackles for loss).
Lafayette’s 4-3 defense seems to grow solid linebackers on trees every year, and this is no exception — this is a very good unit.
Going into the season, the Leopards seemed to have a solid, experienced secondary as well, anchored by senior FS Kyle Simmons. But two weeks ago, Simmons got hurt, and did not play the last two weeks.
If he’s back for the “second season”, his return will make a big difference in an already-strong Leopard secondary, with junior CB Darius Safford (44 tackles, 3 interceptions), senior SS Evan McGovern (47 tackles, 2 pass breakups), and senior CB Brandon Ellis (49 tackles, 11 pass breakups).
Like everything else on the Leopards, their special teams have been maddeningly inconsistent, though their return game, anchored by junior CB Darius Safford returning punts and freshman RB Ross Scheuerman returning kickoffs, has been solid. It will be crucial to keep them from breaking big returns.
Freshman PK Austin O’Brien reminds me of a Patriot League version of Raiders PK Sebastian Janikowski – a large (250 lb) kicker with a heck of a leg, but frustratingly inconsistent. He’s 9 of 15 on field goals, including a 48 yarder, and is 23-for-25 on extra points.
Junior P Ethan Swerdlow (39.7 average) has been an above-average punter in the Patriot League this year.
Keys to the Game
1. Patience. With Lafayette’s pass rush, there’s no need to rush the passing game. It’s worth it for senior QB Chris Lum to take his time and choose the wide-open guys instead of forcing balls into coverage.
With two senior targets in senior WR Jake Drwal, senior WR Jimmy Jefferson and Spadola, it may be worth taking the time to wait for the right pass play to develop
2. Pressure. The knock on Shoop is that he can be forced into mistakes, and those mistakes are more likely to be forced through a strong pass rush. With senior LB Colin Newton disrupting Easton’s offense routinely, it’s much more likely Lehigh will win this second season.
3. Poise. Special teams have been an adventure at times this year for Lehigh, but in this game more than ever poise will be critical in order to prevent long returns and touchdowns. The unit has played much better of late – but in order to win, they’ll need to be even better.
On paper, statistically, Lehigh, it’s fair to say, would be favored to win this game. But when Rivalries come about, nothing is safe.
A hundred years ago in 1911, a heavily favored Leopard team barely held off a game Lehigh squad 11-8.
Fifty years ago in 1961, a heavily favored Lehigh team needed a heave and a miracle field goal to win 17-14 and win the Lambert Cup.
And just four years ago, Lehigh entered into the game 4-6 against their rival – the same record the Leopards have today – and used it to pull off an upset on the road that seemed to put new life into the program, and bring it to the heights it is today.
But as I’ve repeated all year, this Lehigh team is all business.
The Mountain Hawks talked an awful lot about goals, and achieving them. They expect to win, and have a business-like approach to the game.
There is a cohesion to this unit that promises to take them far into the playoffs. Teams don’t know it yet, but I already do.
The question for Lehigh is — will it let its guard down against their bitter rivals?
Will the Mountain Hawks take this game as a season unto itself, or as just another game?
Will they take it to the Leopards, or will they be surprised by their fighting spirit?
I keep asking myself this question about this Lehigh team every single game.
And this year, I’ve been getting the same consistent answer.
Lehigh 32, Lafayette 21