Since 1884, Lehigh and Lafayette have been playing each other in football. As befitting a Rivalry that has spanned 135 years and 154 meetings, there is a lot of tradition – things that have been the same for years, decades or even generations.
But this year’s meeting between Lafayette (3-8, 3-2) and Lehigh (4-6, 3-2) has a very different feel than the meetings of recent past.
For Lehigh, it’s the first for Tom Gilmore as head football coach of the Mountain Hawks. The Rivalry is hardly unknown to him – as an assistant coach at Lehigh in the past, he had seen and experienced it first hand – but nonetheless it is his first where he is completely in charge. While he was there working with head coaches Kevin Higgins and Pete Lembo, he went 3-1 against Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani.
For Lafayette, head coach John Garrett has yet to win one of these Rivalry games. Two years ago, at Murray Goodman Stadium, he went into the locker room with a two touchdown lead, but saw his second-half lead evaporate as the Mountain Hawks rallied, and won the Patriot League, with a 38-31 win. Last year, it seemed like they lost on the first play of the game, when Lehigh DE Davis Maxie felt the ball leap into his arms after a strip sack that he returned for a touchdown on Lafayette’s offensive play. Lehigh cruised in head coach Andy Coen‘s final game as Lehigh head coach, 34-3.
This season, though, there isn’t the same feeling of continuity that permeated many of these other games. Part of that comes from the fact that, unusually for The Rivalry, both teams are packed with young underclassmen, many of them playing in their first Rivalry ever. Normally, The Rivalry is filled with narratives. This season, it feels like the master narrative is waiting to be written with two teams that, even at this late date, have unknowns.
Leopards Vying For The Autobid
All season, Lafayette has been trying to learn how to win.
It started when Garrett was auditioning players at quarterback, playing playoff-bound Monmouth really tough before falling 24-21. Though true freshman QB Keegan Shoemaker out-dueled Hawks QB Kenji Bahar for the most part, it wasn’t until the following week vs. Sacred Heart that Shoemaker truly was cemented in at the top spot on the depth chart.
Yet the Leopards kept finding new and frustrating ways to lose every week. Leading William and Mary 10-6 at halftime before yielding three touchdowns. That close defeat to Monmouth. Losing another halftime lead vs. Sacred Heart before giving up 58 points overall to the Pioneers. That’s highly unusual for the Leopards, who in the last decade had always leaned on one of the best defenses in the Patriot League to keep them in games.
It took the last weekend of October before Lafayette would find a way to win their first game, a 21-17 come from behind win over Bucknell that would finally get their season kickstarted. Trailing 17-14 with 9:15 left in regulation, freshman LB Marco Olivas stripped the ball from a Bucknell wideout and LB Yasir Thomas recovered, which seemed to be exactly the energy needed for them to turn things around. Shoemaker completed 23-of-27 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown, while running for 47 yards as part of 162 rushing yards on the afternoon.
From there Lafayette beat both Fordham and Holy Cross, giving the 3-6 Leopards, amazingly, control of their own destiny in the FCS playoff picture. A shutout loss to Colgate derailed that dream, but Lafayette can still win a share of of the Patriot League championship and the Patriot League autobid if they beat their bitter Rivals for the first time in five years and Holy Cross loses to Georgetown on the last weekend of the year.
Even though the Leopards started 0-6, they honestly didn’t seem too far off from having a much better record. They played the Big South Champions tough and had nothing to be ashamed about in their relatively close losses to William and Mary and Penn. So their run through the Patriot League wasn’t too much of a surprise, though Colgate still appears to have the Leopards’ number, blanking them 19-0 last week. Still, a win over their bitter Rivals seems more within reach than ever, and even at 4-7 Garrett and company would have lots to look forward to in 2020.
But what can be expected from the Leopards on this last game of the season – the squad that is still trying to find a way to win a game like this, or the team that did figure it out in three important league games this year?
“To see the passion [alumni] speak with when they speak about the game makes you want to play harder for them, just to have respect for the rivalry,” Yasir Thomas said this week.
“Yeah, we explain the tradition to them, 155 games , most games played, but this game has to be treated like any other game,” OL Jake Marotti said. “We have to give the same amount of energy, focus, execution. In that aspect, it doesn’t change much. But with the tradition, there’s more on the table. The tradition behind it is pretty amazing stuff to think about.”
Lehigh Going For Five In A Row
All year Lehigh tried in vain to avoid the words “rebuilding year”, but it was a series of words that kept coming around to visit whenever you tried to take a look at the 2019 Mountain Hawks.
“Over 40% of our team are first-year players,” head coach Tom Gilmore established in the very opening moments of the season. “And we’re excited to see what some of these freshmen can do to enhance our roster and push the upperclassmen to be the best version of themselves on the field.”
Certainly Lehigh, who was picked to finish fifth in the League in preseason, didn’t have a lot of title expectation baggage at the start. The Mountain Hawks needed to replace a starting quarterback, a running back that held a multitude of school records, and needed to fix a defense whose reputation was in tatters over a bad stretch of years. Not helping matters was the fact that Gilmore was hired in January, had to pull together a late run at a signing day class, and needed to pull together a coaching staff.
Mountain Hawk fans who had been spoiled by scoring RPO touchdowns in bunches didn’t know what they had, and when Lehigh lost their season-opening game 14-13 with their only touchdown a viral highlight-reel scoop and score from a blocked punt, most fans didn’t really know what they had.
As it turned out, Gilmore engineered a sudden turnaround in the Lehigh defense, developing a scheme, culture and attitude that put their defensive struggles in the past. The defense that once gave up 65 points to Penn, 59 points to Stony Brook and 64 points to New Hampshire in the last four years was now the reason why Lehigh was winning games 10-3 against Merrimack , 21-14 against Colgate, and 27-24 against Georgetown. That’s highly unusual for the Mountain Hawks, who were used to out-gunning opponents on offense, not out-toughing them on defense.
“We took on a backbone role,” senior DE Juwan Morrow told me this week. “I think it started with the players, you know, wanting to establish an identity. And it got to the point where we said, you know what? We want people to see our identity, not just hear about it. So every time I go onto the field, I make sure to run to the ball, hit people and impact, you know, make collisions, make plays happen and just be a high intensity, very emotional group of guys on defense.”
“It’s all a process,” senior S Sam McCloskey said. “And I think the process started years ago with the guys on this defense. We’ve got more confidence than last year. We worked harder in the offseason, got a new defensive staff, a very aggressive staff. So you when you put all those things together, good things happen and you’ve seen it so far.”
That identity carried Lehigh to their first wins on the season, and extended through a three game winning streak that put the rebuilding Mountain Hawks into the conversation for the Patriot League title. A closely-fought 24-17 defeat to Holy Cross ultimately derailed any chance they had at the Patriot League autobid, though a win against their Rivals and a Crusader loss would give Lehigh a co-championship in Gilmore’s first year as head coach.
But what will this mostly young team, navigating a ton of offensive injuries, do on Saturday? QB Alec Beesmer, the presumed starter, has started all of one game his college career, and underclassmen are all over the Mountain Hawk depth chart. What will the Mountain Hawks have in store?
Morrow and McCloskey have been here before, but they’re keenly aware of what The Rivalry is and what it means to the campus, alumni and community. Even in the waning moments of last week’s tough 13-6 loss to Sacred Heart, McCloskey was already preparing the younger players for what they were going to encounter in the run-up to the big Rivalry game.
“This is a big game,” McCloskey said. “It’s gonna mean a lot to the community and a lot of people back on campus. You know, it’s going to be hectic and crazy. But the guys need to stay grounded, you know, because like I said, we’re going out and we’re playing on Saturday. It’s not our week to go party and whatnot.”
“It’s hard to to explain everything to someone who hasn’t experienced it,” Morrow said. “So my words really don’t do it justice. I just make sure that I’m telling them, hey, it’s it’s not a game. You keep doing what you’re doing in your playbook to study your keys, make sure you hit the right guy and get off on the plays. So when the crowds jump in really loud and you can’t hear the calls, you know, trust your technique and you’ll be fine. Play for the guy next to you. We’ve been through all this adversity and now we want to come out on top together.”
Lafayette (3-7, 3-2) at Lehigh (4-6, 3-2), 155th Meeting of The Rivalry
Where: Murray Goodman Stadium, Bethlehem, PA
When: Saturday, November 23rd, 12:30 PM
TV/Streaming: WFMZ 69, Lafayette Sports Network (check local listings), Patriot League Network (Lehigh Feed), Patriot League Network (Lafayette Feed)
Radio: Fox Sports 1230/1320 (Matt Kerr, Jim Guzzo, Matt Markus)
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
Reach him at: this email or click below: