For the first time since 2011, the Lehigh football team will face Lafayette already knowing it’s secured a spot in the FCS playoffs.
But the playoffs are the last thing on the team’s mind.
“We’re not looking past Lafayette at all,” senior linebacker Pierce Ripanti said. “We’re not looking at our postseason as well. Right now we’re worried about beating Lafayette, kind of sending a message.”
After clinching the Patriot League Championship two weeks ago following a 20-13 win over Bucknell, No. 17 Lehigh (8-2, 5-0 Patriot) knows the season won’t end with the Lafayette game like it has the past three years.
For seniors, this means a lot.
“It’s a game we want to win, we want to win it significantly, and like I said, send a message with this game,” Ripanti said. “It would make what’s been a pretty spectacular season for us a lot more spectacular.”
After starting the season 0-2 and bringing about flashbacks of their struggles in 2014 and 2015, the Mountain Hawks have rattled off eight-straight wins. The driving force behind this winning streak has been their offense.
Lehigh is ranked fifth in the FCS in passing offense and eighth in total offense. The team has converted 50 percent of its third downs — good for sixth in the FCS — and has the 10th fewest penalties.
Junior wide receivers Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey are both top 10 in receiving yards, each surpassing 1,000 yards. They’ve combined for the second most receiving yards for a duo in the FCS this year.
And sophomore running back Dom Bragalone is just four yards shy of his second straight 1,000-yard season. At this pace, he would finish his Lehigh career with more rushing yards than any player in school history.
“I think it’s a pretty tough task for them because we have all those players like me and (Pelletier), Derek (Knott), Trevor (Socarras), (Nick Shafnisky), (Bragalone) at running back, we have a good offensive line,” Casey said. “It’s hard to prepare because they can’t just focus on one player or two of us. They have to come up with a plan for all of us, and I think that’s really difficult to do.”
Lafayette (2-8, 1-4 Patriot) has not bounced back from its recent struggles. The team has just five wins combined over the past three years and hasn’t had a winning season since 2009.
The Leopards rank 99th in the FCS in total offense and 90th in total defense. But they’ve still beaten Lehigh twice in the past three years despite having a worse record both times.
Senior linebacker Evan Harvey said the team has multiple tough receiving threats, such as junior Matt Mrazek, who has 673 yards and eight touchdowns. Harvey said records go out the window in games like this.
“We’ve just got to get to the quarterback, make it tough for him to even get the ball off,” he said. “So them as an offense and us as a defense, we definitely know we have to just do our jobs, our one job — not make too many plays, or not plays that aren’t ours to make.”
The team continues to take the “second season” approach for the Lafayette game, saying how it has a special type of importance regardless of whether it has playoff implications.
“I don’t think the playoffs are on our mind right now,” Casey said. “I think beating Lafayette and beating them bad is on our mind right now.”
Following the rivalry game, the FCS tournament selection show will occur Sunday at 11 a.m. where Lehigh will find out its first round opponent. Its first round game will be Nov. 26.