Heading into the 155th meeting of The Rivalry, there isn’t an outcome that would be totally shocking. Lafayette (3-8) holds an edge in the Patriot League standings at No. 2 compared to Lehigh’s (4-6) No. 3 spot, but considering a matchup between one of the strongest offenses (Lafayette) versus one of the strongest defenses (Lehigh) in the league, there are cases for both optimism and pessimism in this game.
Lehigh will look to reverse its losing trend, following its three consecutive losses to Sacred Heart (13-6) and Patriot League opponents Bucknell and Holy Cross, 20-10 and 24-17, respectively. Both Lehigh and Lafayette sit at 3-2 in the league, so, at the very least, each team will finish this season with a .500 conference record, which is telling of their average seasons.
Offensively, the Leopards have surpassed the Mountain Hawks on every statistic. Lafayette has recorded 204 points, 1,256 rushing yards, 2,548 passing yards and 25 touchdowns compared to Lehigh’s 157, 720, 2,321 and 18, respectively.
Much of this success stems from Lafayette freshman quarterback Keegan Shoemaker, a rookie whom the Mountain Hawks can definitely expect to give a run for their money. In Lafayette’s recent victory over Patriot League opponent Holy Cross — Lehigh lost to Holy Cross 24-17 — Shoemaker completed 16-25 passing for 196 yards and two touchdowns, and was named both the Patriot League Offensive Player and Rookie of the Week. Shoemaker has already set a Lafayette single-season passing yards record for a freshman with 2,299 yards.
But let’s not discount the offensive weapons Lehigh has in its own cavalry. Senior wide receiver Devon Bibbens has been one of the few consistent players for Lehigh’s offensive unit, leading the team with 61 catches for 734 yards and six touchdowns. In Lehigh’s recent 20-10 loss to Bucknell — Lafayette beat Bucknell 21-17 — Bibbens had 11 receptions for 92 yards and recorded the only touchdown for the Mountain Hawks, catching a pass from sophomore quarterback Alec Beesmer with 7:11 remaining.
Lafayette will also have to keep an eye out for freshman running back Zaythan Hill. Hill leads the team in rushing yards (355) and has already secured the longest touchdown run in Patriot League history after rushing for a 94-yard touchdown against Fordham University on Oct. 19.
Both Bibbens and Hill have outperformed Lafayette’s leading rusher and receiver, but Lehigh’s offense will have to put forward a combined effort to outscore Lafayette’s No. 4 ranked offensive unit.
Lehigh’s defensive unit has undergone a complete transformation since last season, establishing itself as the second-ranked defense in the league.
The Mountain Hawks have allowed 218 points, 1,334 rushing yards, 2,250 passing yards and 28 touchdowns compared to the Leopards’ 303, 1,744, 2,369 and 38, respectively. Led by senior linebacker Keith Woetzel, Lehigh’s defensive unit has carried the team for much of the season.
Aside from being Lehigh’s top tackler with 107 stops, Woetzel also leads the Mountain Hawks with 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. On a national level, Woetzel ranks second in the FCS in solo tackles per game (7.2), ninth in sacks per game (0.95) and seventh in total tackles per game (10.7).
Without powerhouse offensive MVPs like senior quarterback Brad Mayes and senior running back Dominick Bragalone guiding the Mountain Hawks to another 34-3 bulldozing victory, Saturday’s matchup will be a battle between Lafayette’s offense and Lehigh’s defense. However, even if the Leopards explode on offense, I doubt it will pose much of an issue for Woetzel and the rest of the defensive squad. After all, Lehigh held the No. 1 ranked offensive team in the league (Georgetown) to 24 points, enough to secure the 27-24 victory.
But let’s step away from the statistics — Lehigh has home-field advantage, a reputation to uphold and the opportunity to clinch its fifth-straight victory over its archrival.
Factor in a packed Goodman Stadium, and I don’t see how Lafayette can walk away with the victory, especially given its atrocious 1-5 away record.
Lafayette’s performance will be as unimpressive as its spirit week sheets, and Lehigh will once again establish itself as the dominant side in The Rivalry. Watching both Bibbens and Woetzel record season highs and receive MVP honors will serve as the cherry on top.
Prediction: Lehigh 27, Lafayette 14
Now read Lafayette assistant sports editor AJ Traub’s take on why Lafayette will win.
Lafayette and Lehigh both enter their 155th Rivalry game at 3-2 in the Patriot League.
Lehigh started conference play with three consecutive wins, but losses to Holy Cross and Bucknell have left them out of contention for the title. Lafayette strung together three strong wins over Bucknell, Fordham, and Holy Cross, and will be looking for a bounce-back win after looking helpless against Colgate.
Lafayette’s difference-makers on offense this season have been freshman quarterback Keegan Shoemaker and junior running back Selwyn Simpson.
Simpson is averaging 4.7 yards per rush. He could be valuable for the Leopards seeing as the Mountain Hawks’ opponents are averaging 3.8 yards per rush against them. We could also see freshmen Jaden Sutton and John Gay, who are averaging 4.0 and 3.6 yards per rush respectively.
Shoemaker broke Lafayette’s single-game all-purpose yard record in his second career start, where he threw for 391 yards and rushed for another 138. For comparison, last Saturday the Pioneers held Lehigh to 259 yards total.
While Shoemaker was well contained last week, he was missing his top receivers in senior Nick Pearson, freshman Joe Gillette, and junior Quinn Revere. In their absence, senior Julian Spigner, freshman Jordan Hull, and sophomore Zadok Scott have stepped up.
Perhaps facing the Lehigh defense, which has given up 15 passing touchdowns to just six interceptions, will help bring back the version of Shoemaker who threw for five touchdowns in the two league wins over Holy Cross and Fordham. In total, Shoemaker has thrown for 14 touchdowns this season and run for three more.
While Lafayette’s defense this season doesn’t look as good as Lehigh’s on paper, the Patriot League has been a different story. The Leopards defense has given up 101 points to conference opponents, nearly identical to Lehigh’s 102. In a battle of offenses against similar defenses, Lafayette appears to have the upper hand.
There is something to be said about the quality of each team’s wins. Lafayette’s two conference losses come from two of the bottom three teams in the standings, while Lehigh’s have come against the top two teams (excluding Lehigh and Lafayette). As Lehigh and Lafayette are tied for second place, this could bode well for the Leopards.
The Rivalry will be at Goodman Stadium this season, which may actually be good for the Leopards. Though Lafayette has lost their last two home Rivalry games by a combined score of 79-24, the last four Rivalry games away from Fisher (including the Yankee Stadium game), the Leopards have outscored Lehigh 143-122.
This year could be a close game, and will likely come down to Shoemaker’s decision making. His 17 total touchdowns have sparked the Lafayette offense, but he has thrown 13 picks as well.
Final score prediction: Lafayette Leopards 31, Lehigh Mountain Hawks 21