The Lehigh Mountain Hawks will go for Leopard blood this Saturday. Lehigh’s football team (2-8, 1-4 Patriot) is heading into the upcoming Rivalry game with some faces the Lafayette Leopards (8-2, 4-1 Patriot) will not be familiar with. A new quarterback, running back and head coach for Lehigh will provide unique challenges for the Lafayette defense and will be at the center of any potential upset Lehigh may pull off.
The stakes could not be any higher. Lafayette, who could potentially win the Patriot League title outright with a victory, has outscored their 10 opponents by a modest total of 53 points in 2023. Do not let this fool you. Their offense has cut through most of their opponents in the conference season: 56 points against Bucknell, 38 against Holy Cross and 35 against Georgetown. Even in their lone conference loss against Colgate, Lafayette still managed to score 34 points.
When looking at a defense that can stop them, you don’t need to look further than the team that has given up the least amount of touchdowns in all of Patriot League play, the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Led by sophomore defensive back Nick Peltekian’s 51 Patriot League tackles, the Mountain Hawks have proven themselves to be a formidable defensive unit that has only lost one conference game by more than 10 points.
Peltekian has contributed offensively throughout the season. He returned punts alongside his high school teammate, sophomore wide receiver Geoffrey Jamiel. Jamiel sat out for a few games due to injury but has continued his upward trajectory as one of the top receiving targets in the Patriot League. He is currently tied for first in touchdowns at Lehigh and is listed as a starter in the depth chart ahead of this weekend’s game, defeating his previous injury.
While the receivers for Lehigh look promising on their own, the bread and butter of Lehigh’s offense is the breakout first-year running back Luke Yoder. Yoder is currently averaging 104 rushing yards per game in conference play and had four rushing touchdowns in his past three games. Because Lehigh will take the win and cap their season off by preventing Lafayette from a trip to the national playoffs, Yoder will certainly perform well in the game, as he’s done all season, even as a first-year.
A deeper dive into Lehigh’s defense will reveal some more areas where the Mountain Hawks will be able to shine on Saturday. Senior linebacker Mike DeNucci and sophomore linebacker Tyler Ochojski both rank in the top 10 in the Patriot League in tackles per game. Ochojski has only gotten better as the season continued as he has recorded 15 solo tackles in the past two games, his best over a multi-game stretch all season.
In a league like the Patriot League, where scoring is typically lower than other Division I conferences, field position has become a crucial part of the game. Many people might overlook the benefits of having a good punter, but Lehigh’s senior punter Ben Banks-Altekruse has pinned opponents inside their only 20-yard line 29 times this season, which is more than twice as much as any other punter in the Patriot League.
Linebackers like Ochojski and DeNucci will have a chance to excel and make sure Lafayette’s offense struggles to move up the field if Lehigh’s special teams can do their job. Let us not forget two years ago when special teams proved to be crucial to the outcome of The Rivalry when the Mountain Hawks secured a win off of a blocked punt returned for a touchdown by senior running back Jack DiPietro.
Compared to previous years, Lehigh is a considerable underdog entering the game and beyond the sake of The Rivalry itself, their only motive to win is to prevent Lafayette from lifting the championship on their home field: what better motivation? This effort will likely have to be similar to Lehigh’s close 28-24 loss to Holy Cross, where the offense had an above-average day of productivity. The idea of beating the Leopards at home and denying them the title will be enough to send them over the line.
Prediction: Lehigh 31, Lafayette 28