Why Lafayette will win the 157th rivalry game

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Charlie Berman, Staff Writer

Two very different seasons have played out for the Leopards (3-7 overall, 2-3 Patriot League) and the Mountain Hawks (2-8 overall, 2-3 Patriot League). Both teams are walking onto the field for the 157th meeting of the Lafayette-Lehigh rivalry tied in division play and separated by a single win in their overall record. 

Lehigh’s season began with not scoring a touchdown for the first seven weeks of the season. However, they have found their groove since entering Patriot League play, only scoring less than 20 points once in their last four games.

Lafayette and Lehigh mirror each other in Patriot League play, with wins over Georgetown and Bucknell while tallying losses against Colgate, Fordham and defending Patriot League Champions Holy Cross. The point differential in Patriot League play favors Lafayette with a negative five-point differential compared to Lehigh’s negative seven. 

Lafayette is led by freshman quarterback Ah-Shaun Davis who took over just before the New Hampshire game. With an exceptional arm and speed, he powered the Lafayette offense to a 24-14 win against the University of Pennsylvania in his second start. Penn, the only mutual out-of-league opponent, stifled Lehigh two weeks after falling to the Leopards, beating the Mountain Hawks 20-0. 

Davis has struggled in recent weeks facing the tough defenses of the Patriot League in less-than-ideal weather conditions but had bursts of quality when he dismantled Fordham and Bucknell’s defense for 41 and 27 points respectively. 

Playing only eight of 10 games, Davis has thrown for the second-most yards in the Patriot League this season. He has utilized receiving weapons juniors Julius Young and Joe Gillette who rank fifth and seventh respectively in receiving yards in the Patriot League this season. No Lehigh player is in the top ten. Complementing Lafayette’s one-two punches are junior receivers KJ Rodgers and Jordan Hull and sophomore tight end Mason Gilbert. 

Davis is accompanied by a four-man battery in the backfield, led by senior captain Selwyn Simpson and junior Jaden Sutton. They are complemented by two freshmen, Nahjee Adams and return specialist Michael Hayes. Hayes leads the Patriot League in return yards by over 100 this season. After struggling for the first part of the season, mainly due to an offensive line depleted by injuries, the rushing attack improved. In their last game they totaled 197 yards on the ground against a strong Colgate defense, the second most the Raiders have let up to a Patriot League opponent this season. 

The offense has been up and down all year, but the vaunted Lafayette defense led by three-time All-Patriot League defensive lineman and senior captain Malik Hamm have stepped up and kept the Leopards in games. The former Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year, Hamm has been visited by all 32 NFL teams and has a serious opportunity to be the first player from Lafayette to make it to the league since Matt Smalley in 2016. 

Hamm, often taking on a double team by himself, is accompanied by junior defensive lineman Damon Washington who contributed four sacks and a forced fumble in last year’s victory over Lehigh. Behind them is standout junior linebacker Marco Olivas who leads the team in sacks and is tied for second in the entire Patriot League this season from tackles. Averaging over 10 tackles a game, Olivas has been on an All-Patriot League push this year and has taken over games which may be a problem for a suspect Lehigh offense. 

There is not a spot on the field where the aggressive and sure-handed tackler can’t compete. His talents complement senior linebacker Major Jordan who has returned from a significant wrist injury early to help his Leopards for one more year. He has been an asset to a linebacking core that has suffered significantly from injuries, mainly to senior Billy Schaefer and sophomore Preston Forney. 

This game will most likely be decided by Lehigh’s offense. If Lehigh showcases the offense they’ve shown in the last four games, Lafayette has not proven that they can keep up.

However, the defensive front for the Leopards will not make it easy for them, and that coupled with a balanced rushing and passing attack for the Lafayette offensive could result in an easy win for the Maroon and White. 

Everyone who has watched the rivalry in the past few years knows that there is nothing easy about these wins. In the last two matchups, the game has been decided by a single score. Lafayette has won the last two contests against the Mountain Hawks and controls the all-time series lead (80-71-1).

The game will come down to Davis. Will we see the struggling, unsure QB that we saw against Colgate, or will we see the strong-armed confident gunslinger we saw against Fordham?

I think there will be a little bit of both. However, the Lafayette defense will make the big stops they have all season, and the offense will do just enough to squeak out a win at Goodman stadium on Nov. 20 with a 12 p.m. kickoff.

Prediction: Lafayette: 23, Lehigh: 20