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Lafayette has a clear path - if a rugged one - to Patriot League Title
There’s no surprise about two of them – Lehigh and Colgate. The 8-0 Mountain Hawks last lost a league game in the Truman Administration, so it seems, and the Raiders (4-3), behind the ‘McAttack’ of quarterback Gavin McCarney and running back Jordan McCord (who have run for 1,619 yards between them) run one of the most productive offenses in the nation.
And then there’s the third team tied at the top of the league standings – Lafayette.
The Leopards were picked second-to-last in the league preseason poll – “higher than I would have picked us,” said Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani at the time – and hadn’t finished above .500 since 2009. With a tiny senior class and inexperienced and youthful players starting all over the field, the thought was that if Lafayette managed a .500 season it’d count as a success on College Hill.
With Lafayette and Colgate handing Holy Cross and Georgetown, respectively, their second league losses Saturday, the season essentially comes down to a three-game playoff – Lafayette at Colgate, Nov. 3; Colgate at Lehigh, Nov. 10; Lehigh at Lafayette, Nov. 17.
Not many, perhaps, would pick the Leopards to grab the brass ring on that merry-go-round over the No. 9-ranked Mountain Hawks or over Colgate, Lafayette’s traditional nemesis (12 Leopard wins in 55 games).
And that’s fine with the Leopards.
“I like sneaking up from the bottom,” said Tavani, whose team last won the league in 2006. “We were picked second from the bottom and that team we just beat (Holy Cross), they were picked, what, second?”
Statistically Lafayette doesn’t quite match up with Lehigh or Colgate but if stats were what mattered computers, not student-athletes, would play the games.
“There’s less pressure on us,” said Lafayette senior wide receiver Mark Ross. “Nobody’s talking about us, but we talk among ourselves – we know our potential.”
That potential was on display against Holy Cross perhaps more than in any single game of the season for the Leopards. If it wasn’t Lafayette’s best game of the season, it was awfully close. The Leopards led all the way, dominated the stat sheets, and played with the verve and confidence of a young team coming into its own.
“We have come together in more of a tight-knit group than any team I have been on before,” senior tailback Vaughn Hebron said. “We work off each other’s intensity and we talk about maintaining the focus on our goal.”
The Leopards do have some work to do to reach that goal of a Patriot League title.
The Holy Cross win, solid though it was, did show a few areas that need improvement: Tavani’s usual bete-noire of pre-snap penalties, some special-teams issues (missed kicks, surrendering a kickoff return touchdown), and the occasional bout of bad tackling.
And there’s the small matter of one more league game ahead before meeting Colgate – against Georgetown at Fisher Stadium on Saturday.
The Hoyas (3-5, 0-2) are a dangerous bunch, but there’s absolutely no way Lafayette overlooks them, especially after dropping two heartbreakers to Georgetown the last two seasons. And it seems as if the Hoyas rub the Leopards the wrong way a little bit. Expect a massively motivated Lafayette team to take the field Saturday night.
The Leopards’ best reason to hope they come away with four wins to end the season and a league championship with them lies with a defense that improves every day. The Leopards lead all of Division I with 17 interceptions. They posted six sacks Saturday and held the Crusaders to 1.9 yards a carry.
Not many teams have a duo such as Rick Lyster and Jason Marshalek causing havoc in the middle of the defensive line. The Leopards’ depth at linebacker seems bottomless and the secondary is a sheer delight to watch, unless you are the opposing quarterback.
“Defense wins championships,” Tavani said Saturday.
And it may well win one for Lafayette in the three-game Patriot League playoff.