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Lowly Lafayette looks for a little help in unlikely playoff quest

(Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

As improbable as it sounds, Lafayette — a struggling team that has only won three games this entire season — has an outside chance to make the 24-team Div. I FCS playoffs heading into Saturday’s season finale against arch-rival Lehigh.  But the lowly Leopards, who were shut out by defending Patriot League champion Colgate 16-0 in a defensive struggle this past weekend, will need some unexpected help from one of the league’s basement dwellers to make the seemingly impossible a reality.

And perhaps some divine intervention, too.

Whipped by William & Mary, shell-shocked at home by a suddenly explosive Sacred Heart squad that put a season-high 56 points on the board, annihilated by Greg Gattuso’s Albany Great Danes, pinched by the Ivy League’s Penn and pummeled by nationally-ranked Princeton in losing all six of its non-conference games earlier this season, Lafayette (3-8) nevertheless put up an admirable fight against 12th-ranked and playoff-bound Monmouth (9-2) on the road in the second game of the season. 

High-powered Monmouth, which has won seven in a row and routed preseason favorite Kennesaw State 45-21 in early November, captured the Big South title this past Saturday with an absolutely dominating 47-10 performance at Campbell. 

Yet, Lafayette — rallying from a 21-7 third quarter deficit — took the high-powered Hawks down to the wire at Kessler Stadium in West Long Branch, N.J., before falling short, 24-21.  Making his starting debut, quarterback Keegan Shoemaker, a 6-3, 190-pound freshman from Prosper, Texas, connected on 20 of 32 passes for 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns in that game, including an 80-yard touchdown strike to senior wide receiver Nick Pearson in the third quarter that trimmed heavily-favored Monmouth’s lead to a single touchdown.

Effectively eliminating Monmouth’s big play potential all afternoon, the Leopards likely would have prevailed in that game had it not been for a highlight film-worthy acrobatic pick in the end zone by Monmouth defensive back Anthony Budd midway through the third quarter.

Despite a sluggish 0-7 start to open the season, which included a 14-10 loss at Georgetown in their Patriot League opener on Oct. 19th, the Leopards have almost looked like an entirely different team the last four weeks. 

Reeling off back-to-back wins against Bucknell and Fordham, Lafayette put itself in contention for the Patriot League title with a stunning 23-20 victory against league-leading Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, a couple of weeks ago.  The upset-minded Leopards forced five turnovers in that nip-and-tuck contest, converting three of those takeaways into thirteen points.

Shoemaker was outstanding against the Crusaders, completing 16 of 25 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns.  Shoemaker’s 2,421 passing yards so far this season established a new program record for a freshman.

Despite last weekend’s disappointing loss to Colgate, Lafayette is still very much in the hunt for the Patriot League championship and the league’s automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. 

Bucknell (3-7, 3-2 Patriot) and Lehigh (4-6, 3-2 Patriot) are alive for a share of the title with Holy Cross if they each finish 4-2 in the conference, but Lafayette is the only team with a chance to snare the league’s automatic bid from the Crusaders.

Trailing Holy Cross by a game but owning the head-to-head tiebreaker entering the final weekend of the regular season, the Leopards will have to take care of business against longtime rival Lehigh on Saturday afternoon at Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem, which is only about fifteen miles from Lafayette’s Easton campus. 

The Lehigh-Lafayette rivalry is one of the oldest in college football and Saturday’s game will be the 155th meeting between the two schools.  Lehigh has won the last four games in the series, including a 34-3 lashing of the Leopards last season.

But assuming well-traveled third-year coach John Garrett’s team can find a way to win on Saturday, they will need some help from last-place Georgetown (5-5, 1-4 Patriot), which plays the league-leading Crusaders in Worcester, if it hopes to overtake Holy Cross and claim the Patriot League title and its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

It’s not an impossible scenario.  The defensive-minded Hoyas, who made great strides last year when they recorded their best record since 2012 — posting one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the country by finishing 5-6 overall following a dismal 1-10 season in 2017 — are much better than their 1-4 conference record might indicate.  In fact, they’ve played everybody in the conference exceedingly tough this year. 

Georgetown, the only school in the conference that doesn’t offer football scholarships yet led the Patriot League with 34 sacks and 20 interceptions last season while finishing second in scoring, rushing and total defense, defeated Lafayette earlier this season and lost three league games by three points each, falling to Fordham 30-27 in the final seconds in the league opener, dropping a 27-24 heartbreaker at Lehigh when the Mountain Hawks’ Austin Henning split the uprights with a game-winning 27-yard field goal as time expired, and losing 20-17 at Bucknell after squandering a 17-6 fourth-quarter lead.

Each of those losses stung — and stung badly. 

The Hoyas’ worst defeat in league play was a 24-14 setback to defending Patriot League champion Colgate on Nov. 2nd.  Incredibly, Georgetown’s five losses this season have been by a combined total of 26 points.  Overall, they have outscored their opponents 266 to 159.

With eight defensive starters from a unit led by massive all-conference 6-foot, 295-pound defensive lineman and team captain Khristian Tate (who has missed the last four games) that allowed a relatively meager 298 yards per game last year and seven returning starters on offense, including three linemen, from last year’s vastly-improved team in the lineup at the start of the season, Georgetown entered the 2019 campaign with one of the most experienced teams in the league.

Georgetown’s roster, moreover, includes three players with NFL pedigree, including junior quarterback Joseph Brunell, the son of former Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell.  As starting quarterback Gunther Johnson’s backup, Brunell has seen action in seven games, throwing for 539 yards and three touchdowns.  Junior wide receiver Skyler Springs, moreover, is the son of ex-Pro Bowl cornerback Shawn Springs, who played a dozen years in the NFL, and 6-3, 295-pound freshman lineman Talati Polamalu is the nephew of Troy Polamalu, the former strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Blue and Gray also boast some NFL experience on the sidelines in the presence of assistant coach Jamie Sharper, the ex-Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans linebacker who played in 136 NFL consecutive games, making 882 tackles, 255 sacks and a couple of interceptions.  Sharper works with the team’s linebackers.   

Despite some offensive shortcomings — they averaged just 15.6 points per game in 2018 — given their defensive prowess the Hoyas appeared to be a legitimate contender for the Patriot League title this year. 

The fact of the matter is that Georgetown, having endured one narrow loss after another and still looking for a signature conference victory after winning four of their first five games this season, could very well be sitting atop the Patriot League at 4-1 and on the cusp of making its first FCS playoff appearance in history.

Instead, they’re in last place.

Despite sitting at the bottom of the Patriot League standings where they’re currently tied with Fordham, the tough-luck Hoyas lead the league in a number of important statistical categories, including both scoring defense and total defense, allowing a relatively paltry 15.9 points per game.  Georgetown also leads the league in scoring, averaging 26.6 points per game. 

Moreover, the Hoyas lead the Patriot League in rushing, grinding out 157.7 yards on the ground per game.  They also lead the league in offensive pass efficiency and pass defense efficiency and in interceptions, as well as defending in the red zone.

All of that is to say that Georgetown could be hungry and looking for a way to salvage an otherwise disappointing season on Saturday.

The bottom line is that Holy Cross, hoping to make the FCS playoffs for only the second time in program history and its first since 2009, certainly won’t have an easy time of it this weekend while lowly Lafayette — against all odds — could potentially sneak into the playoffs with a 4-8 overall mark. 

Stranger things have happened. 

If the seemingly impossible occurs, it won’t be the first time that a team with a losing record appeared in the FCS playoffs.  It has happened twice before.  One of those teams — you guessed it — was Lafayette itself.  (The other was Lehigh — Lafayette’s opponent on Saturday — which qualified for the playoffs with a somewhat mediocre 5-6 record in 2017.) 

In 2013 — the same year the FCS playoffs expanded to 24 teams — the Leopards also captured the Patriot League championship with an overall record of 5-6.  Unfortunately, Lafayette was buried 45-7 by New Hampshire, an eventual semifinalist, in the first round of the playoffs.

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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