This week's FCS playoff brackets will rekindle a classic rivalry between the Delaware Blue Hens and the Lehigh Mountain Hawks in one of the key games in the second round
By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
The Football Championship Subdivision playoffs tend to be great in terms of the fact that it creates matchups that would not ordinarily occur.
Games like Villanove playing at Stephen F. Austin, Western Illinois traveling to Appalachian State, and Southeast Missouri State at Eastern Washington feature intriguing battles against great FCS teams that have never faced off against each other.
But every once in a while, the playoffs rekindles old rivalries that have been put on mothballs.
When Lehigh faces off against Delaware this weekend, Mountain Hawk fans will be extra fired up to face a team that was once their equal in the 1970s, but with the exception of 1999 have been dominated in the on-again, off-again rivalry with their FCS celebrity neighbors to the south.
THE HISTORY OF A RIVALRY
While the Blue Hens and Engineers (as they were then known) played each other three times before World War II, it was only after 1950 when Delaware and Lehigh started to play each other on a regular basis.
As an independent in the "Small College" devision, it made a lot of sense for Delaware to schedule nearby schools like Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell, West Chester, Rutgers, and Temple.
What really started a genuine Delaware rivalry with Lehigh, though, was when Delaware promoted future College Football hall of fame head coach Tubby Raymond in 1966 from baseball and backfield coach to full-time head football coach.
A former standout football and baseball player at the University of Michigan, Raymond took the Blue Hens' success in the University Division of the Middle Athletic Conference and successfully guided them to 300 career wins, an amazing 14 Lambert Cup Trophies (presented to the best small college team in the East), four bowl victories, and a gaggle of postseason invites as the Blue Hens went from "Small College" to Division II to Division I.
"There were few teams, maybe none, Tubby Raymond enjoyed beating more than Lehigh," beat writer Kevin Tresolini of the Delaware News-Journal this week. "Lehigh went from being a sad-sack program in the 1960s the first time I ever saw grown men cry (Lehigh players) was on the field at Lafayette after Lehigh lost to finish an 0-9 season there in 1966 and early 1970s to NCAA Division II champion in 1977 using the Delaware Wing-T offense."
JOHN WHITEHEAD'S INFLUENCE
In the late 1970s, Lehigh was coached by legendary head coach John Whitehead. Like Raymond, Whitehead won a Division II national championship through a playoff. (Raymond's came in 1979, Whitehead's came in 1977). And like Raymond, Whitehead was a devotee of the Wing-T offense.
But Whitehead's teams owned Tubby Raymond's teams. In his nine year coaching career, Lehigh went 6-2 against the Blue Hens - the only true era of dominance over Delaware by Lehigh.
With Tubby's own offense.
"Whitehead can roll off story after story about his confrontations with Raymond and his Blue Hens," an article from the Morning Call archives recounts. "Like the time in 1975 when Mark Weaver ran back a kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown which helped the Engineers to a 35-23 win.
To begin with, Weaver, a Salisbury High product, was the right kid for the situation. His flamboyance still ranks among the best in Lehigh history.
"Mark's run irritated the hell out of Tubby," said Whitehead, his round face lighting up with the recollection in the Morning Call. "Mark put on a little dance when he got to the end zone.
That really got to Tubby. He told his film crew that he wanted the film to show his defense. Tubby told his defense he doesn't want something like that to happen ever again, especially from a Lehigh kid."
"I really don't like this place," said a half-joking Raymond after beating Lehigh for the final time in historic Taylor Stadium in Bethlehem, 28-24. "I hate walking up the three flights of stairs to the locker room. On the sideline, the line judge ran over me three times because there's just no room there. The fans are sitting on your back, in your head and everybody's screaming. They can hear everything you're saying; it's kind of like being naked.
"As much respect as I have for Lehigh and the number of fantastic games we've played here, I'm glad to get out of here. Sure, I'd like to play Lehigh again somewhere down the road . . . but not here."
Raymond's and Whitehead's jawboning were fantastic copy for the papers in Newark and Bethlehem - and a rivalry was born.
When the Whitehead era came to an end - and both Delaware and Lehigh were now competing in FCS, which was then called I-AA Delaware and Lehigh started to grow in different directions.
Delaware, unter the tutalage of Tubby Raymond, joined the Yankee Conference (the precursor to today's CAA) and built a program that would become a rallying point for the state and a flagship institution for FCS football.
Lehigh broke out in another direction becoming a flagship member of the grand experiment of the Patriot League, an athletic conference that featured checks and balances on athletics, need-based aid, and a focus on high, Ivy League-like academics.
TUBBY RAYMOND STRIKES AGAIN
Delaware and Lehigh continued to play each other, but less frequently and the Blue Hens dominated the series, almost entirely played in Delaware Stadium, also named Tubby Raymond Field.
While Lehigh managed a 35-28 win in 1999, Delaware's 49-22 win in the 2000 I-AA playoffs a game not as close as the final score indicated was more the norm for the series.
Even after Raymond's retirement from football in 2001, he seemed to delight in rattling cages up at Lehigh.
Right before Lehigh went to Delaware in 2004 a game won in overtime by Delaware 34-33, thanks to a missed Lehigh extra point in overtime Tubby was asked by the Wilmington News-Journal as to what Lehigh fans should enjoy beating more, beating Lafayette (their nearby rival whom they've played 146 times, the most-played rivalry in college football history) or Delaware.
Raymond volunteered Delaware.
"Here, I go again... It's because of their selectivity of schedule. They really don't play anybody that could beat them. They've created a cloistered league [the Patriot] for themselves to play each other. So, when they play us, it's like the World Series."
Understandably, Delaware fans have a tendency to think of their games against Lehigh as automatic wins - with only one loss to the Mountain Hawks since 1986, it's certainly understandable. But to Tubby - still very active in the Delaware football program - playing Lehigh is still a rivalry game. Without question.
THIS WEEK'S GAME
When breaking down this "Blue Route" rivalry (since Newark, Delaware and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania are separated by the "Blue Route" through Philadelphia), the first thing that strikes you is that it looks like it could be a big defensive battle.
The Blue Hens sport the No. 1 ranked scoring defense in FCS and Lehigh sports the No. 10 ranked scoring defense and since October, Lehigh's defense has given up fewer points than Delaware's.
Lehigh has real momentum going into this game, too.
The Mountain Hawks are undefeated since October. They've improved in leaps and bounds, week to week.
And Delaware has had two weeks to stew on their regular season-ending overtime loss to Villanova. Folks may pooh-pooh that loss, but make no mistake, it makes a difference.
And it could be a type of game where the first team that makes it to 21 points wins the game. I wouldn't be surprised if you have to scrape both teams off the gridiron once its done. It's going to be tough and physical out there, and it should be a whale of a game.
BATTLES TO WATCH
1) QB Pat Devlin vs. the Lehigh secondary. Devlin has been incredibly efficient passing the ball this year - completing passes at a 67% clip, and only tossing two interceptions and losing zero fumbles all season.
But Lehigh's secondary has been strong as well notably, against Northern Iowa last week when three different Mountain Hawks intercepted QB Tirrell Rennie.
If Devlin plays one of his relatively mistake-free games, it will be tough for Lehigh but if Lehigh forces a turnover, or even two, it could be a game-changer.
2) Lehigh offensive lineman Will Rackley vs. Delaware's front seven. Delaware's front, arguably, doesn't have any one superstar but is simply great across the board.
The Blue Hens are not super aggressive, but they generally do win the trench battles. Lehigh's NFL prospect offensive lineman Will Rackley and the Mountain Hawk offensive line will have to equal or better Delaware's front seven.
3) A possession game. What Delaware is looking for in this game more than anything is a two-score lead, early if possible.
Both the Blue Hens and Mountain Hawks will be looking to jump ahead by two scores, and just wear down the other team. Furthermore, every second in this game that Lehigh hangs around is a potential cause for Blue Hen worry and the pressure on their team will be immense.
The more pressure on the Hens late in the game, the better chance Lehigh has to steal the victory.
Sure, there are other great matchups this weekend. But the rivalry that Tubby and Whitehead built is by far going to be the most intriguing and the one involving the most emotion of the eight playoff games to occur this weekend. It's going to be a dogfight until the end.
Delaware 21, Lehigh 17