This Leopard has changed its spots — and the complexion of a Patriot League that was expected to be owned by Holy Cross for a fifth straight year.
With its 38-35 win at Holy Cross, Lafayette unseated the Crusaders from their perch atop the conference on Saturday. The upset extended the Leopards’ winning streak to five and kept the new Patriot League No. 1 unbeaten in FCS games. Other resume highlights accrued during this run include quality wins over the CAA’s Monmouth (28-20) and at traditional Ivy League power Princeton (12-9).
Lafayette’s ascension to a Top 25 breakthrough, checking in at No. 21 in the Stats Perform media poll this week, has been keyed by the Leopards’ defense and running game.
Lafayette owns the Patriot’s best scoring defense at 20.7 PPG allowed. Sure, Holy Cross managed to put up 35 points in defeat to the Leopards, but the ’Saders trailed 21-7 at halftime, a rare circumstance when in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Lafayette defense is led by senior linebacker Billy Shaeffer in tackles for loss (12.5 total) and sacks (7.0), both of which are marks that pace the Patriot League, edging out Holy Cross’ Jacob Dobbs.
While Lafayette’s ability to outthrow Holy Cross was notable on Saturday (the Leopards’ Dean DeNobile went 12-of-17 passing for 262 yards versus ground-dominant Matthew Sluka’s 85 yards on 7-of-21), the rushing competitiveness despite Sluka’s efforts was most glaring.
Lafayette sophomore running back Jamar Curtis went off for a career-best 229 yards on 30 carries that included two touchdowns, bolstering the Leopards to overcome Sluka’s staggering rushing total of 330 yards and three touchdowns. Curtis’ performance was emblematic of Lafayette proving it belongs with (or as) the best in the league entering the home stretch of the regular season.
Curtis occupies the Patriot driver’s seat in rushing YPG at 132.4 with six touchdowns on the season. Lafayette will need him to continue to propel the offense when it encounters fellow top-half Patriot member and playoff at-large candidate Fordham on November 11 in Easton, Pennsylvania — one week before Lafayette meets rival Lehigh for the 159th time. That will be a highly emotional back-to-back for the Leopards, who are taking aim at their first FCS playoff berth since 2013’s League title.
Lafayette-Fordham figures to be monumental for the Patriot’s automatic qualifier to the playoffs, especially if the Rams can knock off Holy Cross at home this Saturday. Fordham boasts an FBS win at Buffalo, a convenient chip to bring to the at-large table next month. Since Lafayette lacks that booster (its lone loss came at Duke 42-7), as much as there are quality FCS wins present, the Leopards are best served by clinching the AQ to avoid the stress of being compared against bubble CAA teams in the region.
Speaking of the bubble, that’s exactly where Lafayette sent Holy Cross last week, putting the Patriot League (and the pollsters) on notice: One can no longer chalk up the conference for the Crusaders.