One of my favorite quotes comes from Jake the Dog on the animated series Adventure Time. He tells a downtrodden Finn the Human that “sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something.” It’s excellent advice and, apparently, the 2019 Lafayette Leopards took that advice to heart in a big way.
Lafayette lost its first SEVEN games of the season. But they now lead the Patriot League after beating the best team in the conference, Holy Cross, 23-20 on the road. The Leopards have won three straight conference games for the first time since 2009. Improbably, they control their destiny in the Pat League and could get to an auto-bid to the playoffs with a losing record (a feat last accomplished by 2017 Lehigh.)
How did Lafayette go from zero to hero? First, their schedule got easier. Lafayette’s first six opponents, which included ranked Monmouth and Princeton, have an average SP+ ranking of 41.8 out of 127 teams (Note: FCS SP+ is still in beta form). Their Pat League opponents have an average ranking of 85th.
The Leopards also got healthy on the defensive line. The return of 2018 Pat League Rookie of the Year Malik Hamm and DT Ian Grayson has coincided with Lafayette giving up just 304 yards a game in the Pat League. Freshman QB Keegan Shoemaker has provided a steady force as he ranks first in the conference for passing yards, completion percentage, and total offense.
But the bigger question might be what Lafayette’s rise means for the Patriot League. The conference has suffered since allowing its teams to award athletic scholarships in 2012. The PL has fallen way behind their biggest competition, the Ivy League (did someone just scoff loudly?), and the Northeast and Southern have caught up to it. If you want a more extensive discussion of the Pat League’s issues, check out this great post by an unidentified Georgetown blogger.
Regardless, Lafayette (or the “Yettes” if you listen to the Solid Verbal) just needs to win next week to set up a de facto Pat League Championship game in The Rivalry against Lehigh. That’s great for the Leopards considering where they were earlier in the year.
Not so great for Lafayette is the reasoning for their nickname. According to the New York Times of October 23, 1924, Lafayette wanted an animal nickname like Yale, Pitt, Columbia, and Bucknell. They went with the Leopards for the alliteration, but also because of leopards’ cunning, physical strength, and “the fact that it is irresistible when aroused.” I know the words probably had a slightly different meaning back then, but it still sounds gross.