Mike DiPaola can be shaky on 3rd down (CREDIT: Lafayette Athletics)
Lafayette was a team loaded with senior starters in 2006, and while most teams would be expected to suffer a down year after that, the Leopards were still a popular choice to win the Patriot League this year. In fact, 99% of the prognosticators didn't even CONSIDER the possibility that Lafayette would struggle in 2007.
The first three weeks of the season seemed to prove the experts right. The Leopards cruised to victories over Marist, (49-10) and Georgetown, (28-7), and impressed the heck out of everyone with an 8-7 win at Penn.
But then Lafayette laid an egg at home and fell to Princeton, 20-14. After a bye week, the Leopards remain at home and will now host the Lions at the beautifully renovated Fisher Stadium
Lafayette will present much of the same kind of challenges Columbia has faced so far this season. Not unlike Princeton, the Leopards are a team with a multi-faceted running game and a tough defense, but their talented starting tailback Maurice White is highly doubtful for this game with a high ankle sprain. That means a lot of the onus will be on senior running back Anthony D'Urso who has a gaudy 5.9 yards per carry average so far this season, but does not have White's speed.
Lafayette's QB is Mike DiPaola who is getting his chance to start this season after patiently understudying for the very talented Brad Maurer for a few years. DiPaola is not spectacular, but he has good talent. Columbia must watch out for him on 3rd down and medium and 3rd down and short plays as he has had good success scrambling for first downs. But as a passer on third down, DiPaola is just 10 for 23 for 178 yards, 7 first downs, no touchdowns, and three big interceptions and two sacks. If the Lions force Lafayette into third down passing situations, I like their chances.
More often than not, DiPaola has been looking for junior wide receiver Shaun Adair when he throws the ball. Adair is fast, but he hasn't really broken a big one yet this year as his longest catch is for 35 yards. Adair is truly lethal as a kick returner though, as he has a 78-yard punt return for a TD and a 56-yard kickoff return that almost went all the way.
Defensively, the Leopards have really been solid. The talented crew of defensive linemen and linebackers have really stuffed the run for the most part, holding opponents to just two yards per carry. The pass defense is strong as well, but not as fearsome. Remember that Princeton QB Bill Foran went an impressive 18 for 24 against the Leopard secondary two weeks ago.
Other than Adair's lethal return game, the Lafayette special teams aren't the best. Their kicker, Davis Rodriguez, is a freshman who hasn't hit a field gosl attempt longer than 27 yards. He has been perfect on PAT's, however. Typically, he's been banging his kickoffs pretty short, with the average return starting at about the opposing 15-yard line. Lafayette is giving up a little more than 20 yards in kickoff returns.
The more I look at this team, the more I think the Lions have a good chance to win. The road trip factor is really the biggest challenge, and it is formiddable as I do expect a decent crowd to show up on a warm night. But without White at QB, and with an apparent relative weakness to exploit in the pass defense, there is no reason why Columbia should come into this game as 13-point underdogs.