Saturday, November 28, 2009

Holy Cross 28, Villanova 38. Final

Some years, it's not easy for Patriot League fans to rally behind the league champion as they take on the best teams in the nation in the FCS playoffs. This year was different.

With senior QB Dominic Randolph finally breaking the Crusaders' championship drought (1991) and postseason drought (1983), the boys in Purple were a very easy team to root for on Saturday. It took Randolph four years - including a return for a fifth year for his final year of eligibility - to finally get Holy Cross over the hump. After three excruciating November swoons, it was awesome to see Randolph finally get a shot at a national championship.

Randolph and the rest of the Crusaders battled hard against a team that is a threat to win the Division I National championship. They gave them a scare, but ultimately Holy Cross added yet another "moral victory" to the Patriot League column as they battled bravely but fell, 38-28, to the CAA champions.

It was a script that was very similar to the first round game of 2007, where Fordham lost to CAA co-champion UMass 49-35. Like Fordham, Holy Cross lost their final regular-season game to Bucknell, backing into the playoffs after they secured the autobid. Like UMass, Villanova was forced to play uptempo Holy Cross high-scoring football. It resulted in a high-scoring game - but, unfortunately, a Villanova win.

After Villanova senior RB Aaron Ball took in a 6 yard TD run on an impressive initial Wildcat drive to go ahead 7-0, Holy Cross responded with a 13 play, 77 yard drive of their own. Deep in Wildcat territory, Gilmore decided to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Villanova 6, and Randolph found senior WR Bill Edger for a big 4 yard pass to keep the drive alive. One play later, Randolph would take it in himself to tie the game at 7.

The tone set, Villanova and Holy Cross exchanged quick touchdown drives. Wildcat senior QB Chris Whitney found senior WR Matt Szczur for a big 26 yard gain, and freshman WR Dorian Wells made a nice grab to put Villanova up by a TD. But Randolph responded in a big way on the next drive, with three completions of more than 10 yards to Edger and freshman WR Kyle Toulouse. A two yard pitch-and-catch to sophomore TE Alex Schneider tied the game at 14 - and set the stage for a shootout.

After a puntless first quarter, Nova embarked on another grinding 13 play drive, this time mostly on the ground in the Wildcat. A 11 yard dash by Whitney resulted in one first down, another 11 yard toss to senior WR Bryan Harvey set up another first down - though all indications were that the ball was stripped from him before he came down, the officials ruled that he was down before the ball came out - a blown call that kept Villanova's drive alive.

A big 4th down conversion a few plays later - by junior RB Angelo Babbaro - set up a Chris Whitney 1 yard TD run to give the Wildcats a lead they would never relinquish.

Down 28-14, though, Randolph and the Crusaders refused to die. A nine-play, 80 yard drive midway through the 3rd quarter - ending in a 17 yard Randolph-to-Edger connection - cut the lead to 28-21. But Nova would counterpunch - set up by a big Whitney-to-Szczur 46 yard connection - to score again, making it 35-21.

Randolph had one more drive left in him in the 4th quarter - orchestrating another 9-play. 80 yard drive, connecting with Schneider for a 6 yard TD to cut the deficit to 7 once again. But it was Villanova's grinding offense that ground out the clock with brutal effeciency in the final quarter, ending with 25 yard FG by freshman PK Nick Yako to seal the win.

“The difference in the game was that both teams made big plays. They just made a couple more,” said Crusaders coach Tom Gilmore. “It was the kind of game where field goals weren’t going to win it and you were going for it on fourth downs. That’s the approach you have to take, because both teams were so explosive.”

Randolph finished 31-of-51 with 3 TD tosses and 0 interceptions. It was by far the best performance by a quarterback against the Villanova defense all season.

“Dom’s been an incredible leader, and our players believe in him,” Gilmore said. “I think he can look back and be really proud of what he was able to accomplish individually and what he helped us accomplish as a program.”

“Our offense played unbelievable, and we needed to be on top of our game because Dominic Randolph is probably the best quarterback we’ve seen,” Villanova head coach Andy Talley added. “He was terrific. He made a ton of plays, and I really have to compliment Holy Cross.”

Friday, November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving - and Holy Cross/Villanova

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I know mine was great!

I wanted to mention that I'll be twittering about the Holy Cross/Villanova game this weekend, as well as writing a full wrapup of the game on my blog.

For my College Sporting News preview of the game, click here.

Finally, I couldn't be happier for senior QB Dominic Randolph, head coach Tom Gilmore and the long-suffering Holy Cross football fans. I'll be pulling for you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why Dom Randolph Tops My Walter Payton Ballot

Every year, I get to vote on the major FCS awards of the year, including the Walter Payton award (for the best offensive player in FCS), the Buck Buchanan award (defense), and Eddie Robinson award (head coach). I've been voting on these awards for years, but never have I had a Patriot League player on top of the list.

The one I submitted this year did, though.

I've seen a lot of quarterbacks this year, and Holy Cross senior QB Dom Randolph is, in my opinion, the most deserving.

*****

There are players with gaudier stats (like Stephen F. Austin junior QB Jeremy Moses, with 36 TDs), already-legendary players (Appalachian State senior QB Armanti Edwards) and high-profile FBS transfers (Jacksonville State senior QB Ryan Perriloux).

But no team in FCS meant more to his team than Randolph.

Why? Let me count the ways.

His 37 TDs - 31 through the air, 6 on the ground - was 77 percent of the Crusaders' touchdowns this year. More than three quarters!
As a sophomore, he was not a hugely mobile QB, but by his senior year he had added the ability to take off with the ball running to his already-bursting arsenal. This year he led the team in rushing (474 yards), while crushing a ton of different Patriot League records with his 3,429 yards passing.

Since his first collegiate football game (against Marist in 2006), he scored at least one touchdown a game. Until Holy Cross' regular season-ending loss to Bucknell, Randolph had 20 consecutive multi-touchdown games. Twenty!

He is the active FCS career leader in total offense (13,887 yards), passing
yards (13,108 yards), passing touchdowns (114) and ranks second in touchdowns responsible for (129). He led FCS in total offense - more than Perriloux or Armanti.

And here's the final reason why he deserves the honor more than anybody else: without Perriloux, 8-3 Jacksonville State still would have been a pretty stacked team. Without Armanti, Appalachian State still would have put up points. It's awfully hard to picture the Crusaders winning this year's Patriot League championship without Randolph at the controls. (And had he not found junior WR Freddie Santana against Lehigh with under a minute to play, they may not have.)

No player meant more to his team than Randolph. No-bo-dy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

All Patriot League Teams Released: Matt Cohen Defensive POY

Following the most low-key nine-sack, thirteen and a half tackle for loss season in history, senior LB Matt Cohen saw four years of hard work as a Mountain Hawk pay off as he was selected as Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year today.

Cohen, a local product from Allentown, was a model of consistency on Lehigh's defense. While he only won Patriot League Defensive Player of the week once (with 6 tackles, and 4 tackles for loss including 3 sacks), in every game he was a disrupting factor, with six games where he had at least one tackle for loss. His 9 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss led the Patriot League, and his 63 tackles were among the Lehigh leaders on a defense that doesn't favor one tackler.

It's great to see the quiet supply management chain major get recognized for his four-year contribution to the Mountain Hawk program. Congratulations to Matt!

While we're talking about low-key seniors on the All-Patriot Team, two more seniors got recognized on the first team: senior DT B.J. Benning and senior FB Anthony Fossati. Benning, a Maryland native, ended his senior campaign with 47 tackles, 9 tackles for loss including seven and a half sacks - and probably could have had more had he been able to play more of his natural position of defensive end. Fossati, meanwhile, was the yeoman from New Jersey out of the backfield, opening holes for the running backs and quarterbacks during the year - though he had the go-ahead TD in the 4th quarter against Lafayette, something I'm sure he'll never forget.

Junior OL Will Rackley became a two-time member of the first team all-Patriot League squad as well. The 310 lb Georgia native was an anchor in the right tackle position - and, hopefully, will continue to lock down that side of the line next year, too.

Rounding out the first team is someone who is decidedly not quiet: junior DB Jarard Cribbs. The guy I call "fearless" was a gambler that more often than not came up aces rather than 2/7: with 47 tackles, 2 interceptions, and a league-leading nine pass break-ups as a defensive back. The Maryland native also returned punts, which he did better than anyone else in the league last year: he returned 38 punts for 611 yards, including a key 60 yard return against Fordham that set up a go-ahead TD. His efforts that week earned him Patriot League Special Teams Player of the Week.

The second team honored four Lehigh players as well, all whom are juniors (and one senior returning for a graduate year): junior RB Jay Campbell (Wilmington, DE: 659 yards rushing), junior OL Ricky Clerge (Coral Grove, FL: started all 11 games on the "O" line), junior CB/RS John "Prez" Kennedy (34 tackles, 3 passes defended, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery, 774 kickoff return yards, 1 return TD) and senior LB Troy Taylor (Phoenix, AZ: 69 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble).

The official release lists senior QB Dominic Randolph, unsurprisingly, as the Offensive Player of the Year, Holy Cross head coach (and former Lehigh assistant coach) Tom Gilmore as coach of the year, and Colgate freshman DB Demitri Diamond as the freshman of the year. (Freshman QB Michael Colvin would have been a strong choice for freshman of the year had he not been hurt midway through the year.)

Not too many surprises, though it is interesting that junior TE Alex Wojdowski didn't even get a second-team nod - he led the team in receiving touchdowns with 7. (He was behind Holy Cross sophomore TE Alex Schneider.) Lehigh's nine selections lagged behind Lafayette's (13, including a deserved second-team nod for senior QB Rob Curley) and Holy Cross' (14). Other notable first team selections include Colgate sophomore RB Nate Eachus and senior WR Pat Simonds, Bucknell senior RS A.J. Kizekai, and Fordham senior QB John Skelton (who was on the second team). Georgetown had only one selection: senior DL Chudi Obinawu, on the second team.

Again, congrats to every Lehigh player that made the team!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday's Word: Awesome

As soon as he came in the press conference, he told the media folks there that it was "fitting that we win a football game in this way." It was a quote that was used in many of the local press reports of the game as well.

What the rest of the media did not pick up was the pause, and the word "Awesome" right after it.

Do I know if coach Coen set out to make "awesome" the word of the week - and the game? I don't know for sure, but I do know that as soon as coach Coen mentioned the word, he mentioned it again a bunch of times in the post-game press conference (and, for good measure, on Lehigh Sports Magazine tonight), I knew it simply had to be the "Word".

When many folks think of the word "awesome" they think of the 1980s. Big hair, Whitney Houston records, the (ack) Breakfast Club, you know the drill.

But that wasn't what coach Coen was talking about.

 He was talking about the true definition, meaning "inspiring awe", or "an overwhelming feeling of reverence and admiration."

It's a great way to describe what happened in the game. But his pregame comments - taken in their entirety - I think shows a lot about coach Coen, too.

"All coaching is is hang in there with your guys, and they got better all year," Coen said. "We finally got some plays to go our way this game. This was such a tough season for our guys. I'm so happy for them that we were able to get the win here today. To score and take the lead in the fourth quarter for the first time, then give it up, then win the game in overtime, after all the tough losses they've had during the season, I think it speaks volumes to these guys and how they hung in there with us all year.

"Every week, you had to pick them up off the ground - but I tell you what, the time Tuesday came around they were excited to play football. We talk a lot about the kids in our program - we want to bring guys in who are competitors, leaders, and guys who love to play football. I told them before the game that we have those people in the room. It just hasn't worked out for us. So let's just go out and get this one.

"Even when it didn't look great for us out there they kept battling and battling and.... " Coen stopped, getting a bit emotinal. "Awesome. Awesome for those guys."

****

He was talking about the whole team, but he could have been talking about any number of the seniors out there specifically on defense. When I thought of "awesome" battlers on Saturday, I think of senior DT B.J. Benning, who just stood up Lafayette runners so often in the middle, and senior LB Matt Cohen, being such a constant, disrupting force on defense. They're the only starting seniors on defense that Lehigh will be losing (along with senior LB Heath Brickner, who was hurt), but they will leave awfully big shoes to fill. Senior DE Stephen Brown, who got a sack yesterday and spent a lot of time on Lehigh's "D' line, also graduates.

"Our defensive coaches this year were awesome," coach Coen said again later. "The amount of injuries, the pieces they've had to move around, the people they've had to plug in, the changing schemes - guys were in and out."

In fact, the word snaked its way pretty much everywhere in the Lehigh post-game press conference, too. Junior QB J.B. Clark, MVP of the 145th, used it when talking about the 63 yard pass to sophomore WR De'Vaughn Gordon. ""That was De'Vaughn all the way," Clark said. "It was a great catch and two defenders hit him when he came down, but he bounced away and got it all the way to the 6. That was awesome."

When I look on Clark's performance this game, I think of it in terms of what coach Coen said: a battler. He battled to convert third downs. He faced a beating from Lafayette's pass rush, but he stood in there and never let a sack or a third-and-long prevent him from picking himself up and making a play.

Senior FB Anthony Fossati, the strongest guy on the team, battled on a 1 yard touchdown run to get in the end zone. That might have been his only carry of the year - and important touchdown, one that gave Lehigh the lead.

And when the Mountain Hawks saw it was overtime, while some of the fans' stomachs were in knots that wasn't the case on the sideline. The team was huddled around coach Coen and running backs coach R.J. Ryan, together listening to them speak.

"Coach Ryan played here and we all respect him. He really got us fired up as the clock was ticking down. The whole offense came together and [he] said to us, 'This is why you play the game. Who is going to step up and make the play to win this game?' That really got us fired up," starting senior OL Frank Giacalone said to the Brown & White.

Giacalone and Fossati are the only seniors graduating on offense, along with frequent target senior WR Jim Potocnie.

It's sometimes hard to remember, but one of the reasons why coach Coen was chosen to lead Lehigh (after Pete Lembo decided to leave for Elon) was the thought that he understood the emotions - or the "awesomeness", if you will - of "The Rivalry". He was to be a master motivator for this special game.

Pete Lembo was a great coach at Lehigh. But one thing he never was able to do was win two consecutive games over "that school from Easton". Coach Coen has had to struggle to bring consistent winning football back to the Mountain Hawks, and - let's face it - he's struggled at times. His record has not been near the equal of Lembo's. But he's done something that coach Lembo could not do.

And in Bethlehem, beating the Leopards counts for a lot. Not everything, but a lot.

*****

The Brown & White piece on the game adds another interesting quote at the end. "Coach Coen and the rest of the Lehigh University football coaching staff really did a great job this season of solidifying a team mentality," said senior LB Al Pierce [who will be returning next season]. "His motto was to keep us together. Everyone was behind Coen's motto and behind one another."

That the players have stood 100% behind coach Coen was very clear in the post-game press conference. When uncomfortable questions came up about Coen's job - Coen is in the last year of his contract, and at 4-7 this season was nothing what anyone really expected or wanted, despite the win over Lafayette - the players had real emotion written on their face.

There were no tears, but it was very clear that they want coach Coen to remain. Looking at their performance also bears this out: Lehigh could have easily laid down when things got tough, but the team never came apart and the players played hard for Coen up to the very end of this season.

Like Pierce said, they kept together and were behind one another. Their loyalty to coach Coen is "awesome".

And while we may never know whether coach Coen really did need to win this game this weekend to keep his job, one thing's for sure: we'll be seeing him again next year as head coach.

My Nine Favorite Photos of the 145th

I can't take credit for all of these photos, but I can take credit for a few of them - notably the first five in this series. One comes courtesy of Joe Gill and the Easton Express-Times, and the last three come courtesy of Lehigh Athletics' photo gallery of the game.

More will be showing up on my Facebook page as well. And there will be plenty more opining to come this week - a special "Monday's Word", more opining on where Lehigh goes from here, the playoffs, Holy Cross, and some seismic events that deserve some talk.


But today it's still about this amazing Lehigh wins, and the seniors like senior LB Matt Cohen and senior DT B.J. Benning that made it happen. (Gotta love that final picture, carried off the field!)

Enjoy!






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