In my preview piece yesterday, I talked about the craziness of this series, featuring bad weather, power outages, and the like. Adding to the intrigue is that this Saturday, for the Crusaders, it's Senior Day.
Ask anyone around the game of football, and they'll tell you senior day always adds a wrinkle to a contest. No senior in uniform wants to lose on senior day - and sometimes, seniors who haven't played up to their potential suddenly rise up and find a sense of urgency to win at home, one last time.
It's another reason to throw the record out the window this weekend up in Worcester.
There's also the other matter of Boston College, Holy Cross' rival from another time, agreeing to allow Lehigh to practice there a day early thanks to the power outages that continue to disrupt the Lehigh Valley.
That the BC Eagles would help Lehigh out has Crusaders of a certain age seething - and adds another layer of intrigue to this late-November game.
Breaking Down Holy Cross
Lehigh is no stranger to facing teams with quarterback controversies. Princeton, Liberty and Fordham didn't name their starter the week before playing the Mountain Hawks, and Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore didn't name his starter this week, either.
Their base three-wideout offense, combined with a solid starting quarterback, has historically resulted in an offense that spreads the field, hits the short pass on a pretty consistent basis, and moves the ball well. They've always been a pass-first-to-set-up-the-run offense, and this year that hasn't changed.
What has changed is Holy Cross' starting quarterback.
After preseason starter senior QB Kevin Watson got a leg injury in Holy Cross' 24-21 loss to Brown, the Crusaders have alternated between sophomore QB Stephen Elder and sophomore QB Ryan Laughlin, with erratic results.
"Elder started the last four games, but struggled early last week against Fordham and was replaced by Laughlin,", Jennifer Toland of the Worcester Telegram-Gazette reported this week. “'Steve was a little bit off and we just wanted to see if Laughlin could come in and provide a spark and take some pressure off Elder,' Holy Cross coach Tom Gilmore said. 'He did more than that.'”
Laughlin had his best day as a Crusader, completing 18/28 with 223 yards and 3 TDs, including a perfectly-executed 2-point conversion attempt, but Elder (71/121, 5 TDs, 6 INTs) has consistently won the job over Laughlin in practice.
Worryingly, it seemed like Laughlin has gotten his head around Holy Cross' "read/react" offense, as evidenced by his great passing day.
But Elder has the beater measurables (6'4, 207) and has more mobility than Laughlin, but it's hard to argue with Ryan's performance last weekend vs. Fordham, so Gilmore has an interesting choice this weekend. It's not unreasonable to assume that whomever he starts, if they struggle early he might have an early hook, so it's worth preparing for both anyway.
Whomever starts at quarterback, Holy Cross always has a stable of all-league wide receivers to throw to, and this year is no exception. Furthermore, the Crusaders spread the ball around a lot, meaning there's not really one guy you can key on over the others.
The two top receivers for the Crusaders are senior WR Gerald Mistretta (37 catches, 441 yards, 3 TDs) and junior WR Mike Fess (54 catches, 544 yards, 2 TDs), with junior WR Kyle Toulouse (24 catches, 204 yards) not far behind him. For the Patriot League, all the receivers are tall (meaning above 6'0) which means they're a handful. You can rest assured that the guys in purple have a talented, deep pool of outside targets for the QB to pull from, which makes the secondary's task that much harder this week.
Also worthy of mention is senior TE Alex Schneider (11 catches, 89 yards, 2 TD), who also lines up as an H-back as well as playing as an extra blocker. As in previous years, at 6'7, he can also be a dangerous weapon in goal-line situations of in the middle of the field.
The Crusaders' running-back-by-committee approach is more of a check against playing six defensive backs every down, but . Power running back junior RB Eddie Houghton has run for 317 yards and 3 TDs, while junior RB Reggie Woods (129 yards), senior RB Matt Bellomo (77 yards, 2 TDs) and senior RB Sam Auffant (100 all-purpose yards), have shown up in the box score at running back from time to time.
Holy Cross' "O" line is big, and senior-laden, most notably with 300 lb senior DE/OG Jack Maliska. (Maliska is the Crusaders' first two-way player since RB/CB Gordie Lockbaum.) It's a bit of a surprise why this unit hasn't been better for the Crusaders: they've given up almost 3 sacks per game. Against Lafayette, they gave up 6 sacks to the Leopard defense.
Holy Cross' big strength has been squarely on the offense in recent years, but as evidenced in last week's game vs. Fordham, they've really struggled to stop teams, especially in the 4th quarter. The Crusaders rank 99th in total defense, something that cannot make Tom Gilmore, a former defensive lineman and defensive coordinator, happy in the slightest.
Like Lehigh, Holy Cross plays a base 3-4 defense, but doesn't blitz as often as the Mountain Hawks. Interestingly, they changed things up last week, however, and blitzed early and often against Fordham, so it's fair to say that their multiple 3-4 looks will include some potential surprises.
The two-way player Maliska (3 tackles) starts at nose guard, while junior DE Gary Acquah (45 tackles, 1 sack) is carving out a fine season at defensive end up front. Junior DE Mike Tucker (16 tackles, 1 sack), a converted linebacker, rounds out the defensive line.
At linebacker, 5'10, 212 lb senior LB Roman SanDoval (72 tackles, 3 sacks) is the leader of the Crusaders' multiple-look defense and is by far the best Crusader linebacker statistically. Sophomore LB Chase Ullman (19 tackles, 1 sack), senior LB Pat O'Connell (23 tackles, 1 tackle for loss), and junior LB George Sessoms (16 tackles, 1 pass breakup) round out the unit. Injury has taken a big bite out of this group.
Where Holy Cross' strength in defense lies is their secondary, led by senior SS Tom Mannix (69 tackles, 7 pass break-ups, 2 INTs) and sophomore FS Logan Silver (29 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, 2 INTs) Along with sophomore CB Ben Coffaro, the Holy Cross secondary has six picks on the season, but the Crusader pass defense still is in the lower half in FCS (85th/121) when it comes to pass efficiency, so while they've been aggressive in the secondary, they've still given up significant yardage. Sophomore CB Sam Jones (27 tackles) rounds out the unit.
Curiously, Holy Cross has only forced one fumble all year, so the secondary's six takeways are the majority of the Crusaders' takeaways for the year.
If it weren't for the presence of the other-worldly Patrick Murray of Fordham, junior P/K John Macomber would have a pretty good case for being the top kicker in the Patriot League. He's 6/8 on FGs with a 46 yarder to his credit, and he's 14/15 on extra points. He's also averaging more than 40 yards per punt.
Freshman FK Khalif Raymond has been a fantastic find for the Crusaders in the return game, averaging 24.7 yards per kickoff and 6.4 yards per punt return, and he also has a kickoff return for a touchdown (which he had vs. Lafayette). Junior WR Kyle Toulouse isn't a bad return man either, notching a 21.4 yard average on the other side.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Rhythm.. It's sometimes tough to get back into the swing of the season after a bye week, but it must be even more difficult when you have a bye week and then have a campus without power the following week as well. Getting into the rhythm of the game early, preferably with a huge offensive drive, will help immensely in Lehigh winning this game.
2. Barket Busting. Last year, I nicknamed senior RB Zach Barket the "Bracket Buster" after one breakout game. This season, his senior year with only a few regular-season games left, it's a golden opportunity for him to show Lehigh Nation what he can do. If he can get that breakout game against Holy Cross this week, I love Lehigh's chances to get to 9-0.
3. Secondary Is Primary. Facing a young quarterback, there's a great opportunity for the secondary to disguise coverages and get some early, demoralizing picks that could set the tone for this game early. A huge pick by senior CB Gabe Johnson or senior CB Bryan Andrews would be big plays in regards to hitting 9-0.
One former player put it best to me: "You can't over-prepare to face Tom Gilmore." It's definitely the type of game where you throw out the record, and look at the team you have in front of you. Gilmore will have his team ready to play.
The question is: where is this Lehigh team right now?
To call last week a distraction is putting it mildly. While it's a very small thing in the face of the issues of people without power in the wake of megastorm Sandy, one casualty of the storm was Lehigh's normal pre-week routine. When you're wondering where there's a warm place to sleep, coach Gilmore isn't always on your mind.
And lest everyone forget, this has been a team, despite it's 8-0 record, that has had lapses on the field even when their routine is normal. Certainly there's no disputing the end result - the only undefeated team in FCS - but the way they've gone about it has sometimes given Lehigh fans serious heartburn. This Lehigh team deserves all the credit in the world for that achievement. But it will only get harder.
To their immense credit, too, the Lehigh coaching staff and university community has done a lot to make sure all their students are safe, warm and fed, which includes football players. They've made the week as normal as possible, perhaps even taking advantage of class and 4:00 exam cancellations to get in more time in the weight room and the film room. They even took off for Worcester a day early, a business trip to focus on football and the task at hand: beating Holy Cross.
So will we see a refreshed, focused Lehigh team this weekend in Worcester, ready to take on the last three games of the season? Or a team that still lacks focus, sometimes, during games?
In a lot of ways, this Lehigh team has been lucky, and I feel like the bye week, the storm, and the disruption it caused, will serve to focus this Lehigh team rather than have it drift.
For a week, the kids got off their feet, and rested up the injuries of the season. And for a week, though not without challenges, the kids got to focus on football, and focus on Holy Cross, in a way they couldn't have if classes were going on as normal.
The season and the remainder of their season, whether it ends at Lafayette, Frisco, or somewhere in between, was won or lost in these last two weeks. I have a funny feeling like we're on the brink of something special here, though, and it starts this weekend at Holy Cross.
Lehigh 35, Holy Cross 13