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Preview of Holy Cross/Lehigh

This weekend brings us the first league game of the year for Lehigh, and it also brings up the biggest surprise of this 2005 season in the Patriot League. As you will see, the Crusaders are a more dangerous team than in years past, as evidenced by their 3-2 record, with their only losses coming to nationally-ranked Harvard and Delaware.

This weekend's tilt will be televised live on Service Electric 2 (in the Lehigh Valley), Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh, and Fox College Sports Pacific (on your local cable or satellite TV provider). In the Lehigh Valley, as always, the game will be also carried on ESPN Radio 1230 and 1320. Oh, yeah, and I'll be at the game covering it for, along with possibly even audblogging a little at the game.

Lehigh Injury Report
Junior FS Courtney Elder (Shoulder, Out)
Sophomore DB Daynin Blake (Hip, Questionable)
Junior LB Travis Stinson (Shoulder, Questionable)

This is the exact same list as last week, and the same folks will be stepping in should anyone be not ready to go -- sophomore DB Erine Moore and junior LB Chris LaMont. Very encouraging to see so few injured kids at this point in the year. Let's hope once Saturday is done it will stay that way.

A Little About Holy Cross
Holy Cross came into this year, like the last few years, with few expectations for football. Since the good old days when Holy Cross was a consistent national powerhouse, to the good not-so-old days when players like Gordie Lockbaum and Gil Fennerty wore the purple-and-white, since joining the Patriot League Holy Cross had chosen primarily to focus on maintaning a world-beating quality basketball team. As a result, their football team had been in steady decline since the early 1990s.

Two Decembers ago, then-Lehigh defensive coordinator Tom Gilmore quickly and suddenly left the Lehigh coaching staff and took on the job of rebuilding the Crusader football program essentially from scratch. Adding insult to the injury of Gilmore hightailing to Holy Cross in the middle of recruiting season, Gilmore also convinced defensive backs coach Issac Collins to follow him in his rebuilding effort - after Collins had already been promoted to defensive coordinator. (Collins is now on Delaware's coaching staff.) As a result of this action, I had called last year's Lehigh/Holy Cross game the "Benedict Arnold Bowl".

It's not clear if there are still feelings of ill will versus Lembo and Gilmore, but one thing for sure is that Gilmore appears to have made strides in turning this football team around and teaching them how to win games. A cynic might say that the Crusader wins were against Sacred Heart, Georgetown, and Yale, none of whom have a winning record. Yet against both ranked opponents Holy Cross held leads in the 3rd quarter in both games. This is a team that is learning how to win, and have had five straight games this year where they can leave with their heads held high.

Clearly, this ain't the same team that went 3-8 last year. Furthermore, this is a team that will be playing their "Super Bowl" this weekend. Pull off the upset, and all of a sudden they are a team that could (incredibly) be in charge of the Patriot League race. Gilmore should have his team ready to play at their best, and the Mountain Hawks will have to play their best to win.

Offensive Breakdown
Holy Cross has 11 returning offensive starters, which means the Crusaders have an experience and discipline. What also sticks out is the fact that the offense only has two giveaways on the year, an incredible statistic after 5 games. They are also averaging 34 points per game as well, so our defense could get yet another big test this week. It will take a disciplined team effort to stop this balanced grinding offense.

Start with senior QB John O'Neill, who is averaging 181 yards passing a game to go with his 7 TDs on the year. This year he appears to be more of a pocket passer, but in years past he has been a very mobile QB, so his running lanes also have to be contained if you hope to stop him. He throws short stuff mostly to complement the running game, but you can't ignore the long bomb either.

The backfield boasts 2 true running threats - senior RB Steve Silva and senior FB Gideon Akande. Silva is the slasher, Akande is the straight-ahead runner, and between the two of them they average more than 4.5 yards a carry and have scored 9 TDs. Silva gets the bulk of the rushes and is on pace to get 1,000 yards rushing this year. Silva is also a huge receiving threat as well, with 28 receptions, 200 yards receiving and 1 TD this year. But I wouldn't forget Akande either, who's on pace to get 400 yards rushing by himself. Overall, the backs are a huge part of this offense.

The wideouts feature senior wideout Sean Gruber. He still is the meat and potatoes of the receiving corps with 307 yards receiving this year and 4 TDs. On the other side is senior Bob Turkovich, with 208 yards and 2 TDs. Unlike last year, when O'Neill does throw to a wideout it's more often than not to Turkovich rather than Gruber, but Gruber still has the speed to make the big play.

The big boy on the experienced line is senior RT Justin LaGrenade at 6'1 and 296 lbs, and his line is doing an outstanding job thus far. QB O'Neill's only been sacked 6 times, and the rushing game is averaging 181 yards a game, so this group has been winning trench battles.

Defensive Breakdown
Gilmore plays a base 3-4 but shows different looks on defense. The strength of the defense is a strong linebacking unit and an up-and-coming secondary, but the front three tend to get a bit lost in the shuffle. They have struggled against the better backs they have faced (Delaware's Omar Cuff: 177 yards; Harvard's Clifton Dawson: 153 yards), but it's debatable if Lehigh has a true "marquee back" that can exploit this the same way Delaware and Harvard did.

Probably their best defensive lineman is junior DT Matt Lemire, with 18 tackles on the year and 1 sack. Their front three, especially the ends, haven't been getting to the QB nearly enough this year, having averaged only 5 sacks this year. If the "O" line can get the better of this trench battle, there may be yards there between the tackles.

Junior ILB Dan Adams is the class of the linebacking unit, with 45 tackles and 1 sack to his credit this year. Not too far behind is junior OLB Chris Nielsen with 31 tackles and 1 sack. The linebacking unit is solid and is very deft at causing turnovers, so ball protection will be a must.

Junior CB Casey Gough is the pride of the secondary, with 3 interceptions, 1 blocked kick and 1 safety (recorded last week versus Yale) to his credit. He and senior CB Tyler Nugent make a talented set of corners who have gotten a lot of picks and seem to be good cover guys.

Special Teams Breakdown
Junior PK Mike DeSantis hasn't been tested this year from long-range, but last year he did boot a 41 yard FG. Like last year, the Crusader punting game has not been pretty, with junior P Ryan McManaway averaging under 35 yards a punt. RB Steve Silva has also been a monster returning punts and kicks, with 450 yards and a kickoff return for TD, so special teams will need to be playing their best to contain him.

Keys to the game
1.Taking care of the ball! If only I could repeat this, say, 10 times as the key to this game. Holy Cross has proven they take care of the ball well, and that's how they win games and keep games close. Against VMI and Harvard we survived our own miscues by creating some turnovers of our own - we clearly won't have that luxury against Holy Cross. Protect that ball, it will be essential for the win!
2.Greg Fay's Emergence? As well as our normal gameplan, I could see going after the Crusader front seven through the tackles, with FB Greg Fay as either a lead blocker or a lead runner. Softening them up could lead to a big day rushing the ball.
3.Sideline to sideline. RB Silva is a great slashing back, so it would pay to pursue well on the sides and force Holy Cross to get tough yards up the middle, just like we ultimately did versus Harvard. Containing Silva could contain the engine that makes Holy Cross go.
4.Special teams. On kicking units, Silva is such a strong player that good tackling, long kicks (kicking away from Silva as well), and containment is a must. On return units, the extra yardage, just like in the Harvard game, may make the difference between a "W" and a "L".

Fearless Prediction
I ain't going up to this game for nothing. Holy Cross is a good team and will show it on Saturday. I think they will hang around with us for a half, and then Lehigh's depth and talent will wear them down. This one won't be easy, but I do see a big league win.
Lehigh 34, Holy Cross 21


Anonymous said…
Never really heard what went 'down' at HC with Collins leaving after only one year there. We all know Gilmore's intense personality. I dunno, but considering Ike could have had the DC here, and now is an asst. at UD is more than strange.
Where's Winfred been? He had the fantastic 91 yard TD last week, but he's been almost invisible this year, after great expectations following his great spring game. I seems, though, that every week a different receiver seems to take center stage. Walker, then Thomas, Zebluim,..which is good, but I had expected more stretching of the field with Porter and Walker. But whatever works...I thought the good use of the Tight Ends at Harvard was overdue. Morelli and Maggs are quite capable.

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