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Preview of Lehigh/Holy Cross

Holy Cross should not be sneaking up on anyone, but they have the potential to sneak up on everybody in the Patriot League this year despite their impressive 6-2 record. Few in the preseason (myself included) thought that the Crusaders would be finishing anywhere higher than fourth in the Patriot League this year, but head coach Tom Gilmore and the "Purple Army" had other ideas.

Lehigh took care of business last week against Bucknell (38-7), meaning that we survived Week 1 of "Patriot Survivor". This week's test has to also be considered a "Survivor" game for Lehigh as well. Although conceivable that Lehigh could make the playoffs with one loss, Holy Cross' win over Lafayette last week means that if they beat us here, we'd be relying on Bucknell (fat chance) or Colgate (more likely) to upend the Crusaders the rest of the way and hope for a 3-way tie for the Patriot title. I don't like those odds at all. As far as I'm concerned, this is a playoff game.

All year we've been looking at Lehigh and saying, Are they good enough? Are they really getting things together and making a run at this thing? The signs are better after last week's win over Bucknell that we have. But it's this game, versus the Patriot League frontrunner at this point, which will really prove whether we have the stuff to win the title, survive, and move on.

Are we good enough? The question that the whole season is riding upon. That's what we'll learn on Saturday.

Injury & Weather Report
OUT:
OL Ben Harden
DB Jarvis Lewis
DB Courtney Elder
LB Al Pierce

It wouldn't be another week in Lehigh football with another boring week of the same injury report and same starters as last week. Really not much to report here - there has been eerie consistency week to week in the starting lineups.

What may be an interesting story at Holy Cross' Fitton Field is the weather report, calling for wind and rain and highs in the upper 50s. Fitton Field can be a muck-pit with the rains coming down. We all know Lehigh's record in rain-soaked games the past two years: 0-2, including a home loss to Holy Cross last year. If Lehigh can pull this one out, there is a very good chance that the ghosts of the last two "weather losses" could be exorcised. If I were them, I'd actually look forward to the weather in order to show what they can really do.

As for tailgating at Fitton in the rain, there really is only one drink to have: Purple Rain Champagne Cocktails. The perfect drink to have as we see Holy Cross go down just like Prince's singing career. (Or is that "symbol man" now?)

A Word On Holy Cross
The Crusaders enjoy a program with a very successful history. In the war years, Holy Cross was a consistent national powerhouse, while the good not-so-old days featured players like Gordie Lockbaum and Gil Fennerty wearing the purple-and-white. Once Holy Cross joined the Patriot League, however, the Crusaders chose primarily to focus on maintaning a world-beating quality basketball team. In those early years of the league Holy Cross (with a host of grandfathered scholarship players) wreaked havoc on their Patriot opponents.

Lehigh and Holy Cross have played some dandy games through the years, none more important than the meeting in 1991. A battle for the Patriot League championship that year, the Engineers and Crusaders were both 6-0 going into that game. Lehigh and Holy Cross played one of the classic games at Murray Goodman, a 43-42 squeaker featuring six lead changes and not one but two "fumblerooski" plays by then-coach Hank Small to try to get the win. Ultimately, Holy Cross won the Patriot championship in a game that did wonders for establishing the Patriot League as "big-time". (The Crusaders also finished 11-0, but were not invited to the I-AA playoffs that year, despite wins over Harvard, BU, and UMass.)

Since that season, Holy Cross really struggled at times. But as of 2004, those fortunes have been changing significantly. That year, then-Lehigh defensive coordinator Tom Gilmore quickly 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 no longer with the Crusaders.) Gilmore burned his bridges at Lehigh to some degree.

Last year's 2005 game was a 13-10 win by Holy Cross, only the second Crusader victory over the Mountain Hawks in the past ten years. In a driving rainstorm, Lehigh outgained Holy Cross by 100 yards and basically lost the game due Lehigh's strengths (a veteran receiving corps and great team speed) negated by the weather, while the Crusaders made just enough big plays to win. I remember hearing the Crusader assistant coaches almost shrieking in the press box they were so excited to beat Lehigh. I remember coach Gilmore in the press conference, giddy with the victory, saying how Holy Cross "wanted it more".

The fact that Gilmore has rebuilt the Crusaders so well so quickly has not been lost on Mountain Hawk fans. Adding insult to injury this year is the fact that Gilmore has unveiled an offense that looks, at first glance, quite similar to the "Air Lehigh" offense of the 1990s that was extremely difficult to stop. I think a lot of Lehigh fans look at Holy Cross this year and say, somewhere in their brains, "This team should be us."

Further adding to the emotion is that Dick Kotulski, Gilmore's defensive coordinator in 2005, was hired by coach Coen as his defensive coordinator this year. You have to wonder if Kotulski would deeply enjoy a win here over his former team as well.

Offense
Holy Cross' offense involves a short, controlled passing game similar to "Air Lehigh" - totally unlike last year's Crusader squad that was centered around FB Gideon Akande and HB Steve Silva. Coach Gilmore has a base single-back, tight end, and three wideout set that is geared towards short passing. This extremely young squad has shown surprising poise and ability in their development as a passing offense. Add to that the fact that this young offense hasn't turned over the ball once in the last three games, and now you've got a really frightening combination.

Sophomore QB Dominc Randolph was hurt early in the year when Holy Cross went 1-2. The fact that the Crusaders are now 5-0 with him as a starter is no accident. He's got some mobility and is completing 70% - 70%! Not a typo! - of his passes to the tune of 13 TDs and only 2 interceptions. His QB rating is 161.4 - 8th in the nation! Teams have tried to rattle him, saying "he's only a sophomore", only to see them ultimately lose. Randolph could be player of the year this year. Somehow, he must be slowed down.

The single back for the Crusaders most of the time is 5'8 (charitably) sophomore RB Terence Gass, who is an effective counter so far to the passing game and can also catch the ball out of the backfield. The question with Gass is if he can get those big grind-it-out yards at the end of a game to seal a victory. Sophomore RB Mike Kielt spells him as well, who is beefier but less of a threat catching the ball.

Randolph has lots of targets and spreads the ball to a lot of different receivers. The three starting receivers are junior WR Ryan Maher, sophomore WR Brent McDermott and junior WR Thomas Harrison. Together they account for 1,415 receiving yards and 11 TDs. The top five targets are all wideouts; senior TE Frank Herlihy, surprisingly, isn't featured much in the passing game. All have great hands, but none have really tested the depth of a lot of secondaries this year (nor have they had to).

The "O" line boasts experience and good size. Senior OL Andrew Schoepfer is the "old man" of the line, and there is big bulk, especially at the guards. They have protected the QB extremely well to give him time to pick apart defenses, though their offense frequently is of the "one step drop, WR screen" variety.

Defense
Regarded as Holy Cross' strength going into the season, the Crusader defense has given up points and yards in bunches, giving up 400 yards passing to Brown and 454 yards of total offense to Harvard. Although they have forced some turnovers, they haven't really dominated any team they have faced (save for Marist of the MAAC). Throw out the Marist game, and they've given up 24 points per game, allowing big games both rushing and passing.

In their base 3-4, senior DE John Marcus Pinard is their best player with 3 sacks on the year and 26 tackles. He's the biggest person on a smallish "D" line. That could explain the big rushing yards against them.

The strength of this defense is clearly the linebacking unit, with senior LBs Dan Adams and Chris Nielsen both having monster years. Nielsen's forte is sacks off the blitz, with 6 on the year, while 5'10 (generously) Dan Adams is a one-man tackling machine with 71 on the year already! On the outside, they are big and athletic, so you have to fear the outside blitz.

The defensive secondary is led by the reliable 6'0 senior CB Casey Gough, with 3 interceptions already on the year. The rest of the secondary is speedy but short, with senior FS Matt Crosby listed at 5'9. Finding a second receiver to exploit this height difference could be vital to our chances Saturday.

Special Teams
Senior P Ryan McManaway hasn't had a terrific year with a 36 yard net, while senior K Mike DeSantis uncharacteristically has also struggled a bit with two missed extra-points and only one FG of more than 39 yards - and that was week 1 versus Georgetown. The kicking game has been less than stellar - another possible place to make some hay. We may be looking at some 4th-down conversion tries at the 20 on Saturday.

The return game is quite another story, with Gough, Maher, and 5'8 senior WR Matt Fanning all doing a great job returning kicks (but with no TDs). Of note, Holy Cross special teams forced the fumble that ended up resulting in the game-winning TD drive against Lafayette last week. All are dangerous and will require good heads-up special teams play to contain.

Keys To The Game
1. Physical Play & Good Tackling. Our defense will have to play extremely physical and push around those Holy Cross receivers to have a chance. If they try to beat us through the air, I think we should make every reception pay with a hard hit.
2. Turnovers. In a big game like this, we can't afford any "greased pigs". We need to protect that ball at all costs, and force a few of our own to win this game.
3. Field Position. I'd love to take advantage of longer punts and better field position to get a couple of scores, and Jason Leo, Laquan Gasaway and company can make this happen for us.
4. Time Of Possession. If we can hold onto the ball for 35 minutes, I think we have an excellent chance to win this game. That means their passing offense is on the bench, and our offense will be effective in running (and passing) the ball and controlling the clock.

Fearless Prediction
Which Lehigh team comes out? I still am not sure, but I think that there are two huge factors at play here. First, every Lehigh player circled this date on the calendar for revenge against last year's 13-10 loss. I don't think that an issue of "lack of focus" will come into play - I think coach Coen will have the kids extremely focused this week. Add to that the title implications, and you'll see a Lehigh team determined to make it happen.

Second, I also beleive this Lehigh team is dying to prove that they can win a rainy, wet, bad-weather game - and for the first time in a long time, Lehigh has the better running and a more physical team.

Turnabout is fair play, and it feels like irony is in the air. Last year, a powerful passing team was grounded in the rain by a team that hung onto the ball better and played more focused, physical football. In that sense, I think history repeats itself. The ironic part is that this time, the running team is Lehigh.

Lehigh 21, Holy Cross 14

Comments

Ngineer said…
Sounds good to me. Can't help but think that Elder's continued absence maybe hurting the secondary. What's the injury keeping him out so long? Secondary will have a huge test on Saturday. the front 7 MUST get pressure pure and simple.
LBPop said…
I have seen both teams in DC and while the scores will tell you that Lehigh beat the Hoyas more decisively, there's something about a team who thinks it has finally "turned the corner" vs. one that has been winning for a long time.

I like those proverbial "intangibles" for the Crusaders and their passing attack can be tough. I would love to see this one--I'm leaning toward Holy Cross in an excellent game.
Anonymous said…
Great job with your analysis..........however, Holy Cross wins by at least two touchdowns. This is not Lehigh's year.

LU76
Anonymous said…
Elder has sustained numerous concussions throughout his career which have forced him to end his career prematurely.
Anonymous said…
Elder has sustained numerous concussions during his career and his most recent during fall camp has forced him to end his career prematurely
Anonymous said…
Holy Cross wins by two touchdowns? I think your employer should demand a urinalysis from you
Anonymous said…
Re: the urinalysis

Typical Lehigh smart a-s comment.

somethings never change

LU 76
Anonymous said…
When is the last time Lehigh got beat by two touchdowns?
Go Lehigh TU Owl said…
When is the last time Lehigh got beat by two touchdowns?>>

That would be against Lafayette in '04, 24-10. However, thankfully that has no bearing on tomorrows game. If Lehigh avoids shooting itself in the foot i think they'll win the game with relative ease actually. HC will no be able to pass the ball in 40 mph winds. The way the weather is looking it might actually be worse than the game last year at Goodman. Take care of the ball, avoid mental mistakes and play Lehigh football and the scoreboard will take care of itself. Go Hawks!!

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