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Preview of Holy Cross/Lehigh

(Photo courtesy of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette)

It's a big game this weekend at Murray Goodman stadium.

A defining game for a 2007 squad that after last week's 23-7 loss to Yale is still trying to find its legs on offense. It's a game that Lehigh has to win in order to have any realistic hope in winning a Patriot League championship this year. It's a conference game; a must-win game; a playoff game, if you will. It's all of those things.

We will find out what this team is. We will find out if this is a team that can compete for Patriot League titles this year. We will find out how hard this team will work, and we will find out how many players step up and make plays. On offense, we are really going to need them since we're going against the #1 offense in the Patriot League. If nothing else, the Crusaders can score points.

Lehigh has been here before in must-win situations. All you need to look at is my blog posting last year concerning the Lehigh/Holy Cross game. This could have been written today, or last year:

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.

On October 28th, 2006, this Mountain Hawk team travelled to Worcester to find out if they had what it took to compete for the league championship, and found out that yes, they did. In a rainstorm, Lehigh's running game gutted out a physical 28-14 victory where Lehigh's "O" line seemed to break the backs of the Crusader offense in the 4th quarter.

Yet the rain left some doubt in many fans minds. On a clear day, could Lehigh have beaten them? Was it simply a matter of the rain grounding Hoy Cross' potent passing attack? Was it not really Lehigh at all, but Mother Nature?

I'm heading up to Murray Goodman this weekend to find out what this team is made of. I want to know. I have to know. One way or another, Lehigh fans will find out for certain what this team is.

Game Notes & Weather Report
If you look at the game notes, you see a few changes changes from last week. First, senior WR Pete Donchez is off the depth chart and is replaced by sophomore WR Franklin Johnson, and freshman WR Travis Artim is also on the depth chart as well, On special teams, freshman QB J.B. Clark is now the holder on extra points instead of junior WR Ben Ivester.

But the biggest change is undoubtedly in the backfield: it could very will be that junior RB Matt McGowan is finally 100% healthy and will be ready to play, and junior RB Josh Pastore will be as well, giving us both players together for the first time this season. That would be a huge boost to this team in many ways if both are indeed ready to go.

Other than that, anyone looking for wholesale changes will be disappointed.

The weather report has shifted from earlier in the week: Friday evening showers are now scheduled to clear out by gametime to become a nice 70 degree day with gusty winds. Things could change, but it's looking like the streak of great games at Goodman will be intact.

Drink Of The Week
It's time to pull out all the stops to get Lehigh the win this week. I don't ordinarily call for the unofficial brew of Lehigh fans, but with such an important game, Yuengling (classic or Black & Tan) is definitely the drink this week. (And if we win, I might just make it the "Drink of the Week" every week!)

A Word On Holy Cross
The Crusaders enjoy a program with a very successful history. In the 1920s and 1930s, Holy Cross was a consistent national powerhouse and, along with schools like Fordham, NYU and Manhattan, came to symbolize "Eastern Football". Much later, when Holy Cross joined the Patriot League in 1988, the Crusaders chose primarily to focus on men's basketball, and seemed to let the football program wither (who had good local rivalries with UMass, Boston University, and Boston College). But 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-Lehigh 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. This caused some bad blood between the Lehigh and Holy Cross coaching staffs. Further adding to the emotion is that Dick Kotulski, Gilmore's defensive coordinator in 2005, was hired by coach Coen as his defensive coordinator last year.

Tom Gilmore deserves all the credit in the world in rebuilding a Holy Cross program that had been in serious disarray before he arrived. Four years ago, he inherited a 1-11 team that had enjoyed only one winning season since 1993. Since Gilmore has arrived, he's guided his "Purple Army" to two straight winning seasons and is poised to secure a third this year. All that's missing for him is a Patriot League championship.

Offense
Holy Cross runs a spread-passing offense that spreads the receiving yards around a lot of different receivers. You could almost call it a run-n-shoot formation with four receivers, no TE, and a single setback. From the Crusaders you can look for formations that spread the field and lots of "bubble screens" to have the passing game act as a running game, getting chunks of yardage. Then, once your secondary and linebackers have been worn down, Holy Cross can also go for the deep pass to burn you. It's a variation on the "Air Lehigh" offense that many older Lehigh fans know and love (from coaches Hank Small (now athletic director at Charleston Southern), Kevin Higgins (head coach at The Citadel), and Pete Lembo (head coach at Elon).

Running an offense like this requires a great triggerman, and the Crusaders have the best triggerman in the Patriot League in junior QB Dominic Randolph. His numbers read really well: a 59% completion percentage, 158 for 265 passing, 1,869 yards, and 17 TDs as opposed to 5 interceptions. He can execute this system extremely well, and if nothing develops he also has enough mobility to take off with the ball as well. He's on pace to be the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year, and appears to be the best quarterback in the league running away. Randolph can kill you in bunches, too: against Dartmouth last week, in the second quarter he led the Crusaders on three consecutive scoring drives to effectively bury the Big Green.

What's also interesting is that Randolph has done this with no real running game to speak of. This is the big difference between "Air Lehigh" and "Air Gilmore", as Lehigh always needed a great runner to take the pressure off the QB. The "tailback by committee" of junior RB Terence Gass and junior RB Mike Kielt are only totalling 527 rushing yards on the year and 4 rushing TDs - but both are also averaging around 5 yards a carry, meaning it has been effective as a secondary means of attack. Of course, Gass and Kielt are two effective pass catchers out of the backfield, and are legitimate targets: combined they have 23 receptions for 253 yards receiving and 2 TDs.

The receiving corps is extremely dangerous, with two dangerous seniors in senior WR Ryan Maher and senior WR Thomas Harrison (pictured), and two dangerous juniors in junior WR Brett McDermott and junior WR Jon Brock. All have great hands, but it's Ryan Maher that scares me the most when it comes to slipping behind coverage and turning on the afterburners, as he leads the receiving corps with 6 touchdowns. All are used as possession-like receivers at some point during the game, and oddly only Harrison has any reception longer than 40 yards. But that's not to say you can ignore them deep. Keeping all of these guys covered will be extremely tough.

Running a run-n-shoot type offense means you need big linemen in pass protection, and Holy Cross has got them. Senior OL Dan Nolan is 6'4, 302, and sophomore OL Aaron Jones is 6'4 and 344. However, with the pass comes sacks, and Randolph has been sacked 10 times this year - meaning if Lehigh can put the pressure on, there is a good chance to force some mistakes.

Defense
Holy Cross' offense is the strength of the team. Their 3-4 defense, however, has struggled to prevent some teams from scoring this year. This defense has given up more than 37 points three times, and gave up 28 points to Harvard as well. If there was ever a time for Lehigh to get its offense on track, it's this week.

Part of the problem with the Crusader defense is that they have had injuries on the "D" line, with the starting nose tackle (and best run-stuffer) suffering a season-ending injury. Junior DE Bryan Walwyn has emerged as the leader on the line with 4 sacks and 19 tackles on the line which is is smallish, especially up the middle.

The linebacking unit is also smaller than other units we've faced this year. Senior LB Mark Kelliher is the class of the unit on the outside, followed closely by junior LB Ryan Stewart on the inside. They don't have overwhelming statistics, though: 32 and 36 tackles respectively, 2 combined sacks, 1 forced fumble. Dominating this unit on the line of scrimmage is an absolute must.

The strength of this defense lies in the secondary, where the intense senior CB Casey Gough prowls the corner. He frequently cheats up and is a very good tackler, notching 5 tackles for loss. Junior CB Kyle Mushaweh on the other side is also a speedy corner who has done a good job in pass coverage, with 4 pass break-ups. Interestingly, this secondary only has two interceptions on the year, however.

Special Teams
Junior P Mike Holloway is netting 35.6 yards per punt, which could mean if the Crusaders get in a battle of field position we could gain an advantage (with our FCS-leading punting unit). Freshman PR Josh Jenkins is a decent punt returner, though, averaging 9 yards per return. On kickoffs, senior CB Casey Gough runs them back and has a very respectable 26 yard average, while senior WR Brett McDermott doesn't offer much respite either with a 20 yard average. Caution is advised.

Junior K Matt Partain could very well be the class of the Patriot League. He's 8/9 on FG attempts with a 49 yarder to his credit as well. His first miss was a 33 yarder versus Dartmouth last week.

Keys To The Game
1.Line of scrimmage. We need to dominate both lines of scrimmage to win this game. Our offensive line needs to establish itself and manhandle the Holy Cross front seven if necessary. Our front seven needs to get pressure on Randolph and force him out of his comfort zone. If we can't do this here, I don't think we can win the game.
2.Establishing the Run. If McGowan and Pastore are back, it's worth trying to grind out the running, especially early. Getting a good rushing attack should open up good things in our passing game. It will also grind up time of possession and keep that offense off the field.
3.3rd down. On offense, we need to make these big 3rd downs either with power running or short passing. On defense, we need to stop the Crusaders on 3rd down with solid tackling, big hits, and big pressure on Randolph.
4.Field Position. If we can get this into a field-position game, we hold the advantage with Jason Leo's punting. Trading punts could end up in big swings in field position for us; it would be nice if we could take advantage.
5.Turnovers. I'll bring out the old saw again: no turnovers.

Fearless Prediction
My head is telling me that Holy Cross, behind their star quarterback Dominic Randolph, is too much for a flat Lehigh team that has lost its last two games against Fordham and Yale. But for some inexplicable reason, my heart is telling me otherwise.

Is it the Homer in me talking? Quite possibly. But I really can't shake the feeling that just like last year, Lehigh will be a different team in this game that the team we have seen. It doesn't mesh with the facts, which has shown not much offense production in the past three weeks. But Homer, or somebody, is telling me to ignore this.

This team has the talent to get things done. The only question is whether Lehigh actually will.

I just hope – maybe a little bit desperately, I realize – I’m right.

Lehigh 30, Holy Cross 27

Comments

Anonymous said…
Holy Cross 28
Lehigh 17
Anonymous said…
I see that Rackley is starting at RG this week. Does anyone know the last time that Lehigh started a true freshman in the OffLine?

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