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Preview of Lehigh at Holy Cross

Emimem once wrote that he's "cleanin' out his closet", and that it wasn't exactly a pleasant experience. I feel like I'm doing that here for the football team for this preview: to preview Holy Cross is to revisit a time and place that won't make any Lehigh fans happy.

Last year, almost a year to this day, Holy Cross visited Goodman stadium and gave Lehigh a thumping that they will not soon forget. The Crusaders very nearly scored a point-a-minute as Lehigh suffered their worst-ever loss in Murray Goodman Stadium history, 59-10.

It was a picture-perfect day - 66 degrees and sunny - and I went to Lehigh (after picking a Mountain Hawk victory, mind you) thinking Lehigh would finally come out and play an emotional do-or-die game against one of the best teams in the Patriot League.

I could not have been more wrong.

Almost from the opening kickoff Lehigh was flat, giving up two quick touchdown drives while Lehigh only came up with a punt and a field goal from senior P/K Jason Leo. Still, Lehigh was still battling with quarterback Sedale Threatt, who found senior WR Mike Fitzgerald for a 15 yard score to make the score 24-10 at the break. Down two touchdowns, it still felt possible.

Then, the wheels came off.

Threatt started having to force the issue. Two interceptions were turned into touchdowns. QB Chris Bokosky came in, and promptly fumbled on a sack. A punt was fumbled. And not to be outdone, sophomore QB J.B. Clark made his debut in this debacle as well. His stat line? 1-2 with a fumble and an interception.

All told, six turnovers en route to five Holy Cross touchdowns. Lehigh went completely flat, seeming to give up emotionally and trudging off the field slowly after extra points and kickoffs.

It's by far the worst Lehigh game I've ever witnessed. I saw the 47-22 loss by Lehigh in 2001 to Delaware in the I-AA playoffs - I actually walked out of that game - but at least there you could say that Delaware was stacked with scholarship talent. In addition, the Lehigh players played hard all sixty minutes, scoring some late points to prove that they were fighters. The Lehigh team I saw last year did not do that.

It was, quite frankly, the sort of loss that sent an earthquake through the program. I wrote a quick, angry recap. My Sunday "Word" was "Emotion" - or you could say, lack thereof. And I wasn't alone - fans couldn't believe the Mountain Meltdown they saw.

It's been one year that the nasty taste of this game has been in the throats of the Lehigh players. This Saturday, they'll finally have a chance to get rid of it.

Game Notes
With a lot of Lehigh players coming out against Harvard last week, it was a relief to see most of the same, familiar faces in for Lehigh on the depth chart this week in this week's game notes - most notably senior WR Sekou Yansane. Only one name was different, and that was the backup for senior OL Kevin Bayani: instead of sophmorore OL R.J. McNamara, freshman OL Troy McKenna gets the nod on the two deep this week.

The biggest surprise was that senior DL Paul Bode is not only on the depth chart after being helped from the field last Saturday, but is still pencilled in as the starting "D" lineman - a nice shot in the arm for this Lehigh defense.

As of this preview, Holy Cross' game notes were not up yet.

Weather Report
The forecast for Worcester is for unseasonably warm weather, similar to the temperature in the game last year at Murray Goodman. Cloudy with highs in the 60s, with as of right now a 30% chance of showers. It used to be that Lehigh/Holy Cross games always seemed to be in monsoon-like conditions, and there is a chance these chances of showers could still increase. Stay tuned.

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 helped form the Patriot League in 1988, the Crusaders eagerly abandoned scholarships across all sports. This made the football program, who had good local rivalries with UMass, Boston University, and Boston College, wither. But in those early years of the Patriot League Holy Cross (with a host of grandfathered scholarship players) wreaked havoc on their Patriot opponents.

One of the most significant games in Patriot League history involving Holy Cross came in 1991. A battle for the Patriot League championship that year, going into Murray Goodman stadium that year the Engineers and Crusaders were both 6-0. In the exhilerating 43-42 defeat, the game featured six lead changes and not one but two "fumblerooski" plays by then-Lehigh coach Hank Small to try to get the win. That game that did wonders for establishing the Patriot League as "big-time". (The Crusaders won the Patriot League title that year and also finished 11-0, but were not invited to the I-AA playoffs despite wins over Harvard, BU, and UMass.)

From 1991 to 2003, Holy Cross really struggled at times as the Holy Cross athletic department actively chose to pursue basketball while phasing out football scholarships and implementing stringent academic stadards.

Then in 2004, fortunes changed. Then-Lehigh defensive coordinator Tom Gilmore, fresh from the Lehigh coaching staff, 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. Over the years there has been some movement between the coaching staffs at Holy Cross and Lehigh - when coach Coen took over at Lehigh, for example, one of his first hires was Dick Kotulski, defensive coordinator at Holy Cross.

Tom Gilmore deserves all the credit in the world in rebuilding a Holy Cross program that had been in serious disarray before he arrived. Five 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 three straight winning seasons. All that's missing for him is a Patriot League championship.

Last Time Out
My dad, a Dartmouth alumnus, saw Holy Cross last week dismantle the 0-5 Big Green up in Hanover, NH. The potent Holy Cross offense shot out to an early 23-6 lead and never really looked back in a 44-26 victory. Specifically my father was impressed by the efficiency of the Purple offense.

So, evidently, was Datmouth head football coach Buddy Teevens. “They spread you out wide and they get the ball out of their hands,” he said in the post-game press conference. “There weren’t a lot of down-the-field throws. It was all five or six yards. We’d mix up pressure but even if they don’t block anybody it’s hard to get there as quickly as they get the ball out."

LFN's Drink of the Week
On a sunny day in Worcester, Mass, nothing says Lehigh victory like a nice purple cocktail. It's got a lot of components - blueberry liqueur, Blue Curacao, Sloe Gin - and it is potent, so ice it up. But on an unseasonably warm day, it seems like just the thing before the game this weekend.

As always, Drinks of the week have a place in responsible tailgates: that means being over 21 and drinking responsibly. Please do that.

Breaking Down Holy Cross
Offense
The tight end is back in the Holy Cross offense, and the Crusaders are a tad more conservative than they used to be with the four-wide set they used to run with Chris Pincince. But if you think the new offensive coordinator Mike Pedone will throw the ball around any less, think again. Holy Cross will yet again be the bubble-screening, pass-happy team we've gotten to know for the past two years. They will be relentless on offense, and if you slip (like Lehigh did last year) you can find yourself down by three touchdowns.

And it all starts with the quarterback: senior QB Dominc Randolph (pictured), who is a legitimate Payton Award candidate and a player with a real shot at playing on Sundays. He's accurate (he completes 65.7% of his passes) and finds the end zone (16 TD passes). If he's allowed to pick you apart, you're done.

Randolph has an exceptionally quick release and is also extremely quick with receiver reads. Teevens said of the senior QB: "The thing I’m impressed about with Randolph is he makes great pre-snap decisions. He knows where the ball is going and it is out of his hands.”

Randolph isn't the most mobile quarterback in the world, but he does has enough speed to make you respect his ability to take off, even if most times a linebacker can catch him from behind. It's also worth noting that he can be forced into making mistakes - he has 8 interceptions on the year.

Holy Cross uses the pass to set up the run, and when they do it's senior RB Terrance Gass (245 yards, 5 TDs) or senior RB Mike Kielt (334 yards, 3 TDs) rushing the ball. Both small, speedy backs, they are build for speed and breakaways rather than power running. In addition, both offer another dimension with their ability to catch the ball - combined, they have 41 receptions, 292 yards and a TD between them. (Last week, Gass didn't make the trip to Hanover and may perhaps be out again this week.)

Two seniors: senior WR Brent McDermott and senior WR Jon Brock - lead the receiving corps, with Brock this year emerging as the "alpha receiver" with 412 receiving yards and 6 TDs. Although the two speedy seniors - and 5'7 sophomore WR Josh Jenkins, for that matter - are shorter than Harvard's trees at wide receiver, it doesn't matter much because at Holy Cross, it's all about the system - everyone's going to get receptions, even sophomore WR Freddie Santana (with his 231 yards and 3 TDs). Even senior TE Ryan McGuire gets in on the fun (17 catches, 205 yards, 2 TDs).

The passes are generally short, and the wideouts will generally be very good blockers. There are targets galore, and Randolph's quick release gets them the ball fast. This offense is exceptionally hard to contain. And it's the offensive line's job - led by senior OL Chris Poole - to pass block and give Randolph those few seconds he needs.

Defense
Holy Cross plays a base 3-4 defense that still gives up points in bunches. Of note, Harvard scored 25 on this defense and won. Yale scored 31 points on them and won. But this defense may not be exactly what you think: teams are not averaging many rushing yards against them.

Holy Cross boasts a small front seven, anchored by 6'0 245 lb junior DT Alex Carson (10 tackles, 2 tackles for loss) on the defensive line. Unlike Lehigh, there is no one real dominating lineman in this group for offensive linemen to key on - there's an opportunity to control this line of scrimmage, in my opinion.

The linebacking unit is led by junior LB Marcus Rodruiguez (30 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) and junior LB Sean Lamkin (28 tackles, 3 tackles for loss). The linebackers are bigger, but overall this is still a smallish front seven. Interestingly, the front seven has only forced one fumble all year, and the linebackers have not forced any of them - very unusual. Still, this unit has been stingy against the run, holding superstar Yale RB Mike McLeod to 131 yards rushing and only 1 touchdown, for example.

The secondary still boasts some very good players - senior CB Kyle Mushaweh leaps to mind, who had two interceptions last year against Lehigh, and senior SS Daryl Brown, who is second on the team in tackles with 31 to go with his 2 interceptions - but this unit has been downright picked on, to the tune of 313 yards on average per game. Part of this may be due to the fact that this secondary is short - Brown is listed at 5'8.

Special Teams
Senior K Matt Partain has an exteemely good leg - he connected on a 49 yard field goal last year, and had a 46 yarder this year - but he's struggled with accuracy, going 5-for-8 on field goal attempts this year, and booting five balls out of bounds on kickoffs. Senior P Mike Holloway is an OK punter, averaging 36.8 yards per punt.

Sophomore WR Josh Jenkins and senior WR Brent McDermott field the punts and kickoffs have been decent threats on returns. McDermott has 258 return yards and 1 kickoff return for a touchdown to his credit, while Jenkins is averaging 8.4 yards per punt return.

Keys to the Game
1.YAC-etty YAC. They key to this offense isn't great arm strength from Randolph but yards after the catch from the receiving corps, or YAC. If Lehigh can keep the YAC from the plethora of receivers to a minimum, the Mountain Hawks will definitely have a chance in this game.
2.Pressure. Constant pressure on Randolph may not slow him down completely, but might make him a little off-balance and give Lehigh a chance to force a throw and get some big turnovers. Not letting Randolph get comfortable will be key.
3.Zurn Baby Zurn. This could be a chance for Clark to have a big day passing the ball, and if he does it will be because players like sophomore WR Craig Zurn are an early and active force in the offense. A big day passing could mean a big win for Lehigh.
4.Special Teams Execution. In a big game like this, coverage on special teams and punts take on extra-special meaning. If Lehigh can win the "third" phase of this game - special teams - I like Lehigh's chances.

Fearless Prediction
Randolph is an exceptional quarterback and the offensive system is one that is difficult to stop. Yet this still looks like a winnable game for Lehigh, not least due to the vast improvement Lehigh fans have seen on offense and the solid play we've seen so far on special teams as well.

The two big questions I have involve emotion and pressure. Will the team be up emotionally for the game, unlike last year? You have to believe that all the players know, or have heard, about last year's shellacking and have used it in some measure for motivation this time around. I've got to believe that Lehigh will play with a lot of emotion this weekend.

The other question is: what if this game comes down to another fourth quarter play? Three losses came in the last two minutes of play. What does that do to this team in a much bigger game? Does it mean the team goes in and says "here we go again"? Or does the team refuse to let it happen again?

I see Lehigh going up to Fitton Field and playing with the intensity needed to win this game. And I think it could very well be the game that puts the swagger back into the steps of this Lehigh team. It won't be easy. But I think they can, and will, do it.

Lehigh 38, Holy Cross 35

Comments

Anonymous said…
HC was prevented from going to the then-1AA playoffs in the Duffer era due to Patriot League policy (that policy was amended in 1995).

They were in fact ranked #1 in 1987 at the end of the regular season; and in 1991 were somewhere in the top 10.

It would not be a stretch, in fact, to say that all 6 Duffner teams would have been invited to participate in those playoffs. His overall record was 60-6 and the worst season he had was 9-2.

The 1991 game, which I witnessed personally, was a great contest that featured 69 points in the second half and 2 long interception runs by defensive linemen (one for each team).

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