It's three weeks until the end of the regular season. At 2-6, the Mountain Hawks don't really deserve to have any hope - however infinitesimal - for competing for the Patriot League title.
If your record says what you are, Lehigh is an under-.500 team. The record says that Mountain Hawks are a team that beat Georgetown and Bucknell and nobody else. They are a team that didn't score a single point in their last appearance at home three weeks ago. They are a team that played better last week, but still lost a tough game to Colgate 27-20.
2-6. The record tells you what you are, and it's not pretty. This isn't the world of Shallow Hal, where we can be hypnotized like Jack Black into thinking that 2-6 is actually 6-2.
And yet, the tiniest hope still exists that Colgate loses this weekend - eighteen miles away from Murray Goodman Stadium - and Lehigh pulls off what would be considered the biggest Mountain Hawk upset of this decade.
As improbable as that might be, if that were to happen Lehigh would - of all things - be in control of their own title destiny.
But make no mistake about it - it would honestly be the biggest upset this decade for Mountain Hawk football, perhaps the biggest upset in the past twenty years. That's because Holy Cross in 2009 has looked so far like one of those all-decade sort of teams, with an offense that hasn't been able to be slowed down all year and a defense that has - scarily - been getting better week to week.
The No. 13-ranked Crusaders see Lehigh as a speed bump to their ultimate goal: their first Patriot League championship since 1991. They should, too. Two years ago at Murray Goodman, Lehigh's flat 59-10 loss to Holy Cross rocked the Mountain Hawk program and their fans to the core, causing me to plead for "emotion". (It also signaled an inauspicious quarterbacking debut
from junior QB J.B. Clark, going 1-2 with a fumble and INT). Last year in Worcester, the Crusaders jumped to a 21-0 lead before Lehigh battled back and made it a game before falling 35-21.
Looking at my recap of that game, the comments could have been pulled from today's headlines. "Work and heart aside, what we have before us a 2-5 team. A team that's worked hard and played tough - but lost. A team that is one loss away from being under .500 for the second straight year. A team that may very well go 4-7. Or maybe even 3-8. This team, for whatever reason, is not consistent enough - unable to put everything together in one game - to be Patriot League champions this year."
If your record is what you are, 7-1 Holy Cross is looking like Gwenyth Paltrow without the fat suit, let's just say. They have the look of this year's Patriot League champions. Their offense is clicking, and their defense is getting better. It's easy to see their squad give a team some trouble in the first round of the FCS playoffs - could they cause Villanova grief, for example?
But games are not won on looks alone. Holy Cross needs to get by Lehigh first. And it's the Mountain Hawks' job to stop them.
This week's game notes show one interesting change: a bit of a reshuffled "O" line. Two sophomores that started last week - sophomore C Jim Liebler and sophomore OL Troy McKenna - are now behind junior C Keith Schauder and junior OL R.J. McNamara. Part of the reason might be that sophomore OL Vinny Pellegrini is off the depth chart (I believe due to injury), but it's quite possible that with such a young team the presence of more veterans may help the "O" line. Worthy of note is that Schauder's return on the line gives us three 300 lb linemen, which might help us.
The other interesting item is the inclusion of freshman RB Zach Barket on the depth chart alongside junior RB Jaren Walker backing up junior RB Jay Campbell. Sparingly used last week, Barket may be more of a presence in this week's game plan. We'll see.
Whether this helps Lehigh, I don't know, but this family weekend will feature some great November weather. The forecast calls for a high of 52 with 5 to 10 mph winds at gametime.
A Word on Holy Cross
In the 1920s and 1930s, Holy Cross was a consistent national powerhouse and, along with schools like Fordham, NYU and Manhattan, came to symbolize big-time "Eastern Football". With a backyard rivalry with nearby Boston College, things looked rosy for the boys in purple, especially after they appeared in the Orange Bowl in 1946 (losing to Miami (FL) 13-6).
In the 1950s, when many religious colleges were abandoning the sport, Holy Cross survived behind the steady coaching hand of Dr. Eddie Anderson. Form 1933 to 1964, Anderson's twenty-one year career coaching record was an amazing 129-67-8 - and he also, incredibly, maintained a medical practice as well as the head of the eye, ear, nose, and throat clinic at Boston's Veterans Hospital.
Holy Cross and Boston College would continue to be joined at the hip as Division I independents, but the Eagles' taste for big time football, and Holy Cross' more modest ambitions, would mean that Boston College would dominate the football series in the 1970's and early 1980s. Holy Cross' scholarship football program's fate would be sealed when Fr. Brooks, the then-president of Holy Cross, got together with the presidents of Lehigh, Lafayette, Bucknell and Colgate to form the core of the Patriot League.
This made the football program, who also had good local rivalries with UMass, Boston University, 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. The 1987 and 1991 teams are considered to be some of the best Patriot League teams ever, both undefeated. Had Holy Cross in 1987, behind two-way star Gordie Lockbaum, chosen to play in the I-AA playoffs instead of abiding by the then-post season ban imposed by the new league, they certainly would have done some damage, if not won the whole thing.
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 once again did not go 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 - and he's on the brink of that right now.
LFN's Drink of the Week
When times get tough - when you need a win, against all logic or common sense - you pull out Lord Chesterfield. Lord Chesterfield Ale, that is: with its dry, sharp finish, it's a tasty beer for any sort of tailgating food to be sure. I'm more interested, however, in it's luck-bringing properties to the Mountain Hawks. Let's just say if Lord Chesterfield helps Lehigh win this week, you'll see it again. (Hell, you'll see it every week.)
As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you drink responsibly and are over 21. Pleas do that. (And, no, Yuengling does not pay me for the free advertising - I'm just a fan!)
Breaking Down Holy Cross
If something is working for you Payton Award-nominated quarterback, don't change it - that would sum up the Crusader offensive philosophy this year. Unsurprisingly, Holy Cross will yet again be the bubble-screening, pass-happy team we've (unfortunately) seen up close the last three years. They will be relentless on offense, and if you slip you can find yourself down by three touchdowns.
When senior QB Dominc Randolph (pictured) decided to return for his final year of eligibility, defensive coordinators around the Patriot League undoubtedly threw their arms up in disgust. They know all about his accuracy (65.4% completion percentage) and nose for the end zone (26 TD passes). If he's allowed to pick you apart, you're done. However, he has made his share of errant throws: opponents have 11 interceptions against him, and he has bee intercepted in six of his eight games this year. Any Lehigh success will come from getting at least one interception this weekend, and many more if possible.
Randolph has an exceptionally quick release and is also extremely quick with receiver reads. Already a great decision maker, Randolph has made life even more frustrating for defenses by simply tucking the ball and running if defenses simply sit in dime coverage all afternoon hoping for picks. One of the more interesting - and revealing - stats for Randolph is that he also leads Holy Cross in rushing with 410 yards. Lehigh will find a way to force Randolph to make errors - yet still punish him if he takes off to try to get first downs on the ground.
Randolph also has no end of targets to hit: junior WR Luke Chleminski (568 yards, 3 TDs), senior WR Bill Edger (527 yards, 4 TDs), junior WR Freddie Santana (406 yards, 5 TDs), senior WR Nick Cole (209 yards, 5 TDs). The H-Back/Tight End, an afterthought in most college offensive schemes in terms of offense, becomes a frightening issue in coach Gilmore's offense with 6'7 sophomore TE Alex Schnieder (103 yards, 3 TDs). All speedsters, there's an awful lot to cover back there - and if Randolph gets the time to hit them, it usually spells a long day. The passing gets spread around to everyone - Randolph doesn't focus on one receiver. On any play, all are targets.
That also includes sophomore RB Matt Bellomo, who is second on the team in rushing (365 yards, 4 TDs) but is also - surprise - a target in the passing game, too, with 226 yards. Freshman RB Eddie Houghton also gets a fair amount of carries too (243 yards, 3 TDs), but the pass sets up the run in this offense.
Want more to worry about? Try senior OL Aaron Brown, the 360 lb left tackle that almost went to Lehigh (and might, along with Randolph, get some sniffs from NFL scouts). The large "O" line have only allowed eight sacks all year - one a game - and obviously are excellent in pass-first protection.
Holy Cross plays a base 3-4 defense that has improved a lot from last year's squad that gave up points in bunches. They're better at stopping the run, and they've only allowed more than thirty points once - to a powerful Brown offense in their only loss of the year, 34-31 to the Bears.
Holy Cross boasts a small front seven, anchored by 6'0 249 lb senior DT Alex Carson (18tackles, 1/2 sack) on the defensive line. But the emergence of a pass-rushing threat on the line in the form of junior DL Mude Ohimor (48 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks) is a massive improvement over last year. This "D" line is solid.
Once again the linebacking unit is led by senior LB Marcus Rodruiguez (68 tackles, 6 passes defended) but this unit misses senior LB Sean Lamkin, injured in Week 3 against Harvard and out of action this week. Senior LB Andrew Cialino has done well in his place, however, notching 53 tackles and 3 tackles for loss. One thing they haven't done a lot of this year is force turnovers, only recovering four fumbles all year and nabbing 5 interceptions.
Senior CB Michel Wright (40 tackles, 13 passes defended, 2 INTs) is Holy Cross' shutdown corner, while junior SS Anthony DiMichele (54 tackles, 1 INT) is solid in run support as well. They can, however, be caught through the air: their pass defense is averaging 275 yards per game, or 112th/125 FCS teams.
Junior PK Rob Dornfried has his best weekend of the year last week, getting Special Teams Player of the Week honors with FGs of 21 and 30 yards. His longest of the year is 34 yards, so he might be able to be forced into errors. His earlier inaccuracy may have been because he was also doing double-duty as punter - now that junior P Don Lemieux is there (8 punts with a whopping 43.9 average), Holy Cross appears to have an excellent kicking duo.
Kick returns are solid, too, with junior WR Freddie Santana (7.9 average) and junior RS Alex Johnson (23.2 average).
Keys to the Game
1. Disguise those blitzes. You can't sit back against this offense. Your best bet is to mix up the blitzing and - somehow - keep Randolph out of rhythm. Let him get a few big gainers, but always make sure to make him pay if he does. If senior LB Matt Cohen can disrupt Randolph enough to force a few picks or get just a few sacks, Lehigh could have a chance.
2. Ball Control. As tempting as it might be to try to pass your way to victory, grinding the clock gives Lehigh their best shot at the "W". Hopefully Campbell, Barket and Walker can get enough yards on the ground to keep that Holy Cross offense off the field.
3. Win the Turnover Battle. Holy Cross is too good to keep giving them opportunities. The Mountain Hawks will need to get in the plus in turnovers and reduce their opportunities to have a chance to pull off the upset.
4. Lunchpail time. The linemen need to bring out their lunchpails and out-work the Crusaders. If Lehigh gets out the lunchpails, they'll have a chance.
I'm not going to lie: this is a huge challenge for this Lehigh football team. Should Lehigh win, it would be their greatest upset in two decades without question. This Lehigh team has only scored more than 30 points once all year, and that came against Bucknell. In contrast, Holy Cross has scored more than 30 points six times, and more than 40 points three times.
If they somehow manage to slow down the Dominic Express to only score four touchdowns, it will give Lehigh a chance to build off their success in the last two games and pull off an upset. But it's hard to see Lehigh keeping Holy Cross under 28 points. The Crusaders will almost certainly win this weekend, and the Mountain Hawks will need to find answers for Lafayette in two weeks.
Holy Cross 45, Lehigh 10