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Game Preview: Lehigh at Holy Cross, 11/6/2010

(Photo Credit: Holy Cross Athletics)

For this "Sunday's Word", I chose "Boiling".  It played very well into the Lehigh football theme this year, which was "212 Degrees".

But another football theme, unspoken but still very much on the minds of everyone in the football program, is "revenge".

After the Colgate game, a lot was made of the fact that the seniors had never beaten the Raiders, either in Hamilton or Bethlehem.  Before this year, all three games were close, but all were losses.  On Saturday, it was time to enact that revenge, to give the seniors their only potential taste of victory of the 'Gate - and they did so emphatically, with a dominating 44-14 victory.

"I really enjoyed today, I ain't gonna lie," head coach Andy Coen said, just barely hiding a smile. "Because our seniors hadn't beaten Colgate. It's the best win... until, hopefully, next week. They haven't beaten Holy Cross, either." (more)

As great as the Colgate victory was, it's still a one-game-at-a-time journey for the Mountain Hawks. And crucial to Lehigh's Patriot League title hopes - and, by extension, their hopes for a possible berth to the FCS playoffs, and perhaps even a home playoff game - is a win in Worcester.

Once upon a time, Lehigh used to be perennial favorites to compete for Patriot League titles in football. But in a very ugly game in 2007 against Holy Cross, the Mountain Hawks got humiliated 59-10 in a game that seemed to dissipate any swagger that remained with this football team.

Holy Cross erupted for 544 yards of total offense, and RB Terrence Gass very nearly got 100 yards of rushing against the Mountain Hawks. Lehigh turned over the ball six times - three fumbles, and three quarterbacks combined for 14/32 passing and three interceptions. It was the most lopsided home loss at Murray Goodman stadium in Lehigh's history - and was jarring to a whole host of fans that were not used to seeing Lehigh lose. Not like this.

Before October 20th, 2007, Lehigh had a mystique about them. Even when their football teams were not well-oiled machines, they had the talent to almost just show up and intimidate other teams with their presence. After this game where Lehigh was outplayed in every single aspect - and I am not exaggerating - that mystique died on the field that day.

"You know what else was really troubling about this game?," I wrote at the time. "There was no fight in this team. Sometimes, even when a team loses, they will still continue to battle and battle even in defeat. With the game out of reach, the replacements on defense didn't battle. There are a lot of athletes on offense, defense, and special teams that packed it in. That's inexcusable at any level of play."

That loss was when things hit rock bottom.  It's hard to imagine a non-Lafayette game being the nadir of the program, but it's absolutely true.  I barely remember the 21-17 defeat to Lafayette that year.  But I remember the Holy Cross loss distinctly. It does not get any better with age.

As the swagger left Lehigh, Holy Cross grabbed that momentum and created a team that went from purple afterthought to perennial Patriot League title contender. It started in 2008, with a home win streak that continues to this day at thirteen games, and in 2009 ended with - finally - a Patriot League championship and a first-round date in the FCS playoffs with Villanova. Unlike Lehigh's visit from last year's national champs, the Crusaders fought the Wildcats extremely hard, ultimately outlasting Holy Cross 38-28.

And the Mountain Hawks that remained after that loss needed to learn how to win in a different way. Without the swagger that "hey, we're Lehigh", the young players got the playing time, as Lehigh entered something that nobody had thought the Mountain Hawks needed to do: rebuild. Young guys like senior OL Will "Got Your Back" Rackley, senior LB Al Pierce, senior RB Jaren Walker - a crucial guy who got a lot of yardage before an early-season injury caused him to lose his senior season this year - and senior DT Phil Winett got a chance to prove what they could do.

And it's been a long journey since that 2007 defeat. Three losing seasons - which has now officially been reversed. Multiple seasons of close losses to top teams- which has now, too, been officially reversed, thanks to Mountain Hawk wins over Colgate and Harvard. A lot of bad milestones at home - which, too, were reversed last weekend with their biggest margin of victory against Colgate since 1990.

And three seasons of being also-rans in the Patriot League title - now - is on the brink of being reversed for this Lehigh team. Against the team that started the reverse four years ago. Against the team that started making Fitton Field a most inhospitable place to play since 2007.

"With this group of kids, they work hard and do what they've been asked," Coen said after the game last weekend. "Many of them have worked hard for two and three years here and haven't achieved the level of success that they've wanted. So, that's another driving force for a lot of these guys."

Coach Gilmore mentioned one other interesting thing from the press conference back in 2007, too: that he "fully expects Lehigh to rebound and learn something from this, just like we would. It's a tough pill for them to swallow, but I know what the people here at Lehigh are all about, and I know they are going to respond in a positive way."

Four years later, Lehigh fans hope that Gilmore was right on that very tough October day back then.

Game Notes
The game notes and the pregame media luncheon revealed some good news that senior OL Keith Schauder is "50/50" to play this weekend and junior FB Bryce Arruda will definitely be able to play this weekend. Freshman FB Sean Farrell will still be the starter, but Arruda will probably get some spots too, offering important depth at that position. If Schauder is unable to go, senior OL R.J. McNamara will not be much of a dropoff.

Lehigh seems quite healthy overall at this point in the year, which is really great to see after seeing players like senior CB/KR John "Prez" Kennedy in sweats on the sidelines not all that long ago during games.

Weather Report
For the first time this year, Lehigh will be playing in chilly, football-esque weather with a potentially crunchy field. The weather report for Saturday right now calls for a high of 45 on Saturday - after a couple days of showers on Thursday and Friday, which could make Fitton Field either a cold, wet field at best - or, potentially, a frozen field if the temperatures stay in the high 30s/low 40s at kickoff.

I'll check in with a weather update on Friday, as field conditions could play a very large part in the decision this weekend.

A Word on Holy Cross
Most years, it's a gimme to pick last year's champions to repeat the following year. But admittedly, last year wasn't just any old year for the Holy Cross Crusaders.

Last year, QB Dominic Randolph, the Patriot League offensive player of the year and now-member of the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League, was at the helm of the Crusader offense, well on his way towards shattering every significant passing record in the Patriot League. His choice to return for his final year of eligibility sent shockwaves through the rest of the league, as it should have. His decision making ability and skill to find the weak spot on the opposing defense was unbelievable.

It might be understandable to believe that the loss of Randolph to the NFL would cause a dropoff. But a dropoff to being picked 4th in the preseason rankings, behind Lehigh and Lafayette? 4th, with two of Randolph's biggest receiving targets returning? 4th, with the preseason player of the year returning on defense?

"I guess we'll have to prove it on the field again this year," head coach Tom Gilmore told me after Patriot League Media day this year. "One thing that I did take from it was how close the voting was. It indicates that most people think this will be a very competitive season in the Patriot League and the champion will have to be able to win some closely contested contests. Each team has some big shoes to fill from last season, so the new starters around the league will have a major role to play."

It's impossible to talk about Holy Cross this days without mentioning Gilmore in the same sentence.

He deserves a boatload of credit for rebuilding a Holy Cross program that had been in serious disarray before he arrived. Six years ago, he inherited a 1-11 team that had enjoyed only one winning season since 1993. Since then, he's guided his "Purple Army" to four straight winning seasons - and last year, finally, his first Patriot League championship.

Gilmore came fresh from the Lehigh coaching staff in 2004, and took on the job of rebuilding the Crusader football program essentially from scratch. For Lehigh, 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 (now the head man at D-III Widener) to follow him in his rebuilding effort - after Collins had already been promoted to defensive coordinator at Lehigh.

This caused some bad blood between the Lehigh and Holy Cross coaching staffs at that time. Over the years there has been some movement between the coaching staffs at Holy Cross and Lehigh - when coach Coen took over at Lehigh in 2005, for example, one of his first hires was Dick Kotulski, defensive coordinator at Holy Cross. The bad blood seems now pretty much in the past, but these coaching staffs still know each other inside and out. The bloodlines intertwine everywhere, and these coaches know each others' recruiting territories well.

The long journey that started with Gilmore taking over that 1-11 team ended last year with their first Patriot League championship since the 1990s and their first FCS playoff appearance since 1983.

Last year, Lehigh, 2-6 but still alive for the Patriot League title, gave heavily favored Holy Cross all they could handle on their way to the championship, but the boys in Purple ended up with the 24-21 victory with a threaded-needle pass from Randolph in the final minute rifled in between two Lehigh defenders, crunching the receiver but not hard enough to prevent the winning score. "The Lehigh kids came out and they blitzed," a relieved Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore said after the game. "They did a good job changing things up. One time, a play would be there, and the next time we'd get back to it, they had it defended. I thought they did a good job changing things up."

LFN's Drink of the Week
It's cold. It's wet. And it's Worcester. Is it time for colorful mixed drinks? No. Is it time for cold beer? No. It's, in fact, time for some hard cider, locally made at the Green River Ambrosia Meadery. Hard cider, lightly spiced, warmed and made available in thermoses, it's the ideal tailgating drink up in the middle of Massachusetts right before a huge Holy Cross football game.

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that. (And, Green River Meadery? I've never tried mead, but if you send me some, I'd be very happy to try it. Call me.)

Breaking down Holy Cross

You'd think that without Randolph, perhaps the Holy Cross coaching staff would try to tweak their three-wideout, spread offense to compensate. They have not: they're still the same sort of spread, pass-first team that the Crusaders have been the past four years. Instead of one signalcaller, however, the Crusaders have two guys back there that coach Gilmore is alternating, both of which give a slightly different look. Most interesting of all, however, is that a brand-new face appeared two weeks ago at QB for the Crusaders and looks poised to be appearing in the game this Saturday.

Senior QB Ryan Taggart (1,362 yards passing, 199 yards rushing, 8 TDs) is the QB who is more mobile and can take off on you. The 6'2, 214 lb Texan is hard to bring down and can make something happen on the run. His best performance of the season came down the stretch vs. Colgate, where he scrambled for yardage and passed for yardage, snatching victory for the Crusaders up in Hamilton. He's improved steadily week to week.

But don't forget junior QB Mark Tolzein, who was the backup for the injured junior QB Kevin Watson last week, who went 4-5 and scored two critical TDs. Right now, Tolzein - a 6'1, 190 rail - is listed as the backup, but while he hasn't ventured too far out of the pocket yet, he should be able to do so to move the football. If Watson is able to go, he's a bigger target and harder to bring down (6'4, 215) but, like Taggart, also makes plays with his legs as well as his arm. Though there are three potential QBs for Holy Cross, they're all in the same mobile, throw-on-the-run, make-hay-from-broken-plays variety of QB.

UPDATE: "Watson practiced this week and is questionable. If he can’t play, Tolzien will," said Jenifer Toland of the Worcester Telegram-Gazette.

What is very similar to last year is the targets the two (or possibly three)-headed QB will be tossing to. The receiver who broke Lehigh's heart in the last minute, senior WR Freddie Santana (248 yards, 4 TDs) showed amply that he's a big-play receiver, and senior WR Bill Edger (391 yards, 6 TDs) and sophomore WR Gerald Mistretta (308 yards, 2 TDs) are another big-play machine and possession receiver, respectively, in Holy Cross' arsenal of able-bodied wideouts. Senior WR Luke Chielminski (340 yards, 2 TDs) also gets a lot of receptions and a lot of target practice from Holy Cross' QBs, and 6'7 junior TE Alex Schneider (172 yards, 1 TD) is another big receiving target. They're tall, short, speedy, possession. They have all sorts of guys catching the football for them - and it's like whack-a-mole out there, in that once you've double-covered one, another pops up. Containing this bunch will be a challenge.

Losing junior WR Matt Bellomo was a big blow to the Crusaders, as was losing sophomore RB Eddie Houghton. The player who have emerged at tailback is sophomore RB Sam Auffant (308 yards, 2 TDs), who is not Holy Cross' primary offensive option but got 66 yards vs. Colgate. Like the rest of this team, he has been improving week to week.

316 lb senior OL Mike McCabe is the unquestioned leader of the Crusader "O" line, which is still fairly large across the board and only allowed eight sacks all year. They're asked to give one of their three QBs time to throw to their receiving playmakers - and they've done so very effectively all season.

Like Lehigh, Holy Cross plays a 3-4 defense, but doesn't blitz as often as Lehigh or Colgate. They tackle well, however, and have limited opposing teams pretty well, especially lately. They held Brown to 13 points and Colgate to 24 points, which was pretty impressive. Coach Gilmore's goal against Colgate was to make Colgate earn every yard - it's likely that he'll have a similar outlook against Lehigh, by trying to limit Lehigh's big plays.

Holy Cross' defensive line, led by preseason Patriot League defensive player of the year junior DE Mude Ohimor, hasn't had the type of season everyone expected of him so far (22 tackles, 1 sack). Sophomore DT Jack Maliska (13 tackles) doesn't show up much on the stat sheet, but he's a good up-and-coming defensive tackle that clogs up the middle nicely. Holy Cross has the 83rd-rated rush defense in all of FCS, though, so running the ball becomes a real possibility this week.

At linebacker all-Patriot League candidate senior LB Sean Lamkin (50 tackles, 2 sacks), junior LB Ricky Otis (65 tackles in 6 games), and junior LB C.J. Martin (70 tackles, 1 forced fumble) form the heart of this defense. All are tackling machines and look to keep the flow of play in front of them, which they do well.

One thing the front seven and secondary have not done is force a lot of turnovers - they only have five on the year, including two interceptions by senior FS Alex Johnson. Senior SS Anthony DiMichele (59 tackles) is a solid, punishing safety, and the corners, junior CB Cav Koch and sophomore CB Tom Mannix are young but have not given up a whole lot of big plays, either. Worryingly, they have also come more off the blitz in recent weeks and have done a better job of forcing turnovers - Mannix forced a fumble against Colgate, and Koch made a key tackle for loss. Like the rest of this team, they have improved a lot in recent weeks from the team that lost to Harvard and UMass.

Special Teams
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Holy Cross' special teams won the game for them two weeks ago against Colgate. Freshman DB Andrew Zitnik returned a kickoff 93 yards for a huge TD against the Raiders, and he's a definite weapon for the Crusaders on that unit. Senior WR Freddie Santana - there's that name again - is leading the Patriot League in punt returns with 237 yards and one returned for a TD. Did I mention special teams' contain unit could be huge for Lehigh in this game?

Senior PK Rob Dornfried is the best kicker in the Patriot League so far, with 6/8 on field goal attempts, including a 41 yarder. He's only gone 17/21 on extra points, however. Senior P Don "Don't Cal Me Claude" Lemieux is a solid punter in our league with a 39.4 average.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Preventing Big Plays. This cannot be emphasized enough. What really helped Holy Cross pull off the upset against Colgate was the fact that they jumped out to a big lead, thanks to a kickoff return for touchdown and converting on Raider turnovers. Those big plays really gave the Crusaders momentum, and allowed them to play their game, limiting Colgate's offense and ultimately winning the game. If Lehigh allows too many big plays this weekend, the Mountain Hawks will lose.
2. Preventing Big Plays. It's so important, I mentioned it again. Solid tackling, keeping their yards after catch down, not allowing toast to be burned on deep passes.
It's going to be huge in this game. If Lehigh keeps those things in check, the Mountain Hawks should win.
3. Chunking the Yardage. If Holy Cross is willing to give the Mountain Hawks yards, Lehigh should take those yards. Lehigh's short passing game has been tremendous these past few weeks - it should continue, maybe mixing a bit more with screen passes to the running backs and outside runs, too, to senior RB Jay Campbell. Take the short chunks at the beginning - if Lehigh is patient, it might just result in really, really big chunks later.
4. Punting Out of Bounds. Don't laugh. While I'm expecting a much stronger game from Lehigh's special teams this weekend, Santana's black magic against Lehigh can be limited by taking him out entirely from the punt return game. I'd consider angling that ball out of bounds, and keeping their return man under wraps.

LFN's Fearless Prediction
It's the biggest game - excepting a "Rivalry" game against Lafayette, of course - that Lehigh has played since 2004. We do not know how this Lehigh team will react with the bullseye on their backs. They have the confidence, and the wins to back them up. Now, they have the bullseye. Will it result in a tremendous step towards their first Patriot League title since 2006, and their first playoff appearance since 2004?

I'm always fond of saying that a good football team "has a lot of answers to a lot of questions". And trying to look objectively at this football team, Lehigh does seem to have a lot of answers to a lot of questions. The defense has been lights-out, swarming to the football and so clearly playing at a tremendous level. The offense has appeared to find their playmakers, and has sailed the past two weeks.

But - again - the biggest question of all is, how will Lehigh do with the bullseye? Will the Hawks keep soaring - or will the bullseye result in a lackluster game? Holy Cross, after all, sees this as a championship game. And every year their seniors have played have involved championship games. They have tons more experience in this spot than Lehigh has.

And it's a different week this week for Lehigh. The weather is colder, the ground wetter. Will it make a difference? Last year, Holy Cross won the Patriot League championship in a rainstorm at home, 28-26, over Lafayette. They haven't lost at home since. They know winning.

Will experience win out over Lehigh's momentum? If the Mountain Hawks preserve the strong momentum from last week's win, they'll come away with the victory. If the bullseye proves to be too heavy - and Lehigh's lack of experience comes to the fore - Holy Cross will come away with this game. Whatever happens, expecting a blowout would not be prudent. This will be a war.

Lehigh 31, Holy Cross 27


indianhoop said…
Nice piece LFN. I must say though, as good a win as the 59-10 game was, I'm still partial to the 63-6 win over Lehigh in 1987.

Just bustin'...hope to see you at Fitton.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said…
Expect a nice game. HC D somewhat better than Gate and O more balanced. Taggert has done real well so far against a bit weaker competiton. If we can get good rush I think we can limit pass and they dont run all that well. We MUST continue avoiding stupid penalties and mistakes. Stray thought, I would not be surprised if we get 200+ yds rushing this week.
Anonymous said…
enjoyed the trip to Fitton bwhahahahahahahahahahah...peen

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