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Breaking Down Holy Cross, 11/5/2011

Ever have such a good idea, that you're amazed you never came up with it before?

That's what happened to me yesterday, when I discovered I could break up my game previews into two different blog postings: one for a more general look at the game, and the other a technical breakdown of the opposition.

Below the flip, see Holy Cross broken down, as well as my "Keys to the Game" - and, of course, the "Fearless Prediction".
Offense
If you just look at offensive statistics, Holy Cross would be considered a playoff team.

Their base three-wideout offense, combined with a solid starting quarterback, has resulted in an offense that spreads the field, hits the short pass on a pretty consistent basis, and moves the ball well.

What has undone them the last two weeks, however, has been turnovers, and finishing drives.

Mobile senior QB Ryan Taggart (2,229 yards passing, 363 yards rushing, 12 TDs) is an extremely accurate, hard to bring down quarterback, and can make good things happen on the run.   He is completing more than 60% of his passes, and only has six interceptions in eight games, making him a deadly weapon for the guys in purple.

Yet with all his efficient play, he also hasn't been responsible for more than three touchdowns in a game either.  Four times he got Holy Cross deep inside Georgetown territory last weekend, and three times he and the Holy Cross offense came up empty.  He'll be working extremely hard to turn that around this weekend.

Adding to Taggart's struggles in the red zone is the fact that the Crusaders' running-back-by-committee approach hasn't taken much pressure off the 6'2, 214 lb Texan.  Power running back junior RB Eddie Houghton has run for 227 yards, while a new face, sophomore RB Reggie Woods (327 yards), joins him in the backfield, but neither back has outgained Taggart on the ground.  Neither back has figured in the passing game, either.

The running back that comes in during obvious passing downs is junior RB Sam Auffant (72 yards rushing, 126 yards receiving), who is one of the myriad of targets Taggart will hit during the course of the game.  Fifteen different Crusaders have caught a pass this year.

The two top receivers for the Crusaders are junior WR Gerald Mistretta (47 catches, 555 yards, 5 TDs) and sophomore WR Mike Fess (41 catches, 372 yards, 2 TDs), with sophomore WR Kyle Toulouse (29 catches, 304 yards, 2 TDs) not far behind him.  For the Patriot League, all the receivers are tall (meaning above 6'0) which means they're a handful.  You can rest assured that the guys in purple have a talented, deep pool of outside targets for Taggart to pull from, which makes the secondary's task that much harder this week.

Also worthy of mention is senior TE Alex Schneider (8 catches, 83 yards, 1 TD), who also lines up as an H-back as well as playing as an extra blocker.  At 6'7, he can also be a dangerous weapon in goal-line situations of in the middle of the field.

The "O" line, anchored by senior OL Mike McCabe has done a pretty good job protecting Taggart, allowing 14 sacks this year against extremely tough competition.  If Taggart gets time to dissect a defense, he will, so getting by this big "O" line will be a big part of Saturday.

Defense
Like Lehigh, Holy Cross plays a base 3-4 defense, but doesn't blitz as often as Lehigh or Colgate. They tackle well, however, and have limited opposing teams pretty well, which is a reflection on their head coach Tom Gilmore, himself a star linebacker at Penn back in the day. Worryingly for Lehigh, their strength is in the secondary, where their pass defense is ranked 5th in the nation.

The duo of senior CB Chandler Fenner (58 tackles, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles, 11 pass break-ups) and junior SS Tom Mannix (59 tackles , 1 INT, 7 pass break-ups) form the core of the best secondary Lehigh will have faced all season.

“Chandler is having a great year for us,” Gilmore told Jennifer Toland of the Worcester Telegraph-Gazette. “He has the athletic ability to be a great cover guy, and he’s a very aggressive player, so he’s in on a lot of plays when it’s away from him. He’s a high effort guy, so he gets to a lot of balls.”

They, along with sophomore CB Irvin Scott and senior FS Cav Koch, form a unit that is ranked 11th in the nation in pass defense.  It will not be a picnic against this very talented group of defensive backs.

Holy Cross also boasts a lot of experience at linebacker as well.  Senior LB Ricky Otis and senior LB C.J. Martin are an interior linebacking unit that have combined for 110 tackles and form the heart of the Crusader defense, while sophomore LB Mike Tucker has emerged as a real pass rushing threat from the outside with 7 1/2 sacks on the season.

"It is nice to have two guys like Ricky Otis and C.J. Martin around," Gilmore said in Holy Cross' season preview. "They are experienced, smart players, and we are expecting a lot out of both of them."

Up front, the Crusaders have a monster in the middle, 294 lb junior DT Jack Maliska, while senior DE Ted McGinn offers some extra pass-rushing pop from the inside of the line.  There's lots of senior leadership and talent to make this a very dangerous defense.

Special Teams
Those hoping for some sort of letup on Holy Cross' special teams will be in for a disappointment.

Sophomore PK John Macomber has been, quite simply, the best kicker in the Patriot League, going 11/12 on field goals and 12/16 on extra points.  Additionally, senior PK Paul Tearson has attempted a few field goals beyond 45 yards this season - meaning their range for kicks is longer than most schools Lehigh has played this year.

Senior P Corey Page has been a decent punter, with a 37.1 average on the season, while sophomore DB Andrew Zitnik is a very solid return man on kickoffs, averaging 23.2 yards per reutrn.

It's also worth noting that Fenner, the star of the defense, also is an active member of the Crusaders' special teams unit, which makes the whole unit better.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Purple Under Pressure.  It is critical that Lehigh get pressure on Taggart, not only to stuff the Crusader offense on third downs but also to, perhaps, force some turnovers.  Holy Cross is suffering through a big case of fumble-itis right now, and Lehigh needs to keep that going.
2. Busting With Barket.  With his breakout game last weekend, junior RB Zach "The Bracket Buster" Barket has now become a major weapon on this well-oiled Lehigh offensive machine.  It's tempting to go to the Schuykill Haven, PA native early and often to get big chunks of yardage - which might set things up for some big plays by senior QB Chris Lum and company.
3. Keen Eye on Special Teams.  In a hard-fought league game, it's the little things like special teams that can make a huge difference.  It will be critical to hold onto the football on special teams, and to prevent the sort of big play that can keep Holy Cross in the football game.

Fearless Prediction
Lehigh has put some points on some opponents this year.  But they haven't seen a defense like the one they'll be seeing Saturday.  They're loaded with senior leadership, they're battle-tested against CAA teams and the best in the Ivy League, and they are going to be the best secondary Lehigh has faced all year.

I don't think Lehigh will blow the Crusaders out of the water, for I know Tom Gilmore.  His defense will be ready for what the Mountain Hawks bring to the table, and for that reason alone this is a dangerous game for  the guys in Brown and White.

What would help is a large, vocal crowd, similar to the one that came to Murray Goodman stadium twenty years ago to see Holy Cross squeak by Lehigh 43-42 in one of the all-time great games of the series.

I think Lehigh will make one more play than Holy Cross, and ultimately win this game.

Lehigh 27, Holy Cross 22

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