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Game Preview: Lehigh at Holy Cross

If there is just one thing you, dear Lehigh fan, take away from this Holy Cross preview, let it be this: Tom Gilmore-coached teams never give up, and more specifically, never give up against Lehigh.

In a series punctuated by power outages, snowstorms, close shaves and just outright weirdness, you can make a very good case that when Lehigh plays Holy Cross, you throw the records out the window.

The 1-7 Crusaders showed some of that fight last weekend vs. Fordham, a 36-32 heartbreak of a loss that had Holy Cross with the lead up until the last 11 seconds of the game.

In that game, Holy Cross didn't look like a 1-6 team, and you can count of the fact that the Crusaders won't look like a 1-7 team out there this weekend, either.

At Patriot League media day, you can always find the Lehigh Valley media huddled around head coach Tom Gilmore.  A former Lehigh defensive coach with plenty of ties to the area, he's always good for about six quotes during media day.  You sometimes wonder if that's the main reason Holy Cross hired him as their 27th all-time college football head coach in their history back in 2004.

To everyone back in August, he talked about the parity in the Patriot League this year.

"We're right there with everyone in the league," he said, back when the Crusaders were picked to finish second in preseason poll.  "You just need to find a way to do things just a little bit better, work just a little bit harder, and call the right play just one more time.  The difference between great and good programs is your ability to win those close, important games late in the season to capture the title."

Last weekend's game vs. Fordham shows how true that was, yet at the same time showing what sort of a hair-tearing exercise the 2012 Holy Cross football season has been.

There was the 24-21 loss to Brown, where the Crusaders lost a 21-10 lead in the 4th quarter.

There was the 13-10 loss to Dartmouth, when a late fumble and Big Green FG with one second left gave Holy Cross another heartbreaking loss.

There was the 52-3 wipeout against Harvard, which could have been significantly worse had Harvard head coach Tim Murphy not called off the dogs in the second half up 49-3.

There was the 30-13 loss to Lafayette, which was still within reach at 23-13 in the 4th quarter when a late interception returned to the Holy Cross 2 made the game a blowout.

Yet despite such losses, Holy Cross was still in position to beat Fordham last weekend, until Ram QB Ryan Higgins led Fordham on a 15 play, 78 yard drive to take the game back with 11 seconds to play.

Some teams, effectively out of the title chase, would have given up long before that point.  Not Gilmore's Crusaders, though.

"I definitely think they're better than their record shows," head coach Andy Coen reminded us this week.  "They lost a tough game to Brown, they lost a tough game to Dartmouth, and they almost won last week.  They could easily be 4-4.  Gilmore's a tough guy, his kids are tough, and his team will play that way."

"They're a very talented defense - they always are," junior WR Lee Kurfis said.  "With their coaches and our coaches, this matchup is sometimes called the 'Battle of the Brains'.  But we know their tendencies, and we know their weak spots, and we plan to exploit them."

"They throw the ball real well," senior CB Gabe Johnson said.  "Last week they have over 500 yards of offense, and 400 yards of passing.  Coach G [Gerard Wilcher] has been getting us ready.  This year, senior QB Michael Colvin and the whole team have had to rely on a lot more people.  All across the board, the team has stepped up."

Interestingly, for the second straight year, Lehigh is planning to play Holy Cross in a week where there was a power outage.

"When Lehigh came home after their 45-25 win over Colgate," I wrote last year, "they came home to a dark campus.  A power outage had knocked most of the lights on campus - including the electricity in the Lehigh athletics office."

That week, of course, was a home game and different challenges, for example, finding a campus with power in order to exchange film.  (Lafayette graciously obliged.)

This week, of course, with a road game, Sandy knocked out power to Lehigh's campus yet again - and made a different set of challenges for planning a road trip.

It caused the team to have a weeks' worth of cancelled classes, had the Mountain Hawks practice on an electricity-free practice field, and also made Lehigh make their trip to Worcester are a day early, where the folks at Boston College graciously allowed Lehigh to practice the day before their tilt at Holy Cross.

"A lot of guys were worried about where they were going to get their next meal let alone where we were going to stay," Kurfis said. "It was hard to maintain focus, but the coaches were on us and kept us ready to go. We got some good practices in and we'll be ready to go come Saturday."  

"The kids are able to handle it," coach Coen said. "They are a lot more resilient than people give them credit for. The biggest thing for them is to find a place to get them a hot shower and something to eat. The safety of the kids is what's most important. You don't want them in a dark, cold, dorm room.  We've got a great management team here with [athletic director] Joe Sterrett leading it and everybody else on campus managing everything."

After all, as senior RB Zach Barket also noted, it's not as it they haven't seen this before.

"Having gone through it does help," he said. "It doesn't feel like it's anything different. The first couple of days it's like 'Man, this sucks.' But now, it's like whatever."

Game Notes
Will he play, or won't he?  All eyes are on senior WR Ryan Spadola to see if he's going to be cleared to play this weekend vs. Holy Cross after his battle with mononucleosis which sidelined him for the last two games.

The game notes do not list him on the two-deep at wide receiver, instead keeping junior WR Lee Kurfis and sophomore WR Josh Parris as the top targets on the depth chart.  But Michael LoRe of the Express-Times also tweeted that he's been "practicing with the first team since Sunday", and Keith Groller of the Express-Times noted that his status for this weekend is uncertain.

As important, however, will be the absence of senior LB Sam Loughery (stinger) and senior TE Jamel Haggins (knee) this weekend.  Senior LB Jerard Gordon and sophomore TE Tyler Coyle, respectively, took the call when they were needed against Bucknell, and will be expected once again to deliver in Worcester, too.

The bye week seems to have done wonders for some nagging injuries to junior LB John Mahoney, senior FS Billy O'Brien, senior OL Mike Vuono, junior long snapper Kyle Lechner, and senior OL Tom Ruley, all of whom are in the starting lineup for this weekend's game. 

Weather Report
It will certainly feel like fall up on Worcester this weekend, according to the weather report.  With a high of 46 and a low of 32, and a 20 mph wind, bring your hot chocolate and your extra blankets to the game.

A Word on Holy Cross
Lehigh's recent games vs. Holy Cross seem to be steeped in weather and weirdness.

In 2004, Lehigh was down to their backup punter and fourth-string quarterback, QB Kyle Keating, in a torrential downpour up in Worcester, a game which  Lehigh won 49-14. 

In 2005, head coach Pete Lembo's final year as head coach, Lehigh lost at Murray Goodman 13-10, in a freakish rainstorm that left the grass field with huge puddles.   The Mountain Hawks had ten fumbles on the wet afternoon, losing three of them, and the Crusaders would win on a punt return for a touchdown and a late touchdown pass.

The 2006 game up in Worcester was yet again in a mammoth rainstorm, with Lehigh prevailing 28-14.  Holy Cross' pass-happy offense was grounded by the rain, allowing the Mountain Hawks to prevail.

In 2007, head coach Andy Coen's second year as head coach, Lehigh suffered their worst-ever loss at Murray Goodman - a 59-10 whitewash that was a true statement game by Gilmore.  Losses to Lafayette hurt the most, of course, but this one hurt almost as much as those due to what it signified: that Lehigh was no longer an elite team, able to show up on Saturday having half won the game already.

In 2008, Holy Cross beat a reeling Lehigh 35-21, but "Tied in the 4th quarter, it felt like anybody's game," I said the time.  "But Holy Cross proved why they're a potential Patriot League championship team, and Lehigh isn't.  QB Dominic Randolph promptly led Holy Cross on a 11 play, 71 yard drive, avoiding a near-certain sack on 3rd and 1 at the 2 yard line and finally picking WR Jon Brock to go ahead 28-21." 

In 2009, Randolph's final season, Lehigh, battling to possibly save Coen's job, lost a close one, but still lost, 24-20 at Murray Goodman. "This weekend, Lehigh got the respect back," I wrote at the time. "The effort wasn't as good as pulling off the upset of the decade, but still ought not to be fogotten. It should be an important building block for this young team for the future. If Lehigh plays like this the last two games, they will have a chance to win both."

They did - and thus started Lehigh's amazing run over the past few years.

LFN's Drink of the Week
Worcester promises to deliver the first cold-weather game of the year.  (At least there's no rain.)

If you're going to make the trip, I have to suggest an LFN favorite: hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps, a nice way to keep warm in the cold winds of Fitton Field.  Bring five mugs of this stuff to your pregame tailgate, and it will be a big hit for the ladies - and yourself.

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.

The Five Songs on my Mixtape for Holy Cross
It's been a tough week for everyone in the Lehigh Valley, Bucks, Montgomery, and New Jersey Areas.  If you don't have power, may you have it back soon, and may everyone's thoughts and prayers reach you.  I hope my preview might provide some humor during this rough week, and hopefully the same will apply to the Five power-outage themed songs on my mixtape this week.

1. Ode to PECO (New Hope Guys)
2. Someday Baby (Bob Dylan)
3. Oooh Child (The Five Stairsteps)
4. High Voltage (AC/DC)
5. Power Outage (DJ Xed)


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