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Game Breakdown: Holy Cross vs. Lehigh, 11/9/2013

(Photo Credit: Peter Cooke/Boston Globe)
We break down the Holy Cross game - and we give our fearless prediction, below the flip.

If you've followed the Patriot League for some time, you know plenty about the wrangling that went on when the league was debating whether to change the existing financial aid structure to allow schools of the League to offer football scholarships that resembled, say, the same types of scholarships that Delaware or New Hampshire can offer.

You could argue that this decision has completely altered the course of the Patriot League this season.

On Lehigh's depth chart, freshman LB Colton Caslow has stepped into the Mountain Hawk linebacking unit and forced his way into the starting lineup, and other impact freshmen like freshman DB/RS Brandon Leaks have pretty much been instant impact players since very early on the season.

Additionally - amazingly, actually - of the six Patriot League schools that are now eligible to offer football scholarships (Fordham started offering them years ago), all six have seen a freshman attempt a pass in a game that counts.  Two weeks ago, Lehigh freshman QB Nick Shafnisky finally got in a game and threw a pass.

The Crusaders have a quarterback that is in serious contention for Patriot League Freshman of the year - and he's the reason why Holy Cross is still alive for the Patriot League title.


Breaking Down Holy Cross
Offense
Training to Monmouth in the first half, Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore needed a spark, according to a nice piece in the Boston Globe about their freshman starting QB.

"The Crusaders trailed, 21-0, at the half. Junior QB Steve Elder and junior QB Ryan Laughlin had been ineffective. Freshman QB Peter Pujals came in and directed Holy Cross to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, and nearly a victory, completing 12 of 19 attempts for 129 yards with an interception."

The 21-14 near-win against the Hawks was just the first step in establishing the quickly spreading legend of the kid Cross fans call "Petey Pigskin".

Suddenly, Holy Cross didn't seem like the doormat anymore that lost to Bryant and Towson in the first two weeks of the season.  After an impressive win come-from-behind 31-28 win over Dartmouth and an extremely strong showing against Harvard before dropping the game in triple overtime 41-35, the quarterback from Wilmette, Illinois started to get recognition as one of the best freshmen playing FCS football in the country.

“He can make all the throws, sideline, opposite hash, the deep ball, he adds another element to our offense,” senior WR Mike Fess said of him. “And he’s always trying to get better.”

Though his numbers have come back to earth a tad, they are still very much numbers that you'd be happy to see in a senior, let alone a freshman: a 62.9% completion percentage, 1,754 yards passing in 8 games, 6 of them starts, 23 TDs and only 5 TDs.

There are definitely echos of their legendary QB Dominic Randolph in him - except that his arm might be stronger, and he can run better, which should be enough for anyone in the Patriot League to stop and take notice.

The player whom Lehigh has faced that resembles him the most is Fordham QB Mike Nebrich in terms of his mobility and his arm strength.  His biggest downside is that he's still learning and he's shown a disposition to lose the football on occasion in terms of fumbles.

It seems like the  Holy Cross offensive system spreads the ball around a lot, meaning there's not really one guy you can key on over the others.

But this season, Pujals' top target is senior WR Mike Fess (60 catches, 742 yards, 7 TDs), who has emerged as the go-to receiving option for the Crusaders.  Just recently, he broke the total receptions record for Holy Cross, eclipsing the mark set by WR Jeff Laboranti.

Fess is similar to senior WR Lee Kurfis in that he has a real nose for catching the ball in traffic, and finds a way to get open on a consistent basis.  The way Holy Cross' pass-happy offense is set up - like Lehigh's - Fess is used as a guy that can get the Crusaders first down to move the sticks.

Of course, that sets up the big-play receivers.  Speedy 5'9 sophomore WR Khalif Raymond (327 yards, 3 TDs), senior WR Kyle Toulouse (157 yards, 1 TD, just returning from injury) and senior WR Nate Stanley (339 yards, 3 TDs), among others, split Petey Pigskin's passing attempts, and none of these guys are targeted more than others (except maybe Fess).  All bring different skills to the table, and it's impossible to key on one particular guy.

In the past the tight end was a major part of the offense, too, but junior TE Michael O'Dwyer, who has four starts, hasn't been a major pass-catching threat yet though you never can tell whether his number will be called more this Saturday.

In any other year than this one, freshman RB Gabe Guild might be getting some looks as Patriot League rookie of the year, but the strong season from the Overland Park, Kansas native should not be overlooked (433 yards, 3 TDs).  Running backs in Holy Cross' offensive system are expected to be able to catch the ball too, and he fulfills his dual-threat status with 197 yards receiving and 1 receiving touchdown.  He's one more player for the Lehigh defense to worry about this weekend.  5'10 senior RB Reggie Woods spells Guild when he's taking a breather.

Holy Cross' "O" line is big, and senior-laden, most notably with 300 lb senior OL Emanuel Mendoza protecting Pujals' blind side.  Whether it's Holy Cross' system, their tough out-of-conference schedule or what have you, the Crusaders have let up 2.1 sacks on game per average.  It's clear that many opposing defenses' strategy has been to blitz Pujals a lot, and force him to rush his passes, or cause fumbles.

What can't happen is to allow Pujals to have time to pick a defense apart.

Defense
Like Lehigh, Holy Cross plays a multiple 3-4 defense.  Like Lehigh, they've played a style that doesn't blitz the quarterback a lot.  Unlike Lehigh, their front seven is loaded with seniors and experience.

Senior DE Gary Acquah (42 tackles, 1 sack) returns on the Holy Cross defensive line from last season, with senior DE Daniel Howell (27 tackles, 4 sacks) emerging very will as a pass-rushing threat on the other side.  Sophomore NG Mike Galantini (20 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) rounds out the defensive line, a 272 lb run stuffer.

Senior LB Roman SanDoval returned for his final year of eligibility (65 tackles, 2 tackles for loss) and is the leader of the Crusaders' multiple-look defense for the second year in a row.  The difference from this year to last, though is that senior LB Tyler Zeoli has returned from injury and has pulled in a strong season alongside SanDoval (54 tackles, 2 INTs).

Adding to this group is senior LB George Sessoms (18 tackles) and senior LB Mike Tucker (6 tackles), also returning from injury, as the starters on the outside this week.  Say this about Gilmore: he's going all-out to stay in the Patriot League race this weekend, and he also wants to have his seniors have the thrill of beating Lehigh once in their careers.

While the front seven is loaded with experience, the secondary, led by sophomore SS Matt Bhaya (53 tackles, 8 pass break-ups, 2 INTs), is also filled with experience, despite the fact that they're underclassmen. Junior FS Sam Jones (28 tackles, 1 sack) moves to safety from corner last season and 5'9 junior CB Ben Coffaro also returns (41 tackles, 2 INTs).  Sophomore CB Stephen Martinez (14 tackles, 1 INT), in his first start of the season, rounds out the unit.

Last year, the Crusaders didn't force many turnovers.  This year they have remedied that in a big way, forcing 9 interceptions and forcing 9 fumbles. 

Special Teams
Senior P/K John Macomber is one of the better kickers in the Patriot League, going 7/10 on field goal attempts (including a 46 yarder) and averaging more than 40 yards per punt.  With 17 touchbacks on the year, he can take away a team's return game on kickoffs, too.

With the glut of receivers on the Crusaders, it's no surprise that they have an effective return game. Sophomore FK Khalif Raymond leads Holy Cross in returns (455 yards on kickoffs, 30 yards on punt returns) and a host of other speedsters, like freshman WR/RS Jake Wieczorek and senior WR Kyle Toulouse, are not that far a drop from Raymond.

LFN's Keys to the Game
1a. Hit the reset button.  It's an old saying, to be sure, but the record right now for Lehigh is 0-0.  Win, and they have a chance to do all the things they set out to do in April: win another Patriot League championship, get back to the playoffs, practice on Thanksgiving.  In order to do that, though, they'll have to reset from the nadir of two weeks ago.  It can be done; it must be done, if Lehigh is to accomplish these goals.
1b. N.O.W.  Remember the theme to this season, "No Opportunities Wasted"?  That could very, very easily be applied to these last three games for Lehigh.  The schedule has left Lehigh with an opportunity this week to keep their goals alive.  They have to grab this opportunity, now.  N.O.W.
2. Blitz Time.  I have not seen Pete Pujals in person, but what I do know about a Tom Gilmore offense is this: if the quarterback gets ample time to throw, he will pick you apart and kill you.  If I were on defense, I would bring a lot of blitz and keep a spy on Pujals to make sure he doesn't break off too many big runs. They may not be able to completely contain him, but keeping him at least somewhat in check will be critical to have a chance on Saturday.
3. Chunks of Yards.  Against this Holy Cross defense, you don't need to necessarily go for home runs every down - getting yardage in 6-7 yard chunks, and sustaining drives, will do a lot towards winning this game.  If Lehigh is winning the battle of time of possession, I really like Lehigh's chances of winning.

Fearless Prediction
One former player put it best to me last year: "You can't over-prepare to face Tom Gilmore."  As ever with Holy Cross, its definitely the type of game where you throw out the record, and look at the team you have in front of you.  Gilmore will have his team ready to play.

One interesting fact about this game is that both teams are coming off a loss - and not only losses, excruciating ones.  As sad as Lehigh is about losing to Bucknell 48-10, Holy Cross fans are shaking their head about having a 23-7 lead on the class of the Patriot League this season and being unable to close the deal.

But with Holy Cross, you at least know what you're going to get - Petey Pigskin, a kid that has played a lot of football over the past month, and a player that is only getting better every week.

What will we get from Lehigh?  Quite frankly, we don't know.

In so many ways it's like opening weekend all over again, with the same sorts of questions.

Will junior QB Matt McHale run the offense as seamlessly as QB Mike Colvin or QB Brandon Bialkowski?  Will freshman QB Nick Shafnisky get some time on some offensive drives - or a lot of drives?

Will the offense be the same?  Different?  Will there be wrinkles to play to McHale's strengths?  Will there be more reliance on senior RB Keith Sherman to run the ball?  Will senior WR Lee Kurfis still put up the same types of numbers that he's been putting up all season?

There's plenty of questions on defense, too.

Will there be any changes after allowing 300 rushing yards against Bucknell?  Different multiple looks thrown in the playbook?  Old looks dusted off for a N.O.W. type of game?

Questions like this are a double-edged sword.  They make it more difficult for Gilmore to gameplan on Saturday, but on the other hand, the amount of uncertainty on the Lehigh side is, well, overwhelming.

The word adversity is thrown around a lot these days in sports, and very frequently, it's misused, in my opinion.  Adversity, though is supposed to describe a situation like what Lehigh finds themselves in this weekend: coming off a huge loss, losing one of your best players for the year, in a must-win game.

It's very tempting to not pick a score here this weekend because of this adversity.  But I will.

And I think Lehigh will rise above this adversity and win this weekend - and, in the process, making them a much more dangerous team than they were three weeks ago.

Lehigh 38, Holy Cross 35

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