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Game Preview, Holy Cross vs. Lehigh, 11/9/2013

There have been other November football matchups over the last three years that have been big games for the Brown and White.

There were two "thrill of victory" games in 2010 and 2011 against Georgetown, which wrapped up a share of the Patriot League title and also clinched an autobid to the FCS playoffs.

There was also an "agony of defeat" game against Colgate last season, too, where the Mountain Hawks lost everything: an undefeated season, a Patriot League championship, and even a spot in the FCS playoffs with their 35-24 loss to Colgate, despite a 10-1 overall record.

Those games, however, don't hold the same level of intrigue as the one this weekend against Holy Cross.

In all three of those November games in prior years, the Mountain Hawks were not only riding big winning streaks, they were also relatively healthy.

This time around, though, the Mountain Hawks need to turn things around after suffering their most lopsided  loss to Bucknell since 1966, and - adding injury to insult - seeing senior QB Brandon Bialkowski lost for the year with a broken collarbone.

It's the most uncertainty on the Lehigh sideline in a November football game in a long time.

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.

Gilmore came fresh from the Lehigh coaching staff to Holy Cross 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 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 - for example, when coach Coen took over at Lehigh in 2005, for example, one of his first hires was Dick Kotulski, defensive coordinator at Holy Cross. (Kotulski is now at Stanford, helping guide the Cardinal to another potential BCS Bowl.)

The bad blood between the programs now seems like it's pretty much in the past, but these coaching staffs still know each other inside and out and a more healthy rivalry - with a little r - remains.

It also means that Gilmore will be even more charged emotionally than usual to beat his former team.  Year in and year out, it always seems to be the case.

Additionally, 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.

Last season, Lehigh came home from Colgate with no power available on campus, thanks to superstorm Sandy knocking out the electricity.  The Mountain Hawks worked around the power outage in their preparation for the game up in Worcester.

And interestingly, Holy Cross enters this week in a very similar fashion as last season - leading Fordham for most of the game, and only losing to the Rams after relinquishing the lead in the second half and falling 32-30 against the No. 3-ranked Rams.

"It was a tough loss, because we were in the game," Gilmore said this week.  "Ultimately, we had a poor third quarter and Fordham was able to pull ahead, and we weren't able to bounce back until it was too late.  We were up 23-7 in the second quarter, so we certainly had chances to win the football game."

Competing with tough teams like Harvard or Fordham hasn't been the problem: finishing games has been the biggest issue for the 3-7 Crusaders, as they've lost five of their games by a touchdown or less.

They had similar issues closing games last season too, as anyone remembering last season will recall.

"Not looking anything like a one-win team," I wrote after Lehigh's 36-35 escape over the Crusaders, "Holy Cross gave Lehigh every single last thing they could handle, rattling off 21 unanswered points in the 3rd quarter against the No. 1 defense in the Patriot League and putting themselves in position to fire off the game-winning 43 yard kick with 11 seconds to play.

"The field goal would barely have the distance, but would be just wide right - the margin between winning and losing the game.  Lehigh's 36-35 win would be the second time in three Patriot League games that their opposition would be in position to tie or win the game in the final seconds, but miss the conversion."

That loss will be fresh in Gilmore's and the Holy Cross players' minds this weekend.

"They're a very good team," Gilmore said of this year's Mountain Hawks.  "They've been on a pretty good roll the last three, four years.  They're a talented team, a well-coached team, but last week they suffered a huge, huge upset loss. They're trying to regroup, and fortunately for them, they're getting an extra week to rebound from that.  It'll be a challenge."

From the Lehigh perspective, the bye week came at a critical time because they needed to give the quarterbacks on their depth chart reps in order to get them ready for a push to the Patriot League title.

That's not to mention extra time to "clean things up", according to coach Coen, from their loss two weeks ago.

"They know where they put themselves," Coen said this week, "but the one positive thing I can say after the Bucknell loss is if we win all of our games, we’ll win the league championship and get the opportunity to go to the playoffs.  But like I said after the game that Saturday, it’s hard to even think that after what we witnessed in Lewisburg. That’s ancient history now, though, and we have to move forward. I think we all want the ball to get teed up and kicked off for a couple of different reasons.”

(Staff Photo: Brian Freed/Express-Times)

More than that, though, a new starting quarterback needed to be determined, and after a week of competition, junior QB Matt "Matty Ice" McHale earned the right to be listed first on the Lehigh depth chart this week.

“It was a big blow, but we have a ton of athletes who are ready to take advantage of their opportunities and Matt McHale is that guy,” sophomore OL Terez Owens said yesterday. “He’s a great guy, he’s a great athlete and he can throw. I can’t say enough good things about the kid and I’m really excited he’s getting his chance and his opportunity to shine.”

It's been a long time since a Lehigh quarterback was asked to make his first-ever start in November to keep the Mountain Hawks' championship hopes alive.

"It's unfair to compare Matt McHale or freshman QB Nick Shafnisky to Brandon Bialkowski because of the way Brandon was playing," Coen said yesterday. "But my expectation is that Matt will play well. Obviously, it's the marquee position and our guy was playing at a very high level, but at the end of the day, the next guy has got to step up and do his part. Both Matt and Nick are pretty tough-minded kids. It's a big stage to have to jump in there and be the starting quarterback, but I have confidence in them."

Another Lehigh legend has confidence in him: McHale's high school head coach, QB Marty Horn.

"Matt is a great kid," he said. "He was an excellent high school quarterback at [Madison HS, Madison NJ] for us. He's a big, physical kid and a strong runner. He’s a smart player. I think he’s adapted to the Lehigh offense pretty well the last couple of years. He's got a strong arm and is an excellent competitor."

As Horn would know, Lehigh football seasons are built for big stages in November.

It's a big stage and a big challenge for this 2013 football team, to be sure, but it's also precisely what these kids signed up for when they committed to the Lehigh Mountain Hawk football program.  It also makes for one of the most anticipated, if not nerve-wracking, November football games at Murray Goodman not involving a school from Easton.

Game Notes
This week's game notes are where we learned junior QB Matt McHale will be the starter this weekend.  Additionally, thanks to Mike LoRe's and Keith Groller's reports, that the Mountain Hawks get some key players back for the stretch run.

Senior WR Sergio Fernandez-Soto, held out of the Bucknell game, returns healthy this week, giving McHale another critical receiving option this week.

The other huge return is sophomore LB Cody Kondas, who will glide seamlessly into the interior linebacking rotation alongside sophomore LB Noah Robb and freshman LB Colton Caslow.  His return is an enormous boost to Lehigh's rushing defense, where the Mountain Hawks game up over 300 yards of rushing to Bucknell two weeks ago.

The other interesting part of the game notes is that the right side of Lehigh's "O" line are now the three seniors: senior OL A.J. Hood, senior OL Shane Rugg, and senior C Matt Lippincott.  Lehigh's pass protection for McHale will be critical, and it's these three hogs that will be counted upon heavily to forge a victory this Saturday.

Weather Report
Be prepared for November football.

As of right now, a cold front is supposed to be sweeping through the Lehigh valley, meaning that Saturday's high is supposed to be a brisk 49, with much of gameday, most likely, sunny and cold in the mid-40s.  Bring your warm jackets.

Famous Holy Cross Alumnus You Didn't Know About
There's the easy ones: Bill Simmons (whom I still read on Grantland religiously), Bob Cousy, and Chris Matthews, just to name a few.

But there's also the Boston Globe sportswriter that many, in and out of the Boston area, love to hate.

Dan Shaughnessy, according to Wikipedia, didn't coin the phrase Red Sox Nation (Nathan Cobb is the one who had that honor back in 1986), but it's the former Crusader Shaughnessy who ran with it in the late 1990s and popularized the term, culminating in his book At Fenway: Dispatches from Red Sox Nation.  Indirectly, though Shaughnessy's writing, not Cobb's, that's where I came up with the idea for the Lehigh Football Nation blog as well - so whether you like me or curse me, you either credit or blame a Crusader for everything.

(The book is also available in a Kindle version, in case you're so inclined.)

LFN's Drink of the Week
If there ever was a need for superstition in my "Drink of the Week" this week, it's this one.

When life gives you uncertainty, I say, lean on the traditions.  Go with a winner: what got you here.  After all, victory isn'ts not really up to Matty Ice, putting in two and a half years of hard work preparing for this moment - it's up to a decision I, who have prepared not one minute for this shining moment, have to make on Drink of the Week.  Amirite?

That's why this week's drink is that standby, the "old reliable": the classic Yuengling traditional lager.  Perfectly in tune with grilled beef or steamers, the roasted caramel malt, pointed hop flavor and smooth finish perfectly complements any wacky tailgating food you throw at it.  Engage in your own superstitious tailgating chow this weekend: and rest assured, Yuengling will go with it perfectly.

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.


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