The 3-6 Crusaders, like 2-6 Lehigh, are a young team who is looking to show that they are ready to move forward and become a force in the Patriot Leaugue title race in the future.
Critically, in their win over Lafayette two weekends ago, they've shown that they can indeed hunker down and figure out how to stomp on a team to win a football game.
Holy Cross' schedule shows a lot of close games, with losses by a field goal to Brown, Albany, Colgate, and Dartmouth this season. It's awful easy to see this team, in an alternate universe, winning all four of these games and heading towards "senior day" with a 6-2 record.
Breaking Down Holy Cross
Last year, sophomore QB Pete Pujals won the Patriot League Freshman of the Year award with his stellar devlopment at quarterback last season.
“He can make all the throws, sideline, opposite hash, the deep ball, he adds another element to our offense,” WR Mike Fess said of him last year. “And he’s always trying to get better.”
Certainly the Glennview, Illinois quarterback has shown lots of running moves and flashes of great passing ability, with some impressive statistics to back that up through 9 games (596 yards rushing, 1,927 yards passing, 60.5% completion percentage, 11 TDs).
But Pujals' unquestioned ability is also Holy Cross' great weakness - with the emergence of Pujals, no one other Holy Cross player has emerged as a consistent counterpoint to the dangerous weapon Tom Gilmore has in his young quarterback. If he plays great, Holy Cross has a chance to win. If he has an off day, they're in trouble.
"But Chuck," you say, "every year we hear how Holy Cross' offense is a base three wideout set that spreads the ball around to a bunch of different targets. It's not designed for 1,000 yard rushers and 1,000 yard receivers. What's the problem?"
Well part of the issue is that sophomore RB Gabe Guild (399 yards, 4 TDs) has not been 100% healthy, making it more of a running back by committee to take the pressure off Pujals doing it all, with freshman RB Diquan Walker (215 yards, 3 TDs) and senior RB Shane Taylor (199 yards, 3 TDs) combining to take the pressure off Guild. All three are under 6 feet and are designed to be speedy counterpoints to Pujals' passing and running game, not workhorse backs.
It's probably not right to read too much into Holy Cross' 66 attempt rushing performance last week, where 26 of those 66 attempts were made by Pujals.
The closest thing Pujals has to a go-to receiver would be 6'0 sophomore WR Jake Wieczorek (610 yards, 4 TDs) who looks to be a very promising combination with Pujals for years as long as he can stay healthy. But injuries have decimated the receiving corps, At the top of the depth chart this week is sophomore WR Brendan Flaherty (192 yards, 1 TD) and senior WR Jereme Murray (224 yards, 1 TD), with combination senior FB/TE Michael O'Dwyer filling out the receiving team.
Holy Cross' "O" line, like last year, has done a great job protecting Pujals, only allowing less than 1.2 sacks per game It's clear that many opposing defenses' strategy should be to blitz Pujals a lot, and force him to rush his passes, or cause fumbles, but the Crusader line, led by senior OL Blake Berresford, has done very well in pass defense.
What can't happen is to allow Pujals to have time to pick a defense apart.
Like Lehigh, Holy Cross plays a multiple 3-4 defense. In the past, they've played a style in the past that doesn't blitz the quarterback a lot, but that has changed this season. Similarly, what has been a weak link for the Cross in years pass is a real asset now.
Sophomore DE Dean Doe (21 tackles, 4 tackles for loss) has emerged as a solid pass rushing end on the Crusaders, while junior NG Mike Galantini (27 tackles, 3 tackles for loss), a 282 lb run stuffer, has also done well. Junior DT Richard Barber (18 tackles, 2 tackles for loss) rounds out this solid D line.
Holy Cross entered the season needing to replace their entire linebacking unit, but they have done a great job plugging in new athletes to replace last year's senior-laden unit. Junior LB John Zakrzewsi leads the team in tackles (74, 6 tackles for loss) is playing at an all-Patriot League level, while senior LB Shane Thompson (49 tackles, 3 tackles for loss) and senior LB Chase Ullman (22 tackles, 4 tackles for loss) are also impressive. Junior LB J.T. Frank, starting his second-ever game, rounds out the unit.
Junior SS Matt Bhaya, out with injury most of the season, has returned and re-established himself as a force to be reckoned with in regards to the Crusader secondary. All season, though, the unit has also been racked with injury, too. Senior FS Sam Jones also has come back from earlier injury,
freshman CB Alim Muhammad has been thrust into the starting secondary, and junior CB Stephen Martinez has also sat out some games with injury, too.
Junior P/K Connor Fitzgerald has struggled a bit on kicking accuracy, going 7-11 on field goals though he has been automatic for extra points. In the punting game Fitzgerald has been better, with a 40.3 average.
An injury to junior WR/RS Khalif Raymond has really had deep effects on both Holy Cross' offense and return game, Sophomore WR Jake Wieczorek has taken his place on the kickoff return unit, and is admittedly a dangerous return man. Freshman CB Alim Muhammad returns punts, and he did have a 51 yarder this season.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. November to Remember. For Lehigh, the season comes down to November, and improving every week up until their bowl game in Yankee Stadium. With Pujals looking so much like Lafayette QB Drew Reed, it's the perfect time to figure out how to contain an athletic, accurate QB. The game in "Woostah" is the perfect lab for this November goal.
2. Expect the Unexpected. Few would have put any money last week on Holy Cross running the ball 66 times. But that doesn't mean that it will be the gameplan this week. With this offense, and Pujals' skill set, you need to expect any number of different looks on offense. Spy Mr. Pujals, but don't assume run, or pass.
3. Working the secondary. Establishing a short passing game with sophomore QB Nick Shafnisky will be critical in getting offense started against Holy Cross' tough defense. It will start with the short passing game.
Short and sweet: this will be a close game that will be determined by big plays. The big plays will determine the outcome. If Lehigh controls the big play game, they will win. Will they?
Lehigh 31, Holy Cross 28