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Know Your 2016 Opponents: Holy Cross

Today's "Know Your 2016 Opponents" series continues with the team that is predicted by College Sports Journal to finish 3th in the Patriot League: Holy Cross.

Scared of the Purple People eaters this year?  I am.

They're a veteran-laden offense, with a four year letterman at quarterback, hosting Lehigh this year at their home in "Woostah".  Defensively, conventional football scholarships have the Crusaders with a quickly built defense that got better as the season went along.

They're a team that hasn't made the jump - yet - but could, playing Lehigh at home, poach the Mountain Hawks.

It's a game I have circled on the calendar.


Holy Cross Crusaders

Head Coach: Tom Gilmore, 12th season (66-69)

Biggest strength in 2016: Battlers until the end of the season, Holy Cross navigated a strange schedule to finish above .500, but more importantly winning four of their last five games. After losing a closer-than-it-looked 31-14 loss to Colgate in Week 3, Tom Gilmore's team was behind the eight ball most of the year but still managed to finish the year strong. The fruits of those battles last year could be what propels them to success in the early going in 2016.

Biggest Challenge In 2016: The Crusaders had some real gems last season - like their 37-0 stomping of Albany of the CAA, or their 42-0 thrashing of Lafayette. But there were critical games where things never really got together (a 51-38 loss to Lehigh) or the Crusaders couldn't close the deal (31-14 vs. Colgate, 47-41 overtime loss to Fordham). At their best, it looks like Holy Cross could beat anyone in the league. But there were just enough lapses last season to push them out of contention. Can they get the consistency together to win it all?

Holy Cross Band c. 1930
History With Lehigh: Holy Cross' football stadium, "Fitton Football Stadium", was officially constructed on College grounds by Rev. James Fitton, who donated the land to the Archdiocese of Boston to construct the College of the Holy Cross.  Though Holy Cross had played lots of football games on that very ground, it wasn't until 1924 that the first stands, and a proper stadium, was built to house the football team.

In that first season at Fitton Football Stadium in 1924, Lehigh would play Holy Cross.  "The game was played at Mt. St. James in Worcester and marked the dedication of a new stadium," The Brown and White reported.  A record crowd of 12,000 was the attendance, according to the student reporters, "including about 200 Lehigh rooters".

The Brown and White held Holy Cross to a 3-3 tie, a game which saw the Purple and White repel Lehigh several times from scoring in the second half to preserve the tie.  The tie, which was the third that season for then-unbeaten Lehigh, impressed the local reporters.  "The Lehigh team strengthened its claim to being on of the strongest defensive teams east of the Mississippi when it held the Holy Cross team to a 3-3 tie," the Fitchburg Sentinel reported.

Lehigh's 1924 season would end on a down note, however: a 4-0-3 season would conclude with a 7-0 loss to one of Lafayette's during one of Lehigh's worst-ever droughts against the Maroon and White.

Oddly, this well-fought game between Holy Cross and Lehigh would be the first and last game against the schools until both institutions would be a part of the "Colonial League", soon to be renamed the Patriot League, in 1986.

OL Push for TD
Last Meeting: Behind the use of both sophomore QB Brad Mayes and a recovering senior QB Nick Shanfnisky, Lehigh leaped to a 41-10 lead and ended up holding on for a 51-38 win at home.

"Brad played very, very well," Andy Coen said.  "He actually stepped up his game from what he did last week. We were able to utilize Nick as well. It was a really good combination there with both guys being able to play and make important plays within the game."

Making everything work, I noted, was the play of Lehigh's offensive line, where senior OL Zach Duffy would pounce on a crazy fumble and junior OL Tim O'Hara pushing Shanfnisky into the end zone on a 10 yard TD run.

Biggest Departures:  He was only the No. 2 receiver last season, but speed merchant WR Khalif Raymond had an outsized role on the Crusaders when you take into account total yards. The speedy wideout who is in camp for the Denver Broncos had 978 yards receiving, 20 yards rushing and 335 yards in kickoff returns, giving him an average of over 140 all-purpose yards per game. That's a lot of offense to lose to the NFL.

QB Peter Pujals (Worcester Telegram and Gazette)
Players To Watch: QB Peter Pujals came into the Patriot League as a freshman, and almost immediately started to build his legend with a near-win over Harvard. By 2015, he led the Patriot League in passing yards with 3,195 and threw a career-high 28 touchdown passes. This summer, he was a camp counselor at the Manning Passing academy, rubbing shoulders with NFL greats. He has an awful lot of accolades at Holy Cross - but the one award that has eluded him is one that reads "Patriot League champion." In his senior season, Pujals is poised to make that final step, with veterans returning like RB Gabe Guild, WR Brendan Flaherty, and TE Lucas Nikolaisen. Will he?

Holy Cross has a pretty decent defense, too. DE Dewayne Cameron (47 tackles, 8 sacks) has been a disruptor on the defensive line and a guy whom opposing offenses need to key on and contain. His pass rush is a key ingredient to Holy Cross' success on defense.

Biggest Game: vs. Fordham at Yankee Stadium, 11/12/2016. It was tempting to put their rematch with Lehigh at home on October 22nd here, but it's very possible that this game vs. Fordham, played for the inaugural "Ram/Crusader Cup" at Yankee Stadium, could be for the league title. If the 150th meeting of Lehigh and Lafayette was any indication - which was played at Yankee Stadium in 2014 - the Ram/Crusader Cup will be a big-time, bowl-like atmosphere, which will make this a great football game. Adding to the flavor is the thought that this might be a revenge game for the 47-41 overtime loss on 2015 - the perfect ingredient to add to the punch for Holy Cross fans.

Rose-Colored Glasses Say: "So much of last season's team returns - and we return the best quarterback in the Patriot League. We ended last season on a very big roll, and we won't have to deal with Colgate in September this time around. This is it; this is the year it all comes together, finally. We have everything in place."

Glass Half Empty Says: "That big roll from last year might run into a wall this September and October, with out-of-conference games against two CAA teams on the road (New Hampshire and Albany) and two of the three Ivy League co-champions at home (Dartmouth and Harvard). Furthermore, Raymond'd departure means we need to find speedy answers not only at wide reeiver, but also at kick returner."

Holy Cross In Two Sentences: With the best quarterback in the league under center, Holy Cross will have more than a puncher's chance to win the Patriot League or an FCS playoff spot. But they'll need to bring more consistency than they did last year to make it.

CSJ Projected Ranking: 3rd, Patriot League

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