It's often said that preseason publications aren't worth the paper they're printed on, and almost unusable when the actual regular-season matchup comes around.
And in the case of Holy Cross, that's especially apt.
Much of the hype around the Crusaders centered around their star QB, unofficially anointed the best quarterback in the Patriot League, senior QB Peter Pujals. Much of my writings about Holy Cross centered around what he can do, what he brings to the table, and what his weapons are.
But a left ankle injury in the first half of the Dartmouth game didn't just sideline him for that contest - it sidelined him for the season, forcing his ankle in a boot and will almost certainly have him apply for a medical redshirt for next season - unless head coach Tom Gilmore decides, against the odds, to have Pujals play this weekend if he's healed up enough.
That and a slew of other injuries pretty much wrecked anything I wrote before this past August about breaking down this Holy Cross offense. However it also, in a way, makes Holy Cross more dangerous. They won't be facing off against the regular cast of characters.
Breaking Down Holy Cross
Though Pujals is not the QB, Holy Cross' scheme won't change at all. They will line up in a three wideout set and will throw the ball more than they run overall. They will try to spread you out and keep you off balance with a pass-oriented sort of ball control offense.
|Holy Cross QB Geoff Wade|
Where Wade is similar to Pujals is in terms of passing accuracy. Wade has been 52 of 79 passing in 3 1/2 games, good enough for a 65.8% completion percentage, and has notched 5 passing TDs. Of note was his accuracy vs Harvard in the second half, using his passing ability to extend drives, move the sticks and chew up clock.
Where they are not similar is in terms of escapability. Pujals, when healthy, has the ability to make plays with his feet, through designed runs or broken plays, to make big gains on the ground. Wade is more of a pocket passer who can occasionally get some first downs, but won't use that as much as Pujals might.
Wade has plenty of chemistry with his all-Patriot League caliber receiving targets. The Crusaders have always had an abundance of targets, and Gilmore is not afraid to go to a hot hand if a vulnerability is found. Overall Holy Cross QBs have spread the ball to 13 different targets.
|Holy Cross WR Jake Wieczorek|
Then there's the tight end, 6'5, 270 lb senior TE Lukas Nikolaisen (186 yards, 2 TDs) who is a tall, tough target, especially in short yardage or red zone situations. Then there's sophomore WR Jordan Montgomery (20 catches, 206 yards, 2 TDs) that can get open even if everyone else is covered. Then there's the running backs, all of them short, speed backs, all of whom can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Injuries have crushed the Crusaders at running back. Their preseason starter, RB Gabe Guild, went out after the second game of the season. Their backup, junior RB Diquan Walker, was out last week, which meant it was tasked to freshman RB Domenic Cozier to get the tough yards at the end of the game to seal the win.
Cozier had a game to remember - his 112 yards didn't directly result in touchdowns, but they did result in moving the sticks and was ultimately the reason why they won the game. Gilmore went to him eight or nine straight times on the final drive.
This week, Walker is listed at No. 1 on the depth chart and Cozier No. 2, but it's worth wondering whether Cozier will end up getting the bulk of whatever running back carries are available, considering his 100 yard rushing performance.
Holy Cross' O line will be the biggest Lehigh's defense has seen all year. They boast a pair of 300 lb bookend tackles, senior OL Hunter Hudgins and senior OL Rob Kosharek. They are mostly asked to pass protect, but it's worth noting, too, that when asked to seal the win vs. Harvard, whose defensive line is loaded with talent, they were able to do so effectively.
|Holy Cross DE Dewayne Cameron|
Senior DE Dewayne Cameron (39 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 7 sacks) is having an outstanding season on the Holy Cross D Line, junior DT Jack Kutschke, sophomore DT Teddy Capsis, and senior DE Ryan Smith (6 tackles for loss, 5 sacks) on the 1s. Smith and Cameron are proving to be fairly devastating on the pass rush, because you can't double-team them both.
The other thing Lehigh needs to be very concerned about is strip-sacks. Last week, Harvard fumbled the ball twice, and on one of them the ball was recovered in the end zone to give Holy Cross a 21-7 lead.
|Holy Cross LB Nick McBeath|
“Last year, we used him almost exclusively on the weak side so he wound up playing in the box a lot,” Gilmore said in the preseason. “This spring we’ve been taking a look at him on the strong side to get him more of that outside work (against ‘trip’ receiving sets), and he’s done a really good job in that capacity. The guys nickname him ‘McBeast’ because he plays with his hair on fire. He’s a physical player — not afraid to stick his nose in there — but he’s also a good athlete.”
McBeath is a great tackler and is another blitzing headache for offensive linemen to worry about - he has five tackles for loss and leads the team in tackles with 64. Not that far behind him are two other excellent linebackers: senior LB Kyle Young (57 tackles, 2 sacks) and sophomore LB Andre Chevalier (25 tackles, 2 QB hurries in 3 starts).
|Holy Cross FS Luke Ford|
Junior P Will McGrail took over the punting duties and has done a good job in terms of raw yardage (41.5 yards per boot) but only has one fair caught ball. Similarly, senior PK Zane Wasp has a fantastic leg (4-7 on 40+ yard FGs, including a 44 yarder) but hasn't always been accurate (8-13 overall, but a perfect 24/24 on extra points). Overall, the kicking game is quite talented.
Senior WR Jake Wiecziorek is a dangerous punt and kick returner, averaging 16.5 yards per return and has ripped a 53 yard punt return as well. On kickoffs, if you kick away from him you instead get junior DB Alim Muhammad, who has delivered a 41 yard return this year. The best way to handle these two somewhat scary receivers is to kick the ball out of the end zone.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Lehigh O Line vs. Cross D Line. Whether senior QB Nick Shafnisky or sophomore QB Brad Mayes is back there, neither QB will be able to do anything if they have no time to act. Add to this equation the possibility of soup-like conditions at Fitton Field, and all signs point to a physical battle of strength in the trench. If senior OL Brandon Short and the rest of the O line can physically wear down the Holy Cross defense - and I think they can - I love Lehigh's chances.
2. Just Keep Kicking. Sophomore PK Ed Mish had a great day last week that didn't show up in terms of what you would usually quantify as a great kickers' day (scoring) but did show up in terms of some lesser-known statistics (punts, opponent return yardage). Even more so than last week, it will be critical to keep Wiecziorek away from the football on returns with effective punts and touchbacks on kickoffs. If last week is any guide, I have high confidence "Eddie The Toe" will deliver again. It will be vitally important.
3. Tackle Containment. The defense has been great the past few weeks for the most part on tackle containment - forcing offensive plays to only have one act, instead of a catch, unfinished tackle, yards-after-catch multi-act play. Senior LB Colton Caslow and senior LB Evan Harvey need to keep that up again this week with Holy Cross' pass-intensive attack: keeping receptions to 2 or 3 yards instead of 10 or 90+ yards.
It's a huge one in Holy Cross this weekend, as all conference games are. The Crusaders have their backs against the wall with one conference loss - another would almost certainly sink their chances to win the Patriot League and make the FCS playoffs. Holy Cross is a senior-laden team, and has a defense that might be playing as well as Villanova's was when the Wildcats played us back in September.
In almost every conceivable way, this game will be different than any game that this 2016 squad has experienced. It won't be a nice weather game played in short sleeves - it might be played on a sloppy, wet field, possibly with rain pouring down. It will be a high of 50 degrees. It's as if the football gods have deemed fit to throw every conceivable curveball at the Mountain Hawks at once before settling into their final three games to be contested in the Lehigh Valley.
I sense this will be a very different sort of game than the one Lehigh fans have grown accustomed to seeing. It will be physical, defensive, perhaps more run-oriented on both sides, and the team most ready to handle the physical toll will win the game. Will that team be the Mountain Hawks?
Lehigh 27, Holy Cross 21