2021 Division I FCS Playoff First Round Preview: Sacred Heart at Holy Cross

FCS First Round Matchup: Sacred Heart vs. Holy Cross
When: Saturday, November 27th, Noon EST
Where: Fitton Field, Worcester, MA
TV/Streaming: ESPN+

Holy Cross clinched the Patriot League’s autobid to the 2021 FCS playoffs for the third straight season after winning its third consecutive Patriot League title. The Crusaders finished a full Patriot League schedule undefeated for the first time since the 1991 season, and the six Patriot League wins were the most in program history. Holy Cross has won ten consecutive Patriot League conference games in a row dating back to the 2019 season. In nonconference play, the Crusaders secured wins over an FBS foe in the University of Connecticut, while also defeating Yale and Monmouth.

Holy Cross and Sacred Heart are both riding six-game win streaks into the first round of the FCS Playoffs. Sacred Heart’s potent rushing offense, ranked 11th nationally, encounters a prolific Holy Cross defense that is currently ranked second in the country overall, and fifth against the run. The Crusaders’ offense (423.3 ypg), ranked 24th nationally, is pitted against the Pioneers’ stingy defense, allowing a nation’s-best 113.1 passing yards and only 266.1 yards per game overall (7th).

Holy Cross has won both previous regular-season meetings as the programs face off in postseason for the first time. Holy Cross defeated the Pioneers 56-21 in the teams’ first meeting on Sept. 3rd, 2005
before winning 52-21 on Sept. 12th, 2009.

Path to Frisco

The winner of this game will head to to the Main Line to face off against No. 5 seed Villanova.

Sacred Heart Pioneers (8-3, 6-1 NEC)

The Pioneers recovered from an early 2-3 start to their season by rattling off six straight conference wins to win the NEC title and autobid to the FCS Playoffs. A good portion of that success came thanks to Walter Payton Award finalist RB Malik Grant, who ranks third in the country and leads the NEC with 121.7 yards per game and 1,288 total yards as well as 129.82 all-purpose yards (13th). Grant has 11 TDs, tops in the NEC and 32nd nationally. Grant runs behind an offensive line that features LT J.D. DiRenzo and C/G Josh Sokol.

Sacred Heart pairs their potent rushing game with one of the best secondaries in the country on defense, limiting opponents to just 113.1 yards per game. DE Kevin Peprah provides the pressure (9 1/2 sacks) while FS Salaam Horne (3 interceptions) and CB Lamar Evans (26 tackles) provide the lockdown.

Holy Cross Crusaders (9-2, 8-0 in Patriot League)

Holy Cross led the Patriot League in scoring this year with an average of 35.5 points per game, while holding opponents to a league-best 19.0 points per contest. In conference contests, the Crusaders averaged 42.4 points a game, while allowing just 12.7 points per contest. 

On a national level, the Crusaders rank 10th among all FCS teams with an average of 217.7 rushing yards per game. On the other side of the ball, Holy Cross ranks fifth among all FCS teams in rushing defense, allowing an average of just 76.6 rushing yards per contest. The Crusader defense has gained 24 turnovers this season, ranked tied for fifth in FCS, totaling 18 interceptions on the year — the second-most in FCS.

Holy Cross is unusual in that they are 10th in rushing in all of FCS, but don’t have a single 1,000 yard rusher nor are they a triple-option team. Their two leading rushers are RB Peter Oliver (726 yards, 4 TDs, 5.4 yards per carry) and QB Matthew Sluka (672 yards rushing, 13 TDs, 5.6 yards per carry). Similarly, seventeen different Crusaders have caught passes this year with WR Jalen Coker (518 yards, 3 TDs) and WR Ayir Asante (467 yard, 4 TDs) leading the way.

Defensively the Crusaders are led by all-Patriot League LB Jacob Dobbs (112 tackles, 15 tackles for loss 8 sacks) and a swarming defense that has forced sacks and turnovers in droves. CB John Smith (5 interceptions) and LB Liam Anderson (7 sacks) feature on a deep squad with few weak spots on defense.

Fearless Prediction

Although it should be a cold, windy day in Worcester which could favor Sacred Heart, Holy Cross’ defense proves too much for the Pioneers at home as they advance to play Villanova.

Holy Cross 23, Sacred Heart 14