BRONX, N.Y. – The weather conditions that descended upon Jack Coffey Field would normally have put the outcome of a football game in the hands of Mother Nature.
Instead, it was simply a matter of a superior team rising to the challenge and taking care of business despite some adverse conditions.
Holy Cross ran the ball well … and passed the ball well … and its defense did what needed to be done as the Crusaders overcame a 24-17 deficit by scoring 35 unanswered points on the way to defeating Fordham 52-24 on Nov. 13 in the Bronx.
The win assured Holy Cross at least a share of the Patriot League title for the third straight season and assures the Crusaders of the league’s automatic bid into the upcoming FCS Playoffs. Holy Cross improved to 5-0 in conference play and 8-2 on the season with the victory.
It is the first time Holy Cross has earned three straight league crowns since 1989-91.
Fordham, meanwhile, suffered its first conference setback of the season and is now 6-4 overall.
Both teams will close the regular season next weekend. Holy Cross will play at Bucknell while Fordham takes to the road to take on Colgate.
After jumping out to a quick 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Holy Cross allowed the Fordham offense to get untracked as the Rams managed to take a 21-17 lead on a 32-yard pass completion from quarterback Tim DeMorat to Dequece Carter with 7:24 remaining in the first half to give Fordham its first lead of the day.
The Rams would maintain that lead for the next hour as the skies darkened, high winds and light rain turned into a heavy deluge nearly making an appearance by the Headless Horseman and halting the game.
After play was resumed following a 72-minute weather delay, the Rams added a field goal Nick Leinenweber from 35 yards out to extend the lead to 24-17 with 3:21 left in the half.
Holy Cross answered with a one-yard run from Jordan Fuller with just 15 seconds left in the half to forge a 24-24 tie at the intermission and setting the stage for a potential donnybrook by the last two undefeated teams in the Patriot League.
Holy Cross had other ideas.
“We had to keep believing in our guys,” Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney said. “They picked each other up … and they knew what they had to do.
And all Holy Cross did was to take control of the game.
After the Crusaders stopped Fordham on a quick 3-and-out to start the second half and forcing a punt, Fuller scored again on another one-yard run just 3:58 into the second half to put Holy Cross back in front 31-24.
It was a lead the Crusaders would not relinquish the rest of the afternoon on the way to securing another league championship.
Nimble and elusive quarterback Matthew Sluka ran in from 15 yards out into the right corner of the end zone to increase the HC lead to 38-24 with 4:32 to go in the third period.
Sluka and Fuller continued to share the stage in the final period of play. Sluka found Jalen Coker open in the middle of the field and delivered a perfectly thrown flea-flicker and watched as Coker outran the Fordham defender to score with 11:23 left in the game. The play covered 42 yards and put the Crusaders in front 45-24 at the time.
Fuller tallied his third touchdown of the day on a four-yard yard run with 7:46 left in the game to close the scoring.
Holy Cross wasted little time in getting on the scoreboard to start the day under near perfect conditions for a football game in mid-November in the Northeast.
The Crusaders took the opening kickoff and fashioned a 75-yard drive in nine plays that was capped when Sluka pushed himself in from one yard out to put his team in front 7-0. The drive took just 3:50 to complete.
Derek Ng’s 41-yard field goal later in the period extended the Holy Cross advantage to 10-0 with 3:24 left in the period.
Fordham finally cracked the scoreboard by covering 68 yards in just four plays on a drive that was highlighted by DeMorat connecting with MJ Wright on a 54-yard completion to the HC-14 before Zach Davis went in from two yards out three plays later to cut the deficit to 10-7 with 1:43 to go in the period.
Holy Cross regained its double-digit lead a short time later when Tenio Ayeni caught a 54-yard pass of his own from Sluka and raced into the end done and Ng’s PAT made the score 17-7 with 14:49 to play in the half.
Fotis Kokosioulis, the FCS leader in touchdown receptions, grabbed his 11th score of the season when he managed to corral a low pass from DeMorat on the right side and sidestepped three tacklers on his way to the end zone for the Rams to cap another long drive by Fordham that covered just four plays. The Rams trailed 17-14 after Kokosioulis’ scored before Carter’s score a short time later ahead of the delay.
The game had all the makings of a David vs. Goliath when things got started on the afternoon.
Fordham had the league’s top offense (464.3 ypg) while Holy Cross’s defense was league the league by allowing just 267.1 yards per contest.
The Crusaders, who were averaging 396.4 yards of offense of their own, put up a season-best 559 yards against a Fordham defense that had been giving up 449 yards per game.
Sluka finished the game with a career-high 272 yards passing after completing 11 of 18 pass attemps and two touchdowns. He also rushed for a team-best 104 yards on the afternoon and two touchdowns. Peter Oliver added 76 yards for the Crusaders and Fuller finished with 39 yards to go along with his three short scoring runs on the afternoon. Coker led the victors with a team-high 76 yards receiving.
Jacob Dobbs and Devin Haskins combined for 13 tackles and two pass breakups for a Holy Cross defense that held the Rams to just 314 yards of offense on the day.
DeMorat managed to complete just 12 of his 27 passes for 223 yards after coming into the game averaging 293.4 yards per game. Wright paced the Rams with 83 yards on three catches while Carter had two receptions for 61 yards in the game. Kokosioulis finished with four catches for 58 yards.
The stingy Holy Cross defense continued its domination at the line of scrimmage by holding Fordham to just 91 yards on the ground. No conference foe has been able to run for 100 yards against the Crusaders this season. Holy Cross also recorded one interception in the game and one fumble recovery.
Davis led the Rams with 66 yards rushing on 15 carries and Trey Wilson chipped in with 52 yards on seven carries.
Holy Cross managed to sack DeMorat four times in the game.
“Just a great win for the program … a great win for the community and a great win for our alums,” Chesney said following the title-clinching performance by his team. “We have a lot to be proud of when it comes to the work these guys put in and the support we have.”
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.