It’s been a very long time since the Lehigh Mountain Hawks and Holy Cross Crusaders have played in a football game that counts in the standings. This weekend at Murray Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem Pennsylvania at noon, they’ll do just that.
But many may not remember that on November 2nd, 2019, these teams met with first place in the Patriot League on the line.
With many of the same cast of characters, Holy Cross surged to a 24-7 lead before Lehigh orchestrated a comeback that fell just short in a 24-17 defeat. The Crusaders would end up winning the Patriot League and would represent the conference in the FCS playoffs, where they would play the final football game involving a Patriot League team for over 450 days.
It is uncharted waters for both teams, with plenty of questions to answer playing an unprecedented Patriot League spring football season. But many of the principal contributors in that 24-17 game more than a year ago in Bethlehem will be suiting up tomorrow.
Head coach Bob Chesney did a tremendous job in 2019 turning Holy Cross into Patriot League Champions. The Crusaders navigated a very tough out-of-conference schedule, including an impressive 13-10 win at home against New Hampshire, and largely dominated their Patriot League conference schedule thanks to really good play in all aspects. They’d end the 2019 season 7-6 and were the unquestioned top team of the Patriot League.
Holy Cross RB Domenic Cozier, the Crusaders’ leading rusher, graduated, but Holy Cross does welcome back senior QB Conor Degenhardt (2,372 yards passing, 19 TDs) and dynamic playmaker WR Ayir Asante (697 yards receiving, 282 return yards, 6 TDs) as well as OL Brian Foley, who initally entered the transfer portal but instead decided to come back and play in the spring. All three played in 2019 – Degenhardt didn’t have one of his better outings, going 10 for 22 with 1 TD and 2 INT, but it didn’t matter much behind the power rushing attack of the Crusaders, who totaled 266 yards and 2 TDs. Asante was the leading receiver for the Crusaders that afternoon with 5 catches and 52 yards.
Holy Cross will probably have a two-headed running attack with RB Derek Oliver and RB Mackin Kortebein. Oliver was the change-of-pace back from Cozier back in 2019, rushing for 45 yards and a TD, while Kortebein was a special-teams monster, blocking two punts in their FCS playoff game vs. Monmouth that were both returned for touchdowns. “He’s definitely an offensive player,” Chesney told The Worcester Telegram and Gazette. “He runs so hard. He’s a tough young man, one of toughest on the team. It’s pretty cool to watch him work every day and I hope he has a successful year.”
Holy Cross also boasts a young, aggressive 4-2-5 defense that has a bunch of budding stars. LB Jacob Dobbs (93 tackles, 12 TFL, 6 sacks, 3 INTs) is only a sophomore, while DB Joe Lang (72 tackles, 4 pass break-ups) should be the foundation for a solid group once again. Eight starters return along with PK Derek Ng, who was first team all-Patriot League.
When Tom Gilmore’s Mountain Hawks lost in the final two minutes to their bitter Rivals Lafayette 17-16 on the final day of the 2019 regular season, they had no idea that their last memory of a competitive football game for more than a calendar year would be the bitter, woulda-coulda-shoulda ending of the 155th meeting between the two schools.
That loss seems to have lit a fire under this team, who had an off-again on-again fall practice but have had practices at full go in the run-up to their first games of the year against Holy Cross. It is a team that is extremely young – 50 of the 73 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores.
One of the new faces is Toledo transfer QB Cross Wilkinson, a player that the coaching staff is very excited about. He was named the starter after camp, and he will find a ton of new faces at wide receiver to throw to as WR Jorge Portorreal is not listed on the two-deep, recovering from offseason surgery. Only TE Alex Snyder who had 4 catches for 51 yards, is listed on the depth chart that suited up at a receiver position in 2019.
RB Rashawn Allen and RB Zaythan Hill return from last year’s team, and they’ll headline a powerful 1-2 rushing punch. OL Chris Fournier anchors an offensive line that returns 3 starters from last year.
The defense loses six starters, but LB Pete Haffner (97 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2 INT, 1 forced fumble) should keep the fiery defense in good hands. Both of those interceptions came against Holy Cross last year, and were critical in keeping Lehigh in the game in 2019. With the graduation of LB Keith Woetzel, Haffner and DB Divine Buckrham are the unquestioned leaders of this defense, and this team – both were named team co-captains this week.
Fearless Prediction: On paper this seems like this should be a blowout in favor of Holy Cross, based on the experience they have returning and the relative youth that Lehigh is bringing. But the Mountain Hawks are more experienced with those underclassmen than they’re letting on, and many will remember the slugfest that they experienced more than a year ago at the same venue. I see this as a closer game than most might think, probably going very similarly as to 2019 – a close game where Holy Cross’ experience carries them late. Holy Cross 27, Lehigh 24