HOLY CROSS AT LEHIGH 11/4/2023: Game Preview And Fearless Prediction: In Holy Cross, Kevin Cahill Gets a Glimpse As To What He Wants Lehigh To Be Again

BETHLEHEM, PA – To the surprise of probably no one, head coach Kevin Cahill had plenty of good things to say bout Lehigh’s next opponent, the Holy Cross Crusaders.

It’s not only the fact that they’ve won four straight Patriot League Championships, and despite losing a heartbreaker to Lafayette a few weeks ago, they’re still very much in the mix for a fifth straight.

It’s that coach Cahill has seen almost as much of Holy Cross as Lehigh fans have over the years.

“Their offensive line is phenomenal, their quarterback is phenomenal,” he told Tom Fallon this week on his weekly podcast. “They’ve played a lot of football games, these kids have been around a lot. They’re a very good program.”

In head coach Bob Chesney‘s five years at Holy Cross, Lehigh has never beaten the Crusaders, starting with a rain-soaked 56-0 loss in Worcester in 2018 and not getting that much more competitive from there. The Mountain Hawks haven’t scored more than 17 points against them in any of their last five contests.

But Yale did. In 2017, with Cahill as pass game coordinator, QB Kurt Rawlings hit on 27 of 39 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns as the Bulldogs coasted to a 32-0 win over the Crusaders in what would end up being Tom Gilmore‘s final game up in Worcester.

Lehigh fans are desperately hoping some of Cahill’s offensive magic from that time will rub off on the Mountain Hawk offense this week.

Freshman RB Luke Yoder provided a big spark before going into the bye week with a 38 carry, 128 yard, 2 touchdown effort against Bucknell in a 27-19 win, giving hope that the Mountain Hawks will be able to put up more points against the Crusaders than in years past.

But Cahill definitely has a strong read about the scope of the challenge this week.

“I have a ton of respect about how they run their program,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I like them. You want to be respected, and hated, and they’ve done a nice job with that.”

The term “respected and hated” will certainly resonate with long time followers of the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, because for a bunch of years in the 1990’s, 2000s, and 2010s, they were respected and hated, too.

What’s interesting about the Lehigh and Holy Cross series is how little their success overlaps. When Holy Cross has struggled, Lehigh have been world beaters, and when the Crusaders are on top of the world, Lehigh has been down.

One of Lehigh’s early Patriot League games in the 1990s came in 1991 in a rare time of ascendancy of both teams. The upstart Engineers with the “Air Small” offense went up against a Holy Cross team still loaded with scholarship players, both teams nationally ranked.

I think a lot about that 43-42 game in 1991, one of the best games I ever attended in person.

What most people don’t remember is that the game was tied at 7 at halftime. Both teams exchanged leads seemingly every possession in the second half, with Lehigh executing a now-illegal “fumblerooski” play to take a temporary lead and just missing a two-point conversion pass in the final minute that would have had our student section storm the field. (I can point to the exact location where I was sitting in the stadium when I watched the game – right next to where the Marching 97 plays.)

Back then, Murray Goodman was one of the hottest tickets in town. With the caveat that college football wasn’t on national TV, mostly, taking in a Lehigh game was seen as a fun use of one’s time in Bethlehem, even if you weren’t tied to Lehigh in any other way. It helped that Lehigh was a program that had had national success – a Division II National Championship in 1977 – and an offense that was very entertaining.

But over the years, Holy Cross had a very difficult transition from traditional football scholarships to need-based aid, which contributed to the fairly decline of their program by the end of the 1990s. Conversely, Lehigh rose to win multiple Patriot League championships and I-AA playoff appearances under those same rules.

Looking back, it’s pretty strange how when Holy Cross got competitive in the early days of Tom Gilmore, Lehigh was struggling to get going under Andy Coen, and when coach Coen started to figure it out and field championship teams, Holy Cross started to struggle again.

Fast forward to now, where the Crusaders have won four straight Patriot League championships, and Lehigh has had four straight seasons of sub-.500 records.

This Saturday, the Mountain Hawks will be looking to flip the curve.

HOLY CROSS CRUSADERS (5-3, 3-1 Patriot) AT LEHIGH MOUNTAIN HAWKS (2-6. 1-2 Patriot)
Murray Goodman Stadium/Bethlehem, PA. Noon
STREAMING BROADCAST: ESPN+ (subscription needed)
PxP – Marco Socci, Analyst – Lance Haynes
BROADCAST (Fox Sports Lehigh Valley 94.7 FM/1230 AM; LVFoxSports.com):
PxP – Matt Kerr; Analysts – Connor Mills, Mike Yadush

Game Notes and Injury Report

Folks usually talk about the rest benefits of the bye week, getting healthy from dings and general physical issues, but on this week’s two deep there are still a fair number of question marks.

One thing that I’m still not 100% sure about is the availability of RB Gaige Garcia. I’m hearing he could be back this week, but I’m not sure and he’s been out since the Merrimack game. If he’s back, it would make for a two-or-three headed rushing attack or maybe allow RB Jack DiPietro to line up occasionally at wideout.

Aside from that, it looks like the bye week might allow for the return of DB Jordan Adderley or CB Logan Jones from lingering injuries, however, they’re not listed on the official two deep (DB Brycen Edwards and CB Michael Jordan, Jr. are listed as the starters instead). Even if Adderley and/or Logan Jones are back it’s fair to say that Lehigh would probably still play quite a bit of Edwards and Jordan anyway.

It’s worth mentioning that Lehigh’s secondary play two weeks ago vs. Bucknell was something to celebrate. They played a phenomenal game, and that was reflected not only in the box score but on the scoreboard as well. Their improvement from the Georgetown game to the Bucknell game was really worthy of note.

Scouting Holy Cross

You would really think I have an easy cut-and-paste preview that I could just reuse from last season, or maybe even the season before that. Yadda, yadda, Matthew Sluka, yadda, yadda Jacob Dobbs, hit “Publish”. After last week, however, where Sluka played a grand total of two plays, more work is needed.

Last week, in a surprise, it wasn’t the gritty Sluka who started, who is only 100 yards away from becoming a 1,000 yard rusher, it was QB Joe Pesansky, who proceeded to enter into an offensive duel with Fordham QB C.J. Montes. 56 combined first downs and over 1,000 combined yards of offense later, Holy Cross ended up on top 49-47 after Montes’ two point conversion try would come up short.

Pesansky was “next man up”, and he did what the “next man up” has done at Holy Cross for the last four years – step in behind an incredibly talented offensive line, spread the ball around, and score points. He went 20 of 33 for 337 yards and 3 touchdowns, spreading the ball to eight different receivers, including NFL prospect WR Jalen Coker (798 yards, 11 TDs on the year).

I don’t have any special insight as to whether it will be Pesansky under center or Sluka, but it shouldn’t change much about what Holy Cross does. Sluka is a matchup nightmare in terms of a mobile running QB in the Patriot League, but aside from shifting some more runs to RB Jordan Fuller (811 yards rushing, 16 TDs), it’s likely to be the same thing for the most part.

Something more interesting to note than their championship-quality offense is the fact that their defense has given up a whopping number of yards and points in back to back weeks to both Lafayette (498) and Fordham (619). Against Fordham, six of their scores came from plays of 30 yards or more, and against Lafayette three of their six touchdowns came from 30 yards or more.

Still, LB Jacob Dobbs continues to lead the team in tackles and anchor the Holy Cross defense with 111 tackles, 10 1/2 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles. He’s a forced to be reckoned with in the middle of the defense.

LFN’s Keys to the Game

  1. Big Plays. Lehigh’s best chance to win this football game is for the Mountain Hawks offense that showed up against Fordham to show up again, but play four whole quarters. Lehigh fans know this can be done because we’ve seen it. QB Brayten Silbor will have to pick the right spots and hit some big plays, but there’s no reason to believe that Lehigh’s offense, along with RB Luke Yoder, can’t be just as effective against Holy Cross as Lafayette and Fordham were.
  2. Fly, Hawks, Fly. Holy Cross’ offense is formidable, but one of Lehigh’s big strengths is their defensive front, and if they fly to the ball and make Holy Cross’ life a living hell in the trench, it will slow down whomever is under center. They can’t overpursue and give up big broken plays, but I think flying around will really help the Mountain Hawk’s cause.
  3. Cleanliness. Even in their wins, Lehigh has committed a lot of penalties and aggravating mental lapses. It might be enough to hold on and win against Bucknell, but allow one tiny opening to a nationally-ranked team like Holy Cross and they will eat Lehigh for breakfast. Attention to cleanliness and attention to detail will be critical if the Mountain Hawks are to pull off an upset.

Fearless Prediction

It’s been a while since a team with this much buzz has played a game at Murray Goodman Stadium this late in the year. In 2021 a nationally-ranked Holy Cross came to Murray Goodman in October and won 31-12 after a late 17 point surge, and it was sophomore QB Matthew Sluka and LB Jacob Dobbs on the field leading the team to victory.

This time, though, things feel different.

It’s hard to really explain, but there is a better wind blowing through this team than in the last six years. There is definitely the sense that there is a lot of hard work going on, and that it’s going to pay off.

The only thing that isn’t clear is whether the payoff will be this year, this weekend, or sometime next year, in the future. But there’s definitely a strong optimism here that isn’t usually present in a 2-6 team.

Could it be this week? Maybe.

Lehigh 38, Holy Cross 41