Lehigh Football vs. Holy Cross: Drink of the Week, Scouting Report, Fearless Prediction

BETHLEHEM, PA – “Who are these guys?”

If you listened to last week’s radio call of Lehigh (0-7. 0-2) against Patriot League leaders Fordham, that’s what you would have heard play by play man Matt Kerr explain.

After suffering through six games where Lehigh was held without a touchdown – from offense, defense or special teams – the Mountain Hawks finally got the touchdown monkey off their backs with a 28 yard touchdown run by RB Zaythan Hill in the first quarter.

From there, offense-starved Lehigh fans were treated to 577 yards of total offense, 159 of which were provided by Hill, with QB Dante Perri contributing 317 yards through the air.

As welcome as the offensive explosion was, in the end Fordham QB Tim Demorat and the potent Fordham offense would rise to the challenge and retake the lead late in the 4th quarter and win the game 35-28, maintaining the other huge monkey on the backs of the Mountain Hawks – a 14 game losing streak that started, oddly enough, nearly two years ago today, when Lehigh fell 24-17 to Holy Cross in Murray Goodman after a huge interception by Holy Cross CB Chris Riley would stymie the Mountain Hawks’ final drive.

Folks don’t remember that at the time, Lehigh was tied for first place and that game was seen as critical in the Patriot League title race.

But after that game, the Mountain Hawks started a slide that continued through the end of the season, continued as the 2020 fall season was COVID cancelled, continued through a three-game spring season that was lucky to have happened at all, and through a nightmarish beginning of the season against two CAA teams and three Ivy League schools.

Lehigh’s challenge will be to continue to strong play they exhibited against the Rams last week, but this time finishing off the little things to put away a title contender – and to finally put to rest anyone asking the question “who are these guys?” because they will be “the guys who beat Holy Cross and set up Lehigh’s next two Patriot League titles.” (Or so Lehigh fans hope.)

Two guys who really cemented their roles on the team were Hill and Perri.

For Hill, who was an unstoppable force at Fordham, the challenge will be to maintain whatever Bronx magic he has to the rest of Lehigh’s opponents. Hill has had two 100 yard rushing games as a Mountain Hawk – both which took place against Fordham in the Bronx (2019 and last week). Furthermore, last week was the first time Hill went over 70 yards from scrimmage and a loss (the two times he did so in 2019, vs. Fordham and vs. Georgetown, it resulted in Lehigh victories).

For Perri, it was the first time that the Philadelphia, PA native seemed comfortable running the offense and his poise and confidence showed with a calm, effective performance with very few mistakes. After weeks wondering who might be starting at QB, this week it’s clear that Perri is the QB1, and it will be exciting to see how the sophomore from The Haverford School continues to develop over the course of the rest of the season.

Unlike the NFL, late season winning streaks in college football can hold a huge amount of significance, especially in the Patriot League. Some of the league’s best young teams turned around long losing streaks the prior year and used that momentum to set up future success.

In 2009, head coach Andy Coen seemed to be coaching for his job after an uninspiring 1-5 start, but the Mountain Hawks battled to go 4-3 the rest of the way – including two very close losses to nationally-ranked Colgate and Holy Cross – to finish 4-7. After that season, Coach Coen mentioned many times that surviving the struggle of that season set up almost all the success that was to come – Patriot League championships in 2010 and 2011, including two FCS playoff victories vs. Northern Iowa and Towson. 2009 was a special year and a special class he never forgot.

More recently, in 2017, Colgate started out the season 2-4 after a particularly tough loss to Lehigh at home, 41-38, and then pulled together and closed out the year with five straight victories, ending at 7-4, then firing off nine more the following season to go on a 14 game winning streak that was stopped only after a heads-held-high loss to FBS Army 28-14. The following week they stunned James Madison 23-20 in the FCS Playoffs.

Teams like those have to start somewhere, and in many cases that “somewhere” is in the tail end of a non-title-winning season, when many aren’t paying attention.

For 5-2, 2-0 Holy Cross, the story is avoiding a letdown after a huge 42-10 win at an exciting “neutral-site” game at Polar Park versus Colgate and then “flushing it,” Holy Cross DB Grant Holloman said this week, referring to the need to put that win in the past and focus on Lehigh. “Each week, essentially for us, is a playoff game,” he said. “You only have so many Patriot League games, and every one matters.”

Holy Cross’ attitude and mindset have served them will this year, after surprising UConn opening weekend and getting a quality victory against Monmouth earlier in the season. Their sights are set on the Patriot League Championship, and that road includes a business trip to Pennsylvania.

The game is taking place at Murray Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem, and kickoff is at noon. If you can’t make it to the Bronx, it is going to be streamed on ESPN+ with Matt Kerr and Lance Haynes calling the game. The Lehigh radio call will be available on Fox Sports Radio 1230/1320 AM and 94.7 FM Allentown, with Tom Fallon and Matt Markus on the call (and also available on LVFoxSports.com).

LFN’s Drink of the Week

Did you know that the famous Lehigh journalism graduate C.J. McCollum also has his own brand of wines called Heritage 91? On a week where the Mountain Hawks are taking on Deep Purple, it would be ideal during today’s tailgate to pop open a bottle of McCollum Heritage 91 Pinot Noir to celebrate Lehigh’s win.

CJ McCollum’s venture into wine is yet another amazing story and a testament to CJ’s unending academic curiosity that he went from casual wine drinker to winemaker in such a short time. “There’s a lot of parallels between sports and people in the wine industry because you want to perfect your sport, but it never truly happens,” he said. “You get really good at it, but there’s still some things that you may not know. Wine is a similar thing, where you can learn a lot and still not know anything.”

As a Lehigh fan, I understand the importance of following one’s passion, and I’m happy to share information about CJ’s hugely successful foray into wine. You can order it here.

LFN’s Drinks of the Week are meant to be enjoyed in responsible tailgates, meaning everyone is over 21, nobody is driving while impaired or under the influence, and Ubers are lined up if necessary. Only enjoy these things responsibly.

Injury Report

Last week saw the return of DL Michael Callahan into the defensive rotation and there is more good news that LB Pete Haffner is set to play this Saturday – perhaps not at 100%, but he should be worked in. The importance to the defense of seeing their team captain back on the field should not be understated.

Scouting Holy Cross

It’s not a usual sight for a football team to use two different quarterbacks during the course of a game, but head coach Bob Chesney has done so very well this season to devastating effect with QBs Matthew Sluka and Marco Siderman.

Breaking them down as merely “Sluka the rusher” (77 rushes, 459 yards, 8 rushing TDs) and “Marco the passer” (64% completion percentage, 565 yards passing, 3 TDs) is oversimplifying things – Sluka can punish teams that overcommit to the run, and Siderman can take off with the ball if you overcommit to the pass. But Sluka’s toughness between the tackles is a problem for opposing defenses, as is Siderman’s arm, and Chesney balances usage of the two QBs very effectively.

In fact, Holy Cross’ offense is truly a “system offense” where targets and carries are incredibly balanced between a whole host of different skill players. One week, WR Tenio Ayeni is who kills you, the other, RB Peter Oliver with 11 rushes for 100 yards. It’s not fun for previewers of football games and announcers who don’t like to check the gameday rosters, but it’s hard to argue with the results – Holy Cross is averaging 32 points per game with a schedule that includes an FBS team in UConn and one of the top defenses in the country in Harvard.

It’s Holy Cross’ defense, however, that might provide the biggest challenge for Lehigh trying to prove their offensive struggles are behind them. LB Jacob Dobbs (81 tackles 10 tackles for loss, 6 sacks) and LB Liam Anderson (50 tackles, 8 1/2 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions) could be the best 1-2 linebacker combination in the Patriot League.

If you thought Lehigh might have an edge on special teams, think again. PK Derek Ng is also one of the best kickers in the Patriot League – he set a school record and Murray Goodman Stadium record this spring with a 51 yard bomb of a field goal.

Keys for Lehigh

  1. Weather The Early Storm. Holy Cross has been stellar in the first quarter this year, and the teams that beat the Crusaders were able to match them early defensively and then ultimately wear them down in the 2nd and 4th quarters. That has to be a part of Lehigh’s gameplan – maybe start conservative with some runs, or short passes, then open things up as the game goes along. If it’s tied or Lehigh leads after the first quarter, that will be a good sign.
  2. Need to Force Turnovers. Merrimack beat Holy Cross earlier in the season, and one of the huge reasons why was a pick six interception that really put the screws to the Holy Cross offense to rally from behind. Holy Cross isn’t built to routinely come back from double-digit deficits – they’re trying to get an early lead and sit on you defensively until you say “uncle”. In any case, Lehigh’s -9 turnover ratio will need to inch closer to the positive to have Lehigh have a chance to take this game.
  3. Roblox. Last week’s huge effort against Fordham can and should be a very big foundational building block to this game. Despite the loss, there was a lot more that went right for this team, especially on offense, and the key here will be continuing to learn how to win football games. Take the mistakes from last week and apply them to this week will go a long way towards a successful end of the season.

Fearless Prediction

It would be very fitting if the Mountain Hawks were to break the losing streak in Shakespearean fashion – head coach Tom Gilmore beating his former team nearly two years to the day when Lehigh losing streak started against… his former team. However, I see Lehigh taking another step forward, but a more experienced Holy Cross team still wins the game.

Holy Cross 23, Lehigh 17