WORCESTER, MA – In a hard-fought, windy and defensive day, it all came down to the final 20 seconds.
Sophomore QB Matthew Sluka, who took over the Holy Cross offense after Sacred Heart’s punt ended up a touchback with 3:14 to play, had somehow willed the Crusaders forward, converting a 4th and 4 with a five yard run, ripping off a 21 yard run on 3rd and 17, and converting a 3rd and 1 pass to WR Tenio Ayeni to somehow keep their offensive drive on life support.
Down 13-6, with the ball at the Sacred Heart 35, Sluka and the offense had one, maybe two, shots at the end zone to win the game. In a game where the Pioneers defense had kept Holy Cross from scoring a touchdown, it came down to a long pass attempt to Coker on a very windy day.
And just like that – in double coverage – Holy Cross WR Jalen Coker came down with it.
“Jump ball Jay, we call him,” Sluka said.
The 35 yard spiral from Sluka to Coker was on the money – and Coker came up with it and fell in the end zone, and with it, gave Holy Cross their first-ever FCS Playoff win in five tries.
Sluka’s Hawkeye impression after the touchdown put the exclamation point on the victory, the Patriot League’s first in the FCS Playoffs since Colgate beat James Madison in 2018 23-20.
“We went for the field goal because you thought you could get the stop so we could get the ball back and drive for the touchdown,” Holy Cross head coach Bob Chesney said after the game. “I don’t know that it happened the exact way we anticipated it, but that is an unbelievable football team [Sacred Heart] over there. Hats off to them. They deserve it as much as we do.”
Sacred Heart held Holy Cross to 288 yards of total offense, and before Sluka’s John Elway impression had stymied Holy Cross for 3/10 on 3rd down, limiting the Crusaders to only two Derek Ng field goals. After scoring early on a 5 yard run by backup quarterback Rob McCoy, Sacred Heart took a 7-0 lead and held onto that lead until the very end of the game, only adding a 33 yard Noah Gettman FG to extend their lead.
It was an old-fashioned Northeast cold-weather ground-it-out game, with Sacred Heart RBs Julius Chestnut and RB Malik Grant, along with McCoy, grinding out yards against Holy Cross’ defense, while Sluka (90 yards) did most of the damage on the ground for the Crusaders.
“The biggest thing was trust and belief,” Sluka said afterwards. “A couple of the guys were getting down, starting to doubt, but the biggest thing was on the sideline, keeping everyone up. Going into the drive, it was like, ‘we need to get this done’. We need to get to the playmakers, and that’s what we did, that’s what it came down to.”
Holy Cross (10-2) will now face No. 5-seeded Villanova next Friday in the second round of the FCS Playoffs. Kickoff is slated for 7:00 pm to be broadcast on an ESPN network TBD.
Holy Cross 13, Sacred Heart 10
|7 – 09:38 – 1st||McCoy,Rob rush for 5 yards gain to the HCR00 TOUCHDOWN. (Gettman,Noah kick attempt good.)CURRENT SACRED HEART drive 10 plays 75 yards 5:22|
|7 – 33:53 – 2nd||Ng,Derek field goal attempt from 23 yards GOOD.CURRENT HOLY CROSS drive 16 plays 75 yards 9:04|
|10 – 312:09 – 4th||Gettman,Noah field goal attempt from 33 yards GOOD.CURRENT SACRED HEART drive 16 plays 79 yards 8:10|
|10 – 68:27 – 4th||Ng,Derek field goal attempt from 38 yards GOOD.CURRENT HOLY CROSS drive 6 plays 35 yards 3:38|
|10 – 130:14 – 4th||Sluka,Matthew pass complete to Coker,Jalen for 35 yards to the SHU00 TOUCHDOWN, 1ST DOWN. The previous play is under review. The ruling on the field is confirmed. (Ng,Derek kick attempt good.)CURRENT HOLY CROSS drive 11 plays 80 yards 3:00|
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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