Holy Cross: Crusaders make history with thrilling playoff win over Sacred Heart

WORCESTER – Fitton Field has been around since 1908 and seen its share of special moments.

None of them can compare to the one the Crusaders gave the 4,163 brave fans who sat in frigid, windy weather on Saturday to be a part of the first home playoff game since 1983.

Trailing by four in the final seconds, sophomore quarterback Matt Sluka heaved a ball 35-yards to the front left corner of the end zone. Jalen Coker was there with a defender near him and another closing in quickly. Coker leapt up and made a fantastic catch, then made sure he muscled his way through both guys enough while falling to cross the goal line and ultimately give his team an incredible 13-10 victory.

The win is the first playoff victory in program history for Holy Cross (10-2) and sets up a date with Villanova next weekend in the second round of the FCS playoffs. Holy Cross has also won seven straight (longest streak since 1991) and it’s also the first 10-win season since that same year when the team finished off a perfect 11-0 campaign.

“Very proud,” said head coach Bob Chesney who just continues to get guys to buy in at every moment, even if he’s crazy enough to go with no hat and no jacket with a windchill of about 20. “We didn’t have any students here, but when I turned around and looked up and looked in the bleachers and saw family, friends and the community of Worcester, I think our guys were just so excited to represent their city and be proud of where they go to school and the place they call home.”

Down 10-6 with 3:14 to go, Sluka took over at the Holy Cross 20. The march included Sluka (171 passing yards, 90 rushing yards)) picking up 4th-&-4 with his legs as well as a 21-yard run on 3rd-&-17, bringing the ball out to the Crusaders’ 45. With the ball on the 35 a couple plays later, Sluka took a chance and trusted his receiver. Coker (103 yards) did the rest. Sacred Heart had time for one play after the kick off with no timeouts left, but when that final play was over, Holy Cross’ bench erupted and sprinted on to the field.

“Definitely a lot of hours of practice went in to that one,” said Sluka. “It wasn’t a fluke and it wasn’t something that just happens randomly. Me and (Jalen) definitely stay after practice and get the work on that and it paid off. It was definitely a big time moment and big time players make big time plays when they need to.”

“That’s hours of hard work,” added Coker. “That’s coming in after practice, coming in before practice, getting the timing down, getting just that relationship from quarterback to wide receiver down pat and I think we put it on full display today.”

Early on, offense was impossible to come by aside from the Pioneers’ opening drive. Quarterback Rob McCoy executed a beautiful read option and scampered in untouched from the five for a 7-0 lead less than six minutes in. The score stayed that way until Derek Ng hit a 33-yard field goal to cut it to 7-3 with 3:53 left in the half. It’s all the Crusaders could muster though and Sacred Heart took the slim four-point lead to the break.

Marco Siderman started the third quarter and was promptly picked off four plays in, but the worst part was the fact it came one play after the Pioneers muffed a punt at the Sacred Heart 32. The Pioneers went up 10-3 early in the fourth quarter on a 39-yard field goal, but kicking into the wind on the ensuing kickoff, SH decided to squib it and gave the Crusaders great field position at their own 44. Five plays later Ng added another field goal from 38-yards out, cutting it to 10-6 with 8:27 remaining.

Despite some brutal penalties throughout the day, the defense stepped up when it mattered most, getting the ball back in the offense’s hands. The unit – as usual – was led by recently named Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year Jacob Dobbs. Dobbs had an absurd 18 tackles (12 solo), 2.5 TFL’s and 1.5 sacks. Liam Anderson added eight tackles of his own and 1.5 TFL’s.

“It feels amazing, it’s still surreal,” Dobbs said postgame. “We’re a very tight-knit team and when the offense takes the field we have their backs. We’re cheering them on as a unit from the sidelines, that’s our job in that moment is to give them energy on the sidelines…there’s a certain level of trust that those guys are going to go make a play for you.”

Now, this incredible, historic season will move on down to Pennsylvania, and at this point, would anyone bet against this Crusaders’ team?

“This is bigger than just our football team,” added Chesney. “It’s pretty cool we were able to accomplish something in the storied, historic history of this program. To be able to have a first is not that easy to come across and to get one today I think is pretty awesome.”