Holy Cross: Coker hauls in Hail Mary from Sluka as time expires for stunning upset win

Photos – Holy Cross Athletics & Josh Bessex/Icon Sportswire

If you aren’t on the Holy Cross bandwagon by now, what are you waiting for?

The little school on the hill in Worcester gained national attention on Saturday night when Matt Sluka hit Jalen Coker on a Hail Mary throw from 46 yards out with no time on the clock. Coker somehow came down with the ball despite being in a see of blue jerseys and hands trying to bat the ball away, giving the Crusaders a thrilling 37-31 upset win over FBS opponent Buffalo.

“It’s been done before,” Sluka calmly told the ESPN+ broadcast after the game. “Just throw the ball up to 80, that’s what he does. Jump ball Jay, he’s back again.”

This was a back and forth affair throughout the night with Holy Cross coming back from deficits of 14-0, 21-7 and 28-21.

“Oh my god, what do you want me to say?” head coach Bob Chesney said following the game. “What a game. We talked at the beginning of this game about competitive stamina. Play long. Play all of that game. If it went into overtime, just keep playing, just keep believing, and know that if we had any advantage it was going to be that we were gelled together and we’ve been together for a little bit longer.

“I think we’ve been tested in fire week in and week out. I think for those however many years we spent together, the early beginnings to now, this is sort of a culmination of it. But, in the end, it’s game number two so there’s a whole lot more of this. We’ll have to enjoy this right now for the evening and we’re back to work tomorrow. These guys played hard.”

The guy who played the hardest for Holy Cross was Sluka. The now veteran leader and captain of the ship, Sluka threw for 238 yards and three touchdowns, but he also put his body on the line time and time again, running like Mike Alstott circa 1999, leading the team with 146 yards on 25 carries.

“I think that’s what our team is made of,” Sluka told ESPN. “We’re a big family, we have a lot of fifth-year guys that lead the way. That was our mission coming into this game. They’re going to have a lot of talented players and they’re a good team. Our job is to stay together and fight hard, that’s what we did.”

The Bulls led 7-0 after one and 14-0 early in the second before the Holy Cross offense finally found some rhythm. Jordan Fuller capped a 13-play, 75-yard drive with 4:58 remaining in the half to cut it to 14-7, but just four plays later, Quinan Williams caught a 59-yard TD pass to put Buffalo back up two scores.

Thanks largely to Sluka, the Crusaders responded with a huge 7-play, 75-yard drive that ended with an Ayir Asante 17-yard touchdown catch and just 17 seconds left in the half, pulling Holy Cross within a score at the break.

Chesney’s team came out in the third quarter and imposed its will, moving 75 yards in 16 plays while chewing 7:35 off the clock. Fuller punched in a 2-yard run to tie the game. Just one play later, Justin Marshall went full grown man mode, catching a pass then shaking off a tackler for a 69-yard touchdown reception to put Buffalo back up 28-21. Sluka and Coker quickly responded with a 62-yard hookup, sending the teams to the fourth quarter tied at 28-28.

Derek Ng gave the Crusaders the lead for the first time all evening with 7:12 remaining in the fourth quarter on a 28-yard field goal, capping another soul-crushing 13-play drive. The Bulls ended up turning the ball over on downs with 3:26 to go, but Holy Cross had to punt it back with 2:18 to play.

Buffalo moved close enough for Alex McNulty to bury a 52-yard field goal, seemingly forcing overtime, but not with Sluka at the helm. Sluka moved the ball 29 yards in four plays, giving the Crusaders one final shot at the end zone wit four seconds on the clock.

With trips to the right, Sluka peeled off to his left, waited as long as he could and let a high arching ball go. Coker jumped up in between four defenders, somehow came down with the ball at the one – his fourth catch for 147 yards – and fell into the end zone for the stunning victory. His teammates soon mobbed him in the end zone as Holy Cross moved to 2-0, heading home to face Yale in the Fitton Field opener next Saturday.

Social media also exploded following the play, with SportsCenter, ESPN and other national football accounts reacting to the incredible finish on all platforms.

“I think it’s great,” Sluka said at the end of his ESPN+ interview. “We had a great win last weekend and a great win this weekend, obviously today. Just onto the next game now, onto Yale. Just keep it going, keep it rolling.”

There’s something special brewing already with the 2022 Crusaders and Saturday’s miraculous finish only buoys that belief.

“Sluka, what a warrior,” added Chesney. “Coker, for him to be able to do what he did. For the defense to come back…when you get dagger’d like that two or three times, it’s really hard to bounce back from that and have the confidence in yourself. There were guys that brought that confidence back and our coaches made unbelievable adjustments. I thought we had a chance if we had gotten a little bit closer there where Derek could have come in and put the game away.

“Overall, just so proud of the effort, the fight, the resolve, the commitment and the belief in one another. I think we all sat on that side and said ‘do you believe?’ and we all kept asking each other, ‘do we believe? Do we believe?’ well, we believed.”