Welcome to Holy Cross vs. The Field, better known as the 2023 Patriot League football season.
Holy Cross enters its sixth season under head coach Bob Chesney as the overwhelming favorite to take a record fifth straight PL crown. The Crusaders’ aspirations are that much greater after advancing to the FCS quarterfinals in 2022.
The Patriot League, though chasing HC from Nos. 2 to 7, has ample intrigue. The middle tier of the league that is seeking to dethrone Holy Cross is evenly matched and not substantially altered by the transfer portal. This is a conference that did earn an at-large playoff bid last season and whose favorite is in the preseason top 5 nationally.
Here are the top returning players and our predicted order of finish in the PL.
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Returning All-Conference Players
From last season’s All-Patriot League Team
Holy Cross – 10: DB/ST Devin Haskins (1st/1st Team), OL Luke Newman (1st Team), OL Eric Schon (1st Team), OL C.J. Hanson (1st Team), QB Matthew Sluka (1st Team), RS Justin Shorter (1st Team), WR Jalen Coker (1st Team), P Patrick Haughney (2nd Team), RB Jordan Fuller (2nd Team), TE Sean Morris (2nd Team)
Fordham – 8: LB James Conway (1st Team), DB Stephen Williams II (2nd Team), K Brandon Peskin (2nd Team), OL Ryan Joyce (2nd Team), OL Lucas Portes (2nd Team), RB Julius Loughridge (2nd Team), WR Mekai Felton (2nd Team), WR MJ Wright (2nd Team)
Georgetown – 4: DB Wedner Cadet (2nd Team), OL Talati Polamalu (2nd Team), RS Mason Gudger (2nd Team), ST Brock Biestek (2nd Team)
Colgate – 3: P Shelby Pruett (1st Team), LB Tyler Flick (2nd Team), OL Bardhyl Gashi (2nd Team)
Lafayette – 2: LB Marco Olivas (1st Team), TE Mason Gilbert (1st Team)
Lehigh – 1: LB Mike DeNucci (2nd Team)
Bucknell – 1: OL Ethan Pitzel (2nd Team)
Teams Bringing In The Most D1 Transfers
Fordham – 2 (2 FBS)
Bucknell – 2 (2 FBS)
Holy Cross – 2 (1 FBS, 1 FCS)
Lehigh – 2 (1 FBS, 1 FCS)
Names To Know
TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Matthew Sluka, Holy Cross QB – Sluka is a hard-nosed, senior dual threat who has proven himself to be hard to take down. The 2022 Walter Payton Award finalist averaged a career-best 94.9 rushing YPG with 11 touchdowns on the ground last season to add to a 26:4 TD-to-interception ratio passing. Passing is where the balanced Sluka took his most noticeable leap in 2022 so as to cement himself as the Patriot League’s premier offensive player. Credit goes to the Crusaders’ offensive line as well, which is littered with all-League players, let alone weapons on the outside such as WR Jalen Coker.
TOP DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Mike DeNucci, Lehigh LB – DeNucci carries a ton on his shoulders for lower-scoring Lehigh (17.2 PPG in ’22) as it begins Kevin Cahill’s first season at the helm. A senior this fall, DeNucci led Lehigh in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks last year, but more strikingly, his 16.5 TFLs topped those by Holy Cross’s Liam Anderson, Lafayette’s Malik Hamm, and Fordham’s James Conway for the PL high. DeNucci has upped his stats in each season with the Mountain Hawks and is a prime candidate for 1st Team all-conference this campaign.
TOP NFL PROSPECT: Jacob Dobbs, Holy Cross LB – Dobbs reassumes his position anchoring the Crusaders’ defense as he returns from a 2022 injury. Dobbs was a productive true freshman back in 2019, meaning that he has been a part of each of HC’s four consecutive conference titles. In his last full season (fall 2021), Dobbs finished top-10 nationally with his 137 tackles, including 75 solo. He is ranked as a 2023 Buck Buchanan Award preseason favorite according to our Sam Herder and appears on the 2024 Shrine Bowl 1000 list of pre-draft all-star game prospects.
HERO Sports’ Predicted Order of Finish
- Holy Cross
We don’t see many weaknesses in Holy Cross. This is a juggernaut that seems destined to finish (more precisely, elongate) a record streak in 2023. Double-digit all-conference players return. Chesney’s name has come up as a candidate for other jobs through all the success in Worcester, but he is right back with the Crusaders after agreeing to a restructured deal slated to keep him in place through the 2027 season. Offensive coordinator Chris Smith stepped down this offseason to take a position with the NFL’s Giants, which is certainly a loss given his overseeing a unit that ranked first in the country in plays over 15 yards and (fewest) turnovers lost last season. Smith built the ’Sader OL known as the best in the region. That said, enough experience returns to avoid missing a beat on offense.
The best offense in the Patriot League actually belonged to Fordham in 2022 as it rode quarterback Tim DeMorat to jaw-dropping heights. The Rams amassed 49.5 PPG, in large part by piling up another far-and-away PL best with 80 total touchdowns. DeMorat and star WR Fotis Kokosioulis have concluded their college careers, paving the way for the next starting quarterback’s connection with wideouts headed for expanded roles, such as MJ Wright and Mekai Felton. Offensive coordinator changes are a theme at the top of the Patriot League, as Fordham lost OC Kevin Decker to Old Dominion.
Colgate takes third in this prediction despite its 3-8 2022. The Raiders recorded a CAA win at Maine, one of the most difficult trips to make in the region, and they had one-score losses to Lafayette and Lehigh. Colgate needs to improve a ‘D’ that was second-to-worst in the PL in total defense (428 YPG allowed) a season ago, but the Raiders return 2021 Patriot League Rookie of the Year QB Michael Brescia. Brescia is plenty capable on the run, as he rushed for 173 yards against Georgetown last season, part of a total 751 on the year. Not to compare him unfairly to Sluka, but Colgate could need Brescia to take a Sluka-like progression in going from being known as a runner to similarly regarded as a passer consistently.
Somewhat paradoxically, Georgetown statistically outperformed its 2022 record of 2-9 by ranking third in the Patriot League in scoring and total offense last season. However, it’s tough to envision that recurring due to the transfer of Hoyas QB Pierce Holley to Eastern Illinois. Holley was a 2022 2nd Team All-Patriot League pick. His departure cleared the way for our choice of the order of Lafayette, Bucknell, and Lehigh in the middle of the pack.
The Leopards-Bison-Mountain Hawks trio represents a group that relied too much on its defenses in ’22. None of the three teams scored better than 17 PPG despite having top-half scoring and total defenses in the conference. Whichever team puts it together on ‘O’ most quickly in 2023 has a head start on attempting to nip Colgate or even Fordham if it adjusts poorly to new personnel, namely at QB.
Holy Cross, though, will be a bear to catch.