Co-No. 5 Holy Cross and No. 22 Fordham have run roughshod through their schedules to set up another rivalry game for the Ram-Crusader Cup that will determine FCS playoff scenarios in the Patriot League.
Holy Cross has ascended from Top 20 and Top 15 preseason recognition to Top 5 status by marching to an unbeaten record entering the Cup. The Crusaders’ rise began in earnest quite memorably with a heart-stopping win at FBS Buffalo. Matthew Sluka’s Hail Mary left jaws dropped and eyes on HC’s path to a possible fourth straight Patriot League championship.
The ’Saders have not looked back since taming the Bulls, sweeping Yale and Harvard for quality nonconference victories and most recently staving off Lafayette’s upset bid on the road in a 24-21 final.
However, for all its accolades and accomplishments, Holy Cross has not faced its most legitimate Patriot competition. It arrives Saturday when Fordham infiltrates Worcester, MA on HC’s family weekend.
The Rams go as their offense takes them; that unit is headlined by perennial all-conference and projected-NFL-prospect quarterback Tim DeMorat. DeMorat’s 3,023 passing yards lead the FCS, surpassing the totals of more nationally known passers Lindsey Scott Jr. (Incarnate Word) and Shedeur Sanders (Jackson State).
DeMorat has the luxury of turning to the Patriot League’s top two rushers in Julius Loughridge (91.4 YPG) and Trey Sneed (77.3 YPG). When Fordham isn’t handing off to that duo, it has the sure hands of Fotis Kokosioulis downfield. Walter Payton Award watch-lister Kokosioulis leads the league in receiving with 114.3 YPG and is supported by MJ Wright (106.7 YPG) in giving defenses all sorts of conflicts in pass coverage.
Fordham needs all of its stat-stuffers on offense given its defensive metrics. Despite the continued excellence of linebacker James Conway (PL-best 70 total tackles), the Rams are last in the conference in red zone defense (opponents converting scores at 95.8%), last in total defense (472.7 YPG), and they bring up the rear in opponent first downs at 23.4 allowed per game.
One could chalk up Fordham’s season defensive numbers to track meets with high-scoring Monmouth (52-49 win) and FBS Ohio (59-52 loss). But attention-getting results also include a season-opening 31 points allowed at Wagner and 28 spotted to offensively challenged Lehigh, albeit both in wins.
The Rams will need all of grad student LB and William V. Campbell Trophy finalist Ryan Greenhagen’s wits and skills to contain Sluka and Holy Cross. The squads enter their showdown, the de facto Patriot League championship game, unblemished against the FCS:
While the winner of the Ram-Crusader Cup takes the coveted “own-destiny-controlled” track to the Patriot’s automatic playoff bid, two teams in the neighboring NEC have a similar story to tell ahead of their own pivotal game Saturday.
League-leading Saint Francis (4-0 in the NEC) hits the road to challenge defending conference champion Sacred Heart (2-1) in Fairfield, CT. The Red Flash of SFU took FBS Akron to overtime in a 30-23 loss and followed that up with a 10-point loss at CAA contender Richmond.
SFU hasn’t lost since, compiling a five-game win streak entering its test at SHU. Strength of schedule hasn’t been the Red Flash’s calling card, as wins came against Wagner, Norfolk State, and a down Central Connecticut team, to name a few.
Importantly, unlike the PL, which could see Fordham become an “auto bid thief” pending the Cup result and correspondingly have an at-large Holy Cross playoff qualifier, the NEC will have, we project, only its conference champ make the field.
If Saint Francis has designs on that single postseason ticket, it must start its more difficult run in its schedule on a winning note at Sacred Heart. League clashes with traditionally competitive Duquesne and current fellow NEC unbeaten Merrimack (playoff-ineligible amid DI transition) round out the regular-season slate. Even if the Warriors can’t crack the bracket themselves, they can dash others’ plans just the same.
From Sacred Heart’s perspective, its tangle with SFU is equally critical. The Pioneers need to make up ground based on a resume with perplexing losses that include a season-opening shutout at mid-range PL Lafayette and a clunker, 24-9 at Morgan State. SHU knows full well Merrimack’s spoiler potential as it comes off a one-score setback at the Warriors. The loss unceremoniously ended Sacred Heart’s eight-game NEC winning streak, one that had defined its dominance of the league across the year 2021/its two seasons.
To resume that dominance, and to aid its playoff push in a single-bid conference, SHU must surmount Saint Francis’s momentum and road moxie.
Between these overlapping games in the NEC and Patriot League pitting the conferences’ respective top teams, the pressure is on. Those who rise to the occasion can be expected to enjoy the FCS selection special in under a month: