2014 Football Team Preview: Holy Cross Crusaders

PATRIOTLEAGUE.ORG Peter Pujals was the 2013 Patriot League Rookie of the Year.
PATRIOTLEAGUE.ORG
Peter Pujals was the 2013 Patriot League Rookie of the Year.
PATRIOTLEAGUE.ORG

Aug. 21, 2014

CENTER VALLEY, Pa. - If football games were 58 minutes, Holy Cross' record from the last two seasons might look a lot different. But the Crusaders have a 5-18 mark over the past two years because they often could not close out the final minutes, and will look for better finishes to lead to a more successful campaign in 2014.

Holy Cross is 2-11 in games decided by seven points or less the last two years, but hopes to flip the script behind a dynamic quarterback and improved defense. Peter Pujals returns as the signal-caller after his Patriot League Rookie of the Year campaign, and the sophomore has classmate Gabe Guild with him in the backfield. The defense hopes to keep up this year with plenty of new faces as only five starters return from a unit that allowed 30.6 points per game in 2013.

The Crusaders are only picked sixth in the Patriot League, but they have given some of the top teams fits the past two seasons before suffering narrow losses. If Holy Cross can start closing out games, it can quickly find itself right back in the thick of the League title chase.

A preview of the 2014 Holy Cross Crusaders season is included below, with a look at the offense, defense, special teams and schedule, five burning questions and links to information and video previews for the season.

For more on all of the teams, read the 2014 Patriot League Football Preview and watch all of the preseason video features on the Youtube Football Playlist

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HEAD COACH: Tom Gilmore, 11th Season ( 56-56 overall/Holy Cross, 33-27 Patriot League)
2013 RECORD: 3-9 overall, 1-4 Patriot League (T5th place)

PATRIOT LEAGUE PRESEASON POLL: 6th
PRESEASON ALL-PATRIOT LEAGUE: Kalif Raymond (Jr., RS)
PLN VIDEOS: Pujals back after Rookie of the Year campaign | Youth, energy lead to high hopes | Defense looks to be stronger in 2014

OFFENSE: The Crusaders did not have the final record they wanted in 2013, but they did find a quarterback with the potential to stay in the position for years to come. Peter Pujals was named Patriot League Rookie of the Year after putting up over 2,700 yards of total offense and 27 total touchdowns in 10 games with eight starts. He has a classmate in the backfield in running back Gabe Guild (496 yards, 5 TD), though wideout Mike Fess graduated as the school's all-time leader in receptions. Kalif Raymond (42 rec., 400 yards) is the top returning wideout with Jay Knighton leading the offensive line.

DEFENSE: The Crusader defense loses top tackler Roman SanDoval at linebacker, but the next four on last year's list are back in defensive backs Matt Bhaya (71 TT), Logan Silver (51 TT) and Ben Coffaro (49 TT) and linebacker Tyler Zeoli (67 TT). Mike Galantini (25 TT) is the top player back on the defensive line.

SPECIAL TEAMS: No Crusader returnee took a punt, field-goal attempt or kickoff last season as the departed John Macomber handled all three areas. There are four kickers or punters on the roster vying for action. The return game is more stable as Kalif Raymond is a Preseason All-Patriot Leaguer who handled punt and kickoffs returns last season.

SCHEDULE: The Crusaders play 12 games for the second straight year, opening with four non-League contests as they visit Albany (Aug. 30) and Harvard (Sept. 19) and host Morgan State (Sept. 6) and Central Connecticut (Sept. 13). The League opener is at home against Fordham (Sept. 27), with the Crusaders then going on the road for all four games in October as they head to Colgate (Oct. 4) and Lafayette (Oct. 25) in League play and Brown (Oct. 11) and Dartmouth (Oct. 18) in non-League action. Holy Cross finishes up with home games against Lehigh (Nov. 8) and Bucknell (Nov. 15) and a trip to Georgetown (Nov. 22).

Five Questions

1. Is Pujals ready for another starring role?
Holy Cross had a shining light in its tough 2013 season as Peter Pujals debuted with a huge freshman campaign. The Patriot League Rookie of the Year amassed 2,700 total yards and 27 touchdowns in 10 games with eight starts and looks like the man to lead the Crusaders for the next three years. But Pujals now has to prove he can follow up his successful season, and do it despite the graduation of the school's all-time leading receiver, Mike Fess. Holy Cross has a history of talented wideouts under Gilmore, but none have a lengthy resume heading into the season. Pujals has shown the skills to believe he'll be a star in the Patriot League, but does face a challenge this year in finding success with a developing group of wide receivers.

2. Will youth help lead to a turnaround?
Pujals wasn't the only Crusader to make an impact as a freshman. His classmate in the backfield, Gabe Guild, ran for 496 yards and five touchdowns to lead the ground game. On defense, Kyle Young emerged as a playmaker with 32 tackles and an interception. The Crusaders will need more from those three as well as the rest of the sophomore class, the first scholarship group at Holy Cross. Also, with 26 letterwinners departed from last season, Holy Cross may look to some members of a recruiting class that features 24 players to have an impact as freshman.

3. Can the defense show improvement?
Holy Cross gave up 30.6 points per game last season, a big reason the Crusaders finished 3-9 despite scoring 27.0 points per contest. The defense only returns five starters from last season, though there are some key pieces back with Zeoli at linebacker, Bhaya, Coffaro and Silver in the defensive backfield and Galantini on the line. Young looks like a solid player going forward as well, but after that there will be plenty of competition and opportunity to earn playing time at other spots. After last year's struggles, perhaps that's not a bad thing as the Crusaders try to re-tool the defense enough to supplement what should be a potent offense.

4. How can the Crusaders improve in the close games?
Holy Cross' 3-9 record in many ways was deceiving last season, just like the 2-9 mark in many ways did not reflect how the Crusaders played in 2012. Holy Cross has a 2-11 record in games decided by a touchdown or less the past two years, and even a mark close to .500 in that category would make the past two seasons look a lot different. But after two years of losing the close ones, the question becomes how do the Crusaders finish the games? A big change could come from a better defensive effort, as late scores were given up in multiple losses the past two years. That's what happened last season in a 28-24 home loss to Colgate on Oct. 19 that was particularly costly, as the Crusaders missed a chance to go 2-0 in the Patriot League and ended up losing their final four contests after the defeat. Holy Cross will also need to find a reliable kicker to replace John Macomber, as the tight contests can often come down to a key field goal. Whatever the case, Holy Cross could use a close win or two early in the season to gain some confidence when it has games go down to the wire in Patriot League play.

5. Can the Crusaders enter November with a chance?
Holy Cross plays a 12-game schedule that does not feature a bye until November 1, so the Crusaders will do plenty of heavy lifting early in the season. In Patriot League play, Holy Cross has a tough early slate that includes an opener at home against preseason favorite Fordham on Sept. 27, visit to Colgate on Oct. 4 and trip to defending champion Lafayette on Oct. 25. The final month includes home games against Lehigh and Bucknell and a trip to Georgetown, but the Crusaders will need to figure things out early in the season to make those games matter. Holy Cross has tough road trips to Albany and Harvard and manageable home dates with Morgan State and Central Connecticut before hosting Fordham and visiting Colgate, and has to make some inroads in that non-League stretch to be prepared to win at least one of those early Patriot League games to keep things interesting.