For the first time all season, Holy Cross is not expected to win.
The Crusaders have played the role of favorites in each game this fall, answering the bell and the opposition’s best shot en route to an undefeated season and a program-record 12 wins.
But on Saturday, roles will be reversed as Holy Cross seeks to upset top-ranked South Dakota State in an FCS quarterfinal matchup in Brookings, S.D. (ESPN, 12 p.m.)
“All year long we’ve dealt with being the one with the bulls-eye on our backs,” said Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney. “It’s really hard to be a favorite and do what you are supposed to do. We understand we’re not going to get a lot of respect going into this game. We understand how the outside world looks at this, and that’s certainly motivation.”
Although the Jackrabbits (11-1) have been the FCS’s top-ranked team since mid-October, Chesney and his players believe Holy Cross has the talent to compete.
Junior receiver Jalen Coker has watched the program elevate to new heights under Chesney — from 7-6 in 2019, to 3-1 in the COVID-shortened 2021 season, to 10-3 last year.
“I think we know what we have in our room,” said Coker. “They just happen to be the No. 1 seed and I know we have the talent to beat anyone in this final stretch. It gives us more of a chip on our shoulder and we’re not going to back down.”
Saturday’s matchup will be Holy Cross’s first NCAA quarterfinal since 1983. Last Saturday, Holy Cross pulled away in the second half for a 35-19 win over New Hampshire, relying on the ground game (320 yards) in rainy and windy conditions.
The Crusaders rank fifth nationally in scoring (38.8 points per game) and will face a SDSU defense that allows just 14 points per game, third fewest in FCS.
Against UNH, Holy Cross rode senior running back Peter Oliver to a career-high 175 yards. To score on the Jackrabbits, the Crusaders can’t turn the ball over. Then it’s up to Oliver, Coker, and quarterback Matthew Sluka to make plays.
“I think as an offense we want to put us in a position to score whether that’s running, throwing, or blocking,” said Coker. “Pete’s a man amongst boys out there and if he needs 200 yards for us to win, that’s great. If us receivers need to make a play in the end zone or break off a big play, we know we’re capable.”
Chesney understands the challenges SDSU presents. The Jackrabbits breezed through FCS and Missouri Valley Conference competition with a 7-3 loss at FBS Iowa the only blemish.
When Chesney watched film on SDSU, he saw a physically imposing team with a deft playmaker at quarterback in Mark Gronowski, future NFL talents in tight end Tucker Kraft and twin receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke, and a ferocious defense that constantly applies pressure, led by another projected pro Caleb Sanders.
“They are everything you’d expect from the No. 1 team in the country,” said Chesney. “Really zero weak spots anywhere. We know the type of ball game it’s going to be. The quarterback has the ability to find every little thing that is open, the defense plays as tough as it does, and the special teams is sound.”
The trip to Brookings for a playoff game is familiar. In the shortened 2021 spring season, the Crusaders finished 3-0 and lost, 31-3, to No. 1 SDSU in the first round as Gronowski threw three touchdown passes.
This time, Holy Cross enters with more confidence, believing the 2021 experience will be helpful in preparation.
“From the hotel, to the drive up there, it just adds some familiarity that puts you in a position where you know what type of game it’s going to be,” said Chesney.
The Crusaders are not ready for this magical season to end. Coker said the team hasn’t had time to reflect on its undefeated record and the program’s first trip to the quarterfinals in 39 years.
The focus is solely on taking down No. 1 and advancing to the semifinals.
“It’s full speed ahead,” said Coker. “The fifth years and seniors who took this program from not-so-successful to where we are now is special. We’re giddy. We’re all excited to get to South Dakota.”