Patrick Grudberg ‘24
The Holy Cross football team’s season came to an end on Saturday, April 24th, suffering a crushing loss to the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in the first round of the FCS playoffs by a score of 31-3.
While it’s tough to find any positives with such a lopsided scoreline, Coach Chesney’s squad did show signs of life early. After a promising three and out stop by the defense, the Crusaders offense marched down the field from their own seventeen yard line into Jackrabbit territory.
An overthrown pass by freshman quarterback Matthew Sluka on third down that would have likely been a walk-in touchdown brought out the kicking team on fourth. Unfortunately, South Dakota’s special teams blocked Derek Ng’s field goal attempt, immediately setting the tone for the rest of the game. Even after SD State’s true freshman QB Mark Gronowski’s pass to Jaxon Janke gave the number one seed an early 7-0 lead, the Crusaders came out with a well designed trick play.
On their own forty-two yard line, Sluka fired it out to fellow freshman receiver Jalen Coker, who narrowly missed a wide open Tyler Purdy for another walk-in touchdown. Missing these two key scoring opportunities virtually sealed the Crusaders’ fate for the remainder of the contest. Once defensive back John Smith muffed a punt early in the second half that set up the Jackrabbits deep in Crusader territory, the game was all but finished.
By the end of the game, Gronowski had racked up three passing touchdowns and 153 yards on 21 attempts. Isaiah Davis and Pierre Strong Jr. led the South Dakota running game, finishing with 156 and 76 yards respectively. For the Crusaders, Matt Sluka threw for 76 yards on 10/21 passing attempts. His electric rushing attack we saw against Fordham and Bucknell was stifled by the Jackrabbit defense, held to only 22 rushing yards on 13 attempts.
Junior wideout Spencer Gilliam hauled in 55 of Sluka’s 76 passing yards, one of the only bright spots in a demoralizing game. Junior running back Peter Oliver added 52 yards on the ground, while kicker Derek Ng’s 47 yarder represented the only points on the board for Holy Cross.
In all honesty, it’s difficult to expect much else considering that this game is the equivalent of a one versus sixteen game in March Madness. Sure, we remember teams like UMBC shocking the world and even the likes of Hartford who kept within five points for most of the first half against the eventual champion Baylor Bears. But for every UMBC, there are dozens of Drexels, Texas Southerns and Nichols States that get manhandled from the first whistle.
By no means is this a criticism of the Crusaders season; the squad overcame a nightmare of COVID cancellations and rescheduled games and came out triumphant as back-to-back Patriot League champions. The fact that they even had a season to begin with is an accomplishment in itself. At the same time, it’s unrealistic for players and fans to leave Brookings, South Dakota feeling satisfied.
I am absolutely certain that Coach Chesney, who has taken this program from Patriot League mediocracy to utter dominance, will immediately look forward to the fall in search of better. Next season, the Crusaders have upcoming non-conference games against the likes of UConn and Monmouth. The latter actually defeated the Crusaders in the first round of the 2019 FCS playoffs, so a revenge game down in Long Branch, New Jersey might be a place to start.
Couple this with a possible victory over the Huskies, perennial bottom dwellers in FBS football, and you’ve got plenty of games to get excited about. If all goes well, students and fans alike will hopefully be packing Fitton Field to see if the Crusaders can complete their three-peat of Patriot League dominance.