Crusaders Stunned by Merrimack in 35-21 Home Opener Loss

Mike O’Brien ‘23
Chief Sports Editor

Last week, Holy Cross football achieved one of the most memorable feats in program history, knocking off UConn on the road for the team’s first win over an FBS opponent since 2002.  This propelled them back inside the FCS Top 25 rankings for the first time since 2014, and the Crusaders looked poised to continue their hot start to the season in their first home game against Merrimack. 

Heading into the contest, Merrimack, a team who Holy Cross has never matched up against in program history, were heavy underdogs, with odds makers listing HC as up to 27.5 point favorites. The previous week, Merrimack defeated St. Anselm’s in dominant fashion, with a 55-23 win. Coming off a stellar performance, the Warriors rolled into Worcester looking to shock the FCS world; and they did exactly that. 

Image Courtesy of the Worcester Telegram
Fresh off of one of the most memorable weeks in program history with a victory over UConn, the team’s first win over an FBS opponent since 2002 which propelled them back inside the FCS Top 25 rankings since 2014, the Crusaders looked poised to continue their hot start to the season in their first home game of the season against Merrimack. 

The first quarter of the game played out about as expected, with Holy Cross holding a 7-0 lead at the end of the frame following a Spencer Gilliam TD catch at the 7:45 mark. The Crusaders commanded the opening quarter with a balanced offense, picking up 63 passing and 53 rushing yards, along with a big first 15 minutes from RB Tyler Purdy who rushed for 33 yards and caught two passes for 12 yards. The defense also contained Merrimack to just 46 total yards of offense to start the game. 

And then everything went south quickly. Merrimack played like a team possessed from the start of the second quarter on, tying the game at 7-7 after an impressive 61 yard drive capped off by a 22 yard TD catch by wide receiver Johnny Rosario just 2:09 into the quarter. On the ensuing drive, QB Matthew Sluka was intercepted by Merrimack DB Anthony Witherstone, who took the ball all the way to the house for a 30 yard pick-six. HC surrendered 14 points in just 46 seconds. With all the momentum on their side, Merrimack remained strong for the rest of the half, and effectively put the nail in the coffin with a TD catch from wideout Jacari Carter with just 9 seconds left in the frame to go up 21-7.

Merrimack’s offense looked completely revamped after a slow first quarter, posting 210 passing yards from QB Westin Elliot by the end of the half. Warriors receivers Jacari Carter and Johnny Rosario ended up having an incredible half together, with Carter going for 8 catches for 97 yards and a TD, while Rosario tacked on 4 catches for 52 yards and a TD himself. Despite the score, Merrimack still could have been up more as penalties held them back, committing seven of them that lost 64 total yards. The Crusaders failed to convert on a third down the entire half. 

To start the second half, Merrimack kept their foot on the gas. After receiving the kickoff, the Warriors marched 65 yards down the field and went up 28-7 after RB Matt Brehon powered into the end zone with a 7 yard run. After a Crusaders punt as the offense remained stagnant, the HC defense injected some life into the team as senior linebacker Liam Anderson picked off Elliot to set up the Crusaders at Merrimack’s 18 yard line. HC was able to find the end zone four plays later as RB Jordan Fuller muscled into the end zone from the 1 yard line to cut the lead down to 28-14. 

However, Merrimack didn’t let the turnover get to them as they started the fourth quarter with the ball and continued a promising looking drive from the third, and 12 plays after HC scored, Merrimack finished off the grinding 89 yard possession with a rushing TD from Victor Dawson to get the lead back up to 35-14. After a Holy Cross turnover on downs the following drive, the Warriors bled the clock out with a potent rushing game that the Crusaders couldn’t contain. After a sluggish start to the game, Merrimack’s rushing attack finished with an impressive 200 yards, led by Dawson who finished with 111 yards on 19 carries. HC made the final score more respectable with a late touchdown pass from QB Marco Siderman, who came in to relieve Sluka, to WR Spencer Gilliam for his second of the game with 2:31 to go left in the half to make the game 35-21. 

The Crusaders were outclassed on all fronts on the field, whether it be from a team they should have easily beat or not. Merrimack finished with better statistics in every category, including total offense, third down efficiency, and possession time. The brightest spot for the Crusaders was linebacker Jacob Dobbs’ 18 total tackles on defense. 

After the game when asked how the team can potentially take positives away such as the performance of the LB core looking towards the game next week, head Coach Bob Chesney said that “They played as hard as they can,” while also complimenting Merrimack’s OL’s double teaming schemes; “The double teams were very physical at the point of attack, and those guys did a good job for Merrimack. They’re big, they’re strong, and they played very well on those double teams, and it put a lot of pressure on those linebackers to get over the top and pull the doubles off,” Chesney said.

 Commenting on how Merrimack possibly caught HC by surprise since they had never met before as opposed to playing against a familiar Patriot League foe like Fordham or Bucknell, LB Liam Anderson said “This is the first time we’ve played them, I know they’re fairly new in the FCS, but like coach said, they’re a good team. I don’t know if we were surprised by the level of play they were at, but maybe it was something we didn’t take into consideration as much as we should have coming into this game. I’ll be following them closely and see what they do for the rest of the season.” 

Speaking on the offense, senior WR Spencer Gilliam said,“We had plays that were there. We weren’t able to get the ball rolling, but we could see that we had good drives. When we were able to spread out the linebackers and the DB’s, we had big runs. So, we can’t forget about all the good plays we made, and fix the bad and do more of the good. We definitely had some good plays in there to take into account, even in a loss.

Holy Cross will play their next game on Saturday, September 18th on the road at Yale. 

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