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UMass Is Big Hurdle for Holy Cross
The preseason is over, the real one is here, and Holy Cross is jumping right into it, facing its top opponent of the year in tomorrow’s opener.
It has been 12 years since the University of Massachusetts last visited Fitton Field, and the Minutemen arrive as the No. 4 team in the country.
“They’re a great team, but we’re good as well,” Holy Cross senior safety Daryl Brown said. “We can’t wait, especially to have that big a game for our home opener. We’re focusing on starting the season strong.”
Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
Since UMass last played in Worcester — a 28-10 victory on Sept. 14, 1996 — the Minutemen have won a national championship (1998), advanced to another final (2006), and established themselves as one of the primo teams in the Football Championship Subdivision (1-AA).
The Crusaders and UMass renewed their rivalry last season, with the Minutemen taking a 40-30 win at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst. The Minutemen went on to win 10 games in 2007 and made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA playoffs.
UMass, which defeated Albany, 28-16, in its opener last weekend, has a number of new faces on offense, but a familiar one — senior quarterback Liam Coen — is back to direct that group. The school’s career passing leader, Coen has guided the Minutemen to a 23-5 record the last two years, the best two-year record in UMass history.
Coen was 10 of 20 for 92 yards and three touchdowns last week against Albany. Junior tailback Tony Nelson led the ground game with 20 carries for 171 yards.
UMass has boasted one of the country’s top defenses over the last four seasons, and that should be the case again in 2008. Junior linemen Michael Hanson and Brandon Collier and junior linebacker Josh Jennings lead a ferocious front, while senior All-American cornerback and NFL prospect Sean Smalls, corner Courtney Robinson, and safeties Jeromy Miles and Brian Ellis are being touted as the best secondary in the FCS.
“They have the ability to lock down your receivers with their skill and they have the ability to stop the run with their physical front, so they create a lot of problems,” HC coach Tom Gilmore said. “They like to play a lot of man coverage and they like to blitz and they do a lot of both. We’re going to have to find a way to gain separation from their DBs and make some plays.”
The Minutemen will try to make things difficult for Holy Cross senior quarterback Dominic Randolph, who, like Coen, is a Walter Payton Award candidate.
Randolph set a school record with 62 pass attempts as he tried admirably to rally the Crusaders from a 28-point deficit in last year’s battle with UMass.
“He’s an excellent quarterback,” UMass coach Don Brown said. “I would rank him one of the top two quarterbacks we played a year ago, and we played (former Boston College QB and current Atlanta Falcons starter) Matt Ryan. I have a lot of respect for him.”
The game is a homecoming of sorts for Brown, who grew up in Spencer and starred at David Prouty High School, also coaching there.
“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and every game is important,” said Brown, who’s in his fifth season at UMass. “But being from Central Mass. and growing up a Holy Cross fan, going to Fitton Field is always a special scenario.”
UMass jumped out to a 30-9 halftime lead in last year’s game and tacked on another touchdown early in the third quarter to go up, 37-9. Holy Cross scored 21 straight points on a Randolph touchdown run and two TD passes, but the UMass defense came up big late.
“We played like it was a first game,” Gilmore said. “You can’t do that against anyone and you certainly can’t do that against the fourth-ranked team in the country. We’re well aware of what UMass has from a talent, experience and coaching standpoint, and this is not the kind of game you can go into and make those first-game mistakes. We have to go out and play like a veteran team in midseason form.”
The all-time series between HC and UMass is tied, 21-21-5. UMass has won six straight, with the Crusaders’ last victory coming on Sept. 14, 1991.
Series takes a break
Holy Cross and UMass will not play each other next season, but the series will resume with games in 2010 and 2011.
“It’s something that I know Coach Brown and myself and a lot of people at both institutions feel is an important regional rivalry,” Gilmore said. “Our players, our coaches, our alumni want this game.
“We haven’t had a lot of success against UMass in recent years, but we feel like we’re getting better and we’re getting more competitive with them and hopefully that will continue.”
UMass is big hurdle for HC
By Jennifer Toland, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette