Sacred Heat won the Northeast conference in the FCS this season, but the Pioneers could still be underdogs when they face Holy Cross in the playoffs on Saturday. The latter set a 9-2 mark this season behind a defense equipped to stop Sacred Cross’ main strength, namely a dominant ground game.
It’s not all about defense for the Crusaders, though, not when dual-threat quarterback Matthew Sluka is available to make plays. If Sacred Heart can’t contain Sluka, Holy Cross will advance to a meeting with Villanova.
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Sacred Heart vs Holy Cross Preview
Holy Cross will make the most of home advantage if linebacker Jacob Dobbs dominates again at Fitton Field. Dobbs has logged eight sacks this season and is also a force when setting the edge against the run, a quality likely to be even more important against Sacred Cross than pressure on the pocket. There’ll be plenty of company for Dobbs in Worcester, specifically, fellow linebacker Liam Anderson. He finished second to Dobbs with seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
Staying away from the Crusaders’ bookend edge playmakers will be the priority for Sacred Heart. It’ll require quickly establishing running backs Julius Chestnut and Malik Grant. They are a dynamic one-two punch who can help head coach Mark Nofri’s offense control the clock and dominate the sticks.
Chestnut has been hit by injury this season, but he’s back after a stretch of seven games on the shelf. That’s great news for the Pioneers because Chestnut is a powerful bruiser who often punishes would-be tacklers before they get the chance to mete out a dose of their own. Stopping 6’0″, 230-pound Chestnut isn’t easy, and neither is catching the swift and sudden Grant. He’s averaged 5.9 yards per carry in 2021 and will enter this game off the back of a 12-carry, 127-yard and two-touchdown performance against Long Island.
Grant and Chestnut form a true thunder and lightning combination, but the Holy Cross defense is one of the few units unlikely to be intimidated by the tandem. Stopping the run hasn’t been a problem for the Crusaders, who own “the No. 5 rushing defense in the FCS (77.9 ypg),” according to Craig Haley of The Analyst.
While he’ll focus his defense on stopping the run, Holy Cross head coach Bob Chesney will also want to attack the Pioneers on the ground. Peter Oliver is a capable workhorse, having averaged 5.4 yards across his 134 carries. Oliver is the grinder between the tackles, but the big plays in this running game come from Sluka.
The quarterback may be a greater threat with his legs than his arm. He’s gained 778 yards on 121 attempts and rushed for 13 touchdowns. Keeping Sluka in the pocket will be the priority for Sacred Heart, but the Sophomore passer has proved he can also beat teams through the air.
When he does trust his arm, Sluka often looks toward Tenio Ayeni. The Senior wideout led the Crusaders with five touchdown catches en route to the postseason. At 6’2″, Ayeni is a big target, just like fellow receiver Jalen Coker, who can bring his 6’3″, 207-pound frame to bear as a blocker in the running game or as a prime target in the red zone.
This Holy Cross team has more talent in every phase and matches up well enough with the Pioneers to make a winning start to the playoffs.