Updated: Sep 8, 2019
WORCESTER — For most of Saturday's game between Holy Cross and New Hampshire, it appeared that the first team to score a touchdown would win the defensive struggle at Fitton Field.
So when UNH pulled ahead with a Carlos Washington touchdown run a little over midway through the fourth quarter, that seemed to be the dagger for the visitors.
Then, when the Wildcats came up with a turnover on downs to halt a Holy Cross drive at the UNH 3-yard line with 2:02 to play, it really seemed to be over.
But in a game where the Holy Cross offense never punched the ball across the goal line, the defense did just that. Liam Doran stripped Washington on the next play. Joe Lang recovered the ball in the back of the end zone to send the purple-clad fans into a frenzy in a 13-10 Crusaders win to even their record at 1-1.
It came as a crushing defeat for UNH (0-1), which was dealing with the health-related absence of coach Sean McDonnell. Interim coach Ricky Santos had his team playing inspired football, but the Wildcats fell just short.
On the drive following Lang's touchdown, UNH drove past midfield, but a ball intended for Washington was tipped and caught by Crusaders defensive back Chris Riley.
A three-and-out by Holy Cross on the next drive led to one last chance for the Wildcats, but a Hail Mary from Max Bosmer was knocked away at the goal line as time ran out.
"I think it was a little bit of a continuation of last year," Chesney said of the hard-fought win. "In those tight games when it mattered the most, these guys were never going to waver. They were never going to crack. No matter what the situation they're facing, these guys are going to fight hard.
"I think if there's anything, the resolve of this team is something that they all commit to, they all believe in, and they believe in each other. There are times when we come up a little short, and if one their friends comes up a little short, one of their friends comes up with a huge play. I think the tight-knit group that we have here, I think we're all here to pick each other up when it matters the most. I think to fight for one another is not an issue on this football team."
The Crusaders now get a bye week before heading off to Yale on Sept. 21 for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
Some more from this crazy Holy Cross win . . .
— On the play before the Lang touchdown, the Crusaders faced a fourth-and-8 from the New Hampshire 9-yard line. Degenhardt hit Jack Jewell over the middle, and UNH's Pop Bush held on for dear life to barely bring the sophomore receiver down short of the sticks.
At that point, with his team down 10-6, Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney didn't panic.
"You know that they're backed up," Chesney said. "You really have to run the ball at that point in time. We tried to be decently aggressive with the call. Got home, ball came out. You're thinking safety at that moment. You're hoping for a safety, because (it would put you) down by two, and it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
"Then you end up with a touchdown. There are a lot of ways it has been done before, but I don't think any of us anticipated that."
It was a situation the Crusaders were ready for.
"It was a good play call," said Doran, a sophomore linebacker from Framingham and St. John's of Shrewsbury alum. "Just blitzing up the middle on that one, I got free. My (defensive line) really got the linebackers free. I just saw my opportunity to hit him and the ball came out."
"We practice ripping the ball out, trying to get turnovers every day in practice," said Lang, a junior defensive back. "It's one of our goals every day. We keep track of it every day. throughout camp, throughout the season, it's about how many strips we get, how many interceptions we get, how many turnover stats we get in big situations. Liam ripped the ball out, and in a big spot like that, that's the most you could really ask for. That's where that stuff turns up. I think it's a tribute to how he practices, how we all practice."
And the situation of defending a team coming out of the shadow of its own goal line is another common teaching point.
"A lot," Lang said. "At least once or twice a week in-season at least, and then a lot in camp. We practice that a lot."
"We've been there before," Doran added.
— The Crusaders took a 6-3 lead on a 20-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter due to some trickery late in the third.
Quarterback Connor Degenhardt handed it to Ayir Asante, who flipped it back to Dominik Thomas, who ran to his right. As Thomas took a hit from a UNH defender, he shoveled the ball back to Degenahrdt.
Asante peeled out to the left flat with a phalanx of Holy Cross blockers that led the way for a 29-yard gain to the UNH 8. It went down to the 4 off a roughing the passer call.
It only led to a field goal, but it was the most exciting play of the game until that point.
"I thought that was a great call by (offensive coordinator Patrick) Murphy at a great moment," Chesney said. "It didn't result in a touchdown at the time, but that's a tricky play with a lot of pursuit that the defense needs to have to come up with a way to stop it. They did a good job of getting us on the ground before getting to the end zone, and in the end it led to three."
Even Degenhardt, who completed 21-of-34 passes for 253 yards, was surprised by the call.
"Yeah, I started laughing on the field when I saw it," the Westford Academy alum said. "I was like, 'No way. We're running this right now.' I didn't expect it. I was happy when I saw it, because we run it during the week. It's not a play that sits in our pocket.Those are plays that we know that we can run and that we can run well. We went out there and we executed. Dom Thomas made a nice little flip back to me, and Ayir did a good job of catching it and getting upfield. I was happy when I saw that one come in from the sideline, yeah."
— On the Holy Cross drive that set up the defensive touchdown, Degenhardt hit Derek Mountain on fourth-and-4 for a 28-yard reception to the UNH 11. That pass was critical for the field position that set up Lang's touchdown.
"That was a play that we started repping (Friday), actually," Degenhardt said. "they gave us the look that we wanted, and I was happy to see that one come in from the sidelines, as well. I think Derek's done a great job. He did a really great job of selling that route, getting up the field, and making that catch. That was a huge play."
— Holy Cross took a physical pounding against Navy in the first week with a 45-7 loss in Annapolis, Md. But the Crusaders weren't as beat up for this game as one would expect.
"I think in many ways that game is almost a little bit of an advantage because you get the first one out of the way," Chesney said. "It was a lot hotter down there than it was here. It was a decent bigger opponent, and it was a big setting, and I think that actually was a benefit. I think we managed the week well. I think we try to be as smart as we can with how much volume we're putting on our guys.
"But there's also a fine line to making sure your guys are in shape, and it felt like we were all in pretty good shape as that game went on. And I think . . . the game last week wore and tore on us a lot less."