After taking on Fresno State in Week 0, UConn football will head back to Connecticut to take on FCS foe Holy Cross at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field. As one of two FCS opponents on the 2021 schedule, the Crusaders pose as one of the Huskies’ best shots at a win in their first season as an independent.
While the Holy Cross matchup will only be UConn’s second game of the season, a loss would be borderline catastrophic, especially given head coach Randy Edsall’s lack of success so far in his second stint as Huskies’ head coach and the program’s 2-10 finish in 2019.
Head Coach and Recent History
Bob Chesney returns as the Crusaders’ head coach for the fourth season.
Chesney posted a 5-6 record in his first season as the Crusaders’ head coach in 2018, finishing second in the Patriot League with a 4-2 record. In 2019, Chesney put led Holy Cross to one of the best seasons in program history, going 7-6 overall and 5-1 in conference play to claim the Crusaders’ first conference title in 10 years and the school’s third ever FCS tournament berth.
While, Holy Cross finished the 2019 season with a 44-27 loss to No. 14 Monmouth in the FCS playoffs, Chesney earned Patriot League Coach of the Year honors that season and was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award — the national award for FCS Coach of the Year.
UConn and Holy Cross have a long and storied history dating back to their first matchup in 1916. The Huskies are 10-19-1 all time against the Crusaders, with UConn winning the last matchup 27-20 when the two schools squared off at Rentschler in 2017.
In attempt to play football in a safer environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) elected to play the 2020 football season in the spring with a shorter schedule. Because of this change, Holy Cross played two regular season games — a 20-3 win on the road at Lehigh and a 34-24 win over Fordham.
After finishing in the first place in the Patriot League’s North division with a 2-0 record, the Crusaders defeated Bucknell 33-10 to claim the Patriot League’s first-ever conference championship, earning an FCS playoff bid for the second-straight season.
Holy Cross’ season came to an end in the first round of the FCS playoff against No. 2 South Dakota State, where the Jackrabbits won 31-3. Holy Cross ended the season ranked No. 25 in the country, the program’s first national ranking since 2017.
The Crusaders were an absolute force on the ground offensively in 2020, averaging 178.8 rushing yards per game as a team, which ranked 20th in FCS. True freshman quarterback Matthew Sluka was the key to the Holy Cross offense, averaging 58.5 rushing yards per game but he also had help from a talented running back duo of Peter Oliver (56.5 rushing yards per game) and Jonathan Abrams (49 yards per game).
Sluka was efficient in the passing game, completing 20 of 35 passes on the season for 187 yards. He threw for two touchdowns with only one interception and posted a quarterback rating of 115.7. On the the ground, Sluka ran for a team-best 234 yards and four touchdowns. His breakout freshman season helped him earn national recognition as a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the best freshman in the FCS each year.
Defensively, linebacker Jacob Dobbs led the Crusaders with 41 tackles while adding an interception and fumble recovery. Defensive back John Smith led the team with three interceptions, while senior defensive lineman Benton Whitley led the team with two sacks. Overall, the Holy Cross defense was one of the most effective in the country in limiting points, ranking ninth nationally at just 17 points per game.
The Crusaders have an exciting core of offensive players that all return for 2021 in Oliver, Abrams, Sluka and wide receiver Spencer Gilliam, who had a team-best 10 catches for 72 yards in 2020. Combine that productive core with 2021 Preseason All-Patriot League selections Ayir Asante, a wide receiver who scored a touchdown in his only game last season, and Nick Olsofka anchoring a solid offensive line and there’s a chance Holy Cross can expand their aerial attack with Asante and a more experienced Sluka to complement their already impressive run game.
Defensively, Whitley, Dobbs and Smith were all named to the Patriot League Preseason First Team and figure to be stalwarts again for the Crusaders. Special teams is also a major focus for Chesney and Holy Cross, with both kicker Derek Ng and punter Patrick Haughney both joining five aforementioned Crusaders with Preseason All-Conference honors.
With back-to-back FCS playoff appearances, Chesney and the Crusaders are looking to keep their playoff streak going. Holy Cross received 11 of 14 possible votes in the preseason coaches’ poll to win the Patriot League and figures to be one of the better playoff-eligible teams in FCS once again.
After shaking some rust off with a season opener on the west coast against Fresno State, UConn needs to take advantage of a home game with a lesser opponent to secure the win for the sake of the sanity of the fans, health of the program and safety of Edsall’s job.
The Huskies still will likely be rounding into form, and Holy Cross could make it interesting if the Crusaders get out ahead early, then rely on the run game to eat clock and limit the Huskies’ chances. Even if UConn looks awful out in Fresno, the Huskies should be able to regroup and get by on talent and the opportunity to finally play at home. UConn wins 27-17.