No, the Holy Cross Crusaders that South Dakota State will face in the first round of the FCS playoffs this Saturday at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium is not the school where Rudy took classes to become eligible at Notre Dame to fulfill his dream of playing for the Fighting Irish. That school is in (of course) Indiana.
The team that’s coming to Brookings on Saturday is the back-to-back Patriot League champion, having secured this year’s automatic berth to the 16-team tournament by going 3-0 in a pandemic spring season that, like SDSU’s, was interrupted significantly by cancellations and rescheduled games. The Crusaders are making their third trip to the FCS playoffs and second in a row, and while they’ll be heavy underdogs against the top-seeded Jackrabbits, they’re embracing the opportunity to get an up-close look at a top-3 team from the nation’s best conference, anxious to see how they stack up.
“The No. 1 team in FCS, that’s saying something,” Holy Cross coach Bob Chesney said of the 5-1 Jackrabbits. “That puts you in a category of being better than some FBS programs, and they’re not the only ones doing that. That whole league seems to be.
“The biggest reason why you have five teams (from the Valley in the playoffs) is the football, and the commitment to football,” Chesney added. “I look at (SDSU’s) stadium and the other stadiums they play in, and this is better than a decent potion of FBS programs. The players they have, the facilities they have, the commitment you have from those schools – they can beat a bunch of FBS programs if you ask me.”
Holy Cross has some experience playing FBS teams – they lost to Boston College 62-14 in 2018 and 45-7 to Navy and 41-3 to Syracuse in 2019. They also play several Ivy League teams, who are known for playing a high-level of FCS football despite not participating in the playoffs. Now they’re taking on a team that just snapped the 32-game home winning streak of the 8-time FCS national champion North Dakota State Bison.
Officially known as the College of the Holy Cross – SDSU’s opponent is a private school of just over 3,000 students in Worcester, Mass., with an endowment of $767 million (South Dakota State has 12,000 students and an endowment of $153 million).
The Patriot League did not participate in the FCS (or Division I-AA) playoffs until 1997, and the conference did not offer football scholarships until 2013, when they were given the option to grant 15. But starting in 2016 the conference upped that number to 60, just shy of the FCS max of 63. That made the goal of competing in the playoffs a more realistic one, and in 2018, Patriot League champion Colgate earned a first round bye and then stunned James Madison in the second round before losing to North Dakota State in the quarterfinals.
Chesney is in his third year as the Crusader coach, and he has them on the winning track. Taking over a team that was coming off consecutive 4-7 seasons, Chesney led Holy Cross to a 5-6 record in his first year and 7-5 in their next, when they won the Patriot League and then lost in the playoffs to Monmouth. Chesney came to Holy Cross after a successful 4-year stint at Assumption College, where he led the Greyhounds to three straight Division II playoff appearances. Prior to that he went 23-9 in three seasons at Division III Salve Regina.
Brookings is a lot farther than the Crusaders usually have to travel, but the three-plus hour flight will be a smoother trip than the 7-hour bus ride they took last week. It’s clear the coach is encouraging his players to enjoy every element of the playoffs, from the travel to the stadium to the chance to play the top-seed in the country.
There’s little familiarity with South Dakota, though the coach did say that junior linebacker Liam Anderson, who is from New Jersey, comes from a family with roots in South Dakota, so the trip will be something of a homecoming for them.
One thing Holy Cross has in common with the Jackrabbits, at least this year, is they’ve had plenty of time off. The Crusaders beat Lehigh and Fordham, then didn’t play for almost a month, before they beat Bucknell on Saturday to clinch the league crown.
That’s something the Jackrabbits dealt with, too, whipping Southern Illinois 44-3 and then going three weeks in a row without a game. Like the Jacks, Holy Cross had their games called off or moved because of COVID-19 issues with their opponents and not within their own program.
At one point, the Crusaders were preparing for one opponent on Monday, were informed they’d be playing someone different on Tuesday, were given still another new opponent on Wednesday, and then had the game called off altogether on Thursday.
But both SDSU and Holy Cross seemed to respond well when they finally returned to the field last week, and they hope that carries over into the playoffs. Chesney said one of the toughest parts of the shortened season has been trying to learn from adversity or teach corrections for mistakes that haven’t happened yet.
The Jacks, meanwhile, will be able to watch every snap the Crusaders took this year.
“Normally we’d only break down four or five games out of an 11-game schedule,” said SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier. “We’ve got three of their games and they’ve got three from us. We’ll just try to find the positives in it. We’ve got enough to put together a gameplan.”