Before last Saturday, Holy Cross had to wonder whether it was still God's favorite.
Prior to facing Princeton in Princeton, N.J., the Crusaders--who last year finished with a 10-0 record and the number-one ranking in Division I-AA--were 1-2. One of those losses was to Lafayette, which Holy Cross had beaten, 40-11, last year.
But last Saturday God sent word that he still held the Crusaders in high esteem. Holy Cross was down, 26-24, with two seconds left. All Princeton had to do was stop the Cross on the kickoff.
The clouds parted and light streamed down. And Tim Donovan took a lateral from Darin Cromwell and ran for a touchdown to give the Crusaders a 30-26 miracle.
The question: Is last week's victory the first step toward reclaiming last year's glory? Or is it an anachronism, a heavenly tease, to be followed by more losses?
"To win that game as we did was a real emotional lift," Holy Cross Coach Mark Duffner said. "It was a hard-fought game. It was a see-saw battle."
Despite its come-from-the-clouds victory, the 1988 Holy Cross football team is far from divine. It's not just that Crusader savior Gordie Lockbaum, the two-position player and Heisman Trophy finalist, graduated. Even Lockbaum probably could not have stopped the Cross' fall from grace. In its first game of the year, the Crusaders fell to Army, 23-3.
Gordie may have been good. But he wasn't worth 20 points a game.
"We thought they were similar to the team of a year ago," Army Coach Jim Young said. "The have more speed in their receivers this year."
"The key to the team a year ago was [quarterback Jeff] Wiley," Young added. "And I think that's the case this year."
Last year, Wiley was the top-ranked passer in Division I-AA and an All-American. In four games this year, Wiley has thrown nine interceptions.
Perhaps Wiley, who had to live in Lockbaum's golden shadow the past two years, is striving too hard to become Holy Cross' next hero.
Talent cannot be forced. A writer who plans to write the Great American Novel usually produces drivel. A quarterback who plans to carry his team on his shoulders usually finds he cannot move.
"Our team has played hard, but we've had trouble getting things rolling," Duffner said. "Our offense is hot and cold. We've been sputtering some."
Losing to Army, a Division I school, was not a surprise. Army's Wishbone offense wore down the Cross defense. But losing to Lafayette, like Holy Cross, a Colonial league team, was a shock. It was the first sign that God had turned his face away from the Cross' fortunes.
Or that the Cross simply was not the team it once was.
"They weren't the same kind of team, even with Wiley," Lafayette Coach Bill Russo said.
If Wiley is stopped, the Cross cannot turn to Lockbaum or some similar playmaker. The offense begins and ends with its signalcaller.
"We ordered rain for the day, which is always good," Russo said of the September 10th, Lafayette-Holy Cross game. "Wiley is not a real big kid with big hands which means a wet football will hurt his game. It's obvious, too, that he doesn't have the same kind of receivers he had last year."
Last year Holy Cross was unholy in victory. The team rolled to huge margins--41-6 over Harvard, 41-0 over Brown, 63-6 over Lehigh. Duffner was accused of running up the score. With a weaker team this year, the Cross is likely to find itself the victim of retaliation.
Duffner, with characteristic aplomb, brushes off the possibility. He still insists his team did not intentionally score touchdown after touchdown when it led by gigantic margins late in games.
"In the games where that [accusation] was mentioned, we played everybody," Duffner said. "It's not as if our first offense and first defense was on the field in the fourth quarter."
With three minutes left in last year's Harvard-Holy Cross game, the Cross led 34-6. Duffner opted to have Lockbaum, the epitome of the first-team player, throw an option pass. It was good for six points.
No truth in the accusation of running up the score?
Perhaps this year Holy Cross is paying for its sins.