Without the help of an unbiased appraiser, it’s hard to say how much the gold Ram-Crusader Cup is worth. Without the help of an unbiased video judge, it’s also hard to say where that cup truly belongs. Make no mistake, Holy Cross defeated Fordham 17-13 for the right to keep the trophy in Worcester. Still, a combination of incompetence and confusion by officials, including the lack of any video review, marred an ending that seemed headed Fordham’s way.
Frank Cavanaugh, the Hall of Fame coach who manned Holy Cross’ sidelines over a century ago, and Fordham’s sidelines 90 years ago, didn’t receive his “Iron Major” nickname for any gridiron actions. Instead, it was gained while taking time off football to, more importantly, lead troops into battle during World War I. Fittingly, this rivalry week game was played on Veteran’s Day Weekend. Just as fittingly, the teams put together defenses that would make any coach from the Iron Major’s ancient era proud. Fordham in particular put together their strongest defensive showing of the season and, until some late controversy, appeared to make enough stops for a win. Up against a squad that posted a combined 96 points in their previous two contests, the Rams used their combative “cover one” to completely nullify Holy Cross for the entire first half. Thanks to a defensive line that didn’t allot Crusader senior quarterback, Geoff Wade, time to go deep against a cheating secondary, and a linebacking crew that snuffed out any short gains, Fordham’s D only allowed two snaps from their side of their 50. The first ended with a one yard gain. The second ended with an interception. Unfortunately for the Rams, their offense failed to capitalize although they too had some first half moments.
Ram quarterback Tim DeMorat began the day displaying his own aggressiveness. The freshman didn’t just attack Holy Cross but the elements as well. Facing a cold, gusting, westerly wind, coming in from the open part of U-shaped Fitton Field, DeMorat was not shy in taking to the air while completing three of four (including one drop) for 69 yards. No pass bigger than a strike up the middle to a wide open, Isaiah Searight. The senior tight end turned what should have been a 20 yard gain into a 58 yard score while sprinting home for six. Having previously been outscored 70-3 in first quarters, the play not only gave Fordham their first first quarter touchdown of the season, but also their first first quarter lead of the season.
After the extra point it was nothing but goose eggs as the Holy Cross defense proved just as effective as Fordham’s. First the Crusaders shutdown the Rams ground game, forcing DeMorat to pass. A mix of tight coverage and a defensive line looking to tee off on obvious passing downs quickly cooled off the lanky Floridian’s hot start. DeMorat was left completely stymied while unable to exploit the wind advantage Fordham held for the second quarter. Still, even with the offense doing little, Fordham won the field possession battle as that strong New England breeze forced poor punts from Holy Cross’ Derek Ng and kept the Rams in striking distance. They finally cashed in during the first half’s waning moments as after just a 21 yard drive, Fordham’s longest of the second quarter, the Rams found themselves in field goal position. Sort of. Fordham was actually staring at a 54 yard attempt but, with the wind’s help, Andrew Mevis was able to convert and give Fordham a 10-0 lead at the break.
Following the interval it was more of the same except that, thanks to the wind, Holy Cross gained the upper hand in terms of field possession. They were helped further by a blocked punt midway into the third but that too came with an assist by the wind. Mevis boomed kicks conventionally with the wind, but chose to go with an Australian Rules style against it while aiming for low squibs. It was one of those low squibs which was blocked, giving the Crusaders the ball at the Rams 21. Two plays later Wade took advantage of Fordham’s cheating secondary in hooking up with an open Derek Mountain to put the Cross on the board. Another two plays later found Fordham in another hole. Tailback Tyriek Hopkins fumbled, again giving Holy Cross the ball in Fordham territory. Although Fordham got the stop, the Crusaders scored on their next possession for a 14-10 lead after three.
The fourth quarter began with Fordham getting the wind and field possession back on their side. The ability to capitalize on that proved more difficult as another Fordham fumble led to a Crusaders field goal to put the hosts up, 17-13. Suddenly the Rams had little time to waste. Undeterred, DeMorat led a deliberate, slow but mistake-free, 14 play drive to the Holy Cross 17. Facing a fourth-and-six with just over five minutes left in the contest, coach Joe Conlin went for the easy three to get Fordham within four, 17-13. Conlin figured he could get the field goal, get a defensive stop and then, in less deliberation manner, get Fordham driving again. For the most part the rookie head coach was proven correct.
Fordham got the stop. A Ng punt into the wind was only good for 27 yards as Fordham then got the ball near midfield. DeMorat then completed 4 out of 5 to quickly move the Rams to the Holy Cross 23 yard line. There, and facing a second-and-four with 41 ticks in the game, but with no timeouts, DeMorat spotted senior wideout, Corey Caddle, for a short gain to his left. Then came controversy.
Caddle made the catch and appeared to be pushed back a yard by sophomore safety, Joe Lang, before stepping towards the Fordham sidelines. While Ram players celebrated the snag, it was unclear as to whether Caddle was given the first down or not. Also unclear, whether Caddle was officially ruled out of bounds after the grab. Head linesman, John Wilson, watched the play from just feet away. Immediately he ruled that the catch was made at the 19 and that Lang had driven Caddle back to the 20 before also taking him out of bounds. Therefore, Caddle’s forward progress had stopped at the 19, while still in bounds. Clear about his decision, Wilson spun his arm with 36 seconds left to signal a rolling clock, despite also signaling a first down.
To the naked eye the bang-bang play made it seem as if Caddle had stepped out of bounds on his own. The official timer, completely unaware of Wilson’s take, even stopped the clock with 33 seconds to go. Only after seeing Wilson confer with other linesmen, while still vehemently winding his arm around, did the timer re-start the clock. With 28 seconds to go referee Chris Bloh then motioned for an official timeout as the zebras barked out the game situation to each other. Only they know what was said. What should have been discussed was whether Caddle stepped out of bounds on his own, whether he had enough for a first down, or whether they’d need a measurement from the chain gang. Any of those three options should have stopped the clock. At the very latest, it should have finally stopped with 28 seconds to go and Bloh waving his arms to bring in his entire staff for a full discussion. Instead, the clock kept ticking until the 12 second mark. Only then did the referee realize the home team timer’s “mistake” before calling for a stop.
After a quick conference with his linesmen, but without turning to the video replay booth for clarity, Bloh then ordered to restore the the game clock to 23 seconds. He also instructed that the clock would start on his whistle. Bloh however never addressed the down situation. In fairness, the chain gang did move up the ten yards starting at the 19, so a first down had been given, but that was never announced in Bloh’s mic’d call. Oddly, the official scorer who documented the first down, also documented that Caddle had stepped out of bounds after the catch. Still, Bloh wanted the game clock to start on his whistle.
Adding to the confusion, Fordham’s own coaching staff. Perhaps they were not aware they had gained a first down and therefor did not call for a quick spike to save ticks. As DeMorat looked back for a play, perhaps they did not hear the whistle while sending in intrusions as the clock continued to count down. Either way Fordham did not get a snap off until 8 seconds were left in the scrum. That play ended with an incompletion, and to make things worse, a holding call as well. After losing 10 yards the contest came down to one play. With four seconds left DeMorat took the snap from the 29 and rolled to his right. Frantically, while facing an oncoming rush, he somehow got the ball through traffic where wide receiver, Joe Ferraro, was able to get a mitt on it from inside the goal line. Unfortunately for Fordham, the 6’3” junior couldn’t corral it as the pigskin bounced off his hand and onto Fitton Field’s plush green end zone.
Holy Cross stormed the field, nearly trampling DeMorat in the process. Oddly, it was Crusader head coach, Bob Chesney, who in classy fashion, picked up the dejected quarterback while congratulating him on the hard fought, rivalry week battle. DeMorat finished with a personal best 32 completions for nearly 300 yards. Still, he came a couple of completions short of victory. He might have gotten those completions, or at least attempts to make those completions, with a competent officiating crew. Instead, the game ended with Holy Cross keeping the Iron Major’s trophy and with Fordham wondering how they lost so much time following a first down. Remaining just as classy as Chesney, Conlin did not mention any late game controversies. Instead, he blamed his own offense’s inability to put more points on the board.
Fordham will get one last chance to work it all out while closing their season next week at Bucknell. Hopefully they’ll get a full 60 minutes in that one.