When Holy Cross and Harvard meet in Allston on Saturday, not only will a passionate in-state football rivalry be revitalized, but both teams will put an undefeated record to the test.
Holy Cross is 4-0 for the first time since 2009 and is ranked 11th in the FCS coaches poll, a sign of its continued ascension under fifth-year coach Bob Chesney.
Coming off an 8-2 season, Harvard is 2-0 and an Ivy League contender once again in coach Tim Murphy’s 29th season.
“There’s a lot of energy going into this one,” said Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka. “It’s always fun to have an in-state battle. You hear a lot of people going back and forth with the Boston vs. Worcester matchup. It’s going to be a good environment with a lot of people following. We’re definitely excited.”
Holy Cross has improved its win total each full season under Chesney, who arrived in 2017 from down the road in Worcester at Assumption. Last year was a 10-win one, including the program’s first FCS playoff victory.
The Crusaders returned a strong nucleus in Sluka, wide receiver Jalen Coker, and linebacker Jacob Dobbs. They haven’t skipped a beat, maintaining a perfect record highlighted by a 37-31 win Sept. 10 over FBS program Buffalo on a 46-yard Hail Mary pass from Sluka to Coker.
“We have high expectations and goals this year, but it’s all about the culture we breed here,” said Sluka, a junior from Long Island. “It’s a strong team bond. We trust the grades below and above us. Even the young guys, we told them don’t wake up on third base. We go into every game ready to go.”
But Harvard has been a thorn in Holy Cross’s side since Chesney took over. The Crimson have won all three matchups, including a 38-13 victory last fall in Worcester.
In the previous two meetings, Harvard entered halftime up, 24-0 (2021) and 24-7 (2019). A strong start has been Chesney’s focal point in practices and meetings this week.
“It’s a huge game for the both of us, and when you go and look at the last two games it’s been a 48-7 halftime deficit,” said Chesney. “We need to be much better than that to get the game started.”
Harvard won its Ivy League opener last week at Brown, building a 35-7 lead in the third quarter before hanging on for a 35-28 victory. The Crimson, who gained 468 yards of total offense against Brown, feature a dangerous unit led by quarterback Charlie Dean, running back Aidan Borguet, and wide receiver Kym Wimberly.
Dean, a senior from Odessa, Fla., threw for a career-high four touchdowns to improve to 5-0 as a starter. Murphy said Dean’s improvement over the offseason has unlocked a new level of offense.
“He’s made us a much better offense, and that’s something that we envisioned in the offseason,” said Murphy. “Charlie has taken the next step, learning how to lead the offense and attack the defense. So far he’s done a terrific job and we’re going to need him to be a difference-maker.”
Murphy, the winningest coach in the Ivy League, had high praise for Holy Cross, calling it the best team on Harvard’s schedule this season. He even likened Sluka to a “big Doug Flutie,” referencing his ability to make plays with both his arm and legs.
“We may play a team as good as Holy Cross this year, but I believe we won’t play a better team than them,” said Murphy. “It’s arguably the best Holy Cross team I’ve seen in the last 40 years. Watching them on film, they are just different.”
Chesney had similar praise for Harvard, citing elite skill-position players, a dominant offensive line, and a stout rush defense.
Both teams are expecting a tight matchup that comes down to the wire, with high-level play on display for Massachusetts football fans.
“Overall, they’re a great football team, but so are we,” said Chesney. “It’s going to take everything we got and we’re really excited.”