The football team will travel to Worcester, Mass. tomorrow to kick off its season against a College of the Holy Cross squad that may still be reeling from its heartbreaking 20-13 loss at Brown Stadium last season.
Bruno conquered the Crusaders last October with a 99-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, and a demanding preseason this year has the Bears looking to rise to the occasion once more and set their campaign in motion.
"Our team is really, really fired up right now," said Ross Walthall '13, defensive lineman and co-captain. "We had a tough preseason ... I think we all are just really ready to get it started."
Head Coach Phil Estes said the season opener is the most important game of the year.
"It tells you a lot about your team," he said. "It tells you what your strengths are, it tells you what your weaknesses are and how teams are going to exploit you."
The Crusaders, who hold an all-time 32-23-3 record over the Bears, will test Bruno on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Patrick Donnelly '13 said he is confident in his squad's offensive skill and its ability to "mix things up" by gaining yards with both running and passing plays. A balanced offensive strategy would contrast with last season's matchup, where both teams relied heavily on aerial attacks - the Bears passed for 229 yards, and the Crusaders passed for 243.
But this year, the Bears hope to wield a double-edged sword on offense. On the ground, the Bears have Mark Kachmer '13, a two-time All-Ivy tailback who carried the ball 124 times for 569 yards last season, and Spiro Theodhosi '12.5, a strong rusher who sat out the last two seasons with an injury.
Though the receiving corps lost valuable seniors - including All-Ivy wideout Alex Tounkara-Kone '11.5 - veteran receivers such as Tellef Lundevall '13 and Jonah Fay '12.5 will be ready when Donnelly takes to the air.
Leading the Crusaders' offense will be senior quarterback Kevin Watson, who made his college debut two weeks ago in a season-opening 38-17 loss to the University of New Hampshire. He registered 271 yards and two interceptions and will be looking to rebound and throw his first touchdown of the year.
"(Watson) is a big, strong kid that has a great arm, and we certainly want to make sure that we put some pressure on him," Estes said.
Walthall said the Bears' defensive line is eager to shake up Watson.
"We're fired up at any opportunity to get after a quarterback," Walthall said.
But Watson will have a capable group of Crusader receivers from which to choose. Senior wideout Gerald Mistretta caught six touchdowns last season and racked up 723 yards, and junior wide receiver Mike Fess had 417 yards and two touchdowns.
In contrast to the Crusaders' season opener - they ran for only 75 yards against UNH - and last year's matchup against the Bears, Estes said he foresees an emphasis on the Holy Cross running game Saturday.
"We're going to have to do a good job of shutting the run down," he said.
That will mean bottling up senior running back Eddie Houghton, who led the Crusaders in rushing last season with 506 yards and four touchdowns. He faces a daunting Bears defense with plenty of experience, including co-captain A.J. Cruz '13, a three-time All-Ivy and preseason All-American defensive back, as well as a veteran defensive line.
But even with these strengths on the Bears' side, stopping the Crusaders' attack will take "mistake-free football," Walthall said.
"They always have a good quarterback, and they're a really balanced team," Walthall added."We just have to be on top of our game and do our job."
Estes underscored those goals.
"It's not about Holy Cross ... it's about what we do and how we execute," he said. "My main concern is just us playing together as a team and executing, doing our job."
The stakes at tomorrow's season opener are high, Estes said - the game will set a tone that will affect the team's outlook not only on the Sept. 22 Harvard game, but on the season as a whole.
"Our challenge is to establish ourselves as a football team," he said.
To make that happen, Defensive Coordinator Michael Kelleher said the team's aspirations for now will have to begin and end with the battle against the Crusaders.
"The first game is Holy Cross. The only game," he said. "The only one that matters."