When it comes to football, the ultimate team sport, there’s just no room for ‘I’. A team’s win/loss column proves a more telling statistic than even the most padded individual categories. And, frankly, collective success matters more to players than any gaudy final tally of yards, TDs or complex ratings.
But there is a lone exception, exclusive to a brief, single moment. Immediately after, focus shifts away from ‘me’ and back to ‘we.’
The occasion coincides with a time during which most reflect on the season that was, again, through the selfless perspective of their program’s success (or lack thereof). Still, if there’s any leeway for absorbing outside attention—rather than deflecting in usual smile-and-nod fashion—it’s when the powers that be dish out coveted post-season awards.
Unfortunately for several TCNJ performers, the decision to gloat (or how much) isn’t theirs.
Snubbed from a majority of the New Jersey Athletic Conference’s end-of-season picks for its top performers, a few notable Lions didn’t get daps for which they could have hoped. Maybe expected.
In total, of the 87 student-athletes named, only four suited up for TCNJ in 2009. In contrast, Kean University had twice as many—on the league’s squad of first-teamers.
A credible argument against those picks would be tough, seeing as the Cougs’ decorated four-year starter (and All-NJAC performer) Jared Chunn (Kean) proved mutually beneficial to the rest of the unit, bringing home his second-consecutive Offensive Player of the Year award.
Kean University was arguably the most physically imposing team in the trenches, evidenced by its three hog-mallies honored, two of whom dominated box defenders and paved the way for the conference’s only 1,000-yard rusher and his 7 TDs (OL Shabazz Green, Kareem Johnson, DT Darryl Jackson). Only SUNY-Cortland rivaled in prominence of its unsung heroes (3), among them the NJAC Defensive Player of the Year in DE Bryan Wiley (OL Chris Van de Wheert, DE Evan Wyler).
It was a tight squeeze, crowded by a montage of Rowan, SUNY-Cortland and Montclair State’s most outstanding. But one Lion managed to make the cut of the NJAC elite.
After sending footballs screaming off his right foot for 10 unrelenting weeks, Marc Zucconi represented a quarter of the league’s best third-dimension. Place kicker Marco Capozzoli (Montclair State) edged the Louisville-transfer out of its top specialist spot (1st-team K). But Zucconi’s 41.93 average on punting duties ranked No. 3 in D3—good enough for All-NJAC punter (HM in ’08).
Ensuring balanced representation throughout, the Lions’ reliable—though deceptively electrifying—possession wideout Colin Weber fell into the conference’s second-team ranks.
Quietly leading the NJAC in grabs and yardage for a healthy portion of the regular season, Weber’s production waned only when TCNJ’s depth-chart thinned. Persevering through the sting of TCNJ’s homecoming loss to eventual league champ Montclair State, the sure-handed senior held his ground among the Top 3 most prolific receivers (Weber-2nd in yds/gm, 3rd in rec/gm)—the last time the NCAA’s former No. 1 scoring offense competed in its entirety (RBs Donoloski, Misura; QB James; OL Mecca, Mason, Serrao all missed time).
His eligibility expired, Weber walks away from collegiate competition after finishing as the conference’s No. 5 yard-getter (582 rec. yds). But his other numbers immerse him in a conversation for one of the four the All-NJAC receiver corps slots.
Weber was the league’s fourth-most frequent touchdown recipient (7 rec. TDs), three more than first-teamer Felipe Diaz (Brockport). He was also more efficient with fewer opportunities, ranking higher in yards per catch than all but one of the Top 5 wideouts—another Golden Eagle in Matt Newman (Weber-16.6 yds/rec.).
Collective success of the Golden Eagle offense is irrevocable, which boasted the league’s second-team quarterback in Jake Graci, as well as honorable mention in slot receiver Hector Rosas.
But was its proficiency skewed?
Plenty a credit to its conference-worst defense—a glaring exception being first-team LB Nathan Bull—no NJAC attack saw more offensive snaps than The College at Brockport (819 plays). It wasn’t even close (Rowan-678 plays, 2nd-most).
To lead the synchronous movements for Weber and his honorable mention QB Chris James, the Lion offense may have well played two fewer games than their conference rivals, wrapping up the season with 150 fewer snaps. James blew away the rest of the pack in completion percentage (60.4%), and his 142.3 efficiency rating led created a 10-point disparity over its No. 2 (min. 200 att.). The only player with a more polished resume in either belonged to his understudy, and sophomore Jay Donoghue’s 61.4% accuracy rating (min. 2 starts).
Rowan’s pick-your-poison play-maker QB Frank Wilczynski elevated coaches’ blood pressure with his nearly 800 yards on the ground, and receded hairlines by finishing just shy of the 1,500 aerial yard-mark. His first-team selection was no surprise, so predictable that he, in a sense, might have been a snub for the league’s Offensive Player of the Year.
But the nation’s former No. 2 in pass efficiency couldn’t crack the NJAC’s second team? Doubtful. Graci broke records and likely malfunctioned scoreboards, but his 18 picks are one more than the conference’s Top 4 QBs combined (James-8, Cortland’s Alex Smith- 4, Wilczynski-5).
Conservative tactician? Not so much. D3 football’s Jay Cutler? Kinda sorta.
Regarding James, the only more baffling matter is which victimized TCNJ’s four-year starter in the voting more: conference coaches or an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for his final 10 quarters of competition (missed 2 gms).
The jury might be hung on James, but it’s reached a unanimous verdict on his backfield. The Lions’ balanced (and bruised) tailback tandem of Justin Donoloski and Chase Misura likely would have ousted other conference RBs—had both been healthy down the stretch.
Scratched for their final three games of ’09, the group missed chances to validate their early-season brilliance against two defenses among the league’s premier flight (Rowan, SUNY-Cortland), not to mention another salivating, stat-padding outing against one of its cupcakes (Western Connecticut St.).
No back in the conference averaged more yards per carry than Donoloski (6.7 yds/rush, Wilczynski-8.7 yds/rush), a par he maintained for a brief first quarter of action against Montclair State—the nation’s No. 4 unit against the run. Fellow sophomore Marcus McKinney (William Paterson) reached pay dirt 11 times in ’09 and his per-game average yard total ranked third in the NJAC. But he crawled a 3.7 yards per carry—its second-fewest, only to Jeff Bliss (Montclair State) who picked up a dawdling 2.8 on his rushing touches. That duo of methodical drudgery filled the league’s second-team backfield, spots to be had for either Donoloski or Misura—maybe both.
Now, let me offer a preemptive warning that, yes, this graf raises an eyebrow at the lack of homage the list paid to TCNJ defenders, which was justified for a few.
DE Craig Meyer snagged a much-merited honorable mention bid, but two of his teammates were nowhere to be found on coaches’ ballots, and thus, this list.
No two players at the position recorded more tackles than centerfield FS Matt Kreider and ball-jarring SS Shawn Brown—neither of whom were recognized for their 85 (39 solo) and 69 (38 solo) respective tackles.
Their one pick a piece didn’t touch first-team selection Jamahl Williams (Kean) and his season’s five. But Brown forced as many fumbles (1) and brought two turnovers to the house for the Lions D (FUM rec., blkd punt), statistically outperforming its other first-team rep, Mario McLean (Montclair State)— a wideout on his roster. Both Brown and Kreider shared a similar edge over second-teamers Doug Dudek (William Paterson) and Jesse Shekner (Montclair State), although Shekner comprised a stout eleventh of MSU’s Top-10 defense among D3 competitors.
But the biggest slip-up of all involved Eddie Weiser (Buffalo State). No, the beef doesn’t stem from his selection as NJAC Rookie of the Year. Instead, it’s that his Top 10 conference tackle total and lone glimmer of promise for his Bungles’ abysmal D didn’t get him honors elsewhere–neither first nor second team.
OK. He’s still a freshman. But not even a consolation nomination as an honorable mention?
I get it. It’s hard to reward a group whose second-half of 2009 had a doughnut for a win-column total. But, for once and only once, this isn’t about the team and what it couldn’t do. The matter is already addressed, something to the tune of Montclair State’s first Stagg Bowl tournament appearance in a decade, and the ECAC Bowl berth for which Kean University must be ecstatic (if nothing else, proud). It’s a shame that TCNJ’s blinding brilliance faded down the stretch, but it’s worse that NJAC coaches failed to tribute their accomplishments, and recognize their potential.
Talent that a crippled a few, and could’ve brought several others to their knees.
An unidentified man, believed to be a coach with the Rowan University football team, allegedly threatened The College of New Jersey strong safety Shawn Brown, 20, during an altercation after Saturday’s game between the two schools.
Two of Brown’s teammates – free safety Ryan Flannery and wide receiver Colin Weber – offered eyewitness accounts that the individual in question confronted Brown and put his hands on him during the post-game scuffle, which started when teams shook hands after Rowan’s 39-0 victory.
Brown supported the accounts in an interview.
“He grabbed my jersey and then he went to throw a punch,” Brown said Monday morning. “Then [TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton] stepped in between.”
According to player explanations, the physical nature of the skirmish started after Weber, 21, was pushed out of the line of TCNJ players by a dressed player on Rowan’s roster. The three identified the player as cornerback Malcolm Dock, listed as a senior on Rowan’s official roster, based on recollection of his jersey number (#9).
Weber said he believed the incident started after he walked by Dock without shaking his hand. Brown and Flannery stood in line immediately in front of Weber. When they became aware of the contact, they said they turned around and returned the shove to Dock.
Each instance of contact was confirmed as open-handed.
Both Flannery and Brown described their intentions as “defensive” and “protective,” rather than provocative.
“We were just being defensive of our boy,” Brown said Monday morning. “We just turned around having his back, but we weren’t trying to get involved or anything.”
“Me and Shawn pushed him,” Flannery said Monday afternoon. “[Malcolm Dock] fell back a couple yards, but not to the ground or anything.”
Immediately thereafter, the three TCNJ players said that the man they believed to a member of Rowan’s coaching staff “came out of nowhere” and involved himself directly with Brown.
“He was just screaming at us like, ‘Back the [expletive] up you pieces of [expletive]. You guys just lost, back the [expletive] up,’” Brown said Monday morning. “He came after us while he was saying this. That’s what I didn’t understand.”
Brown said Tuesday, during a follow-up interview that he and the man “would have been in a fist-fight if Matt Hamilton didn’t step in-between.”
Neither Flannery nor Weber saw the individual’s hand raised.
“As far as his hand being cocked back I didn’t see anything like that,” said Flannery. “It looked like he was going to hit him but I didn’t see that, specifically.”
Both, however, described his demeanor and body language.
“He came in ready to fight, not wanting to try and break it up at all,” Weber said. “He grabbed [Brown] and you could see it in his face. He didn’t seem at any point like he was civilized or anything.”
“He didn’t take like a peaceful and calm demeanor about it,” Flannery said. “He tried to escalate it, coming after Shawn Brown. That’s what I saw.”
Flannery continued later.
“The players were obviously heated, having just played a game and everything. But when a coach steps in like that, that’s not trying to diffuse the situation and trying to keep things under control. It looked like he was trying to fight more than the players. … He wasn’t in line with the kids or anything. Coaches usually aren’t in the line. I guess he saw the situation coming about and came running over. But he didn’t try to diffuse the situation. He tried to escalate it.”
When asked if he had any doubts that the individual’s actions were aggressive, Brown said he didn’t think so.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “He was physical with us—with me, particularly.”
Weber said he saw another individual, who Brown identified as assistant defensive line coach Justin Hinds, immediately rush over in an effort to stifle the matter. Another unidentified individual, believed to be an undressed Rowan player, also attempted to mediate, according to Brown and Flannery.
“Another coach on Rowan’s staff, he was being civilized,” Weber said. “[Hinds] was just like, ‘Break it up,’ whatever.”
Flannery said he did not see the other individual but confirmed that TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton was trying to intervene.
“I saw [Matt Hamilton] in there trying to break it up,” Flannery said. “But as far as the other coach, no. I didn’t see that part.”
Matt Hamilton was contacted during the preliminary investigation, though the conversations were understood as off-the-record. He, and all of the TCNJ assistant coaches, deferred comment to head coach Eric Hamilton when contacted for on-record comment.
Eric Hamilton, who was present during and after the game, said he didn’t see exactly what happened during the incident.
“I wasn’t there,” he said Monday afternoon. “I did my homework like anyone else trying to figure out what happened.”
Brown described the individual as “big,” referring to muscle definition. He was also described as having “long, brown, curly hair.” He could not be positively identified by players, who were asked to match his face to photographs available on RowanAthletics.com, under the site’s 2009 roster page that offers complete lists of players and coaches.
“He was dressed in the same uniform as the coaches, and he had a headset on the whole game,” Brown said Tuesday. “I don’t know why he wasn’t listed on the web site. He was definitely a coach.”
Photographs of four assistants—Sean Hendricks, Jeff Lewis, Ryan Stevenson Brian Wright—are not available under the team’s 2009 roster page. Photos of Lewis, Stevenson and Wright are available elsewhere, under varying archived roster pages dating back to 2006.
Players confirmed that none of those three were the man who they allege initiated physical contact with Brown.
According to Eric Hamilton’s understanding, the individual was “someone affiliated with the [Rowan football] program,” and could have been, though was not necessarily, a member of the coaching staff.
He offered no further comment on the allegations.
Hamilton, who completed his 33rd year as head coach at the end of the 2009 regular season, did offer an explanation of what he called “protocol” for managing those scenarios.
“If there’s a situation that occurs, you never grab a player from an opposing team. You grab your own. That’s not the way you handle that.”
In an official e-mail issued by Rowan’s Sports Information Desk, Assistant Sports Information Director Jon McMenamin declined an opportunity to respond on behalf of the Rowan University coaching staff and athletic director.
“Our coaching staff has no comment on what happened after the game,” he said in an e-mail, sent Monday evening.
Sheila Stevenson, Rowan’s Sports Information Director, was contacted earlier Monday afternoon for media clearance for both head coach Jay Accorsi and athletic director Joy Solomen, and was notified of the exact allegations.
During the course of the game, New Jersey Athletic Conference officials threw 19 total personal foul penalties related to excessive aggression during and after plays.
TCNJ was flagged for eight unnecessary roughness penalties, while Rowan was penalized seven times for the same type of activity. The Profs were called for four additional unsportsmanlike conduct violations (TCNJ-0). Two players, one from each team, were ejected in the third quarter.
“I thought it was a chippy second half,” Eric Hamilton said Monday. Earlier in the interview, he called the possibility of an altercation “the downside of trying to shake hands after a game like that.”
The football aspect of the game was predominantly lopsided, in favor Rowan University, as the Profs outgained the Lions 541 yards to only 52, and led 28-0 at the half. “Extra-cirriculars,” did not seem to be correlated with the increasing point and yards totals, however, as 11 of the total personal foul penalties occurred during the first two quarters.
You could argue the 60 minutes of regulation during “TCNJ vs. Rowan: 2009” about summed up the past two decades of the rivalry.
But after watching tons of chippy extra-cirriculars between plays and a brief fight after the game, there just wasn’t a whole lot of leeway to describe this continuation of a historically heated series.
More so than not, Saturday was chaos.
Unprecedented and inexcusable.
After owning the Lions in 15 of the series’ past 20 installments, this latest meeting between the two programs ended after a 39-0 rout—advantage Profs. The deficit tied the margin from last year’s finish (TCNJ, L 42-3), both of which represent the largest single-game disparity in series history.
But long before scoreboard indicated the game had gotten out of hand, officials had lost complete control of its order—if they even had any in the first place.
The bitter mutual sentiment fueled a majority of the yellow laundry raining in Coach Wackar Stadium Saturday, which saw a combined 25 flags thrown (NCAA record-39, happened 4 times; offsetting fouls not counted).
There were a few infractions—holds, pass interference and others—that were actually related in some way the game’s limited moments of civilized competition. The rest, a combined 19 unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, had more to do with a collective lack of self-control than anything else (TCNJ 8, Rowan-7 PF; Rowan-4 unsportsmanlike conduct).
When officials finally had enough and tossed two players, both seniors, from their last game as collegiate athletes, it seemed as if the afternoon had sunk to its deepest trough. Not only did the skirmish–ignited while teams exchanged post-game handshakes–outdo those quid pro quo ejections. But it smudged any brief glimmers of a ride-off-in-the-sunset picture for which anyone could have hoped.
What instigated the altercation remains uncertain. No one was seriously injured.
Its uneven finish and saddening tone throughout made everything else seem moot. But, somewhere in between the madness, a football game was actually played.
After forcing a defiant three-and-out during the Profs’ opening possession, TCNJ players watched quarterback Frank Wilczynski deconstruct its defense from then on, himself accounting for 378 of his unit’s 541 yards of total offense (140 rush, 238 pass). The senior was in some way involved in each of Rowan’s five touchdowns (3 pass, 2 rush), capping its offensive scoring with a 2-yard carry near the end of the third quarter (Rowan led 28-0 at half).
Unfortunately for TCNJ’s offense, the conference’s No.1 D wasn’t as gracious.
The most potent attack in school history never seemed to establish a rhythm throughout the entirety of the contest, finishing with only 52 yards of positive gains (2009 team broke record for pts. in season last week).
It wasn’t clear whether the Lions offensive line was out-matched by Rowan or under-manned on account of injuries (two starters out). But the protection it provided—or couldn’t—made way for the Profs’ 15 tackles behind the line for 96 yards of losses.
Offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta dialed up his distinguishing array of screens to take advantage of their aggression, but nothing worked against the Profs’ D-line.
Starting for the second-consecutive week in place of injured four-year letterman Chris James, quarterback Jay Donoghue was sacked 4 on four drop backs, hit on countless others. Profs’ linebacker Andrew Yezzi recorded his career’s two last sacks at the youngster’s expense and intercepted a frenetic pass (also FF).
Even the few plays when he had enough time to get it out of his hands, a blanketing Rowan secondary only offered tight spaces for the sophomore to fit the football—slimmer throwing lanes to get it there.
The lone exception was an electrifying catch-and-run for 46 yards by wide receiver Cam Richardson, one of only three successful completions on the afternoon (Donoghue 3/13, 66 yds, INT). Three other players took snaps from the position, though none of them completed a pass.
Utility play-maker Bill Picatagi received a few direct snaps from shotgun, putting forth undiscouraged effort on runs from the team’s Wildcat formation (2 rec., 20 yds). True quarterback Nick Tyson was used with hopes of adding a similar dynamic, though the hard-nosed freshman wasn’t any more successful with the rock.
Both players gained nine yards on their respective seven carries. Kevin Brown’s 27 yards was the most picked up by any Lion ball-carrier.
The lopsided victory snapped a two-game skid for Rowan (7-3, 6-3 NJAC), though it also capped a winless second-half for TCNJ (4-6, 3-6 NJAC).
It might have padded stats and had regular season implications, but there wasn’t a winner Saturday.
Not after that.
***Rowan University policy prohibits on-field interviews after games. Once TCNJ players and coaches had left the playing field, they changed in the locker room and boarded buses shortly thereafter.***
Closing weekend for New Jersey Athletic Conference competition encouraged iron-willed efforts from all its fourth-year performers—two in particular manifesting statistically.
Fittingly, conference selections for Week 11’s most outstanding included two seniors.
Given the nod as the conference’s most exceptional defensive performer after its weekend finale, linebacker Andrew Yezzi became the second honoree among Rowan’s collectively stout D this season.
He recorded double-digit tackles in the Profs’ shutout victory over TCNJ (W 39-0), including 4.5 for a loss (12 total). The Franklinville, NJ native accounted for half of the unit’s 4 sacks in the win, during which the NJAC’s least lenient group allowed all of 52 yards of Lion offense.
Yezzi’s contribution included two glimmers of opportunism, complete with a forced fumble and an interception. Neither resulted in turnovers—the Lions safely recovered its own cough-up earlier, and later fell on an unforced fumble during Yezzi’s 33-yard return.
All the same, it seemed every aspect of his afternoon’s collaboration disrupted an already struggling TCNJ offensive attack (-25 rush yds in first half).
Upon the conclusion of the conference’s regular season—and several careers—Yezzi’s 18 tackles for loss stands as the NJAC’s best.
The College at Brockport’s opponents may have owned the team and its regular season record (finished 4-6, 3-6 NJAC). But after dicing his final opponent of 2009, Golden Eagles quarterback Jake Graci captured two of the school’s single-season marks for his three-month body of work.
And his third NJAC Offensive Player of the Week award.
Leading the program to a 48-20 victory during the latest installment of its storied rivalry with Buffalo State, Graci produced 404 yards through the air through 25 completions on 39 attempts.
After 10 games, the local product from Farnham, NY now holds the school record for most passing yards in a season, finishing his senior campaign with 2,668.
Graci’s five touchdowns during this year’s I-90 Bowl bolstered his season’s total to 23—a Brockport single-season school record. His afternoon’s scoring total—which capped gains of 88, 7, 20, 66 and 14 yards—also tied the program’s single-game mark.
At season’s end, Graci ranks No. 1 among NJAC quarterbacks with 266.9 yards per game.
Since he’s still only a sophomore, Montclair State University can look forward to two more years of production from punter Steve Layden, the lone underclassman listed on the conference’s Week 11 release.
But for those that won’t be coming back, the youngster helped detract some bitter from senior farewells, compensating with a whole lot of sweet.
Layden dropped two kicks inside the Cougar 10 (downed at 1-yd line, 6-yd line) during the league’s unofficial championship match, breaking a tie between the NJAC’s two No. 1 programs (Kean, MSU entered 7-1 NJAC). Both primed Montclair State’s only offensive touchdowns in a predominantly defensive bout, one that ended 14-6.
A notable contributor to the Red Hawks’ 2009 NJAC championship, Layden’s 11 punts helped the program revisit its first taste of glory since 2003—its 18th all-time.
No offensive or defensive rookies were selected.
For anyone with a vested interest in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, Frank Wilczynski might be one of the group’s collectively worst kept secrets. If it’s true—the first available supporting evidence to be released when the conference dishes out post-season awards—it’s for good reason.
The Rowan quarterback’s 2009 campaign doesn’t fit the bill of an accomplishment that should be kept hush-hush. But even for the program, maybe hoping his capabilities catch opposition by surprise, keeping his successes under raps just isn’t practical.
Not numbers like his.
His 233.9 yards of total offense accumulated during every appearance are good for third in the NJAC, inferior statistically to only two conference competitors (No. 1 Graci, Brockport-288.3 yds/gm, No. 2 James, TCNJ-236.3 yds/gm). He’s completed 57% of his season’s 179 attempts, averaging just over 12 yards for every successful connection—worth, together, over 1,200 yards in nine games (152.25 avg. yds/gm).
Rowan play-callers have learned to expect these glimmers of above average adequacy when Frank Wilczynski drops back to pass. But for the amusement of fans, and a workout for statistician’s fingers, coaches are well-aware of the senior’s niche.
The Prof’s electric signal-caller might have only carried the rock 80 times on the year, but he’s produced with remarkable efficiency on his few opportunities—something to the tune of, oh, say, 8.2 yards a pop. Speaking relatively, the only other conference performers with that kind of average production are, coincidentally, two athletes listed at different positions (Tariq Gaines WR, Rowan; Bill Picatagi WR/TE, TCNJ).
Neither of the two rushed more than 26 times in 2009.
Multi-faceted, indeed, Wilczynski’s versatility is apparent in his irrevocable stats and the attention his presence demands.
But, fittingly for an athlete of his elite flight, limiting his role to that of a dual-threat playmaker—a commonality in this day and age—sells his abilities short.
He’s also proven one hell of a reliable litmus test for NJAC defenses.
The Profs early-season loss to SUNY-Cortland aside (Wilczynski DNP), the distinct contrast between his performances parallels that of opposing unit’s measurable caliber. In the team’s six wins, all against arguable cupcakes, Rowan’s reveled QB dazzled, averaging more than a first-down every rushing attempt (11.06 yds/rush) and just six yards shy of a guaranteed 100 every time he took the field (avg. 94 rush yds/gm).
Against those same teams, Wilczynski completed 59.8% of his balls, including a three-week span during which he connected no fewer than 67% of the time (vs. Brockport, Western Connecticut St., Morrisville St.). Sure, he threw for 148 every time out (13.31 yds/comp), but Wilczynski personally accounted for an average of more than three touchdowns in those games.
Remember what he did in Week 5? I can’t…it was something like 216 pass yards, another 146 on the ground—maybe six combined scores (3 pass, 3 rush)?
I’ll have to run those figures by Western Connecticut State. They’d know better (Rowan def. WCSU, 72-12).
But, as a brief aside, it should be noted that those teams—Lycoming, William Paterson, Brockport, Western Connecticut State, Morrisville State and Buffalo State—yeah, they’re win percentage wasn’t too hot in 2009.
Try 28% (combined 15-40).
And wouldn’t you know it, those NJAC units round out the bottom half of the conference’s worst groups against the run. William Paterson aside, they haven’t fared any better against opposing passers (rank No. 5-8, 10 vs. pass).
His prowess with the football is documented—on paper and opponents’ post-game thoughts. It just hasn’t been as profound against the conference’s top dogs.
In his last two appearances, both Rowan losses, F-Dubs had a combined 29 carries against Kean and Montclair State, but only manufactured 89 yards (3.16 yds/rush). He threw for 235 against the Red Hawks’ No. 6 pass defense (opp. avg. 196.4 pass yds/gm), but it required a heavy workload of 39 attempts.
Further, in neither game did he complete over 50% of his passes (43% vs. Kean, 49% vs. MSU) and threw only one touchdown to ease the blow of his three picks (8 TDs, 2 INT in other 6 gms).
“He’s been up and down, but he’s definitely the key,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said respectfully of the team’s pending adversary.
“His strength is running the ball, running the option. Last year I thought he was the best quarterback in the conference. … Did he have the year he wanted? Maybe not, because he didn’t throw the ball as well as he probably would have liked. But I’ll tell you this… even though they’re not in the hunt they have and he has played some people tough. They’re a good team.”
Wilczynski could be susceptible to a stout front-seven, maybe even the conference’s best gauge in that regard. Problem is, for TCNJ’s defense, they haven’t passed a number of early-season inspections.
The group has managed to corral most opposing rushing quarterbacks.
FDU slasher Bill Winters gained 69 yards on 15 carries. But 31 of those were earned against TCNJ second-team players (TCNJ def. FDU 58-28). The TCNJ D gave up 71 yards on nine carries to Brockport’s Jake Graci, but Buffalo State QB Kenny Murphy actually lost two yards on his five carries in the Lions’ season-opener.
Formidable accomplishments, for sure. But none came against a player of his stature.
And, after allowing five teams to rush break the 200-yard barrier—two individual contributors (Kean’s Chunn-209 yds, 2 TDs; WPU’s McKinney-224 yds, 4 TDs)—if there were ever a time for the TCNJ defense to prove itself, now is it.
“This is the last test of the year. We’ll find out what we’re made of,” defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said of his No. 6 rush defense in the conference.
“We made a lot of progress over the course of the year—especially from the mid-way point on. But this week was definitely a let-down for us as a collective unit,” he said, alluding to the 388 yards garnered by Western Connecticut State (total offense 9th in NJAC).
Disheartening, maybe. But it hasn’t been all bad for this much-maligned TCNJ defense.
Three times has the unit held opposing backfields to fewer than 140 total rushing yards—many of the others skewed by meaningless gains toward the tail end of blowout wins, like Morrisville State’s 189 team yards during a 67-34 rout (59 in 1st half). It’s even happened with TCNJ on the wrong end of a lopsided finish (WPU-76 rush yds in 1st half; 209 in game).
The group gave up only 116 against FDU-Florham (74 in 1st half), another 130 to Western Connecticut State, and—its brightest resume buffer—32 against Montclair State University.
For now, early-season ups and downs are trivial matters. All that remains is Rowan.
And all its storied name implies.
“It’s Rowan. You know they’ve got the athletes. Big, fast, strong—you fill in the adjective. They’re all of it. But we think we’re pretty well-prepared. We’ve watched film for countless hours and the staff, we’ve watched every game they’ve played multiple times.
“We couldn’t possibly show them everything, but we feel we’ve prepared them as best as anyone could.”
And according to players, they say they approve.
“I feel where we’re at, we’re about the same place as Montclair State, and that was probably our best defensive performance,” rookie linebacker Greg Burns said.
“[Wilczynski]’s probably better than [Montclair State quarterback Tim Fischer], but our defense is ready, I feel really confident in the scheme and everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Still young and ambitious, Burns believes the unit fans saw take the field against Montclair State is the one that should be expected Saturday. And it’s because he thinks that’s the norm, whereas the rest of its shortcomings were anomalies.
Not the other way around.
“I think you’re going to see the real deal this weekend.”
Xs and Os aside, other players focused efforts on different dimensions of their game.
“[Wilczynski] puts the pants on just like anyone else,” defensive end and quad-captain Craig Meyer said.
“We’re going to come out and smack him.”
There’s no shortage of motivation for anyone listed on the Lions’ roster, entering the team’s scheduled trip to Glassboro to take on Rowan University.
But their might be one name with a heavier vested sentiment.
Try and draw up a hypothetical source of urgency for Saturday’s game, and it probably already exists—and pertains to TCNJ quarterback Chris James.
Not only does it represent the team’s last-ditch effort at salvaging par, now 4-5 and hoping to avoid consecutive losing seasons. But, should it drop this, the last date on its 2009 calendar, the team’s most recent L would extend the program’s recent skid to five games—among the worst such spans in its rich history.
For James, like the rest of his fellow seniors, the weekend offers one last chance to enter a competitive arena for his final dance as a collegiate athlete. Players bandaging a full season’s worth of wounds to their person have the off-season to heal—for some the rest of their lives.
But to their pride? Their legacy? Eternity won’t relinquish any of that breed of pain, though it offers plenty of time to wonder.
That question has the potential to resonate with a number of Lions, but many of them will have the forum to respond definitively. Still hampered from undisclosed injuries suffered against SUNY-Cortland two weeks back, his status for this weekend looms with uncertainty.
No official injury information is, or will be made available before kickoff.
Still, players and coaches agree, if there were ever a competitor capable of pulling off that kind of miracle return, it’s this guy.
Right here in Trenton.
“It’s definitely Chris,” wide receiver Cam Richardson said of his quarterback. “He wants to be out there. … I try to think he’s at least going to try and get out on the field at least a little bit. … He’s gonna bust his balls and try to get out there. He’s been rehabbing all week, taking care of his body. I think come Saturday he could be ready to play.”
“He’s proven it and he’s done it,” head coach Eric Hamilton said of his experience with James, though he realized the odds stacked against him. “You just don’t miss that kind of time, wave the magic wand and say, ‘I’m here to do it.’”
Though, according to James, if there’s even a glimmer of light illuminating a way, the stage and his opposition only bolstered his unwavering will.
“It’s your biggest rival, and it’s your last game,” he said. “Your threshold for pain is—you’d have to peel me off the field.”
Should he manage to get himself on the gridiron, the imposing challenge is a familiar foe.
Rowan’s defense is currently ranked first in the conference in nearly every measurable standard—among the Top 15 in the nation in four. Most pertinent to James are the Profs No. 4 pass efficiency defense (opp. avg. 84.34 pass efficiency) and its tightfistedness in aerial yards allowed, two spots outside Top 10 in Division III (133.89 pass yds/gm).
As time progressed—with it, his opponents’ caliber—James has twice encountered this kind of commanding defensive secondaries, neither of which went in his favor. Despite his stellar precision against the other five of his first seven, Kean and William Paterson’s No. 1 pass efficiency defenses proved an insurmountable challenge (both ranked 1st in NJAC entering gm vs. TCNJ).
At the time.
“Yeah, you think about it,” he said of his combined 38-of-75, 423 yard, 3TD, 4 INT resume against the two (87/131, avg. 258 yds, 11 TDs, 4 INT in 5 other gms).
“You always want to put your best performance out. … But you wanna do it against the best. You don’t want anybody to be able to say anything. If you put your greatest performance together against the greatest team, that shows the real player you are.”
In more absolute terms, there’s a disjunction between James pristine 4-0 record against teams with “lesser” defensive prestige, and the doughnut in across from those two losses (TCNJ L vs. Kean, Wm. Paterson).
Fierce competitor he is, his discontent shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when he’s asked to look back on those two tarnishes.
“I think about that. It’s not the record you have against the lower teams. If you look at it—Rowan, [SUNY]-Cortland, Kean, Montclair [State], it’s all about those teams and your record against them.”
Buried somewhere in the backburner, James’ hunt for personal glory is also at risk. Already the school’s record-holder for attempts, completions and yards in a career—all accomplished this season—he lingers in antagonizing proximity to two more program milestones.
Approaching one final remaining game of his expiring NCAA eligibility, James is only 176 yards shy of TCNJ’s single-season yards mark, and three passing scores short of eclipsing its career TD landmark (James-1,757 yds in 2009, 45 TDs career; Schurtz-1,932 yds in 2001, Faherty 48 TDs between 1982-83). With 23 more completions on the year, he’d even surpass his own personal best of 154 he threw as a sophomore—also the Lions’ best (set in 2007).
But unlike the attention a looming Rowan demands, striving for individual achievements is—at this and any juncture—an afterthought for him.
“You have to keep in mind the best interests of the team, too.”
Whether he’ll suit up for his final weekend recital on the conference’s greatest stage is yet to be seen. But, when asked of his last words and wishes for the dead-end road ahead, he voiced a few ambitious requests.
Just not the kind you tend to expect.
“I hope everybody just leaves it out on the field, you know? No further questions. … I just want to see our senior class go out there and leave it all out there.
“When we’re done, just hang up the pads and say, ‘Bon voyage.’”
So the story goes, TCNJ’s taken its lumps in 2009. Set back after a 3-0 start at Kean, the team’s been permanently grounded ever since its Week Seven win over Brockport. The Lions broke through the season’s point of no return at 4-1—without any real reason to be looking back.
Since? The team’s win/loss column itself look’s like destiny’s antagonizing face, winking it’s left eye (0-4 in past 4 gms).
The team isn’t quite what it was earlier, with regard to its palpable drop-off in performance. But also, more importantly, it pertains to its diminishing depth.
Names and faces have dropped from the Lions’ roster, but, as TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton put it, “What happens, happens.” But the difference therein—and, really, any coaching staff’s most imposing obstacle—is how to cope with those kinds of losses.
“Every time you lose somebody it hurts,” Hamilton said. “I don’t necessarily mean from a schematics standpoint. It hurts that you train and prepare and you want everybody to be out there. You would much rather have a problem trying to find ways to play guys than having to find guys to play.”
As shocking a suggestion as it seems, TCNJ’s defense has managed to fill its voids, the gaping holes torn in coordinator Matt Hamilton’s 4-3 scheme when, over the course of the year, all three of his starting linebackers missed substantial time due to injury (DeCongelio, Spahn, Jones).
Much a credit to the insta-maturation of its youth (Burns, Kleen, Lukaszewicz), the group’s improvement wouldn’t be feasible without big-time performances from some of its most unlikely sources.
“Defensively, because of what had happened so early, we didn’t have an identity,” Hamilton said. “We were able to grow, and hopefully, by the end of the year we’ll have one, since we only had two seniors out there to begin with.”
Offensively, however, the group has struggled as of late, unable to rekindle its early-season form that, for a time, boasted Division III’s No. 1 scoring threat (led NCAA after Wk. 4). After posting an unrelenting 42.5 points in each of its first six outings, the once commanding TCNJ offense has fizzled recently, only managing 18 good ones these past three weeks.
Even though its opportunities remained consistent.
After averaging just over 67 snaps in Weeks 1-7, the group’s workload actually increased, up marginally to 69 plays-from-scrimmage. But like its most ostensible quantification (points?), its micronized production has since dissolved, too, down to 4.41 yards per play from the nearly seven gained every snap before this mid-October slide.
On the whole?
The fallout from its early-season splendor took with it 145 yards of total offense, its unwavering 457 earlier starting to look a little more mortal at 312. And, less its 400+ yard jaunt against Western Connecticut this past weekend, the O combined for 492 against both SUNY-Cortland and Montclair State (avg. 246 yds/gm).
But no more in any other quantifiable category, the Lions rushing attack has suffered dramatically. Prior to same-game injuries to starters Chase Misura (sr.) and Justin Donoloski (soph.), the TCNJ ground game averaged over 200 yards, before both were knocked out with injuries in Week 8 during the team’s loss to Montclair State. That even accounts for two instances during which the tandem was shut down (TCNJ-58 rush yds vs. Kean; 105 rush yds vs. WPU)—both team losses.
After posting consecutive 300+ yard rushing compilations to start the season (TCNJ 312 rush yds vs. Buff St.; 339 rush yds vs. FDU) the team’s only 200+ performance was produced against the conference’s second-worst unit against the run defensively (TCNJ 250 rush yds. vs. WCSU; opp. avg. 193.1 rush yds/gm).
“…Offensively, why the offense has always been so far ahead, it’s because that’s where all the returners were,” Hamilton said. “When you start picking off returners that have the experience that you rely on, it’s probably more significant, it has more of an impact.”
Losing Misura and Donoloski haven’t done the team any favors, but missing bodies on the offensive line that have proven fatal.
The team’s replacements in the backfield have overachieved expectation, even for Mike Yetka, last year’s No. 10 NJAC yard-getter. In conjunction with the emergence of Kevin Brown, the two have proven their ability with real estate, never once failing to eclipse 100 yards of positive gains.
But, without the reliability of trench heroes LT Drew Mason, G Joe Mecca and C Joe Serrao—all of whom missing time since the team’s Week 7 loss to Willie P—Lions’ ball-carriers have been tackled for losses at an alarming rate. In three of those four games, the team has accumulated over 30 yards in the red, the lone exception versus Montclair State (TFL 8 yds). Earlier in the season, it happened only once, in large part due to a massive loss on a botched snap (TFL 62 yds vs. Kean).
“Again, you don’t worry about who you don’t have … you just have to try and do the best you can,” he said, alluding to utmost efforts by seniors Evan Arfuso and Andrew Ross. “And I think guys have tried to do that.”
The passing game has suffered as an arguable side effect, an overall diminish in production trickling over—not helped any by the loss of its four-year starter at quarterback. The progressing season has rolled back Lion aerial averages like the Wal-Mart man on excessive caffeine, cutting a guaranteed 256 a weekend to a 161.3 yards.
Touchdowns? Down (Wk. 1-7-avg. 2.2 pass TDs/gm; Wk 8-10-avg. 1.3 pass TDs/gm).
Ratios? Down (Wk. 1-7-avg. 14.64 yds/comp; Wk 8-10-avg. 8.34 yds/comp).
So it seems, the only apparent increase over the span is the team’s giveaways (Wk. 1-7-avg. 1.67 TO/gm; Wk. 8-10-avg. 3.3 TO/gm).
“We started off hot,” TCNJ quarterback Chris James said. “I don’t think we ever fully developed as an offense. That’s scary when you think about the kind of numbers we were putting up.”
Disappointing? Maybe. But, above all else, what’s lingered on the senior quarterback’s mind all season is what happened when misfortune didn’t strike a talented roster.
“I think this year more than ever before we got hit by the injury bug. Everyone’s hurt. … My sophomore year (2007 NJAC Championship season) we really didn’t get injured that much. And there weren’t any big injuries.”
Title aspirations aside, elaborating on last year’s 4-6 finish was still within feasible reach. But without results from the most integral facet of its offense, the TCNJ offense hasn’t managed to “get it done,” as they say.
But as TCNJ looks to this weekend, hoping to recuperate its health and win percentage at Rowan University for both programs’ season-finales, Hamilton insisted that the predicating challenge remains the same.
“… Going into Saturday’s game, it hasn’t changed. It comes down to what happens up front. … We’ve got different running backs in there, different quarterbacks … but, it comes down to what happens up front. If Rowan dominates the line of scrimmage like they did last year… we’re going to be in trouble, regardless.
“If we can’t…run the ball it’s going to be a tough day.”
It’s 5:25 on Thursday. A mob of football players drifts away from Lions Stadium.
Practice has just ended.
The air is brisk, a perceivable breeze drops the temperature a few degrees. It’s dark out, a probable materialization of winter rolling in.
And football rolling out.
With the crowd that approaches comes clarity. The diminishing distance accentuates individual dialogue, now distinguishable from the noise of small-talk banter.
Tired, bruised and spent—in each term’s every conceivable sense—there’s no energy left for filtering these vocalized thoughts.
Unencumbered reactions evoke truth, you’d like to think.
“The Rowan rivalry?” wide receiver Mike Camastra asks, his words skewed by a telling facial expression and all its insinuations.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he continues, laughing and walking on.
Still a freshman, Camastra’s answering that kind of question—cordial, yet flippant—is understandable. Had he been around last year, his response might have sounded something like…
“Nah dude, they embarrassed us last year,” wide receiver Dan Syed said after, a halfhearted scolding for the irreverent dismissal. “We ain’t about to let that happen again.”
Pandemonium strikes Texas’ northern border once a year for the Red River Rivalry with the Sooners of Oklahoma—just as it does along informal state lines in Oregon, for annual installments in its on-again, off-again “civil war.”
Stanford has Cal, the Gators have the ‘Noles, and Notre Dame has…well…everybody.
And, pertaining to the New Jersey Athletic Conference, TCNJ has Rowan.
“If you haven’t been to a TCNJ/Rowan game, you haven’t seen a real football game,” Lions’ utility player Bill Picatagi said over the phone.
“Like I can’t explain it,” he continues, his words mirroring his distracted stream of consciousness on the topic.
“There’s so much emotion that goes into it, it’s ridiculous. … This last week of practice is supposed to be an easy week? No way. Not for TCNJ because we’ve got Rowan, and Rowan’s huge.”
“Since I’ve been here, Rowan’s been one of the biggest games every single year,” wideout Colin Weber said, recollecting his past three years of involvement.
“Records, they don’t matter or anything. Everyone practices hard all week, just because it’s Rowan.
“And everyone comes to play against Rowan.”
The rivalry is as heated as they come. No matter how harsh a toll the long season has taken on their bodies, players willingly bite down a little harder on those mandatory rubber mouthguards, hoping it can help muster up anything and everything within physiological possibility.
And then some.
“I’m gonna give it all I got on Saturday,” defensive end Craig Meyer said. “It’s gonna be another emotional day on my mind, it’s my last game ever. I’m gonna play my ass off.”
But, unfortunately for TCNJ, players’ “effort” isn’t a word that always translates in football’s most audibly aesthetic language.
Over the past 20 years, the Lions have stolen all of five match-ups since 1989, three by a combined six points (28-27 in ’98; 22-20 in ’03; 10-7 in ’07). Over the course of the series, dating back to 1948, twice have the Profs dominated for half a decade, first putting together six consecutive wins between 1990 -95, before establish five-year streak of inter-conference authority between 1998 and 2002.
Through a grander scope, the series has seen about as much parity as the Fighting Irish’s win percentage against Southern Cal’s crimson army—under Pete Carroll or anyone else. After an even 50 confrontations, Rowan’s 32 wins exactly double TCNJ’s isolated glimmers of glory, rounded out by two unsightly ties (12-12 in 1949, 21-21 in 1974).
And “last year,” otherwise a trite irrelevance in conversation, refers to the 42-3 smack-down Rowan gladly inflicted upon the Lions in 2008, a blowout loss to cap a dismal 4-6 season tinged with mediocrity.
“Last year, we came out hard in practice for the entire week,” Picatagi said of the week prior. “And when we got on the field, we [messed] the bed. They came out and they whopped our ass[es]. One-on-one, they physically destroyed us. It’s the god’s honest truth.
“And you know what? We’re not letting that happen this year.”
Standing on that same precipice just three days before that anniversary, there exist only two focal points for eyes of TCNJ football players. Downward, just over the cliff’s sheer edge, exists nothingness. And the stark reality holds true for returners, who’ll live to fight another day—“next year”—and seniors, whose eleventh-hour push to go out on top, as winners…better…spoilers is as exhausted as the group’s eligibility.
“It would definitely suck,” co-captain wideout Cam Richardson said, though he insisted he didn’t want a loss to mar his waning collegiate moments.
“I mean, no matter who you play it’s gonna suck because it’s your last game, you wanna go out winning and have a little bit of a bittersweet thing going. …. But it would definitely suck to lose to Rowan.”
But outward, a complimentary structure stands, too, a rare offering of a different avenue of fate.
As distinct a contrast between the beginning and end of the Lions’ season, the neighboring metaphorical hill offers hope for TCNJ’s youth—an irrevocable foundation upon which they can rebuild the program.
And grow as individuals.
“It’s never the last week,” head coach Eric Hamilton said. “It happens to be the last game, but it’s never over. You prepare every week for the next game. Well after this game, then we prepare for next year—and not before.”
As for those that won’t be back, well, the scene is about as cliché as it gets. In the present, the sun is set. But in this enticing image of timeless glory, there’s a stable of horses, waiting to be rode off into the horizon, that central star fixed forever in place, hours before dusk.
“We’ve had a little bit of a sour year, a little upsetting,” Weber said. “But it would be great to finish on this note. Yeah, we can’t change the past; we’ve just got to make the best of what we still have. Beating Rowan would end this on a good note.”
I know, I know.
You must be thinking, Not again. Not another pass for this pillaged TCNJ defense.
But here’s the thing.
See, if I were handing out a “pass,” there’d be some insinuation that of naively looking the other way without any real reason or warranting, an unearned statement of vindication. The team has come up short where it matters the most since mid-October, but during that span—as irony would have it—the Lions defense has played remarkably stout football.
Taking a look through the scope at the entire season, the group has let opposition do pretty much whatever it’s wanted, the team’s challengers averaging 400.33 yards of total offense in nine appearances so far.
Now, it’s not the worst collective beating a New Jersey Athletic Conference competitor has taken. But at a humble No. 8 out of 10, the Lions defensive 11 are awfully close—way too much so for any defensible exoneration.
But that’s the beauty of numbers—they don’t have a questionable agenda. Or any other preconceived bias.
They just is what they is.
Oh, and while you’re reading, keep the following stat in mind: TCNJ’s first six opponents’ combined average win percentage is 36.85%.
And it’s past three, which include two years of conference leaders—Montclair State University (8-1 overall, 7-1 NJAC) the current co-No.1, and last year’s outright trophy winner, SUNY-Cortland (7-2 overall, 6-2 NJAC)?
Try 63%. And that’s after the two big dogs’ combined 83% win average was watered down by Western Connecticut State’s 22%. Good football against good football teams? Yeah, that sounds about right.
In its last three appearances the unit has held opponents to, on average, 302 yards of total offense, a stark contrast from the 480.67 allowed in its first six. If recent history somehow replaced its now-distant cousin, the Lions would sit at No. 6 in that category, ranked one higher than Buffalo State (opp.avg. 357.67 yds/gm) and one lower than co-NJAC leader Montclair State University (opp. avg. 276.56 yds/gm).
Cutting about an entire field-length during the span, the TCNJ defense has buckled down in the clutch, slicing a hefty chunk off its 3rd down percentage as well. Allowing an extra ten yards 44.17% of the time, opponents have only successfully converted 13.65%.
In comparison, the current NJAC leader, Rowan University, only allows 21.5%.
Leaps and bounds. And the improvement shows in both facets of its opposition’s attacks.
After being walked on for 218.67 yards in its first six appearances, the Lions D has only given up 136 in these past three outings, none more impressive than the 47 yards allowed to Montclair State, picked up over a heavy 29 carries.
For a group that averaged 1.5 opposing running backs with more than 50 yards each game earlier in the year, the TCNJ’s defense has only permitted two such totals since—both in its blowout loss to SUNY-Cortland, during which the Red Dragons bled the clock for a majority of the second half. While opposing ball-carriers earned a daggering 5.67 yards per touch, Montclair State, SUNY-Cortland and Western Connecticut State skills players only averaged only 3.53 yards per carry.
Had that been the case all year, the group wouldn’t be ranked any higher in the conference, though it should be noted that the five teams ahead at this late juncture in the season are all among the nation’s top 75 best units against the run (235 total D3 programs). There’s a distinct rift at the midway point among the conference’s competitors, and it seems to be at about that spot.
If you take a look at the overall scoring, generally a pretty telling statistic, the gap between the NJAC’s No. 6 scoring defense and its two No. 4s is expansive. While SUNY-Cortland and William Paterson’s identical 16.56 opponent points per game round out its top half, the drop off thereafter nearly doubles, TCNJ’s 31.22 opponent points per game followed by Buffalo State’s 38.56. The numbers gradually increase until they hit 43.40 (Morrisville State over 10 gms.)—aka “rock-bottom.”
In part accounting for its marginal cut in opponent scoring—down about a touchdown these past three weeks, falling from 33.83 in its first six to 27.67 lately (opp. avg. 31.33 pts/gm)—the Lions defense has cut down on opponent rushing touchdowns resoundingly. After allowing backs to score an average of 2.83 rushing touchdowns in the team’s first six games, runners have struck pay dirt about that many times over the entire three weeks. That’s right, only one per game.
Keep in mind, that’s the performance of a front-seven less a vast majority of its second-level players. Key injuries to Lions linebacker corps include season-ending foot trauma to Joe Spahn—a senior leader, who outperformed the rest of the group in tackling when healthy—and less serious ailments to Dan DeCongelio, who’d done about as well when he was completely fresh.
With or without Lions LBs, passers haven’t fared much better.
After opposing quarterbacks put up an average of 262 yards against the team’s secondary—including The College at Brockport’s NJAC leading yard-monger, Jake Graci. Since then, quarterbacks have only thrown for an average of 166 yards against Lion DBs, completing only 55% of their passes, compared with the 62% completion rate earlier in the year (60% on the season).
There are a number of likely causes for the improvement.
One has to be the struggles of its offense, which has cooled off lately, its 42.5 point-per game attack after six producing only 18 in its three latest appearances. With teams no longer toiling to match those gaudy early-season point totals, opposing offenses have only run an average of 60.67 plays-from-scrimmage, as opposed to the nearly 75 offensive snaps taken in each contest earlier—many of them shootouts.
Coaches also seem to have made a conscious effort toward winning the field-position battle. After sending out the nation’s second strongest right leg only five times in as many games, coaches called for the services of utility kicker Marc Zucconi nine times in its sixth against William Paterson, a busy day for punters. Since, the team has averaged 5.3 punts per game—obviously alleviating pressure off its defense.
In part a side-effect of its offense’s crumbling efficiency on 3rd down—down to 32% in its past three from the 46% conversion rate earlier—fully implementing the services of its Division I-transfer from Louisville seems to have proven effective. His 32 punts still rank ninth out of 12 NJAC punters, but the shift in strategy has undoubtedly helped lately.
The improvement is welcomed, for sure. But at what cost?
Whatever the cause, the Lions once-opportunistic playmakers haven’t lived up to their par down the stretch, forcing only two turnovers in their past three games. After averaging 1.33 interceptions and 1.5 fumble recoveries in their first six appearances, the unit has only come away with one takeaway in each category.
They’ve maintained a distinguishable hard-hitting physicality over the past three weeks, forcing 1.67 fumbles per game (avg. 2 FF in first 6 gms.). But the TCNJ defense hasn’t flocked to the football as effectively as it did earlier. Opponents only recovered 23.3% of fumbles earlier in the year, but lately, they’ve lived to fight another day 83.3% of the time after coughing up pigskin.
The group’s gradual development has manifested in the form of various numbers, but there’s still plenty of room for growth. Let-downs and blown assignments have been plagued the unit as much as it’s been walloped by injuries for about as long, and if SUNY-Cortland wasn’t a step back in that regard, its latest outing against Western Connecticut State was.
The “big play” classified, in this case, as single-play gains of 30 yards or greater struck against the team an average of twice in each of its first six games. After only allowing one against Montclair State University—a 41-yard touchdown reception after poor timing on a blitz left TCNJ’s secondary vulnerable—the group didn’t falter in that respect once against SUNY-Cortland.
Last week, though, TCNJ forfeited three 30+ Colonials’ gains—each through the air, and each for six. Less those three, worth 48, 53 and 44 yards, respectively, the Western Connecticut Offense only musters 243 yards on its 58 other snaps, good only for 4.18 yards a pop.
But, in restless advent of the biggest date on its calendar, if there were ever a time for a last-ditch effort at retribution, this weekend—at Rowan’s house—would be it. So, to all you Lions defensive players, don’t get down.
Never would a football coach–at least not one to be taken seriously–concede any remnants of the present, shifting focal gears toward the future.
Well, maybe there’s a few extenuating exceptions.
“We have to put the pieces together and get ready for Rowan now,” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said Saturday, in the immediate aftermath of defeat. “That could be ours to win if we work hard.”
Daddies on the sidelines of Pop Warner scrums, or tenured (and salaried) collegiate football instructors might differ in prestige and popularity. But the attitude remains constant at all levels of the game.
Win, and win now.
So long as there is a snap yet to be played, there are goals to achieved, progress to be made.
Players feel no differently.
For some, the light at the end of the tunnel widens, the stark reality that their careers are finite becomes increasingly more apparent with every passing week. For seniors, there is no tomorrow. Still, the passage of time for others glistens the eyes of youngsters, well-aware of this reality:
Graduation empties shoes that need filling, chances for them to shine.
While TCNJ’s season suddenly spun in a downward spiral after its Week Six win against The College at Brockport, players have conducted their business without relent–kind of how fate and misfortune have treated them.
But, largely a byproduct of their hardships, the team has been forced to turn to its youth early. The epidemic to which all football squads are susceptible–the injury bug–has pillaged the Lions’ roster, robbing depth from its charts, and precious moments from elder players.
And in that continuous spin of the wheel, magnified during Saturday’s upset loss to Western Connecticut State, sometimes players’ chances are thrust to the forefront. Sometimes sooner than they’d anticipated.
“This is why you coach, because of challenges,” Acosta said Friday, in advent of a gut-check game for a few underclassmen. “That’s why you coach. To teach and see people grow. Our team’s been growing in a lot of different ways, and this is why you do this.
“We have a challenge tomorrow. And I’m pretty fired up about that challenge.”
For coaches–notably locked in on the season’s finale at Rowan with indelible fixation–when these players exceed even their most ambitious hopes, they’ll say it’s one of the game’s most rewarding facets.
“That’s the bright spot,” he said after, asked to gauge the performance of some of his emerging talents.
“A bunch of guys on the offensive line, they’re coming back. Running backs are coming back, quarterback’s coming back. … That’s the bright spot. Guys are working, young bucks are getting more playing time. You definitely are going to have a football team next year.”
If there was any positive to be taken from Saturday’s game—a disheartening three-point loss to wrap up several illustrious senior careers in Lions Stadium—the promise evoked by some of its youth put to bed a few of the question marks remaining at the season’s end.
“Our offensive line, I think this was one of their best games all year,” sophomore quarterback Jay Donoghue said, moments removed from his first collegiate start. “And most of those guys are coming back.”
Singing the praises of his protective barrier of bodies, Donoghue himself earned daps from some of the team’s most respected personalities after his outing last weekend.
“I was really impressed with Jay Donoughue’s play today,” wide receiver Cam Richardson said of the future-made-present’s 21-of-28 afternoon, complete with 194 yards and three gorgeous touchdown throws.
“I thought he played a very good game. Very calm, collected. He made a lot of checks out there. He really impressed me, going out there and doing some things working with the first team. I was really impressed at that.”
Well-deserving of the acclaim, Donoghue wasn’t the only one turning heads Saturday.
“Mike Yetka, hell of a running back,” Donoghue said of the Lions’ junior running back, who has led the team in successive weeks in his season’s only two starts, putting up 117 this past weekend (41 rush yds vs. SUNY-Cortland). Surpassing the century mark for the first time since the season-opener, the milestone marks only the third of his still budding career.
“Kevin’s a solid young guy too,” he continued, noting the stellar progression of the freshman short-yardage-option-turned-many-yardage-threat. In his past three appearances, the Atlantic City native has averaged a steady 7.6 carries, good for a reputable 34.4 yards—not much. But moving the sticks an average of 4.47 paces after every touch suggests that, when he’s given a heavier load he’ll be as productive as needed.
Both players have toiled to adequately compensate for the Lions’ backfield woes, losing starters in Justin Donoloski and Chase Misura for every snap since they each went down during the school’s homecoming loss to Montclair State University.
Across the line-of-scrimmage, a few notable faces among the preseason’s raw defensive talents have come into their own of late.
“We’ve had a lot of guys go down, a lot of guys step in,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said during the week before the team’s road trip to SUNY-Cortland.
“It’s going to pose some good problems for us as coaches down the road.”
For now, issues surrounding a gifted few aren’t ones the Lions’ staff needs to deal with. The biggest ones are those made for the other guys.
TCNJ linebacker Greg Burns, who has led all Lion tacklers twice over the course of his first collegiate season (10 tot. tackles vs. WPU, WCSU), finishing second in the unit’s stingiest outing to date (9 tot. tackles vs. MSU). His physicality and instincts established the freshman as a viable suitor for Hamilton’s intricate 4-2-5 scheme—reliant upon the run-stopping abilities of its second-level players.
Despite their prominence as a buoyant feature of what were ultimately losing efforts, Burns earned NJAC awards two of the three following Sundays, dubbed its Defensive Rookie of the Week twice in 2009.
Over that four-game span, that’s called upon unknown bodies to fill the roles of proven talents, the only other player to twice outperform his comrades was, coincidentally, linebacker Jimmy Kleen.
He shared locker room bragging rights with Burns during the team’s Week Seven road loss at William Paterson after blanketing the hash marks for 10 tackles of his own. A week later, onlookers gazed out in confusion, wondering if his team-leading nine stops against Red Hawk skills players was a palpable instance of déjà vu.
Both Burns and Kleen saw sparse action in the season’s first-six outings. But answering the call dialed in by linebacker Joe Spahn’s season-ending foot injury and chronic ailments to a warrior in Dan DeCongelio, the two have exceeded their foreseen capabilities–much to the delight of coaches.
“That’s the silver lining of a lot of guys being hurt,” Hamilton said, days preceding this weekend’s game against Western Connecticut. “It gives an opportunity to a lot of different guys to get playing time.”
Burns and Kleen on display as exhibits 1 and 1-a, their still minimal resumes have put his once-worried mind a little more at ease.
“So we’ve put in so many different guys, that no matter who we put out there we feel comfortable and we feel like we’ve got a complete package.”
And who stepped up during the only other game in that four-week period? Its leader in tackles against SUNY-Cortland—also the Lions’ most productive pass rusher—was defensive end Kevin Allgood, a monster compliment to team quad-captain Craig Meyer.
Allgood is a sophomore.
If a football season is a machine, one needing fresh oil and replacement parts on an annual basis, the off-season’s most pivotal challenge will be replacing experienced leaders, like Richardson and Meyer. It won’t be any easier to swap out the veteran savvy of four-year starting quarterback Chris James.
And, above all else, there’s no substitute for free safety Ryan Flannery, likely the program’s most entertaining superstar in recent memory—even though his chippy style of play and nose for extra-curriculars get him in trouble from time to time.
“We’re definitely gonna miss our senior receivers,” Donoghue said of the seasoned corps, including a montage of playmaking breeds in Mark Gardner, Erik Hendrickson, Bill Picatagi and Colin Weber—the latest of whom ranks fifth in the conference in receptions and yards.
“They’re some of the best there is.”
For guys like Donoghue, who—in time—might embody a similar description one day, the future is enticing to say the least. But, spanning from broken-in seniors to the fresh sets of kicks still in their freshman shoeboxes, that prospect will have to wait.
“It’s promising for next year,” Donoghue said.
“But we’re playing for this year.”
A day later, he was named the New Jersey Athletic Conference’s outstanding rookie performer.
Another brush stroke in a dismal bigger picture, his season’s second weekly award marks another captured in defeat—each having disheartening implications.
His first, won with his 9-tackle outing during the Lions’ Week Seven loss to Montclair State University, coincided with his defense’s best outing of the season–and his team’s ousting from conference championship contention.
That game was the program’s homecoming, too.
His latest, earned with another team-leading 10 stops, overlapped its chances to salvage a winning record.
Upset by the NJAC’s resident last-place tenant, the Lions dropped a fifth date on their 2009 calendar this past weekend, relinquishing an opportunity to finish over par. Now, hoping to avoid extending its mid-October skid to five games, any hopes at a .500 record need to outlast next weekend’s road trip to Rowan University.
Success without strings about summed up the remainder of the weekly release, with none of the other honorees subjected to that kind of backhanded fortune.
The senior’s 246 yards on 37 carries marked the most stout rushing total his career, and of any league performer this season. He also scored twice toward his team’s 20-0 margin over William Paterson University.
Named twice subjectively—after both his season’s 200+ yard performances—the NJAC’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year rules its statistical leader board outright, topping the list with his 114.6-yard game average.
An integral player in the Lions’ woes during and after Saturday’s game, Western Connecticut State linebacker Greg Galasso was named the conference’s top defensive performer. The sophomore recorded 22 tackles toward his Colonials’ win Saturday—each notable with regard to this season.
Bolstered by accessory accomplishments, including a sack and tackle-for-loss, his individual output was the most produced by an NJAC performer this year. Its records dating back only to 2003, the league could only offer with certainty that it was also the best single-game total during the span.
Additionally, the W helped foster his program’s second victory in 2009—both in the past three weeks (won vs. Brockport in Wk. 8).
The senior became his team’s second captor of the NJAC’s Special Teams Player of the Week this season, averaging 38.5 yards on each of his four punts.
Punishing the Golden Eagles as directly as he could, Peterson landed three punts inside Brockport’s 20-yard line. He twice cornered the team’s offense within its own five-yard line, likely accounting for some of the difference in a potent offensive bout that finished 56-42—advantage SUNY-Cortland.
Helping the Profs big rebound from last week’s double-overtime loss, Rowan wide receiver James Kinloch snagged NJAC recognition as its top offensive rookie–his second already in his inaugural collegiate season.
The freshman averaged 26.6 yards on his three catches, good for 80 yards on the afternoon. His 56-yard touchdown accounted for half of the team’s points scored against Montclair State University, in a contest decided by only seven (Rowan def. MSU, 14-7).
Now third in league standings, Rowan’s win this weekend handed the Red Hawks (prev. undefeated in NJAC) a dethroning loss, knocking Montclair State from the top of the conference.
Equivocation, puffery, and jaded optimism aside—that one was tough to watch.
For those with invested sentiments prior to TCNJ’s loss to Western Connecticut State—friends and family gathered for TCNJ Senior Day 2009—hearts ached at the sight, translated as a tear-jerking defeat that interrupted seniors’ final bow from Lions Stadium’s field-turf stage.
“It’s definitely tough,” Lions’ quad-captain Cam Richardson said, moments after he dazzled fans for one last time with 78 yards on his team-leading eight catches.
“Obviously last game ever in the place you’ve played in for four years you wanna go out on top, with a win.”
For everyone else, the 37-34 margin struck the same chord, a slight advantage in a disheartening upset.
The Colonials (2-7, 2-6 New Jersey Athletic Conference) second win of 2009 marked the fifth tally in the wrong column for TCNJ (4-5, 3-5 NJAC). After walking away victors from four of their first five—sizing up hopes for an unlikely run at the conference crown—the Lions have been beaten into humility of late, their now eyes fixated on a four-game skid (last won Oct. 10).
“Every week’s different,” head coach Eric Hamilton said of whether he thought the past month has gotten to players. “Maybe the last two weeks, because it was hard these last two weeks.”
Consensus could be reached on that comment, players ailing both body and spirit. But more than any other—one with which even the agnostic fellowship could agree—instead of an anticipated day of celebration, what fans got was one straight from hell.
An unsightly beginning paralleled its sour finish. The image of quarterback Chris James’ blue number four jersey without shoulder pads beneath it indicated he’d been scratched from his final home start as a collegiate athlete.
Though, coaches and players insisted it wasn’t the absence of their four-year starter that determined Saturday’s outcome.
“Jay did well,” Hamilton said of the sophomore’s first career start. “But Jay will be the first one to tell you we lost the game.”
It wasn’t his fault, but Chris James’ two-year understudy said he wasn’t as troubled by the game’s end as much as a part of its means that might have changed it, had things gone differently.
“I did OK,” said Jay Donoghue of his 22-of-28 overachievement, inclusive of 194 yards and three touchdowns.
“I mean, that play is going to haunt me a little bit,” he said later, referring to a late, fourth-quarter interception that slipped through senior wide receiver Mark Gardner’s hands. “I didn’t see exactly what happened, but … that’s definitely in part my fault. I’ve gotta take that one a little bit.”
Trailing those three deciding points with just over six minutes remaining, Donoghue was perfect on the first 13 plays of that 76-yard drive—one started just inside the Lions’ 10-yard line.
His backfield offered ample support, namely through of 40 yards on Mike Yetka’s five carries during the possession–a sizable portion of his afternoon’s totals (Yetka-20 rush, 118 yds; led TCNJ).
But Donoghue’s precision on five passes that safely found four different targets—fittingly all senior wideouts—marched James’ offense to 15 yards outside the storybook finish for which onlookers hoped.
But after that first-down play, invoking generally understood angst, the only debate argued which hurt more:
The big plays the Colonials made, or the ones the Lions couldn’t.
“Everything we were able to do is what we wanted to with the game plan,” said TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta, after the group amassed 444 yards of total offense. “But right now we’re lacking the big-play potential.”
The explosion that ignited the nation’s former No. 1 scoring offense showed glimpses Saturday, magnified by Colin Weber’s 22-yard grab to break TCNJ’s season scoring mark (originally 295, set in 1989).
Gardner, who led the corps of five seniors with 83 yards on eight grabs, scaled defenders for circus scores on two fade routes earlier, from 15 and 14 yards out. Even after the latter created an eight point deficit four minutes into the third period (TCNJ led 34-26), Acosta said he needed one more a quarter later.
“You get your hands on the football, you gotta catch it. … It’s a shame that it had to come down to this because this is a talented football team we have.”
While Bill Picatagi’s 25-yard first-quarter dash to pay dirt represented the Lions longest play-from-scrimmage, three early receptions accounted for 145 of the Colonials’ 265 first-half yards, not to mention 19 of its points (finished w/ 359 yds).
“When you blow coverages in Week Eight, that’s tough,” Hamilton said of the lengthy gains. “We just weren’t on the same page.”
His defense allowed only a single third-down conversion on Western Connecticut’s 10 attempts, while his offense scored five touchdowns. But, himself stripped of emotion, Hamilton offered equal opportunity criticism.
“It wasn’t the defense’s fault. It was as much the offense’s fault as the defense’s. … But offensively when we get the opportunity we’ve gotta step on the neck. We didn’t do that in a couple of situations. It’s a team loss. What are you gonna do?”
Maybe it’s a stretch, a desperate clenching to what was supposed to be positive. But according to Hamilton’s assistants, there’s only one way to respond.
“Do you dwell on this and get down?” Acosta said. “Nah. You build on it.
“This is what coaching is about, what playing is about. Building up, moving on and getting better. It’s just bringing these guys back tomorrow and getting them together so they can believe.”
Last Saturday—a week removed from his defense’s most outstanding performance to date—Ryan Flannery gazed into nothingness, minutes after what seemed like all that progress’ deconstruction. He spoke out in heated frustration, saying about as much.
The unit’s most recent outing might not have expanded construction on the monument of success erected during a 16-13 loss against Montclair State University. But even if it seemed like the group had resorted to its old ways—allowing 300+ yards of SUNY-Cortland offense—it just wouldn’t be possible for 60 minutes to erase countless hours of building, resulting in this foundation.
It can’t be quantified—certainly not by NCAA standards, like the ones that rank TCNJ’s among other run-of-the-mill defenses in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (ranked no higher than 6th in any statistical category). But it’s there nonetheless, the earliest sprouts of seeds planted way back in August, finally starting to germinate.
What is it, besides that X-factor swag—a quality collectively offered by each player’s colorful personality and ostensible chip on their shoulders? It is understanding.
And now that they’ve got it, it’s not going anywhere.
“Compared to the beginning of the year it’s night and day,” free safety Matt Kreider said before Friday’s walk through. “…Starting then, working until now, we’re a completely different team. I know it seems like we may have taken a step back last week…but I still see us improving.”
Kreider, now a junior, said he was well-versed in specificities immediately after the team broke camp—the Xes and Os of the scheme. But even so, he hadn’t quite put it all together.
“In Week One, I feel like I had the knowledge to regurgitate it to you—like how when you cram for a test. I could tell you everything, but I couldn’t use it functionally.”
Becoming the team’s leading tackler by Week Nine, Kreider spoke retrospectively, remembering on experiences of his and everyone else’s inexperience. But looking around now, he’s begun to notice an overwhelming grasp of what he’s asked, immediately processing the order and deducing the philosophy behind it.
“Now I feel like I know what everyone’s doing, why they’re doing it. And I feel like more and more players on our defense are at that point now. Before you’re in position and you don’t know what the hell’s going on. Now it’s starting to click.”
It’s taken a while, and from time to time, they’ve taken a beating while the matter sorted itself out.
Twice has the Lions’ defense forfeited opponent yards totals in excess of 500 yards (Morrisville St., Brockport). Its across-the-ball adversaries have garnered 30 points in all but two of the unit’s appearances—one being Kean’s 28 points in Week 5. Perhaps worst of all is the ravaging toll fate has taken over the course of this trying 2009 season, sending seven frequent starters to the sideline for varying severities of injury and stretches of time (Beres, DeCongelio, Flannery, Goreczny, Hadduch, Jones, Spahn).
Some might even argue that it’s greatest misfortunes have helped incubate it’s achievements.
“The silver lining of a lot of guys being hurt is it gives an opportunity to a lot of different guys to get playing time,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said over the phone, earlier in the week.
“From that standpoint we’d like to think that no matter who we put in, he’s got a grasp of what he’s doing and can do the job for us.”
Hiccups aside—those within and beyond control—there’s no doubt that the scheme has finally nestled in, taking residence in players’ unconsciousness thought processes. And now that it’s internalized, a sixth-sense since it’s become second-nature, players say it allows them to…well…just play the game.
“From the beginning, I feel like we were thinking too much out there,” Flannery said after Friday’s light workout.
“Young guys stepped up and started understanding the scheme. We’re doing more reacting than thinking. That’s always good—instead of being a step slower.”
And, according to one of those afore mentioned youngsters—whose personal success has fortified the Lions’ much-maligned second-level—that ability to allow innate impulses dictate his play has been a big reason why.
“Now it’s just pretty much being there and making the play. The physical part’s done. It’s more mentally. Just making sure I’m where I’m supposed to be on every play. …I feel confident. I pretty much know everything I’m doing.”
Whether they’ve reached this alleged breakthrough remains unknown, a secret locked in the inner-most workings of each player’s mind. Whatever the case may be, coaches say the recently completed work-in-progress is good enough, a pleasure to watch in their mind.
“It’s just encouraging to look at it from a staff perspective,” Hamilton said, all too proud of his players’ development.
“Early in the season, when we were struggling, it looked like kids were just confused a lot of different times. … But our best games have come later in the season. That’s the positive we’re taking out of it. We’re on the rise and that’s all you can ask for.”
Hamilton said he had no complaints, but TCNJ’s second-year defensive play-caller said he knows what he’d wish for, should he happen to trip on a magic lamp before the season—and his time with this group—comes to an end.
“When all of a sudden it clicks, and things are going well … you say, ‘Damn it.
“‘I wish we had five or six more weeks to really start having some fun.’”
A passerby roams the halls just outside the TCNJ locker room. He sees a familiar scene—player and reporter, discussing usual pre-game points of emphasis.
He continues without much thought.
But, upon hearing the subject matter of an otherwise pedestrian conversation—the team’s condition in the tentative care of its backup quarterback—his proverbial mental train is rerouted, the itinerary of his impulses provoking the following reaction:
“Oh Jay Donoghue? He’s the man.”
Whether he’ll be the man for the Lions this weekend is uncertain. The status of starting quarterback Chris James is under raps, and his understudy remains largely unproven—on paper, at least. But, should he get the nod, there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing to voice concerns.
Maybe it’s because there aren’t any.
“We have complete confidence in Donoghue,” said wide receiver Colin Weber, who’s worked with the youngster daily since August.
Weber, whose 69.75 receiving yards a game rounds out the conference’s top-three most prolific weekly averages, says he’s window-shopped for months now, browsing aisle after aisle of the kid’s goods.
And he says he’s sold.
“He’s been our backup quarterback for two years—he’s been practicing every day. He’s a smart kid, he knows the system and he works hard. Like I said, we have complete confidence that he can lead us to a win tomorrow.”
Sure to mention that his friend and fellow senior would surely be missed—both presence and production—Weber couldn’t identify a resounding deviance from the team’s weekly business, even with the prospect of Donoghue under center.
“Nothing’s really changing at all. We’re not game-planning any different than we would. We’re game planning for West[ern] Conn[ecticut], not necessarily considering Chris out, we’re just continuing with what we have and with our game plan. He knows the system.”
Now, if it were written as a textbook, the Lions’ spread offense wouldn’t quite qualify as light reading. Chapters would include lessons on the zone-read option, scores of combination routes and pass schemes—all with specified progressions—and those are just the fundamentals. Suggested, accessory readings would include various works on option routes, identifying coverages, and intro to footwork instructional manuscripts.
Mind you, that’s what can be taught. Lest we forget intangibles like pocket presence, decision-making and—most important of all—it.
Fortunately for Donoghue, its architect designed the scheme specifically for easy operation. He also kept malleability in mind.
“Our system is friendly,” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said after Friday’s walk-through. “It adapts to all the different kids we have and talent we have. Some things we had to push back because Chris does things—he creates. Being young, we don’t want to put Jay in that situation. We just want him to play.”
Which, according to the man of the hour—potentially closer than a full 24 before his most telling—is about what he’s going for.
“I don’t know,” said Donoghue—his revelation of predetermined strategy before tomorrow’s contest. “I guess whatever the coaches tell me to do.”
Elaborating on his otherwise vague break-down, Donoghue said he’s just trying to keep an even keel, banking on his approximated recipe for success calling for a few heaping tablespoons of staying within himself.
“Quarterback is one of those positions you just gotta stay composed and make sure you’re making all the right reads. [You] don’t get too crazy. Save all that stuff on the defense.”
Invoking a reserved sense of assuredness from the program, Donoghue still might not be asked of much—neither by himself or coaches. But those around him have already tailored their expectations of themselves
“We’re trying to make every play for him,” wide receiver Cam Richardson said. “If he puts a ball out there we gotta make sure we go get it for him, so he gets rhythm, gets confidence and we can get it rolling.”
Weber might stand alone as its statistical leader, but the corps as a whole represents the most high-wattage beacon of senior leadership. The backbone of its pentagon shape incorporates five student-athletes—all wideouts, all in their fourth and final year of eligibility (Gardner, Hendrickson, Picatagi, Richardson, Weber).
And according to Richardson, designated in training camp as one of the team’s four official headship representatives, there’s plenty more Donoghue’s group of targets can offer.
“From a mental aspect, we’re just trying to keep him calm. Obviously it’s a new situation for him, whereas with Chris, he’s been playing as longer than any of us receivers have been playing, at least here at the College. So mentally, we definitely feel responsible. Keep him calm, help him make plays, and maybe let him lean on us where we might have leaned on Chris.”
Funny thing is, most of the program is having a difficult enough time composing themselves.
“I’m pretty excited for Jay this week,” Acosta said, anxious to see his project fully function. “That’s our future. You definitely want to give playing time to your future, because when it comes around next year, he has playing experience.”
An undoubted benefit on the side, the second-year coordinator doesn’t consider tomorrow an investment toward years to come. Nor does he necessarily foresee pending rookie mistakes—a guarantee for just about anyone else.
“Jay’s ready to go. He’s gonna do some special things tomorrow. And we’re going to take the good with the bad with it—we’ll live with him.”
For Saturday, but a ninth of their season’s collective existence, Acosta, the offense—maybe even the team—could very well hinge upon the fluid swing of Donoghue’s right arm.
But the man himself? He’s just trying to live.
In the moment, that is.
“Absolutely,” he said, insisting he’ll relish an opportunity.
“It’s a great game. Why not?”
Talk about a weird feeling.
TCNJ’s recent three-week skid embodies a number of variations of the term. It’s weird in the literal sense, for certain a digression from what you’d hope to experience over the course of the season. It also reflects irony, a stark contrast from an early-season span—in total, three weekends—during which the team stomped out its opposition and its history.
But above all, the Lions’ three-game losing streak invokes an unfamiliar culture-shock to the program, one that hasn’t faced a similar period in, you guessed it, three years. Excavating recent memory, you’d have to look all the way back to the 2006 season, during which the team dropped consecutive games from October 21 until November 4, before it finally ousted the long-unwelcomed guest a week later (def. Kean, 14-10).
Needless to say, it’s tricky for everyone involved.
It poses a predicament for coaches, striving to maintain team cohesion—not to mention prepare their players for this weekend’s pending challenge.
You know. The games it hasn’t yet played?
“It’s not easy,” defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said over the phone. “I would say when you go through a stretch like that, players and coaches get frustrated much quicker and much easier. You’ve gotta make sure you’re not letting the little things blow over and set you off.”
Now in his second year wearing Nokia headphones on the Lions’ sidelines, the former TCNJ specialist insists team unity exists as a cure-it-all elixir for this or any struggle bound to arise over the course of a season.
“If everybody stays together, morale stays high. When you’re together, you’re on the highs together and the lows together. It’s when you get frustrated and start bickering about the little things that everything falls [apart].”
His father, perhaps minimally more tenured in Trenton, suggests that even the most effective means of treatment is a misallocation of ever-so-precious time.
“You don’t,” said head coach Eric Hamilton, his quipped response to the raised notion of any prospective difficulty. “You can’t drive a car looking in the rear view mirror. What’s happened has happened. That’s like me telling you, two weeks ago, a team we almost put into overtime is playing for a conference championship. Montclair State. You can’t worry about what could have been or what might have been. You have to worry about what is.”
Now in his 33rd year, Hamilton, Sr. has seen his fair share of…well…anything and everything a parodied college football season might offer. But, resurrecting the mentality of his former Division III All-American self, he’s well-versed in the language spoken in any true competitor’s internal monologue.
“If you’re an athlete, when you put the helmet on and the pads on, you know you’ve got ten opportunities to win. This is opportunity number nine coming up. You don’t worry about the last game, or the next game. You worry about this game. That’s where the pride factor comes in. If you put on blue and gold, you play each game to win. Regardless of what your record has been or what it might be. You play that game.”
The ones playing now said they feel about the same.
“It sucks,” said Drew Mason, a starter on the Lions’ offensive line. “But every week you wanna go out and win. Your focus is still the same. Losing sucks, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it during the week other than going out there and working hard.”
Now, in the waning moments of his fourth year, Mason can recollect feelings from his earliest memories with the program—that 4-6 season years past.
He says there’s not much difference.
“It’s always tough. No one likes to lose.”
Mason, however, doesn’t hold the only subscription to that school of thought. Other faces around the TCNJ locker room spoke in a similar tone, regardless of familiarity with such a daunting perpetual hangover.
“I’ve had the same situation in high school, so I guess I could say I’m used to it,” said cornerback Dean Misura, experiencing much of the same his third year at Holmdel high.
After an internal dispute among members of the school’s athletics department, the program’s entire coaching staff refused to finish out its 2005 season. With local Pop Warner coaches helping out as canisters of volunteer spackling, Misura and his then-teammates experienced a winless drought—lasting the remaining four dates on the schedule.
“Obviously it’s different here, and I like to notice how the players react. Some people are down, but it seems like for the most part everyone has their own way of keeping their heads up and getting at it in practice.”
Based on what he believes is a proper prescription, the observation reflects what he would hope to see.
“You try to not let losing effect you—how you play, how you feel mentally. Everyone has a bad day, [stuff] happens, you gotta pick yourself up emotionally and just get ready for the next week. Ultimately I guess it hurts, it might bring you down a little bit.”
Hailed more regularly for his play on the Lions’ special teams than as its back-porch poet of philosophy, Misura managed to mold the scenario into a breeding ground for unlikely benefits.
“But you could look at it another way. It might make you stronger, it might make you more mad—that you wanna just get at it. You’ve got less to lose essentially.
“You just want to give it everything you got next week.”
November 14 happens be its culmination, but the game scheduled that afternoon more closely embodies the climax of the Lions’ New Jersey Athletic Conference calendar.
The rivalry between the two programs is as bitter as they come, analogous to the irrevocable flavor that goes along with dismissal from the conference championship conversation—what the Lions have tasted now for weeks.
Fortunately for TCNJ—or Rowan, upon the finale of a different season, one it hoped might have turned out better—a win against the Profs can undo some of what did inflict disappointment on its 2009 campaign.
If nothing else, it’s just a game that players look forward to.
“No matter how good either team’s record is, it’s always a close game,” wide receiver Mark Gardner said over the phone. “It’s a big game.”
Gardner, one of the team’s senior leaders, says he was exposed to the sentiment early.
“My freshman year, [former Lions’ offensive coordinator] Coach [Rich] Alerico used to tell us, ‘We only play one team that’s puke orange—and that’s Rowan.’”
Now, two weeks removed from his career’s fourth installment of the series, the Texas-native’s enthusiasm pervaded his voice, his words themselves seething with anxiousness in advent of his last crack at the much-despised gang, hailing from Glassboro.
“It’s going to be the last game for the seniors and we’re going to leave it all out there. It’s going to be great. I’m excited.”
But, duly redirecting attention to the current text of his season, Gardner insisted that—for now—any such discussion overemphasizes a footnote, one that won’t be important until later.
“We have to deal with Western Connecticut first, though. I know their record isn’t great, but they’re a scary team. You don’t really know what to expect. You just don’t know what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.”
Before they’ll hitch a ride down the New Jersey Turnpike for each program’s predestined engagement of mutual tenacity, Gardner and the rest of his TCNJ squad will welcome an inferior opponent to Lions’ Stadium—both with regard to prestige and bigger-picture implications.
This calendar year, Western Connecticut State (1-7, 1-6 NJAC) won its lonesome triumph two weeks ago, in an classic finish during which, it seemed, fate had slighted The College at Brockport.
With only 62 seconds remaining in the shootout—destined to produce 89 points—Colonials’ quarterback James Williams found his second-year tight end, sophomore Mike Keating, standing all alone in the end zone during a 3rd and goal play from the Golden Eagles’ three-yard line. After statisticians added the seven points that thrust Western Connecticut State ahead, 45-44, it represented the game’s ninth lead-change—a rare advantage that wouldn’t be relinquished.
Though most numerals beside the Colonials’ early-season outcomes indicate less decisive margins, often at the their expense—kind of like the 72-10 pounding it took from, coincidentally, Rowan University—the Lions’ locker room doesn’t show any signs of underestimation.
“The team as a whole, especially with the seniors, we only have two more games,” Gardner said in continuation. “We’re busting our butts [to make sure we’re ready].”
And, he says, the team’s elders aren’t the only ones acting that way.
“But also, Coach Ham’s been giving a lot of the younger guys time on special teams and they’ve been busting their butts. I don’t think anyone’s overlooking them at all.”
The unit’s collective focus is honorable, for sure. But, according to coaches—more mindful of recent past than future—they can’t justify any reason it would be.
“We lost the last three weeks in a row,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said. “We’re not interested in looking past anyone. We need to get a ‘W.’ I could care less who we’re playing in two weeks. We’re playing Western Connecticut this week.
“Losing focus looking ahead? I don’t think so.”
Offering his answer as an interruption to the prompting question, Hamilton’s staff emulated the same reaction.
“First things, first. Rowan doesn’t even come into the equation. We’ve lost three straight.” Lions’ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said—in an entirely separate telephone interview.
“We’ve got to beat Western Connecticut. Their record might not show it but they’ve got some players. If we’re not prepared to play, we’re going to be in for a long day.”
And that’s about exactly how Gardner and the rest of the program has approached this upcoming weekend—by all appearances an insignificant stepping stone. Trying to ready himself mentally for Saturday’s impending opponent, Gardner—both a diligent student toward classroom lectures and film study sessions—has noticed only one tendency based on what he’s seen.
“They bring the house on first down just as many times as they do on third down. That’s just how they are.”
But most advantageous to the Colonials, a vulnerability to unwary competitors, is their assumed attitude— an immeasurable ally that’s gradually fostered over the course of a season ridden with so many Ls.
“They’ve only won one game. They’ve got nothing to lose. That’s kind of scary.”
Ryan Flannery definitely would have welcomed a chance to acclaim his defense in response to post-game interview questions, hoping to stand minutes removed from perpetuating last week’s dominance.
Conditioned to seeing the redshirted junior’s limbs extended toward blocked extra points and errant passes, it’s not hard to picture the TCNJ free safety’s arms wide open at the opportunity.
“I think we definitely took a step back,” he said, a short week removed from TCNJ’s first sub-200-yard defensive stand since 2007—the year it claimed a share of the conference title (limited MSU to 169 yds total offense).
In contrast to its stout effort put forth during a16-13 homecoming loss to Montclair State University, Red Dragons’ running back Dom Sair finished just 14 yards shy of extending his two-game streak of eclipsing the century mark to three, averaging 4.5 yards on his 19 attempts (MSU Jeff Bliss—29 rush, 32 yds).
It may have maintained status as the conference’s sixth-best–or, fourth-worst–unit against the run (avg. 179 yds/gm). But the dissolving mixture of precipitation (compliments of Mother Nature) and pressure (attributed to SUNY-Cortland) eroded any foundation erected upon its short-lived success.
Entering the season listed as the Red Dragons’ starting fullback—predominantly a blocking back in his offense’s conventional I-formation—the junior barreled through Lion tacklers for the entirety of the afternoon, epitomized during a one-yard touchdown to christen his team’s scoring.
“Montclair [State] was clearly our best game we had as a defense and we were trying to follow that up with a solid performance,” said Flannery, minutes after SUNY-Cortland garnered offensive yardage totals over 300 for the seventh time this season (Cortland-310 total off.) “We didn’t do that today.”
Maybe not. But outside circumstances didn’t often offer favorable opportunities for success. And Flannery—an on-the-field extension of TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton—knew it.
“As a team, we put ourselves in bad situations—fumbling the ball and on special teams. It hurt us a lot.”
The impact of altogether ineffective afternoon for the Lions offense (season-low 190 yds) pervaded even after changes of possession, evidenced by SUNY-Cortland’s absurd starting field-position throughout the contest (avg. start C41). Setting up shop, on average, from the TCNJ 44 during the second quarter, the period produced 16 of the Red Dragons’ third-highest point-total of the season (most-42, Sept. 3 vs. Buffalo St.).
Well-aware of the stacked odds—it’d be hard not to notice—Pac-Man Flan still argued that his defense needed to improve its effort toward damage-control.
“As a defensive side, we’ve gotta stop them,” though it did on 10-of-12 unsuccessful Red Dragon 3rd downs. “We’ve gotta force field goals. We can’t always allow easy touchdowns.”
The group settled into new digs after Week 5 while gradually progressing elsewhere according to NJAC barometers. Actually adding a quarter-tally to average opponent point totals , the unit hasn’t to budged from the conference’s sixth-ranked spot since early October (opp. avg. 30.50 pts/gm).
But scoreboard currency wasn’t all it issued in 2009. Ravaged by injuries and hampered by its schizophrenic offense, the group already fostered two performances worthy of weekly conference accolades entering Saturday’s match-up.
…To players not wearing TCNJ navy and gold (Chunn-Kean, McKinney-WPU won NJAC Offensive Player of the Week for Wks 5, 7). And after the versatile contribution by one of its emerging stars, a recent SUNY-Cortland impact player earned this season’s third at the expense of the ailing Lions’ D.
Wide receiver Justin Autera’s statistical impact toward coach-turned-captain Alex Smith’s 10-of-20 performance on his third step on 2009’s progressive reclamation consisted of a lonely catch for no gain.
But, adding 67 toward the Red Dragons’ 207 total gains on the ground on his only five carries, the freshman woke up to an early-morning shout-out from the conference commissioner’s office, named this week’s top rookie performer.
Two Saturdays removed from winning league honors as Week Seven’s top specialist, Autera’s afternoon also reiterated his value as a weapon-of-mass-yardage in any field position battle.
Of the four punts he fielded—gaining 98 yards altogether—he returned one 51 yards to the TCNJ seven yard-line, priming a SUNY-Cortland touchdown three plays later. He was tackled 31 yards into another, three plays before a 40-yard field-goal that extended his squad’s advantage to 16 points.
Flannery and the rest of the team conceded hopes of a post-season berth two weeks ago, after it lost its third inter-conference bout to Montclair State. But even after Saturday added to a game to the team’s losing skid (lost last 3 gms.)—the streak its defense didn’t continued—one of its proven leaders focused on what could be salvaged.
“We’ve got two games left,” said Flannery, looking forward to next weekend’s home finale versus Western Connecticut State (1-6, 1-5 NJAC; last in conf.). “Six-and-four is a still a lot better than five-hundred.”
Should a quarterback finish a game he didn’t start, there’s a few premises under which the change can take place.
And no–at face value, not all are positive. Two in particular lay on opposite ends of the benefit-detriment spectrum.
Should a backup enter the action, it could indicate that the starter’s been given the rest of the afternoon (or evening) off—a gesture of appreciation for his immediate effort, and bigger-picture respect for his body of work.
The other, a fear-strickening sight for sore eyes, can thrust a reserve player into the mix without his or his coaches’ consent. If its No. 1 quarterback goes down with an injury, the inflicted program can only hope for the best from his understudy—generally younger, less proven and/or battle-tested.
Listed on the bottom half of TCNJ’s two-deep, quarterback Jay Donoghue has experienced both this season.
The sophomore saw his season’s first action as early as Week 3, handed the keys to the Lions’ high-octane offense that already posted 51 points after 45 lopsided minutes. He threw only twice, connecting with wide receiver Erik Hendrickson on an unsuccessful 3rd down attempt in the third quarter.
Though limited, his 2009 resume boasts an eight-play, 79 yard scoring drive orchestrated with the offense’s seasoned program player offering support from the sidelines.
He didn’t make much noise, but he didn’t make crippling mistakes either. His evening was quiet, but at least it didn’t plant seeds of doubt in his coaches’ minds in advent of this off-season’s most pivotal decision—selecting a suitor for a Chris James-less offense.
Contrasting the favorable scenario preceding its comfy move earlier in the year, Saturday’s first-half scare during the team’s 30-7 loss forced its No. 2 into the volatile atmosphere imposed by Division III’s 23rd most-effective pass rush (SUNY-Cortland avg. 8.75 sacks/gm). In spite of the circumstances—including, but not limited to temperamental weather conditions, physical inferiority in the trenches, and, of course, the sight of the team’s four-year starter writhing near the sideline late in the game’s opening period—Donoghue seemed ready, if not excited.
He completed two of his first three throws—both shovel passes to hybrid wide receiver/tight end Bill Picatagi in the waning minutes of the first half—surviving, not yet asked to thrive. But after he’d been entrusted with leading the offense and carrying his team, already buried in a 23-point abyss, Donoghue erupted out of the locker room.
He rushed toward the sideline, his head on a swivel in search a center—or anyone really—with whom he could take warm-up snaps. Only when he felt comfortable with handling those crucial exchanges, he turned his attention to his seething anxious energy, leaping while kicked up his knees into his chest.
Only in his second year with the program, his childlike vigor was understood, maybe even expected. But his veteran resilience and poise under the least forgiving of environments couldn’t have been anticipated, in part an input toward its resounding impression.
“He did well,” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said after the game. “Under the circumstances coming into today, I think he really stepped up and managed what we had,” or didn’t–considering he operated an offense less its two starting tailbacks and a handful of offensive linemen.
His shoulder pads already unclipped for the game’s final 30 minutes, a half-unsuited Chris James reverberated his coach’s praise.
“I think he played well. I talked to him about a couple things, putting the ball on the carpet,” he said, referring to two fumbles after poorly executed hand-offs—both the youngster’s fault. “That’s not good at any standpoint. But he definitely did a good job.”
Sure to mention its immediate flaws, James insisted that his performance and the experience should pay dividends down the road.
“He also got some experience today. That’s gonna do a lot for him next year and however many more he has.”
Surprisingly upbeat afterward, even following a fourth-quarter shot from SUNY-Cortland defensive end Alex Greenberg that dislodged the lanky 19-year-old from the football, Donoghue spoke of his career’s first realistic simulation like he’d enjoyed himself.
Animated, not jaded by enthusiasm, he assumed blame for the few tarnishes on his afternoon.
“It could have went a lot better,” he said, critically noting the expected rookie errors. “A couple plays out there, I gotta hold onto the ball. But other than that it, I mean, it’s my first real half I got to play so it was [still pretty good].”
Battered, not rattled, he didn’t seem phased by N. F. L. prospect Bryan Wiley—ranked No. 10 on the national sack leader board—nor would he buckle under the weight of the unfamiliar responsibility.
“I felt pretty comfortable in there,” said Donoghue, a claim supported after he’d completed nine of his 13 passes for 59 yards. “Wet, rain, cold—it doesn’t help, but I’ve still gotta make the plays out there.”
The team’s ailing starter didn’t appear to be seriously injured during the game. But if Chris James can’t go next week, Donoghue said he’s fully capable of rising to the challenge.
“Oh yeah—I’m definitely comfortable. Chris is the toughest competitor there is, so I’m sure he’ll be back. But if he’s not, I’ll be ready.”
No official information on James’ return is available, nor is it expected to be released. But next Saturday’s home finale is anticipated to be chock-full of insight—both into James’ health, and Donoghue’s self-proclaimed readiness.
CORTLAND, NY–What went well during Saturday’s blowout in SUNY-Cortland Stadium Complex—moreover, what didn’t—depended on your perspective. And for the few Lions’ faithful seated among the 825 in the arena, the 30-7 rout offered plenty of fuel for pessimism.
Holding onto a feasible shot at New Jersey Athletic Conference championship contention as recently as a month earlier, SUNY-Cortland (6-2, 6-3 NJAC) handed TCNJ (4-4, 3-4 NJAC) its fourth conference loss this weekend—extending the Lions’ late-October skid to three games.
The streak itself buries memories of the team’s once-promising 2009 campaign, an unanticipated start that—had it continued—could have distanced the program from disappointing seasons past. Its worst three-week period in years, literally, the Lions’ hadn’t dropped three straight since 2006, when they lost consecutive dates from October 21 until November 10 (W 14-10 vs. Kean on Nov. 11).
The team finished 4-6 overall that year.
An epic win toward the Red Dragons’ season, the Lions’ effort in its latest installment was historic with regard to the series.
The 23-point margin returned the favor for the TCNJ’s 30-0 win two years ago, its successful effort to wedge its way toward a piece of the 2007 NJAC throne—one it shared with SUNY-Cortland. Ranking in the top-five most-lopsided deficits in rivalry history, the spread was its widest since 1967 (Cortland W 40-0).
But even in the immediate, the loss showed early signs of a horrific worst-case scenario for the team and toward hopes to salvage its season.
When Chris James went down late in the first quarter, hit while throwing a third-down interception, TCNJ fans could only watch in helpless disbelief. The team had lost both its starting running backs in 60 minutes a week ago, apparently the advanced stages of an injury bug that already ravaged its offensive line.
“Do you know what we’re playing with right now?” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said of the team’s recent depth chart woes. “Two tailbacks out (starters Justin Donoloski, Chase Misura), our quarterback’s banged up. Tackles are banged up (Drew Mason). Guards are banged up (Joe Mecca). We’re not deep at all.”
The cerebral leader of its complex offense, losing the four-year starter would diminish any hopes of finishing the season strong with only two games remaining—clear that the one in progress was far out of reach.
The scene demanded heartfelt sympathy for the senior personally, considering how close he’d come to setting a few more career marks to add to his expansive trophy cabinet.
Entering the game as the record-holder for most attempts, completions and yards in school history, James needed only 235 yards to eclipse the program’s mark for yardage in a single season, and three more scores through the air to reign supreme as its undisputed passing king (Bob Schurtz-1937 pass yds in 2001, Flip Faherty-48 pass TDs bet. 1982-83). Had an injury ended this season prematurely, robbing him from one last crack at TCNJ’s most bitter rival (Wk 11 vs. Rowan), it also would have cut short an already accomplished career that could have been padded with a few more starts.
When he returned for three of his offense’s four second-quarter possessions it supported teammates’ claims of his toughness.
“He’s a fighter, man,” backup quarterback Jay Donoghue said afterward. “He never gives up.”
But when he explained his departure for the entirety of the second half, his decision to pull himself out of the game epitomized another distinguishing feature—his selflessness. Not to mention, of course, it permitted much-appreciated sighs of relief.
“I didn’t want to hurt the team’s chances, being selfish and playing on a bum [wheel] when I can’t run that much and I can’t move,” James said of his limitations, completing only seven of his 14 throws for 55 yards while leading the struggling offense that garnered only 90 first-half yards (finished w/ season-low 165 total yds).
“I just told [coaches] to take me out and put Jay in. He needs the experience for next year.”
The move made sense—though the assumptions it provoked couldn’t have gone over well with fans.
The Lions only trailed by 16 with just over three minutes remaining in the second quarter, after SUNY-Cortland kicker Marc Corrado added three with his successful 40-yard attempt. But later, just nine ticks away from a chance to regroup in the locker room, Anthony Guiliano’s touchdown grab from 26 yards out dissolved any realistic chances of a TCNJ comeback (Cortland led 23-0 at halftime).
Frustrated with the game’s end result and his inability to impact it, James couldn’t help but project how things could have gone differently after.
“In the beginning, a couple turnovers and then the fumble down there,” he said, alluding to the untimely turnover at SUNY-Cortland’s 33-yard line, ending the Lions’ second possession. “I really believe might have it switched the whole thing. Maybe I don’t get hurt, maybe we score a touchdown right there and get momentum—college football’s all about momentum.”
The sentiment is understandable, considering how poor a taste any loss—let alone one that decisive—leaves in any true competitor’s mouth. But even though no official information was given from the program, his words and demeanor suggest he’ll likely be back next Saturday for his final home game as a collegiate athlete (Nov. 7 vs. Western Connecticut St.)—another shot to cement his name in record books and reroute the course of his season gone awry.
So for those struggling to maintain a positive outlook moving forward, be mindful of this past Saturday—a brief reminder that no matter how bad the going gets, it could always be worse.
Becoming the third player this season to seize honors at the expense of the TCNJ defense, the New Jersey Athletic Conference dubbed SUNY-Cortland wide receiver Justin Autera its Offensive Rookie of the Week.
Extending a recent trend, the freshman has now appeared on the conference top-player weekly release for his second time in three weeks.
He garnered this week’s accolades for his effort toward the Red Dragons’ decisive win over the Lions, during which he carried five times for 67 yards. Contributing most of his ground tallies via misdirected and reverse rushes, one good for 29 yards, he bolstered his average yards per carry to 13.4 on the afternoon. He also recorded a lone reception for no gain.
The conference’s top specialist for Week 7, the freshman delivered another outstanding performance toward SUNY-Cortland’s effort in the field position battle.
Autera returned one of his four punts 51 yards to the TCNJ 27-yard line, setting up the team’s coach-turned-captain Alex Smith‘s first of two touchdown passes, a three yard lob to Eric Hanjos in the second quarter. Another, worth a solid 31 yards, he brought back to the Lions’ 29, priming an opportunity for kicker Marc Corrado‘s 40-yard field goal to extend the Red Dragon lead to 16-0.
Elsewhere in the conference, Brockport quarterback Jake Graci also earned his season’s second conference shout-out, propelling his Golden Eagles to its 59-28 win over Morrisville State. He completed just over 55% of his throws (16-of-29), but averaged 9.06 yards per attempt in the victory, snapping the program’s five-game losing skid.
The senior accounted for four touchdowns through the air–from 20, 3, 18, and 5 yards out, in time order. At week’s end Graci leads all conference passers, averaging 245 yards per game.
The sophomore recorded 10 tackles (5 solo) toward the programs’ 23-20 win over Rowan–a double-overtime thriller–to maintain its seat atop the league standings (Kean 1st in NJAC). In addition to his 92-yard score by way of a kickoff return, Williams added another pick to his conference-best five interceptions.
Relishing one of the position’s rare opportunities for glory, Kean’s utility kicker Billy Daniels was named the NJAC’s top special teams player for Week 8.
During the contest–one in which every last point held the utmost importance–he converted three field goals and was perfect on his two extra-point attempts. Successful on tries from 22 and 37 earlier, Daniels’ 26-yard attempt in the its second overtime proved the game’s winning points.
Busy throughout afternoon, coaches sent the sophomore and his punting unit out on the field eight times in the game. Daniels averaged 39.1 yards per punt–one of which soared 80 yards before it was downed at the Profs’ 10-yard line.
Daniels’ currently leads the conference in converted field goals, now with 10 on the year.
A familiar face on these weekly NJAC releases, linebacker Eddie Weiser added to his season’s expansive trophy chest for his effort toward Buffalo State‘s latest installment of its conference rivalry against William Paterson University this weekend.
Unfortunately for the Weiser–this week not being an exception–all but one of performances recognized by the league’s selection committee this came during Begnals’ losses.
Earning his fourth Defensive Rookie of the Week award, the freshman recorded eight stops before reading a scoreboard that indicated an extension of his team’s lengthy losing streak–now reaching five games. The program’s winless October began one week removed from its only win this year, on September 26 win over Western Connecticut State.
The youngster assisted on a tackle behind the line-of-scrimmage, paling in comparison to the 47-yard return following his interception.
Already leading his team in his first collegiate season, Weiser currently ranks sixth in the conference in average tackles per game (avg. 7.6 tackles/gm.).
Prior to this weekend road trip to Cortland State University, the Lions’ past two opponents hadn’t thrown anything fancy by way of TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton.
While William Paterson University and Montclair State enjoyed disparity with regard to their success (WPU’s McKinney-42 rush, 224 yds; MSU’s Bliss-29 rush, 32 yds) the traditional I-formation set that each team showed before the snap wasn’t anything the second-year man hadn’t seen in his days as coorinator.
Simplicity doesn’t characterize his bigger-picture expectations this week, as he’s fully anticipating a montage of pre-snap alignments from this much-maligned Red Dragon offense.
“They’re going to try and out-formation us,” he said, picking his opponents’ brains by dissecting their film during the week. “A lot of motion, a lot more different looks than Montclair [used].”
Different, not flashy, he expects the 4-2-5 front implemented during last week’s blanketing success that limited the Red Hawk offense to fewer than 200 yards to perpetuate this Saturday.
“Having the extra safety gives us the versatility to play coverage,” he said, should coach-becoming-player Alex Smith drop back to pass. “They’re not going to want to attack the box,” if coordinators signal in rushing plays–not necessarily via a hand-off, the most conventional form of exchange
“… They’re going to try and spread us out, especially after watching film from Saturday. … This week we’re going to see a lot of the same type of runs from different formations.”
Complete with an exotic array of plays in the Red Dragon repertoire–one the Lions haven’t encountered yet in 2009–one such set isn’t quite as pedestrian, nor is its celebrated success among all levels of competitive football. Unveiled as early as its season opener, Cortland State’s offensive diversity includes, but isn’t limited to, it’s version of the reveled Wildcat offense, which sources close to the program have appropriately dubbed its “Red Dragon.”
Operating out of a pseudo-shotgun set, running back Anthony Guiliano has thrived in the scheme, accumulating all 139 his season’s rushing yards on runs beginning with a direct snap he receives. In spite of the issues the formation poses against even NFL-caliber defenses, Hamilton’s confidence in his intricate alignment isn’t budging.
“It’s not going to pose an issue because what they’re running out of it is stuff we’ve seen before,” he said, citing his unit’s familiarity based on early-season competition. “FDU ran a lot of the same plays, centered around their quarterback [Bill Winters],” who led his devils to one, lonely score in the first half of that game–before it dissolved into meaninglessness.
“It’s nothing that we haven’t already seen on film and in games. I’m not worried about it.”
Largely a product of the group’s acclaimed preparedness and dominance in recent weeks, Hamilton’s faith stems from what he’s seen around his facility—in spite the charm it’s worked for these Red Dragons.
Battling instability at quarterback, the team’s passing game propelled it to its two-point victory a week ago over William Paterson University (W, 12-10). But the 54-yard strike that gave the team last six of its afternoon’s points wasn’t the thrown by a conventional passer.
Instead, Anthony Guiliano—listed as a wide receiver in its program—connected with one of his own, fellow wideout Eric Hanjos for the score, and the win. The younger sibling to the conference’s third-leading rusher from a year ago, Andrew Guiliano, baby bro’s 2009 campaign hasn’t by any means tainted his elder’s legacy.
Privy to the talented group he’s scheduled to face, Hamilton knows he’s entering Cortland State’s state-of-the-art facilities—the same site that hosted the New York Jets’ preseason training camp.
He just doesn’t think trickery is the greatest of his worries.
“The kid they bring in to do it, he’s a good athlete, but by no stretch is he nearly as good as that FDU quarterback [Bill Winters].
“[Those plays] aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. We’ll be fine.”
Early in the season, it was the TCNJ defense that was so often responsible for evoking speechlessness among those trying to diagnose its issues. But now, in what seems like a courtroom quid-pro quo, it seems as it’s the Lions’ offense that needs explaining.
Since the team’s most recent win at Brockport, during which the offense posted its second plus-500 yard compilation of the season, the past two weeks have seen the once-immortal juggernaut fall to its knees–and against its opponents.
The unlikely, not untimely, emergence of the Lions’ defense in conference its bouts against William Paterson and Montclair State coincide with two of its attacking-11’s poorest outings to date (294, 302 total yds). This LIFO inventory of recent history first recollects 2009’s least-memorable appearances, worst only to the 292 posted during its duel with Kean University–the first of these three unwanted misfits toward its record.
The statistician might argue in favor of a trend. But, well in the midst of his third-decade with the program (not including his All-American playing days) a scholar of the game would kindly disagree.
“As the competition gets better and you’ve got more games on film, there’s more opportunities for your opponents to dissect your strengths and weaknesses,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said via phone interview.
Quit while you’re ahead–his perspective doesn’t suggest that his group’s been figured out, the trade-secrets of its lucrative enterprise revealed. Even if its offense no longer surprises opponents with its star-studded potency, the group’s predictability isn’t its glaring issue.
“It takes that much more time to be prepared and that much more time to develop depth,” he said, alluding to the long season’s added workload toward his film room, and the team’s list of absentees.
A few short weeks after it celebrated quad-captain Cam Richardson’s return from injury, the Lions offense watched in horror as last week’s loss robbed far more than an outside chance at conference championship contention. Key losses in its backfield–entirely eliminating the nation’s then 38th-most productive running back duo–become thrust to the forefront of pregame discussions.
Both injuries are indisclosed, which offers little insight toward their expected return. Preparing for the worst, the impact of last week’s “nicks” to Justin Donoloski and Chase Misura surpasses the immediate and most quantifiable measure of detriment.
“You can look at statistically what they’ve done,” Hamilton said, likely braced to endure cravings for their combined average, totaling just over 120 yards. “Obviously when you’re replacing a proven commodity with a work-in-progress, the numbers aren’t going to be there.”
Cautious? Maybe. But his observation doesn’t qualify as outright negativity. He’s skeptical, fairly certain of what both are capable, but still unsure of what to expect from the two backs remaining on the depth chart.
Either way–likely a bi-product of his cozy hotel accommodations–he’s not losing sleep over it.
“In the same breath, you can’t worry about what you don’t have. You have to be prepared to deal with what you do have, and take advantage of what they do well. That question,” referring to the pros and cons of either combination, “can’t be answered until Saturday.”
He might not have sufficient data to compare and contrast what he’s lost with what he’s still got, their dynamic as a group still largely unknown. Individually, however, his fill-ins’ limited track records offer enough evidence to bode hope.
Entering the week, Mike Yetka and Kevin Brown remain the lonely two, standing among the fallen. While neither is as battle-tested, both have enjoyed reputable successes during their brief stints in the action.
His sophomore campaign paralleled Donoloski’s surprise success, during which he filled a similar role. A shifter compliment to Misura’s distinguishing hard-nosed bluntness at the line-of-scrimmage, the two rounded out the 2008 Lions’ backfield–and the conference’s rushing leaderboard (finished 10th, 7th in NJAC avg. rush yds/gm).
“Mike’s been around,” Hamilton said. “He’s certainly not a power runner, but if you get him out in space he can make people miss. He does that well.”
More recently, christening the Lions’ list among those honored with the conference’s weekly awards, Yetka showcased those capabilities exactly. Exploiting all 50 of his 3rd quarter touchdown’s yards in space–nearly half of the season’s first plus-100-yard rushing performance–he received NJAC accolades as 2009’s first top offensive performer (finished w/ 14 rush, 102 yds, 2 TD). He scored the first of those two touchdowns from a yard out, but that’s not his specialty.
Earning playing time predominantly as its short-yardage option, freshman phenom Kevin Brown’s excelled in this apparent niche (3 TDs in pst 3 gms—all w/in RZ). While his role expands gradually, his increasing integration corresponding with growth of the field itself, Hamilton wholly believes in his rookie’s ability to grind out tough yardage.
“I’m not sure if anybody on our team runs as hard as Kevin,” he said.
But as he continues to re-acquaint himself with the physicality of the sport and the intricacies of its offenses, Browns’ dedication in the classroom has put a ceiling on his accelerated learning curve.
“His package isn’t anywhere near where Chase’s would be, who’s got obviously got a lot years and games under his belt,” he said, noting years Brown missed after he’d graduated high school (DNP in 2007-08) and practices missed while he’s at class.
Unproven, but promising, any optimism toward his backfield is a welcomed sentiment. Hamilton’s just not sure if it’s the right recipient of all the attention.
“The running backs and the quarterbacks get all the credit. But the bottom line is it’s the guys you don’t really hear about or read about—up front. The key to Saturday’s game is going to be up front, it ain’t about who’s running the ball.”
While the statuses of its two ailing starters in the trenches remains up in the air (Drew Mason, Joe Mecca), there’s no doubt enshrouded around the tenacity of any front-five’s biggest threat in Cortland.
Leading one of the conference’s most collectively dominant defensive-11s, the success Bryan Wiley has enjoyed during this, his final season in New York, has proven contagious toward his team’s accomplishments—his tenacity off the right corner singlehandedly thrusting the Red Dragons’ D into the national spotlight.
Personally accounting for more than a third of the nation’s 23rd most effective pass rush (Wiley-1.14 sacks/gm, TEAM-3.00 sacks/gm), the senior has also propelled one of Division III’s most active units in opposing backfields (Wiley-2.00 TFL/gm, TEAM-8.57 TFL/gm; 16th in NCAA).
For the constant relent with which he’s flown off the edge in 2009, Wiley rounds out the nation’s Top-10 for both statistical categories.
Unfamiliar with success on the road this season, Hamilton’s Lions have fared well in its history in Cortland. The team has won seven of the series’ past-10 games, though it’s dropped three of its last four. Compounded with his perceived quality of play—aside from scoreboard implications—he believes the trip itself might offer a therapeutic purpose.
“We’ve always played Cortland tough up there. We’ve always stood tough there. I’m hoping that getting away, getting the guys off-campus, we can focus on what’s really going on. Maybe this is the kind of trip that can be good for us, help us realize what it’s all about.”
Saturday won’t offer answers to all this season’s questions. While fate and Cortland State have their fair share in store for the Lions—only time will tell whether they’ll foster cordial enlightenment.
Or a rude awakening.
Immediately following TCNJ’s preemptive post-season-ending fall against Montclair State University, players put any questions of motivation to rest. Their determination to shake things up for this season’s remainder can work in its favor, but only if its harnessed–focused on appropriate targets.
Surely applicable to its offense, a group generally less susceptible to self-inflicted wounds of excessive excitement, sustaining this control becomes a necessity for the Lion defense. Finally performing on par with its potential, the group needs this level-headedness to compete for the rest of 2009–especially during its pending date with the reigning conference champs.
Entering this weekend’s road-trip to Cortland University, there’s plenty of room for flexibility. Not only does TCNJ bear an unsavory a losing streak from its most recent consecutive contests (Ls vs. WPU, Montclair State), but the team hasn’t emerged victorious in either of its road trips to date (L vs. Kean, WPU). Conversely, and convergently, the Red Dragons’ past two outings share a more positive commonality–both finished with more points on the board in its favor than opponents (Ws vs. West Conn., WPU).
While both teams trek in opposite directions with regard to wrinkles (or ironing of them) in their respective seasons, the match-up won’t showcase an intergalactic collision of these worlds.
The TCNJ defense and Cortland State’s offense have been stricken with a similar ailment–each showing symptoms as early as August. Both institutions might offer H1N1 vaccinations for students, but the notoriously widespread health epidemic (thankfully) isn’t what’s gotten under these groups’ collective skin. But that’s no suggestion that they’re any better off. Modern medicine (and, only according to them, TV infomercials) has offered its fair share of miracle cures, but none exists for their shared sickness.
The injury bug.
Administering a crippling venom with even the smallest of bites, the disease’s effects are frequently irreversible, less a few fortunate exceptions.
It’s too early to tell–eloquently referenced by TCNJ’s defensive coordinator as “just one game”–but the Lions’ latest effort embodied just that kind of start-to-finish heartiness (or just heart). It might have taken longer than he liked, but last week’s effort fulfilled his high expectations–far from surpassing mediocrity.
“We had seen that for stretches in games, but we never put that together for four quarters,” he said a few days after his unit’s boys-to-men maturation on display last weekend, just in time for the congregation of decades of TCNJ alums for the school’s homecoming.
Impressive, indeed. More so, however, under the well-documented circumstances.
A first loss to the group’s linebacker corps prompted Hamilton’s shift from his base 4-3 front–one requiring three separate skill sets from its second-level players–to a 4-2-5–designed to accentuate its strength in the defensive secondary (Chris Jones injured earlier in year). Then, in successive weeks, the team lost two more of those intermediate reinforcements in LBs Joe Spahn (injured pregame vs. Brockport) and Dan DeCongelio (injured 2Q vs William Paterson).
In an unlikely effort that earned the younger of the two weekly conference acclaim, the fallen Lions’ replacements shared the team lead for tackles in its best outing to date (Greg Burns, Jimmy Kleen both recorded 5.5 total tackles; Burns won NJAC Rookie of the Week Award afterward).
This week features an balanced bout of the embattled, in a show-down of on-paper mediocrity.
Cortland’s rushing offense ranks fifth, TCNJ’s rush D qualifies as sixth (avg. 140 rush yds/gm; opp avg. 175 rush yds/gm). The Red Dragons also take a marginal edge in the passing game, slighting the Lions in both yards and efficiency (7th pass off., 6th QB rating; 9th pass def., 7th opp. QB rating). Still an undercard contender, TCNJ’s recent track-record couldn’t clean its slate, dirtied from early-season struggles. On the whole–advantage Cortland State, in a sixth-versus-ninth gross margin (C-St. avg. 308.71 yds/gm; TCNJ opp avg. 419.14 yds/gm).
Walking into their home arena Saturday, Cortland State’s has problems of its own, which started as a product of bad timing.
Entering the year, the group lost all five of last year’s starting linemen for various reasons. In the wake of the undersized unit’s performance a week ago, Hamilton says he likes the match-up.
“Again, it really comes down to the guys in the box and we’re really allowing them to take control,” he said, during the same phone interview. “For the second-level guys to have the game they did and the defensive line up front, they know they’ve struggled up front all year and especially the two tackles inside [Chris Flynn and Terry Woolverton] those guys did an outstanding job.”
Not only is its conference-winning protection gone, but so is the protected–then-senior quarterback Ray Miles. The tandem’s collaborative efforts resulted in the conference’s best passing attack in 2008, both in yards and efficiency (avg. 238.62 ypg, 155.87 QB rating).
Ready in waiting, Cortland invested faith in the practice-proven abilities of Miles’ heir-apparent, Dan Pitcher. The junior won swept opponents in his two-game debut with the team, playing with adequate accuracy and a nose for the end-zone that offset untimely turnovers (2 TDs in each first 2 gms; 3 total INTs). Hampering the elation that followed the latter, one gladly handing a bitter conference rival Rowan its only conference loss, Pitcher suffered a torn Achilles during the intense competition.
He’d be lost for the season.
Any injury to at that integral position can set a team backward. But when compounded with the loss of its anticipated backup–Greg Barcomb, who went down during preseason training camp–coaches could have only felt increasingly antsy. Pouring on the hurt, literally, the program likely lost its third-string quarterback for the season in its Week 6 loss to Montclair State University. Hudson Woodward may have thrown five interceptions to his season’s lone touchdown, also starting in the team’s only two losses of the season (Kean, Montclair St.), but he at least provided a bare-minimum level of stability for the position.
The content of those closed-door meetings between the Cortland State staff remains unknown, but coaches seemed to choose an internal solution to address the issue. Again, literally.
Listed as a coaching assistant in programs for the school’s season-opener, past-turned-present quarterback Alex Smith returned to the Red Dragon program after graduating from the college 2007. He started early in New York, taking hold of the reins in his first collegiate season. His assumed dynasty was sideswiped by unforseen influence, when Smith suffered a season-ending injury in his sixth game as a junior. Battling through his off-season rehabilitation, Smith reinjured the knee again his senior season, ending his career.
Or so he, and just about everyone else, thought.
Now fielding signals from the sidelines, rather than gesturing them in himself, Smith hasn’t dazzled on the stat sheet. But he hasn’t tarnished it either, completing 18 of his 34 passes–good for 225 yards. He’s matched his only interception with a touchdown, both thrown in his first of two starts. To those uninterested in stats, his performance did yield a universally eye-widening figure, a pristine 2-0 record.
Anticlimactic compared to the melodrama at quarterback, the off-season’s impact on the backfield wasn’t limited to its men-behind-center.
The group also lost one of the league’s top rushing threats, waving goodbye to the 113.85 per-game yardage lost with the departure of senior tailback Andrew Giuliano. Sliding into the then-vacancy in the Red Dragon backfield, a fill-in described by sources close to the program as “not very effective,” Cory Russell disappointed early, never accruing more than 50 total yards on the ground (season-high 49 rush yds vs. Rowan). Less flattering, the “accomplishment” took a persevering 19 carries. Looking for a spark in its existing backyard…er…backfield, the Red Dragons shifted their attack toward a power-run I-formation, finding a perfect suitor in last year’s starting fullback, Don Sair.
His two starts coincided with Smith’s emergence, his back-to-back 100-yard performances also synchronous with the team’s revitalized success on the ground, totaling 220 and 138 yards in successive weeks (most since Wk 5 vs. Buff St., 242). The team’s only other eclipse of the century mark dated back in its season-opener, when before its roster’s outsourcing of names to its IR (186 yds vs. Morrisville St.).
Hamilton expects a barrage similar to the inside-power tactics employed by its last two opponents, who enjoyed vast disparity in their success (WPU’s McKinney-42 rush, 224 yds; MSU’s Bliss-29 rush, 32 yds). But he doesn’t anticipate exactness in its outward appearance.
“This week we’re going to see a lot of the same type of runs from different formations,” he said. “They’re going to try and spread us out, especially after watching film from Saturday.”
But that same tape fortifies the group’s apparent linchpin of success–one with which Hamilton expressed comfort, a first-time feeling in this 2009 season.
“They’re not going to want to attack the box, so we’re putting the challenge on the two inside backers. We like the match-up, and if we come to play like we did this past Saturday, we’ll be fine.”
What a difference a week makes.
That’s got to be this week’s theme, doesn’t it? What better lede to unravel this untimely twist to the Lions’ once-promising campaign? The dagger of a homecoming defeat compounded with its heartwrenching fashion–even the weather maintained par with the purple prose dampening the conference’s No. 1 squad imposed on players and their season gone awry.
In true New Jersey fashion, the state-school’s football program double-dipped entering competition early in the season–reigning atop the NJAC leader board, synchronously tenured as the NCAA’s scoring kingpin (after Wk 4). Hopes have shifted, in both plausible impact and pleasure doing it.
For a team once looking to perpetuate its three-game winning streak, the remaining three games on its schedule present, at best, a chance to pay similar gloom forward to other hopeful contenders (Rowan, Cortland St.; 3rd, 4th in NJAC).
Likely? No, anticipated. Or better yet, expected.
But even in its dust-settling aftermath, disheartened and drained from the emotional tumult experienced minutes before, not a soul dared to submit. Nor would a single Lion turned its back on its pride–both the term’s appropriation on the streets, and in the animal kingdom.
“Absolutely not,” quad-captain Cam Richardson said, when posed that question. “We’re playing for each other out there. Obviously you want to win every game but we understand that we can’t. That’s not always going to happen for us.”
Fate may have predetermined his injury, suffered back during his 2009 season-opener-turned-closer. But neither destiny, nor a triad of Ls on TCNJ’s schedule–next to Montclair State, William Paterson, and Kean universities–could avert his determination.
“We’re not going to let down, we’re going to keep the intensity up and we’re going to finish the season out. We’ll be alright.”
Misfortune in his final year in Trenton magnify the season’s most pertinent disappointments, as Richardson’s third All-NJAC honors (2nd-team in 2008; honorable mention in 2007) likely escaped him as early as the first half of TCNJ’s’ Week 1 win over Buffalo State. Players’ eager anticipation of meaningful competion ended for his teammates, but that relief would pass the slot receiver by. A high ankle sprain extended his jitters extended for over a month after he pulled up lame that now-distant September afternoon.
His story parallels that of a fellow quad-captain, senior free safety Ryan Flannery. Well familiar with the angst of missing time already, he suffered his half-season-long ailment even before record-implicit action, going down during August training camp. After he, too, tweaked an ankle, the cerebral leader of his defense traded his helmet and shoulder pads for a clipboard and a pair of cupped hands–perfect for echoing his supportive voice.
“In the NJAC it’s always usually a one-game season,” he said, privy to the consequences of earlier let-downs. “If you lose two games you know you’re pretty much done. So you attack every game like it’s a playoff game. Even now I don’t think we’ll take a different approach.”
According to the NCAA, Pac-Man Flan maintained a year of eligibility when he redshirted in 2007, sidelined for that season with a crippling hip-flexor tear. Well in the midst of his first of two remaining academic semesters at TCNJ, however, the culmination of 2009 will likely mark the end to his athletic career.
But, as he optimistically noted, there’s still football to be played–a final chapter to be written.
“We got Cortland next week and they’re the defending NJAC champs,” he said, still speaking with definitive purpose after his unit’s historic defensive performance couldn’t salvage the game–or the season.
He continued, his tone shifting toward more selfless fixations on importance of wrapping up a reputable season.
“I know that [Cortland State is] not what they used to be, but we’re going to try and go out pretty strong and win the last three games. If we can do that we’ll have some momentum going into next year.”
There will be tomorrow for other Lions, among them strong safety Shawn Brown–a star rising as abruptly as he’s sent those daring to contest the junior packing. Straight to the turf.
“We’re going to finish the season strong,” he said sternly, much more accustomed to dropping his shoulder during games than dropping knowledge after them. “There’s not much else I can tell you about that.”
Not to undermine each remaining game’s indisputable importance, but with regard to “next year,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton expects much more 2009’s last-Saturdays, as opposed to its every-other-days.
“If you win out, there’s good chance you might get an ECAC game,” he said via phone interview, alluding to the likelihood of a consolation game before his intended point of emphasis. “At the very least—last year we ended with a blowout loss to Rowan. If you can turn that around, it could a.) knock them out of the conference [championship contention] or b.) just a world of difference entering spring ball from last year. We just got to keep rolling, keep going. And I think they will. I think they know they’re pretty damn good as a whole.”
But, quick to admit that such awareness has its potential for detriment, the second-year defensive play-caller stressed the importance of embodying humility from here on out. Especially now that his unit has started to perform.
“They’re feeling it, they just can’t get complacent,” he said of his defense that limited the No. 1 Montclair State University Red Hawks to 32 yards rushing on 29 carries–fewer than 200 total yards. Now, complete with the emergence of his finally stout defense–a long-awaited compliment to the season’s consistently hearty offensive attack–is not the time to disengage on account of 2009’s lone glimmer of apogee.
“It’s just one game. They’ve got to have a couple here to end it. We played one game out of seven. That’s not a very good ratio. Considering if you want to turn it around and look at our offense, they’ve played well six out of seven games. That’s what we want to get to.”
A destination, he says, is inevitable–based on his side’s initial addiction to the euphoria those games tend to provoke.
“They’ve got a taste of it, they’ve got a little experience in doing it, maybe they’ve got a little arrogance to them—which isn’t the greatest. But if you can take that arrogance and knock it down into cockiness and confidence, that’s the kind of attitude you want to have defensively.”
Hell, even he likes the feeling–one of comforting warmth that’s ensuring him this season’s end should parallel the its early success.
“Feels a whole lot better on the weekends after a performance like that than it does playing terribly like we did against Brockport and winning,” he said. “We just got to keep the ball for our offense, which is damn good. If we play like that we’ll win out.”
One of the most common, though unfortunately most inapplicable, reader questions I’ve fielded this season has dealt with the professional and collegiate flave-of-the-past-two-years: the Wildcat offense.
Sure, I understand why you’d be open, dare I say excited, to read about it. But imagine how badly I’ve been waiting for a date on the Lions’ schedule to warrant any kind of writing about it.
Seems like this week, everybody wins.
Based on what I’ve been reading between the D3 football forums and what little I’ve heard about SUNY Cortland’s offensive attack, there’s reason to believe that, in fact, TCNJ will be encountering its first opponent that implements a Wildcat formation. Similarly to how I broke down the spread in a 4M segment earlier in the year, I’ll do my best to help everyone understand what makes the package so exotic, and further, extremely difficult to defend against.
Now before we partake in some mutual enjoyment at opposite terminals of this World Wide Web, let’s not get carried away. I’m not suggesting that the package is a staple in the reigning champs’ playbook, nor is it among any of the teams that implement it. But, hell, even if it’s buried at the bottom next to the hook-and-laterals (or as we used to call it 87 Circus) why not have some fun?
- What is the “Wildcat” and how did it come about?
Ironically, just about the same place every fad offense has–the Wing T.
Much like the spread, the Wildcat was based off a book written by fabled Delware Blue Hens’ head coach Harold “Tubby” Raymond, in high demand following its three decades of success with the D-IA program (inclusive of three national titles) up until he retired in the 70s. Also like its precursors, the formation has several different adaptations and variations. All of these accentuate the personnel and philosophy most preferred by any particular offensive coordinator.
There was a surge in the 1980s, during which a number of NFL teams implemented a skills position player receiving a direct snap from center. But none of those enjoyed the same success as this most recent generation of Wildcats. Back when he was ravaging SEC defenses, the most effective was without question the package put together by then-coordinator Gus Malzahn (not current Miami Dolphins’ QB coach David Lee–though there still seems to be some misappropriated accreditation) and executed by the 2008 first-round draft selection by the Oakland Raiders, Darren McFadden.
A maddening Ronnie Brown-esque performance characterized his 2006-08 seasons. During the span, McFadden finished second in the 2006 Heisman Trophy voting, earning 1,662 points (sandwiched between a pair of quarterbacks at the No. 1 and No. 3 spots Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith and Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn; 1750, 1622 points, respectively). He also won the Doak Walker award for two consecutive seasons (NCAA’s top RB) and was named Sporting News magazine’s national player of the year.
Probably didn’t hurt too, too much that his “Ricky Williams,” to use the same analogy, was played by fellow 2008 first-rounder Felix Jones of the Dallas Cowboys.
It worked, and it worked well. So much so, in spite of the preconceived notions regarding other “gimmick” offense’s impracticality in the NFL, a number of professional organizations have allowed the package temporary membership in a club of resounding exclusivity.
- So, how exactly does it work? I get the whole direct-snap thing, but how do teams try to attack defenses with it?
Believe it or not, it’s brilliance is in its simplicity and astounding similarity between each of the plays executed out of the look.
Considering the vast diversity of its adaptations across all platforms of competitive football, we’ll highlight specifically how its used within the Miami Dolphins’ attack–the most effective approach at the highest level. Again, there’s more to it than what we’ll delve into. But for the intents and purposes of this article, this is the gist of it.
Picture your quintessential “Ace” formation–a one-running back set with two tight ends next to each offensive tackle, with two wide receivers split wide (off the line-of-scrimmage). Now, swap the quarterback and the wide receiver on the left (assuming we’re talking about a right-handed QB). Slide that player (likely, now a running back) to a wing position on the left side, and you’re looking at the most rudimentary of Wildcat formations.
The four basic plays integral to the scheme are a “quarterback” power, a jet sweep, a play-action seam pass, and a play-action boot. Immediately preceding the snap and for the initial moments that follow, all of these plays look exactly the same.
The wing on the left will sprint (or “jet”) across the field, bubbling back toward the tips of the quarterback’s toes, synchronous with the snap. He’ll then “bracket” (put hands up to receive a hand-off) and continue on semi-circular arc taking him up the right “alley” (space between last man on the line-of-scrimmage and the wide receiver).
The left guard (offensive lineman next to the center) will take a bucket step (exaggerated swing of hips to throw his body parallel to line-of-scrimmage) after the snap, allowing him a better bodily alignment to pull across the formation. The rest of the line zone-blocks (takes successive steps to the point-of-attack, responsible for an area rather than any predetermined defender).
The right tight end attacks the seam (about a two-yard wide strip on either side of a TE that extends vertically down the field), while the left tight end will run about a 10-yard out route. Both wide receivers streak down the field.
The first play, quarterback power, starts with a fake hand-off to the wingback streaking across the formation. The running back receiving the direct snap five yards down the field will then attack the A or B gap (between center and guard, and guard and tackle, respectively). The backside guard will pull and lead through the hole, blocking either the playside defensive tackle (vs. a 4-3) or a middle linebacker (vs. a 3-4).
The jet sweep starts exactly the same, only the wingback would receive the hand-off (rather than fake) and the backside guard would lead block up the alley, rather than cutting off his path and attacking a player in the box (area inclusive of the offensive line, tight ends, defensive line and linebackers).
There are, however, passing options. The Wildcat formation hinges upon the quarterback’s ability to force a defense to respect the threat of a passing play, so who ever is working out of it should have at least a respectable arm.
One such option dictates the same exact action as the quarterback power, up to and including a jab step by the Wildcat QB toward the line of scrimmage, to show that same running look. Hopefully successful in sucking in the linebackers, this should open a passing lane through which he can loft a pass to the right tight end, who should be absurdly wide open, for a number of different reasons.
The other would include all of the same player responsibilities, including the jab step, only instead of setting up in the pocket, the running back would then roll out to his left, hitting the tight end on the out route.
If there’s a Cover 2 corner in the flat (sitting within 6-8 yards of the line-of-scrimmage, responsible for any eligible receivers in that zone) the quarterback can opt to hit the left receiver in the soft spot in the zone (generally 12-15 yards downfield, in between the shallow cornerback and an over-the-top safety playing a deep half of the field). It’s highly unlikely for reasons you’ll see later, but I suppose it’s a possible reaction.
If he’s going for it all, though, he’d better make sure he’s got the cannon to pull it off. Coaches get mad when legitimate quarterbacks throw picks and when running backs fumble. Imagine how salty one would get over a running back turning forcing a throw he has no business or capability making.
- So you’re telling me that the Miami Dolphins have rushed for multiple 200+ yard games this season using four plays? Why is that so difficult to defend against?
Remember how I emphasized how every play starts exactly the same? Well if every play looks alike within a few seconds before and after the snap, imagine how time consuming it becomes for linebackers and defensive backs to take reads and identify what’s going on. Those seconds are pivotal to a defense’s ability to stop any given play, let alone one so effective for reasons we’ll get to later. Any hesitation by one player incapacitates his ability to adhere to his assignment, creating gaping holes in a defense.
With regard to player reaction, the jet motion before the snap creates a delightful mess of the defense for any offense implementing the scheme. Should any one player over-pursue or overreact to that lateral movement, it can be just as detrimental than if he were to prematurely attack the line of scrimmage or do nothing–other two common and likely scenarios.
But, should he receive a hand-off, the running back creates an indelible advantage against his opponent, considering he’s off to a running start toward the outside of the line-of-scrimmage. If the tight ends on either side can seal off the defensive ends, there’s just no way that an outside linebacker can make a play without giving up several yards–assuming, of course, he’s not blocked first. Should he cheat to the outside, there’s a gaping hole left in the middle of the field for the quarterback power, or a play-action seam, considering how much he’d be giving up inside.
Yeah, I know. Imagine how Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan–reveled as one of the brightest defensive minds in the league–felt after 60 minutes of that.
Not sure if it spawned the name, but then kids run wild.
Even if they can anticipate what’s coming, it’s crucial that they maintain discipline and respect all of the other options. If not, as happens each and every time Ronnie Brown gets his fantasy owners points for a touchdown pass, you’ll get burned.
Paying more close attention to the Xes and Os, the defense simply can’t win the numbers game imposed by the formation.
Let’s assume that the defense stacks the box–the most hyperbolic reaction to the look–and loads eight defenders at the line-of-scrimmage. One safety plays over the top, while one corner lines up on each wide receiver. Even though one of them is a true quarterback, the opposition still must allocate a defender to prevent any trickeration or antics–say, for example, a quick screen or double-pass. Stuff like that.
What’s now happened is, rather than the 10-to-11 advantage that the defense used to enjoy, when there was a quarterback under center that would be distributing the football to one of his teammates, the playing field becomes evened. Now that a running back, a much more athletic body capable of running or throwing, is receiving a direct shotgun snap, there’s no longer the same necessity for the football to change hands.
There’s not, per se, a disadvantage, considering that a safety can step up and make the tackle. But any such play would likely take place five or six yards downfield. If I’m an offensive coordinator, I’ll take that any day.
- So, if the Wildcat is so unstoppable, why isn’t it run every play?
It’s not that it’s impossible to defend against, but on paper, it just creates a favorable pre-snap scenario for the offense. Like any other play an offensive coordinator conjures up, there’s no compensating for blown assignments, mismatches in talent, and, especially, miscues and penalties.
The Wildcat also isn’t practical for certain down-and-distances. Imagine the multitude of household appliances that would be thrown at Philadelphia television sets if the Eagles trotted Westbrook out for a Wildcat play on 3rd and 16.
On the field, the Wildcat is a cancer to its opposition in the red-zone, where defensive players are much more apt to overreact and play undisciplined football. Play-calling also generally becomes more aggressive, allowing an offense to exploit vacated zones in a defensive front. It also can be used to chew up clock, or just as a change of pace that keeps a defense consistently on its toes, changing gears–whatever you want to call it.
But most of the damage, believe it or not, takes place during the week in practice before a defense even faces the Wildcat.
Because it’s such a nouveau offensive approach, there are so few players, let alone coordinators, that have any experience dealing with it. So, like anything else you’re unsure of, it gets practiced. Over, and over, and over, and over…
Even the most Wildcat-heavy game-plans will only roll it out, at most, 15 plays per game. Considering the average NJAC offense averages 67.25 offensive snaps, that’s no more than any other personnel package. But the amount of time needed to prepare for the formation’s various nooks and crannies (well, just nooks I guess) detracts precious minutes away from prepping for everything else–frankly a much more worthy cause. If you’re not going to get burned by the Wildcat itself, the off-the-field distraction created by it can certainly take its toll on any opposing defense.
I hope all of you enjoy reading that as much as I did writing it. And, as always, to see your questions answered, fill out the form below…
Well, that one hurt.
In the immediate, the closing minutes to the Lions’ 2009 homecoming were emotionally turbulent, to say the least. Starting with what appeared like Chris James’ second fourth-quarter comeback of the year, ended with a baffling missed field goal attempt from a right leg as reliable as the postal service–even in the substandard weather conditions.
Looking just around the corner, well, there’s not a whole lot worth seeing–with regard to the post-season, that is.
Throwing up their blinders, the team hopes to cut out the past and the periphery, remaining focused on salvaging a once-promising 2009 gone awry, largely thanks to factors beyond their control. But for us, those are precisely the details on which we’ll need to focus, in order to better hone in on our expectations.
- TCNJ defensive “beef”
No offense, but the Lions’ D-line knows it’s not the biggest group in the country, let alone the conference. If they didn’t, or are in denial, the coaching staff is well aware of this all-too-true reality.
“Up front we don’t have the size other teams have,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said over the phone before the game. “We’re always at a disadvantage size-wise and teams are going to try and pound us inside. We know, physically, we’re limited. We know what we’ve got. Other teams know what we’ve got. We generally know every week, we go into a game with a size disadvantage, nine times out of ten.”
Though he alluded to some of the unit’s other strengths: “We have to use what we have, which is generally a little bit quicker and generally a little bit smarter—at least we try to tell ourselves that,” this unit’s ability to stop the run was a major concern entering the week for a score of reasons.
“It’s quite simple. If it comes down to it in the fourth quarter and we’re behind that’s what’s going to happen. That’s what happened against Kean and against Paterson—late in the game, we were behind. It’s not hard to figure out. Just run the ball, take the clock down, run the ball, run the ball, run the ball–just pound them inside.
“And if that’s how it’s going to be, we’re going to struggle.”
Ironically enough, that’s exactly how it was Saturday. Montclair allotted 29 of its 55 snaps-from-scrimmage in an effort to exploit that “weakness.” After it gained only 32 yards (inches over a one-yard average), it’s safe to say that the strategy backfired–or that TCNJ’s soldiers in the trenches blew it up for them.
When senior quad-captain Craig Meyer is wrangling down shifty wideouts on jailbreak screens, it serves as a testament to just how tirelessly someone(s) was (were) busting his (their) ass(es) all week season long.
Senior wide receiver Colin Weber has made this segment a few times already this season, and for good reason. So no, I won’t feel like I”m bludgeoning a senselessly bloodied horse by singing his praises again.
He’s stepped as one of Lions’ quarterback Chris James‘ favorite options in the absence of Cam Richardson, quietly lingering among the conference’s top-two most prolific receiving threats (currently 2nd NJAC; 79.71 rec. yds/gm). But, less subtly, he’s also emerged as one of the team’s most outspoken leaders in verse and in action.
He led all Lions’ receivers in both catches and yardage (5 rec., 67 yds)–none more pivotal than his 24-yard grab to start the team’s first scoring drive of the afternoon. The series was a collaborative effort, no doubting that, capped when Chase Misura caught his first touchdown pass of the year, but it undoubtedly set the tone for a scoring possession that was desperately needed at the time.
Safe to say he’s lived up to that appointment as quad-captain prior to the Kean game.
- Tricky, tricky
Let’s keep this short and sweet.
In two games since the christening of the Lions’ goal-line package (genius by itself), offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta has handed the ball off three straight times to bruiser back Kevin Brown twice, both resulting in touchdowns. An undoubted trend, identified by studying film.
He rolled it out again on third-and-two from the Montclair five-yard line, but went with a play-action pass that left Misura standing by his lonesome in the corner of the end zone.
In case you were wondering, Coach, someone noticed.
- Mattan Hoffman
In my post-game recap, there was a lot of talk of resilience and players battling various obstacles in order to set themselves up to potentially upset the No. 1 team in the conference. Hoffman is no exception.
Considering the nature of his injuries, it’s not something that I’m going to detail specifically. But know that there was a time that the junior looked at his playing career through much more finite lenses than the rest of his teammates. For players faced with the end of their athletic careers, that tends be a traumatic experience–one difficult to rebound from.
Doesn’t seem to be the case here.
All season long, he’s been one of the guys whose effort has consistently surpassed the minimum, gradually climbing his way up a depth chart ridden with experienced senior talent (not to mention working through that strained hammy suffered during training camp). Refusing to be complacent with the P. T. he rightfully earned, Hoffman has made as impactful a contribution as has been permitted, evidenced first by a full-extension sideline grab against Kean University–a baller play on one of the few times he was targeted, kind of like what he did Saturday.
This week, his 21-yard reception just plays before a potentially-equalizing field goal attempt, was certainly extraordinary at face value. But a look at the bigger picture is more astonishing.
Entering the fourth-quarter, after three periods of generally ineffective offensive execution, Hoffman had recorded two grabs for 11 yards. As a statistical performance for someone not considered a primary target of the offense, on, again, one of its off-days, it’s not bad at all. But as a foundation upon which one would have settled in and established a rhythm–kind of like the one you’d needed to make a big play at that point in the game–not even close.
Now, he doesn’t happen to have particularly good hands, which probably accounts for the majority of his drops, but Dolphins’ WR Ted Ginn, Jr. highlights the expectation for receivers whose number is called for the first time far too late in games. Targeted late during two of the Fins’ last drives in this weekend’s upset-turned-upset (as in sad), the former-Buckeye let two Chad Henne throws ricochet off his hands like Brandon Marshall’s batted balls during training camp.
It was equally as repulsive, but at least the Broncos’ WR did it on purpose.
You hear people say things like, “those are the easiest ones to catch” referring to when you’re as wide-open as Hoffman was on that 18-yard comeback, in and of itself an epitome of his work ethic. But it’s also sometimes hard for a guy who hasn’t touched the pigskin in organized competition in literally hours to maintain his focus on those types of plays.
Now, his teammates allegedly busted his chops after the game, saying he should have scored on the play. And who knows–the WTSR guys (myself included) were going nuts, unable to accurately gauge if he could have maintained his balance down the sideline. Had he been able to, it would have been analogous to overtime hours on Christmas Eve. When he flipping the ball to the referee, it may have well been his time card, punching out after doing his job, and doing it well.
- Rain, rain, go the hell away
Now, I certainly wasn’t going to allow any purple prose to sneak its way into my game recap, but the weather seemed as if it may have been a slight factor in TCNJ’s offensive strategy.
Again, this is an observation, not a reflection based on opinions from anyone within the program.
Running game aside, especially considering weather is a non-factor in any ground-and-pound game, let alone one that worked pretty well (in spite of the circumstances), the Lions’ offense looked dampened by its inability to stretch the field–something of which players and coaches share fondness.
Most of the team’s passes are of intermediate distances–curls, slants, quick-hitter stuff like that. But, like his dedication to feeding his backs some pigskin, the concept behind Acosta’s strategy (it seems, considering you’re not getting that type of intel out of him) is to condition the second and third-level players to gradually creep toward the line-of-scrimmage.
Call him Ivan Pavlov, and defenses a pack of ravenous dogs, but ringing that dinner bell early in games allows his game-breakers (Gardner, Weber) to get behind the defense has worked a number of times in games already (a la Webers’ 41 yard touchdown vs. Brockport). It almost worked again, Chris James threading the needle in that soft spot in a Cover 2 zone down the sideline late in the game. But it seemed like a reliable (and fruitful) part of his repertoire was forfeited once the rain started falling.
Even if it wasn’t….
- EXECUTION, anyone?
The deep ball aside, nothing changed with regard to Acosta’s play-calling. Nor should it, considering the team still ranks in the nation’s Top-25 in scoring and yardage (16th, 24th, respectively). But when he signaled in plays to exploit the Red Hawk defense–his usual array of jailbreak, slip and swing screens, not to mention a number of his outside zone rushes and…(I could go on and on)–the Lions’ couldn’t take advantage.
And players knew it.
“I feel like the effort was there, the plays were there, but we just couldn’t execute,” quad-captain Cam Richardson said after the game. Himself a staple in the offense for three of his four years in Trenton, the senior knew what was missing, and how much it hurt.
“Some plays we did, we obviously had a couple big plays, but we didn’t develop any consistency or rhythm and that’s very important for our offense.”
Offensive linemen couldn’t quite get to the flanks on screens, and running backs didn’t look comfortable behind them. Screens are an integral facet of the scheme, so losing that would be about as detrimental as Amy Winehouse without renal function.
Yeah, I know.
Each group has struggled on its own, but never before have James and his receivers looked like they were so far out of tune with one another. One of his picks resulted from a receiver (to be remained nameless) not coming back for the football on a hitch, failing to get necessary separation from a corner who made a textbook play on the ball. The other looked like he wanted to break downfield off a post-route, or have the ball thrown behind him to keep the safety unable to make a play.
The offense is talented, and they’re certainly put in the best spots to succeed, but they just need to perform like they have been early in the year. You can say all you want about the “talent disparity” between various teams in the NJAC, but when this group is on its game, no one has been able to touch it. Not Kean, not Montclair, and certainly not Willie P (no disrespect to the Pioneers, who are much more talented than their record suggests). For the rest of the year, consider execution the linchpin of this unit’s ability to put up a ton of points against worthy adversaries.
- Of which, the “Big Uglies” were guilty
“When the opportunities presented themselves we didn’t take advantage of it,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said after the loss “We left some points out there. You go through all three of our losses and we’re a team that can’t squander opportunities on either side of the ball.”
Well put, Coach.
Early in the year, when the offense proved ineffective within striking distance, the TCNJ red-zone offense was a stark concern of the coaching staff and their players. Offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta even reached out to other coaches that use the spread, to pick their brains on what types of strategies can be employed within those all-important, final 20 yards. He mixed up personnel packages and formations, even found expansive ways to include weapons that had otherwise been relinquished to backup duties.
And guess what? It worked.
Following the team’s reprehensible 1-of-4 showing in the red-zone against Kean University, TCNJ responded defiantly, capitalizing on each of the next seven consecutive attempts prior to Saturday. It even succeeded on two of the game’s four chances, both pivotal touchdowns in a slug fest of a defensive battle (not sure I”ve said that all year). The two it didn’t weren’t a product of the game plan’s shelf-life, nor was it any credit to Montclair State–sorry Red Hawk fans, if you disagree you weren’t at the game. And or if you missed the two plays in question, that singlehandedly blew the Lions’ chances of toppling one of the NJAC’s top dogs, I’ll fill in those blanks.
The Lions were flagged for two holding penalties in the red-zone–both on first-and-goal. Considering one of them was a mere three plays before Marc Zucconi’s hopeful let’s-settle-this-in-OT attempt (one that failed) there’s no arguing the impact imposed on the game’s outcome. One immediately followed an untimely exit from left tackle Drew Mason, one of the most talented bodies on the team–maybe the conference. But the other.
COME ON, MAN.
Ask anyone: first-down holding penalty can kill a drive, even one orchestrated by the most potent of offensive weapons. Now think about it’s detriment so tantalizingly close to pay dirt, in the rain, working against a spread offense, one rendered ineffective until–literally–just moments before.
Following a captivating patchwork effort put forth during Saturday’s disheartening loss to Montclair State University on his team’s homecoming, TCNJ linebacker Greg Burns earned this week’s honors as the conference’s top rookie performer.
Leading his team in tackles for the second-consecutive week (10 total, 5 solo vs. William Paterson), Burns’ emergence as a force at the Lions’ battered second-level coincided with the unit’s stingiest defensive performance of the season, limiting the NJAC No. 1 Red Haws to 32 rushing yards on 29 attempts in the contest.
Tied with fellow backup-turned-impact performer Jimmy Kleen with 5.5 total tackles (2 solo), Lions’ head coach Eric Hamilton insists his freshmen’s success epitomizes the persistence of the linebacker corps as a whole.
“We don’t have many options,” he said, pleased with the effort in spite of the group’s laundry list of injuries in recent weeks. “I think it’s a credit to all the linebackers for getting ready to play, getting their opportunities to play and making the most of it. It’s a numbers game, it always is in Division III and it’s starting to catch up with us.”
His teammates echoed the sentiment.
“When someone goes down it’s always a loss,” said team quad-captain Ryan Flannery, an anchor of talent and inspiration in the TCNJ secondary. “You can’t replace someone like [Joe] Spahn and [Dan] DeCongelio,” both injured as the team’s leading tacklers in consecutive games entering the team’s latest.
“But for the young guys to come in and step up, it’s big. We’ve simplified the game plan and just told them to go out there and makes plays and that’s what they did.”
Celebrated in the midst of a loss, Burns earned first NJAC accolades along with a group of four others–all given their respective nods for their participation in the same game.
Carrying (literally) his Colonials to their first triumph of 2009, Western Connecticut State running back Lionel Assie earned the league’s Offensive Player of the Week award in the wake its one-point victory over The College at Brockport in a marginal 45-44 decision.
The senior averaged 11 yards on his 13 carries, well eclipsing the century mark with room to spare (finished w/ 143 rush yds). Accounting for 18 points on his three touchdowns, Assie personally delivered the program its first triumph in over a year via 1, 48, and 35 trips to pay dirt on the ground (last won Oct. 4, 2008).
To date, the Bridgeport, CT-native ranks 14th in the NJAC, averaging 35.6 yards per game.
A consistent stud at his Golden Eagles’ second level, Nathan Bull perpetuated his season’s blanketing defensive performance, dubbed the conference’s outstanding defensive performer for the third time in 2009.
The junior lead his team with 14 total tackles (9 solo), complete with 1.5 for a loss and a sack ( loss of 6 yds). In the losing effort, the local product hailing from Brockport, NY also created opportunities for his offense, forcing a fumble and recording an interception on the day.
No surprise, Bull continues to lead the conference with an astounding 12.6 stops per outing.
Embracing limited opportunities, defensive back Cevon Carver was recognized as the conference’s best special team’s performer, capitalizing on his only two kickoff returns and an uncharacteristically inaccurate weekend for Lions’ kicker Marc Zucconi. The senior stayed hungry after returning the game’s opening inaugural kickoff 80 yards to the house, rising to the occasion later on a second from 10 yards deeper in his own territory.
After grossing 170 total return yards in his afternoon’s two glimmers, Carver solidified a lead atop the conference in relative kickoff return yardage (avg. 30.4 yds/return).
Emerging as a viable option toward the tail end of his Colonials’ dismal season (West. Conn. St. last in NAJC), Jeff Johnston complimented the commendable rushing performance put forth by another conference award winner, earning his first taste of league-wide recognition.
Complete with lengthy gains of 30 and 15 yards, the latter of which accounted for the second score of his collegiate career, the freshman averaged 16.2 yards on each of his five receptions, in total worth 81 tallies through the air.
Looming at the middle of the pack among the NJAC’s top receivers while rounding out the top two of his own squad, Johnston’s latest outing bolstered his average output to 32 yards per game (ranks 24th).
After his former-New Jersey Athletic Conference No. 1 squad lost a tear-jerking 16-13 decision on his seniors’ last homecoming, TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton reiterated the obvious, expected from a football coach at the collegiate level.
There would be absolutely no talk, nor mere mention, of any moral victory.
“Nope. We lost,” he said, minutes after Montclair State University (6-1, 6-0 NJAC) handed the Lions (4-3, 3-3 NJAC) their third-conference loss and an abrupt elimination from conference title contention.
Now in his 33rd year at the program’s helm, Hamilton’s credible diagnosis continued, classifying the contest as a litmus test of Division III’s premier flight, one its elite would have managed to pass.
“That was a game we could have won and if we want to get to that next level we should have won,” he said, citing two red-zone holding penalties incurred during the team’s two failed red zone attempts (finished 2/4 in RZ). “That’s a game that we have to win for the rest of the way if we’re going to at least have a reputable record at the end.”
A realist, Hamilton’s initial frankness wouldn’t be his final word on the afternoon.
During a statement game in every perceptible sense of the term, the drowning roar of its homecoming crowd wasn’t the only noise reverberating from Lions’ Stadium. Contrasting the game’s final score, the resilience with which the team and a number of its individuals hurdled adversity delivered an exhilarating speech—a 60-minute sequence of bold and unequivocal affirmations about its character.
“I don’t know, man,” said running back Kevin Brown, who fought for 32 hard-earned yards on his eight carries, highlighted on a seven-yard touchdown with 10:38 remaining in the final period to put his team within a field goal from overtime (only trailed 16-13). “We’re just tough.”
Primarily utilized as the Lions’ goal-line back entering the contest, the freshman responded when thrust into an every-down role in lieu of successive injuries to the nation’s 38th-best running back tandem (team’s two leading rushers, Justin Donoloski, Chase Misura injured in 1Q, 4Q respectively; combined 18 rush, 67 yds).
In a collaborative spackling, the pastiche backfield mustered up a cheek-slapping 126 yards in the face of the nation’s fourth-stingiest group against the run (MSU opp. avg. 54.5 rush yds/gm).
Accentuated on his 10-yard over-achievement on third-and-goal from the Red Hawks’ 21-yard line, designed only to relinquish inches of penalty yardage forfeited three plays earlier, Brown’s role became integral in quarterback Chris James‘ fourth-quarter comeback attempt—one implicit of the four-year starter’s poise as well.
When Lions’ kicker Marc Zucconi pushed the 28-yard attempt outside the far upright, missing on a tricky angle from the left hash-mark, the drive didn’t culminate with the glorious result for which the former-Louisville transfer had hoped, nor could it overshadow the other two kicks tipped at the line earlier (47, 44 in 1Q, 3Q respectively).
But more brightly, the series epitomized James’ particular determination (finished 20/34 176 yds TD, 2 INTs), unwilling to submit after struggling for seven quarters prior.
“He’s a senior and he wants to win,” Hamilton said, referring to his signal-caller’s persistence in the fourth quarter, during which he completed six of his eight balls for 66 yards. “This is his last go-round so, there’s no way you’re keeping him down, not with his attitude. He’s a winner. Even though we didn’t win, he’s a winner.”
After throwing a pair of first-half interceptions as one eleventh of an overall 30 minutes of lackluster offensive disappointment (33 plays, 149 yards; trailed 13-6 at halftime), James’ ability to segment the task at hand from last week’s loss and his misfires deceivingly short minutes earlier didn’t astound teammates. They’ve learned to expect that, too.
One of five beacons of senior leadership on the group’s receiver corps, Richardson’s description of his quarterback’s personality isn’t far from his own, still tirelessly working to reintegrate into the scheme after suffering an injury in the season-opener.
“If something bad happens it doesn’t faze Chris at all. He maybe gets a little upset, but you can tell when we get back out there he’s over it. He’s really good at that, focusing on the present, not what’s happened.”
Like its end result itself, characterized by Hamilton as a “team loss,” the afternoon’s resounding theme wasn’t exclusive to its attacking side. Entering the week as its gimp (9th NJAC in total defense), the TCNJ defense’s best performance to date served as the pinnacle of a season plagued with misfortune—one during which it, too, refused to quit.
“Everyone was so excited,” strong safety Shawn Brown said after his unit held the conference leaders to 169 yards of total offense on 55 plays—its first sub-200 yard domination since its NJAC title run two years ago (avg. 460.83 total yds/gm in 2009).
“Up front, the guys just worked their butts off this week, and those guys stepping in for [injured linebackers Joe] Spahn and [Dan] DeConelio are doing a hell of a job,” he continued, referring to the team-leading 5.5 tackles recorded by both Greg Burns and Jimmy Kleen in the absence of the two leaders lost in consecutive weeks, likely Saturday’s only surprise among those close to the program.
“I would never expect it to say the least, but they are doing work. I’m loving playing with these guys right now.”
“[Montclair State’s] game plan was to come out and run the ball,” said team quad-captain Ryan Flannery, after his second-worst rush defense limited Red Hawk ball carriers to a mere 32 gains of ground yardage on 29 tries—allowing only 15 entering the game’s final period.
“It was a testament to our D-line being able to stop them, and they did. I don’t want to say moral victory, I hate saying that. But we showed what we can do on defense every game.”
And in his post-game forward to his embattled players, Eric Hamilton wouldn’t mutter anything of the sort either. He would, however, praise the group of maturing young men for validating what he’d known all along.
“I’ll tell you what I told them. It’s tough sometimes when you go through a season, teams do a lot sometimes to disappoint you. But this group today was just phenomenal, he said, his voice tinged with a fatherly approval.
“We made mistakes, but if you look the scenarios that we had to go through, to be in that game by those guys on the field—those kids went out there and took advantage of their opportunities to the best of their ability.”
Emotionally he was torn. Maddened by miscues and squandered opportunities, Hamilton conceded that everything else made him proud beyond his most ambitious expectations.
“When you get an effort like that, that’s all you can ask for.”
Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: TCNJ Homecoming won’t foster season’s 3rd NJAC POTW award, says Meyer
It’s possible that the day-to-day grind as a collegiate athlete has kept him sheltered, or maybe he does it himself. But even when the conference selected William Paterson running back Marcus McKinney NJAC Offensive Player of the Week following his 200-yard performance his TCNJ Lions–this season’s second award winner at his defense’s expense–Craig Meyer said he hadn’t gotten the memo.
“To be honest with you I didn’t know that,” the defensive end said, a tinge of irritation swelling in his tone. Once he’d heard, the senior tri-captain vowed the intel would immediately be put to good use.
“That’s a good thing that you’re telling me now. I’m going to use that to fuel the fire of our defense when I go to practice today.”
Nearly ousted by key losses on its second level, the Lions defensive flames could benefit from any spark Meyer, the media, or anyone else has to offer.
“Well, there always seems to be something every week,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said two days after his unit’s 462 yards of forfeitures during the team’s 48-23 loss. “Unfortunately this week was a little bit of the same as the previous week, losing key guys to injury on game day. You can’t prepare for that.”
When the team’s then-leading tackler, junior linebacker Dan DeCongelio, was knocked out of the game following an undisclosed injury sustained during the game’s opening quarter, the floodgates opened for a deluge of Paterson offensive production.
Beginning the game with a vindictive purpose, the unit only allowed 165 first-half yards and 14 points to Willie P, a stark contrast from the Pioneers’ free rein enjoyed the following 30 minutes–a deliberate exploitation of dwindling depth and player spirits.
“The loss of DeCon on the field, both from a player standpoint and as a morale thing, hurt us a lot,” Meyer said. “We played a great first half of defense. We came out and did exactly what we wanted to do. But [injuries and other factors] take a lot of wind out of a defense’s sail.”
Hamilton explained how the problem exacerbated with every passing minute.
“Where that hurt us was depth-wise as you got in the latter stages of the game,” he said, referring to the limitations imposed on his scheme. “For three quarters we more than held our own. Definitely in the first half was our best half of football, I don’t see any evidence to argue that. But yeah, it definitely hurt.”
Key injuries aren’t ever welcomed by a football program–neither by player nor coach. But the dagger couldn’t have come at a more untimely stage in the season. Not only must the team seize victory in each of its remaining games to contend for the NJAC crown and post-season participation, but DeCongelio’s ailment marks the second TCNJ linebacker lost by the team in as many weeks (Spahn vs. Brockport, out for season).
When asked how he plans to stop Montclair State running back Jeff Bliss, whose performance against the Lions a year ago contradicts his season’s slow start, Hamilton admitted the gravity of the task at hand.
“There’s the million-dollar question. That’s what Paterson did to us in the fourth quarter,” he said, citing the 13 of McKinney’s school-record 42 carries and 93 of his 224 yards recorded on the game’s final drive. “At that point you’re just kind of plugging holes. You’re putting your finger on one spot but four others pop up.”
For the front-seven’s bout penciled in for this Saturday at 2pm, the team’s homecoming bonanza, the battered Lions’ D faces a grudge match, a shot at retribution for last year’s reprehensible 219 yards Bliss tallied on 40 carries in his Red Hawks’ 15-0 win at Sprague Field a year ago.
“Montclair’s definitely beatable, but we’ll see,” Meyer said, relying on determination and persistence to compensate for his team’s lack of depth at linebacker. “We’re asking a lot from the young guys to step up this week.”
A request that, so far, they’ve been able to manage.
Filling in for Joe Spahn following his freak pregame injury suffered during warm-ups, Greg Burns lent a hand on three tackles, not to mention a game-sealing turnover later in the game. Through his eyes, the moxie exhibited during the freshman’s first collegiate appearance sold Meyer, an affirmation only supported by Burns’ 10 total tackle performance the following week.
“After that interception against Brockport, which helped us huge in the end [Burns] showed us how he can step up,” he said, referring to the fourth-quarter pick against the Golden Eagles that halted the same late-game antics that Jake Graci pulled in two successful comebacks earlier in the year.
“Burns knows he’s gotta step up, but he’s a pretty big kid. As a defense we just need to change a lot of things up, try to get some pressure on their QB.”
Should it bolster the same effectiveness as the Lions’ afore-mentioned 48-34 win over Brockport two weeks ag0, the strategy just might be what the doctor ordered. (What? I couldn’t help myself.)
Entering his Week Six meeting with the Lions, Graci had tossed nine interceptions in his previous two starts (4 vs. Montclair St.; 5 vs. Rowan; both losses). Forced into multiple rushed decisions amidst the barrage of blitzers, the gunslinger accounted for three of the team’s five giveaways, successfully (or unsuccessfully) locating Lions in pass coverage for a triad of turnovers.
It’s quarterback situation still in the air, Montclair State’s passers fared about as well in the weeks preceding its scheduled conference clash with the Lions.
Before he was benched in the second quarter of his Red Hawks’ 23-7 edging over a substandard Buffalo State defense (allow avg. 38.33 ppg; 7th in NJAC) Tim Fischer completed 4 passes to Bengals’ defenders–only hitting teammates on 10 of his 24 passes. Two weeks earlier, when his team slid by the Pioneer defense, the sophomore didn’t impress much either, completing a similarly poor 13 of his 33 passes, complete with another four picks.
His replacement, Ryan Boysen, finished the game without a glaring error, but he’s far from battle-tested. In Fischer’s stead, the junior threw seven passes and completed four, tallying a mere 29 yards.
Whoever takes the field Saturday to lead a spoiler’s rally against the Lions on their annual festivities, Hamilton plans to throw any and all fixtures at the man under center–not excluding the kitchen sink. He’s just banking on deception, an admittedly risky endeavor he hopes can make things happen.
“It’s gonna be interesting I’ll tell you that,” he said. “We’re just going to try and be aggressive, do some different things and show them some things we haven’t shown them before. I don’t wanna say smoke in mirrors, that’s not the right phrase. But we’re going to have to try and do some things that leave us weak in some areas but disguise it well enough that they don’t pick up on it.”
Success and failure in games might hinge upon the difference of inches, but one’s ability to thrive at the quarterback position is even more delicate–a fragile ecosystem of athleticism, brains and, above all else, attitude.
Rookie phenom Mark Sanchez, the Jets’ golden boy with a right arm about as glistening in Jersey’s overcast October skies, has managed to persist through the same tumult that’s spoiled fresh young talent in years past (Ryan Leaf ring a bell?), only because he’s got what they didn’t.
A spirited resilience.
Now, he’s not posing for GQ Magazine, nor is he the topic of New York talk-radio eight-to-nine days a week, but TCNJ quarterback Chris James isn’t much different. While TCNJ’s conference schedule has offered the four-year starter his fair share of successes–decimating individual and team records in each of the Lions’ first four games, not to mention the bragging rights implicit to the nation’s top scoring threat–it hasn’t shied away from rearing its uglier side.
And when it has, as recently as last week’s let-down on the road against William Paterson, James is the first to admit his dissatisfaction with his performance. But more importantly, he’ll also be the first to let it go.
“Any time you lose a game and the numbers weren’t what you’d wanted them to be, you’re always going to be upset,” he said, alluding to the mere 14-of-34 passes he completed a week ago in Wayne. “If I’d made a couple more passes, maybe scored another touchdown that would have put us closer. But I can’t say that if I had played better we would have won the game, because I don’t know. Last week was hard. But you can’t reverse the past. Just live with it—that’s how I feel.”
Serene with what’s behind him, James accepts the irrevocable reality. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.
“Frankly it sucks. But [the loss] is just a stepping stone to get better for this week. It gives me that much more determination to work harder for the next game.”
Which is precisely what he did following Week Five, when the NJAC calendar thrust the Brick Memorial high school legend into his road debut against the Kean University Cougars.
His first appearance as a gladiator matched against the conference’s top-ranked defensive secondary (led NJAC in opp. pass efficiency) was rough on him (season-high 2 INTS in 28-7 loss), but the senior battled on, responding the next week in the team’s 48-34 slug fest win over The College at Brockport. A discernible reminder of his abilities, James posted his year’s third 300-yard passing performance, complete with three aerial scores–rounding out this season’s triad for that feat as well (300+ yds, 3+ pass TDs vs. FDU-Florham, Morrisville St., Brockport).
Which is also precisely the prediction offered by his coach for this weekend, based on James’ track-record. Saturday marks the Lions’ return to Lions Stadium to face Montclair State University–the culmination of TCNJ’s homecoming spirit week, also the last of his collegiate career.
“A big performance,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said, laughing at his blunt response to the question. “I think he’s that kind of a kid, I think he’s that kind of a player. It’s a big stage, it’s a big game. There’s a lot of rivalry and tradition [against Montclair State], and the last time he came off a loss we came back and had a big win. What else would I expect him to do?”
Now facing a weekly do-or-die carousel for the remainder of the season, the first of four remaining tests for the Lions is no cupcake. Rolling through Buffalo State a week ago en route to its fifth-consecutive win, the Red Hawks remain perched atop the NJAC standings.
But neither distant nor recent history offers a vote of confidence, in spite of James’ unshakable swagger.
During his team’s 15-0 loss at Sprague Field a year ago, the then-junior completed a skimpy 16 of his 35 throws, among those, one hauled in by Red Hawk defensive back Cornell Hunt. On the day, James finished with an anemic 128 yards, but without a touchdown, good (or bad) for a dismal 70.7 passer efficiency.
This year, the Red Hawk defense looks about as stout, ranking 6th in the nation in pass efficiency defense (88.25 opp. passer rating) while reining opposing ball-carriers to a flimsy 54.5 total yards rushing–the fourth-fewest in Division III. Considering the only non-Chris James outings of 2009 have come against top-ranked defensive backfields (Kean, WPU both ranked No. 1 in NJAC in opp. pass efficiency entering games) and coincided with the Lions’ worst ground support efforts (58 vs. Kean; 105 vs. WPU) he’s certainly got his work cut out for him, hoping to rekindle his early season success and reroute his team’s post-season aspirations.
“I thought he played pretty hard [against Kean],” Hamilton said, about as faithful in the nation’s 20th-most efficient passer (13 TDs, 5 INTs; 156.85 rating).
“Statistically the numbers weren’t there, but the other things were. He still was a good leader, he tried to make plays and put us in the right positions. It’s just one of those things where some days you’re on and some days you’re not. And I would have to say that was one of those days he just wasn’t on the ‘A-game.’”
He’s not concerned with his records, neither the ones he already holds, nor those he’s about to grab. He’s even more uninterested in his stats, or any other non-numeric quantification of his performance. Chris James isn’t one to offer a bold prediction, one he’s not sure fate will allow him to fulfill. But he–man, not mouse–spat an indelible promise to fans and naysayers alike, assuring the homecoming crowd that he’d be putting on a show, scheduled for a 2:00pm curtain call.
“Montclair’s a good team, but me and the receivers, we’ve only got four games left in our careers,” he said, without much thought or hesitation.
“You can bet we’re going to leave it all out on the field.”
Hang up the phone.
You needn’t call in a shrink—the Lions’ peculiar post-game ritual, appropriately nicknamed “gorillas,” isn’t a token residual of identity crisis. And, no, even in a sports world ridden with perforated corners, primed for abuse by the athletes all too eager to cut them, the ensuing chest-pounding that accompanies its piercing battle cry falls plenty short of grounds to screen the team’s urine for PEDs.
But should the program rebound after last week’s let-down loss on the road at William Paterson University, topping the first-place Red Hawks of Montclair State University, stick around for a while. A win would offer a chance to see what causes all the confusion. Look harder, at the heart of this swaying mob of student-athletes, and you just might catch a glimpse of who.
Or, you could simply ask. And he’d oblige—simply.
“I’m just plain, old Coach Bones.”
Based on his modest description, the ringleader of this jubilant, though admittedly juvenile ceremonial rite of victory sells himself short. Both he and his tradition—eagerly anticipated by players and coaches each and every time the Lions seize victory on the gridiron—have withstood the tests of time and tumult in the collegiate coaching carousel.
Swing by the facility during the week, however, and you’ll find the same Paul Vichroski pacing back and forth in Lions’ Stadium, not quite as loose as the one seen monkeying around after wins. Now is the time for work, not play, prompting his incessant barking of precise expectations to all of the team’s players—not limited to his offensive linemen.
A stickler for excellence with a microscopic fixation on detail, Vichroski prowls the outskirts of team’s least glorious endeavors, generally fostering its most halfhearted efforts: agility drills, dynamic stretch warm-ups, and reps during special teams’ segments. Receivers are scolded for lazy, hanging arms while standing on the line-of-scrimmage, their hands not where they’d be during a street fight. Dare to partake in a conditioning drill without vigor, or worse, perfect form, and players are reprimanded on the spot—until they get it right.
Every last morsel of enjoyment in his life he earned by rolling up his sleeves. Mediocrity, or worse, apathy to any of facet of his beloved game, simply won’t be tolerated, not even toward its most tedious formalities—the kind of stuff that would curl Allen Iverson’s snarling lip of disgust.
Each and every practice.
“I hope when I’m that age I have anywhere near that energy,” defensive end Craig Meyer said, now in his fourth year with the program—and Bones’ intensity. “But, you have to respect him for what he knows about the game.”
But Vichroski’s high standards have purpose, well-aware of the daily discipline necessary to compete at the college level. A two-sport letterman during his days at TCNJ, he thrived in any athletic medium that let him throw something—the bigger the better.
In addition to prowess in the shot, javelin and discus throws, the Trenton-native also excelled as a two-way starter on the line for then-Lions’ head man, Bob Salois. Launching iron rods long before the helmets worn by his oft-abused adversaries were constructed with iron masks, Vichroski doesn’t downplay the prominent role that football played in such a delicate time in any young man’s life.
“Tremendously,” he said of its impact, wiping away his stern countenance—a quintessential scowl of a college football coach/drill sergeant, Coach Bones’ warmer side subbing in.
“I never thought I’d be a college boy, a student. I had ambitions of going at one time or another and maybe playing some football. It all came true and I figured I’d take advantage of it.”
Understandably so, considering he’d all but decided to continue a mildly binding commitment—to the United States Military.
In the few quiet years sandwiched between conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, Vichroski stood where many men his age did, staring at the growing pile of draft notices in his family’s mailbox. Fresh out of high school, he was overcome by indecision, torn between the United States Navy and the Marine Corps. Again, just like any 18-year old would, he asked his father for guidance.
“My father told me, Well, you’ve gotta pick one,” he said, reminiscing about the conversation from a half century earlier. Carefully scrutinizing the advantages and shortcomings of each—both with his father and by himself—Vichroski sought an alternative method.
“He had recommended the Navy, but I liked the Marines at the time. So I flipped a coin.”
Heads for marines, tails for navy. After a brief flight, Vichroski peered across his kitchen table to see which faced upwards. And at the drop of a dime (technically a quarter), he was a midshipman.
Now admitting a retrospective preference for the U. S. Coast Guard, Vichroski invested his next four years to service at sea—two active, followed by another two of inactive duty. When he could, during his vessel’s periodic stops along the Gulf Coast, Vichroski sought out a much-needed fix, from the 1960s highest quality pushers.
During his autonomy of the Southeastern Conference among college football’s elite, Paul “Bear” Bryant organized the University of Alabama’s preseason training camp in the New Orleans area, a frequent port of call of Vichroski’s vessel. An aspiring coach himself, he rushed the gates of the practice facility, giddily like a teenage girl on Black Friday, salivating at the discounted opportunity to obtain priceless knowledge from one of the game’s most storied personas—then and now.
When he arrived, he stood staring through gaps in the chain-link fencing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the otherwise fabled Crimson Tide. And based on its unforgettable first-impression, the experience lived up to the hype.
“Man these guys were good,” his waning memory permits him to recollect. “Quickness, speed—unbelievable. What did I know, I was just a guy in the Navy, but when you see these guys, man. Just amazing.”
It didn’t present an intimate student-teacher experience (though, he recalls, “I shook his hand once), but Vichroski insists much of the world of knowledge he’s gradually accumulated was absorbed on those dusty Creole practice fields.
“He was a hell of a football coach,” citing his first-hand account of a legend in his prime. “I really admired how he got so much out of his guys. He respected his opponent, and he always expected a lot from the kids he had.”
But that wasn’t all his experience garnered. Turning to leave, overly satiated from a gluttonous feast of football food for thought, Vichroski’s return to whatever his commanding officers had in store for the next few thousand hours of his life would have to wait. A synchronized bellowing howl grabbed hold of Vichroski’s attention.
And it hasn’t yet let go.
He incrementally pieced together what had seemed like an ancient tribal ritual—alien to outsiders, a irrevocable facet of culture to its practitioners.
Characterized first, by the rapt sway of a pendulum of bodies, ticking harmoniously as one, players allowed their seething aggression from two hours-worth of hard-labor in Louisiana heat and humidity to boil.
Entranced faces housing wide-eyed glared toward Bryant, their silverback, in anxious advent of the first notion of a signal. Following a tantalizingly long three-count, they unleashed what must’ve seemed like hell to anyone within a few hundred yards of the facility.
“Well you know what a gorilla is, don’t you?” I did, but I egged him on with the slightest indication of doubt regarding where he was going with it. “You always see these documentaries with gorillas in them. And when one defeats his foe, his enemy, he shows his pride by pounding his chest with his troop, feeling like a million dollars.”
Perfectly capable of inciting a deluge of infants’ tears, coinciding with a heart-palpitating startling of their mothers (and fathers), Vichroski smiled.
“When I first saw it I said, I like that,” he said. “From that moment I knew that if I ever got into coaching, I wanted to show that to my team.”
And he would, in time. But fate had its prerequisites.
Vichroski returned home, the aromatic scent of his first tour’s finale lingering just six months away. After he’d requested a brief leave on account of nostalgia, Vichroski made one of his life’s most pivotal road trips—a casual stop at his high school.
There he reunited with his former head coach—who complimented his University of Pennsylvania education with accolades as three-time All-American linebacker—Bob Perigini. As it so often does during those reunions, the conversation shifted toward the future. Investing years of his life in the United States military, service was all Vichroski knew. And, in his mind, it was the lone glimmer of clarity at this juncture in his life.
Even if a return to the military didn’t make perfect sense, Vichroski thought he knew what was least likely.
“I wasn’t the brightest star in the sky,” he said, referring to his lackluster academic career. “I struggled as a student.”
Indifferent to a waning amour propre, Perigini’s indelible relationship with one of his players prompted his automated response. He offered to contact his Alma mater, hoping to wedge Vichroski’s lanky 6’3 frame into the oft-impenetrable fortress of an Ivy League edification.
Unsuccessful, but not futile. Gears now churning in pursuit of a degree, Vichroski’s life drifted toward the path of on an alternative battle plan—divergent from the service.
Failed attempts at Albright College among others followed. Perigini enacted a last-ditch effort to propelling his former player to academia.
After a series of collaborative efforts, Perigini arranged a spot for Vichroski at an upcoming entrance examination to, as it was called at the time, Trenton State College.
“I couldn’t have told you the last time I’d read a book,” he said of his preemptive nervousness entering the test. “I was hoping God was looking upon my poor soul and said, Hey, I’ll let you in.”
More likely influenced by untapped intellectual resources—and the dependency of the U.S. Postal Service—than divine intervention, Vichroski stood at the mailbox once more. No longer mortified, like he and with thousands of adolescents reluctantly reeled into combat had to have been, he delicately peeled apart the glue from the envelope’s backside. In it contained exclusive admission to the exclusive future—until then, exclusive to his dreams.
Ecstatic, Vichroski immediately accepted his invitation, “especially since the government was paying for it.” Had the military not opened its checkbook, his parents’ financial standing likely wouldn’t have supported it.
His father, Frank, “worked his backside off” as the building manager of an apartment complex that fostered Paul’s childhood. His mother, Stella, pulled double-duty to support the family.
As Frank’s part-time assistant, she scrubbed the floors, tinkered with dubious intricacies of her husband’s plumbing and electricity systems, and spackled the cracks in whatever job a mere 24 hours left unaddressed. As his full-time housewife, she scrubbed dishes, tinkered with the dubious intricacies of raising her husband’s children, and slipped on the apron of a bona fide Super Mom from dawn till dusk.
Conceived through his parents’ diligence, incubated by his coach’s persistence, and birthed following his own unshaken resilience, Vichroski’s education materialized into a college diploma in—of all areas of study—industrial arts.
“It was the easiest way I thought I could get into the school,” he said later, explaining the decision’s Darwinist rationale.
Recognized for his adequate success in the classroom, Vichroski’s prolific gridiron accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed either.
His eligibility exhausted, Vichroski’s football career still flickered. After another casual visit to the portal of his life’s expeditions, he found another two letters in Vichroski mailbox—addressed from prominent personalities in football history as the one he last encountered.
In 1963, during the fledgling stages of the AFL’s rival pro football league, open tryouts were a commonality among the infantile franchises. Hosted by fabled greats in Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, Vichroski received invites to auditions with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
The Packers had filled their roster before his gridiron interview, but Vichroski’s offer was still on the table for what would later become America’s team. Fighting with the vigor that toppled the intellectual obstacles of his college experience, Vichroski dueled with All-Pro guard Jim Ray Smith and College Football Hall of Fame linebacker Lee Roy Jordan.
He didn’t make the roster, which was alright with him. His Super Bowl waited for him back home.
His return as Trenton’s prodigious son berthed his long-awaited coaching career, one that’s lasted, uncharacteristically, about as long. Over the past 34 years, he’s seen it all. Head coaches have come and gone since the beginning of his tenure, along with about every offensive philosophy imaginable. On par with his unconditional sentiment toward all his players, Vichroski never favored one scheme over the next.
“We went through every offense there was. I, Power-I, Wishbone, Wing-T, you name it. I liked them all, because each had its own innovative approach. I learned a lot.”
He had his opportunities to claw up the rungs of the ladder, but he wasn’t fazed by the glitz and glam of “big time” coaching jobs. “I’d rather just stay here, with these players and with [TCNJ head] Coach [Eric] Hamilton,” he said. “He’s treated me well and I’ll always appreciate it.”
Hamilton reciprocates the feeling—though it wasn’t his initial impression.
“This big guy, just out of the navy, local legend and player at the College and you’re scared to death because he was such an imposing figure,” he said, recollecting his first glimpse of the ominous Trenton State football legend while waiting for his physical entering his freshman year.
“But, you come to find out that you just met the nicest guy in the world.”
Of all the hall of fame-caliber coaches helping craft his football knowledge, and those of the future that have allowed his career to flourish, he claims the fabric that’s fostered his career isn’t found in any sports almanac—probably not even the phone book.
Married to his wife, Barbara, for “a pretty long time,” Vichroski insists that the tenderness waiting upon his every return from practices and games, sometimes later than she’d like, is what’s made it all possible. And he’s grateful for it.
“I still love her today as much as the first day I met her. Football wives deserve the world, because they go through a lotta hell. And anyone will tell you that’s not an easy thing,” noting her dichotomy—like his own mother’s—raising his three children, now all “in their 30s.”
Uninterested in the results of “popularity contests” he’d likely win (says he “doesn’t care about all that”), there’s no doubting his legacy—a book that, literally, he hasn’t gotten to writing.
“When I leave this game I’m going to write a book,” he says. “I’m going to go off into the woods and write a book. However long it takes, that’s what I’m gonna do—fish and write.”
Not forgetting, of course, “Bear’s” gorillas.
By his own account, he’s made it. He persevered in the navy, survived in college, and thrived on the gridiron. He can’t remember most of the players’ names he’s coached, though he’d “never forget a face.”
But the cat that’s got his tongue, leaving him unable to articulate the mountainous quake that shakes his rock-solid core of emotion is what everyone he’s encountered means to him—a collage of players, seasons, stories and struggles, each a profound entity both individually and as a collective portrait of his impact on the midsection of the Garden State.
“I can’t express it,” he said, struggling to piece his years of experiences into verse.
“It’s just in here,” he continued, lightly tapping his chest with a closed fist…
Upon the finale of the New Jersey Athletic Conference’s 2009 regular season, therein lies a pretty uncomplicated selection system for dubbing the victor of the conference crown. Should two teams, or four, boast the same record once all the conference’s disputes have been settled, they’ll all be named No. 1–as sacrelige as that might sound.
But any program’s exclusive privilege to post “2009 NJAC Champion” on its school’s web site doesn’t necessarily include playoff implications. If that’s the case, and multiple teams share a piece of fresh-baked glory, someone (or someones) is going to be surfing the web to about the 2009 Stagg Bowl post-season, rather than preparing for it.
TCNJ (4-2, 3-2 NJAC), as ridiculous as it might sound, still has a perfectly feasible opportunity to capture the conference trophy at season’s end. The program has fully exercised all its do-over options, dropping two games so far to in-conference foes, and it’s going to need an organized philanthropic effort of Salvation Army stature from the rest of the league. But it’s not out yet. Like the taught restraints tying its hands in its scramble for NJAC supremacy, the Lions’ ability to impact its shot isn’t entirely within its control.
The NJAC, similar to major conferences in Division I college basketball, is one of few entitled to an automatic bid among the Division III football post-season’s 32-team pool. Most years, like in 2008 when Cortland State University finished with a pristine 9-0 NJAC record, there’s not a distinction between winner and representative in the Stagg Bowl senate. But others require a methodical progression of tie-breakers to settle any disputes.
For the remainder of the article, I’m going to refer to the hypothetical situation presented yesterday, in my tardy posting of 4M. If this doesn’t exactly make sense, skim through that scenario and you’ll be pretty abruptly caught up to speed. Either way, fasten your seat belts, Lions fans.
Here we go.
The first determinant, the most regular and sensible, is head-to-head record. Now, Montclair State would have the edge against both TCNJ and Kean, while the Cougars’ Week 5 win over TCNJ would swing the tiebreaker in their favor. Rowan would also boast wins against Montclair and Kean, though both it and the Red Hawks would have fallen to the Lions.
Sound messy? That’s because it is, and it also wouldn’t suffice as a criterion to determine the NJAC bid-getter.
The next measuring rod to sift out three of these contenders is each program’s win-loss record against whoever finished just outside the first-place party. In this case, it would likely be Cortland State Univeristy. (Again, assuming that the Red Dragons’ loss to TCNJ accounts for its third conference loss, driving the final nail toward prepping their post-season burial.) In this scenario, all of the teams but Rowan would have gotten the best of the defending NJAC champs, eliminating the Profs from this playoff carousel.
The three remaining programs (TCNJ, Kean, Montclair State) would arrive at the conference’s third measuring rod, each opponents’ opponents’ win percentage in Division III. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Also sounds a whole lot like opponent strength of schedule, but NJAC Commissioner Terry Small assured me that it’s a different calculation, executed by the NCAA. Considering its close proximity to SOS, we’ll use that to give a better idea of the playoff scenario.
For these intents and purposes, there’s only one team per program that’s relevant to this particular portion of the discussion. Because the NJAC schedules all but one game between in-conference competitors, all of those opponents’ opponents’ win-loss tallies have already proven insufficient to sorting this mess out in the first place. So they hold no merit here.
We’ll start with TCNJ.
The Lions’ non-conference opponent, Fairleigh Dickinson University-Florham, hasn’t had itself the great season of every collegiate athlete’s dreams. The Devils’ record (1-5), however, isn’t the determinant used in this assessment–it’s their opponents’ records. Fortunately for the Lions, their schedule graced them with a date against a team with that kind of success.
Using data from the NCAA Division III football statistics web site, FDU-Florham’s cumulative strength of schedule ranks high among the nation’s most difficult coalitions of opposition (cum. opp. is win % 0.638) That’s good for 10th in the country, 24 spots higher than Wilkes (cum. opp. win % is 0.576)–Montclair State University’s non-conference opponent. The Devils, unfortunately, didn’t play a tougher schedule than Delaware Valley (2nd in NCAA) who’ve faced opponents with a winning percentage of 0.666% in 2009.
All is not lost for the Lions, considering there’s still four weeks of the schedule remaining. It just increases the amount of digits needed to be crossed as the season progresses–maybe adding a few toes to already intertwined fingers. There’s still plenty of time for changes in the rankings, should Del Val’s opposition hit a collective wall. And who knows? The teams on FDU’s schedule could all of a sudden be empowered by some freak, late-season surge.
In the unlikelihood that there’s still a tie, the selection committee would focus its assessment toward each team’s opponents’ opponents’ record in the East Region alone–again, in desperate circumstances. Following that would be the Rose Bowl Rule, stipulating that the team with the most recent post-season berth would be excluded from this year’s festivities–in this case both Rowan and TCNJ would let Kean take the NJAC’s keys to its hotrod, zooming down the D3 Autobahn that’s its Stagg Bowl tournament. Had this scenario boiled down to the conference’s second-to-last selection criterion last year, instead including TCNJ and Cortland State, both of which tied for the conference championship the previous year and each had received a playoff berth, the winner of a coin flip would send either onward.
So you see, there’s no ruling out a post-season berth for the Lions just yet. Sure it requires the fulfillment of a series of improbables and unlikelihoods–impossible without a second half chock full of luck–but hope isn’t a fruitless effort, a fool’s errand. Let the haters keep on hating, but TCNJ is far from done. Under these circumstances, when all isn’t necessarily lost but hangs from the most delicate of threads, I offer the adage of a good friend of mine, a poker player whose successes and failures hinge solely upon unbiased swings of fate.
If there’s a chip in the chair, you’ve got a prayer.
Indeed, Joe Cruz.
Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag: How TCNJ can still grasp NJAC glory, make the post-season, and why there’s nothing wrong w/ CJ
Every Monday, I’ll take a minute to respond to you — Lions’ Nation — answering questions and offering my predictions and insight surrounding the team’s 2009 campaign. Here’s this week’s installment of Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag.
I fielded a lot of concerns this week regarding the Lions’ playoff hopes and criticism of their quarterback. And here’s what I’ve got to say about each.
- Matty, we knew that the NJAC picture was a mess last week. What, if anything, can TCNJ do to get a piece of the title this year?
I spoke to NJAC Commissioner Terry Small on the phone earlier today, and we had a 17-minute conversation regarding that question precisely. The conference playoff picture isn’t exactly what you’d call HD at this point in time.
To date, TCNJ is ranked fifth in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, boasting a mediocre 3-2 conference record. Fortunately for the program, the deficit between it and the two top dogs is a mere two games (Montclair State University and Kean; both 5-0). So I know I said last week that the team needed to win out–technically an errant statement.
The team needs to win against Montclair State this weekend, first and foremost. That gives the Red Hawks their first loss of the season, one half of what the Lions need should they handle their business for the remainder of 2009.
The team travels to upstate New York the following week, looking to knead salt in the wounded Red Dragons (lost several quarterbacks, starting running back for season). Cortland State (4-2 overall, NJAC) currently sits fourth in the conference standings, and a loss would without question remove their name from even the most outside chances to contend for the NJAC championship.
TCNJ returns home the following week, welcoming a crippled Western Connecticut State (0-6 overall, 0-5 NJAC) program to Lions’ Stadium. Last week’s loss to William Paterson about rules out any forgoing any conclusions regarding premature ticks in the win column, but you’d like to think the team can manage against the conference’s last-place competitor.
Then there’s Rowan-week, an unofficial summons for players to take a one-week hiatus from class. A win would give the Profs (5-1 overall, 4-1 NJAC) their second conference loss this year, likely sliding them out of the NJAC’s No. 3 slot.
Now, before it dropped the ball–literally, figuratively–in Wayne this weekend, TCNJ controlled its own destiny. Unfortunately for the program, even if it can manipulate its own fate and the rest of its schedule, it can’t thrust itself back into the driver’s seat for the ‘ship. It can still win an outright conference title, though they’d need some serious upsets to mar the NJAC leaders. If it’s going to win a share, they still be banking on a few must-have helping hands.
Actually, three of them. Four if you count not looking past Western Connecticut.
So here’s where fingers start crossing.
Should Rowan manage to topple both Kean and Montclair State, the Profs would be cordially handing each program its first and second respective conference loss. Montclair State would still need to get the best of Kean, which isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility–Kean now has two losses.
So now, in an extrapolation Commissioner Small described as “getting way ahead of [my]self,” there would conceivably be a four-way tie for the conference title. Which would end in a four way tie.
“If at the end of the season there was a three-way tie,” Commissioner Small said via telephone interview. “We’d have tri-champions. If there were four teams we’d have quad-champions or however you’d like to call it.”
Breath of fresh air for the Lions for the here and now. But, unfortunately, that’s only the easy part…
- Matty, what does TCNJ need to do to make the post-season?
All of that, and then some. It’s frankly too much to put into a 4M post, so check in later in the week for the answer to that question.
- What’s the deal with Chris James? This makes two substandard performances against top defenses from the Lions’ QB. How can we still think he’s good compared to the rest of the passers at this level?
Well, it really shouldn’t be too hard, especially if you take a look at the circumstances.
In each of the two games in question, both losses, both on the road, and both against the conference’s top pass efficiency defense, Chris James really didn’t play all that well–for Chris James.
Against Kean, he completed 58.5% of his passes (24/41), which wasn’t too bad, but the two picks certainly weren’t going to help stabilize the team against its toughest opponent to date. His 5.7 yards per attempt was mediocre, also by his standards. Keep in mind, he entered the game averaging a silly 226.6 pass efficiency rating (2nd in NCAA), which is a pretty high standard to consistently match. He could have done better, but he didn’t skimp on setting the bar high for himself in his first three games.
Last week was the first time anyone’s seen that kind of inaccuracy from the Lions’ #4 since his sophomore year two years ago, when he only completed 48% of his passes during the 2007 season. He finished 14/34 on Saturday, good for only 189 yards. Two touchdowns? Good. Interception and fumble on fourth-and-two? Not so much. But can you really blame him for those miscues entirely?
He has to get at least half of a pass for the fumble in the fourth quarter, considering it wasn’t ostensibly anyone’s fault. He needs to make sure that he’s still taking snaps from under center on the in pregame and on the sidelines between drives, but there’s a reason why Colt Brennan caught flak for “questions about his ability to effectively run a pro-style offense” (ESPN Insider Scouting Report 2008). When quarterbacks aren’t used to taking snaps from under center, that’s a risk taken. The team’s jumbo package seems as if it’s here to stay, giving everyone involved–quarterback and center–ample repetition in under-center snaps during practice. You can’t expect those same types of errors in the future–less and less with each passing week.
Now, there’s a distinct difference between coincidence and causation. Just because there happen to be similarities between his two worst performances to date, doesn’t necessarily pave the way for rash leaps toward unfounded conclusions. You want a cause for James’ struggles, aside from an athlete just having a rough afternoon? I’ll give you one.
Aside from Kean and Willie P’s stints as the conference’s top pass defenses, there’s another similarity exclusive to those two performances–no running game.
Against the Cougars, TCNJ ball-carriers only managed to gain 108 yards, omitting the team rushing yards lost on fumble from Kean one-yard line. It’s not to say coordinators didn’t try, as long as they could anyway, signaling in 32 rushing plays over the course of the game. Between the team’s then-No. 12 rushing attack in Division III, Donoloski, Misura and Yetka combined for 100 yards, a slight disparity from the to the 271.3 it averaged entering the contest.
Last week, Donoloski carried the load as best he could, but was still only able to muster 99 yards on his 18 carries. Of those, only seven carries came in the second half, versus James’ 20 drop-backs. The line didn’t handle the blitz particularly well, but it also wasn’t dominated by any means. It was a victim of the situation, however, without any equivocation.
The advantage enjoyed by a defensive end well in tune with the unlikelihood that his opponent is running the football on the upcoming play isn’t quantifiable. Being able to safely take that exaggeratedly wide pass rush around an offensive tackle is disruptive, if not dangerous. The senior was wrangled to the turf behind the line three times by Pioneer pass-rushers, not to mention the multitude of times he was hurried, hit or otherwise badgered.
There’s still plenty of blame to be served on his plate–especially at this stage in his career. But to suggest that he’s not capable is absurd.
I’m elaborating off of my prediction sure to go wrong. I said yesterday that Richardson was going to rack up more than 100 receiving yards this weekend, but I’m going to expand the field. There’s going to be a game-breaking receiving performance this weekend (impossible without stellar quarterback play, so you can throw that in there too). Donoloski is going to have a run-of-the-mill first half before he takes control of the second, probably gashing the Red Hawks on either a lengthy run or screen reception. I mean, he’s done it about 10 times this year already–though the question is regarding James’ performances, so I’ll try not to digress.
Should you like, you could also question offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta’s play-calling. How any of that propaganda would read at this stage in the game isn’t really a concern of mine, considering there’s not a chance I’d be subscribing, given his track record.
There were significantly fewer running plays in the second half than in the first (23 vs. 14). But if you were in attendance, there were few circumstances that even slightly grumbled “why would you call that play?” if there were any at all. And, even under those cases, there may have been other options available–not necessarily better, just different. Several called pass plays were high-percentage throws that were disrupted by pressure, or poorly executed–a few defensive reads on screens were just good efforts by the opposition. I mean, they were ranked first in the conference in pass efficiency defense for a reason.
If you want to throw criticism at anyone, blame everyone. The team didn’t execute in either contest, and it cost them. A missed throw here, a dropped pass there (even Richardson let one slip out of his hands), or a whiffed block (or two, or three) can reroute any offensive party wagon. And that’s exactly what happened Saturday.
That’s it for this week’s edition of 4M.
To see your questions answered, fill out the form below:
Saturday’s loss was bad.
That’s probably the only time you’ll ever see me use one of those uselessly vague descriptors, but it’s about as blanketing an adjective to describe what happened. The team didn’t play as well as it should have, dropped a perfectly winnable game on its calendar, lost its second middle-linebacker in as many weeks, and likely its chance at the NJAC crown (could potentially share w/ MSU).
Let’s just get into it.
- Justin Donoloski
It’s really a shame that the conference’s statisticians don’t record yards after first-contact and break-tackles, nor do they use asterisks notating style-points on otherwise bland four-yard runs. If they did, Donoloski’s afternoon would leap from the stat-sheet, as oppose to mildly hint its lone source of enthusiasm from the Lions’ side.
He finished a yard shy of his second 100-yard game this season, proving he could carry the load on a career-high 18 carries–one of them a 15-yard touchdown (prev. 15 vs. Brockport, finished w/59 rush yds, TD; 3 rec., 76 yds, TD). He personally accounted for about a third of the Lions’ offensive production, which, frankly doesn’t properly attest to his contribution, considering how poorly it functioned.
Picking up the slack for an anomalous one-yard effort from Chase Misura, who entered the game averaging 60 yards every outing (was 9th in NJAC; now 10th, avg. 50.3 yds/gm), Donoloski contributed for all but five of his team’s rush yards, despite accounting for fewer than half its carries (TCNJ-37 att., 107 yds).
Because sacks count against a quarterback’s rushing totals, Chris James technically finished in the red, losing four yards on his seven attempts. Less the three sacks, however, he provided a minimal boost to the Lions’ sputtering rushing attack, adding 20 in the right direction on his other four attempts.
Donoloski should be getting more help in the future, as it’s doubtful that Misura won’t be able to rebound for the remainder of the year. But he’ll have to get used to carrying more and more of the load, especially in the wake of Mike Yetka’s abrupt switch to defensive back–which he declined to comment about earlier in the week.
- Mark Gardner and Cam Richardson
Sure, it was a loss, but Saturday was indescribably huge for both receivers–both looking to rebound from early-season obstacles.
Gardner led the team with five catches, good for 88 yards and two touchdowns–both at pivotal times during the slugfest. He opened the scoring in the first quarter, breaking free on a 57-yard reception just under four minutes into the game. That set the tone early to fuel a 14-point lead earned faster than you can say, to-hell-with-your-homecoming. It was lost just as quickly, about the time needed to finish the following statement:
“We had such crappy field position the entire game” –free safety Matt Kreider. And I’ll get to that in a minute.
The Texas-native’s stellar performance amidst a very earthy team finish is an indelible sign that he’s rebounded from the tw0-week hangover following his season’s best outings. Duplicating his game-breaking performance against FDU-Florham (4 rec., 119 yds, TD) when his team bludgeoned Morrisville State the following week (6 rec., 111 yds, TD), Gardner’s busy ending half of September catapulted his standing to second in the conference in receiving yards per game.
In the weeks that followed, he only caught three balls for a combined 48 yards–first on the road at Kean (2 rec. 11 yds), then against Brockport (rec. 37 yds).
It’s good that he’s back, because the team’s going to need to milk as much venom that it can from all its weapons if it’s going to contend for an outside shot at the NJAC Championship.
Coming off an injury, Richardson’s breakout game didn’t come as much of a surprise. He was limited to only a few possessions a week ago, still needing to get acclimated to the speed of the game. With time to adjust, and for his quarterback to re-familiarize himself with his favorite target, the team’s tri-captain hauled in four catches good for 66 yards–one of them a 30-yarder that nudged the Lions into Pioneer territory.
Another botched snap on a crucial fourth-down conversion attempt put an end to that drive with 12:41 remaining, but that was just about how the night went altogether.
It might not seem like an earth-shattering impact, but his quartet of receptions weren’t his only contribution. He also drew two flags from Pioneer defensive backs, who mauled him on account of their inability to stick with him down the field. That tells me a.) the ankle’s fine b.) he’s still got it and c.) the ankle’s fine.
Prediction sure to go wrong? Maybe. But I’d be damned astonished if he didn’t dice the Red Hawks’ secondary on homecoming.
- Red-zone Offense
Saturday also marked the second-consecutive week that the Lions were perfect within those unforgiving final 20 yards (3/3 all TDs).
We knew Kevin Brown could run, but there wasn’t any way to be sure that he’d be consistently used in TCNJ’s goal-line offense. Not only did Lions’ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta play Brown’s card–he did it three times in a row, handing K.B. the rock on first, second, and third downs. He didn’t make mention of his confidence level regarding his newest workhorse among a stable of others, but that persistence said plenty.
And, back to Gardner, his gorgeous back-of-the-end-zone strike to the 6’2 senior proved that James doesn’t need endless green pastures to distribute the football, generally a shortcoming of spread offense quarterbacks. In next week’s “playoff” game against Montclair State, they’re going to need all the moxie in the red zone that they can conjure up (MSU RZ def. 3rd in NJAC; opp. 68.8% scoring; 5 TOD).
- Fix that clutch
Over the course of the afternoon, the Lions certainly had their chances to seize momentum and stop the downward spiral that ultimately accelerated out of their control.
The team finished 4/14 on third-down, converting not a single attempt in the fourth quarter (0/4). Marc Zucconi earned his bus ticket this week, sent out 8 times as TCNJ’s field-position mercenary (avg. 43.6 yds/punt). It didn’t attempt to convert a fourth-down attempt until late, during its last-ditch comeback effort–one that, to his credit, Chris James almost pulled off.
It still wasn’t pretty (2/5, 37 yds) but aside from Richardson’s 30-yard grab on the drive, he drew a flag after he was mauled a few plays later on what would have been an undoubted completion. James and Co. arrived at the WPU 24-yard line, staring a must-have fourth-and-four in the eyes. It’s unclear who blinked, quarterback or center, but the Lions botched another exchange on the crucial down, ultimately ending their night.
It’s hard to fathom that the Lions could ever end up on the slighted side of a field-position struggle, but Kreider’s complaints were certainly supported by the numbers. On the afternoon, the Pioneers’ average starting field position was their own 41–unfavorable, but manageable for an opposing defense. Unbelievably, the Paterson offense set up shop from, on average, the TCNJ 46-yard line in the second quarter.
Between turnovers and poor kick coverage (WPU avg. 12.2 yds/punt ret.), the Lions did not come through on special teams. Matters certainly weren’t helped when a snap on what was supposed to be a routine punt sent Zucconi on his horse 20 yards to chase down runaway pigskin, finally catching up in his end zone. The pair of tallies forfeited snipped a seven-point TCNJ lead to five, only ahead 28-23 with 4:07 remaining in the third quarter.
Not only did its frustrated punter have to trot back out to return possession, but he had to let it rip from his own 20-yard line. Paterson started at its own 46 following the return, ultimately scoring a touchdown on the drive to take the lead–one it wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the night.
- You don’t know what you got…
Until you see exactly how bad it could get.
Zucconi’s been a gem for the Lions–there’s no doubting that. But, even if you tried, I’m pretty sure his three NJAC Special Teams Player of the Week awards would beg to differ. He’s been consistent, fulfilling the bare minimum standard for the position, but he’s exceeded reasonable expectations for the position, to say the least.
William Paterson isn’t as lucky.
Their place-kicker, Ryan Brzycki, did miss a 29-yarder with 4:37 remaining in the second quarter–a chip-shot from the TCNJ 12-yard line. But it certainly had the distance, and, in his defense, was from a tough angle on the left hash-mark. He also made all of his extra points, which aren’t always the gimmies they’re intended to be.
Their punter, however, wasn’t as trustworthy.
(Not naming names) He did average a reputable 29.3 yards per punt (long 37), but his 15-yard dribbler that sailed out of bounds at midfield was a well-received source of comedic relief in the midst of a frustrating day for anyone who was watching–fan or foe. (Unless, of course, you were one of those high-spirited Paterson alums. The team hadn’t pulled off a win in the series since 1993, but you try telling that to the Willie P faithful. Hey, good for them.)
What was funny about the display was how hard he was practicing immediately before he took the field. I’m not going to scoff at anyone’s misfortunes–at least not that much–but watching the football drop like a “lead zeppelin” (actually the same comment that berthed the band’s name–not joking) was a pretty silly sight.
WAYNE, NJ–During the madness immediately following any loss, it seems that all too often, tempers have a funny tendency to flare up.
With the range of player sentiment distributed between ill-tempered peaks, emotionally drained troughs, and variations of either scattered everywhere in between, past experience teaches us that mouths tend to shoot off harsh, uncensored words of criticism without warning—sometimes without warranting.
Take a pill as tough to swallow as Saturday’s inexcusable let-down against William Paterson, one coinciding with a quarterback’s second disappointing performance in as many tries against a top defensive unit in the conference—it’s likely that he’ll be the one to end up in the crosshairs.
But while the Lions might be moaning behind closed doors, nestling into their recliners for their season’s second rant as armchair quarterbacks, they’re outwardly protecting their own.
“We weren’t giving Chris James enough time to make the plays,” TCNJ running back Justin Donoloski said, in defense of his leader’s dismal outing, during which the four-year starter completed only 14 of his 34 passes for 189 yards and an interception—a circus spectacle in the form of a slip screen-gone-awry, still ultimately returned to the TCNJ one-yard line to set up a game-tying touchdown in the second quarter (McKinney 1-yd rush; tied score at 14 w/ 3:47 remaining in half).
Though he contributed two touchdowns to the team’s 28-point final tally, James couldn’t manage to establish a rhythm in the Lions’ passing game, half of an offense that was held to a season-low 294 yards and converted only 4 of its 14 third-down attempts Saturday night.
William Paterson represented James’ second acquaintance with one of the conference’s best defensive units this season (Wm Paterson ranked 1st in pass efficiency defense). The other? His date with Kean University during TCNJ’s Week Five road loss, an awfully similar outcome with eerily reminiscent details (James 24/41, 234 yds, TD, 2 INT).
Coincidence? Maybe. Causation? Could be possible.
But the sophomore game-breaker for the Lions in the first half of 2009 didn’t point any disdainful fingers at others who hadn’t helped carry the same torch of fiery offensive illumination.
“There was a lot of pressure on him today, they brought the heat,” Donoloski said, describing the image seen through his eyes, accentuated with details in the form of three sacks and plenty of hurries, forcing rushed throws that often landed out of reach of wide-open receivers.
The team’s impact back didn’t offer any contradiction to his established reputation, accounting for 5.5 yards on each of his 18 attempts, finishing just one shy of the century mark. But he was quick to note what he could have done to better serve his team—and his quarterback.
“We didn’t block hard enough, we didn’t run the ball well enough and William Paterson was just the better team today.”
While Donoloski’s defense may have stemmed from player camaraderie, he wasn’t the only one to have James’ back following the game.
“I thought Chris played well,” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said after the game. “I just thought the breaks we needed, we didn’t get this week.”
Fully exhausting the fire starters on its NJAC schedule, TCNJ (4-2, 3-2 NJAC) now looks to reignite its early-season’s flames against Montclair State University (5-1, 5-0 NJAC), a soggy hunk of timber seated atop the conference totem pole (T-1st in NJAC). And Acosta believes its premise just might offer a potent enough spark.
“It’s our homecoming and [the rivalry] is very rich in tradition,” he said. “I’m sure our guys are going to show up for that.”
Now, with his team desperately writhing to regain momentum, the second-year play-caller insists his team needs to segment its remaining schedule with the hopes of tearing the envelope off of a post-season bid upon its finale.
“We just have to worry about winning each week. That’s our goal. If you’re taking care of business every week, the playoffs takes care of itself. We’ve got to treat next week as a playoff game.”
Acosta stood by the team charter following the loss, visibly irritated by the scores of missed opportunities wasted during a game his team should have won. But, emphasizing what his team needs to do to improve, Acosta offered a definitive affirmation that it can, and it will.
“We’ve got to be honest. If you’re honest, you get better and you evaluate what you do well and what you do poorly, you get better from it and you move on. We’re not going to get better by making excuses.”
Fully appropriating his own advice, the mastermind behind the Lions’ offensive juggernaut that still rounds out the NJAC’s top-two scoring beasts (avg. 42.5 ppg; Rowan avg. 44.3 ppg) spoke in no uncertain terms to describe what had happened just minutes earlier.
“They kicked our ass,” he said. “They outplayed us. You got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey they outcoached us, outplayed us. There’s nothing we could do.’ There’s a winner and a loser for every game. And we were on the losing side tonight.”
For placing a load weighing 42 carries squarely between his shoulders, William Paterson running back Marcus McKinney earned this week’s conference honors for its top offensive performer for his effort in the Pioneers’ derailing win over TCNJ–its first against the school since 1993.
He personally accounted for 24 of his team’s 43 points, rolling up his sleeves to score his four touchdowns–all from within the five-yard line (TDs from 2, 1, 4, 1 yds in time order).
Not only were the sophomore’s 224 notches of hard-earned yardage the second time an opponent cracked the 200-yard barrier this season, but he also became the second recipient of the NJAC Offensive Player of the Week award at the expense of the TCNJ defense (Jared Chunn, Kean; 209 rush yds in Week 5).
After his most recent outing, a determined performance to captivate the Pioneers’ homecoming crowd, McKinney leads the conference in rushing, averaging 103.3 yards per game.
The Red Hawk defense provided the NJAC its second award winner for conference’s top weekly performer, holding Buffalo State to a mere 93 yards of total offense in Montclair State‘s 23-7 road win in upstate New York.
For his expansive effort–which included nine total stops (2.5 for loss), two sacks, and interception and a forced fumble toward the team’s fifth-consecutive triumph–the conference named linebacker Brian Tweer Week Seven’s NJAC Defensive Player of the Week.
The senior’s latest outing slides him into a tie for seventh-most sacks among the conference’s pass rushers (avg. 0.50 sacks/gm).
Red Dragon return-man Justin Autera followed his 79-yard dash to pay dirt on a kickoff to open the game’s second half–and his team’s scoring–with a 59-yard punt return for six in the fourth quarter. His explosive special team’s performance marks only the second time in program history that a Cortland specialist scored on both punt and kickoff returns, since its first back in 1933.
Familiar faces round out the weekend release for the conference’s noteworthy heroics, as Rowan wide receiver T. J. Pratt and Buffalo State linebacker Eddie Weiser each captured their second NJAC Rookie of the Week award of their respective seasons.
Pratt’s team-high three catches worth 27 receiving yards in the Prof’s 72-14 trouncing over Morrisville State perpetuates the team’s current streak of encouraging performances from inexperienced impact players, now the third-consecutive Prof offensive youngster to win the award–the fourth in 2009. He also tasted his first zest of the end zone, scoring on from 10 yards out during the game’s second quarter.
Overshadowed for its lack of prominence in his team’s losing effort, Weiser personally accounted for two of his Bengals’ four forced turnovers, twice intercepting Montclair State quarterback Tom Fischer. He added five tackles to the afternoon’s commendable defensive display, one which held the Red Hawks’ third-ranked pass attack to a mere 128 aerial yardage (avg. 221.60 pass yds/gm).
Hauling in his second and third picks of his promising career, Weiser shares the conference’s third-place slot for most interceptions on the year (avg. 0.50 INTs/gm).
WAYNE, NJ–Entering its 43-28 road loss to William Paterson (3-3), the lone tarnish on an impeccable NJAC Championship resume epitomized TCNJ’s few early-season failures—all it apparently couldn’t do.
Stumbling on its first steps outside its own turf, the 28-7 loss at Kean University suggested the team couldn’t duplicate success on the road, defeating its three previous opponents by healthy margins from within the comfort of Lions’ Stadium (entered 3-0; all at home).
Unable to dominate in the fashion that bolstered the then-Division III leader in scoring, the skimpy 292 yards allowed by the Cougar D suggested that TCNJ couldn’t hang with the big boys, nor could the nation’s second-most efficient quarterback distribute the football with UPS reliability against worthy opposition (24/41, 234 yds, TD, INT vs. Kean; ranked 1st in NJAC in pass efficiency defense).
That’s, of course, neglecting to mention the 307 rushing yards its own defense allowed, a reiteration of 2009’s most glaring theme—that TCNJ’s defense just couldn’t stop anybody.
Even in defeat, the team’s second conference loss on Saturday wasn’t a not-so-subtle reminder of the team’s earlier shortcomings. But what began as a coming out party for a number of Lions—a discourteous double-booking on the Pioneers’ homecoming—didn’t end on account of the team’s inadequacy.
It merely accentuated who it needs the most.
Already thin at linebacker after last week’s sudden pregame injury to linebacker Joe Spahn, the Lions’ defense crumbled after the mid-game departure of second-line stud Dan DeCongelio, who left in the second-quarter with undisclosed injuries.
No injury report or timetable for his return is available at this time.
The defense was unequivocally stout when he was in the lineup, forcing turnovers on William Paterson’s opening two possessions and limiting the Pioneer offense to 165 yards in the first half.
Vacated of DeCongelio’s authoritative run-support, the middle of the field was susceptible during each of Marcus McKinney’s school-record 42 carries, most of which seemed like a deliberate exploitation of the apparent weak spot (broke his previous record, 35; set vs. King’s College). The sophomore running back methodically accumulated 231 yards and four touchdowns on the afternoon—147 of those against a defense less the team’s second-leading tackler (41 total, 19 solo; 2nd to Kreider).
Rookie linebacker Greg Burns adequately filled the void incurred by Spahn’s absence since last week, leading the team with 10 total tackles (5 solo). But even his heroics—the freshman’s best effort to replicate a last week’s spackling, capped by his game-sealing interception against Brockport—couldn’t compensate for DeCongelio’s presence in the middle of the field.
“We start to handle our business but it seems like once things start piling up its tough to come back from that,” defensive end Kevin Allgood said after his defense allowed 282 second-half yards and 29 unanswered points. “We just gotta put it together.”
Free safety Matt Kreider, who matched Burns’ tally with 10 tackles of his own and contributed to the group’s three takeaways with an interception on William Paterson’s second possession, expressed his frustration with the second-half woes that have plagued the team all year long.
“It’s the little things,” he said, alluding to a missed tackle that made way for Joel Rivera’s 70-yard touchdown reception to extend the Pioneer lead 36-38 with 11:49 remaining, among others. “We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot and that’s been the story all season.”
Though he finished the game physically unscathed, running back Chase Misura’s inability to produce for the Lions’ traditionally unstoppable running threat left Justin Donoloski without a viable smash to compliment his dash. Misura finished with a season-low seven yards on eight carries–entering the game consistently shelling out upwards of 60 yards a pop (entered 9th in NJAC; now 10th w/50.3 avg. yds/gm).
The rushing attack disappointed as a whole, as the team’s collaborative efforts only manufactured TCNJ only 107 on 35 attempts, also its least to date (remain 2nd in NJAC, entered 220.0 avg. yds/gm; now 200.8 avg. yds/gm)
“I think our inability to run the ball in the second half definitely hurt us,” Donoloski said, even referring to his own afternoon during which he was held to 19 yards in the second half on seven carries (18 rush, 99 yds, TD in game). “We gotta establish the run to get our passing game going.”
Now, likely knocked from contention for the conference throne, the Lions (4-2; 3-2 NJAC) are left in a scramble to piece together its personnel—and its shot at the post-season.
“We gotta finish plays, but we need to get some players to fill in these spots,” Kreider said. “We can’t have this let-down that we’re having and it’s obvious what we’re missing. We need certain people to step up. We’re there and we’re better than what the scoreboard said we were.”
Despite the looming uncertainty in the health of its own roster, and the definitive talent boasted by Montclair State University‘s list, Kreider spoke optimistically, his voice still strained from the angst of the loss.
“I think we can bounce back. You saw the first half—we were good. That’s a good offense and we played our hearts out. One thing leads to another and we got our heads down. But I think we’ll bounce back.”
Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: He’s baaack–Flannery fortifies Lions’ secondary prepped to spoil Pioneers’ homecoming
Two weeks ago, the last time his TCNJ Lions hit the road, free safety Ryan Flannery‘s evening contribution consisted of two plays. Upon his initial return from an ankle injury that had sidelined one of the team’s tri-captains since August training camp, his coaches’ decision to cap his participation didn’t need explanation–one that wouldn’t be offered anyway.
Putting forth a deceptively stout effort, his defense eventually succumbed to the grind of a Kean University offensive pestle, that fed its tailbacks a healthy 40 carries of 307 powderized yardage–210 and 22 of those on the plate of running back Jared Chunn, the conference’s reigning player of the year.
Eight days later–same story, less, of course, a few minor alterations to details.
Instead of packing its 85 bodies on a Greyhound, the team’s players assumed double-duty as both patron and chauffeur for the next conference date on its schedule–whipping themselves to the cozy steel and concrete skeleton of Lions’ Stadium, poised to rebound against The College at Brockport.
Successful in their rerouting of a briefly derailed NJAC championship trail, the Lions gazed at a 48-34 bulb-illuminated wink when the final horn sounded–a warmer countenance than the 28-7 sneering offered by the digital scoreboard erected inside Kean University Alumni Stadium, on the night of its christening.
Based on their post-game assessments, coaches would argue otherwise. But, by and large, the abridged synopsis of Flannery’s afternoon could be condensed to two plays.
One–a blocked extra-point, preserving a 34-all tie with 5:11 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Two–an interception from his own two-yard line, licking the envelope of an invoice written to the rest of the NJAC, one stating in no uncertain terms that he, his defense, and his previously dethroned Lions, were back.
“We didn’t make all the plays we wanted to but we made enough to win the game and stay ahead,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said after the game. “The bottom line is to, defensively, make sure you let them score less than your offense scores.”
Entering its undercard bout against the conference’s worst scoring offense, a teaser between the main event scheduled between the TCNJ pass offense and the William Paterson secondary–both atop the NJAC in respective proliferation, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Especially now that “Flea” is back calling the shots.
“I mean [the interception] speaks for itself,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said shortly after a trademark Ryan Flannery afternoon.
Hamilton explained that even the astounding progress achieved by Flannery’s heir-apparent, junior free safety Matt Kreider (43 total tackles; 23 solo; both lead team), there’s just no value to his expansive grasp of the defense’s slightest nuances.
“You saw the difference immediately when he came back into practice. He understands the scheme—top to bottom,” he said, referring to Flannery’s trained eye to spot needed adjustments even on the defensive line.
“When you have a player that can do that having him back there is unbelievable.”
While the Pioneer’s widest margin of defeat is a mere 15 points (Sept. 26; L 28-13 vs. Rowan), that’s a testament to its unforgiving defense keeping games close for as long as conceivably possible–no thanks to its offense. To date, the group’s most active outing was its 20-point afternoon in a win against King’s College, the Middle Atlantic Conference’s seventh-ranked scoring defense (opponents avg. 27.00 ppg).
To their credit, the Pioneers boast a few tenants renting space on the conference’s individual offensive leader boards–sort of.
The team’s featured back, sophomore Marcus McKinney, wedged his way into the NJAC’s third slot for total rushing , averaging a steady 79.2 yards per game. A reputable accomplishment, but one he’s certainly earned.
His number already called 108 times in 2009, McKinney’s received 12 more hand-offs than any other back in the conference, averaging limp 3.67 yards per carry. The only other performer with a flimsier average burst in the category’s top-ten is Montclair State‘s Jeff Bliss (96 att., 305 yds; 3.18 yds/att.), alluded to earlier. In his only snipping of 100-yard tape this season, the 115 he posted on the road at King’s, it took a tedious 35 carries to finally cross the scissors.
McKinney leads a modest Pioneer rushing threat–more like stern warning–that’s manufactured a mere 116 yards in each of its first-five contests (6th in NJAC). While a freak injury in pregame warm-ups a week ago has sidelined the anchor of its linebacker corps and its beacon of defensive leadership in Joe Spahn (35 total tackles; 20 solo; 3rd on team), the Pioneer aerial arsenal–as destructive as a pebble tied to a kite–isn’t exactly going to be keeping the Lions’ secondary honest.
The team’s pedestrian signal-caller, senior quarterback Matt Marshall, certainly hasn’t treated the football with the same irreverence as Jake Graci, Brockport’s wheel-and-dealer that was intercepted three times by Lions’ defenders a week ago, ringing up his past three week’s turnover tab at 12. So no, he’s not particularly reckless. Then again, he’s also not particularly productive for William Paterson, either.
Marshall’s four interceptions on the season rank second-fewest in the conference–tied with Chris James, Tom D’Ambrisi (Kean), and James Williams (West Conn. St.)–to only Kenny Murphy‘s three picks in ’09 (Buffalo State). His five touchdowns, however, rank second-fewest as well–tied with Murphy–not to mention his 113.57 average passer efficiency, also worth mention on the wrong end of the conference spectrum.
For a defense looking to tighten its belt, allowing a wide-bellied 266.80 passing yards per game, step one on its statistical Nutrisystem diet for the second-half of 2009 could come against Marshall, whose 257 yards in an uphill battle against Rowan is the most his right arm has provided this season.
Barring a cataclysmic letdown, the Lions’ defensive unit should build on the foundation laid in its two most-recent performances–arguably its best to date. If it can adequately compliment Division III’s fourth-best scoring offense (45.4 ppg) and play spoiler on the Pioneers’ homecoming–not the brightest of scheduling moves–the TCNJ defense can help prime the arena for the following week, already penciling in some festivities of its own.
Homecoming versus Montclair State, which sits awfully comfy–like it could benefit from stretching its legs–at No. 1 in the NJAC.
Need I say more?
You could have tried all you liked, but there was just no precision to telling how this Lions’ defense played over the first six weeks of this season.
One could certainly argue that the group has put forth its best efforts this season during its two most recent outings—neither of which looked pretty on the stat sheets. But even with regard to its latest appearance, coaches would beg to differ with that assessment of the afternoon altogether.
“I’ll take a W. Doesn’t mean I’ll be happy about it,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said following the team’s 48-34 slighting of The College at Brockport—during which his unit induced five takeaways.
A slight contradiction in tone from the one used a short week earlier…
“To a man,” he said, paraphrasing his post-game address to his players. “Even though its 28 points, this was on the opposite end of the spectrum. We’ve been around that 30-point mark, but we’ve played down to our opponents. They played well, and you’re going to start to see some results after this.
But the discrepancy between observers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Qualifying its performance has proven an elusive endeavor, to say the least. And in advent the final stretch of its NJAC schedule, posing pivotal obstacles against stellar offenses, it’s impossible to project the viability of the team’s conference title run without first figuring out what to expect from its defense.
Hamilton ensured he offered his opinion.
“If we’re going to compete with Montclair [State University] and Cortland [State University] and Rowan [University], this is not the effort we have to have. It comes down to right here,” he said, gesturing toward the center of his chest.
But while it may function as the linchpin of the unit’s potential down the stretch, heart certainly wasn’t the most significant determinant of its successes and failures in TCNJ’s first five games—anatomically, that is. A closer look back at the opening half of 2009 shows that the defense has lived and died, believe it or not, on the gracious right foot of its kicker.
Data gathered by TCNJ’s Sports Information Desk for each of the team’s first five games was transcribed in a Microsoft Excel document, broken down by each individual drive. The raw figures were thereafter sorted and organized by starting field position—those starting within and outside the 20-yard line—and individual quarter, with the intention of highlighting various performance indicators, and trends that might better make sense of otherwise inconclusive figures.
Information included quantitative data (number of plays, yardage, time of possession) and qualitative data (how opponents acquired possession, drives’ end results) both used to spot tendencies in its apparent strengths and weaknesses evidenced over the course of these first six weeks. Additional statistics were generated, including averages (plays and yards per drive), percentages (touchdowns, turnovers, punts) and ratios (takeaways per touchdown), with the intent to better illustrating what makes it tick, and, more importantly, what makes it sick.
According to the numbers, a resounding correlation exists between opponent starting field position and various performance indicators on a drive-by-drive basis. While it also highlighted other trends, for example varying stinginess between quarters, the analysis suggests that there’s not a single more impactful factor on opponents’ immediate success than the starting point of its opponents’ individual expeditions.
Now, at face value, TCNJ doesn’t exactly resemble the conference’s most stout defensive unit.
Omitting possessions cut short by the end of a half, the Lions’ defense has appeared 61 times in its first five games. To date, the unit ranks dead-last in the NJAC in total defense (463.6 avg. total yds/gm), pass defense (266.8 pass yds/gm), and opponent first-downs (24.4 1st dns/gm).
More positively, only Rowan has forced more turnovers than TCNJ’s consistently opportunistic group (19 and 14, respectively). Still, the unit surrenders an average of 31 points to opposing offenses (6th in NJAC), more than twice the total allowed by the conference leader (Kean, 14.2 ppg).
Disregarding starting point, opponents’ possessions have lasted an average of 6.08 plays and fostered 38.59 yards—each snap good for 6.34 yards. On the whole, 37.7% of drives result in some form of points (23 scores; 22 TDs, FG), 36.0% end by way of a turnover (7 INT, 7 fum., 7 TOD, safety)—the remaining 26.3% concluded with a punt (16).
Take into account starting field position, however, and end result polarizes dramatically.
Drives starting inside the 20 lasted 6.33 plays yielding 32.81 yards—5.18 on each play. When facing fewer than 80 yards, opposing offenses sustained drives worth 40.64 yards over 5.79 plays, averaging 7.01 yards every snap.
Now, the difference of eight yards in any given drive’s overall length might not seem like it’s going to be the making or breaking of a defense’s afternoon. But before you write it off as a minimal change, consider this.
Mindful that two drives were omitted since they ended at the conclusion of a half (thus rendering them irrelevant to this analysis), TCNJ’s defense has faced an average of 12.2 drives in its first five games this season. Suppose, in a special teams utopia, that Zucconi launched every kick through the back of the end zone, or pinned opponents within 20 yards of their goal line via a coffin punt. With its opponents average yards per play shrink-wrapped, now 5.18 as opposed to its season average of 6.1, the difference would thrust it five spots from the NJAC’s worst defensive unit to only its fifth, with regard to per-snap forfeitures. Multiply that from by the 379 plays-from-scrimmage it’s faced this season, and you’re left with 392.64–a moderate leap to eighth in the conference in total allowances.
But keep in mind, there’s certainly an argument to be made that one could expect a consequential multiplier effect that can’t accurately be reflected in theory. Fewer yards per play likely means less attractive distances for opposing offenses on third downs, thus limiting successful third-down conversions, which means less perpetuation of drives, which means fewer total yards surrendered, and–you guessed it–fewer points allowed.
Not to mention, sending opposing offenses packing in turn trots the TCNJ unit back on the field. It would also save time, allowing the group to squeeze in more offensive snaps of its own–possibly points. Considering the unit currently ranks fourth in the nation in scoring (45.50 avg. ppg), that’s certainly not hurting your chances of walking away with a W.
In theory, these data suggest that Zucconi could singlehandedly shave points from the scoreboard, likely even add a few. And, not that the offense has made a habit of letting up on the gas pedal before they reach the end zone, but it might even be self-servicing and bolster the conference’s top kick scoring average (avg. 7.8 kick pts/gm; 4/5 FGs in 2009).
The data also reflected an impact on Lions’ defensive personality between these varying circumstances, specifically regarding opponent scoring and its own opportunism.
Of the 21 drives meeting that criterion, only 14% ended with a touchdown celebration (3 TDs), compared with the 46% of opponent possessions outside the 20 that result in six points (18 TDs; 39 poss.).
TCNJ linebacker Dan DeCongelio explained the unit’s enhanced caliber of play coincides with game situations that allow for a looser and more relaxed style of play—namely when it’s not backed into a corner.
“I think it’s because we feel more comfortable,” he said. “And I think because we feel more comfortable with 80 yards behind us it’s a different sort of play.”
Additionally, nearly half of drives qualifying ended in some form of turnover (48%; 10 total; 4 downs, 3 fum., 2 INT, safety), versus the mere 31% that started from outside that mark, (12 total; 5 INT, 4 fum. 3 downs). In other words, the defense manufactures 3.33 turnovers for every opponent drive starting inside the 20, as opposed to only 0.67 in response to points surrendered outside it.
“We look to get off the field,” DeCongelio said, noting the unit’s tendency to resort to innovation. “We don’t wanna be out there, taking time off the clock. If we can’t do it forcing a punt then one big thing we look for is turnovers.”
Sure to deflect credit for what he described as a foreseeable expression talent mixed with hard work, Lions’ kicker Marc Zucconi was pleased to hear of his apparent impact on the unit’s success.
“It’s good to know I’m helping [the defense] out,” he said. “An old coach of mine told me that every ten yards that we push them back toward the end zone, the percentages are so much higher—like you said—that we’ll stop them. I like being a part of that. I mean, that’s why I wear blue,” referring to the practice jersey color specific to defensive players.
Working double-duty as the Lions’ punter, Zucconi has captured conference accolades for its top special teams performer three times this season. To date, the former Louisville Cardinal leads the conference in net punting (37.8 avg. yds/punt), limiting opposing specialists to 1.2 yards per return. Limited to only eight attempts on the season, three of Zucconi’s punts have pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard lines—two of those within five yards of their own end-zone (downed on 20, 2, 1-yd line).
An undoubted beneficiary of Dean Misura’s diligence as the Lions’ gunner, who personally accounted for downing his two successful coffin kicks, Zucconi’s precision ultimately resulted in a third-down interception during the third-quarter of the Morrisville State game.
Just four plays later, wide receiver Colin Weber flipped the ball to the back judge, shortly after hauling in a 14-yard touchdown reception.
Zucconi’s enjoyed similar success as the Lions’ kickoff specialist, ranking second in the NJAC in gross distance (58.3 yds/KO) with an astounding 11 of his 40 attempts sailing into (or out of) the end zone for a touchback.
“I pretty much try to kill the ball,” he said, humored at his unconventional approach to what others consider an art of finesse. “A lot of people just say Oh, I’m trying to get good hang time. I just try to kill the ball, hit line drives, or get the ball up a little bit and drive it as deep as I can in the end zone.”
While he tends to have a profound impact on staging the unit’s subsequent accomplishments, last year’s All-NJAC special teams performer isn’t the only evident factor. Prefaced earlier, each individual quarter incubates a very different beast altogether—some more friendly to the opposition than others.
There’s no question that the group plays its best football in the first quarter.
Of the 155 points surrendered to opponents this season, only 23 were forfeited during the opening 15 minutes of play (14.8%)—about 59% fewer than the 56 given up in the following period, undoubtedly its worst.
First-quarter drives lasted an average of 6.20 plays worth 32.27 yards (5.2 yds/play). Of those, a mere 20% ended in opponent touchdowns (also allowed FG). While the data portrayed the first-quarter as its least opportunistic (only produced 2 turnovers), it forced punts on 53% of drives—more than any other period by far (13%, 14% and 20% by quarter, in chronological order).
The second quarter wasn’t so fruitful—at least not for the Lions.
Mildly settled in, opponents’ second-quarter drives lasted just under an average of five plays (4.94 avg. plays/drive) and traveled shortly farther than seven extra yards (39.63 avg. yds/drive). Averaging 8.03 yards per snap, opposing offenses reached pay dirt exactly half of the time, though TCNJ’s D forced 0.75 turnovers for every one of its failures—at least of that nature.
While the group has gradually acquired notoriety for an apparent inability to finish, the final stretch of games might be its most productive, at least in terms of takeaways. Opponents sustained drives congruent in length to those during its abysmal second quarters (38.93 yds/drive), though they’ve required 7.14 plays, on average, to do so—progressing only 5.45 yards per play.
These various groups scored on 29% of their fourth-quarter possessions. But, during its most ostensibly opportunistic period, the Lions’ defense earned retribution for each individual scoring drive by forcing two turnovers in retaliation (2.00 TO/drive).
The parity inherent in a turbulent college football season is no stranger in Trenton, making it difficult to explain various individual outings over the course of this 2009 season.
The Bengals lingered within 11 entering locker room after it diced the Lions’ D for 231 yards and 24 points—forfeiting 50 and seven of those, respectively, on a blown coverage (and subsequent hole) in the secondary, resulting in a Kenny Murphy-to-Blake Maliza touchdown connection.
Its preparation hindered by Buff State’s decision to withhold preseason game film, the squad’s first-half woes were overshadowed by the ensuing 30 minutes, during which it gave up a benign 147 yards and a meaningless touchdown with 2:12 remaining in a contest that finished 47-31.
On others, it’s unexpectedly victimized by the overwhelming success of its own offense.
The following week, during its 58-28 dismantling of Farleigh Dickinson University-Florham, the Bill Winters show mustered up all but one of the Devils’ four touchdowns—all but one in the second half of the Lions’ record-smashing 708-yard offensive rout against a timid Cover-4 defense.
In Week Four, when offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta’s high-octane threat uprooted a scoring mark gradually fortified by 88 years of history, the defense faced a similar bombardment over the course of a stupefying 84 offensive plays. The defense held down its 50×10 yard stronghold valiantly in the first and final quartesr (allowed 6 combined points). But it didn’t fare as well in between (allowed 28 combined points).
It’s also been burned the few times the NCAA’s fourth-best scoring offense failed to produce.
In its only glimmers of mortality, the TCNJ offense’s inability to finish during invaluable first-quarter chances against Kean University added stress to a defense already under duress from a potent Cougar offense—stacked with talent inclusive of the conference’s reigning offensive player of the year (RB Jared Chunn). Exacerbated when the scoreboard made the group abandon its original game plan, the Lions’ offense didn’t help matters with untimely miscues deep in its own territory.
Of the Cougars’ four touchdown drives in Kean University Alumni Stadium that evening, two combined for 74 yards (started at T30, T44) and resulted in 14 of the team’s 21 points-off-turnovers (INT, fum; scored 2nd qtr TD after TOD). Chunn ran wild, finishing with 210 yards on his 22 carries. But the Lions’ D actually kept the game close, forcing three turnovers and minimizing the deficit—before it finally cracked early in the fourth quarter.
Especially with pivotal conference matchups pending on its schedule, there’s plenty of room for improvement—and there likely needs to be. But if there’s one overachieving beacon of consistency that can afford to coast for the remainder of 2009, it’s Zucconi—he just needs to keep up the good work.
The last time TCNJ wide receiver Cam Richardson recorded a reception, Rowan University was two quarters into its 42-3 rout over the Lions in 2008—a disheartening finale to a disappointing 4-6 season a year ago.
For the CEO and board chairman of Cameron Richardson, INC., those final 17 yards closed the book on an all-conference-worthy resume (2nd Team All-NJAC). But for the modest, team-oriented future tri-captain of TCNJ’s pending 2009 roster, the loss fueled the furnace for an offseason raging with restless preparation.
A nine-month waiting game had begun.
But while this Saturday marked his return from injury—one keeping him sidelined for most of the Lions’ unanticipated escalation to the top of the NJAC standings and dismemberment of its record books—in some ways, that maddening wait isn’t yet finished.
Poised in the preseason to capture his third All-NJAC honors of his career, Richardson hasn’t accounted for a single one of the team’s 91 receptions, nor has he tacked on any of its 1,348 yards. And while he’s watched TCNJ skills players celebrate in the back of the end zone 11 times in its first five games, he hasn’t tasted the glory of a fruitful 2009. Hasn’t even gotten a whiff of it.
But even with half of his senior season—likely his last as a competitive athlete—stained just above his memory’s printed “objects-in-the-mirror” disclaimer, Richardson couldn’t be happier now that he’s back.
“It feels awesome,” he said before Wednesday’s practice, while his offense—the nation’s fourth-most efficient points manufacturer (avg. 45.4 ppg) —prepares to battle William Paterson University’s stingy pass defense on its homecoming this weekend in Wayne, NJ.
While his chances to revisit past personal accolades might be behind him, Richardson’s unwavering spirit hasn’t budged.
“It just feels good to be out with the guys and having a good time. That’s all I’m really concentrating on right now.”
He appeared on only a few of TCNJ’s drives during its 48-34 win over The College at Brockport, but Richardson explained his limited action was designed to wean him back into heated NJAC competition, intensifying with each passing week.
As his team inches toward pivotal games against powerhouses in Montclair State University and a grudge match versus Rowan, Richardson is taking his reintegration into the lineup one step at a time—literally.
“I got some time last week and it just felt really good to be out there.”
Led by rookie corner in sophomore Steven Bovo, Jr.—whose three interceptions in his past two games thrust him into a tie for the NJAC’s second-least forgiving defensive back (Rowan Mike Barone leads conf. w/ 4 INT)—William Paterson has limited opposing quarterbacks to an emaciated 86.98 passer efficiency, the eighth-best first half in Division III (1st in NJAC).
The Pioneers’ habit of tormenting signal-callers is evident elsewhere, allowing the conference’s fewest pass yards per game, also among the best in all the land (144.40 avg. pass yds/gm; 21st in NCAA).
William Paterson kicked off the perpetual belt-tightening in its first appearance in 2009, minimizing the damage on The College at Brockport quarterback Jake Graci’s 10 completions on his 14 attempts.
In one of its season’s three losses to date (L 22-19), the Pioneers’ D put a ceiling on the NJAC’s second and third-most prolific pass-catchers, dampening Matt Newman to just 26 yards on his three snagged balls. Felipe Diaz didn’t fare much better, recording a mere 32 yards on two catches (67.00 rec. yds/gm; 66.20 rec. yds/gm, respectively).
Not to mention that Chris James character, the 13th-most efficient distributor of Division III pigskin (avg. 170.82 pass efficiency; 1st in NJAC). And there’s no questioning his enthusiasm upon the return of one of his favorite targets.
“It’s exciting,” Lions’ quarterback Chris James said after his third 300-yard performance against Brockport–and that’s without a fully-integrated Cam Richardson.
“Just having Cam out there as moral support and not seeing him on the sideline—everyone gets excited over it.”
James explained that even when he’s not immediately immersed in the action, Richardson’s ability to provide an instant spark provides extra comfort for him—already pampered with a multitude of viable receiving options.
“Even when he’s not out there because you never know when he’s going to come in, make a catch, and do something great with the ball. He is one of our, if not the best offensive threat on our team.”
Promoted to honorary team captain before his team’s road loss in Union against Kean University, Weber has found the end zone in all but one of the Lions’ games this season, coming back for second servings in two contests to date (2 TDs vs. FDU, Brockport). His latest performance, a six-catch, 104-yard Saturday afternoon over The College at Brockport, marks his season’s second eclipse of the century mark (6 rec., 199 yds in Wk 3 vs. FDU).
While Gardner’s been limited to 48 yards on three catches the past two weeks, his previous two outings weren’t as lackluster.
The Texas-native shined under the Friday night lights in his team’s embarrassment of FDU-Florham, averaging 29.8 yards on each of his four catches—one of them good for 66 yards (119 total) and six of the team’s record-breaking 67 points (originally 64; set in 1921 vs. Cathedral) posted on the evening.
Elated at the sight of such widespread offensive dominance, especially regarding the seniors—with whom he’s embarked on synchronous journeys in both football and life—he admits its zest has been bittersweet.
“It’s tough to see the guys doing so well—I mean I’m so happy for them, like the offense was great with everything that [they accomplished]. But it’s definitely tough to not be out there.”
He could only offer limited insight regarding offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta’s intentions to reintroduce him to the mix of the NCAA’s fourth-most active scoring offense (avg. 45.4 ppg), but Richardson isn’t concerned with the prominence of his individual role.
“I guess [Acosta]’s going with a rotation, but at this point I’m just happy to be back. As long as I get some PT I’m not gonna sit here and complain.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 4pm.
Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag: Why Week 5 road loss is history, Lions dig deep in RZ, and a messy NJAC leaderboard
Every Monday, I’ll take a minute to respond to you — Lions’ Nation — answering questions and offering my predictions and insight surrounding the team’s 2009 campaign. Here’s this week’s installment of Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag.
Yesterday’s win was a big game for the Lions–bigger for its defense. The team can refocus its attention on making a run at the conference title through a pair of lenses that would have been shattered had the team dropped Saturday’s NJAC meeting with Brockport. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
There’s still a whole lotta football left. Not as many questions–but we’ll work with what we’ve got.
- Matty, the Lions lost the last game it had to play on the road. How should this game be different? Especially since the offense looked so out of sync when it left Lions Stadium.
Very valid point.
I’ve already talked about the advantages of playing in front of your home crowd–and how the Lions don’t necessarily enjoy that luxury. But you’re absolutely right, it’s going to be a concern during the week, one the coaching staff wasted no time addressing. At least to me.
Here’s what TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton had to say about that–and he wasn’t even asked.
“You can’t get ahead of yourself—[the win against Brockport] is only one game. Now we’re 4-1, and 3-1 in the NJAC. The motivation is to go on the road, where we lost the last time, and win a game against a team that would love nothing more than to beat us on their homecoming. That’s motivation in and of itself. The rest of the season means nothing if we don’t care of business next week.”
If he’s talking like that just moments removed from his team’s seizure of an emotional victory, I can only imagine what he’s going to be preaching all week long. Meetings, film sessions, warm-ups, cool-downs–the works. By his own definition, he’s “privy” to the various obstacles inherent to a college football season.
And not to bash any particular group of guys, but have you looked at William Paterson on paper? Their defense is pretty aggressive, living up to the Lewis and Clark connotation of its mascot. But if you’ve taken a quick peek at its offense, Willie P looks a lot like the kid tied to his mom’s apron–not some trail-blazing adventurer.
They won’t be a push-over. No one in the conference is. But with Kean sitting comfortably atop the conference standings and earned 15 votes for D3Football.com‘s Top-25 this past week, let’s not blame the loss on the road trip–blame it on the team’s negligence to pack its red-zone offense.
Which brings me to my next point.
- Matty, the Lions went a perfect 4-4 in the red zone this week. How’d they go about the quick turnaround?
The short answer would be freshman running back Kevin Brown, whose praises I’ve been singing for quite a while now. Kid’s a beast, and it was made apparent on his fourth-and-goal touchdown from the one, forcing him to churn up a defiant second-effort to break the plane.
But, like any TEAM success, its roots reach far deeper.
The Lions red-zone offense in Union was atrocious two weeks ago. The offensive line lacked size against Kean’s big boys, like NFL prospect nose-tackle Darryl Jackson (6’2, 320 lbs). But that hadn’t posed an issue before. The unit consistently hosted free zone-blocking clinics for any aspiring hog-mallies in the stands that could benefit from such fundamentally sound football in the trenches.
College is a very different game than the pros–that word in and of itself posing the biggest difference.
In the NFL, a fraternity of grown-ass men earning grown-ass man paychecks, players have mastered the ability to compartmentalize. “Having a bad day” off the field is fine, and a frequent occurance. It happens to everyone. They’re paid to catch footballs–regardless whether they smile doing it.
But, should it dare translate into a lackluster performance between those unforgiving white lines, players might return to the locker room to find a pink slip, antagonizingly waiting to be found wedged in a crack by a janitor running an errand.
That’s unless, of course, your boss is Al Davis. Miss on 66% of your passes and you might even get a raise–and a sparkly new toy at wideout that’s equally as unproductive.
In the college game, athletes aren’t paid-professionals, expected to conduct themselves with their employers’ interests trumping any and all life affairs. If the starting quarterback’s girlfriend pitches a fit and dumps him hours before kickoff, his strained emotions can impact the game’s outcome, shaving points like an NBA referee. (To my knowledge, Chris James is not romantically involved, a status that hadn’t changed two Friday mornings ago. Before you get excited, that wasn’t subtle innuendo. At all.)
I’m not saying that the team choked, but something ranging far beyond its talent accounted for its anemic performances within 20-yards of the goal-line. Call it a funk–call it arrogance–call it whatever you want. That team is just as different as the 2008 Gators, entering its game against Ole Miss.
Lackluster short-yardage game? Check.
Really pissed off quarterback? Check.
Definitive vow of improvement immediately thereafter from said-pissed off quarterback, who turned around a week later to win his next game, rebounding both in the stat sheet and in team morale? Check.
The collective they (coaches, players, equipment managers maybe) have made various changes (personnel packages, situational strategy, forcing Zucconi to actually earn his varsity letter) to grow as a program since that dismal outing . They’ll be alright, don’t worry.
And in case you are, you should dial up Lions’ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta‘s office and ask him where he got that goal-line package he used (not going to go into detail, for reasons I’m sure you can deduce).
- Matty, what’s it going to take for the Lions to get back to the top of the conference?
Simple question. But unfortunately–for me and the team–the answer’s not so simple.
At week’s end, the Lions (4-1 overall; 3-1 NJAC) currently share the third-place slot with the Profs (4-1 overall; 3-1 NJAC) down in Glassboro. For readability, I suppose we’ll start there.
First things first. Barring a catastrophic natural disaster that destroys every NJAC stadium, or an unexpected dissolution of Kean’s football program, the Lions need to win-out the rest of their schedule. There’s certainly an outside chance that one of the two teams ranked first, to date, could be upset late in the season. But why let your season ride on someone else’s ability to handle of your business?
Earlier in the year, Rowan laid an egg at home during its Week Three loss to the reigning (and ailing) conference champs (L 14-24 vs. SUNY-Cortland). Assuming that we’re holding the Lions responsible for W’s in each of their schedule’s remaining dates with destiny, the last week of the season should bolster the team’s standing, should it in fact steal a win from Rowan at their house. The Profs would have two tarnishes on their conference record, giving TCNJ the edge in any prospective head-to-head tiebreaker if it loses sometime down the stretch.
Some alumni might have my head for saying this, but–less that one November Saturday–Lions’ fans had better be sporting Rowan brown and yellow for the remainder of the season.
After TCNJ’s road trip to face Willie P, the team returns to Trenton for its homecoming against Montclair State University, currently tied with the Cougars for the NJAC lead. Assuming MSU can win in Wayne–which, frankly, I’d be shocked and appalled if they didn’t–the game would represent a shot to dethrone the Red Hawks, from No. 1 to No. 3, the Lions’ gladly sliding into the vacant No. 2 spot.
Montclair State (4-1 overall; 4-0 NJAC) has lost once this season, but it was in a non-conference flop against Wilkes, which doesn’t hold parity in an NJAC tiebreaker. They should win next week against Buffalo State, as well. The team’s significantly more talented than its record, but I would be shocked if Jerry Boyes’ boys (homophone, intended) pulled out an upset.
Assuming the Red Hawks take care of business, each program would boast a 5-1 NJAC record following a Lions win in two weeks–the head-to-head tiebreaker in TCNJ’s favor. The only remaining factor is Kean and its head-to-head victory in Week 5 to solidify its already undefeated conference record.
Should the Lions pop bubbly at season’s end, they’ll do it as outright champions. If they were to lose to Montclair State, it would represent the team’s second conference loss, a dagger knocking them all but out of contention for the title altogether–so no, there won’t be any sharing this time around (TCNJ split 2007 NJAC title w/ SUNY-Cortland).
This is where Rowan becomes a Lions’ fan’s saving grace.
At least it can be.
After it hosts Buffalo State in two weeks, Rowan will travel up north to Union on Halloween to play Kean–an irrevocably important date on the Lions‘ schedule. The Profs survived a close finish in last year’s 30-22 win over the Cougars, with much of the same rosters as this year’s updated versions. Kean QB Tom D’Ambrisi does have another year under his belt (and should improve weekly) and Chunn has turned it on as of late (thanks to the Lions), but it’s certainly a feasible win for Rowan–one the Lions desperately need.
Should Rowan beat Kean, and TCNJ beat Rowan and Montclair State, the stage would be set for another indirectly profound showdown–appropriately to be played on the final game of the season.
Kean at Montclair State.
Montclair State’s going to be looking to avenge its 17-21 road loss at Kean University Alumni stadium a year ago, and what better way to lay the wood than play spoiler with the Cougars beckoning on the front porch of a conference title?
…time for a nap.
That’s it for this week’s edition of 4M
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The team’s 48-34 win Saturday over The College at Brockport shifted the gears of the Lions’ 2009 campaign, eight days removed from a transmission malfunction on the road at Kean. In conjuncture with reigning champion Cortland State’s (3-2 ovr., 3-2 in NJAC) crippling road loss at Montclair State University (4-1 overall; 4-0 in NJAC), the Lions’ currently sit in a tie for third in the conference (4-1 overall; 3-1 in NJAC) with perennial powerhouse Rowan University (4-1 overall; 3-1 NJAC).
A weekend loss could have been devastating for a program looking to recreate the glory of its ’07 NJAC Championship. However, the win can–and should–only foster temporary satisfaction, especially with regard to the details that didn’t make the box score.
Without further ado…
- Get that swagga back
In addition to jarring the football free from Brockport wideouts on six (I counted) separate occasions, the way guys like safeties Matt Kreider (10 total tck, 6 solo) and Shawn Brown (10.5 total tck, 5 solo) flew to the point of attack was just fun to watch. The Lions defensive secondary is starting to come into its own–maybe a little too comfortable with its abilities.
On Ryan Flannery’s third-quarter interception at his own 33-yard line–one reprehensibly negated by a bad, bad pass interference penalty that wasn’t–he slipped on some of Ed Reed’s kicks, reversing his field twice before lateraling to a wide open Scotty Mathurin with room to make a play.
He didn’t, tackled after a minimal four yard return (that wouldn’t have counted anyway). But you’ve gotta love the effort and the intensity and–dare I say it–the fun these guys are having out there.
Now, there’s only ONE circumstance under which it’s okay to ad lib a play-call–especially on defense, and especially when you’re on an assigned blitz. But for hauling in a game-sealing interception at his own 37-yard line, returning it 34 yards to his opponents’ 29 (while he, too was looking for someone to share his bounty with) froshie LB Greg Burns–you, my friend, earned a pass.
But, we’ll see how gracious your coordinator is.
One of the reasons TCNJ walked away unscathed from the Golden Eagles’ visit was team defense–an indelible sign that it’s finally starting to come around. Allow me to reiterate.
Solo tackles are generally mentioned separately in parenthetical notations because bringing an opposing ball-carrier down by yourself has more profound implications on drives. Fewer yards, better flow in reaction to the plays early development–stuff like that.
But if you check out the Lions’ defensive stats for Saturday’s win, you’ll see a ton of assisted tackles. That doesn’t mean that the players, alone, are incapable. In this case, it means that two, three–sometimes four–guys are shedding blocks in active pursuit of the football.
Great effort, sure. But it also means that they’re starting to buy into D.C. Hamilton’s game plan–which is solid, evidenced by the halftime wonders he pulled against Buffalo State.
- What a nice dude
In general, football coaches don’t like dealing with the media.
We wear out our welcome far too quickly by loitering around the facility each and every day, prodding and probing for whatever’s news–for the week that was and ones to come. Injury information is golden, valuable to our knowledge and locked down like it belongs in a bank deposit box.
We have souls, but we ask the questions we have to–not always the ones we want to. Safe to say, it’s all too easy for one of these overworked, underpaid (and likely understaffed) state employees to get irritated–if not outwardly infuriated–with the local media.
And that refers to the ones obliged to do so. You know, home coaches talking to professional reporters? Yeah, those guys–not me.
Lions’ head coach Eric Hamiltion (and the entirety of his staff) has been more than accommodating to my every need and has made his crew available for interviews sometimes before, sometimes after–on rare occasions even during team activities. There’s no question I’m grateful, but he’s at least used to it.
I can’t imagine sitting on a bus ride for six hours–late leaving both ways–in addition to the stress induced by a week’s worth of preparation for my program’s pivotal conference football game. With those responsibilities weighing on my mood, I also can’t imagine stepping off the bus to see a college student–dressed in flip-flops and shorts–grinning and holding a gray voice-recorder, hoping to grab my description of what we both understand was a miserable trip.
I’d be a little taken back by a request to speak with one of my players, stretching out for a 45-minute window before our last opportunity to polish out any scuffs before kickoff the following day–skeptical by its postscript, a follow-up question to ask permission to snap photos.
And no, saying, “for the blog?” pointing to the camera with a raised eyebrow wouldn’t make it any less intrusive.
After putting up with all that, Brockport head coach Rocco Salomone was kind enough to comment on each of my few questions following his team’s loss.
Coach–if you’re reading–thanks.
- Bobby Acosta
What a game.
No, I’m not talking about its excitement–too close down the stretch for my taste this early in the year. I’m talking about the one Lions’ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta called Saturday from up in the booth.
A lot of people might have thrown up their arms at his early strategy, incessantly feeding the rock to his three tailbacks in Justin Donoloski, Chase Misura and Michael Yetka. Gesture converted to speech, judged by the hemming and hawing within earshot of the pressbox at the conclusion of the game’s opening possession–a fourth-down pick in the end zone by safety Cevon Carver that put an end to a stagnant 12-play 38-yard drive.
On their six carries, Lions’ ball carriers only gained nine yards on the drive. Sticking with the run on its next appearance, Acosta’s offense went three-and-out after earning a first-down on a Brockport pass interference penalty.
The next drive, it settled for a field-goal. Points, but four fewer than seven.
But what happened? Brockport stacked the box and started blitzing as frequently and recklessly as Graci’s aerial display. As early as the “anti-climactic” field-goal drive, Lions’ receivers started getting open. Like, all alone open.
Kudos to wide receiver Mark Gardner, who ringed out some hard-earned YAC (yards after catch) on his lone reception, good for 37 yards. But his wasn’t the only lengthy gain that gashed the Golden Eagles’ secondary, set up by masterful offensive game-planning.
Without divulging any of his offense’s nuances, he invites this kind of pressure by lulling defenses to sleep by pounding the football. His receivers are well-coached to respond when opponents bring the heat–Exhibit A: Colin Weber’s 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
You hear him talk all the time about “the personality of the game,” and responding to whatever, really, the defense throws at him–Exhibit B: Justin Donoloski’s 41-yard touchdown reception of a designed screen.
One of his genius’ beneficiaries was grateful after.
“We definitely caught them off-guard a couple plays,” Donoloski said outside the locker room. “[Acosta] did a great job all day. When I caught that screen pass they were calling ‘double fire’ so we knew they were blitzing. It was the perfect call.”
- Chase Misura’s second-quarter
When safety Shawn Brown fell on Aaron Zurn’s first fumble on the TCNJ two-yard line, Brockport swapped one scoring opportunity for another. While it squandered a shot at six points (hoping for seven, but Flannery worked his damnedest to prevent an easy PAT), a miscue on the Lions’ ensuing possession could have yielded a safety. Not to mention an untimely swing in the all-important “Mo.”
Safe to say, there was a lot riding on the drive–and Chase Misura’s shoulders.
Any discomfort mutually shared by James and Acosta dissolved following its first play, a 12-yard dagger up the middle to Misura. Breathing became easier for both men–James getting more room and Acosta letting out a sigh of relief.
He rushed the rock four times. But he carried the scoring drive–capped on a one-yard burst from Lions’ brandy-new short-yardage toy, freshman running back Kevin Brown–advancing the football and the sticks with a healthy 12.75 yards per carry (51 yds on drive).
Fueling a journey that produced the tail end of the Lions’ 17-point rally, Chase Misura singlehandedly gripped up the tee-shirt of the game’s flow–lifting it off the ground like a grade-school bully, shaking down a bookworm for lunch money.
He finished with 134 yards on his 18 attempts, slowly creeping up the conference hierarchy to ninth (49 rush, 301 yds, 6.1 avg., 5 TDs).
- Relapse after a successful rehab
The team committed nine penalties worth the only kind of 79 yards you don’t want–in the wrong direction.
Let’s go through the list.
#1–False start on the teams’ first third-down attempt of the game, an otherwise manageable nine-yard distance for an offense with weapons. Luckily, Misura hauled in a 17-yard completion out of the backfield.
#2–False start on a fresh set of downs, backing five yards away from the promised land, forcing the Lions to set up shop with facing 1st and 15 from the Brockport 33.
Three plays later, the Lions settled for a field goal, facing fourth-and-two.
#3–False start on a first-and-goal from the Brockport five-yard line–bringing up another 1st and 15.
Really? After last week’s dreadful red-zone offense (1/4 during gm. vs. Kean)?
Wonder if Kevin Brown’s going to be getting a few thank-you texts from his teammates after he bailed them out on fourth-and-goal from the one, plowing through a wall on the goal-line.
#4–Encroachment on a PAT attempt, Ryan Flannery hurdling the protection team.
Alright, I admit. That was pretty funny (impressive, too). And considering he blocked one later, we might have to let that slide.
#5–Unsportsmanlike conduct out of bounds following an 11-yard tuck-and-run by Chris James on a pivotal third-and-eight during the Lions’ two-minute drill, sending the zebras on a brisk 15 paces from the Brockport 35, back to midfield (so many hyphens…).
It was a dead-ball foul, shielding the fresh set of downs. But it put the team in a hole, facing a 1st and 25. That and the three drops put a pretty quick end to any legitimate attempt at finding the end zone–or anywhere near Zucconi’s range (about 50 yds). TCNJ turned the ball over on downs four plays later.
James looked pissed on the sidelines. I would be too.
#6–12 men on the field on the Lions’ defense, during our chance to watch Brockport’s two-minute offense on the ensuing drive.
I get it, you’re excited.
But if you’re in a rotation–either on the defensive line or in its secondary–stand next to your position coach in his peripheral vision. If you have to, bang out a few quick push-ups, maybe even a couple high-knees while you take deep, relaxing breaths to alleviate any anxious energy.
Don’t run on the field. That = bad.
Gatti bailed them out with his pick in the end-zone, but with only a three-point lead (17-14) at the time, giving up a freebie on a second-and-three just inside your territory is just unacceptable.
[Keyshawn Johnson and Tom Jackson in chorus]: Come on, man.
#7–Holding call that negated an eight-yard rush by Justin Donoloski on first-and-goal from the Brockport nine-yard line.
Simple math: The difference between [second-and-goal from the one-yard line] and [first-and-goal from the 13] equals Marc Zucconi’s second appearance following a dumb red-zone penalty.
#8–Pass interference on cornerback Derek Gorecznski.
Except for it wasn’t. Sorry, Flan.
#9–False start on a Lions’ third-and-four-turned-third-and-nine-turned-incomplete-pass-turned-punt.
All that, in the fourth-quarter. Four fingers in the air? Anyone?
I think that speaks for itself. So does this: “When you get into games against good teams that’s gonna beat you,” Lions’ headman Eric Hamilton said after the game.
If that’s not clear enough, he followed up with this, in response to a question regarding his plans to correct the mental errors during the upcoming week in practice.
“They might run a little.”
- Indecisive referees
Defensive coordinator Matt Hamtilton wasn’t happy with the officiating–or lack thereof–on the Golden Eagles’ offensive substitutions between many of its 98 plays from scrimmage.
“That was a little bit of an issue,” he said, referring to players running on and off the field without checking into the huddle, a blatant violation of Rule 3, Section 5, Article 2e of the NCAA rule book that states,
While in the process of substitution or simulated substitution, Team A is
prohibited from rushing quickly to the line of scrimmage with the obvious
attempt of creating a defensive disadvantage.
I know, because I looked.
I also looked for the law of the land regarding one of the referees’ calls later in the game, following a Lions’ touchdown. While sitting comfortably up in the press box in Lions’ Stadium, former-ESPN Radio intern Mike Leatherwood and I silently stared at each other when we saw an appalling gesture–two offsetting, dead-ball holding fouls.
You look in the rule book for that one.
In addition to spotting the ball at the Lions’ 45 on the opening kickoff of the second half, I honestly don’t know what in the hell these guys were looking at. I get the whole fake-it-till-you-make-it thing, trying not to make yourselves look like you have not the slightest idea what’s going on around you.
But you can’t just start “making” stuff up. Well, I guess you can. But that’s gotta be bad karma–or something.
Reported in the wee hours of the morning after his team’s deceptively close 48-34 win over The College at Brockport, Lions‘ kicker Marc Zucconi captured the conference’s weekly award for its top special teams performer.
The D1 transfer from Louisville earned honors as the NJAC Special Team’s Player of the Week for the third time this season, finishing with a pristine kicking resume Saturday afternoon.
Zucconi converted his first of two successful field goal attempts with 12:21 remaining in the second-quarter, capping a 10-play 60 yard scoring drive to overcome his squad’s only deficit on the afternoon, 10-7. The Lions’ defense forced a punt five plays after Colin Weber‘s 40-yard equalizing touchdown in the waning minutes of the game’s opening period, permitting what finished as a run of 17 unanswered TCNJ points (RB Kevin Brown 1-yd TD rush; 3:08 remaining in 2Q).
Last year’s All-NJAC performer added a 28-yarder to widen the Lions’ margin–then to 20-14–ensuring points on TCNJ’s first offensive possession of the second half, following another stingy defensive stint that limited the Golden Eagles to 27 yards on five plays.
Zucconi’s reliable right leg wasn’t utilized early in the first half of the Lions’ 28-7 road loss at Kean University a week ago, during which the Lions’ walked away empty-handed on two first-quarter red-zone trips. He was also perfect on all six of his point-after tries, in addition to bolstering a shaky red-zone offense whose efforts yielded points on only one of its four opportunities distance a week ago (4/4 vs. Brockport; 2 TDs 2 FG).
His performance manifested in the field-position battle as well, recording touchbacks on all but one of his kickoffs, while dropping his only punt of the afternoon inside the Golden Eagles’ 20-yard line. Zucconi’s prowess in both facets of the TCNJ’s special teams sits him atop the conference in kick scoring (7.8 ppg) and individual punting average (41.5 ypp).
Rowan signal-caller Frank Wilczynski earned NJAC honors as its top offensive performer in only 30 minutes of football. Given the second half of the Profs’ 72-14 NJAC win on the road at Western Connecticut State, the senior completed 66.7% of his 18 pass attempts, accruing 216 yards.
He also averaged 16.1 yards per carry on his nine rushing attempts on the day, adding 145 yards on the with his legs.
Wilczynski scored six touchdowns (3 rush, 3 pass) in his limited performance–three in game-breaking excess of 50 yards (68, 53-yd rush TDs; 59-yd pass TD). The lengthier of the two he earned on the ground set a school record as Rowan’s longest run from scrimmage as a quarterback.
At week’s end, he leads the conference in quarterback rushing (avg. 110.8 rush ypg).
For his individual contribution during a defensive battle in which his Pioneers emerged victorious, William Paterson University defensive lineman Keith Sayball snatched conference acclaim as its brightest defensive star of Week Six.
In a marginal 14-2 win over Morrisville State, the senior tallied a career-high 13 total tackles (7 solo) wrangling Mustang ball-carriers behind the line six times for losses totaling 35 yards. Sayball’s personal effort that also included 2.5 sacks (-22 yds) and a forced fumble fortified his defense’s outing–one that blanked the Mustangs’ scoring offense and left its rushing totals in the red (finished -2 tot. rush yds).
On the season, Sayball shares the NJAC’s third slot in tackles for loss with Cougars’ utility player Richard Esdaile (Kean) and Profs’ defensive lineman Matt Hoffman (Rowan). Each have recorded 8.5 stops behind the line on the season (1.70 TFL/gm).
Perpetuating the early trend of Rowan youngsters seizing conference limelight, freshman running back Tariq Gaines gained an economic 143 yards in the Profs’ afore mentioned beat down of the Colonials, compiling his day’s work in only four carries (35.7 ypc).
Gaines, well, gained 19 yards on his season’s only attempts entering the contest–a less efficient four.
He joins a list now four players long of NJAC Rookie of the Week winners from Rowan University, also wedging his way into its history books. Gaines’ first collegiate touchdown, a 61-yard dash to paydirt, added to the Profs’ ten trips to the end zone–most in program history.
Freshman safety Phil Bossman‘s seven tackles (4 solo) in his Red Dragons’ losing effort earned him recognition as the conference’s top defensive rookie–in only his second taste of action. His four pass breakups added to a resume that made him Cortland‘s second NJAC Defensive Rookie of the Week in 2009–in the aftermath of its season-devastating 16-7 road loss at Montclair State.
Even after the long week of practice, Lions’ head coach Eric Hamilton said he wasn’t sure what to expect of his players less than 24 hours before Saturday’s noon kickoff.
“I know how I feel, and I know how the coaches feel,” he said Friday of his team’s ability to respond to its 28-7 road loss at Kean University eight days earlier. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”
Of all the foreseeable scenarios entering Satruday’s 48-34 home win over conference-rival Brockport , few could have adhered to whatever notion he—or anyone else—could have anticipated.
Contrary to a quick glance at a box score that reflected its 541 yards of offensive production (81 plays, 228 rush, 313 pass) timely turnovers forced by the Lions’ defense compensated for struggles and miscues on the team’s offensive and specials units—an undoubted role-reversal from earlier in the season.
Yes, it allowed a reprehensible 528 yards of total offense—307 of those to Golden Eagles’ gunslinger Jake Graci, who completed 33 of his 56 passes and threw for a touchdown. It also let him score from 15 yards out on one of his nine rushes, good for 71 yards.
And that’s neglecting to mentioning the 145 surrendered to running back Aaron Zurn on his 30 attempts, who also contributed three receptions worth 17 yards.
But the Lions’ oft-flaky D buckled down when needed, twice from inside the red-zone, robbing possession from the Golden Eagles’ offense and points under the visitors’ scoreboard column.
After it had been gashed for 87 yards on a 20-play touchdown drive that consumed 5:34 of the fourth quarter, a Scotty Mathurin fumble on the ensuing kickoff marched the TCNJ defense back out on the field, with only a seven-point cushion and 36 yards to spare.
Seven plays later, Zurn’s shifty dash from seven yards out dissolved the marginal lead, tying the score at 34 a piece.
Pending a presumed freebie on the extra-point attempt, the Lions’ defense failed to finish–a trend all too familiar to the program this season.
But upon his gallant return from injury that sidelined him most of the year, free safety Ryan Flannery blocked the go-ahead point after and alleviated pressure from his offense. Trotting back out with 5:11 remaining, the TCNJ offense instead looked to break a deadlock, rather than overcome a deficit.
Lions’ quarterback Chris James (22/36, 313 yds, 3 TDs, INT) orchestrated the game’s winning drive— a role filled by his counterpart twice earlier in the year when Graci rallyied his Golden Eagles to victories their first two games.
Four plays later, on a 41-yard screen to impact back Justin Donoloski, the Lions’ offense recaptured the lead, one with which its defense would be entrusted to protect once more.
After strong safety Shawn Brown and free safety Phil Gatti wrangled Brockport return-man Andrew McCormick at his own 40, the oft-flaky Lions’ D had a shot at retribution—for earlier in the game, for earlier in the season.
Graci completed three of his next five throws for 18 yards, methodically driving his offense down the field, much like he had against Frostburg State and William Paterson—two games decided by five or fewer points, both in his favor.
But his next attempt, just inside Lions’ territory at the TCNJ 48-yard line, was intercepted by freshman linebacker Gregory Burns and returned 34 yards to the Brockport 29 yard line.
Seventeen seconds, 29 yards and four missed tackles later, Colin Weber (6 rec., 104 yds., 2 TD; led TCNJ receivers) broke the plane of the end-zone, giving the Lions a 48-34 lead with only 1:55 left on the clock for any of Graci’s habitual late-game heroics.
He tried, driving his Golden Eagles 55 yards in eight plays down to the TCNJ 11. But Flannery, who only participated in two plays a week ago, wasn’t about to allow any of that.
Intervening on his own two-yard line, a pass likely putting Brockport back within a touchdown, “Flea” produced his unit’s fifth takeaway (3 INT, 2 fum)—its second from within its own red-zone.
“We just had that feeling where you know you had to make a big play,” he said of the drive. “All 11 guys on defense, we all looked at each other and we knew that’s what we needed to do.”
Leading 10-7 earlier in the second quarter, the Lions’ defense robbed possession from a Golden Eagles team within striking distance. A 17-yard completion to Brockport receiver Hector Rosas (5 rec., 48 yds) set up a first-and-goal from the TCNJ five-yard line, five plays into a drive that started on its own 33-yard line.
On third-and-goal from the two, defensive end Craig Meyer dislodged the football from Zurn, stuffed inches from the goal-line, that was scooped up by ever-opportunistic Shawn Brown at the TCNJ one-yard line.
Clutch defense manifested later in the quarter, following a lackluster two-minute drill attempt that included three drops (one each by WRs Mark Gardner, Erik Hendrickson, and Weber) and a costly dead-ball foul (unsportsmanlike conduct on Cam Richardson).
Assuming possession with 26 seconds left in the half at its own 45-yard line, Brockport drove to the Lions’ 25 yard-line—just outside red-zone qualification.
Following a Golden Eagles’ timeout that stopped the clock with five seconds remaining, Gatti broke on a threatening strike toward his end-zone, coming up with the second of Graci’s three interceptions.
Craig Meyer spoke proudly of the pressure his unit mustered against Graci, disrupting his dropbacks and rhythm with his receivers.
“We got in there, we got pressure on him and they couldn’t stop the blitz,” he said, noting how the stunts implemented earlier in the week freed linebackers like the team’s leading tackler, Dan DeCongelio (13 total tackes, 7 solo), to ravage the opposing backfield.
Brockport head coach Rocco Salomone was devoid of emotion following the loss, displeased with his quarterback’s lack of ball-security.
“They did get up in Jake’s face a little bit and whether that’s a reason for the picks that he threw I’m not sure,” he said. Admitting that his quarterback was flustered early and often, Salomone wouldn’t speak on Graci’s behalf.
“He’s gonna have to answer that question for you.”
Surprisingly upset following the victory, TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton stood on the field afterward, visibly infuriated by what he called a “not very good” showing.
“Well if we had one positive thing going for us it’s that we forced turnovers,” he said, alluding to the 309 yards surrendered in the second half. “We have a lot of kids that have a knack to get around the ball in the secondary and we’re very good at trying to strip balls. If it wasn’t for that today we’d have been in a whole hell of a lot more trouble than we were.”
They may have posted more yards than Hamilton would have liked, Brockport’s body of work accumulated over a massive 97 offensive plays and was forced into 20 third-down situations (12 conv.; 2/3 on 4th dn).
“Excited” to be back, Flannery offered a contrasting perspective.
“We always say it’s about the points you let up not about the yards,” he said. “Teams can drive 99 yards on us, but it’s not over until they get in the end zone and we won’t give up until they get in the end zone.”
The two reached an agreement on Flannery himself, unequivocally happy to have him back in the lineup.
“I mean [the interception] speaks for itself,” Hamilton said, alluding to the slightest nuances added with his presence in the secondary. “You saw the difference immediately when he came back into practice. He understands the scheme top to bottom, and when you have a player that can do that it’s unbelievable.”
Revisiting his concerns from earlier in the week—one’s prompted by familiarity with his foe and uncertainty among his players—Eric Hamilton spoke contentedly afterward, satisfied by his team’s resilience.
“I’m just happy for our guys,” he said. “I was concerned in practice that I didn’t know where we were. But as the game went on there was a quiet confidence. They stayed together, they played within themselves and they picked each other up. And as a coach that’s pretty great to see.”
Especially since he didn’t see it coming.
Tune into 91.3 FM today at 12:00pm to The College of New Jersey’s radio station, WTSR, for its weekly broadcast of the the Lions’ game against Brockport. Considering three of the Golden Eagles’ first three games have been decided by five or fewer points, you might be in for an unexpected afternoon treat.
Alongside Mike Leatherwood, the network’s sports director and play-by-play orator, I’ll be providing my humble expertise as the color commentator.
Now, don’t mistake the invite as a dissuasion from reading today’s post-game recap. Oh, no. But for the three or four of you dedicated fans out there that have been the fabric of my limited readership, you might like what you hear.
This makes my third appearance with WTSR, initiated with game day analysis during the Lions’ season-opener against Buffalo State University, and a flash of airtime during the halftime report from two weeks ago. I’ll be working with a former-ESPN radio intern in Leatherwood, but let’s set the record straight–I’m no pro.
Regardless the game’s likelihood as a high-flying and indescribably eventful NJAC contest, you might get a few good laughs at my expense, should I revisit a blooper like my seven-second pause during the pregame show of my inaugural broadcast.
Someone’s going to be having a good time today–probably a few of us. Joining us in the press box this afternoon is The College at Brockport’s student radio affiliate 89.1 The Point.
Less than 24 hours removed from a six hour bus trip–guaranteeing as lengthy a trek back to upstate New York–the guys likely wouldn’t wince at the sight of a scoreboard that’s heavy in the visitor’s column.
Don’t worry, I’ve already cordially thanked them for graciously allowing you options–and eliminating any valid excuse for not hearing something on this soggy Saturday afternoon.
For a personable guy, there’s certainly a whole lot TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta doesn’t like to talk about.
Throw a few stats his way, and he’ll shrug his shoulders—in speech or gesture. Try to pick his brain on a game plan, and he’ll respond like a San Francisco weatherman—only that he has one.
Yes he’s approachable, and sure he’s accommodating. But don’t let him or his quick-witted sense of humor fool you.
He’s a conniver, that one.
Acosta’s as tactfully vague as the best of them. But dare to question his offense’s ability to respond to last week’s loss at Kean–its worst outing to date–and while he may not put it in words, Acosta’s aura sends a distinct message.
“They’re ready,” he said subtly, a mischievous grin smeared across his face.
Answering with a quiet reserve, only enough to hide his hand, the second-year rounder indicated Friday that there’s plenty he doesn’t want tipped.
“It depends on the personality of the game,” he said, unclear if his ostensible expression was a tell—or a trick.
Based solely on their literal definition, Acosta expects the former-national leader in scoring—dethroned after an anemic seven-point performance from a week ago—to return tomorrow to face The College at Brockport in a pivotal NJAC showdown.
“[The Kean loss] was like a slap in the face. It kind of wakes us up saying that we need to be a little more detailed with what we do.”
Whether it overslept an intended power nap or was knocked into full-fledged comatose by a blitz-happy Cougars’ D, the Lions’ offense that stormed the field during last week’s 28-7 loss wasn’t the one that had carried the program to its unanticipated 3-0 start.
Led by NFL prospect nose tackle Darryl Jackson, the Cougars rose to the occasion on two fourth-down opportunities in the first half, turning the Lions’ away empty handed following a pair of consecutive red-zone trips. With half of his characteristically diverse playbook deteriorating as the game progressed, the magician’s repertoire forced Chris James into 41 obvious pass attempts—and a healthy Cougar pass rush.
Acosta spent a portion of the week reaching out to other conductors of the spread offense in the hopes of better responding to short yardage situations for his orchestra’s next scheduled recital.
“Every spread team I’ve talked to said they’ve all struggle in the red-zone,” he said, noting his earlier conversation with coaches at the University of Delaware. “We have a couple of different packages this week, so we can be a little more efficient when we get down there.”
Fortunately for the Lions, that hasn’t exactly been a forte of this Brockport defense—if there’s one at all.
While TCNJ has struggled in the red zone, capitalizing on only 76% of its opportunities from within striking distance (scored on 13 of 17 possessions), opposing offenses have scored on every chance against the Golden Eagles (opp. scored on all 19 red-zone possessions; 15 TDs, 4 FGs).
Its opposition has thrived outside those mouth-watering 20 yards as well, against a Brockport defensive unit that ranks ninth in the conference—second worst only to the Lions’ inconsistent squad (opp. avg. 444.0 ypg).
Should the comfort of home-sweet-home help the Lions revisit its early-season form, it will likely be its passing game that causes the most damage.
Sitting at only a slightly more attractive seventh among NJAC pass defenses, the only two victors over Brockport this season have milked at least 100 yards of production out one receiver—if not more.
Pouring on the hurt to a 56-20 romp that included three defensive touchdowns (3 INT returned for TD) Rowan signal-caller Frank Wilczynski hooked up with wide receiver Kay Robinson four times for 103 yards—a performance worthy of NJAC honors as its top rookie performer.
A week earlier, two of Montclair State’s pass-catchers eclipsed the century mark, as receivers Hector Rosas and Matt Newman combined for 230 yards on only 10 receptions—one of them five yards shy of a 100-yard dash.
Maybe that’s what’s got Acosta so giddy—looking over his shoulder at the toys in his chest.
Despite lackluster performances a week ago, receivers Colin Weber (avg. 104 rec. yds/gm) and Mark Gardner (avg. 84.67 rec. yds/gm) round out the conference’s two most prolific targets. Modest only by his own standards, Weber enjoyed moderate success as an honorary co-captain, scoring on one of his seven passes that yielded 67 yards. But, Kean’s blanketing defense smothered Gardner all night long, limiting the game-breaker to only two catches good for 11 yards—and it stung.
“The Kean loss was kind of rough,” Gardner said. “But our line’s gonna do well and our defense is gonna do well. Hopefully we’ll go out there and get a ‘W.’”
His numbers might have taken a hit, but Gardner’s spirit soared following the loss and what he called a “hard week of practice.” Toying with the manner in which the question was phrased, Gardner offered some predictions for what he believes will be a fruitful afternoon.
“Mark Gardner’s gonna try his hardest, Mark Gardner’s gonna go hard every play, Mark Gardner’s gonna catch a few balls,” he said, laughing throughout the entirety of his deceptively humble response.
Teammates have faith in what they described as unequivocal talent.
“Our wide receivers are very skilled, and I’m pretty sure we’re gonna be able to exploit weaknesses,” running back Michael Yetka said Friday, his optimism sparked by other capable performers. “The line’s going to manhandle them and give Chris enough time to throw the ball. We’ll be good to go.”
Yetka and his tailbacks should be too, taking the field against a rush defense that’s forfeited 194 average rushing yards to its opponents. The Golden Eagles’ defense boasts the conference’s leading tackler in linebacker Nathan Bull (avg. 8.75 tckl/gm). But even at its best, it allowed Red Hawk ball-carriers 130 yards rushing in an aerial shootout with Montclair State that diced its secondary for 363 pass yards.
After answering a handful of questions regarding his intentions—if that’s even how his responses qualify—Acosta posed a question of his own.
“How do you win any game?” he said, turning the tables.
The College at Brockport football team arrived on two charter buses outside Lions Stadium today at 5:42pm, planning to hold a roughly 45-minute walk through before tomorrow’s game, scheduled for 12:00pm.
News of the arrangement was casually mentioned earlier this afternoon, during an unrelated player interview.
Both coaches said they made the arrangements earlier in the week, participating in what the two parties each called a “courtesy” among all of the conference’s competitors. Now in his 13th year at the head of the Golden Eagles’ football program, head coach Rocco Salomone spoke gratefully in response to what he described as a colleague’s consideration–sparked by his fair share of walks down the same path.
“Coach Hamilton is always very gracious to let us use the facility when we come down,” he said outside TCNJ’s facilities Friday. “We extend it to anybody that visits us, whether they use it or not. It’s just a courtesy.”
Earlier at 5:00pm, the Lions conducted their pregame walk through on the turf inside TCNJ’s soccer complex, a similar surface to the FieldTurf that blankets Lions Stadium.
TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton explained that with all of the coordination necessary to transport an entire college football program, he’s willing to offer whatever he can to smooth an often tumultuous trip for one of his colleagues today–though an adversary tomorrow.
“It’s just a courtesy you extend to them because they’d do the same for us–they always have.” he said. ” This isn’t about one-ups-manship. It’s making sure you give everyone what they need because you’d expect the same in return.”
Golden Eagles’ players seemed soothed by the opportunity to absorb the surroundings.
“It’s great to get a feel for the field here, besides the stadium,” Brockport linebacker Nathan Bull said inside the stadium. “It makes us feel more comfortable when we can practice before.”
Bull, honored twice as the conference’s top defensive player for his consistent tenacity as a run stopper, said that common exhibition of gamesmanship undoubtedly helps his team’s pregame preparations, allowing for an opportunity to loosen up the night before.
The conference’s leading tackler (avg. 16.0 tckl/gm) said that while he isn’t as personally affected by the road trips, looking forward to a “pretty good sleep” that’s “probably better than what [he]’d get at home,” Bull recognized how others might be.
Hamilton said he’s already making preparations for his team’s lengthy road trip in two weeks, when the Lions travel to upstate New York to face Cortland State University.
“Coaches talk,” he said. “Starting this week we’re already looking into organizing things now for when we go up [to Cortland], even though it’s a couple of weeks away.”
Who says there’ no such thing as sportsmanship anymore?
Team sources indicated this afternoon that The College of Brockport is scheduled to conduct its pregame walk-through in Lions’ Stadium today at 5:30pm. Lions’ head coach Eric Hamilton was unavailable for comment, reportedly involved in organized team activities for his own program’s preparation.
Lions’ defensive end Craig Meyer could not speak on the details of the agreement, though, according to him, it’s relatively common throughout the conference.
“It’s a courtesy thing,” he said, via phone interview.
Had the team agreed to a Brockport request, it would be fitting, considering they’ve been beneficiaries of a similar courtesy.
A year ago, when the schedule called for the Lions to travel to upstate New York to face Buffalo State University, Meyer remembers conducting a similar team activity in the Bengals’ facility. Transportation must be taken care of before game day for the lengthy trips, considering players’ performances would likely suffer after sitting on a Greyhound for upwards of six hours.
The program’s athletic director and head football coach, Jerry Boyes, was unavailable for comment, according to his secretary “about halfway through” a road trip to Union, NJ where his team will face Kean University tomorrow.
In 2007, during the Lion’s conference championship campaign, Meyer recalls even more collaborative efforts to make their travel more comfortable. On the way to face Cortland State University, another northern New York opponent, Lions’ coaching staff requested to make a pit stop at Buffalo State for the team’s walk through, a necessary final touch to a week’s worth of planning.
An act of kindness for which Meyer says he was grateful.
“It’s pretty cool when everyone’s helping each other out like that. I know we appreciated it.”
Sometimes good just ain’t good enough.
In the wake of its 28-7 loss at Kean University, coaches believed the team’s defensive performance qualified as its most outstanding of the season, optimistic that its best is yet to come. Considering it was decimated a year ago for 51 points by its next opponent–something, anything had better be on its way.
It’s now or never–if not for the Lions, for their defense.
While a win could singlehandedly reroute its path back toward conference supremacy, a loss could derail it permanently. Though feasible, a defensive let-down could unnecessarily complicate a crucial win at a delicate stage in the Lions’ 2009 campaign. But players seem ready for the challenge.
“Our goal is to win the conference,” linebacker Dan DeCongelio said prior to Wednesday’s practice. “This is just another obstacle, another step.”
But for the defense to finally realize its potential, alleged by brief glimpses of what should be a stingy final product toward opposing offenses, it needs to start by finishing.
Despite its sixth ranking among the conference’s scoring defenses, the Lions’ unit has performed tremendously for the team–during the first 15 minutes of play. In the opening quarter of its first four games, TCNJ has only allowed 16 points on the season, fewer than 10% of its 121 total forfeitures.
“We need to finish,” DeCongelio said. “From the snap of the ball until the clock hits zero. We need to punish every single down and contain every single play.”
Admitting its occasional complacency, the junior echoed his defense’s conscious effort to kick its crippling habit.
“We can’t let up. We gotta start going and just keep it moving. We cool off as the game goes on and we can’t let that happen.”
For a team on the cusp of conference contention, its next opponent presents a tradeoff in its complex set of strengths and weaknesses.
The good news first: By and large, Brockport isn’t the same team it was a year ago.
The Golden Eagles waved goodbye to the nation’s seventh most-prolific rusher in running back Garet Lynch, who gashed the Lions for 188 yards in last year’s loss, by a margin of a field goal. Graduating with fellow senior and D3Football.com All-East Region performer in offensive lineman Cuyler Groth, the conference’s top offensive threat in scoring and points in 2008 hasn’t mustered up comparable success in its first four games of this season.
While it has managed to linger in the vicinity the 31 points it averaged a year ago, Brockport has accrued as few points as TCNJ has allowed in its season’s worth of first-quarters.
The bad news: They’ve found replacements.
While this edition of the Golden Eagles’ backfield features a committee of ball-carriers in Riedrick Alceus (61 rush ypg; T-7 in NJAC) and Aaron Zurn (60 rush ypg; 8th in NJAC), Brockport (2-2; 1-2 in NJAC) has lived and died on the arm of its gun slinging quarterback Jake Graci. The senior tossed for 387 yards and four touchdowns in the team’s two wins, fueling the conference’s top passing attack (266.25 ypg).
“They haven’t changed much, they just put new people in the same spots,” Lions head coach Eric Hamilton said of the turnover. “Their new quarterback is very productive. I mean you look at him and you go, yeah? That’s the kind of guy that really bothers you because he’s so surprisingly productive.”
A wild card to his opposition, Graci’s also been known to bedazzle his own coaches.
The Golden Eagles’ signal-caller looked a whole lot like the Brett Favre that wore Packer green for 16 years, and Viking purple (and pink) on Monday night. In the team’s first two wins, on the road at William Paterson and at home against Frostburg State, Graci orchestrated methodical game-winning drives in the fourth quarter of each, catapulting Brockport to a 2-0 start.
But in his next two showings, he looked more like the Favre with Gang Green (who’s ball security looked literally infected).
Graci topped his four-interception performance in the Golden Eagles’ marginal loss to Montclair State with a reckless five picks in his team’s dismantlement by Rowan University the following week. During a dreadful 60 minutes of collegiate football, much more resembling a charity event than an NCAA exhibition, three of those were returned for touchdowns (100, 67, 45 yards).
Forcibly writhing his way to the top of the NJAC standings in the least palatable of statistical categories (10 INTs most in NJAC), Graci’s frivolousness with the football resonated well with the Lions’ secondary.
“Hopefully I’ll can take one to the house,” cornerback Scott Mathurin said prior to Wednesday’s practice, hoping to provide company for his season’s lone interception. “That’s what I’m looking at—to the house, baby. Madd picks.”
But if it hopes to perpetuate its recent trend of opportunism, the Lions defense first needs to adequately pressure the quarterback—something Brockport hasn’t allowed.
While Lions have only wrangled opposing passers four times, Graci’s been taken to the turf only three, for a loss of a benign seven yards. TCNJ added a few curveballs to its repertoire during the, which linebacker Joe Spahn hopes can yield instant gratification on game day.
“We put a couple things in—a couple blitzes, a couple fronts for Brockport, specifically,” the team’s leading tackler with 8.75 stops per game said, later alluding to its likelihood of inducing poor decisions. “We’re gonna put the pressure on him and hopefully he makes some mistakes.”
Defensive end Craig Meyer explained that the defensive line should be able to help.
“We’re gonna use our speed,” he said. “We’re gonna be doing a lot of slanting and stunting so we’re not going to have to go one-on-one with their big guys, and hopefully open up some gaps for the LBs to get some pressure.”
In spite of its enabling of the Golden Eagles’ points total to eclipse most highway speed limits. Hamilton detracted his vision away from face value of its reprehensible 2008 outing, duly noting that–unlike in 2009–the defense actually suffered on account of the offense’s miscues.
“We had a 12-point swing right at the end of the half last year,” he said, providing a scrupulous statistical rebuttal of the raw box score figures. “Giving up points on special teams and on offense as well, added to [the final totals].”
In the defense’s, er, defense, it was actually more.
On a rare blocked PAT attempt during kicker Marc Zucconi’s All-NJAC body of work a year ago, junior defensive back Neil Fay sought retribution for its shortcomings on the previous drive. Capitalized on his special teams’ good fortune, Fay pranced an uninhibited 98 yards for a Golden Eagles’ score, leeching off of the Lions’ hard earned points on the opening quarter’s final play.
Hamilton elected to pooch the ensuing kickoff, which junior defensive back Cevon Carver returned for a 77-yard touchdown–not quite according to plan. Hamilton believes that this time around, one of several keys to victory, and its defense’s to assume a long-anticipated identity as a capable entity, the best defense might be a good offense.
“In the first quarter we’ve had the ball on offense, moved the ball and put points on the board,” he said. “That’s what we gotta get back to. We gotta get back to taking the initiative, and hopefully taking the wind out of their sails, jumping on people early.”
Hamilton argued that, like the Brockport game from a year ago, its offense’s struggles likely skewed the measuring rods of last weekend’s outing at Kean.
“For three out of our four games we’ve been able to do that. Friday night moved the ball, even though we were playing against a much better team than we’ve faced all year. We had our opportunities in the second quarter and we just didn’t capitalize on them.”
Excuses, outside perspective and insight aside–for the Lions to reclaim control of its conference destiny, it’s going to take far more than adequate execution of its game plan. It’s going to take relent and valor, a defiant disregard of fatigue and whatever adversity crosses its path.
Come Saturday, it’s gut-check time, baby.