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New-look D bends, won’t break at annual Blue and Gold showdown

August 24, 2009

After his defense delivered a dominating performance during this morning’s inter-squad scrimmage, surrendering no points and posting two goal line stands, defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton found difficulty criticizing his unit’s performance.

“Any time you go against the offense and you don’t give up any points you’ve got to be happy right?” he joked via phone interview.

This year’s edition of the Lions’ annual Blue and Gold game—a simulated scrimmage featuring referees and down-and-distance elements, serving as the team’s final test before it faces Albright College this Friday—left the former special teams coach pleasantly satisfied, to say the least.

“[The offense] did some good things and we adjusted well,” he said in recognition of the one-time-only opponent’s early success. “They got the ball down in the red zone a couple of times, but we were pretty tough and didn’t give up any points.”

At first glance, the unit experienced difficulty reacting to offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta’s adaptation of the spread offense, allowing several underneath completions to receivers running short crossing routes horizontally. The defense buckled down as the drive progressed—near the end-zone in particular—stopping the offense’s starters on four consecutive plays within the five-yard line. Despite allowing some 60 yards earlier on the drive, the team’s front seven flooded the backfield on Chase Misura’s fourth-down carry, forcing a turnover on downs.

“Ultimately it was a really good day for us,” Hamilton said. “The kids are happy and they should be. They deserve it. They played very well.”

Still sidelined with a hyperextended knee, cornerback Justin Beres concurred with his coach’s assessment of the defense.

“I thought we did pretty good,” he said via phone interview. “We’re a little hurt, a little banged up, especially [the DBs], but I thought we did pretty good for what we had out there.”

Banged up likely understates the status of the team’s secondary, as Beres joined free safety and team captain Ryan Flannery, and—more recently—safety Sean Brown on the sidelines, all three likely starters for the Lions’ season-opener against Buffalo State on Sept. 5.

“We’ve been bit with the injury bug a bit for the last couple of days,” Hamilton admitted. “You lose guys like Flannery and Beres, a starting free safety and one of our starting corners and it can be tough to deal with.”

Perhaps a blessing in disguise, the team’s series of injuries allowed the opportunity for some of its younger players to prove they’re ready to help a defense that often struggled last season against multiple-receiver sets—much like they faced today.

Replacing Flannery and Co. in the starting 11 were a trio of young stars, safety Matt Krieder (junior), cornerback Dean Misura (junior), and Phil Gatti (sophomore), all of whom appeared comfortable operating in their second year of Hamilton’s system.

“Oh, there’s no doubt. They’re good players,” Beres said, attesting to the depth of his secondary. “We’ve got three backups playing deep, but they’re the starters now. We’re trying to work with what we’ve got.”

Though satisfied, Hamilton maintained a level-headed perspective.

“We’ve got to take [our success] with a grain of salt. The focus for our offense today was on the horizontal passing game, so they didn’t really stretch the field against us. That helped us because that’s really what [the offense is] really good at, getting the ball down the field.”

At this early stage, it’s not uncommon for teams to have installed only portions of the entire offensive repertoire, especially in a system as complex as Acosta’s.

“We’ve only got a certain amount of plays installed that guys are comfortable with, especially with the younger guys,” said captain wideout Cam Richardson, who—despite his offense’s stagnant red zone finishes—seemed perfectly satisfied  as well. For now.

“Everybody was just a little tired,” he said, as he, himself audibly yawned. “You’ve got to attribute that to camp and with football being 24/7. Hopefully with classes starting and practices shortening up a little bit guys will get their legs back and be able to get more in ‘game mode’ as Friday approaches.”

There’s no doubt that the Lions’ sorely missed two of it’s anchors on the offensive line. Injuries have kept tackle Andrew Ross and Evan Arfuso—both multiple-year starters within the Lions’ front-five—out of practice for an extended period of time, including today’s final test before Albright.

While Arfuso suffered a (–) during an intense on-the-field training exercise, Ross’s involvement as a passenger in a minor car accident—though he walked away unscathed—has sidelined the senior while he awaits doctor’s clearance. Missing each player’s leadership and talent, the struggles of a porous O-line added to the morning’s obstacles.

“There’s not a lot of depth right now on the offensive line,” he said, offering some insight as opposed to excuses. “A lot of guys are hurt, so we didn’t want to run too, too much today. Now obviously when we’ve got [the starters] back they’ll be able to hold their blocks a little longer, so we just tried to keep it short and sweet pretty much.”

Still hungry, the senior captain believes the offense has progressed as quickly as it’s needed to, and doesn’t foresee today’s sputters to become a trend in 2009.

“I’m pretty pleased with what all of the coaches have installed and where we’re at right now. I can’t really say that we need to work too much on anything other than keeping up on our plays and obviously conditioning to be ready for games. Other than that, that’s all I really got.”

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