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Halftime adjustments prove too much to handle for Buff St. on opening day–Lions win, 47-31

September 5, 2009

After a close first half that featured dominating rushing attacks and quick scoring strikes on offense, it was the Lions’ coaching staff’s ability to adjust on defense that allowed its team to break away Saturday afternoon in Lions’ Stadium, earning a decisive win, 47-31.

Entering his third season as head coach, Eric Hamilton sounded pleased with his team’s ability to hit the ground running (pun intended) to start the season in an opening-day victory.

“You’re never disappointed when you win the first game,” he said afterward. “You’re never disappointed when you win any game. It was more important that we get off on the right foot, especially when you’re playing someone you haven’t seen.”

Hamilton reiterated the importance of his team’s ability to respond against any opponent, especially one so drastically different from the Buffalo State team it faced a year ago.

“I know it’s Buffalo State I know we’ve played them. But with a new coach, new program, new philosophy, we’re guessing on some things that we’re going to see. We guessed fairly accurately in the first half but we were able to adjust at halftime.”

Both teams entered the locker room at halftime in the midst of a heated offensive battle with no end in sight, as the scoreboard read 35-24. The Lions’ defense struggled early against an option-run attack led by Buffalo State’s two-headed running back tandem, co-captain Sammy Smith and its track champ Willie Horge. Riding the back of its two impact players, the Bengals offense managed to amass 92 yards and two scores on the ground.

Though it maintained an 11-point cushion at halftime, defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton recognized the necessary changes his staff needed to make in order to hang on to the lead for the rest of the outing.

“We knew we needed to make adjustments, specifically to our option rules based on some info we got,” he said after the game. “For two weeks we’d been practicing [stopping] it a certain way. It took us a little bit, a few drives, but in the end we were able to correct it.”

Not only did the changes solidify its run defense, allowing only 39 yards on the ground in the third quarter, but the the immediate intensity with which the defense stormed the field materialized after only :43 in the period in the form of a Joe Spahn interception deep in Bengals’ territory.

Aside from delivering the afternoon’s game-changing performance, Spahn–who returned to the team this off-season after he left the team in 2007–let his experience allow him to assume a role as the defense’s anchor, an asset that his head coach described as invaluable.

“I know he didn’t play last year, but when you have a guy that just gets it, that sees the big picture–that’s how you turn things around.” Eric Hamliton said after the game. “Last year we couldn’t do that because we had so many new faces out there. Any game that we can get guys in there that have that kind of experience–that’s clutch.”

After an 18 yard field goal by kicker Marc Zucconi to extend the lead to 14 points (38-24), Buffalo State never restored an offensive rhythm, scoring only seven fourth-quarter points with the game already out of reach.

The Lions’ offense managed to score early and often throughout the afternoon, finishing the day with a combined 421 yards, 312 of those by way of its running game. A number of weapons contributed to the dominating effort, as four different ball-carriers broke the 50-yard barrier during the game.

Michael Yetka–the conference’s statistically 10th-best back a year ago–led a three-headed running back beast with 101 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns (8.4 avg). Providing consistent production throughout the afternoon included  strong performances by Justin Donoloski and Chase Misura, who gained 74 yards and 51 yards, respectively. Even wide receiver Bill Picatagi managed to make an impact, his 43-yard touchdown run on a triple read-option sealing his team’s opening day victory in the New Jersey Athletic Conference.

“The offense definitely carried us through the first half,” Spahn said outside the team’s locker room, citing his offense’s relentless success. “In the second half we knew we had to come out a lot stronger and play a lot more physically. It was definitely a mindset. We knew we had to come out and stick it to them and that’s what we did.”

The spark provided by Spahn’s personal effort may have escalated the amended game plan’s success, but the outside linebacker ensured that his coaching staff received credit for putting his unit in the best possible situations to excel.

“It was a lot of just changing up what we needed to do with our personnel,” he said. “The coaches knew what we needed to do and we just listened to them, we did what they wanted us to. They did a great job with that.”

Moving forward, the Lions’ head coach sounded optimistic to see his team continue to develop on a week-to-week basis throughout the season.

“If you ask any coach, usually the biggest comes from Week One to Week Two,” he said in anticipation of his team’s next test–Sept. 18 on the road against Fairleigh Dickinson University. “You get a chance to see your team in action. You get to teach based on what you see on film.”

Though next week’s bye gives the unit an opportunity to breathe, Hamilton noted the importance of making periodic changes in an effort to provide a learning experience through an idle thirteen days’ rest.

“The biggest difference now is that we have a bye between Week One and Week Two,” he said. “That’s going to be the hard part–making the changes yet pacing it since it takes two weeks to play. We’ll take some time and come back the following week and get ready for that Friday night game.”

The Lions’ opening day victory marks its first in five years–an unusual feeling to some of the team’s players.

“Since I’ve been here I’ve never had a win opening game,” said defensive end Craig Meyer–a senior and team co-captain. “It’s great for morale. Getting that first win really helps.”

The Lions will look to establish a winning streak entering its contest against FDU-Florham in two weeks, a Friday night game scheduled for 8pm.

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