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Lions’ Post-game Recap: Tumultuous afternoon presents Lions’ toughest test yet, TEAM-play blazes trail toward 67-34 victory over Mustangs

September 26, 2009

Inexplicable. Perplexing. Intangible. Eluding definition.

In TCNJ’s 67-34 win over the Morrisville State Mustangs during Saturday’s NJAC shootout—one  characterized by sporadic offensive rhythm, chaotic ball security and schizophrenic defensive performances—fewer words could describe the game itself  than the multitude of adjectives available to attest to the difficulty doing so.

Convoluted. Indiscernible. Multi-faceted. Ludicrous.

Despite only rushing for 18 yds on nine carries, RB Michael Yetka turned a simple slip screen into a 44 yd TD reception Saturday

Despite only rushing for 18 yds on nine carries, RB Michael Yetka turned a simple slip screen into a 44 yd TD reception Saturday

Even when it toppled a scoring mark that remained after 88 long years—edging the school record for single-game scoring—it was points generated by the Lions’ defense that perpetuated the team’s recent trend of stomping out history (originally 64 points vs. Cathedral; set in 1921).

But after an indefinable two-and-a-half hours—capable of robbing even the most articulate of their words—quarterback Chris James broke it down simply.

“We’re a team. That’s what we do, that’s who we are.”

One of few consistent performers in a tumultuous outing for both teams (19/23, 323 yds, 3 TDs), James described each unit as its counterpart’s security blanket—a role he’s been aware of since August.

“It’s what we focus on. If the defense struggles, the offense picks it up. If the offense struggles, the defense picks it up. We take a lot of pride in that kind of football.”

Scoring after just three plays on its opening possession, early indications suggested the Lions’ point-manufacturing machine had been well-oiled and was fully operational—like it wouldn’t need anyone’s help. Threading the needle on a 35-yard strike, the Lions’ QB connected with quarterback-turned-play maker Bill Picatagi after only 2:34 transpired in the game’s opening period.

Only willing to do so in its first two games, an impassioned Lions’ defense finally looked capable of pulling its own weight early in the contest. After forcing bad throws and a quick three-and-out on the game’s opening possession, the offense trotted back on the field after only 14 seconds. First impressions boded well for the group, one that allowed an unacceptable 29.5 ppg in its first two outings (7th in NJAC).

But the success was short-lived—well, sort of.

Evading a relentless Mustangs' pass rush, Chris James compiled a second-straight 300+ outing

Evading a relentless Mustangs' pass rush, Chris James compiled a second-straight 300+ outing

Capping their adversary’s scoring after allowing six first-quarter points, the defense successfully sent the Mustangs packing on the period’s only two third down tries. But, the rambunctious Lions’ D quieted down in the game’s next 30 minutes, forfeiting 28 points between the second and third quarters as the Mustangs crept back into the game at the start of the 4th quarter, 53-34.

“We came out strong, we did a great job from the get-go. But a few mistakes on our part gave them some momentum,” linebacker Joe Spahn (11 total tackles, 5 solo) said after the game, alluding to his crew’s apparent identity crisis. “They took that and ran with it.”

Spahn’s description well-suited Mustangs’ rushing performance—184 yards on 38 carries—also applying to an aerial assault that added 335 more. In a losing effort, the Mustangs’ actually out-gained the Lions’ notoriously potent attack (519 to 486).

But in the second half–when its offense actually looked mortal–the defense showed glimpses of brilliance.

The Lions’ offense sputtered on the period’s opening possession, punting after only four plays and 15 yards–poor by its own standards. The Mustangs’ enjoyed brief success on the ensuing drive, gaining 36 yards on its first three plays. But the Lions’ defense gained its composure, forcing a pivotal fourth-down conversion attempt from its own 48 yard-line. The unit prevailed, returning the ball to its play-makers after forcing a turnover-on-downs, followed by a three-and-out on its next appearance.

Well in the thick of his 33rd season as head coach, Eric Hamilton offered his professional diagnosis.

despite allowing 519 yds of total offense, Hamilton's defense produced 4 turnovers and sent the Mustangs' packing on 2 of its 5 fourth-down tries

despite allowing 519 yds of total offense, D.C. Matt Hamilton's unit produced 4 turnovers and sent the Mustangs' packing on 2 of its 5 fourth-down tries

“I think we lost our intensity at times,” he said after the game. “We started the game we wanted to:  Come out right away, setting the hammer down. It seemed like once we got there we quick put on cruise-control. You just can’t do that, flip that intensity on and off.”

In addition to its statistical eyesores and glimmers of dominance, the Lions’ D forced three fumbles on opposing skills-players, seizing possession each and every time. Perhaps most notably among them came in the fourth-quarter, with only 4:45 remaining and the Lions looming dangerously close to setting yet another school record.

After Mustangs’ tailback Maurice Mitchelson snagged a swing screen from quarterback Jamieson Crast—a connection that had yielded 65 yards on five receptions earlier—strong safety Shawn Brown relieved him of his ball-carrying duties, jarring the rock loose on a massive collision.

“I, myself, just like to run around and make plays,” Brown said after the game, speaking on his passion for laying the wood on his opponents. “I want to be a playmaker, but it’s not about me, it’s about the team. When I can do that for the team is what’s really effective.”

Brown’s tenacity, helping him score after recovering a blocked punt in the opening quarter, adhered to his team-first mentality while gift-wrapping a rare chance for a teammate to assume possession. Palming the football in a one-handed effort, free safety Phil Gatti stumbled through arm tackles on his way to pay dirt—not to mention history.

When he spoke after the game, Gatti sounded grateful for his teammate’s physicality

“I gotta give credit to Shawn Brown,” he said, thanking his fellow-DB like he’d just won an award. “He came up and hit that kid hard.”

Unaware of its gravity at the time, Gatti couldn’t curb his excitement about the opportunistic play.

Though he only recorded one assisted tackle in the win, co-captain Craig Meyer's vocal leadership helped carry through a rollercoaster ride of an afternoon

Though he only recorded one assisted tackle in the win, co-captain Craig Meyer's vocal leadership helped carry through a rollercoaster ride of an afternoon

“I didn’t even know it was the record,” he said, citing the added excitement once his teammates broke the news. “When I came to the sideline everyone was like, ‘yeah you broke the record.’ I was like, ‘what record?’ But, yeah. I guess it’s a good accomplishment.”

But Gatti’s touchdown wasn’t the defense’s only impact on the final score. On an afternoon during which it produced four takeaways, the unit’s opportunism translated into 21 points on three of its four forced turnovers.

“The offense is doing a great job, and we need to try and give them the ball,” Spahn said of his defense’s effort to maintain par with the team’s renowned offensive production. “Interceptions, fumbles. That’s what we try to do—create turnovers.”

After its defense had quashed the Mustangs’ pedestrian comeback attempt with fewer than nine minutes remaining, the Lions offense knew it need to do only what had so well all year—give the ball to Justin Donoloski.

Only managing to gain 16 yards on four carries entering the series, the sophomore workhorse rang up 51 yards on his next five carries—including rushes for 16, 24, and best of all a four yard touchdown to put the game out of reach.

The team's leading rusher (7 rush, 72 yds, TD), RB Chase Misura's power proved a useful asset in the red zone--rushing as well as blocking for Donoloski and Yetka

The team's leading rusher (7 rush, 72 yds, TD), RB Chase Misura's power proved a useful asset in the red zone--rushing as well as blocking for Donoloski and Yetka

“We really don’t say who’s going to get what,” Donoloski said after the game about his coaches’ capricious ball-delegation. “But the coaches said they liked me and Chase for the last series. Chase was blocking great, opening up the holes. The line did a good job today, again.”

Though he scored, Donoloski admitted it wasn’t necessarily his first priority.

“At the end of the game we’re just trying to run hard and we’re just trying to run out the clock out there. You’ve just gotta remember “5-point contact” and make sure you don’t fumble. Just run hard and get first downs.”

Adding to the wisdom he’d dropped earlier, James attested to the luxury of his offense’s run-support.

“Chase, Donoloski, Yetka—you can’t say anything more about what they’ve been able to do out there, getting those tough yards, running through people. You can’t see it by the stats but those runs mean a lot.”

James added that, in spite of various team and personal successes, he’s still hungry.

“I feel great, but we’ve got to realize we haven’t done anything yet. 3-0 feels good but 3-1 won’t next week if we don’t do anything.”

His head coach echoed James’ humility in a more ominous tone, well-aware of the upcoming turbulence on the schedule.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us. As nice as it is to be 3-0 on Saturday, come Monday we’re 0-0 on a short week getting ready for Kean on Friday. We’ll find out a little bit about ourselves now.”

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