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Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: Win streak prompts D-line’s superstitious scruff, weekend provides shot at redemption

September 30, 2009

Let’s face it–athletes are some weird dudes. Superstitious ones, too.

Often enslaved by unfounded beliefs, these specimens of Herculean genetics and Donatellan physiques represent some of the most pious disciples to anything remotely beneficial to “the cause.” While many athletic mythologies tend to involve undergarments–as unspoken as Jordan’s relic Tarheel shorts, or as storied as Giambi’s golden bikini–there’s no mold for this kind of raw and rich passion.

Fortunately (for our eyes and imaginations), there’s plenty of other ways to participate in sports lore. But make no mistake–for a world in which winning trumps long-term durability (and short-term sanity) there’s no such thing as a line. Especially not when there’s games on it.

Even in college. Even in Division III.

Even in Trenton.

Wreaking havoc in Wednesday's stunt segment, DT Chris Flynn (center, blue jersey) hasn't shaved during his team's 3-game win streak

Wreaking havoc in Wednesday's stunt segment, DT Chris Flynn (center, blue jersey) hasn't shaved during his team's 3-game win streak

“Oh the win-streak beard?” Lions’ defensive tackle Chris Flynn said, visibly pleased at the opportunity to speak on his manifestation of enthusiasm following the team’s 3-0 start.

Entering Friday’s collision of the conference’s two top dogs cats, in Lions’ and Cougars of Kean University–each team’s first true litmus test of legitimacy–Flynn and his defense have two options.

a.) Shave their opponents’ yards.

b.) Shave their own faces.

While the TCNJ offense continues to steamroll its opposition–as well as its own history–the Lions’ defense has struggled early in ’09, as recently as its latest appearance against Morrisville State. Following yet another lackluster outing–during which the unit surrendered 519 yards of total offense–the Lions’ D failed to show drastic improvements, still hovering at the depths of the conference in a number of defensive categories.

“It’s very simple,” head coach Eric Hamilton said of his defense’s early misfires. “We’re still trying to find ourselves, we’re still trying to develop an identity.”

But in spite of three-consecutive unequivocally poor showings–and a one similarly glaring disdain of it–Flynn radiated of unshakable confidence entering the team’s final night game of the season.

An odd-job performer last season, DE Kevin Allgood has managed to sneak his way into the D-line rotation, which D.C. Hamilton hopes can confuse a young Cougs' QB

An odd-job performer last season, DE Kevin Allgood has managed to sneak his way into the D-line rotation, which D.C. Hamilton hopes can confuse a young Cougs' QB

“Well we’re going to keep it going until we lose, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

Prophecy aside, the Lions are plenty familiar with this weekend’s inevitable adversaries.

In last year’s home loss versus the Cougars, a heartbreaking 24-35 loss that ended on a Chris James interception returned for a touchdown, one throw–errant or otherwise–had little impact on the final score. Running plays decided last year’s contest.

Twenty-seven of them to be precise.

Carrying his team to victory over the Lions in ’08, Cougars’ running back Jared Chunn averaged 7.4 yards per carry on his way to a 201-yard, two-touchdown performance. Though it wasn’t a fluke–the 5’9, 170-pound impact back fostered the nasty habit of decimating his opposition’s front-seven for the remainder of the year.

Then a junior, Chunn earned some hardware for his efforts, powering the conference’s offensive runner-up (2nd in total offense in ’08; averaged 373.3 ypg). Flaunting a final season portfolio that featured over 1400 yards and 13 touchdowns, Chunn snatched for himself honors as the NJAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Fortunately for the Lions’ porous run-D (allowed 152.0 ypg in first three games; 7th in NJAC), Chunn might have lost his mojo. Early on his team’s campaign, Chunn has only managed to produce 42.67 yards per game in Kean’s first three outings, averaging an abysmal 2.97 yards per carry (averaged 127.73 ypg in ’08; 2nd in NJAC).

Worse, he hasn’t scored all season–and the Kean offense has suffered, currently holding a mediocre 5th spot in the conference (average 24 ppg).

DE Sam Dokus (blue #60) will need to replicate the pressure seen here--during Wednesday's 1v1 segment--Friday @ Kean (allowed only 4 sacks in '09)

DE Sam Dokus (blue #60) will need to replicate the pressure seen here--during Wednesday's 1v1 segment--Friday @ Kean (allowed only 4 sacks in '09)

A peculiar beneficiary of  non-existent run support, Cougars’ quarterback Tom D’Ambrisi hasn’t had a dull moment all year. Of the team’s nine offensive touchdowns, D’Ambrisi has contributed toward all but one, throwing six while rushing for another two.

“He’s good, we’re not going to deny that,” Flynn said admittedly. “But we’re gonna try and get the same strategy we had going on [FDU-Florham quarterback Bill] Winters.”

Noting an obvious comparison to one of its earlier opponents’ similarly impactful stars, much of his and his line’s overt swagger stems from its familiarity with that type of offensive structure. “He was a mobile quarterback, D’Ambrisi’s a mobile quarterback. We’re gonna get after him.”

Though his personal contribution eventually cracked 400 yards (27/41, 342 yds, TD, INT; 15 rush, 69 yds 2 TDs), the Lions defense stifled the versatile quarterback’s production early, permitting completions on only 10 of his 16 passes for 169 yards. The unit also manufactured an interception, a reasonable compromise to the half’s lone touchdown–a 57-yard Kyle Bukowiec reception on a blown coverage.

Should the team earn its first undisputed “big win” of the season, limiting plays like those are a likely prerequisite.

Flynn (right) spoke with confidence during Wednesday's practice, saying he didn't foresee a loss "any time soon."

Flynn (right) spoke with confidence during Wednesday's practice, saying he didn't foresee a loss "any time soon."

“That’s the big crux of the problem in the first three games,” second-year defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said before Wednesday’s practice. “It’s just a matter of getting comfortable back there. A lot of the stuff, the pace of the game is a little faster than we’re mentally ready for.”

In order to help acclimate his squad to instinctfully identifying responsibilities–especially on motions and play action, which resulted in a number of single-play gashings–Hamilton’s implemented a time-old strategy, doing what any good teacher would do.

Make them do it–over and over, until they get it right.

“We’ve practiced it a lotthe last two days, a lot of motion and adjusting to it.”

First addressing his defense’s problems before the snap, Hamilton’s also conjured up schemes to offset some mismatches and prevent miscues during what’s likely to be an old-school street fight, neither contender dropping until claiming victory.

Letting out a preemptive chuckle, Hamilton explained he’s done “well, a lot of things” to prep his team for its first road trip of the season. He’d just rather not say exactly what.

“I don’t really want to tell you right now.”

Squeezing out a few details, Hamilton believes that a number of different personnel packages and pre-snap alignments can confuse and pressure D’Ambrisi, something he hasn’t dealt with all year.

D’Ambrisi’s progressed smoothly since epitomizing the ever-dreaded role of “game manager” in a pedestrian season-opening loss against Delaware Valley (15/30, 192 yds, 2 TDs, INT). Throwing for three touchdowns in the next week’s road win at Western Connecticut State, D’Ambrisi most recently completed 66% of his passes in the team’s biggest triumph, a 24-10 unearthing of the reigning conference champions, Cortland State University.

A younger sibling of Lions' co-captain DE Craig Meyer, Sean Meyer hopes to spit some of "Big Bro's" tricks Friday vs. Kean

A younger sibling of Lions' co-captain DE Craig Meyer, Sean Meyer hopes to spit some of "Big Bro's" tricks Friday vs. Kean

There’s no doubting the prominence of the young sophomore’s performance, but he’s done it comfortably wrapped in a Kevlar vest provided by offensive line. On the season, the notoriously physical Cougars’ O-line has forfeited only four sacks on the year.

“Their offensive line is pretty good—that’s why he hasn’t been sacked very much,” Hamilton conceded. “So we’re just going to give him different things to look at, move it around, do different stuff. That’s really it—just try and move guys around, creating seams in their blocking schemes and get to him.”

His players seem to like the strategy.

“I think we’re all pretty versatile, inside or outside—especially the ends,” defensive end Sam Dokus said of his confidence in the game plan. “We’re gonna mix it up a lot. I think it’s going to be good. We’ll all be pretty comfortable.”

Should the Lions win Friday, their conquest allows the team brief breathing room–permitting only enough relief until the start of the following week’s preparations. Fortunately for Flynn’s scruff–slowly intruding upon full-fledged facial blanketing after three weeks since its last sculpting–it offers a few more precious days to recruit more participants in his cult of lighthearted superstition.

“Right now its just me and the other D-tackle, Terry Woolverton,” he said laughing, starting to jogging toward the Sun Dial Lawn to join his team in pre-practice warm ups.

“But we’re trying to get more.”

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