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Players defend gutsy fourth-down calls in the aftermath of Lions’ 1st loss

October 6, 2009

So they say, fortune favors the brave.

Except for when it doesn’t.

During the team’s 28-7 road loss at Kean University, the Lions’ coaching staff elected to roll the dice early, attempting to convert the offense’s first three fourth-down situations.

Aside from its lone success–wide receiver Bill Picatagi‘s 21-yard reception on 4th and 18, a stepladder to Chris James‘ capture of Lions’ legend Bob Schurtz’s all-time mark for career completions (originally 383; set 2001-03)–the strategy sent the team on an unimpeded fall on its proverbial face.

Twice.

But far from evoking scourging whispers of skepticism, the decision drew the overwhelming majority of the team’s support–even after it compromised the offense’s game plan and likely removed effortless points the board.

“I would have tried to score,” defensive end Craig Meyer said prior to Tuesday’s practice session. “I would have done the same thing if I made the call.”

The man stranded on the sidelines also said he agreed with the decision, despite its impact on an opportunity in the limelight–a valuable commodity for a specialist whose offense rarely walks away without having scored a touchdown.

“I think that was the right decision,” Lions’ kicker Marc Zucconi said. “Go for the seven points.”

Still scoreless with 3:38 remaining in the first quarter, the Lions’ failed to convert a feasible fourth-and-two from the Cougars’ 12-yard line–well within range of Zucconi’s all-conference right leg. Described collectively by the staff as a “group decision,” Lions’ head coach Eric Hamilton explained that two basic motives fueled the call to send his offense back on the field.

“A first-down and a touchdown,” he said frankly, raising an eyebrow to the question. “We were going for the win.”

Offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta elaborated, explaining he saw a mismatch opportunity up in his roost, a few stories above the action below.

“We saw a weakness if we were to put a certain personnel package in,” he said via phone interview. “Some people might say, Why are you running outside stretch? Because we had numbers. We run to the numbers, and we pass to the numbers. If we see a weakness we’re going to attack it.”

Acosta said he shared Hamilton’s hopeful appetite to set the tone for the rest of the evening.

“Playing Kean we knew we had to be aggressive and take the points we could get. And if we make those two fourth-downs, it’s a completely different ball game.”

Even Zucconi, the D1 transfer from Louisville who split the uprights on two of his season’s three attempts, said he felt confident that his coaches’ guidance reflected a sound football decision, based on the weight of the game.

“I thought we were going after the points—we needed them on the board,” the 2008 All-NJAC performer said. “It’s a big rivalry, so I think going for the points was the right choice.”

But they didn’t.

Although running back Justin Donoloski was stuffed for a two-yard loss on the play, the gamble proved benign following the Cougars’ subsequent three-and-out.

But later, with 12:45 left in the game’s opening period, the Lions faced another do-or-die scenario, this time on fourth-and-goal from a yard away from the game’s first points. A sour snap and free demo of James’ 40-yard dash was the only fruit bore by the drive’s 62-yards of labor (fum. on snap; Cougars’ started drive on 13-yd line following dead-ball foul).

Less than a minute later, the offense watched from the sidelines while–in just a play–Cougars’ running back Jared Chunn rambled the same distance, unevaded to the end zone. In an instant, the fate of the pivotal interconference match-up seemed all but sealed.

Meyer believes that each conversion attempt, in and of itself, epitomized his counterparts’ Friday night.

“It was uncharacteristic of our offense. For us to drive down the field five times and not score, they just didn’t play like themselves.”

An anchor on the defensive line and one of the team’s three co-captains, the senior denigrated any suggestion that the nation’s top offense entering the contest crossed into Kean University Alumni Stadium, while synchronously stepping out of its league.

“Believe me, the talent’s there. I personally don’t think it had anything to do with [Kean]. That’s not it at all. I think it was just an off-day for our offense and it happened to come during our first real test of the year.”

Regardless of the outcome, Hamilton and Acosta both said they’d likely pull the trigger again, should the future revisit a similar scenario.

“We felt we could do it then, and to this day I feel we could have done it, looking at the film,” Hamilton said. “We had the right play called, it was just a matter of executing it.”

Unsure of whether he believed his coaches would repeat the decision in hindsight, Zucconi didn’t speak tentatively regarding confidence in his ability to perform–should he hear his number called.

“Oh yeah,” he said, grinning while nodding his head. “I make those kicks.”

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