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Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: Patience no longer a virtue for the Lions’ D

October 8, 2009

Sometimes good just ain’t good enough.

In the wake of its 28-7 loss at Kean University, coaches believed the team’s defensive performance qualified as its most outstanding of the season, optimistic that its best is yet to come. Considering it was decimated a year ago for 51 points by its next opponent–something, anything had better be on its way.

It’s now or never–if not for the Lions, for their defense.

While a win could singlehandedly reroute its path back toward conference supremacy, a loss could derail it permanently. Though feasible, a defensive let-down could unnecessarily complicate a crucial win at a delicate stage in the Lions’ 2009 campaign. But players seem ready for the challenge.

“Our goal is to win the conference,” linebacker Dan DeCongelio said prior to Wednesday’s practice. “This is just another obstacle, another step.”

But for the defense to finally realize its potential, alleged by brief glimpses of what should be a stingy final product toward opposing offenses, it needs to start by finishing.

Despite its sixth ranking among the conference’s scoring defenses, the Lions’ unit has performed tremendously for the team–during the first 15 minutes of play. In the opening quarter of its first four games, TCNJ has only allowed 16 points on the season, fewer than 10% of its 121 total forfeitures.

“We need to finish,” DeCongelio said. “From the snap of the ball until the clock hits zero. We need to punish every single down and contain every single play.”

Admitting its occasional complacency, the junior echoed his defense’s conscious effort to kick its crippling habit.

“We can’t let up. We gotta start going and just keep it moving. We cool off as the game goes on and we can’t let that happen.”

For a team on the cusp of conference contention, its next opponent presents a tradeoff in its complex set of strengths and weaknesses.

The good news first: By and large, Brockport isn’t the same team it was a year ago.

The Golden Eagles waved goodbye to the nation’s seventh most-prolific rusher in running back Garet Lynch, who gashed the Lions for 188 yards in last year’s loss, by a margin of a field goal. Graduating with fellow senior and All-East Region performer in offensive lineman Cuyler Groth, the conference’s top offensive threat in scoring and points in 2008 hasn’t mustered up comparable success in its first four games of this season.

While it has managed to linger in the vicinity the 31 points it averaged a year ago, Brockport has accrued as few points as TCNJ has allowed in its season’s worth of first-quarters.

The bad news: They’ve found replacements.

While this edition of the Golden Eagles’ backfield features a committee of ball-carriers in Riedrick Alceus (61 rush ypg; T-7 in NJAC) and Aaron Zurn (60 rush ypg; 8th in NJAC), Brockport (2-2; 1-2 in NJAC) has lived and died on the arm of its gun slinging quarterback Jake Graci. The senior tossed for 387 yards and four touchdowns in the team’s two wins, fueling the conference’s top passing attack (266.25 ypg).

“They haven’t changed much, they just put new people in the same spots,” Lions head coach Eric Hamilton said of the turnover. “Their new quarterback is very productive. I mean you look at him and you go, yeah? That’s the kind of guy that really bothers you because he’s so surprisingly productive.”

A wild card to his opposition, Graci’s also been known to bedazzle his own coaches.

The Golden Eagles’ signal-caller looked a whole lot like the Brett Favre that wore Packer green for 16 years, and Viking purple (and pink) on Monday night. In the team’s first two wins, on the road at William Paterson and at home against Frostburg State, Graci orchestrated methodical game-winning drives in the fourth quarter of each, catapulting Brockport to a 2-0 start.

But in his next two showings, he looked more like the Favre with Gang Green (who’s ball security looked literally infected).

Graci topped his four-interception performance in the Golden Eagles’ marginal loss to Montclair State with a reckless five picks in his team’s dismantlement by Rowan University the following week. During a dreadful 60 minutes of collegiate football, much more resembling a charity event than an NCAA exhibition, three of those were returned for touchdowns (100, 67, 45 yards).

Forcibly writhing his way to the top of the NJAC standings in the least palatable of statistical categories (10 INTs most in NJAC), Graci’s frivolousness with the football resonated well with the Lions’ secondary.

“Hopefully I’ll can take one to the house,” cornerback Scott Mathurin said prior to Wednesday’s practice, hoping to provide company for his season’s lone interception. “That’s what I’m looking at—to the house, baby. Madd picks.”

But if it hopes to perpetuate its recent trend of opportunism, the Lions defense first needs to adequately pressure the quarterback—something Brockport hasn’t allowed.

While Lions have only wrangled opposing passers four times, Graci’s been taken to the turf only three, for a loss of a benign seven yards. TCNJ added a few curveballs to its repertoire during the, which linebacker Joe Spahn hopes can yield instant gratification on game day.

“We put a couple things in—a couple blitzes, a couple fronts for Brockport, specifically,” the team’s leading tackler with 8.75 stops per game said, later alluding to its likelihood of inducing poor decisions. “We’re gonna put the pressure on him and hopefully he makes some mistakes.”

Defensive end Craig Meyer explained that the defensive line should be able to help.

“We’re gonna use our speed,” he said. “We’re gonna be doing a lot of slanting and stunting so we’re not going to have to go one-on-one with their big guys, and hopefully open up some gaps for the LBs to get some pressure.”

In spite of its enabling of the Golden Eagles’ points total to eclipse most highway speed limits. Hamilton detracted his vision away from face value of its reprehensible 2008 outing, duly noting that–unlike in 2009–the defense actually suffered on account of the offense’s miscues.

“We had a 12-point swing right at the end of the half last year,” he said, providing a scrupulous statistical rebuttal of the raw box score figures. “Giving up points on special teams and on offense as well, added to [the final totals].”

In the defense’s, er, defense, it was actually more.

On a rare blocked PAT attempt during kicker Marc Zucconi’s All-NJAC body of work a year ago, junior defensive back Neil Fay sought retribution for its shortcomings on the previous drive. Capitalized on his special teams’ good fortune, Fay pranced an uninhibited 98 yards for a Golden Eagles’ score, leeching off of the Lions’ hard earned points on the opening quarter’s final play.

Hamilton elected to pooch the ensuing kickoff, which junior defensive back Cevon Carver returned for a 77-yard touchdown–not quite according to plan. Hamilton believes that this time around, one of several keys to victory, and its defense’s to assume a long-anticipated identity as a capable entity, the best defense might be a good offense.

“In the first quarter we’ve had the ball on offense, moved the ball and put points on the board,” he said. “That’s what we gotta get back to. We gotta get back to taking the initiative, and hopefully taking the wind out of their sails, jumping on people early.”

Hamilton argued that, like the Brockport game from a year ago, its offense’s struggles likely skewed the measuring rods of last weekend’s outing at Kean.

“For three out of our four games we’ve been able to do that. Friday night moved the ball, even though we were playing against a much better team than we’ve faced all year. We had our opportunities in the second quarter and we just didn’t capitalize on them.”

Excuses, outside perspective and insight aside–for the Lions to reclaim control of its conference destiny, it’s going to take far more than adequate execution of its game plan. It’s going to take relent and valor, a defiant disregard of fatigue and whatever adversity crosses its path.

Come Saturday, it’s gut-check time, baby.

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