Lions’ Post-game Recap: Lions topple Brockport 48-34, upending expectations
Even after the long week of practice, Lions’ head coach Eric Hamilton said he wasn’t sure what to expect of his players less than 24 hours before Saturday’s noon kickoff.
“I know how I feel, and I know how the coaches feel,” he said Friday of his team’s ability to respond to its 28-7 road loss at Kean University eight days earlier. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”
Of all the foreseeable scenarios entering Satruday’s 48-34 home win over conference-rival Brockport , few could have adhered to whatever notion he—or anyone else—could have anticipated.
Contrary to a quick glance at a box score that reflected its 541 yards of offensive production (81 plays, 228 rush, 313 pass) timely turnovers forced by the Lions’ defense compensated for struggles and miscues on the team’s offensive and specials units—an undoubted role-reversal from earlier in the season.
Yes, it allowed a reprehensible 528 yards of total offense—307 of those to Golden Eagles’ gunslinger Jake Graci, who completed 33 of his 56 passes and threw for a touchdown. It also let him score from 15 yards out on one of his nine rushes, good for 71 yards.
And that’s neglecting to mentioning the 145 surrendered to running back Aaron Zurn on his 30 attempts, who also contributed three receptions worth 17 yards.
But the Lions’ oft-flaky D buckled down when needed, twice from inside the red-zone, robbing possession from the Golden Eagles’ offense and points under the visitors’ scoreboard column.
After it had been gashed for 87 yards on a 20-play touchdown drive that consumed 5:34 of the fourth quarter, a Scotty Mathurin fumble on the ensuing kickoff marched the TCNJ defense back out on the field, with only a seven-point cushion and 36 yards to spare.
Seven plays later, Zurn’s shifty dash from seven yards out dissolved the marginal lead, tying the score at 34 a piece.
Pending a presumed freebie on the extra-point attempt, the Lions’ defense failed to finish–a trend all too familiar to the program this season.
But upon his gallant return from injury that sidelined him most of the year, free safety Ryan Flannery blocked the go-ahead point after and alleviated pressure from his offense. Trotting back out with 5:11 remaining, the TCNJ offense instead looked to break a deadlock, rather than overcome a deficit.
Lions’ quarterback Chris James (22/36, 313 yds, 3 TDs, INT) orchestrated the game’s winning drive— a role filled by his counterpart twice earlier in the year when Graci rallyied his Golden Eagles to victories their first two games.
Four plays later, on a 41-yard screen to impact back Justin Donoloski, the Lions’ offense recaptured the lead, one with which its defense would be entrusted to protect once more.
After strong safety Shawn Brown and free safety Phil Gatti wrangled Brockport return-man Andrew McCormick at his own 40, the oft-flaky Lions’ D had a shot at retribution—for earlier in the game, for earlier in the season.
Graci completed three of his next five throws for 18 yards, methodically driving his offense down the field, much like he had against Frostburg State and William Paterson—two games decided by five or fewer points, both in his favor.
But his next attempt, just inside Lions’ territory at the TCNJ 48-yard line, was intercepted by freshman linebacker Gregory Burns and returned 34 yards to the Brockport 29 yard line.
Seventeen seconds, 29 yards and four missed tackles later, Colin Weber (6 rec., 104 yds., 2 TD; led TCNJ receivers) broke the plane of the end-zone, giving the Lions a 48-34 lead with only 1:55 left on the clock for any of Graci’s habitual late-game heroics.
He tried, driving his Golden Eagles 55 yards in eight plays down to the TCNJ 11. But Flannery, who only participated in two plays a week ago, wasn’t about to allow any of that.
Intervening on his own two-yard line, a pass likely putting Brockport back within a touchdown, “Flea” produced his unit’s fifth takeaway (3 INT, 2 fum)—its second from within its own red-zone.
“We just had that feeling where you know you had to make a big play,” he said of the drive. “All 11 guys on defense, we all looked at each other and we knew that’s what we needed to do.”
Leading 10-7 earlier in the second quarter, the Lions’ defense robbed possession from a Golden Eagles team within striking distance. A 17-yard completion to Brockport receiver Hector Rosas (5 rec., 48 yds) set up a first-and-goal from the TCNJ five-yard line, five plays into a drive that started on its own 33-yard line.
On third-and-goal from the two, defensive end Craig Meyer dislodged the football from Zurn, stuffed inches from the goal-line, that was scooped up by ever-opportunistic Shawn Brown at the TCNJ one-yard line.
Clutch defense manifested later in the quarter, following a lackluster two-minute drill attempt that included three drops (one each by WRs Mark Gardner, Erik Hendrickson, and Weber) and a costly dead-ball foul (unsportsmanlike conduct on Cam Richardson).
Assuming possession with 26 seconds left in the half at its own 45-yard line, Brockport drove to the Lions’ 25 yard-line—just outside red-zone qualification.
Following a Golden Eagles’ timeout that stopped the clock with five seconds remaining, Gatti broke on a threatening strike toward his end-zone, coming up with the second of Graci’s three interceptions.
Craig Meyer spoke proudly of the pressure his unit mustered against Graci, disrupting his dropbacks and rhythm with his receivers.
“We got in there, we got pressure on him and they couldn’t stop the blitz,” he said, noting how the stunts implemented earlier in the week freed linebackers like the team’s leading tackler, Dan DeCongelio (13 total tackes, 7 solo), to ravage the opposing backfield.
Brockport head coach Rocco Salomone was devoid of emotion following the loss, displeased with his quarterback’s lack of ball-security.
“They did get up in Jake’s face a little bit and whether that’s a reason for the picks that he threw I’m not sure,” he said. Admitting that his quarterback was flustered early and often, Salomone wouldn’t speak on Graci’s behalf.
“He’s gonna have to answer that question for you.”
Surprisingly upset following the victory, TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton stood on the field afterward, visibly infuriated by what he called a “not very good” showing.
“Well if we had one positive thing going for us it’s that we forced turnovers,” he said, alluding to the 309 yards surrendered in the second half. “We have a lot of kids that have a knack to get around the ball in the secondary and we’re very good at trying to strip balls. If it wasn’t for that today we’d have been in a whole hell of a lot more trouble than we were.”
They may have posted more yards than Hamilton would have liked, Brockport’s body of work accumulated over a massive 97 offensive plays and was forced into 20 third-down situations (12 conv.; 2/3 on 4th dn).
“Excited” to be back, Flannery offered a contrasting perspective.
“We always say it’s about the points you let up not about the yards,” he said. “Teams can drive 99 yards on us, but it’s not over until they get in the end zone and we won’t give up until they get in the end zone.”
The two reached an agreement on Flannery himself, unequivocally happy to have him back in the lineup.
“I mean [the interception] speaks for itself,” Hamilton said, alluding to the slightest nuances added with his presence in the secondary. “You saw the difference immediately when he came back into practice. He understands the scheme top to bottom, and when you have a player that can do that it’s unbelievable.”
Revisiting his concerns from earlier in the week—one’s prompted by familiarity with his foe and uncertainty among his players—Eric Hamilton spoke contentedly afterward, satisfied by his team’s resilience.
“I’m just happy for our guys,” he said. “I was concerned in practice that I didn’t know where we were. But as the game went on there was a quiet confidence. They stayed together, they played within themselves and they picked each other up. And as a coach that’s pretty great to see.”
Especially since he didn’t see it coming.