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Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag: Why Week 5 road loss is history, Lions dig deep in RZ, and a messy NJAC leaderboard

October 12, 2009

Every Monday, I’ll take a minute to respond to you — Lions’ Nation — answering questions and offering my predictions and insight surrounding the team’s 2009 campaign. Here’s this week’s installment of Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag.

Yesterday’s win was a big game for the Lions–bigger for its defense. The team can refocus its attention on making a run at the conference title through a pair of lenses that would have been shattered had the team dropped Saturday’s NJAC meeting with Brockport. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There’s still a whole lotta football left. Not as many questions–but we’ll work with what we’ve got.

  • Matty, the Lions lost the last game it had to play on the road. How should this game be different? Especially since the offense looked so out of sync when it left Lions Stadium.

Very valid point.

I’ve already talked about the advantages of playing in front of your home crowd–and how the Lions don’t necessarily enjoy that luxury. But you’re absolutely right, it’s going to be a concern during the week, one the coaching staff wasted no time addressing. At least to me.

Here’s what TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton had to say about that–and he wasn’t even asked.

“You can’t get ahead of yourself—[the win against Brockport] is only one game. Now we’re 4-1, and 3-1 in the NJAC. The motivation is to go on the road, where we lost the last time, and win a game against a team that would love nothing more than to beat us on their homecoming. That’s motivation in and of itself. The rest of the season means nothing if we don’t care of business next week.”

If he’s talking like that just moments removed from his team’s seizure of an emotional victory, I can only imagine what he’s going to be preaching all week long. Meetings, film sessions, warm-ups, cool-downs–the works. By his own definition, he’s “privy” to the various obstacles inherent to a college football season.

And not to bash any particular group of guys, but have you looked at William Paterson on paper? Their defense is pretty aggressive, living up to the Lewis and Clark connotation of its mascot. But if you’ve taken a quick peek at its offense, Willie P looks a lot like the kid tied to his mom’s apron–not some trail-blazing adventurer.

They won’t be a push-over. No one in the conference is. But with Kean sitting comfortably atop the conference standings and earned 15 votes for‘s Top-25 this past week, let’s not blame the loss on the road trip–blame it on the team’s negligence to pack its red-zone offense.

Which brings me to my next point.

  • Matty, the Lions went a perfect 4-4 in the red zone this week. How’d they go about the quick turnaround?

The short answer would be freshman running back Kevin Brown, whose praises I’ve been singing for quite a while now. Kid’s a beast, and it was made apparent on his fourth-and-goal touchdown from the one, forcing him to churn up a defiant second-effort to break the plane.

But, like any TEAM success, its roots reach far deeper.

The Lions red-zone offense in Union was atrocious two weeks ago. The offensive line lacked size against Kean’s big boys, like NFL prospect nose-tackle Darryl Jackson (6’2, 320 lbs). But that hadn’t posed an issue before. The unit consistently hosted free zone-blocking clinics for any aspiring hog-mallies in the stands that could benefit from such fundamentally sound football in the trenches.

College is a very different game than the pros–that word in and of itself posing the biggest difference.

In the NFL, a fraternity of grown-ass men earning grown-ass man paychecks, players have mastered the ability to compartmentalize. “Having a bad day” off the field is fine, and a frequent occurance. It happens to everyone. They’re paid to catch footballs–regardless whether they smile doing it.

But, should it dare translate into a lackluster performance between those unforgiving white lines, players might return to the locker room to find a pink slip, antagonizingly waiting to be found wedged in a crack by a janitor running an errand.

That’s unless, of course, your boss is Al Davis. Miss on 66% of your passes and you might even get a raise–and a sparkly new toy at wideout that’s equally as unproductive.

In the college game, athletes aren’t paid-professionals, expected to conduct themselves with their employers’ interests trumping any and all life affairs. If the starting quarterback’s girlfriend pitches a fit and dumps him hours before kickoff, his strained emotions can impact the game’s outcome, shaving points like an NBA referee. (To my knowledge, Chris James is not romantically involved, a status that hadn’t changed two Friday mornings ago. Before you get excited, that wasn’t subtle innuendo. At all.)

I’m not saying that the team choked, but something ranging far beyond its talent accounted for its anemic performances within 20-yards of the goal-line. Call it a funk–call it arrogance–call it whatever you want. That team is just as different as the 2008 Gators, entering its game against Ole Miss.

Lackluster short-yardage game? Check.

Really pissed off quarterback? Check.

Definitive vow of improvement immediately thereafter from said-pissed off quarterback, who turned around a week later to win his next game, rebounding both in the stat sheet and in team morale? Check.

The collective they (coaches, players, equipment managers maybe) have made various changes (personnel packages, situational strategy, forcing Zucconi to actually earn his varsity letter) to grow as a program since that dismal outing . They’ll be alright, don’t worry.

And in case you are, you should dial up Lions’ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta‘s office and ask him where he got that goal-line package he used (not going to go into detail, for reasons I’m sure you can deduce).

Tricky, tricky.

  • Matty, what’s it going to take for the Lions to get back to the top of the conference?

Simple question. But unfortunately–for me and the team–the answer’s not so simple.

At week’s end, the Lions (4-1 overall; 3-1 NJAC) currently share the third-place slot with the Profs (4-1 overall; 3-1 NJAC) down in Glassboro. For readability, I suppose we’ll start there.

First things first. Barring a catastrophic natural disaster that destroys every NJAC stadium, or an unexpected dissolution of Kean’s football program, the Lions need to win-out the rest of their schedule. There’s certainly an outside chance that one of the two teams ranked first, to date, could be upset late in the season. But why let your season ride on someone else’s ability to handle of your business?

Thought so.

Earlier in the year, Rowan laid an egg at home during its Week Three loss to the reigning (and ailing) conference champs (L 14-24 vs. SUNY-Cortland). Assuming that we’re holding the Lions responsible for W’s in each of their schedule’s remaining dates with destiny, the last week of the season should bolster the team’s standing, should it in fact steal a win from Rowan at their house. The Profs would have two tarnishes on their conference record, giving TCNJ the edge in any prospective head-to-head tiebreaker if it loses sometime down the stretch.

Some alumni might have my head for saying this, but–less that one November Saturday–Lions’ fans had better be sporting Rowan brown and yellow for the remainder of the season.

After TCNJ’s road trip to face Willie P, the team returns to Trenton for its homecoming against Montclair State University, currently tied with the Cougars for the NJAC lead. Assuming MSU can win in Wayne–which, frankly, I’d be shocked and appalled if they didn’t–the game would represent a shot to dethrone the Red Hawks, from No. 1 to No. 3, the Lions’ gladly sliding into the vacant No. 2 spot.

Montclair State (4-1 overall; 4-0 NJAC) has lost once this season, but it was in a non-conference flop against Wilkes, which doesn’t hold parity in an NJAC tiebreaker. They should win next week against Buffalo State, as well. The team’s significantly more talented than its record, but I would be shocked if Jerry Boyes’ boys (homophone, intended) pulled out an upset.

Assuming the Red Hawks take care of business, each program would boast a 5-1 NJAC record following a Lions win in two weeks–the head-to-head tiebreaker in TCNJ’s favor. The only remaining factor is Kean and its head-to-head victory in Week 5 to solidify its already undefeated conference record.

Should the Lions pop bubbly at season’s end, they’ll do it as outright champions. If they were to lose to Montclair State, it would represent the team’s second conference loss, a dagger knocking them all but out of contention for the title altogether–so no, there won’t be any sharing this time around (TCNJ split 2007 NJAC title w/ SUNY-Cortland).

This is where Rowan becomes a Lions’ fan’s saving grace.

At least it can be.

After it hosts Buffalo State in two weeks, Rowan will travel up north to Union on Halloween to play Kean–an irrevocably important date on the Lions‘ schedule. The Profs survived a close finish in last year’s 30-22 win over the Cougars, with much of the same rosters as this year’s updated versions. Kean QB Tom D’Ambrisi does have another year under his belt (and should improve weekly) and Chunn has turned it on as of late (thanks to the Lions), but it’s certainly a feasible win for Rowan–one the Lions desperately need.

Should Rowan beat Kean, and TCNJ beat Rowan and Montclair State, the stage would be set for another indirectly profound showdown–appropriately to be played on the final game of the season.

Kean at Montclair State.

Montclair State’s going to be looking to avenge its 17-21 road loss at Kean University Alumni stadium a year ago, and what better way to lay the wood than play spoiler with the Cougars beckoning on the front porch of a conference title?

…time for a nap.

That’s it for this week’s edition of 4M

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