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TCNJ kicker MVP of its defense?

October 15, 2009

You could have tried all you liked, but there was just no precision to telling how this Lions’ defense played over the first six weeks of this season.

One could certainly argue that the group has put forth its best efforts this season during its two most recent outings—neither of which looked pretty on the stat sheets. But even with regard to its latest appearance, coaches would beg to differ with that assessment of the afternoon altogether.

“I’ll take a W. Doesn’t mean I’ll be happy about it,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said following the team’s 48-34 slighting of The College at Brockport—during which his unit induced five takeaways.

A slight contradiction in tone from the one used a short week earlier…

“To a man,” he said, paraphrasing his post-game address to his players. “Even though its 28 points, this was on the opposite end of the spectrum. We’ve been around that 30-point mark, but we’ve played down to our opponents. They played well, and you’re going to start to see some results after this.

But the discrepancy between observers shouldn’t come as a surprise. Qualifying its performance has proven an elusive endeavor, to say the least. And in advent the final stretch of its NJAC schedule, posing pivotal obstacles against stellar offenses, it’s impossible to project the viability of the team’s conference title run without first figuring out what to expect from its defense.

Hamilton ensured he offered his opinion.

“If we’re going to compete with Montclair [State University] and Cortland [State University] and Rowan [University], this is not the effort we have to have. It comes down to right here,” he said, gesturing toward the center of his chest.

But while it may function as the linchpin of the unit’s potential down the stretch, heart certainly wasn’t the most significant determinant of its successes and failures in TCNJ’s first five games—anatomically, that is. A closer look back at the opening half of 2009 shows that the defense has lived and died, believe it or not, on the gracious right foot of its kicker.

Data gathered by TCNJ’s Sports Information Desk for each of the team’s first five games was transcribed in a Microsoft Excel document, broken down by each individual drive. The raw figures were thereafter sorted and organized by starting field position—those starting within and outside the 20-yard line—and individual quarter, with the intention of highlighting various performance indicators, and trends that might better make sense of otherwise inconclusive figures.

Information included quantitative data (number of plays, yardage, time of possession) and qualitative data (how opponents acquired possession, drives’ end results) both used to spot tendencies in its apparent strengths and weaknesses evidenced over the course of these first six weeks. Additional statistics were generated, including averages (plays and yards per drive), percentages (touchdowns, turnovers, punts) and ratios (takeaways per touchdown), with the intent to better illustrating what makes it tick, and, more importantly, what makes it sick.

According to the numbers, a resounding correlation exists between opponent starting field position and various performance indicators on a drive-by-drive basis. While it also highlighted other trends, for example varying stinginess between quarters, the analysis suggests that there’s not a single more impactful factor on opponents’ immediate success than the starting point of its opponents’ individual expeditions.

Now, at face value, TCNJ doesn’t exactly resemble the conference’s most stout defensive unit.

Omitting possessions cut short by the end of a half, the Lions’ defense has appeared 61 times in its first five games. To date, the unit ranks dead-last in the NJAC in total defense (463.6 avg. total yds/gm), pass defense (266.8 pass yds/gm), and opponent first-downs (24.4 1st dns/gm).

More positively, only Rowan has forced more turnovers than TCNJ’s consistently opportunistic group (19 and 14, respectively). Still, the unit surrenders an average of 31 points to opposing offenses (6th in NJAC), more than twice the total allowed by the conference leader (Kean, 14.2 ppg).

Disregarding starting point, opponents’ possessions have lasted an average of 6.08 plays and fostered 38.59 yards—each snap good for 6.34 yards. On the whole, 37.7% of drives result in some form of points (23 scores; 22 TDs, FG), 36.0% end by way of a turnover (7 INT, 7 fum., 7 TOD, safety)—the remaining 26.3% concluded with a punt (16).

Take into account starting field position, however, and end result polarizes dramatically.

Drives starting inside the 20 lasted 6.33 plays yielding 32.81 yards—5.18 on each play. When facing fewer than 80 yards, opposing offenses sustained drives worth 40.64 yards over 5.79 plays, averaging 7.01 yards every snap.

Based on opponents' starting field-position, the TCNJ defense becomes much more stingy with regard to yards allowed

Based on opponents' starting field-position, the TCNJ defense becomes much more stingy with regard to yards allowed

Now, the difference of eight yards in any given drive’s overall length might not seem like it’s going to be the making or breaking of a defense’s afternoon. But before you write it off as a minimal change, consider this.

Mindful that two drives were omitted since they ended at the conclusion of a half (thus rendering them irrelevant to this analysis), TCNJ’s defense has faced an average of 12.2 drives in its first five games this season. Suppose, in a special teams utopia, that Zucconi launched every kick through the back of the end zone, or pinned opponents within 20 yards of their goal line via a coffin punt. With its opponents average yards per play shrink-wrapped, now 5.18 as opposed to its season average of 6.1, the difference would thrust it five spots from the NJAC’s worst defensive unit to only its fifth, with regard to per-snap forfeitures. Multiply that from by the 379 plays-from-scrimmage it’s faced this season, and you’re left with 392.64–a moderate leap to eighth in the conference in total allowances.

But keep in mind, there’s certainly an argument to be made that one could expect a consequential multiplier effect that can’t accurately be reflected in theory. Fewer yards per play likely means less attractive distances for opposing offenses on third downs, thus limiting successful  third-down conversions, which means less perpetuation of drives, which means fewer total yards surrendered, and–you guessed it–fewer points allowed.

Not to mention, sending opposing offenses packing in turn trots the TCNJ unit back on the field. It would also save time, allowing the group to squeeze in more offensive snaps of its own–possibly points. Considering the unit currently ranks fourth in the nation in scoring (45.50 avg. ppg), that’s certainly not hurting your chances of walking away with a W.

In theory, these data suggest that Zucconi could singlehandedly shave points from the scoreboard, likely even add a few. And, not that the offense has made a habit of letting up on the gas pedal before they reach the end zone, but it might even be self-servicing and bolster the conference’s top kick scoring average (avg. 7.8 kick pts/gm; 4/5 FGs in 2009).

The data also reflected an impact on Lions’ defensive personality between these varying circumstances, specifically regarding opponent scoring and its own opportunism.

Of the 21 drives meeting that criterion, only 14% ended with a touchdown celebration (3 TDs), compared with the 46% of opponent possessions outside the 20 that result in six points (18 TDs; 39 poss.).

TCNJ linebacker Dan DeCongelio explained the unit’s enhanced caliber of play coincides with game situations that allow for a looser and more relaxed style of play—namely when it’s not backed into a corner.

“I think it’s because we feel more comfortable,” he said. “And I think because we feel more comfortable with 80 yards behind us it’s a different sort of play.”

Additionally, nearly half of drives qualifying ended in some form of turnover (48%; 10 total; 4 downs, 3 fum., 2 INT, safety), versus the mere 31% that started from outside that mark, (12 total; 5 INT, 4 fum. 3 downs). In other words, the defense manufactures 3.33 turnovers for every opponent drive starting inside the 20, as opposed to only 0.67 in response to points surrendered outside it.

According to a comprehensive analysis of their opponents' drive data, the Lions' D becomes significantly more opportunistic when it has more green behind it

According to a comprehensive analysis of their opponents' drive data, the Lions' D becomes significantly more opportunistic when it has more green behind it

“We look to get off the field,” DeCongelio said, noting the unit’s tendency to resort to innovation. “We don’t wanna be out there, taking time off the clock. If we can’t do it forcing a punt then one big thing we look for is turnovers.”

Sure to deflect credit for what he described as a foreseeable expression  talent mixed with hard work, Lions’ kicker Marc Zucconi was pleased to hear of his apparent impact on the unit’s success.

“It’s good to know I’m helping [the defense] out,” he said. “An old coach of mine told me that every ten yards that we push them back toward the end zone, the percentages are so much higher—like you said—that we’ll stop them. I like being a part of that. I mean, that’s why I wear blue,” referring to the practice jersey color specific to defensive players.

Working double-duty as the Lions’ punter, Zucconi has captured conference accolades for its top special teams performer three times this season. To date, the former Louisville Cardinal leads the conference in net punting (37.8 avg. yds/punt), limiting opposing specialists to 1.2 yards per return. Limited to only eight attempts on the season, three of Zucconi’s punts have pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard lines—two of those within five yards of their own end-zone (downed on 20, 2, 1-yd line).

An undoubted beneficiary of Dean Misura’s diligence as the Lions’ gunner, who personally accounted for downing his two successful coffin kicks, Zucconi’s precision ultimately resulted in a third-down interception during the third-quarter of the Morrisville State game.

Just four plays later, wide receiver Colin Weber flipped the ball to the back judge, shortly after hauling in a 14-yard touchdown reception.

Zucconi’s enjoyed similar success as the Lions’ kickoff specialist, ranking second in the NJAC in gross distance (58.3 yds/KO) with an astounding 11 of his 40 attempts sailing into (or out of) the end zone for a touchback.

“I pretty much try to kill the ball,” he said, humored at his unconventional approach to what others consider an art of finesse. “A lot of people just say Oh, I’m trying to get good hang time. I just try to kill the ball, hit line drives, or get the ball up a little bit and drive it as deep as I can in the end zone.”

While he tends to have a profound impact on staging the unit’s subsequent accomplishments, last year’s All-NJAC special teams performer isn’t the only evident factor. Prefaced earlier, each individual quarter incubates a very different beast altogether—some more friendly to the opposition than others.

There’s no question that the group plays its best football in the first quarter.

Of the 155 points surrendered to opponents this season, only 23 were forfeited during the opening 15 minutes of play (14.8%)—about 59% fewer than the 56 given up in the following period, undoubtedly its worst.

First-quarter drives lasted an average of 6.20 plays worth 32.27 yards (5.2 yds/play). Of those, a mere 20% ended in opponent touchdowns (also allowed FG). While the data portrayed the first-quarter as its least opportunistic (only produced 2 turnovers), it forced punts on 53% of drives—more than any other period by far (13%, 14% and 20% by quarter, in chronological order).

Analyzing opponents' drive data highlights variation in quarterly success as well

Analyzing opponents' drive data indicates that the Lions' 2nd qtr. defense might be its worst with regard to performance indicators between quarters

The second quarter wasn’t so fruitful—at least not for the Lions.

Mildly settled in, opponents’ second-quarter drives lasted just under an average of five plays (4.94 avg. plays/drive) and traveled shortly farther than seven extra yards (39.63 avg. yds/drive). Averaging 8.03 yards per snap, opposing offenses reached pay dirt exactly half of the time, though TCNJ’s D forced 0.75 turnovers for every one of its failures—at least of that nature.

While the group has gradually acquired notoriety for an apparent inability to finish, the final stretch of games might be its most productive, at least in terms of takeaways. Opponents sustained drives congruent in length to those during its abysmal second quarters (38.93 yds/drive), though they’ve required 7.14 plays, on average, to do so—progressing only 5.45 yards per play.

These various groups scored on 29% of their fourth-quarter possessions. But, during its most ostensibly opportunistic period, the Lions’ defense earned retribution for each individual scoring drive by forcing two turnovers in retaliation (2.00 TO/drive).

The Lions' defensive unit also experiences varying levels of opportunism as games progress from one quarter to the next

The Lions' defensive unit also experiences varying levels of opportunism as games progress from one quarter to the next

The parity inherent in a turbulent college football season is no stranger in Trenton, making it difficult to explain various individual outings over the course of this 2009 season.

On occasion, for instance during the team’s season-opener against Buffalo State University, the difficulty manifests in a disparity between halves.

The Bengals lingered within 11 entering locker room after it diced the Lions’ D for 231 yards and 24 points—forfeiting 50 and seven of those, respectively, on a blown coverage (and subsequent hole) in the secondary, resulting in a Kenny Murphy-to-Blake Maliza touchdown connection.

Its preparation hindered by Buff State’s decision to withhold preseason game film, the squad’s first-half woes were overshadowed by the ensuing 30 minutes, during which it gave up a benign 147 yards and a meaningless touchdown with 2:12 remaining in a contest that finished 47-31.

On others, it’s unexpectedly victimized by the overwhelming success of its own offense.

The following week, during its 58-28 dismantling of Farleigh Dickinson University-Florham, the Bill Winters show mustered up all but one of the Devils’ four touchdowns—all but one in the second half of the Lions’ record-smashing 708-yard offensive rout against a timid Cover-4 defense.

In Week Four, when offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta’s high-octane threat uprooted a scoring mark gradually fortified by 88 years of history, the defense faced a similar bombardment over the course of a stupefying 84 offensive plays. The defense held down its 50×10 yard stronghold valiantly in the first and final quartesr (allowed 6 combined points). But it didn’t fare as well in between (allowed 28 combined points).

It’s also been burned the few times the NCAA’s fourth-best scoring offense failed to produce.

In its only glimmers of mortality, the TCNJ offense’s inability to finish during invaluable first-quarter chances against Kean University added stress to a defense already under duress from a potent Cougar offense—stacked with talent inclusive of the conference’s reigning offensive player of the year (RB Jared Chunn). Exacerbated when the scoreboard made the group abandon its original game plan, the Lions’ offense didn’t help matters with untimely miscues deep in its own territory.

Of the Cougars’ four touchdown drives in Kean University Alumni Stadium that evening, two combined for 74 yards (started at T30, T44) and resulted in 14 of the team’s 21 points-off-turnovers (INT, fum; scored 2nd qtr TD after TOD). Chunn ran wild, finishing with 210 yards on his 22 carries. But the Lions’ D actually kept the game close, forcing three turnovers and minimizing the deficit—before it finally cracked early in the fourth quarter.

Especially with pivotal conference matchups pending on its schedule, there’s plenty of room for improvement—and there likely needs to be. But if there’s one overachieving beacon of consistency that can afford to coast for the remainder of 2009, it’s Zucconi—he just needs to keep up the good work.

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