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Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: He’s baaack–Flannery fortifies Lions’ secondary prepped to spoil Pioneers’ homecoming

October 16, 2009

Two weeks ago, the last time his TCNJ Lions hit the road, free safety Ryan Flannery‘s evening contribution consisted of two plays. Upon his initial return from an ankle injury that had sidelined one of the team’s tri-captains since August training camp, his coaches’ decision to cap his participation didn’t need explanation–one that wouldn’t be offered anyway.

Putting forth a deceptively stout effort, his defense eventually succumbed to the grind of a Kean University offensive pestle, that fed its tailbacks a healthy 40 carries of 307 powderized yardage–210 and 22 of those on the plate of running back Jared Chunn, the conference’s reigning player of the year.

Eight days later–same story, less, of course, a few minor alterations to details.

Instead of packing its 85 bodies on a Greyhound, the team’s players assumed double-duty as both patron and chauffeur for the next conference date on its schedule–whipping themselves to the cozy steel and concrete skeleton of Lions’ Stadium, poised to rebound against The College at Brockport.

Successful in their rerouting of a briefly derailed NJAC championship trail, the Lions gazed at a 48-34 bulb-illuminated  wink when the final horn sounded–a warmer countenance than the 28-7 sneering offered by the digital scoreboard erected inside Kean University Alumni Stadium, on the night of its christening.

Based on their post-game assessments, coaches would argue otherwise. But, by and large, the abridged synopsis of Flannery’s afternoon could be condensed to two plays.

One–a blocked extra-point, preserving a 34-all tie with 5:11 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Two–an interception from his own two-yard line, licking the envelope of an invoice written to the rest of the NJAC, one stating in no uncertain terms that he, his defense, and his previously dethroned Lions, were back.

“We didn’t make all the plays we wanted to but we made enough to win the game and stay ahead,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said after the game. “The bottom line is to, defensively, make sure you let them score less than your offense scores.”

Entering its undercard bout against the conference’s worst scoring offense, a teaser between the main event scheduled between the TCNJ pass offense and the William Paterson secondary–both atop the NJAC in respective proliferation, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Especially now that “Flea” is back calling the shots.

“I mean [the interception] speaks for itself,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said shortly after a trademark Ryan Flannery afternoon.

Hamilton explained that even the astounding progress achieved by Flannery’s heir-apparent, junior free safety Matt Kreider (43 total tackles; 23 solo; both lead team), there’s just no value to his expansive grasp of the defense’s slightest nuances.

“You saw the difference immediately when he came back into practice. He understands the scheme—top to bottom,” he said, referring to Flannery’s trained eye to spot needed adjustments even on the defensive line.

“When you have a player that can do that having him back there is unbelievable.”

While the Pioneer’s widest margin of defeat is a mere 15 points (Sept. 26; L 28-13 vs. Rowan), that’s a testament to its unforgiving defense keeping games close for as long as conceivably possible–no thanks to its offense. To date, the group’s most active outing was its 20-point afternoon in a win against King’s College, the Middle Atlantic Conference’s seventh-ranked scoring defense (opponents avg. 27.00 ppg).

To their credit, the Pioneers boast a few tenants renting space on the conference’s individual offensive leader boards–sort of.

The team’s featured back, sophomore Marcus McKinney, wedged his way into the NJAC’s third slot for total rushing , averaging a steady 79.2 yards per game. A reputable accomplishment, but one he’s certainly earned.

His number already called 108 times in 2009, McKinney’s received 12 more hand-offs than any other back in the conference, averaging limp 3.67 yards per carry. The only other performer with a flimsier average burst in the category’s top-ten is Montclair State‘s Jeff Bliss (96 att., 305 yds; 3.18 yds/att.), alluded to earlier. In his only snipping of 100-yard tape this season, the 115 he posted on the road at King’s, it took a tedious 35 carries to finally cross the scissors.

McKinney leads a modest Pioneer rushing threat–more like stern warning–that’s manufactured a mere 116 yards in each of its first-five contests (6th in NJAC). While a freak injury in pregame warm-ups a week ago has sidelined the anchor of its linebacker corps and its beacon of defensive leadership in Joe Spahn (35 total tackles; 20 solo; 3rd on team), the Pioneer aerial arsenal–as destructive as a pebble tied to a kite–isn’t exactly going to be keeping the Lions’ secondary honest.

The team’s pedestrian signal-caller, senior quarterback Matt Marshall, certainly hasn’t treated the football with the same irreverence as Jake Graci, Brockport’s wheel-and-dealer that was intercepted three times by Lions’ defenders a week ago, ringing up his past three week’s turnover tab at 12. So no, he’s not particularly reckless. Then again, he’s also not particularly productive for William Paterson, either.

Marshall’s four interceptions on the season rank second-fewest in the conference–tied with Chris James, Tom D’Ambrisi (Kean), and James Williams (West Conn. St.)–to only Kenny Murphy‘s three picks in ’09 (Buffalo State). His five touchdowns, however, rank second-fewest as well–tied with Murphy–not to mention his 113.57 average passer efficiency, also worth mention on the wrong end of the conference spectrum.

For a defense looking to tighten its belt, allowing a wide-bellied 266.80 passing yards per game, step one on its statistical Nutrisystem diet for the second-half of 2009 could come against Marshall, whose 257 yards in an uphill battle against Rowan is the most his right arm has provided this season.

Barring a cataclysmic letdown, the Lions’ defensive unit should build on the foundation laid in its two most-recent performances–arguably its best to date. If it can adequately compliment Division III’s fourth-best scoring offense (45.4 ppg) and play spoiler on the Pioneers’ homecoming–not the brightest of scheduling moves–the TCNJ defense can help prime the arena for the following week, already penciling in some festivities of its own.

Homecoming versus Montclair State, which sits awfully comfy–like it could benefit from stretching its legs–at No. 1 in the NJAC.

Need I say more?

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