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Matty’s Monday Morning Mailbag: How TCNJ can still grasp NJAC glory, make the post-season, and why there’s nothing wrong w/ CJ

October 19, 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.

I fielded a lot of concerns this week regarding the Lions’ playoff hopes and criticism of their quarterback. And here’s what I’ve got to say about each.

  • Matty, we knew that the NJAC picture was a mess last week. What, if anything, can TCNJ do to get a piece of the title this year?

I spoke to NJAC Commissioner Terry Small on the phone earlier today, and we had a 17-minute conversation regarding that question precisely. The conference playoff picture isn’t exactly what you’d call HD at this point in time.

To date, TCNJ is ranked fifth in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, boasting a mediocre 3-2 conference record. Fortunately for the program, the deficit between it and the two top dogs is a mere two games (Montclair State University and Kean; both 5-0). So I know I said last week that the team needed to win out–technically an errant statement.

My bad.

The team needs to win against Montclair State this weekend, first and foremost. That gives the Red Hawks their first loss of the season, one half of what the Lions need should they handle their business for the remainder of 2009.

The team travels to upstate New York the following week, looking to knead salt in the wounded Red Dragons (lost several quarterbacks, starting running back for season). Cortland State (4-2 overall, NJAC) currently sits fourth in the conference standings, and a loss would without question remove their name from even the most outside chances to contend for the NJAC championship.

TCNJ returns home the following week, welcoming a crippled Western Connecticut State (0-6 overall, 0-5 NJAC) program to Lions’ Stadium. Last week’s loss to William Paterson about rules out any forgoing any conclusions regarding premature ticks in the win column, but you’d like to think the team can manage against the conference’s last-place competitor.

Then there’s Rowan-week, an unofficial summons for players to take a one-week hiatus from class. A win would give the Profs (5-1 overall, 4-1 NJAC) their second conference loss this year, likely sliding them out of the NJAC’s No. 3 slot.

Now, before it dropped the ball–literally, figuratively–in Wayne this weekend, TCNJ controlled its own destiny. Unfortunately for the program, even if it can manipulate its own fate and the rest of its schedule, it can’t thrust itself back into the driver’s seat for the ‘ship. It can still win an outright conference title, though they’d need some serious upsets to mar the NJAC leaders. If it’s going to win a share, they still be banking on a few must-have helping hands.

Actually, three of them. Four if you count not looking past Western Connecticut.

So here’s where fingers start crossing.

Should Rowan manage to topple both Kean and Montclair State, the Profs would be cordially handing each program its first and second respective conference loss. Montclair State would still need to get the best of Kean, which isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility–Kean now has two losses.

So now, in an extrapolation Commissioner Small described as “getting way ahead of [my]self,” there would conceivably be a four-way tie for the conference title. Which would end in a four way tie.

“If at the end of the season there was a three-way tie,” Commissioner Small said via telephone interview. “We’d have tri-champions. If there were four teams we’d have quad-champions or however you’d like to call it.”

Breath of fresh air for the Lions for the here and now. But, unfortunately, that’s only the easy part…

  • Matty, what does TCNJ need to do to make the post-season?

All of that, and then some. It’s frankly too much to put into a 4M post, so check in later in the week for the answer to that question.

  • What’s the deal with Chris James? This makes two substandard performances against top defenses from the Lions’ QB. How can we still think he’s good compared to the rest of the passers at this level?

Well, it really shouldn’t be too hard, especially if you take a look at the circumstances.

In each of the two games in question, both losses, both on the road, and both against the conference’s top pass efficiency defense, Chris James really didn’t play all that well–for Chris James.

Against Kean, he completed 58.5% of his passes (24/41), which wasn’t too bad, but the two picks certainly weren’t going to help stabilize the team against its toughest opponent to date. His 5.7 yards per attempt was mediocre, also by his standards. Keep in mind, he entered the game averaging a silly 226.6 pass efficiency rating (2nd in NCAA), which is a pretty high standard to consistently match. He could have done better, but he didn’t skimp on setting the bar high for himself in his first three games.

Last week was the first time anyone’s seen that kind of inaccuracy from the Lions’ #4 since his sophomore year two years ago, when he only completed 48% of his passes during the 2007 season. He finished 14/34 on Saturday, good for only 189 yards. Two touchdowns? Good. Interception and fumble on fourth-and-two? Not so much. But can you really blame him for those miscues entirely?

He has to get at least half of a pass for the fumble in the fourth quarter, considering it wasn’t ostensibly anyone’s fault. He needs to make sure that he’s still taking snaps from under center on the in pregame and on the sidelines between drives, but there’s a reason why Colt Brennan caught flak for “questions about his ability to effectively run a pro-style offense” (ESPN Insider Scouting Report 2008). When quarterbacks aren’t used to taking snaps from under center, that’s a risk taken. The team’s jumbo package seems as if it’s here to stay, giving everyone involved–quarterback and center–ample repetition in under-center snaps during practice. You can’t expect those same types of errors in the future–less and less with each passing week.

Now, there’s a distinct difference between coincidence and causation. Just because there happen to be similarities between his two worst performances to date, doesn’t necessarily pave the way for rash leaps toward unfounded conclusions. You want a cause for James’ struggles, aside from an athlete just having a rough afternoon? I’ll give you one.

Aside from Kean and Willie P’s stints as the conference’s top pass defenses, there’s another similarity exclusive to those two performances–no running game.

Against the Cougars, TCNJ ball-carriers only managed to gain 108 yards, omitting the team rushing yards lost on fumble from Kean one-yard line. It’s not to say coordinators didn’t try, as long as they could anyway, signaling in 32 rushing plays over the course of the game. Between the team’s then-No. 12 rushing attack in Division III, Donoloski, Misura and Yetka combined for 100 yards, a slight disparity from the to the 271.3 it averaged entering the contest.

Last week, Donoloski carried the load as best he could, but was still only able to muster 99 yards on his 18 carries. Of those, only seven carries came in the second half, versus James’ 20 drop-backs. The line didn’t handle the blitz particularly well, but it also wasn’t dominated by any means. It was a victim of the situation, however, without any equivocation.

The advantage enjoyed by a defensive end well in tune with the unlikelihood that his opponent is running the football on the upcoming play isn’t quantifiable. Being able to safely take that exaggeratedly wide pass rush around an offensive tackle is disruptive, if not dangerous. The senior was wrangled to the turf behind the line three times by Pioneer pass-rushers, not to mention the multitude of times he was hurried, hit or otherwise badgered.

There’s still plenty of blame to be served on his plate–especially at this stage in his career. But to suggest that he’s not capable is absurd.

I’m elaborating off of my prediction sure to go wrong. I said yesterday that Richardson was going to rack up more than 100 receiving yards this weekend, but I’m going to expand the field. There’s going to be a game-breaking receiving performance this weekend (impossible without stellar quarterback play, so you can throw that in there too). Donoloski is going to have a run-of-the-mill first half before he takes control of the second, probably gashing the Red Hawks on either a lengthy run or screen reception. I mean, he’s done it about 10 times this year already–though the question is regarding James’ performances, so I’ll try not to digress.

Should you like, you could also question offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta’s play-calling. How any of that propaganda would read at this stage in the game isn’t really a concern of mine, considering there’s not a chance I’d be subscribing, given his track record.

There were significantly fewer running plays in the second half than in the first (23 vs. 14). But if you were in attendance, there were few circumstances that even slightly grumbled “why would you call that play?” if there were any at all. And, even under those cases, there may have been other options available–not necessarily better, just different. Several called pass plays were high-percentage throws that were disrupted by pressure, or poorly executed–a few defensive reads on screens were just good efforts by the opposition. I mean, they were ranked first in the conference in pass efficiency defense for a reason.

If you want to throw criticism at anyone, blame everyone. The team didn’t execute in either contest, and it cost them. A missed throw here, a dropped pass there (even Richardson let one slip out of his hands), or a whiffed block (or two, or three) can reroute any offensive party wagon. And that’s exactly what happened Saturday.


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

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