Lions’ Post-game analysis: The good, the bad, and the ugly
Saturday’s loss was bad.
That’s probably the only time you’ll ever see me use one of those uselessly vague descriptors, but it’s about as blanketing an adjective to describe what happened. The team didn’t play as well as it should have, dropped a perfectly winnable game on its calendar, lost its second middle-linebacker in as many weeks, and likely its chance at the NJAC crown (could potentially share w/ MSU).
Let’s just get into it.
- Justin Donoloski
It’s really a shame that the conference’s statisticians don’t record yards after first-contact and break-tackles, nor do they use asterisks notating style-points on otherwise bland four-yard runs. If they did, Donoloski’s afternoon would leap from the stat-sheet, as oppose to mildly hint its lone source of enthusiasm from the Lions’ side.
He finished a yard shy of his second 100-yard game this season, proving he could carry the load on a career-high 18 carries–one of them a 15-yard touchdown (prev. 15 vs. Brockport, finished w/59 rush yds, TD; 3 rec., 76 yds, TD). He personally accounted for about a third of the Lions’ offensive production, which, frankly doesn’t properly attest to his contribution, considering how poorly it functioned.
Picking up the slack for an anomalous one-yard effort from Chase Misura, who entered the game averaging 60 yards every outing (was 9th in NJAC; now 10th, avg. 50.3 yds/gm), Donoloski contributed for all but five of his team’s rush yards, despite accounting for fewer than half its carries (TCNJ-37 att., 107 yds).
Because sacks count against a quarterback’s rushing totals, Chris James technically finished in the red, losing four yards on his seven attempts. Less the three sacks, however, he provided a minimal boost to the Lions’ sputtering rushing attack, adding 20 in the right direction on his other four attempts.
Donoloski should be getting more help in the future, as it’s doubtful that Misura won’t be able to rebound for the remainder of the year. But he’ll have to get used to carrying more and more of the load, especially in the wake of Mike Yetka’s abrupt switch to defensive back–which he declined to comment about earlier in the week.
- Mark Gardner and Cam Richardson
Sure, it was a loss, but Saturday was indescribably huge for both receivers–both looking to rebound from early-season obstacles.
Gardner led the team with five catches, good for 88 yards and two touchdowns–both at pivotal times during the slugfest. He opened the scoring in the first quarter, breaking free on a 57-yard reception just under four minutes into the game. That set the tone early to fuel a 14-point lead earned faster than you can say, to-hell-with-your-homecoming. It was lost just as quickly, about the time needed to finish the following statement:
“We had such crappy field position the entire game” –free safety Matt Kreider. And I’ll get to that in a minute.
The Texas-native’s stellar performance amidst a very earthy team finish is an indelible sign that he’s rebounded from the tw0-week hangover following his season’s best outings. Duplicating his game-breaking performance against FDU-Florham (4 rec., 119 yds, TD) when his team bludgeoned Morrisville State the following week (6 rec., 111 yds, TD), Gardner’s busy ending half of September catapulted his standing to second in the conference in receiving yards per game.
In the weeks that followed, he only caught three balls for a combined 48 yards–first on the road at Kean (2 rec. 11 yds), then against Brockport (rec. 37 yds).
It’s good that he’s back, because the team’s going to need to milk as much venom that it can from all its weapons if it’s going to contend for an outside shot at the NJAC Championship.
Coming off an injury, Richardson’s breakout game didn’t come as much of a surprise. He was limited to only a few possessions a week ago, still needing to get acclimated to the speed of the game. With time to adjust, and for his quarterback to re-familiarize himself with his favorite target, the team’s tri-captain hauled in four catches good for 66 yards–one of them a 30-yarder that nudged the Lions into Pioneer territory.
Another botched snap on a crucial fourth-down conversion attempt put an end to that drive with 12:41 remaining, but that was just about how the night went altogether.
It might not seem like an earth-shattering impact, but his quartet of receptions weren’t his only contribution. He also drew two flags from Pioneer defensive backs, who mauled him on account of their inability to stick with him down the field. That tells me a.) the ankle’s fine b.) he’s still got it and c.) the ankle’s fine.
Prediction sure to go wrong? Maybe. But I’d be damned astonished if he didn’t dice the Red Hawks’ secondary on homecoming.
- Red-zone Offense
Saturday also marked the second-consecutive week that the Lions were perfect within those unforgiving final 20 yards (3/3 all TDs).
We knew Kevin Brown could run, but there wasn’t any way to be sure that he’d be consistently used in TCNJ’s goal-line offense. Not only did Lions’ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta play Brown’s card–he did it three times in a row, handing K.B. the rock on first, second, and third downs. He didn’t make mention of his confidence level regarding his newest workhorse among a stable of others, but that persistence said plenty.
And, back to Gardner, his gorgeous back-of-the-end-zone strike to the 6’2 senior proved that James doesn’t need endless green pastures to distribute the football, generally a shortcoming of spread offense quarterbacks. In next week’s “playoff” game against Montclair State, they’re going to need all the moxie in the red zone that they can conjure up (MSU RZ def. 3rd in NJAC; opp. 68.8% scoring; 5 TOD).
- Fix that clutch
Over the course of the afternoon, the Lions certainly had their chances to seize momentum and stop the downward spiral that ultimately accelerated out of their control.
The team finished 4/14 on third-down, converting not a single attempt in the fourth quarter (0/4). Marc Zucconi earned his bus ticket this week, sent out 8 times as TCNJ’s field-position mercenary (avg. 43.6 yds/punt). It didn’t attempt to convert a fourth-down attempt until late, during its last-ditch comeback effort–one that, to his credit, Chris James almost pulled off.
It still wasn’t pretty (2/5, 37 yds) but aside from Richardson’s 30-yard grab on the drive, he drew a flag after he was mauled a few plays later on what would have been an undoubted completion. James and Co. arrived at the WPU 24-yard line, staring a must-have fourth-and-four in the eyes. It’s unclear who blinked, quarterback or center, but the Lions botched another exchange on the crucial down, ultimately ending their night.
It’s hard to fathom that the Lions could ever end up on the slighted side of a field-position struggle, but Kreider’s complaints were certainly supported by the numbers. On the afternoon, the Pioneers’ average starting field position was their own 41–unfavorable, but manageable for an opposing defense. Unbelievably, the Paterson offense set up shop from, on average, the TCNJ 46-yard line in the second quarter.
Between turnovers and poor kick coverage (WPU avg. 12.2 yds/punt ret.), the Lions did not come through on special teams. Matters certainly weren’t helped when a snap on what was supposed to be a routine punt sent Zucconi on his horse 20 yards to chase down runaway pigskin, finally catching up in his end zone. The pair of tallies forfeited snipped a seven-point TCNJ lead to five, only ahead 28-23 with 4:07 remaining in the third quarter.
Not only did its frustrated punter have to trot back out to return possession, but he had to let it rip from his own 20-yard line. Paterson started at its own 46 following the return, ultimately scoring a touchdown on the drive to take the lead–one it wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the night.
- You don’t know what you got…
Until you see exactly how bad it could get.
Zucconi’s been a gem for the Lions–there’s no doubting that. But, even if you tried, I’m pretty sure his three NJAC Special Teams Player of the Week awards would beg to differ. He’s been consistent, fulfilling the bare minimum standard for the position, but he’s exceeded reasonable expectations for the position, to say the least.
William Paterson isn’t as lucky.
Their place-kicker, Ryan Brzycki, did miss a 29-yarder with 4:37 remaining in the second quarter–a chip-shot from the TCNJ 12-yard line. But it certainly had the distance, and, in his defense, was from a tough angle on the left hash-mark. He also made all of his extra points, which aren’t always the gimmies they’re intended to be.
Their punter, however, wasn’t as trustworthy.
(Not naming names) He did average a reputable 29.3 yards per punt (long 37), but his 15-yard dribbler that sailed out of bounds at midfield was a well-received source of comedic relief in the midst of a frustrating day for anyone who was watching–fan or foe. (Unless, of course, you were one of those high-spirited Paterson alums. The team hadn’t pulled off a win in the series since 1993, but you try telling that to the Willie P faithful. Hey, good for them.)
What was funny about the display was how hard he was practicing immediately before he took the field. I’m not going to scoff at anyone’s misfortunes–at least not that much–but watching the football drop like a “lead zeppelin” (actually the same comment that berthed the band’s name–not joking) was a pretty silly sight.