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Lions’ Offensive Pregame Preview: Don’t call it a comeback–in his head James never left

October 23, 2009

Success and failure in games might hinge upon the difference of inches, but one’s ability to thrive at the quarterback position is even more delicate–a fragile ecosystem of athleticism, brains and, above all else, attitude.

Rookie phenom Mark Sanchez, the Jets’ golden boy with a right arm about as glistening in Jersey’s overcast October skies, has managed to persist through the same tumult that’s spoiled fresh young talent in years past (Ryan Leaf ring a bell?), only because he’s got what they didn’t.

A spirited resilience.

Now, he’s not posing for GQ Magazine, nor is he the topic of New York talk-radio eight-to-nine days a week, but TCNJ quarterback Chris James isn’t much different. While TCNJ’s conference schedule has offered the four-year starter his fair share of successes–decimating individual and team records in each of the Lions’ first four games, not to mention the bragging rights implicit to the nation’s top scoring threat–it hasn’t shied away from rearing its uglier side.

And when it has, as recently as last week’s let-down on the road against William Paterson, James is the first to admit his dissatisfaction with his performance. But more importantly, he’ll also be the first to let it go.

“Any time you lose a game and the numbers weren’t what you’d wanted them to be, you’re always going to be upset,” he said, alluding to the mere 14-of-34 passes he completed a week ago in Wayne. “If I’d made a couple more passes, maybe scored another touchdown that would have put us closer. But I can’t say that if I had played better we would have won the game, because I don’t know. Last week was hard. But you can’t reverse the past. Just live with it—that’s how I feel.”

Serene with what’s behind him, James accepts the irrevocable reality. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.

“Frankly it sucks. But [the loss] is just a stepping stone to get better for this week. It gives me that much more determination to work harder for the next game.”

Which is precisely what he did following Week Five, when the NJAC calendar thrust the Brick Memorial high school legend into his road debut against the Kean University Cougars.

His first appearance as a gladiator matched against the conference’s top-ranked defensive secondary (led NJAC in opp. pass efficiency) was rough on him (season-high 2 INTS in 28-7 loss), but the senior battled on, responding the next week in the team’s 48-34 slug fest win over The College at Brockport. A discernible reminder of his abilities, James posted his year’s third 300-yard passing performance, complete with three aerial scores–rounding out this season’s triad for that feat as well (300+ yds, 3+ pass TDs vs. FDU-Florham, Morrisville St., Brockport).

Which is also precisely the prediction offered by his coach for this weekend, based on James’ track-record. Saturday marks the Lions’ return to Lions Stadium to face Montclair State University–the culmination of TCNJ’s homecoming spirit week, also the last of his collegiate career.

“A big performance,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said, laughing at his blunt response to the question. “I think he’s that kind of a kid, I think he’s that kind of a player. It’s a big stage, it’s a big game. There’s a lot of rivalry and tradition [against Montclair State], and the last time he came off a loss we came back and had a big win. What else would I expect him to do?”

Now facing a weekly do-or-die carousel for the remainder of the season, the first of four remaining tests for the Lions is no cupcake. Rolling through Buffalo State a week ago en route to its fifth-consecutive win, the Red Hawks remain perched atop the NJAC standings.

But neither distant nor recent history offers a vote of confidence, in spite of James’ unshakable swagger.

During his team’s 15-0 loss at Sprague Field a year ago, the then-junior completed a skimpy 16 of his 35 throws, among those, one hauled in by Red Hawk defensive back Cornell Hunt. On the day, James finished with an anemic 128 yards, but without a touchdown, good (or bad) for a dismal 70.7 passer efficiency.

This year, the Red Hawk defense looks about as stout, ranking 6th in the nation in pass efficiency defense (88.25 opp. passer rating) while reining opposing ball-carriers to a flimsy 54.5 total yards rushing–the fourth-fewest in Division III. Considering the only non-Chris James outings of 2009 have come against top-ranked defensive backfields (Kean, WPU both ranked No. 1 in NJAC in opp. pass efficiency entering games) and coincided with the Lions’ worst ground support efforts (58 vs. Kean; 105 vs. WPU) he’s certainly got his work cut out for him, hoping to rekindle his early season success and reroute his team’s post-season aspirations.

“I thought he played pretty hard [against Kean],” Hamilton said, about as faithful in the nation’s 20th-most efficient passer (13 TDs, 5 INTs; 156.85 rating).

“Statistically the numbers weren’t there, but the other things were. He still was a good leader, he tried to make plays and put us in the right positions. It’s just one of those things where some days you’re on and some days you’re not. And I would have to say that was one of those days he just wasn’t on the ‘A-game.’”

He’s not concerned with his records, neither the ones he already holds, nor those he’s about to grab. He’s even more uninterested in his stats, or any other non-numeric quantification of his performance. Chris James isn’t one to offer a bold prediction, one he’s not sure fate will allow him to fulfill. But he–man, not mouse–spat an indelible promise to fans and naysayers alike, assuring the homecoming crowd that he’d be putting on a show, scheduled for a 2:00pm curtain call.

“Montclair’s a good team, but me and the receivers, we’ve only got four games left in our careers,” he said, without much thought or hesitation.

“You can bet we’re going to leave it all out on the field.”

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