Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: TCNJ Homecoming won’t foster season’s 3rd NJAC POTW award, says Meyer
It’s possible that the day-to-day grind as a collegiate athlete has kept him sheltered, or maybe he does it himself. But even when the conference selected William Paterson running back Marcus McKinney NJAC Offensive Player of the Week following his 200-yard performance his TCNJ Lions–this season’s second award winner at his defense’s expense–Craig Meyer said he hadn’t gotten the memo.
“To be honest with you I didn’t know that,” the defensive end said, a tinge of irritation swelling in his tone. Once he’d heard, the senior tri-captain vowed the intel would immediately be put to good use.
“That’s a good thing that you’re telling me now. I’m going to use that to fuel the fire of our defense when I go to practice today.”
Nearly ousted by key losses on its second level, the Lions defensive flames could benefit from any spark Meyer, the media, or anyone else has to offer.
“Well, there always seems to be something every week,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said two days after his unit’s 462 yards of forfeitures during the team’s 48-23 loss. “Unfortunately this week was a little bit of the same as the previous week, losing key guys to injury on game day. You can’t prepare for that.”
When the team’s then-leading tackler, junior linebacker Dan DeCongelio, was knocked out of the game following an undisclosed injury sustained during the game’s opening quarter, the floodgates opened for a deluge of Paterson offensive production.
Beginning the game with a vindictive purpose, the unit only allowed 165 first-half yards and 14 points to Willie P, a stark contrast from the Pioneers’ free rein enjoyed the following 30 minutes–a deliberate exploitation of dwindling depth and player spirits.
“The loss of DeCon on the field, both from a player standpoint and as a morale thing, hurt us a lot,” Meyer said. “We played a great first half of defense. We came out and did exactly what we wanted to do. But [injuries and other factors] take a lot of wind out of a defense’s sail.”
Hamilton explained how the problem exacerbated with every passing minute.
“Where that hurt us was depth-wise as you got in the latter stages of the game,” he said, referring to the limitations imposed on his scheme. “For three quarters we more than held our own. Definitely in the first half was our best half of football, I don’t see any evidence to argue that. But yeah, it definitely hurt.”
Key injuries aren’t ever welcomed by a football program–neither by player nor coach. But the dagger couldn’t have come at a more untimely stage in the season. Not only must the team seize victory in each of its remaining games to contend for the NJAC crown and post-season participation, but DeCongelio’s ailment marks the second TCNJ linebacker lost by the team in as many weeks (Spahn vs. Brockport, out for season).
When asked how he plans to stop Montclair State running back Jeff Bliss, whose performance against the Lions a year ago contradicts his season’s slow start, Hamilton admitted the gravity of the task at hand.
“There’s the million-dollar question. That’s what Paterson did to us in the fourth quarter,” he said, citing the 13 of McKinney’s school-record 42 carries and 93 of his 224 yards recorded on the game’s final drive. “At that point you’re just kind of plugging holes. You’re putting your finger on one spot but four others pop up.”
For the front-seven’s bout penciled in for this Saturday at 2pm, the team’s homecoming bonanza, the battered Lions’ D faces a grudge match, a shot at retribution for last year’s reprehensible 219 yards Bliss tallied on 40 carries in his Red Hawks’ 15-0 win at Sprague Field a year ago.
“Montclair’s definitely beatable, but we’ll see,” Meyer said, relying on determination and persistence to compensate for his team’s lack of depth at linebacker. “We’re asking a lot from the young guys to step up this week.”
A request that, so far, they’ve been able to manage.
Filling in for Joe Spahn following his freak pregame injury suffered during warm-ups, Greg Burns lent a hand on three tackles, not to mention a game-sealing turnover later in the game. Through his eyes, the moxie exhibited during the freshman’s first collegiate appearance sold Meyer, an affirmation only supported by Burns’ 10 total tackle performance the following week.
“After that interception against Brockport, which helped us huge in the end [Burns] showed us how he can step up,” he said, referring to the fourth-quarter pick against the Golden Eagles that halted the same late-game antics that Jake Graci pulled in two successful comebacks earlier in the year.
“Burns knows he’s gotta step up, but he’s a pretty big kid. As a defense we just need to change a lot of things up, try to get some pressure on their QB.”
Should it bolster the same effectiveness as the Lions’ afore-mentioned 48-34 win over Brockport two weeks ag0, the strategy just might be what the doctor ordered. (What? I couldn’t help myself.)
Entering his Week Six meeting with the Lions, Graci had tossed nine interceptions in his previous two starts (4 vs. Montclair St.; 5 vs. Rowan; both losses). Forced into multiple rushed decisions amidst the barrage of blitzers, the gunslinger accounted for three of the team’s five giveaways, successfully (or unsuccessfully) locating Lions in pass coverage for a triad of turnovers.
It’s quarterback situation still in the air, Montclair State’s passers fared about as well in the weeks preceding its scheduled conference clash with the Lions.
Before he was benched in the second quarter of his Red Hawks’ 23-7 edging over a substandard Buffalo State defense (allow avg. 38.33 ppg; 7th in NJAC) Tim Fischer completed 4 passes to Bengals’ defenders–only hitting teammates on 10 of his 24 passes. Two weeks earlier, when his team slid by the Pioneer defense, the sophomore didn’t impress much either, completing a similarly poor 13 of his 33 passes, complete with another four picks.
His replacement, Ryan Boysen, finished the game without a glaring error, but he’s far from battle-tested. In Fischer’s stead, the junior threw seven passes and completed four, tallying a mere 29 yards.
Whoever takes the field Saturday to lead a spoiler’s rally against the Lions on their annual festivities, Hamilton plans to throw any and all fixtures at the man under center–not excluding the kitchen sink. He’s just banking on deception, an admittedly risky endeavor he hopes can make things happen.
“It’s gonna be interesting I’ll tell you that,” he said. “We’re just going to try and be aggressive, do some different things and show them some things we haven’t shown them before. I don’t wanna say smoke in mirrors, that’s not the right phrase. But we’re going to have to try and do some things that leave us weak in some areas but disguise it well enough that they don’t pick up on it.”