Lions’ Post-game recap: Homecoming loss to MSU still statement game for TCNJ
After his former-New Jersey Athletic Conference No. 1 squad lost a tear-jerking 16-13 decision on his seniors’ last homecoming, TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton reiterated the obvious, expected from a football coach at the collegiate level.
There would be absolutely no talk, nor mere mention, of any moral victory.
“Nope. We lost,” he said, minutes after Montclair State University (6-1, 6-0 NJAC) handed the Lions (4-3, 3-3 NJAC) their third-conference loss and an abrupt elimination from conference title contention.
Now in his 33rd year at the program’s helm, Hamilton’s credible diagnosis continued, classifying the contest as a litmus test of Division III’s premier flight, one its elite would have managed to pass.
“That was a game we could have won and if we want to get to that next level we should have won,” he said, citing two red-zone holding penalties incurred during the team’s two failed red zone attempts (finished 2/4 in RZ). “That’s a game that we have to win for the rest of the way if we’re going to at least have a reputable record at the end.”
A realist, Hamilton’s initial frankness wouldn’t be his final word on the afternoon.
During a statement game in every perceptible sense of the term, the drowning roar of its homecoming crowd wasn’t the only noise reverberating from Lions’ Stadium. Contrasting the game’s final score, the resilience with which the team and a number of its individuals hurdled adversity delivered an exhilarating speech—a 60-minute sequence of bold and unequivocal affirmations about its character.
“I don’t know, man,” said running back Kevin Brown, who fought for 32 hard-earned yards on his eight carries, highlighted on a seven-yard touchdown with 10:38 remaining in the final period to put his team within a field goal from overtime (only trailed 16-13). “We’re just tough.”
Primarily utilized as the Lions’ goal-line back entering the contest, the freshman responded when thrust into an every-down role in lieu of successive injuries to the nation’s 38th-best running back tandem (team’s two leading rushers, Justin Donoloski, Chase Misura injured in 1Q, 4Q respectively; combined 18 rush, 67 yds).
In a collaborative spackling, the pastiche backfield mustered up a cheek-slapping 126 yards in the face of the nation’s fourth-stingiest group against the run (MSU opp. avg. 54.5 rush yds/gm).
Accentuated on his 10-yard over-achievement on third-and-goal from the Red Hawks’ 21-yard line, designed only to relinquish inches of penalty yardage forfeited three plays earlier, Brown’s role became integral in quarterback Chris James‘ fourth-quarter comeback attempt—one implicit of the four-year starter’s poise as well.
When Lions’ kicker Marc Zucconi pushed the 28-yard attempt outside the far upright, missing on a tricky angle from the left hash-mark, the drive didn’t culminate with the glorious result for which the former-Louisville transfer had hoped, nor could it overshadow the other two kicks tipped at the line earlier (47, 44 in 1Q, 3Q respectively).
But more brightly, the series epitomized James’ particular determination (finished 20/34 176 yds TD, 2 INTs), unwilling to submit after struggling for seven quarters prior.
“He’s a senior and he wants to win,” Hamilton said, referring to his signal-caller’s persistence in the fourth quarter, during which he completed six of his eight balls for 66 yards. “This is his last go-round so, there’s no way you’re keeping him down, not with his attitude. He’s a winner. Even though we didn’t win, he’s a winner.”
After throwing a pair of first-half interceptions as one eleventh of an overall 30 minutes of lackluster offensive disappointment (33 plays, 149 yards; trailed 13-6 at halftime), James’ ability to segment the task at hand from last week’s loss and his misfires deceivingly short minutes earlier didn’t astound teammates. They’ve learned to expect that, too.
One of five beacons of senior leadership on the group’s receiver corps, Richardson’s description of his quarterback’s personality isn’t far from his own, still tirelessly working to reintegrate into the scheme after suffering an injury in the season-opener.
“If something bad happens it doesn’t faze Chris at all. He maybe gets a little upset, but you can tell when we get back out there he’s over it. He’s really good at that, focusing on the present, not what’s happened.”
Like its end result itself, characterized by Hamilton as a “team loss,” the afternoon’s resounding theme wasn’t exclusive to its attacking side. Entering the week as its gimp (9th NJAC in total defense), the TCNJ defense’s best performance to date served as the pinnacle of a season plagued with misfortune—one during which it, too, refused to quit.
“Everyone was so excited,” strong safety Shawn Brown said after his unit held the conference leaders to 169 yards of total offense on 55 plays—its first sub-200 yard domination since its NJAC title run two years ago (avg. 460.83 total yds/gm in 2009).
“Up front, the guys just worked their butts off this week, and those guys stepping in for [injured linebackers Joe] Spahn and [Dan] DeConelio are doing a hell of a job,” he continued, referring to the team-leading 5.5 tackles recorded by both Greg Burns and Jimmy Kleen in the absence of the two leaders lost in consecutive weeks, likely Saturday’s only surprise among those close to the program.
“I would never expect it to say the least, but they are doing work. I’m loving playing with these guys right now.”
“[Montclair State’s] game plan was to come out and run the ball,” said team quad-captain Ryan Flannery, after his second-worst rush defense limited Red Hawk ball carriers to a mere 32 gains of ground yardage on 29 tries—allowing only 15 entering the game’s final period.
“It was a testament to our D-line being able to stop them, and they did. I don’t want to say moral victory, I hate saying that. But we showed what we can do on defense every game.”
And in his post-game forward to his embattled players, Eric Hamilton wouldn’t mutter anything of the sort either. He would, however, praise the group of maturing young men for validating what he’d known all along.
“I’ll tell you what I told them. It’s tough sometimes when you go through a season, teams do a lot sometimes to disappoint you. But this group today was just phenomenal, he said, his voice tinged with a fatherly approval.
“We made mistakes, but if you look the scenarios that we had to go through, to be in that game by those guys on the field—those kids went out there and took advantage of their opportunities to the best of their ability.”
Emotionally he was torn. Maddened by miscues and squandered opportunities, Hamilton conceded that everything else made him proud beyond his most ambitious expectations.
“When you get an effort like that, that’s all you can ask for.”