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Lions’ Post-game recap: The good, the bad, and the ugly

October 27, 2009

Well, that one hurt.

In the immediate, the closing minutes to the Lions’ 2009 homecoming were emotionally turbulent, to say the least. Starting with what appeared like Chris James’ second fourth-quarter comeback of the year, ended with a baffling missed field goal attempt from a right leg as reliable as the postal service–even in the substandard weather conditions.

Looking just around the corner, well, there’s not a whole lot worth seeing–with regard to the post-season, that is.

Throwing up their blinders, the team hopes to cut out the past and the periphery, remaining focused on salvaging a once-promising 2009 gone awry, largely thanks to factors beyond their control. But for us, those are precisely the details on which we’ll need to focus, in order to better hone in on our expectations.

THE GOOD

  • TCNJ defensive “beef”

No offense, but the Lions’ D-line knows it’s not the biggest group in the country, let alone the conference. If they didn’t, or are in denial, the coaching staff is well aware of this all-too-true reality.

“Up front we don’t have the size other teams have,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said over the phone before the game. “We’re always at a disadvantage size-wise and teams are going to try and pound us inside. We know, physically, we’re limited. We know what we’ve got. Other teams know what we’ve got. We generally know every week, we go into a game with a size disadvantage, nine times out of ten.”

Though he alluded to some of the unit’s other strengths: “We have to use what we have, which is generally a little bit quicker and generally a little bit smarter—at least we try to tell ourselves that,” this unit’s ability to stop the run was a major concern entering the week for a score of reasons.

“It’s quite simple. If it comes down to it in the fourth quarter and we’re behind that’s what’s going to happen. That’s what happened against Kean and against Paterson—late in the game, we were behind. It’s not hard to figure out. Just run the ball, take the clock down, run the ball, run the ball, run the ball–just pound them inside.

“And if that’s how it’s going to be, we’re going to struggle.”

Ironically enough, that’s exactly how it was Saturday. Montclair allotted 29 of its 55 snaps-from-scrimmage in an effort to exploit that “weakness.” After it gained only 32 yards (inches over a one-yard average), it’s safe to say that the strategy backfired–or that TCNJ’s soldiers in the trenches blew it up for them.

When senior quad-captain Craig Meyer is wrangling down shifty wideouts on jailbreak screens, it serves as a testament to just how tirelessly someone(s) was (were) busting his (their) ass(es) all week season long.

  • C-Web

Senior wide receiver Colin Weber has made this segment a few times already this season, and for good reason. So no, I won’t feel like I”m bludgeoning a senselessly bloodied horse by singing his praises again.

He’s stepped as one of Lions’ quarterback Chris James‘ favorite options in the absence of Cam Richardson, quietly lingering among the conference’s top-two most prolific receiving threats (currently 2nd NJAC; 79.71 rec. yds/gm). But, less subtly, he’s also emerged as one of the team’s most outspoken leaders in verse and in action.

He led all Lions’ receivers in both catches and yardage (5 rec., 67 yds)–none more pivotal than his 24-yard grab to start the team’s first scoring drive of the afternoon. The series was a collaborative effort, no doubting that, capped when Chase Misura caught his first touchdown pass of the year, but it undoubtedly set the tone for a scoring possession that was desperately needed at the time.

Safe to say he’s lived up to that appointment as quad-captain prior to the Kean game.

  • Tricky, tricky

Let’s keep this short and sweet.

In two games since the christening of the Lions’ goal-line package (genius by itself), offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta has handed the ball off three straight times to bruiser back Kevin Brown twice, both resulting in touchdowns. An undoubted trend, identified by studying film.

He rolled it out again on third-and-two from the Montclair five-yard line, but went with a play-action pass that left Misura standing by his lonesome in the corner of the end zone.

In case you were wondering, Coach, someone noticed.

  • Mattan Hoffman

In my post-game recap, there was a lot of talk of resilience and players battling various obstacles in order to set themselves up to potentially upset the No. 1 team in the conference. Hoffman is no exception.

Considering the nature of his injuries, it’s not something that I’m going to detail specifically. But know that there was a time that the junior looked at his playing career through much more finite lenses than the rest of his teammates. For players faced with the end of their athletic careers, that tends be a traumatic experience–one difficult to rebound from.

Doesn’t seem to be the case here.

All season long, he’s been one of the guys whose effort has consistently surpassed the minimum, gradually climbing his way up a depth chart ridden with experienced senior talent (not to mention working through that strained hammy suffered during training camp). Refusing to be complacent with the P. T. he rightfully earned, Hoffman has made as impactful a contribution as has been permitted, evidenced first by a full-extension sideline grab against Kean University–a baller play on one of the few times he was targeted, kind of like what he did Saturday.

This week, his 21-yard reception just plays before a potentially-equalizing field goal attempt, was certainly extraordinary at face value. But a look at the bigger picture is more astonishing.

Entering the fourth-quarter, after three periods of generally ineffective offensive execution, Hoffman had recorded two grabs for 11 yards. As a statistical performance for someone not considered a primary target of the offense, on, again, one of its off-days, it’s not bad at all. But as a foundation upon which one would have settled in and established a rhythm–kind of like the one you’d needed to make a big play at that point in the game–not even close.

Now, he doesn’t happen to have particularly good hands, which probably accounts for the majority of his drops, but Dolphins’ WR Ted Ginn, Jr. highlights the expectation for receivers whose number is called for the first time far too late in games. Targeted late during two of the Fins’ last drives in this weekend’s upset-turned-upset (as in sad), the former-Buckeye let two Chad Henne throws ricochet off his hands like Brandon Marshall’s batted balls during training camp.

It was equally as repulsive, but at least the Broncos’ WR did it on purpose.

You hear people say things like, “those are the easiest ones to catch” referring to when you’re as wide-open as Hoffman was on that 18-yard comeback, in and of itself an epitome of his work ethic. But it’s also sometimes hard for a guy who hasn’t touched the pigskin in organized competition in literally hours to maintain his focus on those types of plays.

Now, his teammates allegedly busted his chops after the game, saying he should have scored on the play. And who knows–the WTSR guys (myself included) were going nuts, unable to accurately gauge if he could have maintained his balance down the sideline. Had he been able to, it would have been analogous to overtime hours on Christmas Eve. When he flipping the ball to the referee, it may have well been his time card, punching out after doing his job, and doing it well.

THE BAD

  • Rain, rain, go the hell away

Now, I certainly wasn’t going to allow any purple prose to sneak its way into my game recap, but the weather seemed as if it may have been a slight factor in TCNJ’s offensive strategy.

Again, this is an observation, not a reflection based on opinions from anyone within the program.

Running game aside, especially considering weather is a non-factor in any ground-and-pound game, let alone one that worked pretty well (in spite of the circumstances), the Lions’ offense looked dampened by its inability to stretch the field–something of which players and coaches share fondness.

Most of the team’s passes are of intermediate distances–curls, slants, quick-hitter stuff like that. But, like his dedication to feeding his backs some pigskin, the concept behind Acosta’s strategy (it seems, considering you’re not getting that type of intel out of him) is to condition the second and third-level players to gradually creep toward the line-of-scrimmage.

Call him Ivan Pavlov, and defenses a pack of ravenous dogs, but ringing that dinner bell early in games allows his game-breakers (Gardner, Weber) to get behind the defense has worked a number of times in games already (a la Webers’ 41 yard touchdown vs. Brockport). It almost worked again, Chris James threading the needle in that soft spot in a Cover 2 zone down the sideline late in the game. But it seemed like a reliable (and fruitful) part of his repertoire was forfeited once the rain started falling.

Even if it wasn’t….

  • EXECUTION, anyone?

The deep ball aside, nothing changed with regard to Acosta’s play-calling. Nor should it, considering the team still ranks in the nation’s Top-25 in scoring and yardage (16th, 24th, respectively). But when he signaled in plays to exploit the Red Hawk defense–his usual array of jailbreak, slip and swing screens, not to mention a number of his outside zone rushes and…(I could go on and on)–the Lions’ couldn’t take advantage.

And players knew it.

“I feel like the effort was there, the plays were there, but we just couldn’t execute,” quad-captain Cam Richardson said after the game. Himself a staple in the offense for three of his four years in Trenton, the senior knew what was missing, and how much it hurt.

“Some plays we did, we obviously had a couple big plays, but we didn’t develop any consistency or rhythm and that’s very important for our offense.”

Offensive linemen couldn’t quite get to the flanks on screens, and running backs didn’t look comfortable behind them. Screens are an integral facet of the scheme, so losing that would be about as detrimental as Amy Winehouse without renal function.

Yeah, I know.

Each group has struggled on its own, but never before have James and his receivers looked like they were so far out of tune with one another. One of his picks resulted from a receiver (to be remained nameless)  not coming back for the football on a hitch, failing to get necessary separation from a corner who made a textbook play on the ball. The other looked like he wanted to break downfield off a post-route, or have the ball thrown behind him to keep the safety unable to make a play.

The offense is talented, and they’re certainly put in the best spots to succeed, but they just need to perform like they have been early in the year. You can say all you want about the “talent disparity” between various teams in the NJAC, but when this group is on its game, no one has been able to touch it. Not Kean, not Montclair, and certainly not Willie P (no disrespect to the Pioneers, who are much more talented than their record suggests). For the rest of the year, consider execution the linchpin of this unit’s ability to put up a ton of points against worthy adversaries.

THE UGLY

  • Of which, the “Big Uglies” were guilty

“When the opportunities presented themselves we didn’t take advantage of it,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said after the loss “We left some points out there. You go through all three of our losses and we’re a team that can’t squander opportunities on either side of the ball.”

Well put, Coach.

Early in the year, when the offense proved ineffective within striking distance, the TCNJ red-zone offense was a stark concern of the coaching staff and their players. Offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta even reached out to other coaches that use the spread, to pick their brains on what types of strategies can be employed within those all-important, final 20 yards. He mixed up personnel packages and formations, even found expansive ways to include weapons that had otherwise been relinquished to backup duties.

And guess what? It worked.

Following the team’s reprehensible 1-of-4 showing in the red-zone against Kean University, TCNJ responded defiantly, capitalizing on each of the next seven consecutive attempts prior to Saturday. It even succeeded on two of the game’s four chances, both pivotal touchdowns in a slug fest of a defensive battle (not sure I”ve said that all year). The two it didn’t weren’t a product of the game plan’s shelf-life, nor was it any credit to Montclair State–sorry Red Hawk fans, if you disagree you weren’t at the game. And or if you missed the two plays in question, that singlehandedly blew the Lions’ chances of toppling one of the NJAC’s top dogs, I’ll fill in those blanks.

The Lions were flagged for two holding penalties in the red-zone–both on first-and-goal. Considering one of them was a mere three plays before Marc Zucconi’s hopeful let’s-settle-this-in-OT attempt (one that failed) there’s no arguing the impact imposed on the game’s outcome. One immediately followed an untimely exit from left tackle Drew Mason, one of the most talented bodies on the team–maybe the conference. But the other.

COME ON, MAN.

Ask anyone:  first-down holding penalty can kill a drive, even one orchestrated by the most potent of offensive weapons. Now think about it’s detriment so tantalizingly close to pay dirt, in the rain, working against a spread offense, one rendered ineffective until–literally–just moments before.

Ouch…

 

 

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