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Lions’ Defensive Pregame Preview: TCNJ vs. Cortland to showcase “Battle of the Battered”

October 30, 2009

Immediately following TCNJ’s preemptive post-season-ending fall against Montclair State University, players put any questions of  motivation to rest. Their determination to shake things up for this season’s remainder can work in its favor, but only if its harnessed–focused on appropriate targets.

Surely applicable to its offense, a group generally less susceptible to self-inflicted wounds of excessive excitement, sustaining this control becomes a necessity for the Lion defense. Finally performing on par with its potential, the group needs this level-headedness to compete for the rest of 2009–especially during its pending date with the reigning conference champs.

Entering this weekend’s road-trip to Cortland University, there’s plenty of room for flexibility. Not only does TCNJ bear an unsavory a losing streak from its most recent consecutive contests (Ls vs. WPU, Montclair State), but the team hasn’t emerged victorious in either of its road trips to date (L vs. Kean, WPU). Conversely, and convergently, the Red Dragons’ past two outings share a more positive commonality–both finished with more points on the board in its favor than opponents (Ws vs. West Conn., WPU).

While both teams trek in opposite directions with regard to wrinkles (or ironing of them) in their respective seasons, the match-up won’t showcase an intergalactic collision of these worlds.

The TCNJ defense and Cortland State’s offense have been stricken with a similar ailment–each showing symptoms as early as August. Both institutions might offer H1N1 vaccinations for students, but the notoriously widespread health epidemic (thankfully) isn’t what’s gotten under these groups’ collective skin. But that’s no suggestion that they’re any better off. Modern medicine (and, only according to them, TV infomercials) has offered its fair share of miracle cures, but none exists for their shared sickness.

The injury bug.

Administering a crippling venom with even the smallest of bites, the disease’s effects are frequently irreversible, less a few fortunate exceptions.

It’s too early to tell–eloquently referenced by TCNJ’s defensive coordinator as “just one game”–but the Lions’ latest effort embodied just that kind of start-to-finish heartiness (or just heart). It might have taken longer than he liked, but last week’s effort fulfilled his high expectations–far from surpassing mediocrity.

“We had seen that for stretches in games, but we never put that together for four quarters,” he said a few days after his unit’s boys-to-men maturation on display last weekend, just in time for the congregation of decades of TCNJ alums for the school’s homecoming.

Impressive, indeed. More so, however, under the well-documented circumstances.

A first loss to the group’s linebacker corps prompted Hamilton’s shift from his base 4-3 front–one requiring three separate skill sets from its second-level players–to a 4-2-5–designed to accentuate its strength in the defensive secondary (Chris Jones injured earlier in year). Then, in successive weeks, the team lost two more of those intermediate reinforcements in LBs Joe Spahn (injured pregame vs. Brockport) and Dan DeCongelio (injured 2Q vs William Paterson).

In an unlikely effort that earned the younger of the two weekly conference acclaim, the fallen Lions’ replacements shared the team lead for tackles in its best outing to date (Greg Burns, Jimmy Kleen both recorded 5.5 total tackles; Burns won NJAC Rookie of the Week Award afterward).

This week features an balanced bout of the embattled, in a show-down of on-paper mediocrity.

Cortland’s rushing offense ranks fifth, TCNJ’s rush D qualifies as sixth (avg. 140 rush yds/gm; opp avg. 175 rush yds/gm). The Red Dragons also take a marginal edge in the passing game, slighting the Lions in both yards and efficiency (7th pass off., 6th QB rating; 9th pass def., 7th opp. QB rating). Still an undercard contender, TCNJ’s recent track-record couldn’t clean its slate, dirtied from early-season struggles. On the whole–advantage Cortland State, in a sixth-versus-ninth gross margin (C-St. avg. 308.71 yds/gm; TCNJ opp avg. 419.14 yds/gm).

Walking into their home arena Saturday, Cortland State’s has problems of its own, which started as a product of bad timing.

Entering the year, the group lost all five of last year’s starting linemen for various reasons. In the wake of the undersized unit’s performance a week ago, Hamilton says he likes the match-up.

“Again, it really comes down to the guys in the box and we’re really allowing them to take control,” he said, during the same phone interview. “For the second-level guys to have the game they did and the defensive line up front, they know they’ve struggled up front all year and especially the two tackles inside [Chris Flynn and Terry Woolverton] those guys did an outstanding job.”

Not only is its conference-winning protection gone, but so is the protected–then-senior quarterback Ray Miles. The tandem’s collaborative efforts resulted in the conference’s best passing attack in 2008, both in yards and efficiency (avg. 238.62 ypg, 155.87 QB rating).

Ready in waiting, Cortland invested faith in the practice-proven abilities of Miles’ heir-apparent, Dan Pitcher. The junior won swept opponents in his two-game debut with the team, playing with adequate accuracy and a nose for the end-zone that offset untimely turnovers (2 TDs in each first 2 gms; 3 total INTs). Hampering the elation that followed the latter, one gladly handing a bitter conference rival Rowan its only conference loss, Pitcher suffered a torn Achilles during the intense competition.

He’d be lost for the season.

Any injury to at that integral position can set a team backward. But when compounded with the loss of its anticipated backup–Greg Barcomb, who went down during preseason training camp–coaches could have only felt increasingly antsy. Pouring on the hurt, literally, the program likely lost its third-string quarterback for the season in its Week 6 loss to Montclair State University. Hudson Woodward may have thrown five interceptions to his season’s lone touchdown, also starting in the team’s only two losses of the season (Kean, Montclair St.), but he at least provided a bare-minimum level of stability for the position.

The content of those closed-door meetings between the Cortland State staff remains unknown, but coaches seemed to choose an internal solution to address the issue. Again, literally.

Listed as a coaching assistant in programs for the school’s season-opener, past-turned-present quarterback Alex Smith returned to the Red Dragon program after graduating from the college 2007. He started early in New York, taking hold of the reins in his first collegiate season. His assumed dynasty was sideswiped by unforseen influence, when Smith suffered a season-ending injury in his sixth game as a junior. Battling through his off-season rehabilitation, Smith reinjured the knee again his senior season, ending his career.

Or so he, and just about everyone else, thought.

Now fielding signals from the sidelines, rather than gesturing them in himself, Smith hasn’t dazzled on the stat sheet. But he hasn’t tarnished it either, completing 18 of his 34 passes–good for 225 yards. He’s matched his only interception with a touchdown, both thrown in his first of two starts. To those uninterested in stats, his performance did yield a universally eye-widening figure, a pristine 2-0 record.

Anticlimactic compared to the melodrama at quarterback, the off-season’s impact on the backfield wasn’t limited to its men-behind-center.

The group also lost one of the league’s top rushing threats, waving goodbye to the 113.85 per-game yardage lost with the departure of senior tailback Andrew Giuliano. Sliding into the then-vacancy in the Red Dragon backfield, a fill-in described by sources close to the program as “not very effective,” Cory Russell disappointed early, never accruing more than 50 total yards on the ground (season-high 49 rush yds vs. Rowan). Less flattering, the “accomplishment” took a persevering 19 carries. Looking for a spark in its existing backyard…er…backfield, the Red Dragons shifted their attack toward a power-run I-formation, finding a perfect suitor in last year’s starting fullback, Don Sair.

His two starts coincided with Smith’s emergence, his back-to-back 100-yard performances also synchronous with the team’s revitalized success on the ground, totaling 220 and 138 yards in successive weeks (most since Wk 5 vs. Buff St., 242). The team’s only other eclipse of the century mark dated back in its season-opener, when before its roster’s outsourcing of names to its IR (186 yds vs. Morrisville St.).

Hamilton expects a barrage similar to the inside-power tactics employed by its last two opponents, who enjoyed vast disparity in their success (WPU’s McKinney-42 rush, 224 yds; MSU’s Bliss-29 rush, 32 yds). But he doesn’t anticipate exactness in its outward appearance.

“This week we’re going to see a lot of the same type of runs from different formations,” he said. “They’re going to try and spread us out, especially after watching film from Saturday.”

But that same tape fortifies the group’s apparent linchpin of success–one with which Hamilton expressed comfort, a first-time feeling in this 2009 season.

“They’re not going to want to attack the box, so we’re putting the challenge on the two inside backers. We like the match-up, and if we come to play like we did this past Saturday, we’ll be fine.”

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