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Lions’ Offensive Pregame Preview: Road trip to Cortland St. begins with game, ends with answers

October 31, 2009

Early in the season, it was the TCNJ defense that was so often responsible for evoking speechlessness among those trying to diagnose its issues. But now, in what seems like a courtroom quid-pro quo, it seems as it’s the Lions’ offense that needs explaining.

Since the team’s most recent win at Brockport, during which the offense posted its second plus-500 yard compilation of the season, the past two weeks have seen the once-immortal juggernaut fall to its knees–and against its opponents.

The unlikely, not untimely, emergence of the Lions’ defense in conference its bouts against William Paterson and Montclair State coincide with two of its attacking-11’s poorest outings to date (294, 302 total yds). This LIFO inventory of recent history first recollects 2009’s least-memorable appearances, worst only to the 292 posted during its duel with Kean University–the first of these three unwanted misfits toward its record.

The statistician might argue in favor of a trend. But, well in the midst of his third-decade with the program (not including his All-American playing days) a scholar of the game would kindly disagree.

“As the competition gets better and you’ve got more games on film, there’s more opportunities for your opponents to dissect your strengths and weaknesses,” TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton said via phone interview.

Quit while you’re ahead–his perspective doesn’t suggest that his group’s been figured out, the trade-secrets of its lucrative enterprise revealed. Even if its offense no longer surprises opponents with its star-studded potency, the group’s predictability isn’t its glaring issue.

“It takes that much more time to be prepared and that much more time to develop depth,” he said, alluding to the long season’s added workload toward his film room, and the team’s list of absentees.

A few short weeks after it celebrated quad-captain Cam Richardson’s return from injury, the Lions offense watched in horror as last week’s loss robbed far more than an outside chance at conference championship contention. Key losses in its backfield–entirely eliminating the nation’s then 38th-most productive running back duo–become thrust to the forefront of pregame discussions.

Both injuries are indisclosed, which offers little insight toward their expected return. Preparing for the worst, the impact of last week’s “nicks” to Justin Donoloski and Chase Misura surpasses the immediate and most quantifiable measure of detriment.

“You can look at statistically what they’ve done,” Hamilton said, likely braced to endure cravings for their combined average, totaling just over 120 yards. “Obviously when you’re replacing a proven commodity with a work-in-progress, the numbers aren’t going to be there.”

Cautious? Maybe. But his observation doesn’t qualify as outright negativity. He’s skeptical, fairly certain of what both are capable, but still unsure of what to expect from the two backs remaining on the depth chart.

Either way–likely a bi-product of his cozy hotel accommodations–he’s not losing sleep over it.

“In the same breath, you can’t worry about what you don’t have. You have to be prepared to deal with what you do have, and take advantage of what they do well. That question,” referring to the pros and cons of either combination, “can’t be answered until Saturday.”

He might not have sufficient data to compare and contrast what he’s lost with what he’s still got, their dynamic as a group still largely unknown. Individually, however, his fill-ins’ limited track records offer enough evidence to bode hope.

Entering the week, Mike Yetka and Kevin Brown remain the lonely two, standing among the fallen. While neither is as battle-tested, both have enjoyed reputable successes during their brief stints in the action.

His sophomore campaign paralleled Donoloski’s surprise success, during which he filled a similar role. A shifter compliment to Misura’s distinguishing hard-nosed bluntness at the line-of-scrimmage, the two rounded out the 2008 Lions’ backfield–and the conference’s rushing leaderboard (finished 10th, 7th in NJAC avg. rush yds/gm).

“Mike’s been around,” Hamilton said. “He’s certainly not a power runner, but if you get him out in space he can make people miss. He does that well.”

More recently, christening the Lions’ list among those honored with the conference’s weekly awards, Yetka showcased those capabilities exactly. Exploiting all 50 of his 3rd quarter touchdown’s yards in space–nearly half of the season’s first plus-100-yard rushing performance–he received NJAC accolades as 2009’s first top offensive performer (finished w/ 14 rush, 102 yds, 2 TD). He scored the first of those two touchdowns from a yard out, but that’s not his specialty.

Earning playing time predominantly as its short-yardage option, freshman phenom Kevin Brown’s excelled in this apparent niche (3 TDs in pst 3 gms—all w/in RZ). While his role expands gradually, his increasing integration corresponding with growth of the field itself, Hamilton wholly believes in his rookie’s ability to grind out tough yardage.

“I’m not sure if anybody on our team runs as hard as Kevin,” he said.

But as he continues to re-acquaint himself with the physicality of the sport and the intricacies of its offenses, Browns’ dedication in the classroom has put a ceiling on his accelerated learning curve.

“His package isn’t anywhere near where Chase’s would be, who’s got obviously got a lot years and games under his belt,” he said, noting years Brown missed after he’d graduated high school (DNP in 2007-08) and practices missed while he’s at class.

Unproven, but promising, any optimism toward his backfield is a welcomed sentiment. Hamilton’s just not sure if it’s the right recipient of all the attention.

“The running backs and the quarterbacks get all the credit. But the bottom line is it’s the guys you don’t really hear about or read about—up front. The key to Saturday’s game is going to be up front, it ain’t about who’s running the ball.”

While the statuses of its two ailing starters in the trenches remains up in the air (Drew Mason, Joe Mecca), there’s no doubt enshrouded around the tenacity of any front-five’s biggest threat in Cortland.

Leading one of the conference’s most collectively dominant defensive-11s, the success Bryan Wiley has enjoyed during this, his final season in New York, has proven contagious toward his team’s accomplishments—his tenacity off the right corner singlehandedly thrusting the Red Dragons’ D into the national spotlight.

Personally accounting for more than a third of the nation’s 23rd most effective pass rush (Wiley-1.14 sacks/gm, TEAM-3.00 sacks/gm), the senior has also propelled one of Division III’s most active units in opposing backfields (Wiley-2.00 TFL/gm, TEAM-8.57 TFL/gm; 16th in NCAA).

For the constant relent with which he’s flown off the edge in 2009, Wiley rounds out the nation’s Top-10 for both statistical categories.

Unfamiliar with success on the road this season, Hamilton’s Lions have fared well in its history in Cortland. The team has won seven of the series’ past-10 games, though it’s dropped three of its last four. Compounded with his perceived quality of play—aside from scoreboard implications—he believes the trip itself might offer a therapeutic purpose.

“We’ve always played Cortland tough up there. We’ve always stood tough there. I’m hoping that getting away, getting the guys off-campus, we can focus on what’s really going on. Maybe this is the kind of trip that can be good for us, help us realize what it’s all about.”

Saturday won’t offer answers to all this season’s questions. While fate and Cortland State have their fair share in store for the Lions—only time will tell whether they’ll foster cordial enlightenment.

Or a rude awakening.

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