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Don’t blame it on the D: Numbers suggest vast improvement in TCNJ defense

November 12, 2009

I know, I know.

You must be thinking, Not again. Not another pass for this pillaged TCNJ defense.

But here’s the thing.

See, if I were handing out a “pass,” there’d be some insinuation that of naively looking the other way without any real reason or warranting, an unearned statement of vindication. The team has come up short where it matters the most since mid-October, but during that span—as irony would have it—the Lions defense has played remarkably stout football.

Taking a look through the scope at the entire season, the group has let opposition do pretty much whatever it’s wanted, the team’s challengers averaging 400.33 yards of total offense in nine appearances so far.

Now, it’s not the worst collective beating a New Jersey Athletic Conference competitor has taken. But at a humble No. 8 out of 10, the Lions defensive 11 are awfully close—way too much so for any defensible exoneration.

But that’s the beauty of numbers—they don’t have a questionable agenda. Or any other preconceived bias.

They just is what they is.

Oh, and while you’re reading, keep the following stat in mind: TCNJ’s first six opponents’ combined average win percentage is 36.85%.

And it’s past three, which include two years of conference leaders—Montclair State University (8-1 overall, 7-1 NJAC) the current co-No.1, and last year’s outright trophy winner, SUNY-Cortland (7-2 overall, 6-2 NJAC)?

Try 63%. And that’s after the two big dogs’ combined 83% win average was watered down by Western Connecticut State’s 22%. Good football against good football teams? Yeah, that sounds about right.

In its last three appearances the unit has held opponents to, on average, 302 yards of total offense, a stark contrast from the 480.67 allowed in its first six. If recent history somehow replaced its now-distant cousin, the Lions would sit at No. 6 in that category, ranked one higher than Buffalo State (opp.avg. 357.67 yds/gm) and one lower than co-NJAC leader Montclair State University (opp. avg. 276.56 yds/gm).

Cutting about an entire field-length during the span, the TCNJ defense has buckled down in the clutch, slicing a hefty chunk off its 3rd down percentage as well. Allowing an extra ten yards 44.17% of the time, opponents have only successfully converted 13.65%.

In comparison, the current NJAC leader, Rowan University, only allows 21.5%.

Leaps and bounds. And the improvement shows in both facets of its opposition’s attacks.

After being walked on for 218.67 yards in its first six appearances, the Lions D has only given up 136 in these past three outings, none more impressive than the 47 yards allowed to Montclair State, picked up over a heavy 29 carries.

For a group that averaged 1.5 opposing running backs with more than 50 yards each game earlier in the year, the TCNJ’s defense has only permitted two such totals since—both in its blowout loss to SUNY-Cortland, during which the Red Dragons bled the clock for a majority of the second half. While opposing ball-carriers earned a daggering 5.67 yards per touch, Montclair State, SUNY-Cortland and Western Connecticut State skills players only averaged only 3.53 yards per carry.

Had that been the case all year, the group wouldn’t be ranked any higher in the conference, though it should be noted that the five teams ahead at this late juncture in the season are all among the nation’s top 75 best units against the run (235 total D3 programs). There’s a distinct rift at the midway point among the conference’s competitors, and it seems to be at about that spot.

If you take a look at the overall scoring, generally a pretty telling statistic, the gap between the NJAC’s No. 6 scoring defense and its two No. 4s is expansive. While SUNY-Cortland and William Paterson’s identical 16.56 opponent points per game round out its top half, the drop off thereafter nearly doubles, TCNJ’s 31.22 opponent points per game followed by Buffalo State’s 38.56. The numbers gradually increase until they hit 43.40 (Morrisville State over 10 gms.)—aka “rock-bottom.”

In part accounting for its marginal cut in opponent scoring—down about a touchdown these past three weeks, falling from 33.83 in its first six to 27.67 lately (opp. avg. 31.33 pts/gm)—the Lions defense has cut down on opponent rushing touchdowns resoundingly. After allowing backs to score an average of 2.83 rushing touchdowns in the team’s first six games, runners have struck pay dirt about that many times over the entire three weeks. That’s right, only one per game.

Keep in mind, that’s the performance of a front-seven less a vast majority of its second-level players. Key injuries to Lions linebacker corps include season-ending foot trauma to Joe Spahn—a senior leader, who outperformed the rest of the group in tackling when healthy—and less serious ailments to Dan DeCongelio, who’d done about as well when he was completely fresh.

With or without Lions LBs, passers haven’t fared much better.

After opposing quarterbacks put up an average of 262 yards against the team’s secondary—including The College at Brockport’s NJAC leading yard-monger, Jake Graci. Since then, quarterbacks have only thrown for an average of 166 yards against Lion DBs, completing only 55% of their passes, compared with the 62% completion rate earlier in the year (60% on the season).

There are a number of likely causes for the improvement.

One has to be the struggles of its offense, which has cooled off lately, its 42.5 point-per game attack after six producing only 18 in its three latest appearances. With teams no longer toiling to match those gaudy early-season point totals, opposing offenses have only run an average of 60.67 plays-from-scrimmage, as opposed to the nearly 75 offensive snaps taken in each contest earlier—many of them shootouts.

Coaches also seem to have made a conscious effort toward winning the field-position battle. After sending out the nation’s second strongest right leg only five times in as many games, coaches called for the services of utility kicker Marc Zucconi nine times in its sixth against William Paterson, a busy day for punters. Since, the team has averaged 5.3 punts per game—obviously alleviating pressure off its defense.

In part a side-effect of its offense’s crumbling efficiency on 3rd down—down to 32% in its past three from the 46% conversion rate earlier—fully implementing the services of its Division I-transfer from Louisville seems to have proven effective. His 32 punts still rank ninth out of 12 NJAC punters, but the shift in strategy has undoubtedly helped lately.

The improvement is welcomed, for sure. But at what cost?

Whatever the cause, the Lions once-opportunistic playmakers haven’t lived up to their par down the stretch, forcing only two turnovers in their past three games. After averaging 1.33 interceptions and 1.5 fumble recoveries in their first six appearances, the unit has only come away with one takeaway in each category.

They’ve maintained a distinguishable hard-hitting physicality over the past three weeks, forcing 1.67 fumbles per game (avg. 2 FF in first 6 gms.). But the TCNJ defense hasn’t flocked to the football as effectively as it did earlier. Opponents only recovered 23.3% of fumbles earlier in the year, but lately, they’ve lived to fight another day 83.3% of the time after coughing up pigskin.

The group’s gradual development has manifested in the form of various numbers, but there’s still plenty of room for growth. Let-downs and blown assignments have been plagued the unit as much as it’s been walloped by injuries for about as long, and if SUNY-Cortland wasn’t a step back in that regard, its latest outing against Western Connecticut State was.

The “big play” classified, in this case, as single-play gains of 30 yards or greater struck against the team an average of twice in each of its first six games. After only allowing one against Montclair State University—a 41-yard touchdown reception after poor timing on a blitz left TCNJ’s secondary vulnerable—the group didn’t falter in that respect once against SUNY-Cortland.

Last week, though, TCNJ forfeited three 30+ Colonials’ gains—each through the air, and each for six. Less those three, worth 48, 53 and 44 yards, respectively, the Western Connecticut Offense only musters 243 yards on its 58 other snaps, good only for 4.18 yards a pop.

But, in restless advent of the biggest date on its calendar, if there were ever a time for a last-ditch effort at retribution, this weekend—at Rowan’s house—would be it. So, to all you Lions defensive players, don’t get down.

Get big.

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