Lion Offense Missing its Big Uglies, Uber Productivity
So the story goes, TCNJ’s taken its lumps in 2009. Set back after a 3-0 start at Kean, the team’s been permanently grounded ever since its Week Seven win over Brockport. The Lions broke through the season’s point of no return at 4-1—without any real reason to be looking back.
Since? The team’s win/loss column itself look’s like destiny’s antagonizing face, winking it’s left eye (0-4 in past 4 gms).
The team isn’t quite what it was earlier, with regard to its palpable drop-off in performance. But also, more importantly, it pertains to its diminishing depth.
Names and faces have dropped from the Lions’ roster, but, as TCNJ head coach Eric Hamilton put it, “What happens, happens.” But the difference therein—and, really, any coaching staff’s most imposing obstacle—is how to cope with those kinds of losses.
“Every time you lose somebody it hurts,” Hamilton said. “I don’t necessarily mean from a schematics standpoint. It hurts that you train and prepare and you want everybody to be out there. You would much rather have a problem trying to find ways to play guys than having to find guys to play.”
As shocking a suggestion as it seems, TCNJ’s defense has managed to fill its voids, the gaping holes torn in coordinator Matt Hamilton’s 4-3 scheme when, over the course of the year, all three of his starting linebackers missed substantial time due to injury (DeCongelio, Spahn, Jones).
Much a credit to the insta-maturation of its youth (Burns, Kleen, Lukaszewicz), the group’s improvement wouldn’t be feasible without big-time performances from some of its most unlikely sources.
“Defensively, because of what had happened so early, we didn’t have an identity,” Hamilton said. “We were able to grow, and hopefully, by the end of the year we’ll have one, since we only had two seniors out there to begin with.”
Offensively, however, the group has struggled as of late, unable to rekindle its early-season form that, for a time, boasted Division III’s No. 1 scoring threat (led NCAA after Wk. 4). After posting an unrelenting 42.5 points in each of its first six outings, the once commanding TCNJ offense has fizzled recently, only managing 18 good ones these past three weeks.
Even though its opportunities remained consistent.
After averaging just over 67 snaps in Weeks 1-7, the group’s workload actually increased, up marginally to 69 plays-from-scrimmage. But like its most ostensible quantification (points?), its micronized production has since dissolved, too, down to 4.41 yards per play from the nearly seven gained every snap before this mid-October slide.
On the whole?
The fallout from its early-season splendor took with it 145 yards of total offense, its unwavering 457 earlier starting to look a little more mortal at 312. And, less its 400+ yard jaunt against Western Connecticut this past weekend, the O combined for 492 against both SUNY-Cortland and Montclair State (avg. 246 yds/gm).
But no more in any other quantifiable category, the Lions rushing attack has suffered dramatically. Prior to same-game injuries to starters Chase Misura (sr.) and Justin Donoloski (soph.), the TCNJ ground game averaged over 200 yards, before both were knocked out with injuries in Week 8 during the team’s loss to Montclair State. That even accounts for two instances during which the tandem was shut down (TCNJ-58 rush yds vs. Kean; 105 rush yds vs. WPU)—both team losses.
After posting consecutive 300+ yard rushing compilations to start the season (TCNJ 312 rush yds vs. Buff St.; 339 rush yds vs. FDU) the team’s only 200+ performance was produced against the conference’s second-worst unit against the run defensively (TCNJ 250 rush yds. vs. WCSU; opp. avg. 193.1 rush yds/gm).
“…Offensively, why the offense has always been so far ahead, it’s because that’s where all the returners were,” Hamilton said. “When you start picking off returners that have the experience that you rely on, it’s probably more significant, it has more of an impact.”
Losing Misura and Donoloski haven’t done the team any favors, but missing bodies on the offensive line that have proven fatal.
The team’s replacements in the backfield have overachieved expectation, even for Mike Yetka, last year’s No. 10 NJAC yard-getter. In conjunction with the emergence of Kevin Brown, the two have proven their ability with real estate, never once failing to eclipse 100 yards of positive gains.
But, without the reliability of trench heroes LT Drew Mason, G Joe Mecca and C Joe Serrao—all of whom missing time since the team’s Week 7 loss to Willie P—Lions’ ball-carriers have been tackled for losses at an alarming rate. In three of those four games, the team has accumulated over 30 yards in the red, the lone exception versus Montclair State (TFL 8 yds). Earlier in the season, it happened only once, in large part due to a massive loss on a botched snap (TFL 62 yds vs. Kean).
“Again, you don’t worry about who you don’t have … you just have to try and do the best you can,” he said, alluding to utmost efforts by seniors Evan Arfuso and Andrew Ross. “And I think guys have tried to do that.”
The passing game has suffered as an arguable side effect, an overall diminish in production trickling over—not helped any by the loss of its four-year starter at quarterback. The progressing season has rolled back Lion aerial averages like the Wal-Mart man on excessive caffeine, cutting a guaranteed 256 a weekend to a 161.3 yards.
Touchdowns? Down (Wk. 1-7-avg. 2.2 pass TDs/gm; Wk 8-10-avg. 1.3 pass TDs/gm).
Ratios? Down (Wk. 1-7-avg. 14.64 yds/comp; Wk 8-10-avg. 8.34 yds/comp).
So it seems, the only apparent increase over the span is the team’s giveaways (Wk. 1-7-avg. 1.67 TO/gm; Wk. 8-10-avg. 3.3 TO/gm).
“We started off hot,” TCNJ quarterback Chris James said. “I don’t think we ever fully developed as an offense. That’s scary when you think about the kind of numbers we were putting up.”
Disappointing? Maybe. But, above all else, what’s lingered on the senior quarterback’s mind all season is what happened when misfortune didn’t strike a talented roster.
“I think this year more than ever before we got hit by the injury bug. Everyone’s hurt. … My sophomore year (2007 NJAC Championship season) we really didn’t get injured that much. And there weren’t any big injuries.”
Title aspirations aside, elaborating on last year’s 4-6 finish was still within feasible reach. But without results from the most integral facet of its offense, the TCNJ offense hasn’t managed to “get it done,” as they say.
But as TCNJ looks to this weekend, hoping to recuperate its health and win percentage at Rowan University for both programs’ season-finales, Hamilton insisted that the predicating challenge remains the same.
“… Going into Saturday’s game, it hasn’t changed. It comes down to what happens up front. … We’ve got different running backs in there, different quarterbacks … but, it comes down to what happens up front. If Rowan dominates the line of scrimmage like they did last year… we’re going to be in trouble, regardless.
“If we can’t…run the ball it’s going to be a tough day.”