It’s 5:25 on Thursday. A mob of football players drifts away from Lions Stadium.
Practice has just ended.
The air is brisk, a perceivable breeze drops the temperature a few degrees. It’s dark out, a probable materialization of winter rolling in.
And football rolling out.
With the crowd that approaches comes clarity. The diminishing distance accentuates individual dialogue, now distinguishable from the noise of small-talk banter.
Tired, bruised and spent—in each term’s every conceivable sense—there’s no energy left for filtering these vocalized thoughts.
Unencumbered reactions evoke truth, you’d like to think.
“The Rowan rivalry?” wide receiver Mike Camastra asks, his words skewed by a telling facial expression and all its insinuations.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he continues, laughing and walking on.
Still a freshman, Camastra’s answering that kind of question—cordial, yet flippant—is understandable. Had he been around last year, his response might have sounded something like…
“Nah dude, they embarrassed us last year,” wide receiver Dan Syed said after, a halfhearted scolding for the irreverent dismissal. “We ain’t about to let that happen again.”
Pandemonium strikes Texas’ northern border once a year for the Red River Rivalry with the Sooners of Oklahoma—just as it does along informal state lines in Oregon, for annual installments in its on-again, off-again “civil war.”
Stanford has Cal, the Gators have the ‘Noles, and Notre Dame has…well…everybody.
And, pertaining to the New Jersey Athletic Conference, TCNJ has Rowan.
“If you haven’t been to a TCNJ/Rowan game, you haven’t seen a real football game,” Lions’ utility player Bill Picatagi said over the phone.
“Like I can’t explain it,” he continues, his words mirroring his distracted stream of consciousness on the topic.
“There’s so much emotion that goes into it, it’s ridiculous. … This last week of practice is supposed to be an easy week? No way. Not for TCNJ because we’ve got Rowan, and Rowan’s huge.”
“Since I’ve been here, Rowan’s been one of the biggest games every single year,” wideout Colin Weber said, recollecting his past three years of involvement.
“Records, they don’t matter or anything. Everyone practices hard all week, just because it’s Rowan.
“And everyone comes to play against Rowan.”
The rivalry is as heated as they come. No matter how harsh a toll the long season has taken on their bodies, players willingly bite down a little harder on those mandatory rubber mouthguards, hoping it can help muster up anything and everything within physiological possibility.
And then some.
“I’m gonna give it all I got on Saturday,” defensive end Craig Meyer said. “It’s gonna be another emotional day on my mind, it’s my last game ever. I’m gonna play my ass off.”
But, unfortunately for TCNJ, players’ “effort” isn’t a word that always translates in football’s most audibly aesthetic language.
Over the past 20 years, the Lions have stolen all of five match-ups since 1989, three by a combined six points (28-27 in ’98; 22-20 in ’03; 10-7 in ’07). Over the course of the series, dating back to 1948, twice have the Profs dominated for half a decade, first putting together six consecutive wins between 1990 -95, before establish five-year streak of inter-conference authority between 1998 and 2002.
Through a grander scope, the series has seen about as much parity as the Fighting Irish’s win percentage against Southern Cal’s crimson army—under Pete Carroll or anyone else. After an even 50 confrontations, Rowan’s 32 wins exactly double TCNJ’s isolated glimmers of glory, rounded out by two unsightly ties (12-12 in 1949, 21-21 in 1974).
And “last year,” otherwise a trite irrelevance in conversation, refers to the 42-3 smack-down Rowan gladly inflicted upon the Lions in 2008, a blowout loss to cap a dismal 4-6 season tinged with mediocrity.
“Last year, we came out hard in practice for the entire week,” Picatagi said of the week prior. “And when we got on the field, we [messed] the bed. They came out and they whopped our ass[es]. One-on-one, they physically destroyed us. It’s the god’s honest truth.
“And you know what? We’re not letting that happen this year.”
Standing on that same precipice just three days before that anniversary, there exist only two focal points for eyes of TCNJ football players. Downward, just over the cliff’s sheer edge, exists nothingness. And the stark reality holds true for returners, who’ll live to fight another day—“next year”—and seniors, whose eleventh-hour push to go out on top, as winners…better…spoilers is as exhausted as the group’s eligibility.
“It would definitely suck,” co-captain wideout Cam Richardson said, though he insisted he didn’t want a loss to mar his waning collegiate moments.
“I mean, no matter who you play it’s gonna suck because it’s your last game, you wanna go out winning and have a little bit of a bittersweet thing going. …. But it would definitely suck to lose to Rowan.”
But outward, a complimentary structure stands, too, a rare offering of a different avenue of fate.
As distinct a contrast between the beginning and end of the Lions’ season, the neighboring metaphorical hill offers hope for TCNJ’s youth—an irrevocable foundation upon which they can rebuild the program.
And grow as individuals.
“It’s never the last week,” head coach Eric Hamilton said. “It happens to be the last game, but it’s never over. You prepare every week for the next game. Well after this game, then we prepare for next year—and not before.”
As for those that won’t be back, well, the scene is about as cliché as it gets. In the present, the sun is set. But in this enticing image of timeless glory, there’s a stable of horses, waiting to be rode off into the horizon, that central star fixed forever in place, hours before dusk.
“We’ve had a little bit of a sour year, a little upsetting,” Weber said. “But it would be great to finish on this note. Yeah, we can’t change the past; we’ve just got to make the best of what we still have. Beating Rowan would end this on a good note.”
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.
Never would a football coach–at least not one to be taken seriously–concede any remnants of the present, shifting focal gears toward the future.
Well, maybe there’s a few extenuating exceptions.
“We have to put the pieces together and get ready for Rowan now,” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said Saturday, in the immediate aftermath of defeat. “That could be ours to win if we work hard.”
Daddies on the sidelines of Pop Warner scrums, or tenured (and salaried) collegiate football instructors might differ in prestige and popularity. But the attitude remains constant at all levels of the game.
Win, and win now.
So long as there is a snap yet to be played, there are goals to achieved, progress to be made.
Players feel no differently.
For some, the light at the end of the tunnel widens, the stark reality that their careers are finite becomes increasingly more apparent with every passing week. For seniors, there is no tomorrow. Still, the passage of time for others glistens the eyes of youngsters, well-aware of this reality:
Graduation empties shoes that need filling, chances for them to shine.
While TCNJ’s season suddenly spun in a downward spiral after its Week Six win against The College at Brockport, players have conducted their business without relent–kind of how fate and misfortune have treated them.
But, largely a byproduct of their hardships, the team has been forced to turn to its youth early. The epidemic to which all football squads are susceptible–the injury bug–has pillaged the Lions’ roster, robbing depth from its charts, and precious moments from elder players.
And in that continuous spin of the wheel, magnified during Saturday’s upset loss to Western Connecticut State, sometimes players’ chances are thrust to the forefront. Sometimes sooner than they’d anticipated.
“This is why you coach, because of challenges,” Acosta said Friday, in advent of a gut-check game for a few underclassmen. “That’s why you coach. To teach and see people grow. Our team’s been growing in a lot of different ways, and this is why you do this.
“We have a challenge tomorrow. And I’m pretty fired up about that challenge.”
For coaches–notably locked in on the season’s finale at Rowan with indelible fixation–when these players exceed even their most ambitious hopes, they’ll say it’s one of the game’s most rewarding facets.
“That’s the bright spot,” he said after, asked to gauge the performance of some of his emerging talents.
“A bunch of guys on the offensive line, they’re coming back. Running backs are coming back, quarterback’s coming back. … That’s the bright spot. Guys are working, young bucks are getting more playing time. You definitely are going to have a football team next year.”
If there was any positive to be taken from Saturday’s game—a disheartening three-point loss to wrap up several illustrious senior careers in Lions Stadium—the promise evoked by some of its youth put to bed a few of the question marks remaining at the season’s end.
“Our offensive line, I think this was one of their best games all year,” sophomore quarterback Jay Donoghue said, moments removed from his first collegiate start. “And most of those guys are coming back.”
Singing the praises of his protective barrier of bodies, Donoghue himself earned daps from some of the team’s most respected personalities after his outing last weekend.
“I was really impressed with Jay Donoughue’s play today,” wide receiver Cam Richardson said of the future-made-present’s 21-of-28 afternoon, complete with 194 yards and three gorgeous touchdown throws.
“I thought he played a very good game. Very calm, collected. He made a lot of checks out there. He really impressed me, going out there and doing some things working with the first team. I was really impressed at that.”
Well-deserving of the acclaim, Donoghue wasn’t the only one turning heads Saturday.
“Mike Yetka, hell of a running back,” Donoghue said of the Lions’ junior running back, who has led the team in successive weeks in his season’s only two starts, putting up 117 this past weekend (41 rush yds vs. SUNY-Cortland). Surpassing the century mark for the first time since the season-opener, the milestone marks only the third of his still budding career.
“Kevin’s a solid young guy too,” he continued, noting the stellar progression of the freshman short-yardage-option-turned-many-yardage-threat. In his past three appearances, the Atlantic City native has averaged a steady 7.6 carries, good for a reputable 34.4 yards—not much. But moving the sticks an average of 4.47 paces after every touch suggests that, when he’s given a heavier load he’ll be as productive as needed.
Both players have toiled to adequately compensate for the Lions’ backfield woes, losing starters in Justin Donoloski and Chase Misura for every snap since they each went down during the school’s homecoming loss to Montclair State University.
Across the line-of-scrimmage, a few notable faces among the preseason’s raw defensive talents have come into their own of late.
“We’ve had a lot of guys go down, a lot of guys step in,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said during the week before the team’s road trip to SUNY-Cortland.
“It’s going to pose some good problems for us as coaches down the road.”
For now, issues surrounding a gifted few aren’t ones the Lions’ staff needs to deal with. The biggest ones are those made for the other guys.
TCNJ linebacker Greg Burns, who has led all Lion tacklers twice over the course of his first collegiate season (10 tot. tackles vs. WPU, WCSU), finishing second in the unit’s stingiest outing to date (9 tot. tackles vs. MSU). His physicality and instincts established the freshman as a viable suitor for Hamilton’s intricate 4-2-5 scheme—reliant upon the run-stopping abilities of its second-level players.
Despite their prominence as a buoyant feature of what were ultimately losing efforts, Burns earned NJAC awards two of the three following Sundays, dubbed its Defensive Rookie of the Week twice in 2009.
Over that four-game span, that’s called upon unknown bodies to fill the roles of proven talents, the only other player to twice outperform his comrades was, coincidentally, linebacker Jimmy Kleen.
He shared locker room bragging rights with Burns during the team’s Week Seven road loss at William Paterson after blanketing the hash marks for 10 tackles of his own. A week later, onlookers gazed out in confusion, wondering if his team-leading nine stops against Red Hawk skills players was a palpable instance of déjà vu.
Both Burns and Kleen saw sparse action in the season’s first-six outings. But answering the call dialed in by linebacker Joe Spahn’s season-ending foot injury and chronic ailments to a warrior in Dan DeCongelio, the two have exceeded their foreseen capabilities–much to the delight of coaches.
“That’s the silver lining of a lot of guys being hurt,” Hamilton said, days preceding this weekend’s game against Western Connecticut. “It gives an opportunity to a lot of different guys to get playing time.”
Burns and Kleen on display as exhibits 1 and 1-a, their still minimal resumes have put his once-worried mind a little more at ease.
“So we’ve put in so many different guys, that no matter who we put out there we feel comfortable and we feel like we’ve got a complete package.”
And who stepped up during the only other game in that four-week period? Its leader in tackles against SUNY-Cortland—also the Lions’ most productive pass rusher—was defensive end Kevin Allgood, a monster compliment to team quad-captain Craig Meyer.
Allgood is a sophomore.
If a football season is a machine, one needing fresh oil and replacement parts on an annual basis, the off-season’s most pivotal challenge will be replacing experienced leaders, like Richardson and Meyer. It won’t be any easier to swap out the veteran savvy of four-year starting quarterback Chris James.
And, above all else, there’s no substitute for free safety Ryan Flannery, likely the program’s most entertaining superstar in recent memory—even though his chippy style of play and nose for extra-curriculars get him in trouble from time to time.
“We’re definitely gonna miss our senior receivers,” Donoghue said of the seasoned corps, including a montage of playmaking breeds in Mark Gardner, Erik Hendrickson, Bill Picatagi and Colin Weber—the latest of whom ranks fifth in the conference in receptions and yards.
“They’re some of the best there is.”
For guys like Donoghue, who—in time—might embody a similar description one day, the future is enticing to say the least. But, spanning from broken-in seniors to the fresh sets of kicks still in their freshman shoeboxes, that prospect will have to wait.
“It’s promising for next year,” Donoghue said.
“But we’re playing for this year.”
A day later, he was named the New Jersey Athletic Conference’s outstanding rookie performer.
Another brush stroke in a dismal bigger picture, his season’s second weekly award marks another captured in defeat—each having disheartening implications.
His first, won with his 9-tackle outing during the Lions’ Week Seven loss to Montclair State University, coincided with his defense’s best outing of the season–and his team’s ousting from conference championship contention.
That game was the program’s homecoming, too.
His latest, earned with another team-leading 10 stops, overlapped its chances to salvage a winning record.
Upset by the NJAC’s resident last-place tenant, the Lions dropped a fifth date on their 2009 calendar this past weekend, relinquishing an opportunity to finish over par. Now, hoping to avoid extending its mid-October skid to five games, any hopes at a .500 record need to outlast next weekend’s road trip to Rowan University.
Success without strings about summed up the remainder of the weekly release, with none of the other honorees subjected to that kind of backhanded fortune.
The senior’s 246 yards on 37 carries marked the most stout rushing total his career, and of any league performer this season. He also scored twice toward his team’s 20-0 margin over William Paterson University.
Named twice subjectively—after both his season’s 200+ yard performances—the NJAC’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year rules its statistical leader board outright, topping the list with his 114.6-yard game average.
An integral player in the Lions’ woes during and after Saturday’s game, Western Connecticut State linebacker Greg Galasso was named the conference’s top defensive performer. The sophomore recorded 22 tackles toward his Colonials’ win Saturday—each notable with regard to this season.
Bolstered by accessory accomplishments, including a sack and tackle-for-loss, his individual output was the most produced by an NJAC performer this year. Its records dating back only to 2003, the league could only offer with certainty that it was also the best single-game total during the span.
Additionally, the W helped foster his program’s second victory in 2009—both in the past three weeks (won vs. Brockport in Wk. 8).
The senior became his team’s second captor of the NJAC’s Special Teams Player of the Week this season, averaging 38.5 yards on each of his four punts.
Punishing the Golden Eagles as directly as he could, Peterson landed three punts inside Brockport’s 20-yard line. He twice cornered the team’s offense within its own five-yard line, likely accounting for some of the difference in a potent offensive bout that finished 56-42—advantage SUNY-Cortland.
Helping the Profs big rebound from last week’s double-overtime loss, Rowan wide receiver James Kinloch snagged NJAC recognition as its top offensive rookie–his second already in his inaugural collegiate season.
The freshman averaged 26.6 yards on his three catches, good for 80 yards on the afternoon. His 56-yard touchdown accounted for half of the team’s points scored against Montclair State University, in a contest decided by only seven (Rowan def. MSU, 14-7).
Now third in league standings, Rowan’s win this weekend handed the Red Hawks (prev. undefeated in NJAC) a dethroning loss, knocking Montclair State from the top of the conference.
Equivocation, puffery, and jaded optimism aside—that one was tough to watch.
For those with invested sentiments prior to TCNJ’s loss to Western Connecticut State—friends and family gathered for TCNJ Senior Day 2009—hearts ached at the sight, translated as a tear-jerking defeat that interrupted seniors’ final bow from Lions Stadium’s field-turf stage.
“It’s definitely tough,” Lions’ quad-captain Cam Richardson said, moments after he dazzled fans for one last time with 78 yards on his team-leading eight catches.
“Obviously last game ever in the place you’ve played in for four years you wanna go out on top, with a win.”
For everyone else, the 37-34 margin struck the same chord, a slight advantage in a disheartening upset.
The Colonials (2-7, 2-6 New Jersey Athletic Conference) second win of 2009 marked the fifth tally in the wrong column for TCNJ (4-5, 3-5 NJAC). After walking away victors from four of their first five—sizing up hopes for an unlikely run at the conference crown—the Lions have been beaten into humility of late, their now eyes fixated on a four-game skid (last won Oct. 10).
“Every week’s different,” head coach Eric Hamilton said of whether he thought the past month has gotten to players. “Maybe the last two weeks, because it was hard these last two weeks.”
Consensus could be reached on that comment, players ailing both body and spirit. But more than any other—one with which even the agnostic fellowship could agree—instead of an anticipated day of celebration, what fans got was one straight from hell.
An unsightly beginning paralleled its sour finish. The image of quarterback Chris James’ blue number four jersey without shoulder pads beneath it indicated he’d been scratched from his final home start as a collegiate athlete.
Though, coaches and players insisted it wasn’t the absence of their four-year starter that determined Saturday’s outcome.
“Jay did well,” Hamilton said of the sophomore’s first career start. “But Jay will be the first one to tell you we lost the game.”
It wasn’t his fault, but Chris James’ two-year understudy said he wasn’t as troubled by the game’s end as much as a part of its means that might have changed it, had things gone differently.
“I did OK,” said Jay Donoghue of his 22-of-28 overachievement, inclusive of 194 yards and three touchdowns.
“I mean, that play is going to haunt me a little bit,” he said later, referring to a late, fourth-quarter interception that slipped through senior wide receiver Mark Gardner’s hands. “I didn’t see exactly what happened, but … that’s definitely in part my fault. I’ve gotta take that one a little bit.”
Trailing those three deciding points with just over six minutes remaining, Donoghue was perfect on the first 13 plays of that 76-yard drive—one started just inside the Lions’ 10-yard line.
His backfield offered ample support, namely through of 40 yards on Mike Yetka’s five carries during the possession–a sizable portion of his afternoon’s totals (Yetka-20 rush, 118 yds; led TCNJ).
But Donoghue’s precision on five passes that safely found four different targets—fittingly all senior wideouts—marched James’ offense to 15 yards outside the storybook finish for which onlookers hoped.
But after that first-down play, invoking generally understood angst, the only debate argued which hurt more:
The big plays the Colonials made, or the ones the Lions couldn’t.
“Everything we were able to do is what we wanted to with the game plan,” said TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta, after the group amassed 444 yards of total offense. “But right now we’re lacking the big-play potential.”
The explosion that ignited the nation’s former No. 1 scoring offense showed glimpses Saturday, magnified by Colin Weber’s 22-yard grab to break TCNJ’s season scoring mark (originally 295, set in 1989).
Gardner, who led the corps of five seniors with 83 yards on eight grabs, scaled defenders for circus scores on two fade routes earlier, from 15 and 14 yards out. Even after the latter created an eight point deficit four minutes into the third period (TCNJ led 34-26), Acosta said he needed one more a quarter later.
“You get your hands on the football, you gotta catch it. … It’s a shame that it had to come down to this because this is a talented football team we have.”
While Bill Picatagi’s 25-yard first-quarter dash to pay dirt represented the Lions longest play-from-scrimmage, three early receptions accounted for 145 of the Colonials’ 265 first-half yards, not to mention 19 of its points (finished w/ 359 yds).
“When you blow coverages in Week Eight, that’s tough,” Hamilton said of the lengthy gains. “We just weren’t on the same page.”
His defense allowed only a single third-down conversion on Western Connecticut’s 10 attempts, while his offense scored five touchdowns. But, himself stripped of emotion, Hamilton offered equal opportunity criticism.
“It wasn’t the defense’s fault. It was as much the offense’s fault as the defense’s. … But offensively when we get the opportunity we’ve gotta step on the neck. We didn’t do that in a couple of situations. It’s a team loss. What are you gonna do?”
Maybe it’s a stretch, a desperate clenching to what was supposed to be positive. But according to Hamilton’s assistants, there’s only one way to respond.
“Do you dwell on this and get down?” Acosta said. “Nah. You build on it.
“This is what coaching is about, what playing is about. Building up, moving on and getting better. It’s just bringing these guys back tomorrow and getting them together so they can believe.”
Last Saturday—a week removed from his defense’s most outstanding performance to date—Ryan Flannery gazed into nothingness, minutes after what seemed like all that progress’ deconstruction. He spoke out in heated frustration, saying about as much.
The unit’s most recent outing might not have expanded construction on the monument of success erected during a 16-13 loss against Montclair State University. But even if it seemed like the group had resorted to its old ways—allowing 300+ yards of SUNY-Cortland offense—it just wouldn’t be possible for 60 minutes to erase countless hours of building, resulting in this foundation.
It can’t be quantified—certainly not by NCAA standards, like the ones that rank TCNJ’s among other run-of-the-mill defenses in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (ranked no higher than 6th in any statistical category). But it’s there nonetheless, the earliest sprouts of seeds planted way back in August, finally starting to germinate.
What is it, besides that X-factor swag—a quality collectively offered by each player’s colorful personality and ostensible chip on their shoulders? It is understanding.
And now that they’ve got it, it’s not going anywhere.
“Compared to the beginning of the year it’s night and day,” free safety Matt Kreider said before Friday’s walk through. “…Starting then, working until now, we’re a completely different team. I know it seems like we may have taken a step back last week…but I still see us improving.”
Kreider, now a junior, said he was well-versed in specificities immediately after the team broke camp—the Xes and Os of the scheme. But even so, he hadn’t quite put it all together.
“In Week One, I feel like I had the knowledge to regurgitate it to you—like how when you cram for a test. I could tell you everything, but I couldn’t use it functionally.”
Becoming the team’s leading tackler by Week Nine, Kreider spoke retrospectively, remembering on experiences of his and everyone else’s inexperience. But looking around now, he’s begun to notice an overwhelming grasp of what he’s asked, immediately processing the order and deducing the philosophy behind it.
“Now I feel like I know what everyone’s doing, why they’re doing it. And I feel like more and more players on our defense are at that point now. Before you’re in position and you don’t know what the hell’s going on. Now it’s starting to click.”
It’s taken a while, and from time to time, they’ve taken a beating while the matter sorted itself out.
Twice has the Lions’ defense forfeited opponent yards totals in excess of 500 yards (Morrisville St., Brockport). Its across-the-ball adversaries have garnered 30 points in all but two of the unit’s appearances—one being Kean’s 28 points in Week 5. Perhaps worst of all is the ravaging toll fate has taken over the course of this trying 2009 season, sending seven frequent starters to the sideline for varying severities of injury and stretches of time (Beres, DeCongelio, Flannery, Goreczny, Hadduch, Jones, Spahn).
Some might even argue that it’s greatest misfortunes have helped incubate it’s achievements.
“The silver lining of a lot of guys being hurt is it gives an opportunity to a lot of different guys to get playing time,” TCNJ defensive coordinator Matt Hamilton said over the phone, earlier in the week.
“From that standpoint we’d like to think that no matter who we put in, he’s got a grasp of what he’s doing and can do the job for us.”
Hiccups aside—those within and beyond control—there’s no doubt that the scheme has finally nestled in, taking residence in players’ unconsciousness thought processes. And now that it’s internalized, a sixth-sense since it’s become second-nature, players say it allows them to…well…just play the game.
“From the beginning, I feel like we were thinking too much out there,” Flannery said after Friday’s light workout.
“Young guys stepped up and started understanding the scheme. We’re doing more reacting than thinking. That’s always good—instead of being a step slower.”
And, according to one of those afore mentioned youngsters—whose personal success has fortified the Lions’ much-maligned second-level—that ability to allow innate impulses dictate his play has been a big reason why.
“Now it’s just pretty much being there and making the play. The physical part’s done. It’s more mentally. Just making sure I’m where I’m supposed to be on every play. …I feel confident. I pretty much know everything I’m doing.”
Whether they’ve reached this alleged breakthrough remains unknown, a secret locked in the inner-most workings of each player’s mind. Whatever the case may be, coaches say the recently completed work-in-progress is good enough, a pleasure to watch in their mind.
“It’s just encouraging to look at it from a staff perspective,” Hamilton said, all too proud of his players’ development.
“Early in the season, when we were struggling, it looked like kids were just confused a lot of different times. … But our best games have come later in the season. That’s the positive we’re taking out of it. We’re on the rise and that’s all you can ask for.”
Hamilton said he had no complaints, but TCNJ’s second-year defensive play-caller said he knows what he’d wish for, should he happen to trip on a magic lamp before the season—and his time with this group—comes to an end.
“When all of a sudden it clicks, and things are going well … you say, ‘Damn it.
“‘I wish we had five or six more weeks to really start having some fun.’”
A passerby roams the halls just outside the TCNJ locker room. He sees a familiar scene—player and reporter, discussing usual pre-game points of emphasis.
He continues without much thought.
But, upon hearing the subject matter of an otherwise pedestrian conversation—the team’s condition in the tentative care of its backup quarterback—his proverbial mental train is rerouted, the itinerary of his impulses provoking the following reaction:
“Oh Jay Donoghue? He’s the man.”
Whether he’ll be the man for the Lions this weekend is uncertain. The status of starting quarterback Chris James is under raps, and his understudy remains largely unproven—on paper, at least. But, should he get the nod, there doesn’t seem to be anyone willing to voice concerns.
Maybe it’s because there aren’t any.
“We have complete confidence in Donoghue,” said wide receiver Colin Weber, who’s worked with the youngster daily since August.
Weber, whose 69.75 receiving yards a game rounds out the conference’s top-three most prolific weekly averages, says he’s window-shopped for months now, browsing aisle after aisle of the kid’s goods.
And he says he’s sold.
“He’s been our backup quarterback for two years—he’s been practicing every day. He’s a smart kid, he knows the system and he works hard. Like I said, we have complete confidence that he can lead us to a win tomorrow.”
Sure to mention that his friend and fellow senior would surely be missed—both presence and production—Weber couldn’t identify a resounding deviance from the team’s weekly business, even with the prospect of Donoghue under center.
“Nothing’s really changing at all. We’re not game-planning any different than we would. We’re game planning for West[ern] Conn[ecticut], not necessarily considering Chris out, we’re just continuing with what we have and with our game plan. He knows the system.”
Now, if it were written as a textbook, the Lions’ spread offense wouldn’t quite qualify as light reading. Chapters would include lessons on the zone-read option, scores of combination routes and pass schemes—all with specified progressions—and those are just the fundamentals. Suggested, accessory readings would include various works on option routes, identifying coverages, and intro to footwork instructional manuscripts.
Mind you, that’s what can be taught. Lest we forget intangibles like pocket presence, decision-making and—most important of all—it.
Fortunately for Donoghue, its architect designed the scheme specifically for easy operation. He also kept malleability in mind.
“Our system is friendly,” TCNJ offensive coordinator Bobby Acosta said after Friday’s walk-through. “It adapts to all the different kids we have and talent we have. Some things we had to push back because Chris does things—he creates. Being young, we don’t want to put Jay in that situation. We just want him to play.”
Which, according to the man of the hour—potentially closer than a full 24 before his most telling—is about what he’s going for.
“I don’t know,” said Donoghue—his revelation of predetermined strategy before tomorrow’s contest. “I guess whatever the coaches tell me to do.”
Elaborating on his otherwise vague break-down, Donoghue said he’s just trying to keep an even keel, banking on his approximated recipe for success calling for a few heaping tablespoons of staying within himself.
“Quarterback is one of those positions you just gotta stay composed and make sure you’re making all the right reads. [You] don’t get too crazy. Save all that stuff on the defense.”
Invoking a reserved sense of assuredness from the program, Donoghue still might not be asked of much—neither by himself or coaches. But those around him have already tailored their expectations of themselves
“We’re trying to make every play for him,” wide receiver Cam Richardson said. “If he puts a ball out there we gotta make sure we go get it for him, so he gets rhythm, gets confidence and we can get it rolling.”
Weber might stand alone as its statistical leader, but the corps as a whole represents the most high-wattage beacon of senior leadership. The backbone of its pentagon shape incorporates five student-athletes—all wideouts, all in their fourth and final year of eligibility (Gardner, Hendrickson, Picatagi, Richardson, Weber).
And according to Richardson, designated in training camp as one of the team’s four official headship representatives, there’s plenty more Donoghue’s group of targets can offer.
“From a mental aspect, we’re just trying to keep him calm. Obviously it’s a new situation for him, whereas with Chris, he’s been playing as longer than any of us receivers have been playing, at least here at the College. So mentally, we definitely feel responsible. Keep him calm, help him make plays, and maybe let him lean on us where we might have leaned on Chris.”
Funny thing is, most of the program is having a difficult enough time composing themselves.
“I’m pretty excited for Jay this week,” Acosta said, anxious to see his project fully function. “That’s our future. You definitely want to give playing time to your future, because when it comes around next year, he has playing experience.”
An undoubted benefit on the side, the second-year coordinator doesn’t consider tomorrow an investment toward years to come. Nor does he necessarily foresee pending rookie mistakes—a guarantee for just about anyone else.
“Jay’s ready to go. He’s gonna do some special things tomorrow. And we’re going to take the good with the bad with it—we’ll live with him.”
For Saturday, but a ninth of their season’s collective existence, Acosta, the offense—maybe even the team—could very well hinge upon the fluid swing of Donoghue’s right arm.
But the man himself? He’s just trying to live.
In the moment, that is.
“Absolutely,” he said, insisting he’ll relish an opportunity.
“It’s a great game. Why not?”