TCNJ Football Analysis: Growing Pains
The annual homecoming game on Oct. 22 was one to forget for the Lions as they dropped to 2-4 after a 70-17 loss to the NJAC powerhouse Salisbury University (6-1). The College went down 21-0 after the first quarter and 42-3 by halftime. The Salisbury triple option was something that the Lions could not handle, rushing for 473 yards and eight touchdowns. The Lions' offense was too static, unable until the third quarter after a touchdown thrown by junior Trevor Bopp to senior Kevin Pennell. The College also lost the turnover battle 4-0. Salisbury has been the best team in NJAC and the College scored more points against them than anyone else in the conference so far this season.
A major issue for the College was the tempo of the offense. Salisbury runs a triple option set that is difficult for any defense to cover due to the misdirection of the plays that are run. This forced the defense to stretch out and make some one-on-one plays that the College could not win, which kept the defense on the field for a long time. Another issue that hurt the defense was the quick offense that the College was trying to run. Running a no-huddle, a way to speed up the offense by not calling a play in a huddle but from the sideline, increased the difficulty for the Lions' defense. They would play a long drive then sit for three quick plays, then be right back on the field. Sailsbury’s offense is built on power and wearing down defenses, so the College was playing right into their hands. Slowing the offense down a little might have helped the defense recover and gotten the offense into more of a rhythm rather than speeding up the offense by running three plays and then punting.
The offense, in general,struggled to move the ball on the stout Sailsbury defense. The Lions run a run-pass-option (RPO) offense which allows the quarterback to either hand the ball off or throw it quickly into space. What allows this offense to operate well is the ability to run the ball. However, the Lions could not get any running backs going offensively, only amounting to 66 total yards on the ground. The Lions’ offensive line could not create running lanes against the Salisbury defense. It was troubling to see the Lions not changing the offense up a little bit when down 21-0 or 42-3. While still running a few RPO-type plays, the Lions could have run more traditional plays in the huddle, calling a play just to switch up some looks and give the Sailsbury defense something to think about. Trevor Bopp and Stephen Begen accounted for 232 passing yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions and a completion percentage of 55.
This was a wake-up call for the Lions, who now sit at 2-4 after a brutal loss. Even with an embarrassing loss, there are still three games left this year so a lot can change. The season so far has been relatively positive for the Lions, as we see some growth out of the young team. It is almost impossible to turn a bottom three program in the NJAC into a top three program in a couple of years. Head coach Casey Goff is in season four of his tenure, having lost out on the 2020 season, and has some really young talented players on the roster. This could be a really difficult football team to beat for years to come. What we have seen this year are not all blowout losses, but some close losses and close wins. The College was in the driver's seat against Rowan University (5-2) before losing on a game-winning field goal. The game against Endicott College was close until the very end, and beating Montclair State after three straight losses showed a lot of what this team is about. The Lions can’t hang with the big boys yet, but there are a lot of improvements all over the field, from the offensive scheming to the defense as a whole — a defense that has had a great couple of games. This team has to learn how to win small and learn from when they lose small to become a team that can win big and beat the top teams in the NJAC.
This is a gut-check week for coach Goff and the Lions. After a brutal loss, there has to be a mindset of the players to get right back to work and to take this as a learning experience rather than a season-defining loss. There are still three important games left this season against William Paterson University (1-3 Conference, 4-4 Overall, 5th in NJAC), Christopher Newport University (3-0 Conference, 5-2 Overall, 2nd in NJAC) and Kean University (1-3 Conference, 2-6 Overall, 6th in NJAC). The College sits 4th in NJAC rankings and these games will define the season as a success or a failure. If the College can finish top five in the conference for the first time since 2015, this might be a benchmark three game stretch for the Lions going into next season.
My prediction is that the College will win at least two of these games and end the season at at least .500. This team has talent, and I could see them really cement themselves as a top five NJAC program and start to pull away from the basement. It will be very exciting to see where this team goes, and I can’t wait to watch all of these important games.
Final 3 Games (Updated Oct. 30)
At William Paterson Oct. 29 (Lions 33-WPU 2)
At Christopher Newport Nov. 5
Home vs Kean Nov. 11