The Lions were not kings of their own stadium during the football team’s season opener Friday night, as they were manhandled to a 30-13 loss by a veteran Muhlenberg College team.
With a sputtering offense, the Lions did nothing to dispel the legend of the Mules defense that led all of Division III in yards allowed last season.
Take away two fantastic plays by the Lions’ special teams and they were left with a mere 73 yards of total offense and seven turnovers, including five lost fumbles and little else to cheer about.
This was exactly what head coach Eric Hamilton feared with so many new faces on this year’s squad.
“This is a tough loss for us as a young team,” Hamilton said. “We showed some promise, though.”
The College’s special teams came up big in the opening minutes giving way to early cheers that would eventually fade as the game wore on.
The Lions coughed up the ball on the opening possession when junior running back Cory Schoonover fumbled at midfield, but the Mules were forced into a three and out that led to a blocked punt by senior linebacker Terrence Nish.
Schoonover then gobbled up the loose ball and ran it back 38 yards to give the Lions an early 6-0 lead.
The Mules looked confident early on against an inexperienced Lions defense as they converted a first quarter fourth-and-10 and took advantage of a weak punt to get on the board with 24-yard field goal.
With the two-headed quarterback duo led by the arm of senior Tom Kelleher and the legs of sophomore Matt Johnson, the Lions’ defense could do nothing to slow down the Muhlenberg offense.
Facing a fourth-and-one on the one yard line, Mules sophomore running back Ross Tanner took the hand-off but then lofted a chest pass that found junior tight end Derek DiMattina in the end zone, giving the Mules a 10-6 lead.
Between the Mules defense and their own miscues, the Lions could find no offensive rhythm.
“We just didn’t get the job done,” sophomore quarterback Jeff Struble said. “We weren’t executing.
In the first quarter, Struble was sacked on back-to-back plays. In the second quarter, the Lions recovered a fumble after a punt only to see senior running back Leeaire Brown give the ball back on the next drive, fumbling near midfield.
Later in the quarter, junior defensive back Derek Tranchina came up with two huge plays registering a sack and an interception on consecutive Muhlenberg snaps. However, on third-and-one in the next Lions possession, Struble lost the ball in a huge pile on.
“We’re a work in progress,” Hamilton said. “We’re not where we want to be.”
After another Muhlenberg field goal, Struble was able to complete passes for consecutive first downs but was forced to take a breather after a vicious blindside hit by senior linebacker Dan McCall, disrupting any sort of rhythm the Lions had developed.
Early in the second half, sophomore defensive back Mike Ferris jumped in front of a Kelleher pass for one of two Lions interceptions. But on that same possession, a miscue on a third-down snap led to another lost fumble for the Lions.
The Lions did manage to get into the end zone again, but not without some more help from special teams.
Following a botched snap on a punt play, Tranchina tackled the Mules’ punter giving the Lions the ball on the three yard line.
Struble then found wide-open junior running back Sean Farrelly on the right side of the end zone with a play action pass.
Yet, even when they tried to be aggressive, the Lions still could not make a play that mattered.
On a fourth-and-seven late in the game, the Lions came with a blitz package that failed miserably as Mules running back Ross Tanner turned a desperate screen pass into a 32-yard touchdown run as he scampered down the left sideline giving the Mules their final touchdown.
The Lions will have to regroup quickly as they host their first conference game against SUNY-Cortland at 1 p.m. on Saturday.