Closing the season on a high note, the Lions came back from a 10-point deficit to slip past Kean University 14-10 on Saturday afternoon.
The Lions, down 10-5 going into the fourth quarter, managed to put early offensive struggles out of their minds, rallying back for the upset victory with the help of freshman quarterback Chris James.
A minute after Cougars freshman kicker Kevin Trump drilled a 41-yard field goal through the uprights, James and the Lions marched down the field using big plays as their fuel.
On the third play of the final quarter, James hit junior tight end Chris Opdyke for a routine short pass, yet Opdyke would not be denied, turning on the afterburners and racing up the sideline 52 yards to hit pay dirt and give the Lions an 11-10 lead after an unsuccessful two-point conversion.
“Opdyke has been coming up big for us all year,” senior defensive lineman Gary Bach said. “It was great to see him finally get in the end zone. He deserved it.”
Making the slim lead a bit wider and allowing Lions fans to breathe a bit easier was junior kicker Matt Dalessio, notching a 31-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.
Despite mistakes on the offensive side of the ball all afternoon and a penchant for letting games slip away late, the Lions defense came up huge repeatedly. Not only did the Lions limit the Cougars to an astounding 5 yards rushing and 190 yards overall, they also made two game-changing plays late in the fourth that put the final nail in the Cougars’ coffin.
“They couldn’t run on us, so we knew they were going to rely on passing the ball more,” Bach said. “They came out and hit a few quick slants on us. We started to play them tighter, and we were able to get a few picks off it.”
Freshman defensive back Ryan Flannery came up big for the second time on the afternoon, intercepting his second pass off of junior quarterback A.J. Roque. Bach recovered a fumble late to extinguish any hope of a Cougars comeback.
“We couldn’t afford to let up,” Bach said. “So many times this season we came up short, but we weren’t going to let it happen this time. We came up with a few key turnovers late in the game and were able to run out the clock.”
The Lions drew first blood early in the game, as the special teams set up a 40-yard field goal by Dalessio, making it 3-0 in favor of the College.
Late in the second quarter, the Lions added two points to that lead, bringing down sophomore wide receiver/quarterback James Felton in the end zone for a safety.
The Cougars required just one big play to spoil the Lions’ half however, as Roque pulled a vanishing act on the Lions’ lead, connecting with sophomore wide receiver Durell Dukes for an electrifying 73-yard scoring strike with only 41 seconds remaining in the half.
The quick score, making it a 7-5 contest in the Cougars favor, didn’t shake up the Lions, though. In fact, team morale was perhaps the best it has ever been.
“Our defense was coming up and making big plays all game,” Bach said. “We had one hiccup in the first half and they were able to capitalize. But we knew we could hold them. We went into the locker room at the half and we were all fired up. It was amazing.”
The adjustments made at the half combined with the high morale definitely worked, as was seen by the Lions’ stunning late-game heroics.
The offense, struggling mightily as it did, seems to be in a better place for next year than it did entering this season, many of those hopes riding on the shoulders of James.
James, who had a marquee game last week, struggled this week, going 8-for-20 with 146 yards and one touchdown with three interceptions.
The problems with the passing game did not fall squarely on James’ shoulders, however, as the offensive line had problems with protection and junior running back Dan Dornacker was out of action with an ankle injury.
In the process of grabbing the late victory, the Lions snapped a three-game losing streak, finishing the season 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the NJAC, a stark departure from the goals set by the team early in the year.
“Even though we didn’t accomplish everything we wanted (to), I feel extremely confident in the future of this team,” Bach said. “They are in a good place and have a great chance to be a contender for the national playoffs next year.”