By Connor Smith
Brisk temperatures and an overcast sky greeted the football team before its home opener on Saturday, Sept. 24, against the No. 24 Christopher Newport University Captains. The Lions defense shut down the best offense in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC), but their own offense could not muster enough plays to overcome an eventual 17-0 deficit.
“Our offense is growing up,” interim head coach Rocky Hager said. “We have some things that we need to develop on the offensive side. We need to take care of the first level of blocks, meaning mainly their defensive line. Then, we need to work up to the second level linebackers a little more decisively at a less quick fashion.”
As the College hosted its annual Parent and Family Day, the stands were packed with students, parents and alumni who harbored hopes of a Lions upset. Although summer ended just days prior, their sweatshirts, jeans and windbreakers helped usher in the true beginning of autumn.
The Lions defense came off an impressive performance against Kean University, however, Christopher Newport was confident in its top-flight offense, led by junior quarterback K.J. Kearney.
Ten minutes before kickoff, the sky seemed to signal incoming rain. However, like the potential for a Newport thrashing, this was a calm before a storm that never came.
The Captains won the opening coin flip and deferred, in order to receive in the second half. The Lions failed to make anything of it, though, and were forced to punt on their first set of downs.
The return man misjudged the powerful boot of freshman punter Zack Warcola, as he nearly turned the ball over at the Captains 32-yard line.
The Captains offense seemed to fit its original billing in the opening drive. Kearney led the team down the field for a touchdown, and the Lions defense seemed outmatched.
“Defensively, they took the first two possessions and moved the ball pretty well on us,” Hager said. “The speed of the game is much faster than what you can simulate in practice.”
After another Warcola punt, the Captains were poised for a rout. With relative ease, Kearney marched the offense to the Lions 32-yard line.
With momentum spiraling in his favor, Kearney darted the ball into the arms of senior defensive back Jordan Rogers — the passer’s first interception of the year. He was 5 for 5 until the pick.
The Lions offense failed to move the chains, and Warcola airmailed another punt to the opposing 32-yard line.
Without much in the way of reprieve, the Lions defense once again returned to the field, determined to hold their opponent to the lone end zone score.
With the opponent at their own 42-yard line, the Lions risked a two-possession game. Given their offensive struggles, that could have put the game out of reach. The Lions needed a stop.
First-and-10. Senior linebacker Erik Wehner cut off a running play to five yards.
Second-and-7. Junior defensive lineman Shane Kelley helps hold Kearney to a one-yard rush.
Third-and-6. Kearney spots a receiver, tosses it and Kelley breaks it up to force a punt and give the Lions another shot on offense.
As the clouds began to part, the Lions defense played with a different swagger. In the first two drives, the Lions were outmatched. Then something changed. According to Hager, they just needed to catch up to the Captains pace of play.
“It took us eight, maybe nine or 10 minutes to get used to the speed with which they came at us,” he said. “Once we did that, our defense held up pretty well.”
While the offense failed to muster the equalizer, the defense strung together five consecutive stops, which began with the early interception. Junior linebacker Troy Domenick said it only took a few adjustments.
“We had more coverage guys in,” he said. “Besides that, we played our normal base defense the whole game.”
By the third quarter, the sweatshirts were off and the sun’s warmth made a welcomed appearance. Both teams traded three-and-outs to open the second half, until the Captains cracked a field goal which brought the score to 10-0 with six and half minutes remaining in the third quarter.
The Lions received the ball at the 34-yard line. On the first play of the drive, a pass-interference call flipped an interception into a new set of downs for the Lions.
The Captains’ coach and bench barked back at the referees, which prompted another 15-yard penalty. The Lions drove 30 yards on what could have been an ugly pick.
This was the closest the Lions would get. A second-down sack forced the Lions into a desperate fourth-down gambit, which failed and ultimately handed control of the game over to the Captains.
The Captains didn’t score another point on offense, but a desperate throw, late in the game, netted them a pick-six and a 17-0 victory.
The Lions opted to run out the clock and accepted the shutout loss.
“They’re a great offense,” Domenick said. “They have great players on their offense. We played lights out defense the whole game. It feels great stopping them the entire game. We held them to 10 points, besides a bad play on offense.”
The Lions (0-3) must now travel to Salisbury University in Maryland to face the reigning conference champs. According to Hager, Salisbury’s option-heavy offense will be a change of pace.
“I coached the option for a long time and have a decent idea of what it is they do for their reads,” Hager said. “We’ll have to have a good week’s worth of practice to get ourselves squared away… We’ve gotta be able to stay with the quarterback, stay with the dive, and stay with the pitch.”
For Domenick, who led the game with 11 total tackles, this outing proved the team is on the verge of victory.
“We’ll definitely bounce back after this game,” he said “We’re gonna practice a lot harder. This was a tough loss, but we’re gonna bounce back. We’re gonna work harder, and I think we’ll win next week.”