Close, but no cigar.
The College’s hopes of stealing a victory away from New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) rivals Montclair State University fell just right of the goal post, as a 28-yard field goal by senior Marc Zucconi sailed wide right with less than one minute remaining to secure the Red Hawks’ 16-13 victory Saturday.
An impressive Lions defensive effort rusted in the rain, as a soaked Lions Stadium played host to the College’s annual Homecoming Game. Hundreds of alumni and students packed the bleachers, ultimately moaning to the tune of two field goals and one PAT being blocked, in addition to the missed potential game-winner.
“The PAT was blocked because of a blocking assignment. The field goal was blocked because a kid jumped up 15 feet behind the line of scrimmage — the kid made a great play, what are you going to do?” head coach Eric Hamilton said.
Two muffed punt returns by sophomore defensive back Scotty Mathurin were also lowlights of a likely weather-affected special teams unit, but the College’s defensive efforts did not go unnoticed, holding Montclair State to 169 total yards, as well as 32 yards rushing on 29 attempts.
“The attitude coming in this week for Montclair was totally different with our defensive coordinator — he said, ‘if it’s not working let’s fix it and try something different,’ so we went balls out, brought the house on every play, we just switched everything up,” senior defensive end and tri-captain Craig Meyer said. “We blitzed hard and … defensively everyone played great today, I’m very proud, everyone had big plays and we gelled on defense, it’s unfortunate it took until now to do it.”
Senior defensive back and tri-captain Ryan Flannery added, “Pretty much all year we have been relying on the offense to bail us out, but our guys up front really came up to play. Their game plan was to come out and run the ball and we pretty much stopped that today.”
Although the Lions fell short in the end, the contest was not lost at the hands of the Red Hawk’s rushing defense, ranked No. 4 in Division III. Montclair State had averaged 54 rushing yards allowed this season, but the College pushed ahead for 126 yards on the ground, the most by any opponent in this year.
More impressive was the fact that both sophomore running back Justin Doniloski and senior running back Chase Misuira missed time with injuries in the second half. Freshman running back Kevin Brown stepped up when the Lions’ two leading rushers went down, rushing for 32 yards and the touchdown that brought the College within a field goal early in the fourth quarter.
“That was pretty gutsy effort by a group of guys that, we didn’t have everybody out there,” Hamilton said. “Guys stepped up and played real hard. They played well but we played hard and if we don’t turn the ball over, then maybe it’s a different story. Our defense came to play, our offense had just enough and we were inches (away).”
Senior quarterback Chris James added, “It was a heck of a team effort — I’ll go to battle with these guys any day of the week. I don’t care if we’re 21, 50, flag football, whatever. We got heart and we got pride. It just sucks that we couldn’t come out on top.”
The College fell to 4-3, and with three NJAC losses the Lions are likely out of conference championship contention. Montclair State improved to 6-1, remaining tied with Kean University for the NJAC lead.
Although a win wasn’t in the cards, Hamilton was content with the Homecoming crowd.
“We were waiting all year for our students to come out, it was great,” Hamilton said. “Maybe that’s why our guys responded, I don’t know. I thought that as the game went on, we got better. It was one of those games where it would have been neat to see overtime. I’m not happy we lost, there is no such thing as a moral victory.”
“When we get a crowd like this with all the older guys here watching us play really lifts our emotions and we play better,” Flannery added.
The Lions will try to rebound on the road at SUNY-Cortland at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31.