Greetings, Lion fans, and I wish there were better circumstances in which we were coming to you, but things are as they are. After yet ANOTHER disappointing loss in game that the Lions should easily have won, Brian and I wanted to take the time to address the Lions current situation, and what happens from here.
First of all, any hopes of the playoffs, and chasing one last national title in Division 2 before at least a four year hiatus from postseason competition in the Southland Conference are gone. With three total losses, including to a team with a losing record before last Saturday, no conceivable scenario exists in which A&M-Commerce goes back to the playoffs, and so the streak of excellence which began in 2015 will now end.
So, how do David Bailiff and the team approach the rest of the season, and what can they hope to accomplish? We’ll take a look here from all three phases, and then overall. So, without any further adieu, let’s dive right in.
OFFENSE-There’s no sugarcoating this. The Lion offense in 2021 has been nothing short of a train wreck. The polished, dynamic, explosive unit we anticipated and expected to see this season has not shown up. The product that has been on the field this season has sputtered, smoked, and coughed like a broken down antique car. It was anticipated that there would be some issues offensively with the injury to Miklo Smalls, but with the depth and returning experience of the offensive line, receivers, and running backs, that Lion backup quarterbacks would be more of a game manager (and there not a thing wrong with that), that would not necessairily be counted on to win a game, but to get the ball to the play makers. There were some kinks earlier this season that seemed to be on their way to being solved. Then came last Saturday. Miklo Smalls was back. The buzz around the press area was that the offense was primed and ready to roll, and we would all get a much anticipated look at what the offense would and should have been.
Until it didn’t. All the problems that were seemingly solved, weren’t Miklo Smalls went 23-37 for 198 yards, and threw two interceptions, one that was returned for 74 yards and a touchdown. and the other stopped a drive in Saginaw Valley territory. The pre snap and procedure penalties were back with a vengance ( 9 penalties for 60 yards total), the Lions were an anemic 5 for 18 on third down conversions. and running game averaged a pathetic 2.1 yards per attempt. Smalls was sacked four times, and spent most of the afternoon running for his life.
All in all, a recipe for exactly what happened. A frustrating, unnecessary loss to a team that the Lions should have handled easily.
DEFENSE-The one highlight of this season has been the defensive unit. In yesterday’s loss, the Lions held Saginaw Valley to 127 total yards. The Cardinals managed just 103 yards rushing on 46 runs, for an average of just 2.2 yards per attempt. Against the pass, the Blue Gang was other worldly. 24 TOTAL YARDS PASSING ON 3 COMPLETIONS IN 10 ATTEMPTS. Along with four sacks, and holding Saginaw Valley to 1 of 13 third down conversions, it was a virtuoso performance, It just wasn’t enough for a win, despite setting the offense up twice with turnovers inside the Cardinal red zone.
SPECIAL TEAMS-God Bless Jake Viquez. The senior from Rockwall has been an outstanding performer all season for the Lions, and it was never more evident than this past weekend. Field goals of 27 and 31 yards, the last as time expired, got the game tied for Commerce. A great effort that went for naught.
Redshirt freshman from Australia, Mitchell McGarry stepped forward, and was just outstanding in the punt game yesterday. Despite having to deal with a stiff south wind for half the game, McGarry still was able to average 32.8 yards on nine punts, and was far more effective than the numbers would indicate.
Redshirt senior Dominique Ramsey continued to be frustrated by teams that refuse to kick in his direction. He was able to manage just over 13 yards per return, and had a long of 33 yards. The same holds true in the kick return game.
HOW DID WE GET HERE? – There are any one of a number of things, but from our point of view, it comes down to among other things…….the Lions collapse in the second half of games. The team has, for the most part, come out like a house afire, only to seemingly go into a shell in the final 30 minutes. Against Midwestern, the Lions raced out to a 23-0 lead, and held a 30-17 lead entering the fourth quarter. Against West Florida, the Lions were leading the #1 Division 2 team in the country 17-14 late in the third quarter before yet another fourth quarter collapse.
The lack of discipline and concentration offensively. The aforementioned pre snap and procedure penalties have been a major problem all season. The quarterback position that was thought settled and improving, completely regressed this past week.
There also have been several questionable coaching decisions. Against Midwestern, in the final few seconds, the Lions had rallied and were in a position to win at the gun. A quick sideline route had them well inside Mustang territory, and there was enough time remaining for one more play, and a long, but very makeable chance for Jake Viquez. Instead, the Lions chose for a last second Hail Mary pass that fell incomplete. Against West Florida, the Lions offense, in addition to failing to convert on third downs, also failed to attack the middle of the field and instead chose to play on the perimeter, where the Argonaut defense was waiting.
The story was much the same this past Saturday, as the play calling seemed to lack any idea of where or when they wanted to attack, and again did not work the middle of the field. The Cardinal defense was well prepared, and continually had 8 men within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and time after time, the Lions seemingly either couldn’t, or wouldn’t adjust. Twice, in the second half, the offense was setup inside the Saginaw Valley red zone via a defensive turnover, and came away with no points. Add to this an ill advised pooch kick by Smalls on a fourth down and four earlier in the first half. It was a very makeable (less than four yards), yet the decision was made attempt a pooch kick into a stiff wind that netted all of nine yards.
In addition, the announcement of the move to Division 1 FCS and the Southland Conference has certainly been a distraction. While we fully support the move, and all the things it will bring to our school aside from the step up in noteriety, etc., it seemingly couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. Focus and attention to detail seemingly have been lost.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? – Pride. That, and the fact that this current group of players and coaches are laying the foundation for success going foward. For at least the next four years, this is all the Lions have to play for. Will it be enough? That remains to be seen.
How is the Lions ship to be righted? Do some personnel need to be benched, and some others given a chance? Some others moved off of redshirt status and given an opportunity? There are a number of possibilities, all that seem realistic.
The bottom line is this: 2021 was expected and anticipated to be one of success that ended up with a trip to McKinney has long since gone off the rails, and seemingly for no good reason. There are five games left to salvage something. It’s no small task. The Lions could as easily end up 5-6 or win out, and finish 8-3. Now, it’s up to the Lions coaches and players to fix it.. And fix it, they can.