Greetings, Lion fans, and with the 2021 Division 2 football season in the books, and with it, one that closes the chapter of Lion football as a Division 2 and founding Lone Star Conference member. New horizons await in 2022 as a full fledged Division 1-FCS and Southland Conference member. Brian and I will have more on this as the days go by, but for now, let’s take a look back and break down the 2021 football season.
Over all, it was one of heartbreak and disappointment. The Lions were returning the vast majority of starters on both sides of the ball, had a favorable schedule with seven home games, an explosive offense, rock solid defense, and veteran leadership that was anticipated to drive the Lions on, at the least, a deep playoff run, and at the best, a chance to turn McKinney ISD Stadium into Hawkins Field West.
Except it didn’t work out. After a 7-4 season that would be cause for celebration in many places, instead left supporters of the blue and gold in a collective fog of frustration and disappointment. Let’s take a look at everything that went right, and everything that went wrong. The Good, The Bad, and yes, The Ugly.
THE GOOD: DEFENSE- First, some numbers to provide some perspective.
Total Defense-3rd in Division 2
Rush Defense-18th in Division 2
Pass Defense-3rd in Division 2
3rd Down Conversions- 16th in Division 2
4th Down Conversions- Tied for 41st in Division 2
First Downs Allowed- 14th in Division 2
Pass Efficiency Defense- 3rd in Division 2
Quarterback Sacks-10th in Division 2
Ladies and gentlemen, this year’s editon of the Blue Gang was what my friend, and former Lion great Billy Minor would call “Championship Level” defense. They were that good. The Lion defensive unit allowed just 13 offensive touchdowns ALL SEASON, for an average of just 1.18 per game. That’s not a made up statistic, it’s a fact. Yes, it includes the games against Midwestern, West Florida, Angelo State, and the overtime game against Saginaw Valley
Fans, I watched both D2 semifinal and the championship games this season, and I’m telling you that, of the four teams- Ferris State, Valdosta State, Shepherd, and Colorado School of Mines….there was not a team involved that the Lions could not have dominated, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
For those that might think that first year defensive coordinator Xavier Adibi and his staff might have just caught lightning in a bottle during the 2019 season, here’s proof that they’ve only gotten better, and the sky’s the limit for this group:
Scoring- 20.3 in 2019 to 13.7 in 2021
Rushing-122.5 in 2019 to 102.6 in 2021
Passing-193.7 in 2019 to 127.5 in 2021
Total Defense-411.2 in 2019 to 230.2 in 2021
Interceptions- 9 in 2019 to 11 in 2021
There is not a football program in the country that wouldn’t take those kind of numbers and productivity defensively at any level. AT ANY LEVEL.
So, what went wrong in 2021 that left the Lions at home in the 2021 post season? We’re coming to that.
THE BAD-OFFENSE: Again, some statistical perspective: The Lions were not in the TOP 50 in any offensive statistic in Division 2: Rushing, Passing, Scoring, Total, first downs, third down conversions, completion percentage, the Lion offense is nowhere to be found. What is completely befuddling to both Brian and I, as well as just about anyone that covers or is a fan of Texas A&M-Commerce football is this: How did this offense that propelled a run to the Division 2 quarterfinals in 2019, and completely wore down and then dominated a Tarleton State defense that was one of the best in the country? Let’s look at the numbers:
Scoring- 32.9 in 2019 to 30.0 in 2021
Rushing-168.6 in 2019 to 160.0 in 2021
Passing-241.1 in 2019 to 166.8 in 2021
Total- 410.3 in 2019 to 326.8 in 2021
Interceptions- 11 in 2019 to 10* in 2021
*Four interceptions thrown by Lion quarterbacks in 2021 were returned for touchdowns
The Lion offense was expected to be somewhat hampered in 2021 due to the offseason injury to QB1 Miklo Smalls. It was anticipated, and reinforced by the Lion offensive staff, that while possibly not as explosive as it would be with a healthy Smalls, there were more than enough playmakers at the remaining skill positions, that along with an intact and healthy offensive line, would allow the backup, Jai Magalei, to be more of a game manager, and just get the ball into the hands of a deep, experienced corps of receivers and running backs.
Except it didn’t happen. The sleek, high end, performance Ferrari that was to be the Lion offense instead turned out to be a coughing, sputtering, 58 Edsel broken down on the side of the road. I asked Head Coach David Bailiff directly in the final post game press conference what the main struggles were offensively in 2021, and his reasoning was inconsistency at quarterback.
Magalei began the season as the starter, and after a shaky start in the high winds and altitude of Pueblo, Colorado, began to round into shape. By the time the Texas A&M-Kingsville game came around, he had taken control. 18-20, 166 yards, and a touchdown, Magalei was coming into his own. Then, suddenly, it all fell apart. Miklo Smalls returned two weeks later against Saginaw Valley, and despite going 22-36 for 193 yards, and a touchdown, also threw a pick six, and was sacked four times. He was never the same player that so excited fans in 2019. The Lions continued to struggle at quarterback, and could never seem to settle on one that could provide any leadership or consistency. Only freshman sensation Eric Rodriguez seemed to display any decisiveness, and have an idea of what he wanted to accomplish. For the 2021 season, Rodriguez was 17 of 34 for 258 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He surely made mistakes. but they were certainly not from a lack of effort or questionable decision making.
With graduation and transfers set to take a tremendous toll on the Lions offensively, there is going to a lot of rebuilding needed. Recruiting is going to be of paramount importance this off season.
THE UGLY-COACHING DECISIONS, STRATEGY, APPROACH: Let me begin by saying this: This is not about the defensive or special teams staff. Those two areas were outstanding, carrying the Lions, and quite possibly keeping them from what otherwise could very possibly have been a losing season. The ugliness of the 2021 season lies with offensive coordinator Billy Riebock, Head Coach David Bailiff, and the offensive staff. Bailiff was heard to mention several times in post game press conferences and interviews that any responsibility for the offensive or team struggles were borne by Bailiff himself and the coaching staff. They had to find a way to get better, to be able to get better in various areas like running the ball, being more consistent at quarterback, reducing penalties, etc. . We heard this on multiple occasions.
There is a saying in football circles, but has most notably been voiced by such coaches at Mike Leach at Mississippi State, and Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson, formerly of Oklahoma State, Miami, and the Dallas Cowboys:
“You’re either coaching it, or allowing it to happen”
Take for example, penalties. They decreased from 109 for a 76.0 yards per game average in 2019, to 93 in 2021, but the average yardage was virtually the same at 75.9. So, while the number may have gone down, the yardage didn’t change.
The failure to establish a running game. Lion offensive coaches stubbornly attempted to get the run game going, despite opposing defenses having anywhere from 6-9 personnel within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The constant shuffling of quarterbacks. Magalei, Smalls, Rodriguez and freshman Brock Nellor all saw action this past season, at various times all four in the same game. It appeared at times that the offensive staff were fumbling in the dark, searching for answers that were not forthcoming.
There seemed to be no rhyme, reason, or logic to the offensive scheme this season. The middle of the field was seldom attacked, if at all. There were hardly any in routes, slants, or shallow crossing routes at all.
Going back to the 2019 playoff win in Stephenville, late in the fourth quarter, and the Lions stubbornly clinging to a 23-16 lead, facing third and long from inside their own 10 yard line, it was an in route from Miklo Smalls to Ryan Stokes that gave the Lions a first down, and enabled them to drain the clock, gave some much needed momentum.
The complete lack of production from the tight end position. In 2017, it was Vincent Hobbs that provided a real threat over the middle and was one of toughest and most dependable Lion receivers ever. In 2018 and 2019, Tyler Guice took over, and while not as flashy or explosive as Hobbs, was the same dependable threat. In 2019, Lion tight ends accounted for 15 catches and 221 yards, with five touchdowns. In 2021, production was almost nonexistent. Lion tight ends managed just four catches for 17 yards and no touchdowns in 2021. That not a misprint. FOUR CATCHES FOR 17 TOTAL YARDS.
Where was Jake Viquez? Viquez, one of the best kickers in Lion football history, had a long field goal of 48 yards in 2019 and 52 in 2021. Yet, there were times when Lion coaches appeared hesitant use him, despite displaying an ability to connect from 60-65 yards out. The most glaring example of this was in the waning seconds of the loss to Midwestern State, when the Lions, despite having one timeout left, and time to run one more play, call timeout, and allow Viquez to attempt a long field goal from about 45-55 yards, instead chose to throw a Hail Mary pass that fell incomplete, and dashed Lion hopes for a win.
Frustrating and mystifying only begin to describe the 2021 season.
EPILOUGE- Let me begin by saying this: Brian and I are, after careful consideration and analysis, are expressing our perspective and opinion. We have not, and will not, express an opinion that calls for changes in any position of the coaching staff. Never have, never will. What we will do, though, is give everyone that reads our product an honest assessment of the program and results from it. We don’t sugar coat anything. This is what you as the reader get, and WHAT WE THINK. Nothing else.
That begin said, the 2021 season was just heartbreaking. This was a group of young men primed for a run to the title in 2020, but denied by COVID protocols. They bided their time, returned the vast majority of a 2019 team that made some serious playoff noise, and were prepared to take back what they felt was theirs in 2021.
So, where did it all go wrong? From our view, the defense and special teams were just outstanding. Offensively, though, it was another story, one that went far deeper than struggles at quarterback. The offense in 2021, at times took on the appearance of a Radio City Hall Rockettes show…..1,2, 3 kick. As a result, especially in the games against West Florida, where the Lions held a 17-14 halftime, began the fourth quarter sitll within one score, and the Midwestern State game, where the Lions held a 23-7 halftime lead, and 30-17 at the start of the fourth quarter, left the defense on the field for far too long and resulted in an eventual breakdown, and loss of both games.
Where do the Lions go from here? Right now, there is so much uncertaintity, and even more questions, but it all begins with recruiting, and we’ll have more on that subject in the coming days.
Until then, take heart, Lion fans. There is still a lot of talent in the pipeline, and much promise lies ahead.
The future remains bright in Lion Nation.