Monday, October 5, 2009

Defiantly Dutch: It’s not just a blog name anymore

Is it too early to cast the lead roles in the movie about the 2009 Flying Dutchmen football team?

The most pivotal win of the Dave Cohen Era had it all: Defensive stands, big plays on offense and gutsy calls by the coaches on the sideline. But the most notable thing to take place Saturday occurred less than half an hour after the Flying Dutchmen shocked no. 7 James Madison, 24-17, and consisted simply of one word that was spoken twice yet delivered with an unmistakable swagger that seemed right out of the Joe Gardi Era.

“Yeah, yeah,” sophomore quarterback Steve Probst said as with a smirk on his face as he sauntered into the Margiotta Hall media room.

The implication was clear: Nobody else thought the Dutchmen would do this, so take that.

“These guys definitely looked past us,” Probst said at the podium. “They’re playing Richmond next week, so they want nothing to do with a smaller crowd. Coming up to New York, it’s an eight-hour bus ride. In my opinion, they looked past us and we just punched the right in the face and we took it from them.”

Apparently, sometime between the end of the 47-0 loss to Richmond Sept. 19 and the opening kickoff Saturday, the Dutchmen decided to channel the 1994 team. Emboldened and embarrassed by that defeat—which Dave Cohen twice dubbed a “debacle” in his post-game press conference Saturday—the Dutchmen are suddenly displaying an attitude equal parts carefree and defiant.

This is a team that now plays with a collective chip on its shoulder and whose players are motivated by being overlooked, either by their opponents or in high school by bigger and more established programs. It’s a team that—warning! bad pun ahead!—prides itself on making up for any talent disadvantage by outhustling and outworking an unsuspecting opponent.

The new attitude manifested itself on both sides of the ball Saturday. The two-QB system that I’ve always supported parlayed resourcefulness and some aggressive play-calling into just enough offense. James Madison had no answer for the Dutchmen’s “zone read” offense operated by Probst and Cory Christopher, who combined for 76 of the Dutchmen’s 154 rushing yards.

When the Dutch did go to the air, the main weapon was under-recruited tight end (“What’s a tight end?” ask the graduates of the run-and-shoot days) Dave Wilson, who had four catches for 65 yards and caught the first two touchdowns of his career.

“A lot of people didn’t give me a chance,” Wilson said. “[Cohen said] ‘We’re going to do some things here. We’re going to make everyone else regret it.’”

The Dutchmen were 4-of-5 on fourth down conversions, including 2-for-2 on a drive spanning the third and fourth quarters that produced no points but ate up more than nine minutes. “They can’t be that surprised, we’ve done fake punts in the last two years from our three-yard-line and our 20-yard-line,” Cohen said. “So they can’t be completely shocked. But honestly, that had to do with the confidence that I had [in] our offensive line and our running game establishing the line of scrimmage.”

Defensively, the Dutchmen allowed James Madison to convert 8-of-15 third downs but limited the Dukes to just 10 points on two trips inside the red zone. A week earlier, the Dutchmen produced a goal-line stand in a 24-10 loss to Western Michigan. In addition, the Dukes collected just 192 yards of total offense, barely half as many as they had (375) in last year’s 56-0 thrashing of the Dutchmen.

“Inevitably, turnovers and third and fourth down stops, to me, come down to your motor, your effort and your energy,” Cohen said. “And I just think the last two weeks, we’ve probably outhustled our opponent, quite frankly, our defense versus that offense.”

Deron Mayo, who at 5-foot-11 was the smallest defensive end listed on either team’s two-deep charts Saturday, racked up nine hard-hitting tackles, including three for a loss and one sack in a performance that earned him CAA Player of the Week honors. He could serve as a symbol of the defiant Dutchmen defense, if only that honor wasn’t already held by another perpetually hungry 5-foot-11 player.

All-American candidate Luke Bonus had nine tackles himself Saturday, but it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that Cohen was playing up his intangibles after the game. “He walks in the room and he looks like he’s probably a pretty good student [and] on a lot of intramural teams,” Cohen said. “And if that’s not what you want your defense to stand for, I don’t know what kind of defense you want.”

Now, of course, Cohen doesn’t have quite the same ammunition as Gardi when it comes to lathering the Dutchmen into an us-against-the-world, nobody-at-all-believes-in-us fury. The Dutchmen are on equal footing, scholarship-wise, with their opponents. They play in the best I-AA conference in the land and the facilities at Hofstra compare favorably to those of their CAA rivals.

And let’s face it: If people were less than serious about the Dutchmen before Saturday, well, the Dutchmen had nobody to blame but themselves. They entered the game 7-14 in their last 21 contests, during which they’d lost six games to ranked opponents who outscored them by a tidy 249-47 margin, including two losses to top-ranked teams by a combined score of 103-0.

But hey, whatever works. Part of being a coach and an elite athlete is finding any sort of slight to use as motivational fuel, even if it’s a “debacle”—to use the word Cohen uttered twice to describe the Richmond loss—of internal doing. Uniting in the aftermath—as the Dutchmen apparently began doing during a meeting Sept. 23—of such an embarrassing defeat sure beats the alternative.

“Obviously, when you work as hard as these guys work, emotionally, you’re hurt, you’re embarrassed by that type of game—you’re frustrated,” Cohen said. “And we just had a little sit-down and we got this thing right. Cory and Luke Bonus and Aaron Weaver and the guys around me, they made this thing right. Cory said ‘that type of game could ruin a lot of groups of 100 men.’ And it didn’t. They used it to their advantage.

“After the debacle, it was almost like, all right, let’s go back to having fun. And that’s what our locker room, our guys, committed to doing.”

And the Dutchmen of 2009 are, in many ways, as overlooked and underappreciated as their 1994 brethren. They are overshadowed in the laughably loaded CAA by monsters such as James Madison, Richmond, Delaware. They are still ignored by the student body and within the community (announced attendance Saturday: 2,751) and the most powerful supporters of the program are no longer in positions of influence.

Those issues didn’t go away Saturday. But for one afternoon, at least, the defiant Dutchmen (shameless, gratuitous plug/pun) turned the clock back to 1994 and embraced the role of the furious underdog in a fashion that had to make Gardi smile up in the luxury boxes.

“Last season, man, we were talking about this after the game—that type of game [against James Madison] can just make you reconsider your own thoughts about playing football,” Christopher said. “[To] get this victory, I’m just so proud to see these looks on these guys’ faces. That’s why you do it, you know? To see how much fun we had, it’s just an amazing feeling right now.”

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