Thursday, October 29, 2009

The “what ifs” are haunting for Flying Dutchmen gridders

When the Flying Dutchmen football season ends—and barring a miracle, that’ll occur sometime at Shuart Stadium in the late afternoon hours of Nov. 21—Dave Cohen and his staff will be able to look back on it as a reasonably successful one in which the program began to emerge from the wreckage of a miserable 2008 campaign, proved it could compete with most of the best teams in the land and laid the foundation for a potential playoff run in 2010.

But that is of little consolation right now to the Dutchmen, and particularly the seniors whose hopes of reaching the Division I-AA playoffs likely ended with an 18-10 loss to New Hampshire last Saturday.

“For our leadership, for our seniors, that’s a tough locker room right now,” Cohen said. “It’s a very emotional locker room. They understood that their backs were against the wall if they planned on playing past the regular season. And beyond the CAA teams knocking each other off in the next month or so…it’s going to be difficult for that to happen.”

At 4-4, the Dutchmen would theoretically be in the mix for an at-large spot if they sweep Delaware, Northeastern and Massachusetts to end the season. But Delaware and UMass are both in the top 15 and the Dutchmen’s only win against a ranked team this season came at the expense of skidding James Madison.

Beating ninth-ranked New Hampshire would have provided the Dutchmen that much-needed signature win, but missed opportunities in all facets of the game cost the Dutchmen dearly. On offense, the Dutchmen once again had the edge in time of possession (for the seventh time this year) and total yardage (for the sixth time), but were haunted again by inefficiency—particularly in the red zone, where they scored just twice in four possessions.

“As I’ve been saying all week, the yardage statistic is very, I think, overused,” Cohen said. “The point statistic is really the only one that matters. Winning and losing [and] putting the ball in the end zone.”

The Dutchmen produced another impressive performance on defense, but with the offense providing little margin for error, the cracks displayed in the second half—when New Hampshire scored its lone touchdown by marching 81 yards in just five plays on its first possession and later went 4-of-8 on third down conversions—were especially costly.

On special teams, a bad snap on a punt midway through the fourth quarter resulted in a safety, and New Hampshire drove for a field goal following the subsequent free kick.

“The same mistakes that have hurt us in some games came back to prevent us from winning this football game as well,” Cohen said, no doubt referring to the Homecoming game against Maine in which the Dutchmen committed seven turnovers, allowed one quick touchdown drive by the Black Bears and missed a field goal in a 16-14 loss. “They’re not new demons. They’re just returning ones.”

The good news is there will be plenty of opportunity to exorcise those demons. The Dutchmen returned 20 starters this season, 15 of whom are juniors or sophomores. The struggles the Dutchmen are enduring this season would seem to be the type of learning experiences that can hasten the maturity of a young team as well as provide it some motivational fuel next summer and fall.

And even throwing a scare into the likes of New Hampshire and Division I-A Western Michigan qualifies as an encouraging step forward for a program that was shut out twice last season and suffered six losses by two touchdowns or more—and is just six weeks removed from a 47-0 loss to top-ranked Richmond.

“The guys that run that locker room have done a great job,” Cohen said. “Last year, we essentially graduated our whole team after going 7-4 and those guys have kept this thing together in some much more miserable times than losing to the no. 7 or no. 8 team in the country 18-10.”

Still, what-if defeats like Saturday are even more haunting than the uncompetitive losses are discouraging. “When you have two games like this in three weeks, we’ve got to do a better job,” Cohen said. “We’ve got to play more disciplined and we’ve got to continue to grow and mature. A year ago, we’re not in half of these games, and that’s the good news. We’re in them.

“But, you know what, these kids worked too hard and this is how we support our families. It all comes down to winning these games.”

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