Photo Courtesy of Monmouth University Athletics

Monmouth's comeback win closes out first CAA season on positive note

WEST LONG BRANCH – In a season filled with many positives than negatives and more peaks than valleys but fraught with one heartbreaking loss after another, Monmouth University turned the tables Saturday with a never say die 24-21 comeback win over Stony Brook on senior day and season finale.

"I think it goes without saying that's it's good to finish off the season with a win," said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. "We've had four really tough weeks recently where we were close but couldn't quite get over the hump and get the victory. To see several guys fight so hard in the last game of their careers, to play the way we played, and to answer their scores, I could not be happier for this group."

The Hawks dominated the Seawolves on both sides of the ball throughout the afternoon. However, they found themselves trailing, 21-17, late in the fourth quarter after a couple of costly turnovers let Stony Brook hang around and eventually take the lead.

Holding on to a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, Monmouth had moved from its 16-yard line to the 49. They were looking at a third-and-11 when freshman quarterback Enzo Arjona, starting his third game in a row in place of the injured Tony Muskett, was sacked and stripped of the ball, giving Stony Brook possession at the Monmouth 36-yard line.

On second-and-7 from the 32-yard line, sophomore linebacker Remi Johnson sacked Seawolves quarterback Daron Bryden for a 10-yard loss setting up a third-and-16 from the 42. Bryden then dropped a perfect pass into the hands of RJ Lamaree down the right sidelines for a 33-yard gain.

Monmouth cornerback Jalen Dotson played the ball perfectly, but Bryden threaded the needle giving Stony Brook a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line. Three plays later, Bryden found Ross Tallaerico from 5 yards out to give Stony Brook its first and only lead of the game, 21-17, with 8:17 remaining in the fourth quarter.

It was an "oh no, here we go again" moment, and the game had heartbreak written all over it. But the Hawks weren't about to let that happen, especially not on Senior Day or the last game of the season.

The Hawks' offense took over at their 25-yard line following a fair catch on the kickoff. Two plays later on a second-and-7, Arjona found junior wideout Dymere Miller on a slant over the middle around the 40. Miller, who had a game-high seven receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown, grabbed the ball in stride, headed to the left sidelines, and outraced the nearest defender for a 72-yard scoring play to give the lead back to the Hawks, 24-21, with 7:32 remaining in the game.

The Hawks' defense, which had played its best overall game of the season up to this point, then came up with probably its biggest stop of the year.

On third-and-7 from their own 28-yard line, Bryden faded back to pass but was flushed out of the pocket and taken down by junior defensive tackle Pat Hayden for a loss of 8, forcing a Stony Brook punt on fourth-and-15.

"I've been waiting for one of those all year, to be honest," said Miller. "I saw a lot of turf out there and just went for it. I've been watching Jaden (Shirden) break big plays all year, and I just wanted to be there with him."

Still, the Hawks offense had work to do with 5:09 reaming in the fourth quarter and hanging on to a slim 3-point lead, 24-21.

In only his third start of his young career, Arjona, who ended up completing 14-of-22 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown, brushed off his turnovers and led the Hawks down the field on one of the most important drives of the season.

The Hawks took over at their own 20-yard line with 5:09 remaining in the fourth and proceeded to run out the clock with a textbook 11-play drive to seal the win. Arjona and Miller connected for a crucial 37-yard pickup that moved the ball to the Stony Brook 28-yard line. Star running back Jaden Shirden ran the ball six times for 28 yards on the drive, but the drive's highlight was a run by senior running back Juwon Farri with a little over two minutes left.

On second-and-10 from the 15-yard line, Farri burst through the line of scrimmage and had a clear path into the endzone. However, instead of walking in for an easy touchdown and welcoming the accolades that would come with it, he unselfishly slid down at the 3-yard line to run out the clock with Stony Brook out of timeouts.

"I think the important thing is that no one on our sideline had that feeling of, "here we go again," said Callahan. "Maybe up in the press box or some of the fans might've had that feeling, but I don't think anybody on the sideline or anybody on the team or anybody on the coaching staff felt that way. We just had to go out and answer them, and that's exactly what we did.

"And then, I think what was even more impressive was once we got that stop and got the ball back with about four minutes left, we were able to take all the time off the clock. Anytime you can do that with the offense and the stop that we got with the defense before that was huge."

Farri was a two-time first-team All-Big South selection and 2022 second-team FCS Preseason All-American pick but lost his starting job this season to Shirden, who currently leads the nation in rushing. That play, in a nutshell, epitomizes what a team player Farri has been this season, doing whatever was asked of him to help the team and never hanging his head or sulking.

"I don't want this to be missed," said Callahan. "Another one of our seniors, Juwan Farri, a guy who hasn't played as much as he's used to playing, has the endzone in front of him with no defenders in sight, and he stops to take a knee because that's the right thing to do. That's the right thing to do to guarantee a win for the team. It's a testament of just how unselfish he is, and it's that attitude and type of play that has gotten out program to where it is today."

On the second play of the game, Shirden did what he's been doing all season while making it look easy. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster broke a 72-yard touchdown run to give the Hawks a quick 7-0 lead. It was a classic Shirden touchdown jaunt. The offensive line opened a nice running lane for him before he accelerated through the hole, turned on the after-burners and outraced the nearest defender into the end zone.

Shirden finished with 155 yards rushing and a touchdown on 23 carries. It was Shirden's fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game and the second time this season he ran for 100-plus yards for four games in a row. He ended the season with 1,722 yards rushing, the second-highest total in Monmouth program history behind Pete Guerriero's 1,995 yards. And depending on the outcome of Saturday's games, he has a chance to lead both the FCS and FBS in rushing. It was also his 13th touchdown, tied for seventh in program history in a single season.

On the Hawks' third possession of the game, they drove 88 yards in 12 plays to take a 14-0 lead. Arjona had completions of 22 and 27 yards to wideout Assanti Kearny and tight end Jack Neri respectively, while Farri had runs of 15 and five yards. Senior running back Owen Wright finished off the scoring drive walking it in from 3-yards out for his 16th rushing touchdown of the season, which leads the CAA and tied for third in the FCS. It is also fifth on Monmouth's all-time single-season list.

Early in the second quarter Stony Brook forced a Monmouth punt and took over on their own 21. On first down, Hawks strong safety Tyrese Wright picked off Bryden for his second interception. Wright played the ball perfectly, dropping back into the passing lane and making an acrobatic grab that's bound to make the highlight reel.

Monmouth then took over at the Seawolves 31 and had a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line but had to settle for an Eric Bernstein 22-yard field goal and a 17-0 lead with 6:55 left in the half.

Meanwhile, the Hawks' defense was suffocating the Stony Brook offense. On the Seawolves' ensuing possession following Wright's interception, veteran linebacker Da'Quan Grimes sacked Bryden for a 9-yard loss on third-and-4 from the 37 and forced a punt.

However, following the Stony Brook punt, Arjona tried to hit Kearney in the left flat on second-and-15 from their own 45 but was picked off by Carthell Flowers-Lloyd and returned for a touchdown pulling Stony Brook to within 17-7 at the half.

The Monmouth defense held Stony Brook to 44 total offensive yards in the first half, including 18-yards rushing on 13 attempts and 26-yards passing while pitching a shutout.

The Hawks' offense came out flat in the second half. After gaining 252 yards in the first half, they were held to nine yards on ten plays in the third quarter while the Seawolves' offense was eventually able to break through on the Hawks' defense.

On Stony Brook's second possession of the third quarter following a 10-yard sack by cornerback Mike Reid on first down, running back Ross Tallarico broke a 66-yard touchdown run to pull the Seawolves to within three points, 17-14.

Monmouth's defense only gave up two big plays the entire game, the Tallarico run and Bryden's 33-yard third-down pass to Lamarre that set up their go-ahead touchdown. Other than that, they were dominating. They held Stony Brook to 199 yards of total offense for the game, including 105 yards rushing on 31 attempts for a measly 3.3 yards per carry average and 94 yards passing. It was nice to see Monmouth's much-maligned defense end the season with such an impressive performance.

"Personally, I think it was great that we were able to finally able to get it together," said Grimes, who played his final game as a Hawk and led the team with seven tackles along with a sack and ended his career sixth in program history with 273 career tackles. "The big thing for us was showing up on third down and being able to get the stops. All season long, we were not winning the battles on third down, and I think that's where we improved the most today."

Stony Brook converted on just 4-of-11 third-down plays.

It was a great win for the seniors to go out on, and one senior in particular, offensive tackle Justin Szuba, will be hard to replace. Szuba came in as a freshman in 2017 and has been an anchor on the offensive line since 2019, when he earned All-American honors by Hero Sports and was a first-team All-Big South selection in the spring of 2021. He missed the fall 2021 season with an injury but returned strong this season, as his leadership was invaluable across the board.

"Honestly, I just so grateful," said Szuba. "I'm grateful to be part of this team and get this win today. It was a hard season; anyone can see that. It didn't turn out the way anyone wanted it to, but the way the boys bounced back and responded today and for us to come out and play what I think was out best game of the year, it means a lot."