Monmouth football
Photo courtesy of Monmouth football

Monmouth hangs tough but Florida Atlantic too much to handle

WEST LONG BRANCH – When a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team plays up a level up against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team, the former is normally outclassed due to a wide disparity of talent that always favors the latter.

For the most part, that was true on Saturday. Florida Atlantic was the better team and at times it wasn’t pretty. But Monmouth University hung in there and gave itself a puncher’s chance. They clearly weren’t embarrassed, as is the case more times than not in these matchups. And although the Hawks lost 42-20 to the Owls, an FBS team, it wasn’t the non-competitive blow out that some were predicting.

Going into the game, the Hawks knew they would need to play a perfect game on both sides of the ball if they were to win. But there were some dropped passes, starting quarterback Marquez McCray overthrew an open Dymere Miller for what looked like a sure touchdown in the second quarter and there were some drive-killing false start penalties along with some missed assignments that hurt their chances.

Plus, Florida Atlantic is no slouch. They returned three quarters of last season’s production on both sides of the ball, brought in a ton of talented players through the transfer portal and were picked to finish fifth in the American Athletic Conference. The Owls are guided by first-year coach Tom Herman, who brought his former quarterback at Texas, Casey Thompson, with him. In the last two seasons, Thompson has thrown for over 4,500 yards with 41 touchdowns at Texas and at Nebraska last season.

Thompson was the catalyst for Florida Atlantic’s win, throwing five touchdown passes while completing 20-of-25 passes for 280 yards with one interception. His all-everything running back Larry McCammon was equally as productive rushing for 125 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown while averaging 9.6 yards per carry. He also caught four passes for 59 yards and certainly lived up to his AAC Preseason first team All-Conference billing.

Florida Atlantic’s defense also did a good job of bottling up Monmouth’s All-American running back Jaden Shirden, who was held to just 66 yards on 24 carries and the Hawks were held to a 3.1 yards rushing average as a team, which put added pressure on McCray to perform in his first test as a Hawk.

McCray seemed to gain confidence as the game progressed. Monmouth surprisingly ran the ball six straight times on their first two possession and got nothing. So, it was apparent then the Hawks would have to put the game on McCray’s shoulders and the Sacred Heart transfer responded. He completed 26-of-46 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.

Monmouth showed guts and grit throughout and played extremely hard from the first whistle on. There were some rough moments where they could’ve packed it in and folded up the tents, but to their credit they never stopped battling. It was the little mistakes that killed them and that can be corrected.

The Hawks quickly fell behind 14-0 with 6:56 left in the first quarter but they regrouped and manufactured a 75 yard, 13-play scoring drive. They converted a fourth-and-1 play with McCray completing a four-yard pass to Miller to keep the drive alive. On third-and-1 from the FAU 39-yard line, Jaden Shirden ripped off a 22-yard run to the 17-yard line and running back Sone Ntoh eventually bulled his way in from two-yards out pulling the Hawks to within 14-7.

On the first play of the Owls ensuing drive though, Thompson completed a short pass to McCammon, who then rumbled 55 yards down to the four-yard line. A pass interference call on Monmouth moved the ball to the two-yard line before Thompson found La’Johntay Wester alone for the touchdown and a 21-7 lead.

On the Owls next possession, Monmouth's defense stiffened and forced a punt but Owls punter Logan  Lupo dropped a perfect one at the seven-yard line pinning the Hawks deep in FSU territory. On fourth-and-12 from the four-yard line, Monmouth punter Luke Schabel was forced to punt out of the end zone. Schabel’s punt traveled just 25 yards and the Owls took over at the Monmouth 29-yard line.

Two plays later Thompson hooked up with Je’Quan Burton for an eight-yard touchdown pushing the lead to 28-7 with 6:48 left in the first half.

Monmouth’s defense got a four-and-out stopping the Owls on a fourth-and-1 from the Monmouth 38-yard line with linebacker Jake Brown and defensive end Antonio Colclough making the stop.

The Hawks then put together an impressive nine play, 62-yard scoring drive converting two fourth-down plays to close the gap to 28-14 right before halftime. On fourth-and-3, McCray hit Shirden for three and a first down and on fourth-and-6 from the FAU 27-yard line Assanti Kearney climbed the ladder on a perfectly placed pass from McCray and made a beautiful back shoulder catch on a fade while falling n into the end zone for the touchdown. Sophomore Gavin Nelson also had a crucial 21-yard third down catch that kept the drive alive.

The Owls received the second-half kickoff starting their possession at their own 17-yard line. Monmouth’s defense came out inspired and forced a three-and-out. Linebacker Ryan Moran had two big stops on first and second down and on third-and-2 Nick White and Pat Hayden combined to bring down Zuberi Mobley after a one-yard pickup, forcing a punt.

Moran, vote as one of Monmouth’s captains, played like a man possessed. He finished with a game-high 13 tackles (9 solo), one tackle for a loss and a QB hit. Overall, despite the final score, the defense looked improved over last season and seemed to get its legs as the game went on. Brown, a transfer from Harvard, was impressive finishing with eight tackles (4 solo) and an interception.

McCray was sacked on the Hawks ensuing possession leading to a punt and Florida Atlantic pushed the lead to 35-14 with a 74 yard, six play scoring drive with 6:59 remaining in the third quarter. Burton took a screen pass from Thompson in the flats and turned it into a 35-yard touchdown, breaking numerous tackles on his way to the end zone.

The backbreaker for Monmouth though came with 2:30 left in the third quarter. On first-and-10 from their own 28-yard line, Thompson found Tony Johnson on a simple slant and Johnson went 72 yards for a touchdown. Johnson beat his man on one-on-one coverage and outraced the next nearest defender into the end zone for a 42-14 lead.

On their second possession of the fourth quarter, Monmouth drove 75 yards in six plays to cut their deficit to 42-20. On third-and-5 from their own 30, McCray hit T.J. Speight for 42 yards to the FAU 28. Three plays later, McCray found Dre Tucker open in the end zone on a post for a 16-yard touchdown.

Monmouth finished with 361 yards of total offense while FAU had 493 yards of total offense.

What's Next For Monmouth

Everything considered there were plenty of positives to take from this game and that should give the Hawks confidence as they move into their CAA schedule starting next Saturday when they travel to Townson for another 6:00 p.m. kickoff.