Photo courtesy of Monmouth University Athletics

Defensive struggles continue to plague Monmouth in loss to Towson

WEST LONG BRANCH – Prior to Monmouth University’s game Saturday against Towson University the Hawks hosted a pre-game Halloween celebration for their faithful fans in the parking lot. However, once inside the stadium those same fans were forced to watch a horror show with the Hawks' defense in the leading role.

Playing in front of its largest crowd of the season at Kessler Field, Monmouth’s much-maligned defense failed to show up to the party. They couldn’t stop the run or defend the pass and were totally manhandled at the line of scrimmage. In the end, its ineptness was too much for the Hawks' offense to overcome in their 52-48 loss to the Tigers.

Granted, the Hawks were playing without standout quarterback Tony Muskett, who sat out with a knee injury. But Monmouth could’ve started Patrick Mahomes behind center and it wouldn’t have made a bit of a difference with the way the defense allowed Towson’s offense to run roughshod over them.

It’s been a recurring theme this season with the offense having to continually play catchup and put up huge numbers in an attempt to outscore its opponents, who are able to score at will against Monmouth's porous defense.

“I think the offense did an outstanding job,” said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. “They gave us every possible chance to win the game, but unfortunately, we were not able to hold up on the other side of the ball. That’s disappointing; I thought we were making progress there and moving further ahead. We’ve got a lot of work to do, there’s no question about it – particularly on the defensive side of the ball.”

True freshman quarterback Enzo Arjona valiantly kept the Hawks within striking distance in his first career start, but every time Monmouth needed a big stop by the defense it failed miserably.

It seemed as though every time Arjona pulled the Hawks to within one score, the defense failed to get off the field and gave it right back. Saturday was the first time in three years that Towson scored 40-plus points in a game.

The Hawks' defense allowed Towson to convert an inconceivable 12-of-15 third-downs in the game and the Tigers scored on eight of their nine possessions, including six touchdowns and two field goals, while punting only once. Towson scored touchdowns on their first four possession of the game to set the tone.

What made this even more demoralizing than it already was, was the fact that Towson’s offense entered the game ranked 12th out of 13 CAA teams in average offensive points per game (20.0) and average total yardage per game (306.0). The Tigers surpassed both those totals in the first half alone.

“It frustrating that we can’t match the production we’re getting on the opposite side of the ball,” Callahan said of his defense’s struggles. “We’re scoring an awful lot of points and most years you would say that’s plenty to win and still we’re coming up short and we got to be able to get stops when we need to."

If it weren’t for standout linebacker Da’quan Grimes, who recorded 13 tackles, including ten solo stops and one tackle for loss, the outcome could’ve been uglier - if that’s even possible.

“It’s sucks, we came out this week and didn’t perform well,” said Grimes after the game.

Still, Monmouth had its chances to pull off what would’ve been a miraculous comeback.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Hawks got to within a touchdown with an 11-play, 73-yard scoring drive with Owen Wright capping off the drive with a 1-yard plunge up the middle. Arjona completed passes of 11 and 19 yards on the drive to wideout Dymere Miller. Jaden Shirden, who keeps stacking one amazing game after another rushed for 211 yards and three touchdowns on 19 attempts and had runs of 23, six and eight yards to keep the drive going.

Now down by one score, 49-42, with 3:47 left in the fourth, Callahan elected to attempt an onside kick which was recovered by Towson at the Hawks' 45-yard line.

The Tigers then marched to the 14-yard line in five plays before kicking a 32-yard field goal to put them up by ten, 52-42, with 1:21 left on the clock.

Monmouth then scored in under a minute on an Arjona 26-yard strike to Dre Tucker with 36 seconds left, but Eric Bernstein’s extra-point kick sailed wide right leaving them down by four, 52-48.

Bernstein’s onside kick attempt was then squibbed out of bounds and Towson took a knee to kill the clock.

On Monmouth’s first possession of the game and Arjona’s first possession of his career, he marched the Hawks 62 yards in eight plays finishing off the drive with a perfect 30-yard touchdown strike to Miller in the far-left corner of the end zone for a quick 7-0 lead. Miller had another big game for the Hawks with eight receptions for 99 yards and two touchdowns.

Shirden added a 24-yard rushing touchdown to pull the Hawks to within 25-20 with 2:26 left in the half but Towson added a 26-yard field goal pushing the lead to 28-20 at intermission. In the first quarter, Shirden ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run that gave the Hawks a 14-12 lead.

Arjona was feeling his way through the first half as he went 6-for-8 for 53 yards but gained his footing in the second half finishing with 213 yards passing and three touchdowns while completing 18-of-25 passes.

“I thought he did an outstanding job for starting his first career game as a true freshman,” Callahan said of Arjona’s effort. “The coaches did an great job putting together a gameplan that played to his strengths and maybe took some weight off his shoulders. That’s a hell of a day putting up that many points with a first-time quarterback.”

The Hawks were outgained 313 yards to 203 in the first half but finished with a slight advantage in total yardage for the game, 484 to 479.

After falling behind 42-26 early in the fourth quarter, the Hawks climbed back to within eight, 42-34 on an Arjona 11-yard touchdown pass to Miller and a successful two-conversion pass to tight end Jack Neri with 8:28 left in the fourth quarter.

This time, however, it was the special teams unit that failed them allowing a 92-yard kickoff return that put Towson up again by two scores, 49-34. Special teams had a rough day too. Besides D’Ago Hunter’s long kickoff return, he also returned a punt 74 yards to the Monmouth 15-yard line and on the next play, Towson quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome scrambled for a 15-yard touchdown to put the Tigers up 12-7. Towson rushed for 263 yards in the game.

Monmouth can salvage its season when they travel to long-time CAA power No. 12 Delaware, who was upset, 27-7, by Elon on Saturday.  So now, what was already going to be a really tough game to win on the road got that much tougher with the Hens' loss to Elon.

“It’s really just a matter of having pride,” said Grimes. “We started playing at seven, eight years old and we have to go back to having fun playing the game that we love. That means playing for each other playing with passion, playing for pride and that is what it’s really about. Delaware is a good football team, so we have to come out and bring it. We have to play like we want to win.”