Monmouth Hawks
Photo by Riley Lorenz

Monmouth's red zone failures, defensive lapses need to be cleaned up

WEST LONG BRANCH – Monmouth’s game against Elon last Saturday was there for the taking.

But the Hawks inability to convert on fourth down in the red zone and defensive lapses in the secondary that resulted in three long Elon touchdown passes along with a late 41-yard touchdown run on a third-and-1 play were just too much for the Hawks to overcome.

Every loss is tough to take, but Saturday’s 28-26 loss to Elon was an especially hard one to digest. Monmouth could’ve and should’ve won that game – in my opinion they were the better team. But in the end, it was their self-inflicted wounds that did them in.

“It was unfortunate that we squandered too many opportunities to come out on top,” said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. “I thought we had some opportunities but weren’t able to capitalize, especially down in the red zone. We were victimized by big plays in the pass game on defense and those big plays are what turned the tide on us.”

On the second play of the game, Elon scored on a 59-yard touchdown pass, then on their second possession of the game, the Phoenix scored on a 41-yard pass play to put the Hawks in an early 14-0 hole. On both scores, the receiver was wide open and ran untouched into the end zone.

Down 14-0, Monmouth decided to forgo the field goal after driving into the red zone and go for it on fourth-and-goal at the two-yard line, but Sone Ntoh was stopped a yard shy of the end zone. Earlier in the drive, the Hawks converted on fourth-and-four at the 49-yard line to keep the drive alive.

A Marquez McCray to Dymere Miller 43-yard touchdown pass pulled the Hawks to within 14-6, but Michael Calton’s extra-point kick was no good. The failed extra point would come back to haunt the Hawks and have domino effect on the game’s outcome.

Defensive end Nick White’s sack and forced fumble recovered by Sam Korpoi gave the ball back to the Hawks at the Elon 31-yard line. Faced with a fourth-and-6 at the 12-yard line, Monmouth again went for it, but McCray was sacked for a 13-yard loss and another scoring opportunity fell by the wayside.

Four plays later, Elon quarterback Matt Downing found Johncarlos Miller III all alone for a 65-yard touchdown and a 21-6 lead.

That was the third long pass play for a touchdown in which the receiver was left all alone and pranced into the end zone.

“One was against probably our most experienced defensive back, a fifth-year player at the corner position who didn’t practice eye discipline on the play and lost sight of the receiver,” said Callahan of the wide open Elon receivers. “Another one was against a freshman who is starting in the secondary now and again he got a little bit too aggressive on a double move and they were able to run by him.”

Of Elon’s 238 passing yards in the first half, all but 73 yards came on those three long plays.

On their ensuing possession right before the half, the Hawks drove to the Elon 22-yard line desperately trying to cut into the Elon lead. But on first down, McCray’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted thus killing another scoring opportunity for Monmouth.

Monmouth scored on its first possession of the second half on a 68-yard double-reverse run by the dynamic Miller to cut the lead to 21-12. Electing to go for the two at this point, McCray’s pass fell incomplete keeping the Elon lead at nine points.

Miller finished with 214 total yards, including 68-yards rushing and a touchdown and 11 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown.

The Hawks snuffed out a fake punt on Elon’s ensuing possession with a heads-up stop by Jake Brown. Monmouth then took over at their own 42 and drove to the Elon 30-yard line where they were looking at a fourth-and-9. Again, the Hawks went for it and again they were stopped when a pass to Assanti Kearney was defended and batted away.

That was Monmouth’s third failed fourth-down conversion attempt of the game when a field goal might’ve made a difference in the final score and Callahan was asked for his reason for going for it on fourth down.

“I guess the question is, why didn’t we kick field goals on those? Callahan said. “All season long we’ve been aggressive when we get down in the low red zone. We had the ball at the two-yard line on fourth down and we feel really good about our goal-line offense with Ntoh carrying the ball. We’ve been highly successful on it all year, so we just got to Elon a lot of credit. They came up with big defensive stops down there on fourth down and kept us off the scoreboard. But we as a coaching staff got to find ways to do a better job.”

Korpoi and Pat Hayden then combined to stop Downing on third down forcing an Elon punt with the Hawks taking over at the 20 following the touchback.

Three plays later, the Hawks were yet again faced with another fourth-down decision, this time deep in their own territory on the 29-yard line. Ntoh bulled his way up the middle for one yard and crucial first down. Ntoh also put the finishing touches on the 10 play, 80-yard scoring drive that pulled the Hawks to within 21-19 following Calton’s extra-point kick with 1:29 left in the third quarter.

On Elon’s subsequent possession, it looked as though Monmouth had forced a critical three-and-out and a punt with time now a factor, but on third-and-14 from the 20, safety T.J. Kamara was called for pass interference giving the Phoenix a first down at their own 35-yard line.

Again, the big play again came back to haunt the Hawks. On third-and-1 from the Hawks 41-yard line, with Monmouth looking for a push up the middle, Elon wideout Brayboy Chandler took a handoff around right end 41 yards for the score and 28-19 lead.

Monmouth got the ball back with 3:39 left in the game and quickly drove 80 yards in eight plays with McCray finding freshman wide receiver Josh Derry for a 12-yard touchdown cutting the lead to two again, 28-26 with 1:29 remaining in the game.

An onside kick was recovered by Elon at the 47-yard line. Monmouth’s only hope now was to burn their time outs while holding Elon to a three-and-out and punt. But on second-and-7 from the 50, Jalen Hampton picked up nine yards and a first down thus ending any chance of a miracle finish.

Six of Elon’s 59 plays accounted for over 70 percent of their total offensive yardage for the game. The chunk plays absolutely killed Monmouth and forced them to play catch-up all day.

The Hawks actually outgained Elon by almost 100 yards, 460 yards to 375 yards and first downs 22 to 18. After a slow start, Jaden Shirden rushed for 110 yards on 19 attempts (5.8 yards/attempt) while McCray completed 23-of-37 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns and that deflected pick.

Monmouth’s defense recorded six sacks and held Elon to 93-yard rushing but couldn’t make the stops when they needed to.

“I will give our guys credit on both sides of the ball,” said Callahan. “We went in at halftime and settled down. After going down 14-0 to start we really played pretty good football after that. We came back and scored 26 points to their 28. It was just unfortunate that we had those big plays and that’s not an excuse. If you’re going to play good defense, you can’t give up chunk yardage. Our players know that, our staff knows that, so that’s an area we have to get better at.”

The Hawks will need to regroup quickly with a road game this Saturday against 24th-ranked William and Mary who will be out for the kill after being upset last week by Towson. William and Mary has been ranked as high as No.4 this season and boasts the top-ranked defense in the CAA.

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