WEST LONG BRANCH – Monmouth University didn’t expect themselves to be in the position they’re in right now, four games into the season and clinging to a disappointing 1-3 record.
Losing two games that appeared on paper to be very winnable games heading into the season, Monmouth has dug itself a hole that they desperately need to climb out of. That digging begins Saturday with a home non-conference game against Patriot League foe Lehigh (1-3) in front of a homecoming day crowd that should pack the stands at Kessler Field in West Long Branch.
Saturday’s game against Lehigh is their final non-conference game of the season before they get into their remaining six conference games, including an away game against fourth-ranked William and Mary and a home encounter versus No.17 New Hampshire, in the strong Colonial Athletic Association - ranked third out of 13 FCS conferences with five teams in the FCS Coaches Poll in the top 25.
On paper, the Hawks should also be favored in their next two games against Lehigh on Saturday and then following a bye week, a home game against Hampton (2-1, 0-0) on October 14. Monmouth needs to get back in the win column to avoid a three-game losing streak.
Last Saturday’s loss to Lafayette was typical of the way they’ve played all season, consistently shooting themselves in the foot. They were whistled for 10 penalties, including six false starts, two pass interference calls, a hold and an offsides call, which kept putting the offense in long-yardage plays that stalled drives.
“We had ourselves in a lot of long-yardage situations that you don’t want to be in,” Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said on Monday’s CAA Coaches Weekly Zoom Press Conference. “That was a result of not only how they played on defense, but a lot of it was a result of unforced errors that we made, and I go back to the penalties on that. When you’re second-and-15 or third-and-15, it’s difficult to get something sustained going.”
As a team, the Hawks have been flagged for 30 penalties in their four games, which ranks them 102nd out of 122 FCS teams.
“We have to be a lot more disciplined; six of the 10 penalties were for false starts,” Callahan said. “Seven of them I would classify as mental mistakes. Those are things that a well-coached, disciplined team doesn’t do.”
Monmouth’s offensive line, although it was without two starters against Lafayette, has struggled all year. Against Lafayette, Hawks starting quarterback Marquez McCray was sacked seven times and pressured another seven times. Monmouth has surrendered 14 sacks so far this season, which is 105th in the country.
On Monmouth’s first possession of the game, they had a first-and-10 at the Lafayette 24-yard line, but McCray was sacked for eight yards and the Hawks had to settle for a field goal. On their third possession of the game, they started out in good field position at their own 40-yard line, but two false starts and a sack put them in a third-and-23 situation at their own 27 forcing a punt.
Then on their second possession of the second half, down 14-6, the Hawks drove to their own 49-yard line, but a hold and a sack had them looking at a fourth-and-29 at the 30-yard line, again forcing a punt. And on their final possession of the game, down 28-20, two sacks squashed any chance of a comeback in the final minute.
“That not only affected our ability to throw the ball, but it affected our ability to sustain anything from a drive standpoint mixing in the run and the pass,” Callahan said on the sacks and pressures his team absorbed.
A year ago, the Hawks averaged 228.5 yards per game rushing and that’s down to 145.8 yards this season. Monmouth’s running game was supposed to be their bread-and-butter again this season but has struggled so far. Against Lafayette, they managed just 59 net-yards rushing with All-American running back Jaden Shirden limited to 53 yards on 16 carries for a 2.6 yards per carry average.
Last season, the Hawks offense averaged 5.7 yards per carry, this season its average has fallen to 3.6 yards per attempt.
Third-down conversions, both on offense and defense have killed the Hawks this season. Offensively, Monmouth has converted just 33 percent of its third-down plays – 81st in the country – while the defense has allowed a conversion rate of 42 percent – 82nd nationally. But the stat that jumps out at you is the Hawks' red zone defense. They’ve allowed opponents to score 94 percent of the time – 111th out of 122 FCS teams.
The Hawks defense hasn’t been all bad and has had its good moments, but it tends to give up the big play after it makes several big stops, especially on third down. A year ago, the Hawks defense allowed an average of 428.6 yards per game – last in the CAA. So far this season they’ve allowed 379.8 yards per game, so that’s a positive they can build on.
“The biggest thing is they were able to convert on third downs,” Callahan said. “And we weren’t able to get off the field on third down. It wasn’t getting them into the third down situation, we were fairly successful doing that, but it’s the third downs we have to win to get yourself off the field.
“Combine that with four or five big passing plays they had on each of their touchdown drives that helped their field position and some of those came on third down."
Both pass interference calls against the Hawks led to Lafayette touchdowns. On Lafayette’s second possession of the game, they had a third-and-8 at the Monmouth 19-yard line and were whistled for the P.I. giving them a first-and-10 at the 11-yard line and two plays later they scored. On the second one, Monmouth had them in a first-and-25 situation at the Monmouth 30 and were flagged for P.I. giving them a first-and-10 at the 17 and three plays later they scored. Both penalties were absolute killers.
This is a critical juncture of the season for the Hawks any way you look at it, and it’s time for the Hawks players and coaches to do some serious soul searching. Saturday, although it’s a non-conference game, is most definitely a must-win game for them to get back on track. A loss would drop them to 1-4 and any hopes of an at-large bid in the FCS playoffs would be dead in the water if they aren’t already.
“It’s time where we really need to evaluate what we’re asking our players to do. Are we putting them in the best position to be successful,” said Callahan. We’re at a point where we’ve lost two in a row and we’re not playing at a high level. Maybe that’s coaching, maybe we’re asking them to do things we’re simply not capable of. Maybe we’re not reinforcing what we want them to do on a daily basis so we can do it on Saturday. We’ll have a plan moving forward and it will be a plan that not only fits who we’re playing but fits who we want to be philosophically.”
All is not lost though; the season can definitely be salvaged. The Hawks are 1-1 in conference play and have their biggest games of the season ahead of them. There’s plenty of time to prove their shaky start is an outlier and they’re a much better team than they’ve showed. It all begins with a win Saturday.
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