WEST LONG BRANCH – Since joining the Coastal Athletic Association in 2022, Monmouth University head coach Kevin Callahan has repeatedly warned that won-loss records don’t matter in the CAA and on any given Saturday, no matter who or where you’re playing, anyone can win or lose.
“The CAA is an extremely competitive conference from top to bottom,” Callahan said. “Every single week during those three hours on the field you have got to play your absolute best to have a chance at winning. Team records don’t matter, it’s all about what happens that day on the field.”
Monmouth found that out the hard way last Saturday.
Prior to last week’s 45-31 loss to conference opponent Campbell University in West Long Branch where the Hawks let a 23-7 second quarter lead slip away, most people had checked off that game as a win for the Hawks. Afterall, Monmouth was 3-0 lifetime against their former Big South rivals outscoring them 119-48 in the process, and the Fighting Camels were picked to finish 12th in the conference while the Hawks picked eighth.
None of that mattered.
“We played extremely hard from start to finish, there was no letting up,” Callahan said when asked if he thought his team might’ve relaxed a little when they went up by 16 points. “Campbell is a really good football team, and it was a very physical football game. Campbell has one of the biggest offensive lines we’ve probably ever faced.”
College football, whether you like of not, is now all about the transfer portal and teams utilize it to make dramatic transformations from being a chronic losing program to a winning program in the blink of an eye. There’s no more judging a book by its cover anymore and Campbell was a prime example of that.
The Fighting Camels brought in 11 former FBS players through the transfer portal and had the top freshman recruiting class in the FCS and it looks as though Campbell will be a formidable foe for the rest of the CAA teams on its schedule.
The Hawks, however, have turned the page and are now on to Lafayette for a non-conference game this Saturday in Easton, Pennsylvania.
“It was a disappointing loss,” Callahan said. “But we’ve had a good week of practice and the team is now focused on Lafayette and getting back to winning.”
To do that, Monmouth will first of all need to play better defense. After making huge strides towards respectability in its first two games, the defense again resembled last season’s unit that ranked last in the CAA. The Hawks surrendered 435 yards of offense against Campbell and the Fighting Camels averaged 6.2 yards per play and 5.6 yards per rushing attempt. In the second half, Campbell’s rushing attack was pretty much unstoppable.
The Hawks offense, although they did put up 423 yards of total offense, had its good moments and its bad moments. There were way too many dropped passes that had a direct effect on the outcome of the game and that must be cleaned up. And, although Monmouth starting quarterback Marquez McCray threw for 211 yards and a touchdown he suffered his first sub-par performance against Campbell.
He completed only 53 percent of his passes and had two interceptions and looked uncomfortable in the pocket, at times overthrowing intended receivers that stalled potential scoring drives. A bounce-back performance by McCray and his top two receivers, Dymere Miller and Assanti Kearney is imperative for the Hawks to get back on track.
All-American running back Jaden Shirden has seen defenses load the box against him with seven men upfront and daring the offense to throw the ball down field against one-on-one coverage. Shirden was again a workhorse last week rushing for 167 yards on 31 attempts for a solid 5.3 yards per carry average. For the season, Shirden has 393-yards rushing and three touchdowns on 88 attempts for a 4.3 yard per carry average. Last season, he averaged 8.4 yards per attempt.
What’s missing, however, are his heart-stopping, length of the field touchdown dashes that were his trademark a year ago. Shirden’s longest touchdown run this season has been 35 yards, which is nothing to sneeze about, but last season he busted touchdown runs of 95,80, 67,56,75 twice, 69 and 64 yards.
Despite the lack of long touchdown runs, Shirden is still tied for fourth in the country, averaging 125.3 yards per game. Coincidently, Shirden is tied with Jamar Curtis, Lafayette’s star running back.
It’s time for Monmouth’s offense to start making plays downfield to keep the defense honest and open some running lanes for Shirden to rip off some long runs. Miller, a first team CAA Preseason pick, has yet to score a touchdown after scoring seven a year ago. It’s time for Miller to break out. Miller does have 24 catches for 277 yards, but his longest reception this season is for 30 yards while Kearney’s is 36, but he does have three touchdown receptions.
Lafayette enters the game with a 2-1 record having beat Sacred Heart 19-14 and Columbia 24-3 while losing to Duke 42-7 in a game where they trailed by just two scores, 21-7, at the half. Duke, currently ranked 18th in the country, was coming off a 28-7 thrashing of #9 Clemson the week before the Lafayette game so the Leopards held their own against a very tough FBS opponent.
“Although the Duke score may appear one sided, if you read the scoring line it wasn’t that type of game at all,” Callahan said of his upcoming opponent. “First of all, they play exceptional defense. They’re giving up I think just under 20 points per game. They have a linebacker and a safety that are the leaders of the defense and the rest of the linebacking crew are extremely active. They’ve given up less than 100-yards rushing per game if you take the Duke game out of it and they play extremely well in the red zone; one of the better red zone defenses I’ve seen.
“And then on the offensive side of the ball they’re really committed to running the ball and they’re doing it well," Callahan said. "They’re rushing for over 200-yards a game and that includes the Duke game. They’re running back, number 22, is just shy of eight-yards per carry and they also have a big offensive line going 6’5”, 6’6” across the board. They also have an All-Patriot tight end, who is 6’8”, 254-pounds. He’s an excellent blocker and a big target for the quarterback. So, they’re a team that we’re going to have to play extremely well against and we’re going to have to be better that we were a week ago because they do so many things well and at a high level.”
Lafayette’s defense is ranked 22nd in the FCS in points allowed surrendering 19.67 points per game and are ranked 17th in the FCS in total defense allowing just 4.93 yards per play and 308.7 yards per game.
They are led by fifth-year senior linebacker Marco Olivas, a 2022 first team All-Patriot League selection and junior free safety Saiku White, who was second on the team with 82 tackles a year ago and a first team Patriot League Preseason selection.
The offense likes to run the ball and are 20th in the country rushing for an average of 197.3 yards per game with the speedy 5-foot-8, 165-pound Curtis leading the way.
Tight end Mason Gilbert is a mountain of a man and is a two-time first team All-Patriot Conference selection entering the season. Sophomore quarterback Dean DeNobile has completed 26-of-42 passes for 265 yards and one touchdown and two interceptions.
Saturday’s game may turn into a sloppy mess with heavy rain in the forecast, so it could turn into a Shirden versus Curtis slugfest.
If the rain holds up, look for Monmouth to try to get the ball downfield to Miller and of course let Shirden do his thing. On defense, the key to the game for the Hawks is obvious, stop Curtis and force the Leopards to throw the ball.
On the injury front, the Hawks sustained a number of injuries last week with a couple players still sidelined this week. Standout linebacker Jake Brown looks to be doubtful but will be a game-time decision with a knee sprain.
Starting left tackle Jordan Hall is declared out with an ankle injury and starting cornerback Eddie Morales III is good to go after leaving last weeks game in the first half. Defensive end Antonio Colclough left last week’s game in the second half but is cleared for Saturday.
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