WEST LONG BRANCH – With their backs literally up against the wall and the season on the brink of imploding, Monmouth University, to a player, dug deep inside themselves and came out firing on all cylinders in Saturday’s 49-7 rout of Lehigh University.
Entering the game at 1-3 on the season after two consecutive excruciating losses and the season on the brink, a loss to Lehigh on Saturday would’ve sealed their fate and send them spiraling down a path of no return.
Instead, in front of a packed house at Kessler Field on Homecoming Weekend, the Hawks put together one of their finest all-around performances in recent memory while at the same time giving them a glimpse of what this team is really capable of heading into its bye-week.
And they accomplished this with eight starters or key contributors watching from the sidelines with various ailments.
“Absolutely,” said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan when asked if his team entered the game with a sense of urgency. “No one was satisfied with where we were. We had opportunities throughout our first four games to win more than the one we did, but for whatever reason we didn’t capitalize on those opportunities. Today, I think collectively the team made their mind up that we were going to capitalize on it today and we did in all three phases of the game.”
Monmouth racked up an eye-popping 619 yards of total offense and held Lehigh’s offense to a mere 281 yards of total offense, including just 130 yards in the second half.
“Our offense was basically unstoppable today and our defense came up with turnovers and scored a touchdown,” said Callahan.
The Hawks offensive line, which was missing two starters, keyed the offensive outburst. With starting center Tyler Williams and left tackle Jordan Hall out with injuries, fifth-year center Ed Gatling and junior left tackle Kyrik Mason brought their lunch pails to work and kicked some butt. Junior tackle Adrian Hawkins was also rotated in and didn’t miss a beat.
“The offensive line did a very good job, and it was a group we had to put together this week where two starters were out and a third actually didn’t practice most of the week,” said Callahan. “The unit jelled and were able to play well together. We were able to run the ball and they were able to protect our quarterback when he dropped back and threw the ball. So, when your offensive line is playing like that it’s always a good thing. The hidden thing there was that those guys had to step up and play and are now more experienced, more veteran, so that makes our offensive line unit much deeper.”
After being whistled for six false starts in last week’s 28-20 loss to Lafayette, only one false start penalty was called on the offensive line and that was on their second to last possession of the game with most of the starters already on the bench.
And after allowing seven sacks last week, the line surrendered just two Saturday, including one late in the fourth quarter with most of the starters already finished for the day. Then, last but not least, they went the entire game without being called for a holding penalty.
As a unit, they kept the pocket clean all day for starting quarterback Marquez McCray, who had a monster game Saturday putting on a show for the Homecoming Day crowd.
McCray, who’s been a steady influence all season despite some rough patches, completed 22-of-28 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns without throwing a pick in what turned out to be his breakout performance as a Hawk.
“The offensive line did a great job protecting and I felt comfortable the entire time,” said McCray. “I tried to get everybody involved early and it just kind of clicked from there.”
All-American running back Jaden Shirden had his longest run of the season, taking a handoff from McCray before bursting off left tackle and taking it down the left sidelines for a 66-yard run down to the one-yard line. Sone Ntoh then took it in from the one to give the Hawks a quick 7-0 lead.
Shirden finished with 119-yard rushing on 12 attempts for a 9.9 yards per carry average. Ntoh, a short-yardage specialist for the Hawks at 5-foot-11, 235 pounds, has deceptive speed for a player his size as Lehigh found out.
With the Hawks backed up at their own eight-yard line midway through the third quarter, Ntoh exploded through the line of scrimmage and outran the nearest defender for a spectacular 92-yard touchdown run. It was his second score of the game and his team-leading eighth of the season to put the Hawks up 42-7 with 8:35 left in the third quarter.
A week ago, Monmouth averaged 1.6 yards per carry rushing and Saturday they improved to 6.4 yards per carry, rushing for 257 yards on 36 attempts. The offense averaged a whopping 8.6 yards per play for the game.
One of the points of concern for both the offense and defense so far this season has been its third-down conversion rate. Saturday they were phenomenal at converting on offense and denying on defense. The offense converted 8-of-15 third-down chances for a success rate of 53 percent, which is 10 percentage points above the FCS average. The defense was even better. Lehigh converted just 2-of-13 chances on third down which equates to a 15 percent conversion rate, which is off the charts.
The defense was led by junior linebacker Remi Johnson (9 tackles, 8 solo, 2 TFL), fifth-year senior Tyrece Wright (6 tackles, 5 solo, 2 TFL, FF, PD), graduate student DE Nick White (5 tackles, 3 solo, QB hit), sophomore defensive end Miles Mitchell (5 tackles, 5 solo, 2 TFL) and senior T.J. Kamara (6 tackles, 3 solo, .5 TFL, QB hit), but it was a collective effort from top to bottom.
“We weren’t satisfied coming off our previous four games,” said Johnson of his team’s defensive effort. “I felt like we had so much more in the tank and so much more potential. We were even disappointed with them scoring seven points and we’re going to use this moving forward. Even if a guy missed an assignment we had five other guys coming in to make the play. So, it felt like a really great team effort and I feel like we played a really clean game.”
The secondary came into the game shorthanded with former All-Big South cornerback Eddie Morales III still nursing an injury and their nickel and dime defenders out as well. However, two freshmen, Israel Clark-White and Deuce Lee and senior Jude Umunakwe came to the rescue and shined, in particular Lee.
With the Hawks nursing a 14-7 lead late in the second quarter, Lee intercepted Lehigh quarterback Brayten Silbor and returned it 36 yards for a pick six and a 21-7 lead. Lee flashed his moves on his return weaving his way through defenders on his way to the endzone. Lee also had three tackles, including two solo in his first extended playing time. Clark-White added four tackles, two solo, and a pass defended while Umunakwe had two tackles, including one solo stop.
“I feel like it’s all preparation,” said Wright of his young defensive backs. “It’s in the film room, it’s in the meeting room and the young guys really want it, they want to make plays and they want to get better.”
“A couple of younger guys got significant game-time today and showed that they were the players we thought they were when we recruited them,” added Callahan. “They went in there and held their own and played well.
On Lehigh’s ensuing possession following Lee’s pick-six, the Mountain Hawks drove to the Monmouth 47-yard line, but on fourth-and-10 Silbor took off on a scramble and was brought down by Wright short of the first-down marker turning the ball back over to the Hawks.
With 18 seconds left in the half, McCray then lofted a perfect spiral to Dre Tucker on a fly pattern and Tucker pulled it in in full stride for a 34-yard touchdown and 28-7 lead at the half.
Preseason All-CAA first team wideout Dymere Miller was well, Dymere Miller, with another super game. The sure-handed Miller caught eight balls for 128 yards and two touchdowns giving him four touchdowns in the last two games.
“We just put in the work throughout the week, talking to each other about what we see and how we’re going about it,” said Miller, who is developing great chemistry with McCray. “We’re just really connecting and playing up to the standards that coach wants us to play to.”
Miller’s first score of the game gave Monmouth a 14-7 lead and put the Hawks ahead for good with 6:13 remaining in the first half. On the seventh play of a 74-yard drive, Miller ran a slant into the back of the endzone and McCray hit him in stride for the score. McCray was a perfect 7-for-7 on the drive accounting for all 74 yards. Assanti Kearney had a key third-and-2 reception for 16 yards and first down to extend the drive.
Fifth-year senior Dre Tucker capped a 10-play, 90-yard drive with a 34-yard scoring toss from McCray on a fly pattern with 12 seconds left in the half to push Monmouth’s lead to 28-7.
Monmouth received the second-half kick and didn’t waste any time getting on board marching 77 yards in nine plays with McCray finding Miller on slant as he split the defenders for a 36-yard touchdown and 35-7 advantage.
Sophomore Gavin Nelson closed out the scoring connecting with McCray on a 29-yard scoring play that capped a five play, 85-yard drive for a 49-7 lead. Nelson finished with three catches for 56 yards while showcasing his speed and giving a glimpse of things to come.
McCray spread the ball around all afternoon hooking up with eight different receivers on the day.
What's Next For Monmouth
Monmouth has a much-needed bye next week before getting into the thick of their rugged CAA schedule hosting Hampton on October 14. Hampton (3-1, 1-0) beat Richmond 31-14 on Saturday so the Hawks have their work cut out for them, but Saturday’s big win will certainly help their mindset as they prepare.
“I think the bye comes at a good time,” said Callahan. “It comes at a time when we have a number of players injured and this gives them an additional week to heal up and get healthy so they can play. Realistically we have two weeks moving forward before we have to go on the field again. Our first objective is to get as healthy as we can and get the guys we can get back, back. We’ll practice a couple of days this week and use those days to try to stay sharp on both offense and defense. We’ll give our younger guys more repetitions in practice to continue to develop those guys because as you get later in the season we’ll have to call on them to play; that’s just how football works; you say that today.”
For more scenes from Monmouth's big, homecoming win over Lehigh, check out more of Riley Lorenz's images from the game.
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