Photo Credit: Mike Ready

Monmouth Set To Face Conference Foe Hampton Following Productive Bye Week

WEST LONG BRANCH – Coming off their bye week after playing their most complete all-around game of the season in a 49-7 rout of Lehigh two weeks ago, Monmouth University feels confident that its best football is ahead of them as they enter a grinding six-week stretch of games against Coastal Athletic Association opponents.

“Obviously, anytime you go into a week off coming off a win, it’s a positive,” Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said. “The guys have a little bit more bounce in their step and they have a little bit more positive outlook on things. We took a couple days off, then we got back to work on fundamentals then this week the team has been concentrating on getting ready for Hampton.”

The Hawks will host Hampton this Saturday at Kessler Field in West Long Branch.

Monmouth’s bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for the Hawks as they were banged up and hit hard with injuries that forced six starters and three key reserves to the sidelines for the Lehigh game.

After Thursday’s practice, though, Callahan said he expected all but one of the walking wounded to play on Saturday, “Everybody who has been out, is going to be back Saturday, with the exception of Jordan Hall.”

Hall, a fifth-year starting left tackle, injured his ankle in the Lafayette game and there’s no timeline for his return. In his absence, 6-foot-5, 315-pound junior Kyrik Mason slid into his spot and hasn’t missed a beat.

Transfer quarterback Marquez McCray had a breakout game against Lehigh completing 22-of-28 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns and according to Callahan his stellar play has carried over into practice.

“He’s looked very good in practice. Lehigh might’ve been his best game of the season up to this point. It’s a number of factors contributing to his success. One, he prepares very well but also, he’s now feeling comfortable in the offense in games. He was with us in the spring, but he really has only played five games for us. So, I think you’re starting to see him feel more comfortable doing what he’s doing and that’s showing on the field.”

McCray is fourth in the CAA in touchdown passes (11), yardage (1,264), yards per game (252.8) and second in completion percentage (63.4) in five games. His three interceptions in five games are the third fewest in the CAA and it appears he’s just beginning to hit his stride, which is great news for Monmouth.

“It definitely boosts my confidence,” McCray said of his performance against Lehigh. “But it boosts everyone else's confidence too and you can feel it. When you’re confident, that’s when you can make big plays. The offense as a whole is beginning to hit on all cylinders. We’re getting in a groove, and we just tried to build on that during the bye week and carry over the momentum.”

Beginning Saturday against Hampton, the Hawks have six straight conference games to close out the season. This is the make it, or break it portion of the schedule with four of the Hawks six CAA opponents left on the schedule ranked in the top 25.

Surprisingly though, it hasn’t been all chalk in the CAA as far as results are concerned with a number of upsets throwing a monkey wrench into the conference hierarchy. William and Mary – the overwhelming preseason favorite and currently ranked fourth in the country – was upset by Elon, which was picked to finish fifth.

New Hampshire, which was ranked second in preseason polls, has two conference losses, including a loss to Towson, who Monmouth beat. Albany, picked to finish 11th in the preseason, is tied for second place with conference wins over Villanova and Towson.

So, all this juggling of position atop the CAA standings should give Monmouth added inspiration as they navigate their way through their brutal schedule knowing that on any given day no team in the CAA is invincible.

“Hampton’s a great team and the rest of the teams we’re going to play throughout the year are all great teams,” McCray said. “We just have to take it one game at a time, every game is important because it’s the next game. We have goals to make a run, win the CAA and get in the playoffs. But before we do that, we have to take it one game at a time and that’s how we’re approaching it. I see what’s going on (in the CAA) but I’m just focusing on Monmouth and what we got going on here.”

Callahan knows all too well not to look past any opponent in the CAA regardless of what their record is.

“That’s what CAA football is,” Callahan said in reference to the conference’s upheaval. “As I’ve said before, when you get into conference play any team can beat any other team on any given week. It all comes down to who plays better in the three hours on the field.

“Hampton comes in with a 1-1 record in conference play, the same as we have, and they had a great win over Richmond and a three-point loss to Campbell. So, having played them three or four times in the past, this is by far the best Hampton team we’ve ever seen.”

Hampton is good. They lead the CAA and are seventh in the country in rushing yards per game (249.2) and boast the CAA’s leading rusher, Elijah Burris, and the conference's sixth leading rusher, Darran Butts. Burris is averaging 8.7 yards per carry while rushing for 567 yards and two scores, while Butts has rushed for 418 yards and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry with four touchdowns.

“Hampton’s got a very formidable one-two punch in its running game and they’re very disciplined in what they do,” Callahan said. “But you can’t let the running backs distract you too much because the quarterback will kill you. He’s a dual-threat guy who can pull the ball down and run it, he’s very effective at that. He’s a big kid, 6-foot-3, 220-pounds, but he throws the ball very well and has some playmakers at receiver and tight end. So, we got to be equally effective against the pass as well as the run. The bottom line is not to give up the big, explosive plays. They’re very talented and they will gain some yards, but you don’t want to give them chunks of yardage very quickly.”

Monmouth will counter with their own stud running back in All-American Jaden Shirden, who is second in the CAA with 536 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Monmouth also features graduate transfer Sone Ntoh, who has been a revelation with his combination of surprising speed and power running. The 5-foot-11, 235-pound Ntoh leads all CAA running backs with eight rushing touchdowns, including a 92-yard touchdown jaunt, where he burst through the line and just flat outran the Lehigh secondary.

“Every time Jaden touches the ball we believe he can score and Sone keeps finding the end zone and has had two of our longest runs that came at crucial parts of the game,” McCray said of his running backs.

McCray has developed a deadly connection with All-CAA wideout Dymere Miller, who leads the CAA in receptions (42), receiving yards (526) and receiving yards per game (105.2). It took Miller a while to get into the end zone, but he has four touchdowns in the last two games and appears geared up for a huge second half of the season.

“He’s a fantastic player,” McCray said of Miller. “When I first came here in the spring I was like, ‘wow, that’s a one-of-a-kind guy.’ With him being from PA (Pennsylvania) and both of us playing in the 6A and playing against each other that kind of built our relationship both knowing what PA football is about. He’s a smart player too. He sees what defenses are doing and he’ll come back to me and we’ll have great conversations on the field on how they’re playing him. He’s a tool for me as quarterback. Every week I’m expecting more and more out of him, and he expects that from himself too.”

“Dymere’s a very dynamic play maker and we’d be crazy not to get him the ball,” Callahan added. “He can make things happen after the catch as well.”

Callahan continually stresses how important it is for his team to play complimentary football to be successful and against Lehigh the Hawks did just that rolling up 619 yards of total offense while the defense limited Lehigh to 281 yards of total offense – its best effort of the season. The special teams excelled as well. Lehigh averaged just 17.4 yards per kickoff returns and 0.0 yards on two punt returns while Monmouth punter Luke Schabel averaged 40.2 yards on four punts.

“It’s very important,” Callahan said of playing complimentary football. “In order to be highly successful you need to have all three phases of the game clicking, your offense, your defense and special teams. Neither side (offense) wants to put the other side (defense) in a hole and you got to be solid in your special teams. We came up with a key turnover on special teams last time out and our offense played very well, defense played very well and anytime you can play like that you really enhance your chances to win.”

Hampton will present the Hawks with a much tougher challenge Saturday so it will be incumbent upon the Hawks to play a solid game of complimentary football for them to beat Hampton.

“This week the team has been very focused on Hampton and our preparation has been very good,” said Callahan. “It’s a CAA game, we know we have to play our best in all phases of the game for us to win.”