WEST LONG BRANCH – It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Monmouth University was supposed to play the spoiler role Saturday and upset ranked Albany and ride off into the offseason sunset with visions of grandeur for next season.
But unfortunately, even the best laid plans sometimes go astray.
The University of Albany had everything to play for Saturday at Casey Stadium in Albany while Monmouth University was playing out the string.
The Great Danes (9-3, 7-1) – ranked 11th in the country – were playing for a share of first place in the Coastal Athletic Association and an automatic berth in the upcoming NCAA FCS Playoffs. But even so, the Great Danes 41-0 romp over the Hawks was as surprising as it was unexpected.
Afterall, Monmouth came into Saturday’s game first in the CAA in total offense featuring the nation’s leading rusher and the CAA’s leading wide receiver and their 4-6 record (3-4 in the CAA) was justifiably misleading. Their last three losses prior to Saturday were by a combined 12 points and with the exception of their season-opening loss to FBS opponent Florida Atlantic, they were in every game and had a shot at winning all of them.
Because of that you could assume one of two things. Either the loss of this magnitude was an aberration, or it was an indication of the disparity that still exists between Monmouth and the top teams in the CAA.
Coming into Saturday’s games, Delaware, Villanova, Richmond and Albany were all sitting atop the CAA standings with identical 6-1 conference records and a chance of capturing a share of the CAA title depending on Saturday’s outcomes.
As it turned out, Villanova, which beat Delaware Saturday earned the tie breaker and the automatic berth to the FCS Playoffs. Albany finishes in a three-way tie but most certainly will gain an at-large bid to the playoffs.
In a quirk in scheduling Monmouth only played Albany out of the four conference leaders this season. So, Saturday’s game against the Great Danes was then Monmouth’s best chance to prove they belong to be mentioned in the same breath as the top CAA teams.
Unfortunately for Monmouth though, the only thing they proved on Saturday was that they didn’t belong on the same field as the Great Danes. Albany totally outclassed them, beating them six ways to Sunday and then some.
Albany’s top-ranked defense completely suffocated and shut down Monmouth’s high-octane offensive attack to the point where it seemed the Hawks were going in reverse.
With 6:41 remaining in the first half, Monmouth’s offense had zero first downs and minus-five total yards and for the half they ended up with three first downs and 41 total yards – yes, you read that correctly.
The Great Danes defense recorded seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss with linebacker Brian Abraham leading the charge with three sacks and three TFL. Defensive end Anton Juncaj added a sack and two TFL giving him 13 sacks and 18.5 TFL this season with both numbers leading the CAA.
While the defense was doing its thing, the Great Dane offense was having its way with the Hawks defense.
Albany took the opening kickoff and went on a nine minute and 47 second, 17 play, 75-yard scoring drive. The time-consuming drive was an omen of things to come as the Great Danes scored on three of their first four possessions to take a 21-0 lead. Monmouth’s three possessions during that same time sequence resulted in three punts and negative 15 yards.
The Hawks were 3-of-12 on third down conversions and 1-of-4 on fourth down conversion for the game.
As bad as the first half went, and it was bad, the Hawks were only down 21-0 which in itself was a win, all things considered. Right before the half, Albany was driving again and had second-and-6 at the Hawks 35-yard line when Monmouth cornerback Mike Reid picked off Great Dane sophomore quarterback Reese Poffenbarger making a nice read on the ball before cutting in front of the intended receiver.
Monmouth has had success this season making halftime adjustments and turning games around and the hope was that they’d be able to that Saturday.
Running back Mahki Green returned the second half kickoff 31 yards to the Monmouth 41 giving the Hawks good field position to start the second half.
They then drove to the Albany 43-yard line where they faced a fourth-and-4. Hawks quarterback Marquez McCray found wideout Dymere Miller for 23 yards and a first downs at the Albany 20 and it appeared as though the Hawks offense was finally getting untracked with lots of time left in the game.
However, on first down, McCray’s pass intended for Miller was slightly overthrown and it deflected off his hands and into the hands of Albany defensive back Bill Hackett, who returned it 46 yards to the Monmouth 39-yard line.
Six plays later, Poffenbarger’s five-yard touchdown pass to Ian Renninger pushed the Albany lead to 28-0. The turnover was a potential 14-point swing that put a huge damper on any hope of a comeback.
Two possessions later, Albany scored on a 75-yard Poffenbarger to Brevin Easton touchdown pass to increase the lead to 35-0 and that was all she wrote.
Albany came into the game with the top-ranked rushing defense in the country holding opponents to 79.8 yards per game. Monmouth’s running back Jaden Shirden entered the day leading the country in rushing yards but was held to 49 yards on 14 attempts while the team rushed for just 71 yards on 33 attempts (2.2 yards per carry).
Miller, the CAA's leading wideout, was limited to five catches for 52 yards. Both players, however finish the season atop the CAA statistic board. Miller's 90 catches for 1,293 yards are both No.1 in the country, while Shirden's 1,478 yards rushing is second in the country, 35 yards behind the leader.
For the game the Hawks had 176 total yards. Their average entering the game was 457.1 yards per game – seventh in the country.
Monmouth ends season number two in the CAA with a 3-5 conference record, the same as last season, and ties for 11th place in the now 15-team CAA standings.
It was a devastating way to close out the season that began with high expectations and so much promise but ultimately ended in heartbreak and a ton of unanswered questions.
Was Saturday the last time Shirden and Miller don a Monmouth uniform? You can be sure they’ll both have a bucket load of suitors trying to pry them away from the Hawks in the transfer portal with NIL offerings that Monmouth would never be able to match.
And for all the players like Eddie Morales III, Ryan Moran, Tyrese Wright, Greg Andreson, Tyler Williams and Assanti Kearny, just to name a few, who gave their all to Monmouth for five, six years, it’s a shame to see them end their journey in such a brutal way.
"It was a difficult way to day to say goodbye to our seniors," said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. "The have contributed so much to the program over the last four, five and six years. They have really enabled us to get to where we are today and I wish we could have ended on a better note for them. But we can't forget all the positive things they have done for the program."
The hope is now that the Hawks will rise above this loss and become a better team because of it. Success doesn’t happen overnight and the CAA presents challenges far beyond the ones the Hawks have dealt with in the past.
There’s a new era of Monmouth football on the horizon – hold on tight.
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