Photo Courtesy of Monmouth University

Monmouth wins wild shootout over ninth-ranked Villanova for first-ever CAA win

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Monmouth University survived a wild shootout against ninth-ranked Villanova University, beating the Wildcats 49-42 for its first-ever Colonial Athletic Conference victory while picking up their fourth win in program history over a ranked team.

"Getting that first win (in the CAA) is a great feeling and I'm really happy for the team," said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. "I talked to the team last night and again this morning about being resilient and no matter what happens just keep on playing and that this was a game we could win. We had to focus on the next play and just take it one play at a time and I thought we did that. The biggest thing I emphasized to them was playing until there was zeros on the clock and we certainly did that and came away with the victory."

The two teams combined for 91 points and 1,013 yards in the highly entertaining back-and-forth affair, which featured six lead changes and six ties. The game wasn't settled until the final play of the game.

"Every time they came back and tied the game, the offense went down the field and regained the lead and that continued all the way through," said Callahan. "It's going to be this type of competition every single week in conference. Everybody is good and has talented players on both sides of the ball."

The Hawks took a 49-42 lead with 48 seconds remaining in regulation on star running back Jaden Shirden's 16-yard touchdown scamper. It was Shirden's second rushing touchdown and finished a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive, ultimately deciding the game.

"The way the game was going, we had momentum and I knew we were going to score," said Shirden. "Whether it was me our one of our receivers or one of our backs, we were going to score."

Shirden was again dominant, rushing for 211 yards on 22 attempts (9.6 yards per rush) and two touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster came into the game leading the FCS in rushing yards (453) and rushing yards per carry (12.58). Saturday's effort only solidified his position as one - if not the - top backs in the entire country.

"Jaden just continues to do an outstanding job," said Callahan. "Today he not only showed he's durable and can go for over 200 yards, he showed that explosiveness he's shown in other games this season where he can take any play and take it to the end zone which he did again today."

As crazy as this game was, it was only fitting that Villanova would proceed to march to the Hawks' 24-yard line with a chance to win the game with only seconds remaining. On a third-and-3 from their own 42-yard line, Villanova quarterback Connor Watkins completed a 34-yard pass to Dez Boykin, giving the Wildcats a first-and-10 at the Monmouth 24-yard line with under 30 seconds to play.

On second-and-10, Watkins, under heavy pressure, threw the ball away, but the Wildcats were called for an illegal chop block pushing them back to the 39-yard line.

Two incompletions on second and third down left three seconds on the clock. Mike Reid intercepted Watkins' fourth-down desperation heave into the end zone in a heart-stopping jump ball that sealed the nerve-wracking game for the Hawks.

"In this game the team that had the ball last - and I guess on the hail mary we had the ball last – was going to win the game - and we did," added Callahan.

Monmouth started the season 0-2 and held the lead in the fourth quarter in each of those games but couldn't hold on. Saturday, they flipped the script and finished the game and improved to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the CAA.

"When we were 0-2 our team - to their credit - never felt that we were an 0-2 team," Callahan said of the team's 0-2 start. "In each of the first two weeks we were ahead into the fourth quarter in those games but just weren't able to hold on and complete the task. We were doing a lot of good things and we just needed to finish the game off and play a full four quarters. I thought we did that last week and although today was a different type of game we did it again today."

The Hawks committed only one turnover in the game, but it appeared it could've been a costly one at the time.

Villanova had just tied the score at 35-35 with 12:11 left in the fourth quarter. Monmouth then proceeded to advance to the Wildcats' 27-yard line, looking like they were driving for the go-ahead score. But on third-and-8 from the 27-yard line, Hawks' running back Owen Wright fumbled with the Wildcats recovering at their own 29-yard line.

Up to this point, Villanova had scored on its last four possessions with the Hawks' defense struggling to keep the Wildcats' offense off the field. However, on the first play of the Wildcats' ensuing possession, senior safety Davis Smith undercut a Watkins pass intended for Rayjuon Pringle and picked it off, returning it to the Villanova 10-yard line.

"I trusted Coach Bishop and his words just a couple of series before the play," said Smith. "He told me they were going to come back to the play that they went to earlier when I missed it and that was going to be my opportunity to make a play and I took the opportunity. The win is definitely a milestone for us and a big thing we wanted to accomplish."

It was a huge momentum swing for the Hawks and a turning point in the game, and they took advantage. Wright carried the ball on four straight plays before taking it in from a yard out to put the Hawks back on top 42-35 with 6:21 left in the fourth quarter.

Wright finished with two touchdown runs in the game, giving him nine on the season, putting him atop the FCS in rushing touchdowns.

A short kickoff gave Villanova excellent field position at the 39-yard line. The Wildcats then drove 61 yards in seven plays to knot the game at 42-42 with 2:42 remaining in the fourth quarter before the Hawks embarked on the game-winning drive.

Monmouth quarterback Tony Muskett completed 11-of-17 passes for 161 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover. However, his legs proved to be instrumental in keeping drives alive in crucial spots throughout the game. He finished with a career-high 78 yards rushing on eight attempts, good for a 9.8 yards per carry average.

"Tony was brilliant, I thought this was his best game so far this year," said Callahan. "I don't know exactly what his numbers were, but he just took what they gave him. He was excellent throwing the ball; he threw some outstanding passes. And when it was time for him to run, he was able to pull the ball down and run for close to 80 yards and he was smart with it too. He was able to get himself out of bounds and stop the clock when we needed to on drives. Just an outstanding game on his part."

On the Hawks' winning touchdown drive, Muskett connected with junior wideout Dymere Miller, his first game back since being injured in the opener, for 19 yards to the Villanova 39-yard line. On the next play, Muskett scrambled for eight yards, and a late hit added 15 more yards giving the Hawks a first-and-10 at the 16 before Shirden's touchdown made it 49-42, setting up the climactic finish.

Miller and Muskett hooked up for a 43-yard completion on Monmouth's first possession of the game down to the Wildcats' 27-yard line. Two Shirden runs moved the ball to the 18-yard line, and on the next play, Muskett connected with senior wide receiver Assanti Kearney for an 18-yard touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead.

With the score tied at 7-7 and the Wildcats on the move late in the first quarter, Monmouth's defense came up with a huge fourth-down stop. Electing to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Hawks' 14-yard line, Wildcats running back Jalen Jackson was stopped a yard short of the first by strong safety Tyrese Wright. The Hawks then drove 87 yards in 10 plays to take a 14-7 lead, with Wright banging it up the middle for a 2-yard score.

Jackson was a workhorse for the Wildcats, rushing for 187 yards on 28 carries.

Villanova pulled even again, going 80 yards in seven plays, with Watkins finishing off the drive with QB keeper for a 1-yard touchdown and a 14-14 tie with 2:04 left in the half. Watkins was 13-of-20 for 239 yards and a touchdown and two interceptions.

Monmouth answered with an efficient eight-play, 73-yard touchdown drive taking only 1:39 to get the job done. On fourth-and-three from the Villanova 36-yard line, Muskett found Ugo Obasi wide open down the right sidelines for 21 yards and a first down at the 15. Muskett then scrambled right for a gain of nine yards, and on second-and-1 from the six, Muskett fired a strike to Miller on a crossing pattern to go up 21-14 at the half. Miller ended with a team-high six receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown.

The Wildcats scored on their first possession of the second half driving 68 yards in 10 plays with Jackson taking it in from 2-yards out, making it 21-21

The Hawks answered on their ensuing possession when Shirden bolted 56 yards down the right sidelines putting Monmouth back up 28-21 before Villanova went 90 yards in eight plays to get even at 28 on a Jackson 12-yard run.

Sheridan was quick to give credit to his rebuilt offensive line, which took another huge step Saturday.

"All credit to the offensive line - without them I wouldn't have had any of those yards. They played hard and practiced hard all week. They were focused – I saw the look on their faces to be dominant and they did a great job today."

The dizzying back-and-forth play continued with Monmouth now driving 75 yards in eight plays. Muskett put an exclamation point on the drive with a perfect pass to Kearney, who turned and hauled in the pass just as the ball arrived at the goal line for a 21-yard score and a 35-28 lead with 14:13 left in the fourth quarter. Kearney finished with two catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

"We just didn't want to lose faith and kept on going," said Kearney following the game. "What we thought about the entire game was to keep our foot on their necks and never let up. We knew this was a big opponent, so we had no choice but to do our best and it was a great opportunity to showcase our talent to the CAA."

A 26-yard return of the ensuing kickoff and a facemask penalty gave the Wildcats prime field position at the 49-yard line. They took advantage, driving 51 yards in four plays with Watkins finding Pringle for a 17-yard touchdown to knot the game at 35-35.

Villanova outgained Monmouth by a slim margin, 531 to 482, in total yards and first downs, 27 to 26, but the Hawks held the advantage where it counted on the scoreboard.

Da'Quan Grimes had a game-high 12 tackles, while Wright and T.J. Kamara each added nine tackles.

Monmouth will travel to Bethlehem, Pa., next week for a non-conference game against Lehigh before their next conference game on October 8, when they host the University of Albany.

"As I told the team you can't get two before you get one," said Callahan. "So it was great that we got our first conference victory today and we evened up our record at 1-1 in the conference, which I think is important."

The conference schedule is rough and will be like this week after week – hopefully not the score but this type of game."

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