WEST LONG BRANCH – The road-weary Monmouth University football squad returns to the friendly confines of Kessler Stadium Saturday where they’ve gone 19-1 since the stadium opened in 2017, including winning their last 10 games in a row there.
The Hawks are coming off a rugged three-game, season-opening road trip in which they accomplished what they needed to. They did, however, suffer a disappointing opening-night loss at FBS opponent Middle Tennessee State – a team many felt the Hawks had a chance at upsetting.
They took care of business in their second game of the season at Fordham and opened their Big South Conference schedule with an impressive win at Charleston Southern.
Following their win at Charleston Southern the Hawks moved up one spot to 19th in the most recent AFCA Coaches’ Poll while they remained at No.20 in the STATS Top 25.
Monmouth will host Patriot League favorite Holy Cross in its home opener Saturday and it will mark the first game played in front of fans at Kessler – due to the Covid 19 pandemic - since they beat Holy Cross in a 2019 opening-round FCS playoff game.
Only family members were allowed to attend the Hawks two home games in the abbreviated spring season, but Saturday the gates will be open to all with perfect weather forecasted.
In 27 games against Patriot League opponents the Hawks own a 17-10 advantage and currently hold an 11-game winning streak against the conference.
Saturday will be the fifth meeting between Holy Cross and Monmouth, with the Hawks leading the series 3-1.
Like Monmouth, Holy Cross is a two-time defending conference champion and was the Patriot League preseason pick to repeat again this season as were the Hawks in the Big South. The Crusaders garnered 71 points with 11 first-place votes while Fordham collected 63 points and three first-place votes.
Holy Cross enters the game with two wins and one loss. They opened the season defeating FBS opponent University of Connecticut 38-28, but it should be noted that the Huskies were ranked 129th out of 130 FBS schools and dropping.
Following their win against UConn, they were surprisingly upset by Merrimack, 35-21. Merrimack just recently transitioned from DII to the FCS in 2019 accepting an invitation to become a member of the Northeast Conference in 2023-24 upon completion of its four-year NCAA Division I reclassification period.
They rebounded with a 20-17 win at Yale on a 47-yard field goal by Derek Ng with 48 seconds left in the game. Yale was picked second in the Ivy League prior to the season collecting 104 points and six first-place votes behind Princeton – Monmouth’s opponent in two weeks – which received 113 points and eight first-place votes.
In between Saturday’s game with Holy Cross and its home game with Princeton in two weeks the Hawks will host Big South foe Gardner-Webb, picked sixth in the conference preseason poll.
Holy Cross went 3-1 last spring beating Bucknell 31-10 in the first-ever Patriot League Championship Game to secure an automatic berth in the NCAA FCS playoffs where they fell to No.2 South Dakota State 31-3.
On offense, the Crusaders like to run the ball and are averaging 179.8 yards per game, having run the ball 118 times, compared to 62 passing attempts.
They are led by 6-foot-3, 215 pound sophomore quarterback Matthew Sluka. A dual-threat quarterback, Sluka was the Patriot League Rookie of the Year last spring. He completed 20-of-35 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He also led the team in rushing averaging 5.3 yards per carry on 44 attempts for 234 yards and four touchdowns while splitting time under center with Connor Degenhardt.
In the Crusaders conference championship win over Bucknell, Sluka ran for 80 yards and two touchdowns and threw for another completing 8-of-11 passes for 78 yards.
Aa a student athlete at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, NY, Sluka led Kellenberg to two straight undefeated seasons and two CHSFL AA championships. He was named the MVP of the CHSFL championship game in both 2017 and 2018 while earning All-New York State, All-Long Island and All-Metro honors and accounted for 101 touchdowns in his prep career.
In three games as the starter this season, Sluka is again the leading rusher with 237 yards on the ground averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 43 attempts with three touchdowns. He’s passed for 357 yards while completing 27-of-49 passes with three touchdowns and an interception.
Sluka was named the Patriot League Player of the Week after rushing for a pair of touchdowns and totaling 85 yards on the ground 80 yards through the air in the Crusaders win at Yale.
A pair of second team All-Patriot League running backs, senior Peter Oliver and junior Tyler Purdy, are back for Holy Cross giving the Crusaders experience and depth in the backfield. Oliver averaged 7.1 yards per attempt last spring rushing for 226 yards and a touchdown. So far this season, he’s gained 119 yards on 30 carries. Purdy, who returns kicks as well, has rushed for 117 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
Preseason first team All-Patriot League wide receiver, junior Ayir Asante leads the receiving corps after picking up second team All-Patriot League honors last spring. Asante has six receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown. Senior wideout Spencer Gilliam leads the team with 10 receptions for 115 yards and two touchdowns while captain Tenio Ayeni (6-70) and Jalen Coker (5-84) are reliable targets as well.
The offensive line is anchored by senior center Nick Olsofka, who was a second team All-Patriot League selection last spring and a first team pick in the 2021 preseason.
Defensively, Holy Cross ranks eighth among all FCS teams in interceptions with six this season. In all, the defense has forced eight total turnovers in three games, ranking ninth in the FCS.
The heart and soul of the Holy Cross defense is first team All-Patriot League linebacker Jacob Dobbs. Dobbs is off to a blazing start having been named the STATS Perform FCS Player of the Week for his 13 tackle, four TFL, two sack outing against Yale. He has recorded double-digit tackles in each game this season and leads the Patriot League in sacks and TFL and ranks second in the FCS in total tackles with 42.
Senior Liam Anderson, a two-year starter at linebacker, is third of the team in tackles with 22, including two sacks and two TFL along with an interception, forced fumble and two QB hits.
The defensive line is anchored by 6-foot-3, 248 pound end Dan Kuznetsov and first team All-Patriot League defensive end Benton Whitley, who is sixth on the team in tackles with 11. Kuznetsov – a second team selection - is right behind Whitley with 10 tackles, including two TFL and a sack.
The secondary is probably the most talented group overall on defense with three returning starters, including first team selection John Smith, second team pick, safety Grant Holloman, and three-year starting safety Walter Reynolds.
Reynolds and Smith each have two interceptions on the year with Reynolds recording 20 tackles, including a TFL and Smith posting 11 tackles, two pass breakups and a QB hit. Holloman, a team captain, is second on the team with 23 tackles and a forced fumble.
Monmouth was dealt a devastating blow to start the season when injuries left potential Big South Defensive Player of the Year, middle linebacker Da’Quan Grimes, first team All-Big South defensive end, Kahari Scarlett and first team All-Big South offensive tackle Justin Szuba sidelined for the year.
With improved depth, Monmouth has been able to overcome those setbacks and heading into their fourth game of the season they seem to be rounding into shape.
After a breakout season as a freshman that saw him garner first team All-Big South honors, sophomore quarterback Tony Muskett has shaken off a couple of early-season turnovers and has since looked every bit as good as last spring.
A born leader, Muskett has the complete trust of his offensive teammates and they feed off his calm demeanor when under fire and his innate ability to come up with the big play when it’s needed most.
Muskett is first in the Big South in passing yardage (653) and completions (73) and second averaging 217.7 yards per game completing 73-of-112 passes and four touchdowns with two interceptions.
The 2020-21 spring season Big South Offensive Player of the Year, junior running back Juwon Farri, is back and better than ever. Farri is third in the FCS in rushing yardage with 324 yards on 69 attempts with four touchdowns in three games. He possesses breakaway speed and the power to break tackles and pick up the tough yardage.
Transfer Owen Wright (19-59-1) has been a serviceable backup and true freshman Jaden Shirden (13-37) has shown flashes of potential.
Muskett is blessed with a deep and talented group of wide receivers starting with first team All-Big South selections in seniors Terrance Greene Jr. and Lonnie Moore IV. Both are deep threats that can also pickup that tough yardage over the middle posting huge yards after catch (YAC) numbers.
Going into Saturday’s game Moore IV, a four-year starter, has 156 career receptions for 2,066 yards and 13 touchdowns. Greene Jr., a three-year starter, has 120 career receptions for 1,698 yards and 16 touchdowns. These guys have seen it all and done it all and their experience is invaluable to Muskett’s development. So far this season, Moore IV had recorded 16 receptions for 110 yards while Greene Jr. has 215 yards receiving on 16 catches with one touchdown.
Unheralded Zach Tredway gets lost in the shuffle at times but has been a valuable and constant contributor to the Hawks offensive production since 2018, his sophomore season. He has 14 receptions for 99 yards this season.
Ezrah Archie (7-66-1), Assanti Kearney (3-43-1), Dymere Miller (4-45) and Justin Marcus (3-18) have all contributed this season.
Frist team All-Big South senior tight end Gene Scott, known for his blocking prowess, has been a big part of the passing game this season. He provides Muskett with a big target and has come up with some clutch receptions while recording six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown.
You can’t talk about Monmouth’s offense without mentioning its invaluable offensive line. Anchored by All-American center A.J. Farris., most of the working parts of the line have been playing together for three to four years with unprecedented results.
The loss of Szuba at right tackle hurt but Monmouth’s ever-increasing depth has paid dividends across the board. Senior Oliver Jervis has stepped in at Szuba’s spot and played admirably with junior Gregg Anderson also getting time at right tackle.
Including Szuba, the Hawks had four of the five selections on the Big South Preseason Team.
First team All-Big South selection Mahmoud Shabana is a stalwart at left tackle, All-Big South Preseason selection Manny Christian is a force at left guard and underrated right guard Brian Syracuse is a three-year starter.
Charles James, Jordan Hall, Tyler Williams and Ed Gatling are in the rotation and produced when called on.
Defensively, the loss of Grimes and Scarlett could have been a back-breaker for the Monmouth defense but to its credit their next man up mentality has spearheaded a new wave of contributors that have stepped in and performed beyond expectations.
In particular, senior defensive end Lorenzo Hernandez, who moved into a starting role, has terrorized opposing quarterbacks spending most of his time in the oppositions backfield. He’s been credited with five tackles, three TFL, two sacks, three QB hits and a blocked punt.
Junior DeAndre Clifton is another young player who has stepped into a starting role at defensive end and has excelled along with sophomore Justin O’Bannon, who’s been getting time behind Clifton. Clifton has posted eight tackles, including a TFL while O’Bannon has recorded four tackles, a TFL and sack and one forced fumble.
Senior defensive end Nick Shoemaker has started along the line since his sophomore year in 2019 and doesn’t get much notoriety but is a really solid player. End, Erik Massey is a four-year starter and a first team All-Big South selection and is a smart, physical player. Massey recorded his first sack of the season against Charleston Southern while Shoemaker has four tackles and 1.5 TFL this season.
Monmouth likes to rotate its defensive lineman with tackles Dominick Spano, Pat Hayden and Sheku Tonkara part of the rotation as well as end Zamon Robinson, who has recorded three tackles, including 1.5 TFL. Spano picked up his first career sack in the Charleston Southern game while Tonkara has contributed two tackles, one TFL and QB hit and Hayden two tackles.
Senior Eddie Hahn, who transferred from UConn last spring and immediately made his presence felt picking up first team All-Big South honors in the process, has taken on an added leadership role this season in Grimes’ absence. He’s third on the team in tackles with 16, including 2 TFL and had an drive-stopping fumble recovery in the Charleston Southern game.
Junior Tyler Delgado has taken over for Grimes’ at the MIKE linebacker spot after appearing in all 11 games as a true freshman in 2018 and all four games last spring. He was thrust into a tough situation but has held his own this season. He was knocked out of the Charleston Southern game after getting hit in his mouth but is expected to be available Saturday. In his absence last week, true freshman Remi Johnson stepped in and was credited with six tackles, including four solo tackles.
Junior Ryan Moran won the starting WILL linebacker job out of summer camp and is another guy who has risen to the occasion after spending his first two seasons on Monmouth’s scout team. He’s been credited with six tackles, including a TFL.
Junior linebacker Dale Sieczkowski is coming on strong making the most of his opportunities. He had a crushing sack last week – his career first – and also has three TFL and a fumble recovery to his credit.
Monmouth’s secondary is undoubtedly the cream of the crop in the Big South. Cornerbacks Eddie Morales III and Justin Terry and free safety Anthony Budd were all named first team All-Big South in the spring season. Strong safety Justin Terry could’ve easily been the fourth selection but was unceremoniously left off the team after recording 24 tackles (16 solo), fourth on the team. Budd led the Big South with two interceptions while Morales III and Terry had one each.
Four of Monmouth’s top five tacklers are in the secondary this season. Budd leads the team with 24 tackles (15 solo) along with three pass breakups and three defended passes. Wright is second with 19 tackles (12 solo) with two pass breakups and two defended passes while Terry is credited with 13 tackles (11 solo) and a pass breakup and pass defended.
Morales III has taken his game to another level this season. He’s recorded 16 tackles (8 solo), a forced fumble and fumble recovery, three TFL, one sack, one interception, three pass breakups and four defended passes. He returned his pick 77 yards before being forced out of bounds at the 1-yard line.
Sophomore cornerback Mike Reid, who had one start in the spring as a true freshman, has played well and has become an integral part of the secondary. He has recorded nine tackles (7 solo) with four pass breakups and four defended passes.
Junior Dante Kiett, sophomore Jabril Shakur and senior Jason Antwi and freshman Jude Umunakwe have seen spot duty as reserves and have accounted for themselves well.
Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on Saturday at Kessler Stadium in West Long Branch, New Jersey