WEST LONG BRANCH – Saturday’s game against Robert Morris had all the earmarks of your classic let- down game.
But Monmouth University put to rest any notion that they would look past Robert Morris and to next Saturday’s de facto Big South championship game with Kennesaw State early on.
Playing perhaps their best all-around half of football this season, the Hawks rolled to a 38-7 halftime lead on the way to a thorough 44-7 rout of the Colonials.
The win marked the Hawks 16th consecutive win over Big South opponents.
“We felt approaching this game that it was important that we go out and start fast and play well in all phases of the game,” said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. “It’s important if you’re going play for the championship in the month of November that you play championship level football. And that was the challenge we issued to our team this week. We wanted to see a team that went out and played with a high level of concentration, a high level of focus and a team that played a physical game. I was very pleased because I thought we did just that.
“So, we’re very happy with the win, very happy to go 1-0 today and we’re excited and look forward to next week down in Kennesaw.”
Just as the half ended, a violent thunder and lightning storm rolled in from the west delaying the start of the second half. Following more than an hour weather delay the game was resumed with 12 minute quarters and no media time outs in an effort to make sure to get the game in with darkness looming and no lights at Kessler Stadium.
With a rare 12:00 p.m. kickoff Saturday, the Hawks offense looked as though they were sleep walking through their first possession of the game going three-and-out on three-straight incompletions.
However, their alarm clock must’ve gone off because once they got the ball back the offense was wide awake and running on all cylinders.
From its second possession on, Monmouth’s offense was unstoppable. They scored on six of their next seven possessions and made it look easy racing to a 38-7 halftime lead.
And the Hawks defense followed suit.
After Robert Morris put together a five play, 55-yard scoring drive on their first possession of the game to take an early 7-0 lead, the banged-up Hawks defense righted itself and shutdown the Colonial’s offense for the rest of the game.
“We had a couple of communication errors on that drive,” said Callahan. “It forced our guys to refocus on what it was we wanted to accomplish out there and I thought the rest of the way we played dominant on the defensive side.”
Playing without a number of starters on defense due to injuries, the Hawks held the Colonials to 47 total yards of offense on their ensuing six possessions, including five punts and an interception by rising sophomore defensive back Mike Reid.
The offense meanwhile was racking up 402 yards of total offense, including 160-yards rushing in the first half with sophomore quarterback Tony Muskett completing 17-24 passes for 232 yards and four touchdowns – his second straight four touchdown game and 24th of the season.
“We showed our ability to run the ball and we showed our ability to hit big explosive plays in the pass game,” Callahan said. “I thought our offensive line did an excellent job of controlling their front seven at the line of scrimmage.”
The ground game was really clicking with talented freshman running back Jaden Shirden rushing for 107 yards on seven attempts (15.3 yards/carry) and a touchdown in the first half and graduate transfer Owen Wright adding another 59 yards on nine carries (6.6 yards/attempt).
“We knew we had to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” said Callahan. “We were able to run the ball extremely well on them and we did a very good job against their running game too. Anytime you can do that good things are going to happen to your team.”
Shirden got the ball rolling for the Hawks offense on the first play of their second possession. The 5-foot-9, 185 pounder followed a devastating block by pulling guard Manny Christian and burst through the line before accelerating and outrunning the nearest defenders for a 75-yard touchdown jaunt to knot the game at seven.
“I just wanted to give our team a spark, we were down 7-0, so I had to do something to step it up and I was able to take it to the house,” said Shirden. “My role on the team is score touchdowns and make big plays.”
On the Colonial’s ensuing possession, Reid forced a punt on third-and-4 stopping running back Alijah Jackson with a sure tackle after a two-yard pickup. With the Hawks secondary shorthanded the last few weeks, Reid has seen his playing time increase exponentially and is rapidly growing into a big-time player. He led the Hawks with four tackles (three solo) in the first half.
Monmouth increased its lead to 14-7 marching 80 yards in seven plays. On second-and-5 from the Robert Morris 18-yard line, Zach Tredway sold the post then broke it outside with Muskett hitting in stride as he streaked into the end zone for the score. On the drive, Tredway and Muskett also hooked up for 17 yards and a first down to keep the drive alive.
The Hawks then put together a time consuming 17 play, 80-yard scoring drive that took 7:04 off the clock. On first-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Muskett rolled right before looking off Terrance Greene Jr. open in the right flat and throwing perfect spiral across his body to tight end Gene Scott, who had floated out to the left side, just as he crossed the goal line for a 21-7 lead.
Muskett then tossed his third touchdown pass of the game to push the lead to 28-7 with a six play, 55-yard drive. Muskett finished off the drive with a 30-yard strike to junior wideout Ezrah Archie. On the play, Muskett stepped up in the pocket to avoid the rush before tossing a back-shoulder pass to Archie, who made a pretty adjustment on the pass make the catch in the end zone.
Following another Robert Morris three-and-out and the Colonials fifth punt in a row, the Hawks traveled 88 yards in four plays to go up 35-7.
Wright busted a 20-yard run and veteran wideout Lonnie Moore IV added a nifty 49-yard catch-and-run that set up a Muskett to Greene Jr. 14-yard touchdown. Muskett hit Greene Jr. outside the far-right hashmarks at the 10-yard line and the elusive Greene Jr. cut it to inside and ran untouched for the score making it 35-7.
On third-and-7 at the Robert Morris 25-yard line on the Colonials final possession of the half, Reid jumped the route and timed his interception perfectly handing the ball back over to the Hawks at the 20-yard line with 30 seconds left in the half.
Monmouth place kicker, Nick Null, then capped off the first half scoring onslaught with a perfect 38-yard field goal and 38-7 lead.
Once the game got underway following the weather delay Monmouth’s dominance over the Colonials continued.
The Hawks kept the ball on the ground in the second half and they racked up another 106-yards rushing. Muskett threw only one pass in the second half as the winds gusted to over 40 miles per hour after the front rolled through and to keep the clock running.
Their final possession of the game was an epic 17 play, 81-yard scoring drive that burned 11:39 off the clock of the 12 minute quarter. Sophomore running back Austin Castorina, who rushed for 3,457 yards and 62 touchdowns in his career at Sparta High School, finished off the drive with a 5-yard burst.
“That drive at the end of the game, taking the time off the clock, with us grinding the ball down the field, I thought was just an exceptional drive,” added Callahan. “It showed how dominant a team we can be when we do things the right way and we’re focusing on our assignments and what we need to do.”
Shirden finished his day rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries for an impressive 9.8 yards per attempt average while Wright added 98 yards on 18 carries and a 5.4 average.
Monmouth rang up a season-high 508 yards of total offense and boasted a balanced attack with 242 yards passing and 266 yards rushing.
The defense allowed a measly 63 total yards in the second half and 160 for the game, including just 37 yards rushing for their best overall effort in years. They also held the Colonials to 1-of-8 on third down conversions while the offense converted a season-best 9-of-14.
Eddie Morales III, who has moved from cornerback to free safety in Anthony Budd’s absence, hasn’t missed a beat. He lead the team with five tackles (4 solo) while Reid, and linebackers Ryan Moran and Eddie Hahn each had four. Disruptive tackle Lorenzo Hernandez, who continues to get double and triple teamed on most every play, added a tackle for loss.
The two-time defending Big South champion Hawks will now travel to Kennesaw State next Saturday with the winner claiming the Big South championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA FCS playoffs.
“Every conference game is important, we try to play it like it’s Kennesaw every week,” said graduate left tackle Mahmoud Shabana, who’s been on both sides of the coin playing Kennesaw State. “While we knew it was going to come down to the last game with Kennesaw, it’s great that we were able to get firing on all cylinders this week so that we’ll be even better next week against Kennesaw.”
Morales, like Shabana, has been through the Kennesaw State wars before. “Coming into the season it was our goal to go undefeated in conference play and get to the championship game and play them again. I think we showed today on both sides of the ball that we’re that team that can play with anybody. And the way we’ve been playing we gave ourselves the opportunity to play next week against Kennesaw for a championship, so we put ourselves in a great spot.”
Monmouth has been plagued by injuries all season long on both sides of the ball but to their credit they’ve instituted a “next man up” mentality and it’s paying off.
“What I think you’re seeing is the depth we have and the younger class beginning to emerge,” said Callahan. “There’s a lot of young guys contributing and that’s a good sign.”
Since 2017 the Big South championship has come down to either Monmouth or Kennesaw State and Callahan expects nest Saturday to be a brawl.
“This year is not going to be any different,” he said. “We know what we’re in for. They’re an excellent football team and very well coached. They’ll be 9-1 coming into our game and we know it’s going to be a real physical battle. So we got to take this week and get ready for what we know we’re going to walk into down there.”