ORONO, ME – Monmouth’s four-game winning streak came to a crashing halt Saturday as the Maine Black Bears turned three Monmouth turnovers into 21 points then held off a late Hawks push for a 38-28 win.
Monmouth ran hot-and-cold Saturday at times appearing unstoppable, while at other times they couldn’t get out of their own way. But in the end, it was the giveaways that spelled their doom.
“Anytime you don’t play your best in this conference it’s going to be very, very difficult to win,” Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said. “I think we found that out this afternoon. We did things we hadn’t done up until this point. We turned the ball over three times that all led to scores and that’s something we can’t do, and we gave up some big plays.”
On Monmouth’s first possession of the game, junior quarterback Tony Muskett engineered a flawless seven play, 85-yard touchdown drive. Muskett found senior wideout Dre Tucker on post pattern for a 17-yard touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead and it appeared the Hawks were on their way to another conference win.
Not so fast.
The Hawks defense forced a Maine three-and-out on their ensuing possession after freshman defensive end Miles Mitchell sacked Black Bears quarterback Joe Fagnano for a six-yard loss on third-and-6 at the Monmouth 42-yard line.
Following a Brain Cooey 47-yard punt, the Hawks were back in business. However, Muskett fumbled after a six-yard run on second-and-14 from their own 16-yard line turning the ball over to Maine at the Hawks' 22-yard line.
The Black Bears then converted a fourth-and-1 on a Fagnano keeper giving them a first-and-goal at the nine-yard line. On the next play, Fagnano connected with Shawn Bowman on a nine-yard reception to knot the game at seven all.
Maine then took the lead, 14-7, marching 73 yards in seven plays with Freddie Brock capping off the drive with a 33-yard touchdown run down the left sidelines with 3:09 left in the first half.
Monmouth took over at their own 24-yard line following the kickoff and moved the sticks for a first down at the 35-yard line. Muskett’s next pass intended for Tucker, however, was picked off by Kahzir Brown and returned for a touchdown pushing the Black Bears' lead to 21-7 with 55 seconds remaining in the half.
Up to this point, the Hawks' offense had done nothing since their opening-game scoring drive producing just 21 yards of offense on five possessions. Monmouth was also called for five offensive penalties (three false starts, an illegal formation, and an illegal snap), with four coming in the first half, putting them in long yardage situations that made it even harder for them to get anything going.
“We had a lot of penalties on our offensive line, false starts and things like that,” Callahan said. “And when you have penalties like those self-imposed penalties, things you have 100 percent control over, and you make those penalties it makes very, very difficult to win. It almost kept us from winning a week ago and it contributed to us not winning today.”
But the Hawks were able to flip the switch right before the half and quickly drove 57 yards for a score in four plays taking just 30 seconds off the clock.
Muskett finished off the drive with a perfectly placed throw for a 31-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Dymere Miller just as he crossed the goal line cutting Maine's lead to 21-14 at the half.
Miller finished with six receptions for 95 yards and a touchdown.
Monmouth’s defense, led by Mitchell’s three tackles for loss, sack and pass break up, held Maine to 141 yards of total offense in the first half. Senior defensive tackle Daviyon Johnson had two sacks and end Justin O’Bannon added three tackles and a tackle for loss in the first half, but it was their inability to keep the Black Bears out of the end zone that stood out the most at the end.
The Hawks came into the game ranked sixth in the country averaging 246.2 yards on the ground and No.1 in average yards per rushing attempt (6.56) but couldn’t get their running game on track as they rushed for just 51 yards on 15 attempts for a 3.4 yard per carry average in the first half.
The nation’s leading rusher, Jaden Shirden, was held to 39 yards on 10 carries in the first half with a long run of 17 yards. Shirden did finish with a respectable 81-yards rushing on 18 attempts for a 4.5 yard average but it was far below his FCS leading 155.3 yards per game average he had coming into the game.
“We thought the front seven was the strength of their defense,” Callahan said. “We knew that was going to be a challenge for us and they did a really good job. They bottled him up all day and made it very difficult. And as you got later in the game, and it became apparent we had to throw the ball to get back in it they were able widen out their ends and rush up the field and give our protection some problems.”
The game got away from the Hawks at the start of the second half and they just didn’t have it in them Saturday to complete a comeback as time eventually became a factor.
The Black Bears (2-4, 2-1) took the second-half kickoff and struck quickly. Boston College transfer Koby White got behind cornerback Davis Smith and hauled in a perfect Fagnano strike for a 77-yard gain before being brought down at the one-yard line. White had 96 receptions for 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns while playing for the Eagles.
Elijah Barnwell then took it in from the one giving the Black Bears another two-touchdown lead, 28-14.
On the ensuing kickoff, Monmouth’s freshman Makhi Green fumbled with the Black Bears Thomas Mai recovering at the Hawks 14-yard line.
Three plays later, Fagnano lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone that wideout Jacob Hennie grabbed for a 14-yard touchdown.
Now down 35-14, just under three minutes into the second half, the Hawks had dug themselves a hole they couldn’t climb out off.
On the Hawks ensuing possession, they marched 77 yards in nine plays with Muskett throwing a strike to senior wide receiver Assanti Kearney for a 43-yard touchdown. Kearney made a circus-like catch on the play to pull the Hawks to within 35-20. Callahan then surprisingly elected to go for two points, but a Muskett pass fell incomplete and they came up short on the attempt.
Kearney was the Hawks leading receiver on the day with six receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown.
Muskett ended up completing 22-of-31 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns and the pick six. It was an up-and-down performance that saw him under intense pressure all day and forced out of the pocket play-after-play. He rushed for 20 yards on 13 attempts mostly on scrambles and was sacked five times. It was definitely not a performance the offensive line would write home about.
The defense then forced a three-and-out on an O’Bannon third-down stop and Hawks got the ball back and things started to get interesting with Monmouth taking over at their own 31-yard line.
A fourth-and-4 conversion where Kearney made an acrobatic 21-yard catch for a first down at the Maine 14-yard line kept the drive alive. However, four plays later, after a Muskett nine-yard scramble, on fourth-and-1 from the five-yard line Owen Wright was stopped for no gain and Maine took over.
This would come back to haunt the Hawks as a touchdown there would've made it a one-score game.
The defense had the Black Bears pinned deep in their own territory at the five-yard line and now more than ever they needed a turnover on downs to keep the Hawks chances alive. But Maine then essentially put the game out of reach driving 77 yards in 11 plays while taking six minutes off the clock. Cole Baker connected on a 35-yard field goal for a 38-20 lead thus making it a three-score game with 9:46 remaining.
The Hawks did cut the gap to 38-28 with 5:09 left to play on a Wright three-yard touchdown run and a Muskett two-point conversion run but their attempt on an onside kick failed and that was that.
“They’re not happy,” Callahan said of his players after the game. “They knew that this was a game we could’ve won but the sense is you have to come out and play at a high level every single week, every single quarter, every single play because it you don’t, you’re not going to win.”
Monmouth (4-3, 2-2) will attempt to get back on track next Saturday when they host the University of Rhode Island at Kessler Stadium. No.22 Rhode Island (4-2, 2-1) knocked off No. 14 Elon, 17-10, on Saturday so the Hawks will have their hands full.