MURFREESBORO – Monmouth University went into Saturday nights matchup against Middle Tennessee State University with high hopes of bringing home its first ever win against a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team in program history.
And for most of the first half it was looking as though that might become a reality.
The Hawks – ranked No.10 in the FCS Coaches Poll - were outplaying Middle Tennessee State and proving they belonged on the same field as the Blue Raiders. They held a sizeable edge in offensive yardage and the likelihood of a program defining win seemed within their grasps.
Then it all fell apart in the blink of an eye.
Tied at seven late in the first half, two costly fumbles recovered by the Blue Raiders abruptly turned the game in Middle Tennessee’s favor. Overall, Middle Tennessee took advantage of four Monmouth miscues that led to 28 points and they went on to defeat Monmouth 50-15.
“We’re kind of disappointed in the way we went out and performed tonight, it certainly was not what we were looking for,” said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. “We need to be a lot better in many, many areas to have a chance to win some games this year. Give credit to Middle Tennessee, they exposed every mistake we made throughout the course of the night.”
It was Monmouth’s fifth loss in six years against an FBS opponent dropping their overall record to 0-5 against FBS opponents.
It’s hard enough for a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team to beat an FBS team to begin with. But when you turn the ball over three times on fumbles that directly result in 21 points, have an interception returned for a touchdown and a special teams breakdown that turns into a punt return for a touchdown, then it becomes down-right impossible to overcome.
“I think when you play a higher level team and you make mistakes, those mistakes are magnified and that’s what we saw tonight,” said Callahan. “We kind of broke ourselves down (with turnovers), that’s 35 points right there and that’s tough to overcome.”
Middle Tennessee had taken a 7-0 lead 16 seconds into the second quarter on a 70-yard punt return by Jaylin Lane.
Monmouth answered on its ensuing possession driving 79 yards in 12 plays to knot the score at 7-7. Sophomore quarterback Tony Muskett finished off the drive lofting a perfect ball that junior wideout Ezrah Archie hauled in for a 22-yard touchdown.
Muskett threw for 183 yards with one touchdown and ran for another but uncharacteristically turned the ball over twice and at times looked rattled in the pocket leading to poor decisions.
“I don’t think so," Callahan said when asked if Muskett had taken a step back. "Tony was under a lot more duress tonight then he had been in the spring, Again, in the spring we didn’t play FBS teams. They were getting a good pass rush on him and he was taking some big hits and the defenders closed in on the receivers faster than they did in the spring. So, it was a step up for him in the level of competition and so I think a lot of it had to do with that.”
On Middle Tennessee’s possession following the score senior cornerback Eddie Morales had a sack and forced fumble and quarterback hit forcing the Blue Raiders to punt on fourth-and-13 at the Hawks 47-yard line with 5:08 remaining in the half.
The Hawks took over at their own 20 and began to move the ball again but here’s were things began to unravel.
Junior running back Juwon Farri, who finished with 99 yards rushing on 18 attempts, had a 27-yard run to the Blue Raiders 37-yard line. On second-and-6, however, Muskett fumbled the ball on a blind-side hit with Middle Tennessee recovering at their own 42 at the 2:44 mark of the first half.
Up to this point of the game Monmouth’s defense, playing without three first team All-Big South starters, including linebacker Da’Quan Grimes and linemen Kahari Scarlett and Erik Massey had held the potent Middle Tennessee offense to just 60 yards of total offense and had shutout the Blue Raiders offense. But they could only hold off the Blue Raiders for so long.
“We didn’t have the depth (on defense) that we normally do,” Callahan said. “But I can’t use that as an excuse for the way that we played. We’re just not happy with our performance out here. We don’t think we played up to our own standards and it happened to be against a very good football team.”
Four plays after recovering the Muskett fumble on second-and-26, following a 16-yard sack by Lorenzo Hernandez, quarterback Baily Hochman hit DJ England-Chisolm for a 29-yard score and a 14-7 lead with 1:44 left in the half.
With 1:38 remaining in the first half, Monmouth took over at their own 18 following the kick but the Hawks turned the ball over again. On second-and-7 from the 35-yard line, graduate student transfer Owen Wright fumbled with the Blue Raiders Jordan Ferguson recovering at the 35.
It only took two plays for Hockman to find Lane all alone in the end zone for a 32-yard score - the result of a breakdown in coverage in the Hawks secondary.
That turnover and resulting score was the back-breaker for the Hawks.
So, in just under two minutes the game went from being tied and Monmouth with the ball and all the momentum to the Hawks heading to the locker room down 21-7 and not knowing what hit them.
Monmouth outgained Middle Tennessee 185 to 154 in the first half with 93 of the Blue Raiders 154 first-half yardage coming on their final two possessions after the turnovers.
The two teams traded three-and-outs to start the second half but on Middle Tennessee’s second possession they went 65 yards in seven plays to take a 28-7 lead on a Chaton Mobley 9-yard touchdown run.
Monmouth made a valiant attempt to get back in the game driving 75 yards in 14 plays to pull within 28-15 with 2:12 remaining in the third quarter. Muskett finished off the drive with a 1-yard quarterback sneak and they were successful on a two-point conversion with Muskett finding Lonnie Moore IV for the two points. On the drive, Terrance Greene Jr. made spectacular 26-yard reception on fourth-and-5 to keep the drive alive.
On the Blue Raiders ensuing possession they drove the Hawks 32-yard line but on fourth-and-6 Hockman’s pass to CJ Windham was broken up by sophomore cornerback Mike Reid keeping the Hawks chances still alive.
With 14:13 still left in the game the Hawks had the ball and a comeback seemed like a real possibility – until it wasn’t.
On first down, Muskett appeared to get his bell rung on late hit that was missed by the officials and was replaced by Max Smyth for one play. Muskett came back in but on the next play on a crucial third-and-5 he threw behind the receiver and his pass was intercepted and returned 44 yards for a touchdown giving Middle Tennessee an insurmountable 36-15 lead and that was the game right there.
Unfortunately, I thought there was a point where we were starting to get ourselves back into it,” Callahan said. “But we continued to break ourselves down and never really gave ourselves a chance and good football teams expose those mistakes.”
Middle Tennessee tacked on two more touchdowns - one the direct result of another Monmouth turnover. The Hawks were outgained 14 to 74 in the fourth quarter.
Looking at the final score of 50-15, you’d think total rout. But the final score was deceiving as the Hawks were really still in the game into the fourth quarter – not that that’s any consolation - mistakes killed the Hawks.
“They’re upset,” said Callahan when asked how the team was taking the loss. “They’re upset with the way that they played. They set the bar really high in terms of expectations for the level of performance and to a person we didn’t play up to that expectation. And we probably didn’t coach up to that expectation and we’re all disappointed with that.”