Friday, August 22, 2014

Know Your 2014 Opponents: Monmouth

By definition, every team I profile in this "Know Your 2014 Opponents" series is new.  There are new faces, a fresh, new 0-0 record, and a fresh start for the football season.

For Monmouth, though, who visits Lehigh on September 27th, there's a whole lot more new stuff.

Start with a new football conference.  The Hawks (or Jersey Hawks, as I call them) move to the Big South in football only, where they will be competing against some football powers like Coastal Carolina and Liberty.  Gone is their independent schedule from 2013.

Then head to the helmets and uniforms, where it shows off Monmouth's status as an up-and-coming athletics program.  Gone are the gothic interlocking "M" and "U", and in its place a silver helmet, with a classic looking "M", takes its place.

Perhaps unfortunately for the Mountain Hawks, though, the players who inhabited the old uniforms last season return to inhabit the new ones, meaning Lehigh will face a team with a boatload of experience.


One thing that certainly didn't change is Monmouth's head coach.

Kevin Callahan, who will be entering his 22nd season in West Long Branch, isn't surprised by much, and definitely won't be surprised by Lehigh, whom the Jersey Hawks have played three times in the last three years.

Callahan's biggest challenge might be his new football conference, where the Jersey Hawks are trying to get to the level of their new competition, scholarship-wise.
"Going to the Big South, we're joining a conference that is fully funded, that supports their programs with unlimited resources across the board, as any of you that were down at Liberty saw," Callahan said. "You see what Coastal Carolina has. And although we're still not up to where everyone else is and won't be for at least another year, it's been a significant step."
Their new leaguemates the Chanticleers, who have been ranked as high as 7th in the preseason polls, has a squad that is knocking at the door when it comes to competing for FCS National Championships.  And anyone who watch Lehigh play Liberty a few years ago can certainly attest that the Big South sports some very tough programs.

And to their credit, Monmouth has been doing much to prepare for their new 63 scholarship world, mostly in the area of facilities.

Recently they've upgraded their football field, Kessler field, with a $5 million renovation, the first step of their multi-step upgrade of facilities.

Anyone who was in Monmouth's cramped press box will appreciate the building that they are erecting behind the home stands, and the field, newly appointed with the brand-new logo, stands out.

Callahan would like to start his brave new world of 63 scholarship football to not only include a new helmet and new stadium, but to also include a win over a team he has never beaten.

Though he sports an 0-5 career record against the Brown and White, but that doesn't mean that the games haven't been competitive.

In 2012, the game was in doubt until the very last play of the game, where Lehigh ultimately outlasted them 27-17.  Many of the Lehigh players who saw their first real game action of their careers, like senior WR Josh Parris, senior DB Jason Suggs and junior WR Derek Knott, remember that game going to the wire and getting settled only when LB Jerard Gordon returned their final hook-and-ladder fumble for the game-sealing touchdown.

Last season, too, the Mountain Hawks had to hold on late in order to win. The 28-25 win came about in large part due to one of the freakiest plays you'll see: a blocked Lehigh punt, plucked from the air by FB Zach Hayden behind the line of scrimmage, which he advanced for a huge gain.  That play set up a critical touchdown from QB Brandon Bialkowski to WR Lee Kurfis.

Based on the cardiac nature of that win, it will likely take Lehigh's full concentration to hold off the Jersey Hawks this time, too, since a significant portion of Monmouth's offense returns from last year.

Start with UMass transfer senior QB Brandon Hill, who had a full year to adjust to Callahan's modified pistol offense last season.  His 2,356 passing yards and 19 touchdowns were near the top of the Jersey Hawk record books, and his 316 yards passing against Lehigh last season was his career best.

One of their two "pistol" running backs, too, senior RB K.B. Asante, returns after rushing for 1,080 yards last season, as does their leading receiver, senior WR Neal Stirling (647 yards, 6 TDs).  Asante is a transfer from West Virginia, where he arrived in West Long Branch after redshirting his freshman year.

The big question for Monmouth involves the offensive line, where only one starter returns from last year's squad, though several transfers from a two-year school, ASA College in Brooklyn, might make that part of the offense more stalwart than one might think.  Another West Virginia transfer, freshman OL Alex Thompson, may start at center.

On defense, the Jersey Hawks will be led by their defensive line, which only allowed 122.8 yards rushing last season, good for 17th in the nation.  It's worth noting, though, that Lehigh exceeded that in last season's game, with RB Keith Sherman netting 107 yards against them.

Senior DL Pat O'Hara (35 tackles, 7 tackles for loss) leads a front seven that is kind of a no-name defense with lots of subsitutions, by plenty tough to run against, as well as junior LB John Sieczkowski (46 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 INT).

Asante mentioned, at their media day, that Monmouth wants to make a statement in the Big South.  It's a safe bet that Monmouth will also want to make a statement at Murray Goodman stadium, too, in late September.

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