Three days from today, Lehigh will be travelling to Kessler Field in Monmouth, New Jersey to open their 2011 football season.
The Hawks and, er, Mountain Hawks have played each other twice in their history: once in 1999, and once in 2005, both times at Murray Goodman stadium. Both were blowouts; in both games, Lehigh put up more than a 50-spot on Monmouth as well.
Lehigh is extremely unlikely to put up a 50-spot on the Hawks this weekend, though. Since that 54-26 victory in 2005, both Monmouth and their athletic conference, the NEC, have improved immensely. (more)
As Lehigh fans, we'd hope that we'd see a similar Monmouth team to the one in 2005 that visited Bethlehem - a nice tune-up to start the year and a way to break in new players. (When I wrote my preview of that 2005 game, too, I had to really struggle to find the words to talk about a team I hardly knew.)
But since that win, Lehigh's time against NEC teams has been a true struggle. In head coach Andy Coen's first game as a collegiate head coach, a rainstorm and a loss marred the event, with a 17-16 loss to Albany, and Central Connecticut State also spoiled the 2009 season opener, 28-21.
Reading those recaps again, recurring themes appear. "Working out the kinks". "Sloppy play." "Turnovers killed us." "Offense couldn't get anything going."
Once upon a time, the NEC was much more similar to the Patriot League, only offering a limited number of need-based grants to football players. Their league looked a lot more like the Pioneer League than the CAA.
But full athletic scholarships - even just a limited number of them - has made a major difference in the competitiveness of the entire league.
While Monmouth hasn't won a non-league game since 2009 - a fact pointed out in Monmouth's game notes this week - the fact that is the team they beat is Old Dominion, now starting its first season in the CAA, 31-28.
In 2010, they were a 2-point conversion away from knocking off Colgate in their home opener, and were a touchdown away from knocking off Maine of the CAA as well.
Make no mistake; Monmouth is a solid team.
Every person associated with this Mountain Hawks team has talked non-stop about not reading into the pre-season hype. Senior OL Keith Schauder and senior LB Devin Greene said all the right things in regards to their first opponent of the 2011 season:
"I've been waiting for this game since Day 1 of camp," Schauder told Keith Groller of the Morning Call. "As soon as we reported, all I could think about was getting through camp and getting to this first game. We're excited to be hitting somebody besides our own defense."
"It's a great challenge for us," coach Coen added. "They may not be one of the top-ranked teams in the country like when we opened up against Villanova, but it's a good football team. We know some guys who are on their team through recruiting. They are guys who may have not fit [academically] here, but are thriving there. They are going to be a very physical football team."
From the video from the media luncheon, you hear the same thing over and over. Physical. Tough. The body language and the language says to fans: We're not overlooking the Hawks. You shouldn't either.
On Saturday, we'll find out if it was just talk - or not.
Lehigh's game notes for the Monmouth game come out - and we see our first peek at Lehigh's starting team for 2011. And there were some genuine surprises.
While I'm a fan of 296 lb senior NG Sajjad Chagani, I'm surprised that he got the starting nod over senior NG Billy Dokuslis. It could be that coach Coen, expecting a physical battle, started the bigger body in the middle in an effort to more effectively disrupt the Hawk offense. I'm very interested to see how Chagani will work in the middle.
Senior OL Troy McKenna will be out at least a couple of weeks with a foot injury, which gives a chance to junior OL Mike Vuono at right tackle, and first-time varsity starter sophomore OL Shane Rugg at right guard.
Seeing senior WR Jimmy Jefferson as the No. 4 receiver was a major surprise to me, as with the appearance of sophomore WR Lee Kurfis in a deep unit. But the guys in front of them, junior WR Ryan Spadola and senior WR Jake Drwal, were never in doubt. Receiver, then, will be another interesting thing to look at this weekend.
The game in West Long Branch, by all accounts, looks like it's going to be hurricane free, with a high of 82 on a perfect pre-fall day. For an area that is surprisingly close to flooded areas and people still recovering from Hurricane Irene, the respite is a serious blessing.
A Word on Monmouth
The Monmouth Hawks' football program is probably best known for the NFL star that came from their ranks, Dallas Cowboy WR Miles Austin, who has made two consecutive Pro Bowls after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2006.
(In his college career, he actually traveled to Murray Goodman in the only other meeting between Lehigh and Monmouth. He caught 7 passes for 126 yards and a 66 yard touchdown strike in a 54-26 Mountain Hawk victory.)
His explosion into the NFL has put the Hawk program on the map, along with the addition of limited scholarships and an autobid to the FCS playoffs for the Northeast Conference, where the Hawks compete.
The Hawks have only known one football coach - Kevin Callahan, who has been the head kahuna since the programs' inception in 1993. He's led Monmouth to five NEC titles in the last seventeen years - but hasn't captured an NEC title since 2004 - and actually served under the tutelage of two other legendary coaches in the NEC: Albany's Bob Ford and Wagner's Walt Hameline.
One thing is for sure about NEC coaches - you won't be able to throw much at them that they haven't seen before, and coach Callahan is no exception. Furthermore, looking at their recent record against the Patriot League gives plenty of reason for caution going into the season opener.
“I like what I see,” he told the local paper in their season preview. “There is tremendous energy. We’ve had good practices. I like where we are. We are bigger and stronger than the last couple of years, our chemistry and cohesion is better. We have the personnel to be explosive, and we’ll spread things out. We are very optimistic and excited about the season.”
LFN's Drink of the Week
Monmouth isn't known for any specific drink, but this article from Currents Magazine seems to capture the mood of the county rather well - in less flooded times, anyway. The author led off their recipe with a classic - the Gin and Tonic - and it seems oddly apropos, for some weird reason, for Lehigh's season opener as well.
Sensible drinking can be a part of a pleasant tailgating experience, but only if you drink responsibly and for God's sakes don't get behind the wheel of a car when having consumed too much alcohol.
Breaking Down Monmouth
Junior QB Kyle Frazier (2,072 yards passing, 9 TDs, 332 yards rushing) easily won the "competition" to lead the offense on opening day, and is the sort of mobile, accurate passer that gives many a defensive coordinator problems, similar to former Colgate QB Greg Sullivan. In the spring report, Callahan also said that last year they were going to explore Frazier snapping the ball more from center, after being "strictly in the gun" in 2010.
Monmouth ran a variation of the "pistol offense", made famous by Nevada head coach Chris Ault, last year, but there seems to be the potential for a lot of different offensive looks from this Hawk offense.
From last year, Monmouth's "O" line graduated three redshirt seniors, but the two bookend tackles should be available on opening day in senior OL Dino Molina and senior OL Mike Murphy.
Last year, Monmouth spread the wealth when it came to receiving yardage, with speedy 5'9 sophomore WR Mitch Pollard (364 yards, 1 TD) and senior TE Tyler George (366 yards, 2 TDs) Frazier's top returning targets. The Hawks have a deep, talented receiving corps and you can't key on one player, making the secondary's job extra challenging.
In the backfield, oft-injured 5'9 senior RB Bilial Sloan El (231 all-purpose yards, 2 TDs) is the squad's top returning rusher, which would seem to point to a team that tries to kill you with speed rather than power. Backing him up could be the running back that got most of the action in the spring, 5'9 sophomore RB Kwabena Asante. But the surprise winner for the starting tailback poistion was 5;10 junior RB Peter Nagy, in his first-ever varsity start.
The inexperienced could mean that Lehigh's front seven can pin their ears back and blitz often, if they can't get any effective rushing game going.
While it seems like a young team with a new offensive playbook might be an advantage for Lehigh, it could be a bigger disadvantage than you might think. Would it be shocking to see Asante or Sloan El and Frazier in a Wildcat-style formation? No, it wouldn't.
The Monmouth defense, which features a base 4-3, also boasts a possible pro prospect in its defensive backfield.
Speedy 5'10 senior FS Jose Gumbs (76 tackles, 1 INT, 8 passes defensed) is a hard-hitting safety in the secondary and is a game-changer. It will be up to offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini to make sure he doesn't change the game.
“Our defense feeds off him,” Callahan said of Gumbs in their team preview. “He’s very in tune with what’s gong on. He communicates with his teammates and makes calls. He is definitely a top player.”
Elsewhere on the defense, junior CB Elijah Phillips returns to the secondary after missing his entire sophomore campaign due to injury, and senior CB Reggie Hildebrand comes from Morgan State after sitting out a year, showing some deceptive extra talent at that position.
On the defensive line, an experienced, deep group features sophomore DT Jimmy Lawson (21 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks) and junior DT Austin Kugler down the middle. Aside from Gumbs, this "D" line is the strength of their defense - and it won't be easy running against the 280 lb Lawson and the 270 lb Kugler down the middle.
Senior LB Chris Mastrangelo (66 tackles) is the returning linebacker with the most experience, so despite the Hawks' youth there are key players returning everywhere on the Hawk defense, and their front seven (eight if you count Mr. Gumbs) will be a formidable unit to face.
Sophomore PK Eric Spillane led the Hawks in scoring with 72 points last season, converting 16 of 22 field goals with his longest being 42 yards. He's a stark "plus" in favor of Monmouth considering Lehigh's kicker, junior PK Jake Peery, doesn't have near the same amount of experience. At punter, though, freshman P Ryan Mohr, like our punter, will be in his first collegiate start.
.Senior CB Reggie Hildebrand and sophomore WR Mitch Pollard give an interesting show of speed in the kick return game, while junior CB Elijah Phillips will also return punts.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Come Out Fast. Senior QB Chris Lum, junior WR Ryan Spadola and the offense can do a lot for Lehigh's chances if they come out quickly and score a touchdown on the first possession. Getting to a quick start will be a big key to victory, in my opinion.
2. Wear 'Em Down. Lehigh's tough front seven can wear down a lot of teams, and there should be no reason why they can't smash this offensive front in the mouth. Monmouth will bring a lot of physicality, but it's up to senior LB Mike Groome and the rest of the defense to bring it back to them, and more.
3. Play Lehigh Football. When you're coming off a 5-6 record, you're trying to establish what you want to be as a team. When you're defending champions, you set more of the tone. This Lehigh team doesn't need to figure out who they are - they just need to refind what they were last year. Feeding off of the awesome success from last year is a must.
Its Week One, and everyone's an all-American and everyone's got a perfect record. It makes this game at once exciting and dangerous, all at the same time.
Monmouth, picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the NEC, is unquestionably a dangerous team. They have the experienced QB. They have the big, physical line. They have real good athletes.
But I get the impression that Lehigh really does "get it" - that it's a hard-working team, that has seen the success from the hard work they've put in. They see they're a Top 25 team - and they'll play like it this Saturday. It won't be easy, but head coach Andy Coen will beat his first NEC opponent in the season opener.
Lehigh 31, Monmouth 17