We break down the Monmouth game - and we give our fearless prediction.
Breaking Down Monmouth
Monmouth runs a variation of the "pistol offense", made famous by Nevada head coach Chris Ault. It's effectively a way to give more time for a quarterback to pass in the spread formation, while also allowing for a power running game. When it's firing, it can be tough to stop.
This year there was never any doubt that senior QB Kyle Frazier was going to be the Hawks' opening-day starter (1,159 yards passing, 6 TDs, 239 yards rushing). He got hurt in the second half of the Bryant game with a leg injury, but there wasn't any doubt this fall that senior QB Craig Peterson, who filled in after Frazier's injury, would be backing up Frazier.
When healthy, Frazier is the sort of mobile, accurate passer that gives many a defensive coordinator problems, and he's certainly 100% now, having practiced in the spring and fall. But last year, Frazier wasn't all that effective vs. the Mountain Hawks, passing for 225 yards and leading the team in rushing with 28 yards.
He also didn't have 5'10 225 lb sophomore RB Julian Hayes taking pressure off of him, who emerged last year well after Monmouth's opening-day loss to rack up 805 yards and 14 TDs.
The emergence of Hayes as the critical power running attack in the Pistol is what made Monmouth's offense really click in the second half of the year, and his presence this year makes the Hawk offense a much different squad than the more uncertain offense that came in last year. It also means that Monmouth could show a lot more potential different offensive looks.
At receiver, plenty of talent returns. Senior TE Tyler George (282 yards), sophomore WR Neal Sterling (677 yards, 5 TDs) and senior WR Tristan Roberts (429 yards, 6 TDs) all played a big part in Monmouth's offense last year, and neither Sterling or Roberts had really established themselves yet in last year's game vs. the Mountain Hawks. All three are big targets over 6 feet tall - George is 6'5 - and have the potential to take over games. Five of Roberts' six TD catches came in the last three games of last season.
Senior WR Lamar Davenport (131 yards) and speedster senior WR Kyle McGuire round out this talented, veteran group, and don't forget about junior WR Mitch Pollard (655 all-purpose yards rushing and receiving, 1 TD) who isn't listed on the depth chart but could easily find himself on the field, either as the pistol running back or a speedy wideout.
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.
On the "O" line, two key linemen from last year, senior OL Dino Molina and senior OL Mike Murphy, return. Monmouth's starting five along the offensive line, too, average over 300 lbs. These guys are not going to be easy to move around.
The Monmouth defense features a base 4-3. They lost their best player by far, SS Jose Gumbs, who is on the NFL's New Orleans Saints this fall, and the "player our defense feeds off of", head coach Kevin Callahan said of Gumbs last year.
Their defensive line, a big strength for the Hawks last year outside of Gumbs, graduated most of their production last year. Senior DT Mike Upham (34 tackles, 2 sacks) and sophomore DE Eric Macik (17 tackles, 2 sacks) are the top returning players on a smallish "D" line. 325 run stopper junior DT Josh Siemanowicz, though, probably will get rotated in for rushing downs.
At middle linebacker, junior LB Dan Sullivan (67 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks) returns to anchor the middle of the Monmouth defensive front seven. He was the Hawks top tackler against Lehigh last year. Sophomore LB Colin Cooper (33 tackles, 1 forced fumble) and senior LB Bill Lauch (21 tackles) flank him. Lauch had 3 tackles vs. Lehigh last time around, and also got hurt in the same Bryant game where Frazier was lost for the season.
Like last year, the secondary boasts experience and talent.
Oft-injured senior CB Elijah Phillips (13 tackles, 1 INT), senior CB Reggie Hildebrand (44 tackles, 1 INT), senior SS Andrew Sutton (33 tackles, 2 pass break-ups) and sophomore FS Patrick Gray (26 tackles, 4 INT) all return from last year's team. Gray, in particular, was one player that didn't see much action against Lehigh but emerged later in the year to become the starter.
Junior PK Eric Spillane is one of the best kickers of the NEC. Last year he went 33-35 on extra poinst and 9-12 on field goal tries including two over 40 yards. Sophomore P Ryan Mohr, however, only did a servicable job for the Hawks on special teams last year, with a 34.2 average.
Junior WR Mitch Pollard, who had 475 yards returning punts and kicks last year, will perform these duties again for the Hawks. Last year against Lehigh, he had 89 yards in returns, all on kickoffs. Unknown quantity sophomore WR Eric Sumlin joins Pollard on kickoff returns.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Stopping the run. Many eyes in the lead-in to the game focus on senior QB Michael Colvin and his chance to get the majority of snaps on offense. But as many ought to be focused on senior LB Billy Boyko and the defense and their ability to stuff Hayes in the pistol offense. If Hayes is stuffed by Lehigh's front seven, the chances of victory for the Mountain Hawks go up immensely.
2. Wear 'Em Down. It worked pretty well last year. After falling behind 7-0, QB Chris Lum, senior WR Ryan "The Answer" Spadola and senior RB Zach Barket dissected the Monmouth defense to the tune of 49 points. The Lehigh offense has the opportunity to do so again.
3. Good decisions. Critical to Lehigh's success this year, and it applies to everyone in a Brown and White jersey, is good decision-making. Throwing the ball away when nobody's open, not necessarily forcing the action, and doing the little things will go a long way towards victory. With few penalties and fewer giveaways, Lehigh's chances of winning go up a lot more.
Its Week One, and everyone's an all-American and everyone's got a perfect record. Like last year, it makes this game at once exciting and dangerous for the 11th/16th ranked team in the nation, all at the same time.
But this is by no means the same Monmouth team Lehigh faced last year. In 2010, Lehigh faced a Hawk team that was very inexperienced and hadn't found their way yet. In 2011, they face a team loaded with veterans that know exactly what they are doing. Again, these guys ain't cupcakes.
All signs point to a shoot-out on a hot day at Murray Goodman stadium this weekend, where the offenses have the advantage over some defenses that have to make some adjustments. It's a day where the better-conditioned team, the better-hydrated team, the cleaner team, will probably survive.
So much of this Lehigh team, as good as they look on paper, is shrouded in mystery. Will the defense pull together and become the same dominant unit they were in 2011? How will Colvin do? Is senior RB Zach Barket fully recovered from his broken leg from last year?
Lehigh has earned enough trust from me for an LFN prediction of victory this weekend. But whether they'll earn their No.11/16 ranking and a victory in reality will have to wait until Saturday, when these questions are finally, really, answered.
Lehigh 45, Monmouth 38