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Game Preview: Lehigh At Momouth, 9/14/2013

(Photo Credit: Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/The Bozeman Chronicle)

How do you judge an 0-2 team?

It's not just an academic question the week for Lehigh fans.

It's way too easy to look at the scores in Monmouth's first two games of the season - a 42-24 defeat against one of the top teams in the country, Montana State, and a 45-15 defeat on the road at Liberty, which, as any fan following Lehigh last year knows, is an awfully tough place to play.

If there's a message head coach Andy Coen wants to deliver in between the lines, its simply not to necessarily expect Lehigh to score 40 points on the Hawks this week.

"This football team we’re playing I think is a better team than the one we just played even though they’re 0-2," he told Mike LoRe of the Express-Times this week.


Coen might have been thinking about the team he faced last year, who gave his Mountain Hawks a game.

Though the final score of last year's Lehigh season opener was 27-17, it was far from a laugher, or dominating victory.  After jumping to a 21-7 lead, the Jersey Hawks shut out the Mountain Hawks the rest of the way, having an opportunity to win the game late into the second half.

"I thought in the 3rd quarter we overcame that two touchdown deficit," Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said after that game.  "I felt we played defense extremely well in the second half, we put ourselves in a position to win the game, and we didn't finish off the game the way we would have liked to."

"I never thought this game was going to be easy," Coen said after that game, somewhat echoing his comments going into this week.  "What I am really proud of is that a lot of teams would have folded their tent and given up touchdowns down there and we would have los.  There were teams here five years ago who would have lost that game, but these guys found a way. When it came time for us to step up and make a play, we did," he also said, eerily echoing Coen's words after the epic double-overtime win last Saturday against Central Connecticut State.

Like Lehigh, Monmouth entered this season with a lot of change, especially at quarterback.  Unlike Lehigh, however, they also entered this season with a new situation - they're somewhat unexpectedly competing as an FCS independent this season.

This past season, thanks to the fact that the Jersey Hawks announced an all-sports move to the MAAC, which doesn't sponsor football, and also announced they would be competing in the Big South in football starting in 2014:

"The Big South Conference is excited to expand our football membership with the addition of Monmouth University," said Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander.  "It is clear that Monmouth is committed to athletic excellence at the FCS level, which matches its impressive academic and institutional profile.  Monmouth will be a great fit in the Big South.  We are very pleased to welcome the Hawks!" 
"Monmouth is very excited that the Big South has extended an invitation to us as an associate member in football," stated Monmouth Vice President and Director of Athletics Dr. Marilyn McNeil.  "We see this move as a huge opportunity for the Hawks.  We look forward to the future which will hold some new and exciting competitors, enhanced recruiting, and a focus on football excellence."  
"This is an exciting day for Monmouth football," added Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan.  "Membership in the Big South is another significant achievement in the history of the program.  The direction that we are heading is extremely positive and I am excited about competing with all of our new conference members.  The Big South is a conference that sent two programs to the NCAA Division I FCS Playoffs in 2012 and this is an important milestone for the Monmouth University Football program." 
Undoubtedly it is a great opportunity for the Hawks to join the MAAC.  But suddenly this season, the Hawks found themselves undergoing an effectively unplanned, transitional period as an FCS independent.

Gone is a chance at an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.  Gone is a conference title.  And in fact, thanks to two lopsided losses to start the season, they'll also have to struggle with national perception in that  after giving up nearly 400 yard of offense to Liberty last weekend and giving up 40 points for the second straight week.

Monmouth's hopes for any sort of postseason hinge upon beting Lehigh in their home opener, and sweeping through their independent schedule and hoping that the football gods make way for them - which is certainly the Jersey Hawks' goal the rest of this season.

Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan was impressed with the teams he's already faced on his schedule.

"When you play teams of that caliber, like a Liberty or a Montana State," he told Shore Sports Network Radio this week, "every one of your mistakes is going to be magnified.  You make a little mistake, they're going to capitalize on it and they'll make you pay.  And when you make multiple mistakes in a game, they're really going to make you pay."

Despite the lopsided score, Callahan sees improvement with his young team.

"I wouldn't say I'm disappointed," he said.  "I think we made progress from Week 1 from Week 2, and as a college football coach you want to make sure that each week you are making progress and you are improving.  Now, you don't improve in all areas at the same rate, but I felt we made progress on the defensive side of the ball.  On offense, we cleaned up a lot of the mental mistakes from Montana State, but we played a very good football team again.  When you play against good people, you can't give them any gifts."

Callahan also mentioned another fact on that broadcast: that Monmouth is competing with 40 football scholarships to spread around their roster, the capped number from the football conference they just departed, the NEC.  In a way, this season has been all about when the Hawks are now, and where they need to go in order to be at the level of a Montana State.

But that doesn't mean the Hawks are devoid of talent.  Far from it, based on coach Coen's comments this week.

"We're not taking this team lightly," he said in the Lehigh Football Report this week.  "We're not looking at them as an 0-2 football team.  I think they're very talented.  They're very balanced with a big, physical offensive line, a good back and a transfer quarterback.  There's a lot of concerns on the defensive side of the ball for us.

Both coaches pointed to an 85 yard touchdown pass, a connection from Liberty QB Josh Woodrum to WR Darrin Peterson, that was the real back-breaker for Monmouth.

Another dimension involved the nature of Lehigh's game last week, where the Mountain Hawks emerged from a 20 point deficit to win.  Coen told Keith Groller of the Morning Call that he told the team not to expect to be able to replicate that at will.

"There were a lot of reasons, bad reasons, why we were down 20 points," Coen said. "I told them that I've been coaching for 28 years and had never seen [a comeback of that magnitude] happen. So, don't think that you can just flip a switch on with eight minutes left to go in the game. I think they get it."

Senior S Rickie Hill seemed to be able to see some of those differences between the first half and the second half.

"We stepped it up and did a better job on third down," Hill said. "We didn't make too many changes. It was the small mistakes we made in the first half that hurt us and that was due to the youth. We just needed to play like we practiced and execute."

Junior TE Tyler Coyle seemed to get it, too.

"We need to play a full 60 minutes," he said. "We got backed into a corner and our team came together, which was great to see. But you never want to see that drastic of a comeback because that means you didn't really play that well in the first half or the third quarter."

The old adage is that the biggest improvement in a college football team comes between Week 1 and Week 2 of the season.  How much Lehigh improves during this time will determine, it seems, whether the Mountain Hawks will return homw with a win rather than a loss.

Game Notes
The game notes are here, as Mike LoRe reports a few injuries that might be of some concern.

Junior TE Tyler Coyle was listed as "doubtful" this week with a shoulder issue, though junior TE Dylan Colgate seems like he'll be able to go in Coyle's place this week.  It wouldn't be a stunner to see sophomore TE Chris Ruhl on the field, either, or even see freshman TE Zach Bucklin make an appearance with the travel squad.

Senior QB Brandon Bialkowski went the whole way last Saturday, but was under observation during that game in regards to his hamstring, which has been bothering him since the end of training camp.  It seems like a real good possibility that his backup, junior QB Matt McHale will have a chance to get in the game on Saturday in some capacity.

There's also the matter of fullback, where senior FB Sean Farrell, who scored two touchdowns last weekend, wasn't on the two deep this week, with senior FB Zach Hayden listed as the starter as he was last week.  Oversight, or injury?  It's hard to say.

Weather Report
The somewhat severe weather that his hitting the Lehigh Valley and the Jersey Shore right now will be a distant memory by Saturday.  In fact - if you can believe it - it will be picture-perfect, sunny, 70 degree day at the shore.  Maybe not swimming weather, but definitely a fantastic afternoon, it would seem.

Famous Monmouth Alumnus You Didn't Know About
If you follow the Ron and Fez show on XM Satellite Radio, you've probably heard of Dave MacDonald, or East Side Dave.  After receiving a degree in communications from Monmouth, he worked as a hot dog vendor outside Ron and Fez' studio, and the rest is history.

LFN's Drink of the Week
Come on, you knew I wouldn't get out of this Monmouth preview without a Snooki reference, right?

While Snooki didn't make it to Monmouth before her incredible reality TV stardom, For a 1PM kickoff and tailgating at the Shore, how could you go wrong with a Snookie Monster?  Hope you like something sweet and tan, with Bailey's, Rumplemintz, Kahlua and a splash of cream.  (LFN's suggestion: Add 1 part whole milk 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.  Make a day of your tailgate, stay late and sober up before driving.

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