Looking at Monmouth, danger abounds if you're a Lehigh fan. Jumping right into the preview, you'll see why.
Breaking Down Monmouth
Monmouth runs a variation of the "pistol offense", made famous by Nevada head coach Chris Ault. The short explanation of this offense is that the quarterback lines up four yards behind center, and the halfback lines up in various positions five yards behind the quarterback. It's effectively a way to give more time for a quarterback to pass in the spread formation, while also allowing for a speed running game, giving the back an extra head of steam to hit the games. When it's firing, with a speedy back and strong offensive linemen, it can be tough to stop.
Especially worrying for Lehigh this time around is that Monmouth not only returns all the key elements to last year's team - the one that came within a whisker of beating the Mountain Hawks - but the fact that when you look at the Hawk game notes you see an awful large number of "5th Year Seniors" along the list of skill positions as well.
|Monmouth QB Brandon Hill|
At receiver, more 5th year talent returns from last season's team. Senior WR Neal Sterling (178 yards, 1 TD) and senior WR Lamar Davenport (6 catches, 58 yards) are the starting receivers, and senior WR Eric Sumlin (2 catches 27 yards, 1 TD) comes out in three receiver sets. 6'5 senior TE Hakeem Valles (2 TDs in 3 games) rounds out the unit.
Everything about this unit seems to scream "danger" to Lehigh's secondary, but nobody more than Sterling, who is 6'4 and torched the Mountain Hawks last season for 13 catches and 126 yards, a Monmouth Hawk single-game record.
|Monmouth WR Neal Sterling (APP)|
So is senior RB K.B. Asante, yet another skill position player that played last season that is of great concern to the Mountain Hawks. Asante and one of the few new faces in the skill positions, sophomore RB Lavon Chaney, combine in the pistol as a dangerous 1-2 punch. Though both are fast, Chaney is more of a pure speed threat than Asante, who is harder to bring down.
“We're just going to try and take what the defense gives us,” Sterling said. “We obviously have KB (Asante), who has run the ball really well and the passing game will hopefully go well with all of the receivers we have.”
The depth and skill of all these players is frightening, and there's plenty of senior experience as well blocking for the Hawks. Senior OL Reece Johnston and senior FB Jake Mauro will be the ones protecting Hill and forging the way for the running game -- not the biggest group Lehigh has faced all season, but they have been effective, forging 379 yards per game on offense and only allowing 5 sacks all season thus far.
Monmouth's base 4-3 defense's strength, unfortunately, plays right into Lehigh's strength in running the football. The Mountain Hawks' rushing attack will be trying to gain its ground against a team that is 24th in the nation in rushing defense. Their effectiveness, unsurprisingly, comes from veteran leadership on the "D" line and linebackers, some enormous bodies, and key transfers.
|Monmouth DE Darnell Leslie (APP)|
Senior LB Dan Sullivan, a 5th year senior who lost a year due to injury, promises to finally be back fully this week and is yet another veteran guy to watch, along with junior LB John Sieczkowski, who leads the Hawks in tackles with 25 tackles, 16 solo.
Everything seems dangerous about this front seven, and every indication is that this defense gets stronger as the game goes on. Against Duquesne last week, the defense only let up two field goals after giving up three early touchdowns. Considering how Lehigh has withered late in all three games this year, this is a five-alarm concern.
If you're a glass-half-full type of person, you might instead notice, though, that Monmouth's rush defense got that way because they are still quite green and inexperienced in the secondary. They're averaging allowing 245 yards through the air, though they've also nabbed 4 interceptions.
Freshman SS Mike Basile has two of those picks, including the game-clinching one in a victory over Wagner. 5'10 junior FS Joe Johnson is the veteran of the group, who notched a fumble recovery last week as well.
If you thought special teams might offer some relief for the Mountain Hawks, think again.
Senior P Ryan Mohr has followed up an OK junior season with a great senior season thus far, averaging 42 yards per boot, while junior PK Lucas Santangelo has proven to have a great leg for kickoffs and an accurate leg for field goals and extra points, only missing one kick all season thus far. Every indication is that his leg could support field goal attempts of 40 yards or more.
Monmouth's return game has been OK, but hasn't broken one yet for a touchdown or big yardage this season. Sophomore RB Lavon Chaney has been the standout on kickoffs (252 yards) while junior FS Joe Johnson (17 yards) has been returning kicks this season, too. Personally, I would not be stunned to see Sterling show up returning kickoffs or punts this Saturday as well, even though he's not officially listed on the depth chart.
LFN's Keys to the Game
1. Decision Making and Ball Control. How has Lehigh been unable to hold on to leads? Part of the issue is penalties and, to some extent, untimely turnovers. Sophomore QB Nick Shafnisky has done very well to keep his mistakes to a minimum, but the Mountain Hawks need him to play well to have a chance at victory on Saturday. Keeping penalties to a minimum, and none that affect possession, winning the turnover battle, and Shaf making good decisions with the ball, especially late, will be the only way Lehigh wins this Saturday.
2. Second Half Surge, No Second Half Stumble. Lehigh had two real chances at victory thus far this season, with the Mountain Hawks leading at halftime. Both the leads were relinquished, with both the defense and offense getting worn down late. This is the polar opposite of the 2013 team, who frequently fell down out of the gate but would also rally with strength and momentum to win games. This team needs to channel some of that 2013 squad in late games, yet keeping the strong first half play they've shown thus far.
3. Aggressiveness on the Blitz. Against New Hampshire and Yale, their QBs have had lots of time to throw the ball. What this has allowed both those teams to do is balance the attack against the Mountain Hawks, picking one side apart before ripping the defense up for big scoring plays. Lehigh desperately needs a consistent pass rush to keep Hill off balance, or else it could be another long day for Lehigh's defense.
In the summer, I didn't necessarily expect a win against James Madison or New Hampshire. But I didn't think that Lehigh would be staring at an 0-4 start through the month of September going into the bye week.
I will say, however, that of all the games Lehigh played in September, this was the one I feared the most.
The reason was that it was real easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency with the Hawks, with Lehigh's mastery over this formerly limited-scholarship team. Now a member of the Big South, Monmouth is hitting the big time, with three of their conference mates now appearing in the Top 25 this week.
And Monmouth expects to compete for the title. They are receiving Top 25 votes, and who can blame them? They're 2-1, they have a veteran team loaded with scholarship athletes, and there's no reason to beleive they can't compete against the class of the Big South. I've scouted them. It's easy to see them in the mix.
Lehigh enters into this game a team needing a win badly before conference play. Winning going into the bye week would do wonders for a team that has struggled to contain their admittedly tough offensive opponents thus far.
The factor becomes the injuries on Lehigh's side. The Mountain Hawks have depth on the offensive line - that's been proven. What is less certain is how some young guns will do on defense, replacing some of the more productive members of the defense. Many fans feel that the depth in talent, especially with scholarship athletes, will improve matters.
But it seems like a lot for these young guys to shut down a dynamic running game and still getting enough pressure on Hill to stop an NFL-caliber talent like Sterling from going wild on this defense.
It may have been the perfect storm to have Lehigh start 0-4. But it seems like that's what may happen after tomorrow.
Monmouth 51, Lehigh 44