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Know Your 2017 Opponents: Monmouth

Monmouth and Lehigh have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

They don't share a conference - the Mountain Hawks are in the Patriot League in all sports, while the Jersey Hawks (my name for Monmouth's mascot) compete in the Big South in football, and the MAAC in all other sports.

But athletically, in terms of everything from enrollment, participation to overall athletic department spending, Monmouth and Lehigh are like peas in a pod.  They are both universities; they both have between 4,000 and 5,000 undergrads; and the size of their athletic departments are similar as well.

The Mountain Hawks and the Jersey Hawks have also been frequent opponents of the other in football and men's basketball as well.  Since 2010, Lehigh has played Monmouth twice in men's basketball and five times on the gridiron.  (Recently, it was announced that Monmouth's hoop squad and their wacky bench antics will be headed to Stabler this fall to play Lehigh hoops as well.)

But in football the last few years, Lehigh's games against Monmouth have proven a liability to their national stature.  That's because they've lost their last two games against the Jersey Hawks, and while their loss last season wasn't stated as a reason why the Mountain Hawks didn't earn a home game in the FCS Playoffs, it was the one, big blemish on Lehigh's record that may have prevented them from being in consideration for a possible seed (and, by extension, at least one home game).


Squeezing out a win vs. Lehigh
The Lehigh players heard the word Monmouth a lot last year.

It was usually used in the context of:

 "Don't pull another Monmouth."

"Lehigh's been doing pretty well since Monmouth."

It was last year's season opener, a game to establish Lehigh as a serious title contender, a game to showcase the offense that QB Nick Shanfisky, in his senior year, would be leading.

Instead, Lehigh's offense was shut out in the first half - the only time that would happen all season - in a boa constrictor-like 23-21 defeat.

"Offensively, I was very unhappy with our performance in the first half, " head coach Andy Coen said.  "We couldn't get into our flow. We just couldn't get it going, but Monmouth had it going pretty good. Obviously our defense was on the football field way too much," he also said, with Monmouth holding the ball on offense for 37:38 of the game, compared with Lehigh's 22:22.

In a way, Lehigh's loss to Monmouth set a positive tone for the Mountain Hawks the rest of the way, allowing the team to point to a specific place in time when the players were humbled, experiencing a tough defeat that served them well when they won nine straight to close out the season.  Yet it also haunted them later - though no reasoning was ever given as to why the 9-2 Mountain Hawks didn't get a seed in the FCS Playoffs, their loss to the 4-7 Hawks to start the season was seen as Exhibit A as to why they weren't seeded, and in the end they were sent to New Hampshire in the first round instead.

At first, the Jersey Hawks were seen as easy first game opponents for Lehigh to play against, but that was back in the days when Monmouth was a non-scholarship school and the Mountain Hawks had a roster filled with players that had the equivalent of 50 or more scholarships spread around the roster.

In recent years, as Monmouth has gone from a limited-scholarship football school to one that is allowed to offer up to the FCS maximum of 63 scholarships, the gap has been entirely erased - and Monmouth has two of the last three matchups, with the margin of victory of both teams in the single digits.

Kessler Stadium
The Hawks are guided by the only coach the program has ever known, Kevin Callahan, who sits at 13th among active FCS coaches with 135 wins.  He's entering his 25th season as head coach of the Hawks, as Monmouth celebrates the quarter-century mark with a brand-new facility to host their football games.  Lehigh will be playing the second-ever game at Kessler Stadium, a week after Monmouth hosts Lafayette in the same venue.

Despite the fanfare for Monmouth's 25th anniversary season, Big South media members didn't think that the celebration for the Hawks would include a Big South title or a first-ever visit to the FCS playoffs.  They were picked to finish 4th in the Big South behind heavily favored teams like Charleston Southern and Kennesaw State, who, unlike Monmouth, are actually in the South.

If Monmouth does compete for the Big South title this year, it will come behind a monster performance from the latest Hawk with NFL aspirations, DB Mike Basile.

Basile, who was on STATS' first team preseason all-America list and is on the preseason all-Big South Conference team, racking up 110 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries and 3 blocked kicks during his tremendous junior year.  Against Lehigh, he got 9 solo tackles, and was a constant thorn in Shafnisky's side, almost singlehandedly keeping his running game under wraps.  (Shaf only had 37 yards rushing the entire game.)

Aside from their tough, physical defense, they return eight starters on offense, including their entire offensive line led by the underrated OL Alex Thompson.  Monmouth will undoubtedly try to carve out a powerful running game against Lehigh through their talented, strong O line.

Monmouth WR Chris Hogan
Basile is only the latest in a long line of players that have gone to the NFL or have been in NFL camps.  The most well-known Hawk in the NFL who actually played football for coach Callahan is WR Miles Austin, who competed against Lehigh in their first-ever meeting in 1999, but more recently you've probably heard of the New England Patriots' WR Chris Hogan, who played in a variety of roles on his lone year on Monmouth's football team in 2010, but got signed but the Bills and eventually got a Super Bowl ring.

MONMOUTH

When: September 9th, 1:00 PM
Where: Kessler Stadium, West Long Branch, NJ
Overall Series: Lehigh, 5-2
TV/Streaming: ESPN3
Last time out: 2016, Monmouth 23, Lehigh 21
Key player Returning: DB Mike Basile

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