Monmouth spent Saturday punching up against Florida Atlantic, looking to land a few blows in Boca Raton, Florida against an FBS foe (the highest level of college football) on opening weekend.
And that’s exactly what the Hawks did.
Against a talented FAU roster featuring 40 transfers and some top returnees, Monmouth pulled within 28-14 at halftime on a 27-yard TD pass from new quarterback Marquez McCray to Assante Kearney in the final minute of the second quarter.
But Florida Atlantic, in its first season in the American Athletic Conference, gradually began to pull away in the second half, cruising to a 42-20 victory at FAU Stadium.
In the end, though, there were plenty of positives to provide hope that Monmouth is moving forward as its second season in the CAA gets underway next Saturday at Towson.
“I thought we played extremely hard,” Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan said. “We didn’t play well at times, we played well in spurts. We did some things very well, but when you’re playing up a level at the FBS level, the mistakes you make are magnified. But overall, our kids to a man on both sides of the ball and special teams played extremely hard, so I’m happy with the way they came out.”
The backbreaker was Tony Johnson’s 72-yard touchdown reception from Casey Thompson to put FAU up 42-14 late in the third quarter. Minutes earlier, an interception by linebacker Jake Brown, a graduate transfer from Harvard, had set Monmouth up at the FAU 37-yard-line. But McCray was unable to complete a short pass on fourth-and-one to tight end Jack Neri, with Johnson scoring on the next play.
FAU geared its defense to stop running back Jaden Shirden, the top FCS rusher with 1,722 yards last season. Shriden was limited to 66 yards on 24, a 2.8-yard average for the back who led all of college football with an 8.4-yard average last season.
Meanwhile, Owls' quarterback Thompson - who started at Texas, where he played for FAU first-year head coach Tom Herman, and Nebraska - threw for 280 yards and five touchdowns, while Larry McCammon ran for 125 yards and a touchdown.
It was the sixth loss in as many games all time against FBS opponents.
Here are five takeaways from Monmouth’s season-opening loss to Florida Atlantic.
1. Signs of defensive life
It was revealed that longtime Monmouth defensive coordinator Andy Bobik, a member of the Hawks’ staff for three decades, left the program two weeks ago for personal reasons, with Callahan and defensive staff members calling the plays against FAU.
It was an interesting twist, with Monmouth in the midst of a schematic overhaul, seeking to transition to a more aggressive style.
And while going against an FAU offense featuring Thompson and some top skill position players, is not a great measuring stick, Monmouth was able to make several big stops and get the Owls off the field in the first half, including a fourth-down stop by Brown that set up a Monmouth TD right before halftime.
They forced a three-and-out to open the second half. In addition to Brown’s interception, the Hawks’ defense forced a turnover on the first play of the fourth quarter, with safety Tyrese Wright forcing the fumble and cornerback Eddie Morales recovering the loose ball.
Graduate linebacker Ryan Moran was all over the field for Monmouth, finishing with 13 tackles.
"I thought we played better second than did in the first," Callahan said. "We were spotty and inconsistent. We did make some key stops and had some turnovers, and you can look at that and say there's reason to be optimistic. But counter that with big plays, something you can't have, and some pass interference penalties."
2. Too conservative offensively
As the game got underway, Monmouth, which got the opening kickoff, started with three straight runs to Jaden Shirden, punted, and then came back with three more runs to Shirden before punting again.
By the time Marquez McCray threw his first pass the Hawks were down 14-0 midway through the first quarter.
Then, after Monmouth go its first defensive stop of the game, down 21-7, the Hawks took over at their own 7-yard-line, and once again it was three straight runs to Shirden and a punt. In this case, a short punt, with FAU taking over at the Monmouth 29-yard-line. Thompson had his third TD pass of the game two plays later, finding Je’Quan Burton for an 8-yard scoring strike.
The Hawks were unable to consistently get the ball into the hands of their playmakers in positions where they could change the game.
3. Solid debut for McCray
While the Monmouth offensive line was struggling to handle the Owls up front, McCray showed good poise and made some nice throws, although he had an interception and missed an open Dymere Miller on a deep ball that would have been a touchdown. He completed 26-of-46 for 249 yards, with two TD passes and one interception.
In some ways, it was what the Hawks were hoping for from McCray, a graduate transfer who took Sacred Heart to the FCS Playoffs twice and won three NEC titles. And he may have found another reliable target in junior receiver TJ Speight, who caught six passes for 72 yards, while picking up 15 yards on a rush. Miller caught 10 passes for 78 yards.
4. Too many mistakes
There’s a lot that needs to be cleaned up.
After FAU opened up a 21-7 lead, Monmouth’s next possession opened with an illegal procedure call, one of eight penalties the Hawks were whistled for. Then a McCray pass that would have been a first down went through the hands of fifth-year receiver Assante Kearney. Later, Kearney was unable to pull in what would have been a long gainer in the third quarter, with ball going off his fingers as he streaked up the right sideline.
“We had (eight) penalties to their one. We have to play a perfect game against an FBS team, and we made too many mistakes and gave up too many big plays,” Callahan said.
Monmouth’s defense was dealt a big blow when it lost senior safety TJ Kamara midway through the first quarter for targeting, after hitting Thompson in the head as he slid to the ground at the end of a run. Kamara, who transferred from Temple last season, was replaced by Davis Smith, who missed the tackle on Je’Quan Burton’s 35-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter.
5. Easier stretch ahead
Monmouth must bounce back for next Saturday’s CAA opener at Towson, with the Tigers having fallen to Maryland, 38-6.
If Monmouth can get build on its performance in South Florida, there’s a stretch of winnable games that could put the Hawks in good position before the CAA schedule heats up later in the month.
Monmouth football vs. Florida Atlantic: Scouting report and prediction for Hawks' opener
While a non-conference season-opener against an FBS opponent is far from a must-win, a competitive performance by Monmouth when it travels to face Florida Atlantic today would go a long way toward setting a tone for the 2023 campaign.
After a month of practice, Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan seems optimistic the Hawks can rise in the CAA standings over the next few months in their second season in the league, going 5-6 a year ago.
“We have a good vibe going on in terms of the intensity and focus,” Callahan said. “Certainly they want to make sure we put our best foot forward down there and they are practicing like that. So even at the end of training camp and when we turned the page to game week I was very happy with what we were doing. I like the intensity and the focus and the sense of urgency.”
Monmouth is 0-5 against FBS foes, with its best showing coming in a 27-7 loss at Kent State in 2016.
Here’s our scouting report for today’s game. And check back right here later tonight for complete coverage of Monmouth’s season opener:
MONMOUTH (0-0) AT FLORIDA ATLANTIC (0-0)
WHEN: Today, 6 p.m.
WHERE: FAU Stadium, Boca Raton, Florida.
SERIES: First meeting.
What’s at stake in 2023 opener Can Monmouth football make history vs. Florida Atlantic?
When Monmouth has the ball
Monmouth has plenty of explosive weapons. The key will be getting the ball to them in positions where they can make game-changing plays. Junior RB Jaden Shirden led the nation in yards (1,722), yards-per-carry (8.4) and yards-per-game (156.5) last season. It will be interesting to see Harvard grad transfer Sone Ntoh settle into his role as the short yardage/goal line back, as well as Shirden’s primary backup. Senior WR Dymere Miller is a preseason All-CAA pick who had 78 catches for 1,094 yards and 8 TDs in nine games a year ago, while fifth-year senior WR Assanti Kearney is a 6-2 target who caught 37 passes for 638 yards and 4 TDs. Expect sophomore RB Makhi Green, an elusive speedster, to get the ball on the edges. It marks the first game for graduate transfer QB Marquez McCray, who steps in for Tony Muskett, now at Virginia.
Monmouth’s veteran offensive line will get a test against a very good Owls’ defensive front, led by DE Evan Anderson (6-3, 350). It’s a deep group that includes junior Jacob Merrifield and sophomore Latrell Jean.
When FAU has the ball
It’s unlikely Monmouth’s new-look defense will face a more talented offense this season. So the revamped unit, featuring key transfers like graduate linebacker Jake Brown from Harvard and DEs Antonio Colclough (James Madison) and Nick White (Gannon), to go with a more aggressive style of play, will be tested immediately. Containing zone-read QB Casey Thompson, who started at Texas and Nebraska, will be critical. He has plenty of targets to throw to against an experienced Monmouth secondary, with graduate CB Eddie Morales returning after an injury-plagued 2022. WRs LaJohntay Wester (62-719, 8 TDs) and Je’Quan Burton (33-517, 4 TDs) return for the Owls. It’s a stable of RBs that could give Monmouth the most trouble, with Larry McCammon (194-1,022, 7 TDs) and Zuberi Mobles (101-542, 3 TDs) returning, with Kobe Lewis a Purdue transfer.
Monmouth appears ready to go with a pair of new specialists. In switching to a rugby-style punt, Ronan Patterson, in his first season from Ireland, gets the call, while freshman Michael Calton from Manalapan tops the kicking depth chart. It’s the Hawks coverage teams that will need to have a good game against a talented group of returners.
Florida Atlantic 40, Monmouth 14.
Can Monmouth football defense slow Florida Atlantic? Complete coverage of 2023 opener
With the season opener rapidly approaching, it's time to just bottom line-it with regards to Monmouth football 2023.
The Hawks have enough firepower offensively to move the football on just about anyone, featuring some of the most dynamic weapons at the FCS level. That means progress in the program's second season in the CAA will be directly tied to the defense’s ability to take a big step forward, after ranking last in the CAA and 96th among 123 teams nationally a year ago.
Granted, Florida Atlantic, an FBS opponent in its first season in the American Athletic Conference, represents a daunting first step. But you have to start somewhere, and for the Hawks it’s FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida Saturday, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. (Streaming on ESPN+; Audio at Monmouthhawks.com).
Led by first-year head coach Tom Herman, whose previous stops were head coaching stints at Houston and Texas, the Owls are expected to feature a zone-read offense led by graduate transfer quarterback Casey Thompson, who was with Herman at Texas and started at Nebraska last season, throwing for 232 yards and two TDS in a 14-13 win at Rutgers.
Joining Thompson in the backfield are senior Larry McCammon III (1,022 yards, 7 TDs in 2022) and redshirt sophomore Zuberi Mobley (542 yards, 3 TDs), while junior wide out LaJohntay Wester, who caught 62 passes for 719 yards and eight TDs a year ago, and Je’Quan Burton, with 33 catches for 517 yards, are returning targets downfield.
“Clearly, (Thompson) is an explosive guy. He played at Texas with this coach who brought him over, and we respect every competitor,” Monmouth fifth-year safety Tyrese Wright said. “But we all play the same sport and we work and prepare the same way. So obviously we respect our opponents, but at the end of the day we have to go out there and execute at the highest level and execute fast.”
Monmouth, 5-6 last season, is transitioning away from its traditional read-and-react defense to a more aggressive style, hoping to take better advantage of its playmakers.
“There are some new faces and I think there’s some new energy with that,” head coach Kevin Callahan said. “And I think it’s going to be some familiar faces that are older. I think the combination is exciting. And I think we’re doing a few things that are going to give the group more juice, so to speak, and they really seem to enjoy playing together.”
Here's a closer look at the 2023 Monmouth defense:
Monmouth football: Defensive line
The addition of graduate transfer ends Nick White and Antonio Colclough are expected to help a pass rush that struggled to get pressure in 2022, registering just 21 sacks. They join fifth-year senior tackle Pat Hayden, who led the team with four sacks a year ago, and sophomore end Myles Mitchell, who had a team-best six tackles-for-losses as a rookie.
End Chris King, who transferred from Buffalo but only played four games before sustaining a shoulder injury, is back, while sophomore tackle Bryce Rooks will be a starter inside alongside Hayden, although the Hawks are expected to rotate as many as 10 players along the defensive front during a game.
Monmouth football: Linebackers
In addressing an area that needed upgrading, the Hawks brought in graduate transfer Jake Brown from Harvard. Brown (6-1, 230) will start alongside junior Remi Johnson and graduate student Ryan Moran. And although the Hawks are likely to have two linebackers and an extra defensive back on the field much of the time, the group will be part of a rotation that includes sophomores Charlie Sasso from Wall and Sam Korpoi.
The ability of the linebacking corps to create big plays, both against the run and in coverage downfield, will be critical.
Monmouth football: Secondary
With a wealth of experience, this has to be a big-time strength for the defense. Senior cornerback Mike Reid had a breakout season a year ago, and graduate cornerback Eddie Morales returns after an injury-plagued 2022. They’re joined by fifth-year safety Tyrese Wright and senior TJ Kamara, with the two combining to make 112 tackles and three interceptions last season. Fifth-year senior Davis Smith and junior Jaylen Dotson will serve as extra defensive backs in passing situations.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: College games Saturday: Monmouth vs FAU in football season opener