‘Every week is like a playoff game’: Monmouth football 5 keys vs. Lehigh

Monmouth’s first-ever Colonial Athletic Association victory was a dramatic one, pulling off a 49-42 upset of No. 9 Villanova last Saturday at a sold-out Villanova Stadium.

Now what?

Coming off that emotional high, the Hawks must regroup quickly for Saturday’s non-conference clash with Lehigh at Goodman Stadium in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Avoiding a letdown in the final non-CAA game of the season will be the key for the Hawks (2-2, 1-1 CAA) against the Mountain Hawks (1-3, 1-0 Patriot).

“Coach (Kevin) Cal (Callahan) said every week is like a playoff game now, so we have to treat it and prepare like it’s a playoff game,” right guard Greg Anderson said. “I don’t think there will be a letdown. I think guys know that the focus has to be this week and how big it is.”

Monmouth is likely playing to keep its dream of returning to the FCS Playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons alive. Because after letting a pair of fourth-quarter leads slip away to open the season, the Hawks’ margin of error is miniscule, and this would be a bad loss on any at-large bid resume.

“We have a high level of confidence, which we should have, but our focus has to be on what’s in front of us,” Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan said. “It was a good first win in a new conference, but it means less if we don’t continue to get better each and every week.”

Be sure to check out the scouting report, and why the Monmouth offensive line is playing so well, at the end of this story.

Here are five keys for the Hawks against Lehigh:

1. Get off the field

Monmouth’s surrendering 460.5 yards-per-game, which ranks 101st among 123 FCS teams. The 288.5 passing yards they give up ranks 102nd, and they’re 109th in first downs allowed.

They've got guys who have flashed their playmaking potential. Now they need to be in position to make more of them. They made just enough key stops against Villanova, including Davis Smith’s huge fourth-quarter interception deep in Villanova territory, one play after Monmouth fumbled it away.

Monmouth has an elite offense, which makes sorting the defensive side out that much more important.

2. Ride the hot hand

Sophomore Jaden Shirden is on fire, rushing for 649 yards over the last three games, including four TD runs of 56 yards or better. He has 91 more yards than his closest rival among FCS backs.

Shirden has been brilliant, altering the complexion of games while energizing the entire team. And he’s done all it on just 58 carries, an average of 14.5 per-game. Feeding Shirden – he had a career-high 22 carries against Villanova for 211 yards – should continue to be the priority. Especially against Lehigh, with the remnants of Hurricane Ian set to hit the area on Saturday.

3. Convert on third down

If there’s one area that’s been a concern offensively its third down conversion percentage, which sits at just 32 percent, making good on just 15 of 46 so far. That number has to get better as the CAA schedule ramps up.

The Hawks have relied on big plays, but need to do a better job of moving the chains, and this is a good place to start.

4. Protect the ball

Monmouth’s won the turnover battle in each of the last two games by a combined 4-1 margin, and quarterback Tony Muskett didn’t throw an interception.

Taking care of the ball is incredibly important moving forward. Especially against a team like Lehigh, which Monmouth should beat – at least on paper.

5. Solid special teams

The Hawks could use some big plays on special teams. But they are in the bottom half of the CAA in both kickoff and punt returns.

Cornerback Eddie Morales, their top punt returners, missed the last game with an injury, and could be out again this week, replaced by Dymere Miller on returns. Freshman Makhi Green has shown flashes on kickoff returns.

From Thursday

Why Monmouth football's line is one of best in FCS. Plus Lehigh scouting report, prediction

WEST LONG BRANCH – The numbers attached to Monmouth’s offense are eye-popping.

From a gaudy 501 yards-per-game, fifth-best nationally, and 41-point average, to Jaden Shirden’s best-in-the-country 664 rushing yards, the high-powered Hawks have been fun to watch.

While a lot of accolades have been dished out, it’s time to give some love to an offensive line that’s statistically is playing as well as any group in the country. All with five new starters this season, two of whom were out with injuries when the Hawks rolled up 321 yards on the ground, and did not give up a sack, in a 49-42 win at No. 9 Villanova last Saturday.

“It’s definitely a good sign coming off a good block and you see Jaden 40 yards downfield running for a score,” said right guard Greg Anderson. “You can’t help but be excited.

“Honestly, I’m not surprised at all, because this unit, even though we haven’t been playing in games, we’ve been together during practices the past couple of years playing together as the two group, always practicing together. Nothing has changed. We built that chemistry and we’re locked in.”

Anchoring the front five is right tackle Justin Szuba, the Brick Memorial product who was a first-team All-Big South performer before missing last season with a torn pectoral muscle. A graduate student, Szuba missed the Villanova game and was replaced by junior J.T. Cornelius, the former Southern Regional standout.

Monmouth was also without left guard Will Argo, with left tackle Oliver Jervis shifting over and Jordan Hall moving in at left tackle. Center Tyler Williams, a fifth-year senior, has done a good job replacing All-American A.J. Farris.

“Most of them have been in the program four years, but they didn’t have that traditional opportunity to ascent to starting positions because of Covid,’ said Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan. “Covid gave everybody in front of them and extra year. So these guys got another year-and-a-half of development. Now they have a chance to play and what we are seeing is each week they are really a tight, cohesive unit. (Coach) Brian Gabriel has done a great job with them.”

By every measurable Monmouth is off to its best start ever offensively, as it prepares to face Lehigh.

Here’s the scouting report for Saturday’s game:

Monmouth (2-2, 1-1 CAA) vs. Lehigh (1-3, 1-0 Patriot)

When: 12 p.m.

Where: Goodman Stadium, Bethlehem, Pa.

TV/Radio: ESPN+/MonmouthHawks.com.

Series: Lehigh leads the series, 5-3. Monmouth won the last meeting at home, 46-27, in 2017.

When Lehigh has the ball

Callahan indicated early in the week they were going to try some things to improve the defensive production, although it’s unclear if he was talking about schematic tweaks, personnel changes, or both. Monmouth gave up 531 yards and allowed Villanova to tie the game with a touchdown six times. Lehigh doesn’t present as many challenges, which is why the Hawks need to show marked improvement. Lehigh opened the season with a 45-17 loss to Villanova. Monmouth beat Georgetown, 45-6, while Lehigh beat the Hoyas, 21-19. Holding Lehigh down is a must.

QB Dante Perri has thrown five TD passes and been picked off five times. The junior was picked off twice and threw for just 106 yards in a loss to Princeton last time out. Lehigh is averaging 109 yards on the ground, and has just two rushing TDs this season. RB Zaythan Hill the leading rusher with 160 yards, while Geoffrey Jamiel has a team high 16 catches, and Jalen Burbage has 160 receiving yards.

Monmouth CB Eddie Morales is day-to-day and could miss his second straight game. He was replaced by Jaylen Dotson. DT Nick Shoemaker’s status is unclear with a shoulder injury.

When Monmouth has the ball

RB Jaden Shirden has TD runs of 95, 80, 67 and 56 yards over the last three games. When the sophomore gets into the open field he’s tough to catch, coming off a 22-carry, 211-yard, two-TD effort. And RB Owen Wright has been unstoppable in goal line and short yardage situations, leading the nation in scoring with nine rushing TDs and one receiving. QB Tony Muskett has not thrown an interception the past two games, and ran for 78 yards against Villanova. WR Dymere Miller returned after missing two games, and led the way with five catches for 62 yards and a score, while WR Assanti Kearney caught a pair of TD passes.

Lehigh has a few disruptors on defense, including junior linebacker Mike Denucci, who had 11 tackles and three sacks in Saturday’s loss to Princeton. S TyGee Leach leads the team with 33 tackles and 5.5 tackles-for-losses.

Special teams

Monmouth K Vincenzo Rea made good on all seven extra points against Villanova. P Ryan Kost averaged 55,5 yards. KOR Makhi Green has shown good acceleration on returns and seems capable of breaking one.

Lehigh K Dylan Van Dusen has made both field goal tries, P Ben Banks-Altekruse is averaging 38.8 yards.


Monmouth 47, Lehigh 17.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Monmouth NJ football vs. Lehigh: 5 keys for Hawks