(This story appeared in the September 23rd issue of The Outlook, the student run newspaper of Monmouth University.)
The Hawks’ football team made history on Sept. 12 when they traveled to Mount Pleasant, Michigan to take on the Chippewas of Central Michigan in what was the program’s first ever game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Monmouth kicked off to Central Michigan to start the game in front of 21,092 fans at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Central Michigan came out motivated after a 24-13 loss to Oklahoma State the previous week. Their offense recorded six first downs on the drive, which ended in a Mark Chapman 11 yard run for a touchdown. The 14 play, 73 yard drive took 6:02 off the clock and Central Michigan had an early 7-0 lead.
The Hawks offense struggled in the first quarter, as they lost two yards on their first drive and lost one yard on their second drive. They were forced to punt on both possessions.
“We knew going in that they had a very effective defense, particularly their front seven,” Head Coach Kevin Callahan said. “They were a pretty dominant group, as we saw, in their previous game against Oklahoma State. They were able to control the line of scrimmage at times but I think as the game went on, we started to have a little more success and our players began adjusting to what they were seeing.”
Central Michigan came out on their third possession and began at their own 29 yard line. Junior quarterback Cooper Rush threw for five first downs as Central Michigan took this drive into the second quarter ahead 7-0.
The Chippewas began to chip away in the second quarter. They would get into the end zone on the second play of the quarter as Rush completed a 17 yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Corey Willis to extend CMU’s lead to 14-0.
After another Monmouth three-and-out, CMU added three more points with a 30 yard field goal by junior kicker Brian Eavey. Monmouth punted again and the CMU offense exploded for an 83 yard touchdown pass from Rush to senior tight end Ben McCord on the second play of the drive to lengthen the lead to 24-0.
The Hawks would get on the board on their next drive as sophomore kicker Matt White connected for a 37 yard field goal, but CMU answered right back and scored another touchdown to extend their advantage to 31-3 going into the locker room.
Monmouth was able to make adjustments defensively at halftime, as they shut out the Chippewas offense in the second half.
“We just really settled down and had a greater focus on our execution,” Callahan said. “There were some new things that we were doing in the game plan, specifically for Central Michigan. In the first half we made some mistakes, particularly in the secondary with coverage. We seemed to get those straightened out at the half and went out in the second half and executed much more effectively.”
The only scoring play of the second half was on the first drive back from the intermission. Junior running back Zach Welch had a seven yard touchdown run to give Monmouth their first ever touchdown against an FBS team.
“As the game went along we began to adapt to the pace of play,” Welch said. “We tired them out a little bit. We found some openings and ran the ball outside more and it started to work out.”
The final score was 31-10, and the Hawks fell to 0-2 on the season. While Monmouth may have come up short, the experience was a positive one for the players, who learned a lot on the field.
“Going up against an FBS opponent, everyone you go up against is bigger, faster, and stronger than players you will see in the FCS,” junior linebacker Payton Minnich said. “Moving forward we can use this to our advantage because the players we will see for the rest of the season won’t quite be on that level from a physical standpoint.”
It was a good experience for the Hawks, who are starting a good amount of freshman and sophomores on both sides of the ball. Welch likes what he is seeing from the younger players.
“There’s great players with a lot of skill and heart,” Welch said. “They are progressing with us just as fast and it’s awesome to have these guys on the team. Our freshmen and sophomores are great players and they are going to make an impact no matter what they do.”
The Hawks renewed their rivalry with the Wagner Seahawks on Sept. 19. The two teams have faced off every year since Monmouth’s football program had its inaugural season in 1993. The two teams were conference rivals in the Northeast Conference for 16 years from 1996-2012.
Monmouth received the opening kickoff and made a statement on their second play from scrimmage when junior running back Lavon Chaney completed a touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Ugo Ezemma that went for 68 yards to give Monmouth an early 7-0 lead.
Defensively, the Hawks picked up where they left off the previous week. After shutting out Central Michigan in the second half, the Monmouth defense did not allow any points to the Seahawks in the first quarter and kept them out of the end zone until the final minute of the game.
The Seahawks began the second quarter with a third and nine and kicker Bryan Maley got them on the board with a 41 yard field goal to make it 7-3. The drive took 9 plays for 30 yards and took 4:54 off the clock. It left 14:31 to play in the first half.
The Monmouth offense completed their first third down conversion in their next possession as Cody Williams found junior wide receiver Darren Ambush for 10 yards to pick up the first down. On the next play, Williams found Reggie White Jr. for a 25 yard gain on a flea flicker play and another Monmouth first down. The Hawks would get back into the end zone as Williams hooked up with Ambush once again for 26 yards to extend the Monmouth lead to 14-3.
After both teams were forced to punt, Wagner running back Otis Wright fumbled and the ball was recovered by junior defensive lineman Dimitrius Smith to give the Hawks the ball back at the Wagner 27 yard line with 5:39 left in the half.
Monmouth took a few chances at the end zone but Williams was sacked for a loss of eight yards on second down, knocking Monmouth out of field goal range and forcing them to punt.
The Hawks got the ball back after an interception by senior defensive back Malcolm Powers at the Wagner 35 with 1:41 left. After a two yard run by Chaney, Williams found Ambush once again for a 21 yard gain to move the Hawks offense into the red zone. But Matt White’s 23 yard field goal attempt was wide left, and the Hawks were unable to add to their lead heading into halftime.
Wagner got the ball to start the second half and their drive ended after Maley failed to make a 45 yard field goal. The Monmouth offense answered back by driving down the field with a 15 play, 72 yard drive resulting in a 15 yard touchdown run by Lavon Chaney to extend the lead to 21-3.
Junior linebacker Payton Minnich would come away with an interception on the ensuing Wagner possession and the Hawks took their next possession into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter started with a Cody Williams touchdown run from two yards out, but the Hawks were called for holding on the play. Chaney threw an interception in the end zone, but Monmouth would get the ball back three plays into Wagner’s next possession after a sack and forced fumble by sophomore linebacker Zach Talley that was recovered by Dimitrius Smith, his second fumble recovery of the game.
“We always talk as a defense that it starts up front and we finally showed that tonight,” Smith said, who was named the Big South Defensive Player of the Week. “We definitely got our best push up front this season so far, which helped me to recover a few fumbles. The young guys on defense helped us out big tonight, without them we wouldn’t have been able to be as effective.”
Junior running back Zach Welch scored from two yards out two plays into the drive to extend the Hawks lead to 28-3.
The ensuing kickoff was returned by Otis Wright 83 yards for a touchdown to make the score 28-10. But the Hawks would grind down the clock on their next possession, as they drove for 69 yards over 19 plays and took 9:04 off the clock. They were able to add three points to the scoreboard as Matt White converted from 22 yards out extending their lead to 31-10 with 2:30 left to play.
Wagner was able to drive down the field and get into the end zone on offense for the first time of the evening, but it would be too little too late as Monmouth came away with their first victory of the season by a score of 31-16. Monmouth improved to 13-10 all-time against Wagner with the victory and the visiting team has now won 10 of the last 12 contests between the two programs.
Cody Williams had the best game of his career, as the redshirt freshman finished 23-34 for 243 yards and a touchdown. He was named the CRONS Brand Freshman of the Week in the Big South. Ambush finished with 7 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown.
“Darren had a terrific performance tonight,” Callahan said. “He’s very dynamic with the ball in his hands and shows the ability to split defenders and run with the ball after the catch. He’s also making some difficult catches. He’s one of our playmakers on the offensive side.”
Ugo Ezemma finished with 4 catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. The Hawks’ running game was able to bounce back after facing a physical defensive line at Central Michigan. Lavon Chaney ran for 66 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries (he also threw a touchdown) and Zach Welch gained 63 yards on 7 carries and also found the end zone. Sophomore defensive back Mike Basile set a new career high with 17 tackles. Minnich added 10 stops to the Hawks’ defensive attack.
“As we saw last year, Mike is an outstanding player that has great field awareness,” Callahan said. “He was all over the field tonight, he was in on a number of plays in both the run and the pass game. It is an outstanding performance on his part.”
Monmouth will next take the field on Sept. 26 when they travel to the Bronx to take on the Fordham Rams of the Patriot League at 1:00 pm.