Category Archives: Monmouth

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).
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Lehigh At Georgetown Narrative Street: Avoiding The Same Fate As Monmouth

Although you see big, bright smiles on the faces of senior CB Brandon Leaks and senior WR Trevor Soccaras when talking about the performance over the last four football games, their focus has understandably been on Georgetown and guarding against a possible letdown.

Such thought is undeniably warranted, especially if they caught the college football scores from yesterday.

There was only one college football game being contested Thursday night, which was Monmouth vs. Presbyterian.

The Hawks, who already beat Lehigh on opening weekend and also beat Fordham last weekend, had a short week to prepare for their Thursday game.  But few people thought they would struggle against 1-4 Big South leaguemate Presbyterian, who had already lost to a Division II school (Florida Tech).

Instead, the classic letdown game happened - a 17-13 loss that almost certainly doomed any chance Monmouth has to not only win the Big South, but also to qualify for any sort of at-large postseason berth.


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Monmouth 23, Lehigh 21 Postgame Commentary: The Importance of Burst Bubbles

The decision was made.  We were going up to my parent's house over Labor Day weekend.

I knew it was the right decision, the correct decision.  My dad, who had suffered a back injury, was rehabbing, requiring for the first time in his incredibly active life to require the use of a walker to get around. 

He and my mother wouldn't be driving down to Lehigh for any football games in the next couple of months, which effectively meant if I was going to spend any significant time with them, it was going to be this weekend - opening weekend.  The weekend that I wait for with fevered anticipation for more than nine months.

But sometimes bubbles need to be burst.  

For the last nine months, I've lived in bubbles: a bubble of Lehigh football, FCS expertise, and a focus on the football season.  I had lived in a bubble where I thought my father was still invincible, even in retirement unable to stay in one place, always able to come down with mom to visit once a season and take in a game or two - in between musical engagements, my mother's teaching commitments, and countless other trips and activities.

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Like A Boa Constrictor, Monmouth Squeezes Life out of Lehigh In 23-21 Win

Death by boa constrictor does not come quickly.  It comes when the snake puts light pressure on the circulatory system of its prey, seriously disrupting the blood flow and causing the bloodflow system to go haywire, eventually causing cardiac arrest.

That's a fairly accurate description of how the game flow went in Lehigh's asphyxiating opening-day loss to Monmouth, 23-21.

With visions of Lehigh's potent offense in their heads, most of the 4,828 fans in attendance thought they might see the type of offensive show they enjoyed the last time Lehigh played a football game at Murray Goodman stadium, something like the 49-35 win over their bitter Rivals Lafayette, for example.

Instead they saw the Monmouth boa constrictor slowly wrap itself around the Mountain Hawks and squeeze the life away, possession by possession.

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Monmouth At Lehigh Game Breakdown And Fearless Prediction, 9/3/2016

(Photo Credit: Asbury Park Press)

Thanks to Monmouth's game notes and the Asbury Park Press, which is the source of all of this research.

Breaking Down Monmouth
Offense

Two years ago, Monmouth beat Lehigh thanks to a spread passing attack that featured a future NFL player, WR Neal Sterling, and a first-year offensive coordinator that was a former QB coach at Yale and a former head coach at UMass, Kevin Morris.

Two years later, Morris' spread offense is back, and will test the Mountain Hawk defense.

Monmouth returns nine starters, including one player that exploded onto the FCS football scene against Lehigh two years ago.
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Monmouth At Lehigh Game Narratives: Expect A Close Game

We break down Monnmoth after the flip.

Going into the first game of the season there are oodles of storylines on both teams.

One important storyline from Monmouth coming from Hawks coach Kevin Callahan is that Monmouth has a brutal eight road games in the 2016 season, thanks to construction being done on their home field, Monmouth Stadium.

With all the focus on defense in the run-up to this game, senior OL Zach Duffy also talked a bit about that the offense is raring to go as well.

"It's the most productive camp I've been in the past four years I've been here,, he told Keith Groller of The Morning Call.  "We were put in a position to get a lot of good [strength and conditioning] work in.   We have a lot of experience with a lot of guys returning and that's especially important up front where we have three guys returning including myself.   And then we have junior WR Troy Pelletier, Shaf [senior QB Nick Shafnisky] and sophomore RB Dom Bragalone. I think we're in a really good spot entering Week 1. A lot of that has to do with the work we put in during the offseason. We didn't want to be happy with how last year ended and we didn't want to get complacent. We put in a lot of hard work and stayed motivated and I think that says a lot about the leadership we have on this team."


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Monmouth at Lehigh Game Preview: Mountain Hawk Defense Will Be Front And Center

"I hit him with a double move, and then I knew I had him beat," Monmouth WR Eric Sumlin said after the game, thrilled with the play of his Hawks.  "It was a great feeling."

The happy occasion - or unhappy occasion, in the case of Lehigh fans - was Monmouth's come-from-behind 28-21 victory over the Mountain Hawks a couple of years ago.

It certainly wasn't the lowest point of that ill-fated 2014 Lehigh football season - there's zero question that the Razzie there goes for the 150th meeting of the Rivalry - but it was an unquestionable sign that there were problems that needed fixing.

When Monmouth last made it to Goodman Stadium, Lehigh was riding a three game losing streak, a long injury list, and a need to turn things around, fast, before Patriot League conference play.

Going into that game, Lehigh was 120th out of 121 FCS teams in total defensive yardage allowed, and that needed fixing, fast.  Monmouth, no longer the non-scholarship team Lehigh played for the first time so long ago, now were transitioning to the maximum number of scholarships, and had some scary, experienced players running Kevin Callahan's pistol offense.

Though an exciting Lehigh sophomore named QB Nick Shafnisky was under center and putting up a lot of points, the Mountain Hawks weren't putting up as many points as their opponents.  And with the Jersey Hawks at 2-1, and Leigh at 0-3, Monmouth had to be excited that their first-ever win against the Mountain Hawks was in reach.

In that 28-21 game, everything seemed to go wrong for Lehigh.  Shafnisky, ably taking the rest of the offense with him, Shaf was getting the Mountain Hawks into scoring position when disaster struck.

"On his 22nd rush of the afternoon, he fell awkwardly after his run and appeared to have a head injury," I wrote, "meaning the coaching staff needed to take his helmet and QB Matt McHale would enter the game."

McHale wouldn't do badly, but a pass to WR Troy Pelletier short of the sticks, setting up a go-ahead field goal try that would end up being blocked.

"It was a low snap, from the backup center, to a kid holding for his first-ever appearance in a game," head coach Andy Coen said afterwards.  "Stuff like that's happening, and that's part of the game, and you work through it."

From there, Lehigh's defense simply could not stop a Monmouth offense who was dead-set on proving they could finish a game.

Aided by huge defensive penalties and several big third-down conversions, Monmouth QB Brandon Hill kept picking apart and picking apart the Mountain Hawks defense, and RB Levon Chaney, a backup pressed into the starting role, would rack up 200 all-purpose yards on the afternoon and convert two critical 3rd down runs.  For his part, Hill would go 6 for 7 passing and convert a critical 3rd down to WR Neal Sterling before Sumlin hit the Lehigh safety with the double move that led to the loss.

It wasn't the first loss of that year, or the last loss of that year.  But it was painfully memorable in the way that it showed that Lehigh had, suddenly, forgotten how to win.

The loss wasn't totally on just one unit, but it was impossible not to take a look at the defense that final drive and not rehash missed tackles, a missed assignment, not stopping a running play on 3rd-and-1 that might have stemmed the tide.

Just a year before, Lehigh was ranked in the Top 25 and showing FCS Nation how even three-touchdown halftime deficits weren't enough to keep them down.  Even though Lehigh had lost a heartbreaker to James Madison in the season opener and suffered defeat at New Hampshire, there was no need to hit the panic button - those were strong teams that would end up in the FCS playoffs.

During a beautiful mid-summer day in early autumn, however, the Mountain Hawks were revealed to no longer be the type of team that can run with New Hampshire and tussle with Yale.  "Stuff" was happening.

*****

As we fast-forward to the present week, Lehigh and Monmouth are both similar teams.

The Hawks from Monmouth ended last season at 5-6, Lehigh at 6-5.

Both teams won their final games, giving both squads a lot of optimism headed into the season.

Both were picked to finish 3rd in their respective conferences - Monmouth was picked to finish behind Charleston Southern, last year's surprise emergence in the Big South, and Liberty, who every year seems to spend some time in the FCS Top 25.

And both are finally, basically, even steven when it comes to "conventional" scholarship athletes, Monmouth with 63, Lehigh close to the Patriot League limit of 60.

That's on top of the fact that the last three meetings have come down to the final quarter.

"I think it's a good game," Monmouth head coach Kevin Callahan said.  "It's a game against fairly even teams, and I think the last three meetings with them have reflected that.  Both teams are going to go play hard, both teams are both going to play the games to the very end.  We beat them last time, and the time before, they beat us in the last minute of the game.  It's been one of those type of games and I would expect more of the same this time."

On the Lehigh side, the focus is all about improving the defense.

LB Pierce Ripanti
"I think the changes are twofold," senior LB Pierce Ripanti said in this Wednesday's media session.  "with Xs and Os, and also with mentality.  I think the coaches and us players have made some adjustments to the little things and the schemes we run.  It's also been a change in mindset - we want to play a lot faster, a lot more physical, a lot more tenacious."

Ripanti said that the linebackers as a unit have high expectations on themselves.

"We're a veteran group, all seniors, all guys which have had four, even five years worth of experience," Ripanti said.  "We have to lead the defense for the younger guys and be the anchor for our defense."

Pierce wants to come out to a fast start against Monmouth, and also brought up a theme mentioned by other defensive players in the preseason: "doing your 1/11th".

This weekend's season opener will certainly be a proving ground for Lehigh's defense.  It also should, if history is any guide, be a heck of a ball game - and one that could, for good or ill, be an indicator of the rest of the season.

Game Notes, Injuries, And Media Roundup
The first game notes of the season are all about the reveal, and the biggest reveal comes on defense, where a true freshman, freshman FS Riley O'Neil, appears to have won the starting job in camp, with the previously-expected starter, sophomore FS Mike Gies, backing him up.

The other big reveal is that senior LB Colton Caslow, who had a broken hand early on in preseason practice, is still out, meaning senior LB Evan Kauffman will be starting in the captain's place on Saturday.  Backing him up should be junior LB Cal Coffman.

Morning Call: Lehigh ready to show off an improved defense in opener against Monmouth
"The defense is definitely going to play with a chip on its shoulder," said Ripanti, a Wilmington, Del., product. "We know people are curious about how we're going to perform this year. We're taking it as a challenge. People keep asking me if we feel pressure. I don't think it's pressure. It's a challenge and everybody is ready to step up to the challenge and earn respect."
Weather Report
Those hoping for a sunny home opener might need to keep an eye on the weather report.  Morning tailgates as of right now are looking fine with a high in the upper 70s, but PM showers loom in the forecast with a 40% chance of rain.

Special Stuff Happening
GOOOOOOOOOOSEY!
This year, I wanted to start highlighting all the special things that make up the Lehigh football game experience, home and away.  In years past I've tried to give all of these activities a shout, but I haven't made them a formal section of the preview.  I think that should change, so I'm going to go for it this year.

The Monmouth game is officially "Lehigh Young Football Alumni Day", and at halftime members of recent Mountain Hawk teams from 2012-2016 will be honored down on the field.  Interested in participating?  Contact the Lehigh Football Partnership for details.

After the game Rauch Field House will host the sixth annual "Meet the Marching 97 Picnic".   The cost is $20, and you can register here.  The best part?  No, not that the money goes to support the Marching 97 - it's that Goosey Gander is catering the event, and your $20 goes towards Goosey "tailgate fare"!

Famous Monmouth Person You've Never Heard Of
Monmouth Grad
Bet you never thought I'd never mention the word "shadchan" in a football preview - I know I never did - but as it turns out, Real Housewife of New Jersey Siggy Flicker not only is a professional matchmaker - she plays one on TV, too.

Her wikipedia page says she graduated with a BA in communications from Monmouth (a pretty apt degree, you have to admit, if you're a professional matchmaker), and supported herself as a waitress at TGI Friday's.

In a related story, I ate a few times at TGI Friday's in New Jersey, and I have some regrets.

LFN's Drink of the Week #DOTW
Speaking of TGI Friday's, Monmouth, and New Jerseyans, let's run with this as it relates to this weekend's Drink of the Week.

What TGI Friday's-themed drink is appropriate to celebrate a surprisingly tough football matchup against a up-and-coming New Jersey school with a men's basketball bench that is arguably more famous than their actual team?

I took a spin on TGI Friday's site and looked for a drink that brought it all together.  As you might expect, TGI Friday's drink list was a fairly conventional list of Manhattans, Martinis, and Daquiris.

#DOTW
Ultimately I decided on the Sidecar - although a bit classic and simple, it seemed the most appropriate for a summer tailgate, and besides, I like good cognac (3 parts) and good cointreau (2 parts) and lemon juice (1 part).  Just take a lemon wedge, work it around the glass, dip it some powdered sugar, and pour.

As always, Drinks of the Week have a place in responsible tailgates, but only if you behave yourself, don't get behind the wheel while impaired (or worse), and are over 21. Please do that.


2016 Lehigh Football Schedule Features Every Nearby FCS Rival You Can Think Of

As we hit the 92 day mark before the 2016 Lehigh football season officially starts, it's time to take a look at the overall schedule - and opponents - the Mountain Hawks will be facing.

Every Lehigh football fan knows that their Rival of Rivals, Lafayette, is only 18 miles away from Bethlehem.

What fans may not know is that, by drawing a circle around Lehigh on Google Maps, you can surround seven of the Mountain Hawks eleven 2016 opponents.  (The site NCAA Savant has an interactive, zoomable map that shows the schools quite clearly.)

The only FCS programs within the circle that Lehigh doesn't play are Delaware, Wagner, and Columbia.

Lehigh will be hosting Monmouth, Bucknell, Fordham, and Princeton, all of whose fan bases are within two and a half hour's drive, and will have "road trips" to Penn, Villanova, and Lafayette, which couldn't be easier for Lehigh football fans.

However, if you wanted to earn frequent flyer miles supporting Lehigh football, you had better hope the Mountain Hawks make the FCS playoffs.
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On The Sixth Try, Monmouth Finally Sails Past Lehigh, 28-21

Taylor Jackson/Asbury Park Press
Monmouth was 0-5 versus Lehigh in their history going into this weekend's game.

Even with athletes like WR Miles Austin, WR Chris Hogan and a lot of other very good players, beating the Mountain Hawks was something that every Monmouth player was unable to achieve in their careers.

They had come agonizingly close before - losing games on last-second fumbles, and blocked punts advanced for 1st downs - and talked internally about playing all four quarters, about not getting worn down at the end of the game.

This Saturday, they were not worn down as QB Brandon Hill would get 40 of his 390 passing yards on the Hawks' final drive, none bigger than his 19 yard rifle to WR Eric Sumlin for the game-winner.
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How To Catch Monmouth/Lehigh (Broadcast Info), And Other Fearless Predictions

This weekend's Monmouth/Lehigh game, if you're not able to make it to Bethlehem, will be available to be viewed online for free thanks to the Patriot League Digital Network. 

If you're in the Lehigh Valley, you don't need a TV since the game will be televised on Service Electric 2, with Mike Zambelli and Mike Yadush on the call.

You can listen to the game for free on www.espnlv.com (or on the radio at AM 1230 and 1320 of the Lehigh Valley).

Game time is 12:30 PM.

And I will also say that if you follow my Twitter feed (@LFN), I'll do my best to keep up with the action.

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