So much for first impressions.
Monmouth’s excitement about joining the Colonial Athletic Association was tempered by a strong fourth-quarter comeback by New Hampshire in Thursday night's season-opener, as the Wildcats scored 14 unanswered points to rally for a 31-21 victory.
The Hawks had a 21-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter at Wildcat Stadium in Durham, New Hampshire but were unable to make enough plays down the stretch in their first-ever CAA game.
"I thought we did enough to win the game, but we just left too many plays out there in the second half," Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan said.
While the New Hampshire offense struggled for most of the second half, the Wildcats drove downfield midway through the fourth quarter, with a 33-yard strike from Max Brosmer to Andrew Edgar setting up a seven-yard TD run by Dylan Laube to give them a 24-21 lead with 6:20 to play.
Then Callahan rolled the dice and decided to go for it on a fourth-and-11 from Monmouth's 24-yard-line with just over four minutes to play and two timeouts. But Tony Muskett’s pass was intercepted by Randall Harris and returned 38 yards for a touchdown to give the Wildcats a 10-point lead.
"We felt like we had to make something happen at that point," said Callahan, with the Hawks having converted 3-of-4 first down attempts to that point. "You can go back and fourth on the decision, but they were going to get the ball back in good field position and our defense had just come off the field."
It was Muskett’s third interception of the game, and the second by Harris.
Monmouth had taken a 21-17 lead when Muskett stepped up in the pocket and found Alex Bryant in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown pass with 9:25 left in the third quarter.
Here are five takeaways from Monmouth’s loss at New Hampshire:
The Hawks were unable to establish the run behind their revamped offensive line, grinding out just 29 yards in the first half. It didn’t get much better in the second half, with the Hawks finishing the game with just 67 yards rushing, averaging 1.7 yards-per-attempt.
It made things difficult in the pocket for Muskett all night, with the experienced New Hampshire front giving them trouble throughout.
"For us to be effective on offense we have to be able to run the ball. It just put too much pressure on the protection," said Callahan, with New Hampshire getting two sacks and three quarterback hurries, to go with the three picks.
Muskett was sharp early on, with the junior throwing for 199 yards in the first half, connecting on 13-of-19, with Owen Wright finishing off a pair of drives with short TD runs.
And while he finished with 281 passing yards, it was the three interceptions that hurt. The second one came when Zedane Williams picked him off at the New Hampshire 17-yard-line to end a threat with the Hawks looking to build on a 21-17 lead.
New Hampshire's All-American defensive end Josiah Silver took the game over at the end of the first half. The sophomore sacked Muskett to cap a defensive stand after Monmouth drove into Wildcat territory on the final play of the first quarter. Then Silver blocked a Ryan Kost punt a play later, with Charles Briscoe III returning it 35 yards to put the Wildcats up 14-7.
Then Monmouth missed an opportunity to take the lead with four minutes left in the first half when redshirt freshman kicker Vincenzo Rea missed the first field goal attempt of his career, with the 38-yarder sailing wide right, with the score remaining tied at 14-14.
"I look at that as a 10-point swing right there," Callahan said.
Monmouth came out strong defensively in the second half, including opening the second half with a pair of three-and-outs. The second one resulted in a short punt that allowed Monmouth to take over at the New Hampshire 40-yard-line. It set up the Muskett-to-Bryant TD connection five plays later.
But when it mattered most, New Hampshire was able to drive the length of the field for the winning score. In all, they amassed 353 yards of offense, including 272 passing yards, while allowing 17 points. The Hawks struggled to get pressure on Bosmer, with Zamon Robinson picking up their lone sack.
Cornerback Eddie Morales came up with an interception to stop the Wildcats first drive of the game.
Dymere MIller made a diving catch for a 37-yard gain in the first quarter and never returned after sustaining a shoulder injury on the play. It's unclear if Miller will be able to return when Monmouth takes the field next Saturday when Fordham visits.
Bryant did a solid job in Miller's place, finishing with eight catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, but Miller’s presence was missed.
The junior had a 29-yard gain on a jet sweep down to the Wildcats’ 1 on Monmouth’s second possession of the game, setting up the first score of the game when Wright took it in two plays later.
When you scan the Monmouth depth chart, a few names jump out as potentially being the most impactful force for the blue-and-white this season.
And it’s unlikely anyone will factor into the Hawks’ fortunes more than Tyrese Wright.
The senior safety with a penchant for punishing opposing ballcarriers is the emotional leader on defense and one of the team captains, as the Hawks head into tonight’s season-opener at New Hampshire (7 p.m./Flo Sports), also their first-ever Colonial Athletic Association game.
He led the team with 71 tackles last season, with team highs in passes defensed (10) and pass breakups (9). Beyond the raw numbers, Wright has the skillset to make game-changing plays, thus filling the void left by the graduation of safety Anthony Budd, who finished his career with 223 tackles and nine interceptions.
And when Wright makes one of those pad-popping hits you can hear in the last row of the grandstand, it energizes the entire team.
“I definitely enjoy doing it because I feel like it brings everyone else up on the defense because once they hear me screaming, I can just feel the energy of everyone just rising,” said Wright, a Bridgeport, Connecticut native with two years of eligibility remaining. “It also helps everybody else fly to the ball as well, because they’re like, ‘Tyree got one, I want one, too.’ And I’m just trying to push my teammates.”
Check back right here later Thursday night for complete coverage of the Hawks’ first-ever CAA game, and check out the scouting report at the end this story.
For now, here are five keys for the Hawks against the Wildcats:
In last year’s season opener at Middle Tennessee, Monmouth gave up a 70-yard punt return and had an interception returned 44 yards for another score in a 50-15 loss.
While that was an FBS opponent, allowing plays that alter the complexion of the game will have the same impact against New Hampshire. Monmouth has a razor thin margin of error, so limiting turnovers, special teams miscues and big plays defensively is imperative.
How important is senior running back Juwon Farri?
Last season Monmouth was 3-0 in games in which he topped the 100-yard mark, and 1-4 when he didn’t during the eight games he was on the field as he battled through a leg injury. For his career, Monmouth is 11-1 when he tops the century mark, having rushed for 2,249 yards, with a 5.7-yard average, and 26 TDs in 22 games.
So while Monmouth has a talented stable of backs, including veteran Owen Wright and speedy sophomore Jaden Shirden, getting Farri untracked is a top priority.
With five new starters, Monmouth’s offensive line is the biggest question mark of all. And how quickly the unit comes together will go a long towards determining the level of offensive production for a team with some talent at the skill positions.
A veteran New Hampshire defensive line will provide an early test for the group, led by right tackle Justin Szuba, who missed last season with an injury. He’ll be joined up front by right guard Greg Anderson, center Tyler Williams, left guard Oliver Jervis and left tackle Jordan Hall.
Monmouth will go with a new placekicker this season in redshirt freshman Vincenzo Rea, who takes over from graduate transfer Nick Null. Rea looked good during summer camp, showing off his strong leg. If he can be consistent from all distances, the Hawks will have found their kicker for the next four years.
Punter Ryan Kost comes off a very good season, but the Hawks had two punts blocked in their final scrimmage of the summer.
It wouldn’t hurt to break a big return. Both Eddie Morales, on punts and kickoffs, and Dymere Miller on kickoffs, have explosive potential.
Monmouth has to expect New Hampshire is going to come out swinging. And whatever happens early on, the Hawks have to stick to the gameplan and not get rattled on the road.
In the first of eight CAA games, Monmouth can set the tone for what is going to be a long season by having each other’s back. Because the bonds formed in the season opener will only grow stronger as the weeks go on.
Check back later for complete coverage of the Hawks' showdown with the Wildcats.
And so it begins for Monmouth football.
The Hawks’ 30-year rise through the college football ranks enters its most important phase when the program plays its first-ever Colonial Athletic Association game in Thursday night's season-opener at New Hampshire.
“In a word, it’s exciting,” said Monmouth coach Kevin Callahan, who enters his 30th season after starting the program in 1993. “It’s invigorating to take yet another set for our football program. It has excited everyone on our staff, everyone in our administration here at Monmouth.
“We know it is a significant step, we’re being asked to take but I think it’s a step we’re more ready for than the previous steps we’ve taken. We’re excited about the challenges we are going to have on a weekly basis, we’re excited about the associations we’re going to have with some great football programs.”
Here’s a look at what to expect in the opener.
Where: Wildcat Stadium, Durham, New Hampshire
More Monmouth football:10 ex-Shore stars who can make a difference for Hawks
TV/Radio: Flo Sports/Monmouth Digital Network
First-year head coach Rick Santos will start QB Max Brosmer, who suffered a preseason knee injury and missed the 2021 season. Brosmer has played just one game since leading the Wildcats to the FCS Playoffs in 2019, with the Wildcats playing a single game during the pandemic-impacted 2020 spring season.
The Wildcats will try to establish the run against an undersized Monmouth defensive front, with RB Dylan Laube, who averaged 6.3 yards on 80 carries last season, and Isaac Seide, who averaged 5.1 yards on 36 carries. Laube is also a dangerous receiver, catching 22 passes in 2021. The Wildcats return their top three receivers in Brian Espanet (7 TDs), Sean Coyne (35 catches) and TE Kyle Lepkowski (25 catches).
Monmouth’s ability to stop the run will be critical. The return of LB Da’Quan Grimes, who missed last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, will help. Grimes had 115 tackles in 2019, his last full season. S Tyrese Wright was their leading tackler last season, and will be near the line of scrimmage. The Hawks’ strength is their secondary, with starting CBs Eddie Morales and Mike Reid returning, while the addition of Temple transfer Thomas Joe-Kamara at safety will help.
The Hawks have plenty of weapons on offense. What they lack is experience along the line, with five new starters. RT Justin Szuba was a first-team All-Big South selection in 2020, but missed last season with an injury. He’ll be joined by RG Greg Anderson, C Tyler Williams, LG Oliver Jervis and LT Jordan Hall. Their ability to function against an experienced Wildcat defensive front, led by DE Josiah Silver, who topped the CAA with 12.5 sacks last season, will be the key. The Wildcats also return their top two LBs in Ryan Toscano and Bryce Shaw.
QB Tony Muskett was a preseason All-CAA selection, and the passing game will function much better if they can establish the run behind a trio of backs. Juwon Farri has 2,249 career yards, including 705 in an injury-plagued 2021 season. He’s joined by hard-running Owen Wright and speedster Jaden Shirden. The Hawks lost their top three receivers and will look to Dymere Miller, Yale graduate transfer Darrion Carrington, Virginia graduate transfer Ugo Obasi and Assanti Kearney to make plays downfield. The Wildcats' secondary includes S Noah Stansbury (3 ints.) and CB Randall Harris (2 ints.)
Monmouth has a potential all-conference punter in Ryan Kost, and PK Vincenzo Rea us expected to do the kicking. Morales is a dangerous threat as a punt returner, and it’s vitally important Monmouth does not give up big plays on special teams on the road.
The Wildcats had just two field goals last season, with PK Sean Lehane hitting both of them. P Aidan Cadogan averaged 41.7 yards.
It’s a tough first assignment - on the road against a storied program in the first CAA game - but look for the Hawks to play well.