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Patriot League First Round Playoff Preview: Holy Cross at Monmouth

Holy Cross (7-5) at Monmouth (10-2)

When & Where: 12 P.M. Kessler Stadium (4,200); West Long Branch, NJ

Live Streaming: ESPN3

What’s At Stake? The winner advances to play #2 James Madison in the 2nd Round of the FCS Playoffs.

Series History: Monmouth 2-1; most recent meeting 2017 (Monmouth 48-36)

Playoff History:

Holy Cross – 3rd Appearance 0-2 record, First Round losses in 1983 (Western Carolina) and 2009 (Villanova)

Monmouth – 2nd Appearance 0-1 record, First Round loss in 2017 (Northern Iowa)

GoHolyCross.com

Season Recap

Holy Cross – The Crusaders captured their first Patriot League Title since 2009 with a 5-1 conference record. Holy Cross was the only team in the Patriot League to finish with a winning record. The Purple started the year by getting run out of Annapolis (45-7) by a bowl bound Navy team. Bob Chesney’s team responded a week later with a hard fought 13-10 win over a New Hampshire program in transition. After some inconsistent play over the next few weeks Holy Cross’s 31-10 win against Colgate set up a first place showdown at Lehigh to start November. The Crusaders held on for a 24-17 win to grab firm control of the league race. However, they would give it all away literally and figuratively the following week in a turnover filled 23-20 loss to Lafayette. As fate would have it, the Leopards stumbled against Colgate the ensuing Saturday to put Holy Cross back in the driver’s seat. The Crusaders took full advantage of the second opportunity by outscoring their final two opponents (Fordham & Georgetown) 73-27. Head Coach Bob Chesney won Patriot League Coach of the Year, while running back Domenic Cozier (1,050 yards 7 TD) captured Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Monmouth – The Hawks won their first ever Big South Title with a dominating 6-0 mark in conference play. Monmouth outscored their league competition on average 44-14. Monmouth’s most impressive performance during the 2019 season was their 43-21 dismantling of #23 Kennesaw State. Both of Monmouth’s losses came against quality competition; at FBS Western Michigan (48-13) and at #7 Montana (47-27). Kevin Callahan’s team snuck past their lone Patriot League foe Lafayette 24-21 in week two. The Hawks have reeled off eight straight wins since their September 21st loss to Montana in Missoula. Adding to the momentum, Callahan’s program owns an impressive nine game winning streak against the Patriot League (15-10 overall). Monmouth’s high octane offense (36 ppg) was led by Big South Offensive Player of the Year Kenji Bahar (3,262 yards 28 TD 8 INT). Callahan was named the conference’s Coach of the Year.

Holy Cross Offense vs Monmouth Defense

Holy Cross’s offense managed a very pedestrian 22 ppg per game this season. The Crusaders were plagued by an inconsistent passing attack and predictable play calling throughout 2019. The “O” sputtered most when strong armed but often erratic junior quarterback Connor Degenhardt (2,361 yards 14 TD 6 INT) struggled to loosen up opposing defenses. Degenhardt’s strength is stretching the field with his big arm and arsenal of talented pass catchers.  His favorite target is freshman Ayir Asante (46 rec 671 yards 5 TD). Junior wide receiver Ayeni Tenio (43 rec 568 yards 4 TD) suffered a leg injury in the regular season finale and will likely miss Saturday’s game. If Tenio can’t go tight end Derek Mountain (26 rec 399 yards 2 TD) has the ability to play a pivotal role. The straw that stirs the Holy Cross “O” is running back Domenic Cozier (Payton Award Finalist). Crusader Offensive Coordinator Patrick Murphy needs to feed Cozier the ball on a regular basis for 60 minutes. Holy Cross’s offensive line is an experienced, physical bunch capable of giving the Monmouth front 7 trouble.  The Crusader’s ability to possess the ball will ensure the high-octane Hawk offense remains on the sideline.

Domenic Cozier
DailyOrange.com

Monmouth’s defense (24 ppg allowed) remained in the shadow of their explosive offense all season. Defensive Coordinator Andy Bobik’s unit was solid against the run (123 ypg allowed) and adequate slowing down the pass (232 ypg allowed). To be fair, the majority of Monmouth’s opponents were playing catch-up by halftime so the passing yards allowed number is a bit skewed. If the Monmouth defense can contain Cozier the odds of them winning greatly increases. The All-Big South duo of Rush End Erik Massey (8 TFL, 3 sacks) and linebacker Da’Quan Grimes (49 solo tackles, 11 TFL) need to be bring their “A” game against the stout Crusader offensive line. The Hawk secondary is led by defensive back Justin Terry (All-Big South). Terry will likely match-up with Crusader big play threat Ayir Asante for much of the afternoon. If Monmouth’s defense can prevent chunk pass plays and keep in Cozier in check, the Crusaders will have a tough time scoring points.

Da’Quan Grimes

Monmouth Offense vs Holy Cross Defense

The strength of the 2019 Monmouth Hawks is without question their high-flying offense (36 ppg). Leading the way are two Payton Award Finalis; quarterback Kenji Baher and running back Pete Guerriero (1,668 yards 14 TD). The two All-Big South selections form arguably the most productive QB/RB combo in all of FCS. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Gallo also has two excellent wide receivers to utilize in the Monmouth attack. Lonnie Moore (63 rec 903 yards 9 TD) and Terrance Green (58 rec 793 yards 8 TD) should find plenty of space to operate in the Crusader’s leaky secondary. The least talked about but equally impressive part of the Monmouth “O” is their line. The leaders of the unit are two All-Big South bookend tackles; Justin Szuba (6’8 290) and Mahmoud Shabana (6’4 280).

Pete Guerriero
MonmouthHawks.com

The Holy Cross defense (22 ppg allowed) has been quite formidable the last half of the season. Granted, getting to feast on a steady diet of poor Patriot League offenses certainly helped to improve the defensive stats. The most disruptive force on “D” is talented freshman linebacker Jacob Dobbs (66 solo tackles, 11 TFL). Dobbs might be the most well-known name on defense but he’s not the only difference maker.  All-Patriot League defensive end Benton Whitley (5 sacks) needs to get pressure on Bahar early and often. The secondary (232 ypg passing allowed) will have a tough time covering the Hawk’s explosive pass catchers so it’s imperative to get the ball out of Bahar’s hand quickly. Defensive Coordinator Scott James will need big games from his two versatile safeties, Corey Stefanik and Chris Riley.  If the Crusader defensive front is unable to make Bahar uncomfortable and keep Guerriero in check it will be a long day at the Jersey Shore for those wearing purple.

Jacob Dobbs

Special Teams

Both teams feature strong special teams units. Holy Cross field goal kicker Derek Ng (11-16, long of 48) is capable of converting a key kick in a close game. Their punter Cody Wilkenson has proven to be a dangerous weapon (41 yard avg) in the battle for field position. Ayir Asante is the Crusader’s most dangerous kick returner and seems due for a momentum changing special teams play.

All-Big South field goal kicker Matt Mosquera (12-16, long of 47) has a done a good job tacking on points when the Hawk “O” failed to find the endzone. Punter Ryan Kost wasn’t called on often (24 punts) but when he was the sophomore delivered (41 yard avg). Lonnie Moore and Eddie Morales have done a solid job handling return duties. Like the Crusader’s Ayir Asante, Lonnie Moore is a big play waiting to happen.

Prediction

This is an intriguing battle between two teams, and conferences, desperately seeking respect on a national level. While the Big South does have two representatives competing this weekend, very few people are giving Monmouth and/or Kennesaw State a realistic chance of winning more than a game despite the two team’s 20-4 combined record. As for Holy Cross, the Crusaders are the only team of the seven that comprise the Patriot League to finish 2019 with a winning record. This is the third season in a row (’17 & ’18 Colgate) the Patriot League produced just a single team that finished above .500.

Holy Cross had a regular season worth celebrating but they are, at least on paper, the weakest team in the FCS playoff field by a wide margin. Monmouth is the more complete squad, riding a huge wave of momentum and they’re at home. If the Hawks protect the ball and prevent Cozier (keep him under 125 yards) from going off they’ll emerge with the program’s first postseason victory; perhaps rather easily.

Monmouth 41 Holy Cross 20

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