FCS Playoffs Opening Round Preview: Monmouth U at Sam Houston St.

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WEST LONG BRANCH – Monmouth University, the Big South champion, will travel to Huntsville, Texas to take on the Southland Conference champion Bearkats of Sam Houston State in Saturday’s opening round of the NCAA FCS playoffs.

Ranked No. 4 nationally in the most recent STATS FCS Top 25, Sam Houston State (6-0) was awarded the No. 2 seed in the upcoming scaled down playoffs which will include the standard 11 automatic qualifiers but have eight fewer at-large bids dropping the overall field from 24 to 16 teams.

Only the top four teams were assigned seeds with South Dakota State named the No. 1 seed followed by Sam Houston State, James Madison and Jacksonville State in that order.

Monmouth (3-0) moved up two spots to No. 10 in this week’s STATS FCS Top 25 and that incidentally is the highest national ranking in the 28 seasons of the program.

Both Kevin Callahan of Monmouth University and C.J. Keeler of Sam Houston State are finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award that is presented to the national coach of the year in college football’s Division I subdivision.

Keeler won the award in 2016 while Callahan was nominated in 2017 and 2019.

Saturday’s game will mark the first-ever meeting between the two schools which are separated by a 1,600 miles.

THE COACHES

MONMOUTH UNIVERSITY: Callahan is in his 28th season and is Monmouth’s first and only head football coach in program history.

He holds a career record of 166-124 at Monmouth and his 166 wins is ranked seventh among active coaches at the FCS level. Callahan is one of three FCS coaches with 150+ wins all at one institution and his 28 years as head coach is the sixth among active coaches.

In 2019 he was named AFCA Region II Coach of the Year and placed fourth in the Eddie Robinson Award.

His teams have captured seven conference titles and this year’s team will be making its third playoff appearance in four years.

On Tuesday it was announced that Callahan was named the Big South Coach of the Year for the second consecutive year after leading the Hawks to their second Big South championship in a row and a No.10 national ranking.

The award marks the fifth time in his career that he’s been named conference coach of the year.

Under Callahan’s tutelage, Monmouth has been ranked either first or second among Big South Schools in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) in each of the last three seasons.

SAM HOUSTON STATE: Keeler was named as Sam Houston State’s 15th head football coach on January 23, 2014. In seven seasons, including spring 2021, Keeler has directed the Bearkats to a 65-22 record that includes 10 victories over top-10 ranked opponents and nine wins in NCAA FCS postseason play.

Sam Houston made the playoffs in each of his first four seasons, including trips to the FCS semifinals in 2014, 2015 and 2017 and has two Southland Conference championships to his credit.

In 26 years as a head coach with stops at Rowan University and the University of Delaware prior to Sam Houston, Keeler has posted a record of 239-95-1 with a combined 16 post-season playoff appearances, including nine conference championships and eight national championship games.

At Delaware, Keeler’s teams went 86-52 in 11 seasons from 2002-2012 winning the FCS national championship in 2003 and reaching the national championship game in 2007 and 2010.

THE TEAMS

MONMOUTH UNIVERSITY: The Hawks received an automatic berth in the NCAA FCS Playoffs for the second straight season after capturing the Big South title for the second year in a row and will be making their third appearance in the FCS Playoffs in four years.

The Big South announced its annual end of the year awards this week and the high-flying Hawks were well represented to say the least.

A whopping sixteen Monmouth players were selected first team All-Big South, including eight on offense, seven on defense and one on special teams.

The Hawks also took home three individual end of the year awards, including Callahan’s Coach of the Year honor. True freshman quarterback Tony Muskett grabbed the Offensive Freshman of the Year award and sophomore running back Juwon Farri was given the prestigious Offensive Player of the Year award.

On offense, first team honorees included: Muskett at quarterback, Farri at running back, wide receivers Terrance Greene Jr. and Lonnie Moore IV, tight end Gene Scott, center A.J. Farris, right tackle Justin Szuba and left tackle Mahmoud Shabana.

On the defensive side of the ball, linemen Erik Massey and Kahari Scarlett were first team selections along with linebackers DaQuan Grimes and Eddie Hahn, and a trio of defensive backs that included Anthony Budd, Eddie Morales III and Justin Terry.

Long snapper Kent Vines was the first team special teams selection while punter Ryan Kost landed on the second team and Szuba added an All-Academic award to his growing resume.

Monmouth’s offense has been explosive this season using the run to set up the big play in the passing game. The Hawks, run the ball 60 percent of the time averaging 209.0 yards per game which is 13th in the nation and second in the Big South.

They’re No.1 in total offense in the Big South and 10th in nationally averaging 456.3 yards of total offense per game.

The Hawks know how to put points on the board as well. Their 41.7 points per game average is fifth in the country in scoring and first in the Big South. Their 247.3 passing yards per game average in second in the Big South and 25th nationally.

After garnering first team Big South honors in 2018, Farri sat out last season but has returned with a vengeance. The 5-foot-10, 195 pound workhorse can run over defenders with his powerful strides or use his elite speed to outrun the secondary once he breaks free.

Farri has rushed for 422 yards while averaging 5.3 yards per carry and is second in the nation in rushing touchdowns (9) and yards per game (140.7). Junior Romeo Holden has backed up Farri with some big moments, including a 112 yard rushing performance in the Hawks win over Gardner Webb where he averaged over 10-yards per carry with a touchdown.

Greene Jr. and Moore IV are the top receiving duo in the Big South and one if not the top duos in the nation. Greene leads the Big South and is fifth nationally in receiving yards per game with 110.3 while Moore IV is second in the Big South and eighth nationally averaging 103.5 yards per game. In just two games, Moore IV has 14 catches for 207 yards and three touchdowns while Greene Jr. has 14 receptions for 331 yards and three touchdowns in three games.

Scott is stellar blocking tight end and a reliable receiver when called on (1 TD) and Ezrah Archie, Assanti Kearny, Alex Bryant and Zach Tredway give Muskett some nice options to throw to as well.

Speaking of Muskett, the true freshman quarterback has set the league on fire. He’s completed 51-of-82 passes for 742 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception or any type of turnover for that matter in three games. His 170.4 passing efficiency rating is third in the country while his 247.3 yards passing per game average in second in the Big South and 14th nationally.

Muskett is mature way beyond his age. His poise in the pocket, ability to read defenses and make the right reads sets him apart. He has superior arm strength that allows him to make all the throws with phenomenal accuracy and good decision making.

Nothing seems to faze Muskett but Saturday will be the biggest test of his young career.

You can’t talk about Monmouth’s offense without calling out its offensive line which has been down right dominating.

Farris – an all-American candidate, Szuba and Shabana are joined by left guard Charles James, right guard Brian Syracuse and guard Manny Christian.

Monmouth’s potent offensive attack has taken center stage in recent years but this season its defense has kept pace and is unquestionably one of the best defensive units in program history.

On average they’ve allowed just 17.67 points per game which is ranked 15th nationally and leads the Big South. In total yards allowed per game the defense ranks second in the Big South and 24th in the country giving up 308.3 yards per game on the average.

The Hawks defense has been phenomenal in stopping the run, especially in crucial third and fourth down situations. Teams are averaging only 91.0 yards per game on the ground against them which ranks 13th nationally and first in the Big South.

Massey (12 T, 1.5 TFL, Sack) and Scarlett, who is second in the Big South with 3.5 sacks along with nine tackles and three QBH, grabbed the postseason honors, but the defensive line as whole has played lights out football. Senior Nick Shoemaker (12 T, TFL, 3 QBH) and junior Kurt Aumer (8 T, 2 TFL, 2 Sacks) round out the starting four and have been exceptional.

Transfers Lorenzo Hernandez and Zamon Robinson worked their way into the defensive line rotation and have made an impact. Hernandez has been whirling dervish with continued pressure on the quarterback that has resulted in 2.5 sacks along with 10 tackles, while Robinson has added a sack, two TFL with five tackles. Sophomore DeAndre Clifton and true freshman Justin O’Bannon have added quality depth.

The Hawks linebacker play has been stellar with Grimes and Hahn – a UConn transfer – standing out. Grimes is fifth in the Big South with 27 tackles averaging nine tackle per game along with a sack and two QBH. Hahn leads the team with four TFL, including 1.5 sacks, an interception and two PD and three QBH. Tyler Delgado starts on the weakside where he’s excelled at the spot with nine tackles, one TFL, half a sack and a fumble recovery, while senior DeJaun Cooper and junior Ben Joseph add solid depth.

Monmouth’s stingy rush defense has forced teams to abandon their running game and go to the air but the Hawks talented big-play secondary has been up to the task allowing just over 200 yards per game through the air.

Budd, Morales III and Terry’s play speaks for itself as does their post season honors, but sophomore strong safety Tyrese Wright belongs right up there with them. Junior Jason Antwi who has been a nice addition to the secondary and has performed well when called on.

Budd is tied for the Big South lead in interception with two and is second on the team with 23 tackles. Morales III is 11th in the country in pass defense with five and is fifth on the team with 18 tackles, while Terry has an interception along with 11 tackles one pass defended.

SAM HOUSTON STATE: This season, Sam Houston State was an automatic qualifier in the FCS playoffs after capturing the Southland Conference championship with a perfect 6-0 conference and overall record.

They enter the game touting the nations fourth-ranked offense averaging 524.7 yards per game with a 7.17 yards per play average which ranks No.1 in the FCS as does its scoring offense which averages 44.8 points per game.

The Bearkats run a balanced offense and they’re proficient at both, averaging 34.7 passing attempts per game while running the ball on average 38.5 times a game. They average 338.0 yards per game through the air – eighth in the FCS – and are No.1 in the FCS averaging 9.75 yards per attempt and second in yards per completion averaging 16.10 yards.

Redshirt junior dual-threat quarterback Eric Schmid was a Phil Steele preseason All-Southland Conference third-team selection and has more than lived up to his hype.

He’s ranked third in the Southland Conference in total offense averaging 383.2 yards per game – fourth in passing yards per game with 336.8 – while rushing for an additional 278 yards on 56 attempts and five touchdowns averaging 46.3 yards rushing per game and 5.0 yards per carry.

Through the air, Schmid has completed 124-of-200 passes (62.00 %) for 2021 yards and 14 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He also leads the Southland Conference in passing efficiency with a 163.0 rating.

Seven Bearkat receivers have at least 10 receptions and over 100 yards receiving.

Graduate student Jequez Ezzard is a big-play wideout averaging over 30 yards per reception. He has 20 catches and leads the team with 608 yards and six receiving touchdowns. Graduate student wide receiver Cody Crest leads the team with 25 receptions for 334 yards and one score. Sophomore wideout Ife Adeyi (18-353-2), redshirt senior tight end Isaac Schley Issley (11-179) and sophomore running back Noah Smith (17-155-3) are Schmid’s main targets.

Twentieth in the nation averaging 186.7 rushing yards per game and 4.85 yards per attempt, the Bearkats are led in the backfield by redshirt junior running back Ramon Jefferson. The 5-foot-10, 200 pounder is a load to bring down but does have breakaway speed as his 59-yard touchdown scamper illustrates. In six games, Jefferson has rushed for 475 yards on 73 attempts (6.5 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns while Smith has added 107 yards on 27 carries and a score.

Defensively, the Bearkats lead the Southland Conference in scoring defense surrendering 17.5 points per game – 11th nationally. The defense allows 358.5 yards per game total defense which puts them 50th in the FCS rankings. Apparently, the Bearkats subscribe to the bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy.

Junior linebacker Trevor Williams leads the team with 48 tackles and nine tackles for loss along with two sacks and two fumble recoveries. Redshirt freshman safety Braiden Clopton leads the team with 23 solo tackles and is second on the team with 40 total tackles along with 1.5 TFL and a fumble recovery.

Senior 6-foot-2, 265 pound defensive lineman Jahari Kay leads the team in TFL (8.0), sacks (5.5) and forced fumbles (4.0) while redshirt junior linebacker Markel Perry is second on the team in TFL (7.0) and tied for second with 3.5 sacks. Fellow linebacker, redshirt Quentin Brown, has added 33 tackles (16 solo), four TFL and 2.5 sacks.

Defensive linemen Joseph Wallace (5.5 TFL, sack, FF) and Jevon Leon (4 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 FR), defensive back Zyon McCollum (32 T, 19 solo, 3TFL, 2 FF, 5 BU) and freshman linebacker Jaylen Phillips (5 TFL, sack, Int, FR) have stood out on defense as have the aforementioned.

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