The opening round of the FCS playoffs is complete, and the nation’s leading rusher does not reside in Normal, Illinois, nor does the country’s eighth-best passer in total aerial yards hail from Jacksonville, Alabama or Fargo, North Dakota. Both come from central New Jersey and Monmouth University, where history has been made in 2019.
Redshirt senior quarterback Kenji Bahar and junior running back Pete Guerriero have amassed 3,511 passing yards and 1,888 rushing yards, respectively, to bolster the Monmouth Hawks in a season highlighted by an outright Big South championship and the program’s first-ever FCS playoff victory. That historic postseason win came against the Patriot League winner Holy Cross on Saturday at Kessler Stadium in West Long Branch by a score of 44-27.
In the triumph, Guerriero ran wild, galloping to a total of 220 yards on 31 carries and finding the end zone three times.
“He’s a really patient runner,” Holy Cross senior defensive back Chris Riley said of Guerriero. “He waits for that hole to open up and he hits it and when you have receivers and a quarterback that can make the plays, you have to loosen up the box. So I think all around it’s really a dynamic offense and he just complements it well by being as patient as he is and hitting the hole when it’s there.”
Meanwhile, Bahar overcame some recurrent cramps to finish 19-32 passing for 249 yards and a touchdown.
“As you can see, individually, I feel like I’ve progressed,” Bahar commented when asked to summarize how he and his Monmouth teammates have developed over the course of his five-year career. “As a team, I feel like we’ve just gotten better week in and week out. It’s fun playing out there, and I think as a team we’re just having fun playing; we’re having fun winning. Just playing cohesively, both sides of the ball, defense making plays, and we just feed off each other.”
Guerriero had thoughts along similar lines when asked about being one half of a nationally renowned duo with Bahar on a team that has not been on the national stage historically.
“We both come out here and everybody says we’re a small school or whatever the case may be, but we play every game with a chip on our shoulder. We play every game like we have something to prove and we just gotta keep it rolling and keep it moving forward. No matter who we’re up against, I think that we can continue to make plays. I just think that it’s about proving to everybody that no matter what sized school you’re from, no matter what the case may be, you can have playmakers, you can make plays. And as a whole offense, we’ve shown that.”
First-year James Madison coach Curt Cignetti has certainly taken notice.
“They stumbled early against Western Michigan, [in] I believe their first game, and lost to Montana, who is obviously a very good football team,” said Cignetti on Monday’s CAA media teleconference. “Since then, they’ve been on a roll. And all they did [Saturday versus Holy Cross] was continue playing at a high level, which they’ve been doing for nine straight weeks. This is the best football team they’ve ever had, and it’s a veteran team.”
Cignetti cited Monmouth’s wins over fellow second-round entrants Kennesaw State and Albany as evidence of the Hawks’ extensive talent and potential. His team will give Monmouth a formidable test in its own right, however.
The Dukes’ defense, which is third in the FCS in scoring defense (15.7 points allowed per game) and boasts a pair of Buck Buchanan Award finalists along the defensive line in Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka, will be the potent Monmouth offense’s stiffest challenge yet. The Hawks will need to control the ball and time of possession by continuing to open lanes for Guerriero, but if they fall behind by multiple scores, it will become all the more imperative to protect Bahar, the Big South Offensive Player of the Year, as passing becomes a larger part of the game flow.
“There are 16 teams left in the nation. Of all the teams that play football in the FCS, 16 of them are still alive, and we’re fortunate enough to be one of those 16,” said Big South Coach of the Year Kevin Callahan, the only head coach in the history of Monmouth football. “And we’re fortunate to have another opportunity to go play another game in the 2019 season. [For] almost everybody else, the season’s over. They’re thinking about their offseason plans and what they’re going to do next year.”
Monmouth has been in that “offseason-mode” position at this time of the FCS calendar plenty before, but with the Bahar-Guerriero tandem along with an opportunistic Hawk defense that came up with a trio of interceptions against Holy Cross, Monmouth has no plans of slowing down as the lights get brighter in 2019.