WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — North Alabama head coach Chris Willis said he thought it would be a letdown to the team as a coach if he didn’t elect to go for an onside kick with just under 30 seconds remaining.
The thought process was that the Lions traveled far north for the game and the players wanted to finish the game. The result was a 49-38 loss to No. 19 Monmouth, rather than 49-32. Small in terms of the margin of defeat, but big from the perspective of Willis and the Lions’ program.
“For us, this is learning, we’re trying to find a way to build for the future of this program,” Willis said. “We’re not as far away as a lot of people think.”
Though Willis admitted it was frustrating to not come away with a win, there were a lot of moments, particularly late in the game and after, that showed that UNA is progressing into the team it thinks it could be in the near future.
For one, it was the play of players like quarterback Christian Lopez. Lopez, a senior, battled a tough game where he fumbled the ball four times — and three times it was recovered by Monmouth. He managed to finish the game throwing for 383 yards and three touchdowns, along with with a rushing score.
He played behind an injury-riddled offensive line and was sacked five times, but many of those players, like center Cody Mann and guard Jacob Gentle, battled through those injuries. Lopez said the late-game push had a lot to do with the team’s chemistry.
“We’re a pretty close-knit group with the way we carry ourselves on and off the field,” Lopez said. “We gotta eliminate those (mistakes), but as you can see, we can put up points in a hurry.”
Defensively, it was a matter of depth. The Lions battled in the first half and went to the locker room down 14-7. K.J. Smith was a bright spot early with an interception and a pair of pass breakups, but in the second half, Monmouth’s fifth-year quarterback Kenji Bahar stole the show and the Hawks had too much for the Lions to keep up with.
But the finish is what stood out to Smith.
“I just feel like we can build off that going forward and finish the season out,” Smith said.
The future Willis speaks of each made big plays down the stretch to allow the Lions to find the end zone late.
“We played so hard. Each and every play we gave it our all. We’re talented enough to play with anybody,” Hall said. “I feel like that all you got to do is put your mind to it and you can do whatever you want.”
Teams like Monmouth, Montana and Kennesaw State have the depth and the experience that UNA lacks. A lot of the times, it has been the difference in games.
But for Willis and the rest of the UNA program, it's a matter of building, learning and ironing out those kinks to get where they need to be.
Saturday provided some more optimism.
“Everybody knows in the league this team is going to play hard and give everything you got,” Willis said. “(These teams) have all the things they need to succeed. We haven’t got it yet. Sometime it'll come and each year, it ought to get a little better.”