WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — With a minute remaining, it seemed as if North Alabama already lost the game, it was over and Monmouth was set to nurse the lead and exit Kessler Stadium with the win.
Well, don’t tell that to head coach Chris Willis and the UNA players. The Lions did lose to Monmouth 49-38 , but put up 14 points in the last minute of the game, highlighted by an onside kick recovered by Cortez Hall with under 30 seconds to go.
It showed what Willis and his players have said throughout this season when it comes to the makeup of the team.
“That’s pretty much been us, we’re not quitting, we’re not ever going to give up,” Willis said. “We came a long way, the kids want to play. Something tells me we’re not all that far away.”
There were mistakes — Christian Lopez fumbled four times and lost it three times. The Monmouth defensive front gave a banged-up Lions offensive line fits, sacking Lopez five times.
Willis said a position group that’s “glued together” with all the injuries. Ethan McMullan was out for the game, center Cody Mann was injured coming in, and so was Jacob Gentle. Both Gentle and Mann went down in the game at points but returned.
“We’re just trying to hold it and piece it together with one game left,” Willis said.
The game was decided in a tough third quarter, with the Lions struggling to convert third downs while allowing Monmouth to have success in that area — UNA was 2 for 11 and Monmouth 11 for 16.
That’s where Monmouth quarterback Kenji Bahar, who finished 27 for 36 for 319 yards, five touchdowns and an interception, came alive.
But plays from some of UNA’s playmakers on offense that allowed the Lions to creep back into the game in the fourth quarter.
Hall, who made two catches along the sideline and skillfully still got a foot down, finished with seven catches for 80 yards and a touchdown. Jakobi Byrd had five catches for 115 yards and Dexter Boykin found the end zone, along with three catches for 52 yards.
“It showed that we can do it, we can move the ball against anybody we want to,” Hall said. “It gives a boost of confidence.”
After the turnover-filled first three quarters, Lopez bounced back to finished 24 for 36 for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
He said it was tough up front with the injuries, but he was proud of the way the offense fought and was able to execute down the stretch.
“We just fight together,” Lopez said. “I think these seniors are laying the foundation for teams to come.”
Before the third quarter when Monmouth took control of, UNA was actually in the game because of its defense. K.J. Smith, who finished with six tackles and two pass breakups, intercepted a pass from Bahar to give the Lions the ball deep in Monmouth territory, leading to a touchdown early in the second quarter.
Although the defense struggled to contain Bahar and the offense going forward, Smith said the defense wanted to do whatever it could to give the team a chance to win late, which he felt like happened.
Walking off the field, the feeling around the players wasn’t surprise regarding how they came back into the game. But rather, confirmation of who they are as a team.
“We didn’t quit even though we were down, that’s how we’re supposed to finish,” Smith said.