MONMOUTH, Ill. – With just two divisional games remaining, sole possession of the lead in the Midwest Conference South Division hangs in the balance Saturday when Monmouth College (6-1, 3-0) – the defending league champions – travels to Lake Forest College (7-0, 3-1) for a 1 p.m. kickoff.
Both teams are coming off blowout wins last weekend – Monmouth a 61-10 winner at Cornell, while Lake Forest posted a 70-6 win at home over Grinnell. The Fighting Scots rolled up nearly 600 yards of offense while scoring on all but three possessions. The Foresters had little trouble with the Pioneers, jumping out to a 35-0 first quarter lead as senior running back Joey Valdivia scored three of his four TDs in the opening frame.
“I’m guessing both teams have had this game circled on the calendar for a while,” said Braun. “Lake Forest is very good and will be highly motivated for this game. It’s a big one for sure. We’re going to have to show up ready to play.”
Monmouth sports the No. 3 total defensive unit in the nation, surrendering just 209 yards per game thanks in part to the No. 1 pass defense (103 ypg), but they’ll have their work cut out for them as the Foresters tout some gaudy numbers. Valdivia’s 194-yard rushing average and 21 rushing TDs are both tops in the nation.
“Joey is obviously one of the top running backs in the nation,” said Braun, whose defense held the back to just nine yards on nine carries one year ago. “Their quarterback (Jagan Cleary) is playing at a really high level. Defensively, they do a great job of getting a lot of guys to the ball. They’re tough and aggressive and change their looks. We’ll have to play at an extremely high level on both sides of the ball.”
When the Foresters aren’t handing the ball off to Valdivia, they’re completing passes at a high rate. Cleary has connected on nearly 70 percent of his throws for nearly 1,800 yards. Junior wideout Chris Edomwande – a 6-foot-4 target – has hauled in a team-high 48 passes for six TDs and nearly 700 yards.
“We’ll have to be sound defensively,” said Braun. “The key will be to avoid giving them big plays. We all know about Joey (Valdivia), but they’ve got some receivers who are big playmakers, too.”
Monmouth has shown big play potential as well with a trio of juniors providing the spark. Running back DeAndre Wright leads the team with eight touchdowns and more than five yards per carry while Hayden Nelson has thrown 15 TDs and puts up nearly 180 passing yards per game. Yansay Williams has been on the receiving end of more than half of Nelson’s touchdown tosses, hauling in 27 passes for 366 yards and nine TDs – all team highs. Freshman receiver Austin Hite has emerged of late, snaring 21 passes for more than 300 yards and three scores.
Monmouth is riding a three-game win streak in the series as Saturday marks the 51st meeting between the teams. The Scots have had the upper hand in the last 10 years, posting an 8-2 mark since 2007. None of that means much to Braun, who realizes a new year means new challenges.
“Every year it’s a new group and a new team,” said Braun while reflecting on Monmouth’s 52-6 win last season. “You can’t rely on what you did a year ago. If anything, that’s just added fuel to Lake Forest’s fire for this game. I know when we lost big to St. Norbert a few years ago, we were really motivated to face them the following year. We went up there and beat them the next year at their place. Lake Forest probably has a similar mindset and won’t be intimidated by us and what’s happened in the past. We’re playing in the present, and I know both teams will be highly motivated by what’s at stake.”