Already licking its wounds, both physically and emotionally, from a heartbreaking loss to Old Bridge, the injury-riddled and previously undefeated Monroe High School football team looked like a shell of its former self in a lopsided loss to Piscataway the following week.
Season-ending injuries to signal caller Stephen Karoly and linebacker Paul Baclayon, who is the quarterback of the defense, were compounded when Monroe’s starting center was also sidelined.
The growing list of walking wounded had a domino effect as receiver Kyle Volkmann, who split time at quarterback with Karoly last season, returned to that position to run the offense, creating a vacancy at wideout.
Junior running back Akeer Franklin, who rushed for 729 yards and 13 touchdowns in Monroe’s first five games (all victories) was kept out of the end zone and averaged just 84 yards per game on the ground in the defeats to Old Bridge and Piscataway.
Monroe head coach Chris Beagan knew that if the Falcons were to regain their form against J.P. Stevens over the weekend, he had to increase Franklin’s workload from the 14 carries he was allotted against Piscataway, which had jumped out to an early two-touchdown lead, forcing the Falcons to alter their game plan.
Franklin responded, rushing 32 times for a single-game school-record 347 yards and three touchdowns in a 32-13 win over the Hawks that unofficially secured the fourth seed for Monroe in the NJSIAA Central Group V playoff section.
Monroe (6-2) could host a first-round game against three-time defending sectional champion Sayreville (6-2), a team it will face on Friday night and could meet again the following weekend.
The winner of that opening-round playoff will face top-seeded Old Bridge in the sectional semifinals, unless the eight-seed upsets the Knights.
Franklin, who broke Jared Jimenez’s previous single-game school mark of 331 rushing yards, is the Home News Tribune’s Player of the Week. He will play a key role in Monroe’s success over the remainder of the season.
“I think he relished it,” Beagan said of the increased workload for Franklin, who has rushed for 1,245 yards on the year. “He doesn’t say a whole lot in practice. He speaks by the way he runs around out there on the field. He will play whatever role you ask.”
Franklin, as evidenced by his 1,727 all-purpose yards, is a dangerous return specialist and receiver out of the backfield. He also has two interceptions and five pass breakups as a defensive back.
“I was so proud of our kids for the way they battled on Friday night because of the adversity they had gone through two weeks prior,” Beagan said of the victory over J.P. Stevens.
“I think the whole team felt a lot of pressure when we lost the quarterback on both sides of the ball. I’d be lying if I told you we didn’t go into a funk a little bit. Taking nothing away from Piscataway, we didn’t look like a 5-1 football team at Piscataway. You thought the records were flipped. We just weren’t ourselves. It maybe took us to be completely backed up against the wall to snap out of it.”
Franklin returned a kickoff 85 yards for a score against the Chiefs to keep Monroe in the game.
“We didn’t do a good job of getting the ball in his hands,” said Beagan, who made a concerted effort against the Hawks to give Franklin carries. “I probably should have gave him the ball a little more (against Piscataway) but we were in a little bit of a catch-up mode.”
Beagan expected Karoly, who broke his left (non-throwing) wrist on the final offensive series in a 17-14 loss to Old Bridge, to be sidelined for just three weeks.
Instead of a radial break that might have allowed Karoly to play using a brace on his wrist similar to that which Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater donned against Rutgers last season, an MRI revealed he had multiple fractures to smaller bones along the front and top of the wrist.
Beagan also thought Baclayon would return in time for the playoffs, but Baclayon had surgery on the day of the Piscataway game to insert three pins into his injured foot.
Baclayon attended the Piscataway game on crutches and came out for the opening coin toss. Karoly has attended every practice and film session and does his best to mentor Volkmann without getting in the way.
“Kyle’s been taking it all in,” Beagan said of his backup, who succeeded the league’s top-ranked signal caller, owner of a 139.0 quarterback rating with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions on 50 of 79 passing for 840 yards.
“(Volkmann) has gotten better each game. He’s getting a little more comfortable with the offense. We weren’t going to make too many changes to the offense. We were confident he knew it.”
Volkmann, more of a dual threat than Karoly, poses a challenge for defenses who must respect his running ability.
The key to Monroe’s success, however, rests with the play of Franklin.