The 2023 season officially came to an end for the Montclair State University football team in early November and was not one that should soon be forgotten. Under a new coaching regime with head coach Mike Palazzo at the helm, the Red Hawks vastly improved compared to the 2022 season.
Montclair State ended the year with a 5-5 record improving from 2-8 in the previous year. Their biggest win this season came on Homecoming night against the Lions of TCNJ in which the Red Hawks soared to a 42-7 victory. Scoring 20.6 points per game, 142.1 rushing yards per game, 169.7 receiving yards, and 30 total touchdowns, the Red Hawks looked different this year, in a good way.
“There were a lot of games [last year] if we just made a couple of tweaks here and there, we had the talent to be a lot more competitive,” Palazzo said. “Some of the little things, the discipline in the program, accountability, changing the way we practice, and changing some of our schemes I felt like were tweaks that were going to work and looked like, for the most part, those things did do that. We won the games that I felt like we were the better team and we were competitive with some of the better teams.”
Four of those five wins came against the New Jersey Athletic Conference as the Red Hawks had a 4-2 record against the conference. Those four wins put Montclair State in a three-way tie for second place in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) along with Salisbury University and Rowan University.
“I’m proud of the guys, they put a lot of work in,” Palazzo said. “The easy part of this job and taking over was the kids wanted to win. There’s a lot of good football players here, there’s even better people. You saw the outcome there. We lost one score games to TCNJ, to Kean and to William Paterson last year. This year we beat up on Kean pretty good and we hung 42 on TCNJ. I’m proud of the guys for their efforts this off-season because those wins were not just show up on Saturday and win a game, it’s all the work you do in the off-season and make yourself better and it shows what they’re able to do with that.”
Palazzo had a lot to be proud of with this team and their work from the start of the off-season all the way to that last game paid off in more ways than one. 12 Red Hawks received All-NJAC mentions with four first teams, six second teams and two honorable mentions.
Standout junior linebacker Nicholas Burgess not only earned his second, first team all NJAC mention but was named the 2023 NJAC Sam Mills Defensive Player of the Year. Burgess led the NJAC this season with 101 total tackles including 45 of his own, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a fumble recovery, and an interception returned for a touchdown. The future is bright as many of the NJAC mentions were underclassmen coming back for another season.
“We got some guys that I’m excited about their future here and there’s others that, maybe they weren’t on the all-conference team but are really talented players and are going to help us win some games next year,” Palazzo said.
When the season ended after the game against Muhlenberg, Palazzo had two messages for the team, one for the seniors and one for the underclassmen. He commended the seniors for coming back, especially the fifth-year students who did not have to but wanted to even after last year’s ending. He was thankful for their decision to return and help get the program back on the right track.
The message Palazzo gave to the rest of the team was about the new standard. After finishing 5-5, the goal is to keep improving on that. The expectations are higher for next season as the level of play is expected to rise as well as the standard.
“This is the benchmark, this is where we’re at,” Palazzo said. “We’re 5-5. Moving forward, the expectations are higher. I expect the standards to rise and I expect the level of play to rise and I expect everything we do to get better. Don’t think that just because we went 5-5 and everyone’s feeling good about themselves that’s okay and we’re going to mosey on through. The expectation is to be better next season.”