After three straight weeks of one program or another taking the week off, it’s a full slate of conference games this week in the Big South.
(4-2) Kennesaw St @ (3-4) Gardner-Webb – Saturday, Oct 22nd, 12:00pm (American Sports Network)
A week after hard-fought losses, both these teams come into this game looking to get back on the right track. The hard reality is that this game will likely determine the course of the rest of the season for both teams. The winner still has an outside shot at winning the conference and the loser is likely playing for next year.
Kennesaw comes into this game looking for some redemption. Unlike a year ago, they were in the game with Liberty all night long. The upstart Owls came up short, however, and have still yet to prove they belong in the upper tier of the Big South.
A year ago at home against Gardner-Webb, Kennesaw couldn’t find the end zone but got four Justin Thompson field goals and the defense made those points stand up in a 12-7 win over the visiting Bulldogs. KSU’s triple-option offense has significantly improved this season with the emergence of a real passing attack with Chandler Burks and Daniel David under center and an absolute weapon at receiver in Justin Sumpter. Sumpter, however, has missed the last two games with an injury and isn’t on the depth chart for this game either. Xavier Harper has performed well in his absence but isn’t the same kind of game-changing player.
Kennesaw’s defensive is as aggressive as ever and is productive. Dante Blackmon leads the conference in interceptions, DL Desmond Johnson leads the conference in sacks and DL Tornarius Portress leads the league in tackles for loss.
The Owls’ kicking game, however, is suddenly shaky all the way around. Against Liberty, Justin Thompson missed a 26-yard field goal in the first quarter that would have re-established KSU’s early lead. If KSU had hit that early field goal, perhaps they would have been more confident in sending the kick unit out instead of going for it on 4th down. The Owls were 0-3 on 4th down and all of them were within what would be considered reasonable field goal range. In the 4th quarter, the KSU coaching staff sent Jordan Genovese out to kick a crucial extra point only to see him crank the kick wide right while, simultaneously, getting a false start penalty called on himself (he did convert after the ball was moved back 5 yards). To top it off, the kickoff unit gave up the only kickoff return touchdown in the conference so far this season on a play in which the Liberty returner caromed off of three KSU tacklers without slowing down.
For their part, Gardner-Webb is looking to bounce back after an extremely poor offensive effort against Coastal Carolina. Aside from an absolute gift from Bulldog defense that gave them the ball at Coastal’s 8-yard line just before the half, G-W did not cross midfield on offense until there was only a minute remaining in the game and they were down by two scores. The ground game is the heart and soul of Gardner-Webb’s offense and primary ball carriers QB Tyrell Maxwell and RB Khalil Lewis only managed 75 total rushing yards between them. The result was that G-W lost the time of possession battle to Coastal, a team running a hurry-up spread offense. A pattern is developing here where the G-Webb offense needs to get a big play or have the defense/special teams establish favorable field position for them. The Bulldogs haven’t had a scoring drive of longer than eight plays since their last garbage-time drive against Ohio.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are much improved over just a month ago. After getting railroaded by Western Carolina – a loss that’s looking worse with every passing week –, The Citadel and Ohio in September, G-W has now only given up 20 points in three games in the month of October. Granted, two of those opponents were D2 Benedict and Presbyterian – an offensive Bermuda Triangle – but Coastal had been averaging more than 42 points going into that game. This same defense kept Kennesaw out of the end zone entirely in their game last year and it’s reasonable to expect that they would perform nearly or equally as well this time around.
What Kennesaw has to do against Gardner-Webb: Score in the red zone. KSU was only 1-of-4 in the red zone against Liberty and has only scored 20 touchdowns in 32 trips to that section of the field this year. That’s just under 63% against a schedule that has not been exactly overwhelming.
What Gardner-Webb has to do against Kennesaw – Sustain drives. The best defense that Gardner-Webb has against Kennesaw’s triple-option offense is to keep it on the sidelines.
(4-3) Monmouth @ (3-3) Liberty – Saturday, October 22nd, 3:30pm (LFSN, ESPN3)
A year ago, Monmouth defeated a ranked Liberty team 20-17 in overtime for one of the landmark wins in program history. This time around doesn’t have nearly the same cache around it. Liberty is receiving votes in some polls but a Monmouth win here would hardly be called an upset.
Monmouth comes into this game having started off strong with wins over Lehigh and Fordham but suffered a startling loss at Presbyterian on Thursday that dropped the Hawks to 0-2 in the Big South standings. No FCS team has ever lost to Presbyterian in the regular season and gone on to make the playoffs. This is an inherent and tautological truth.
Offensively, the Hawks’ Lavon Chaney returned to his electric athletic self against the Blue Hose, rushing for over 150 yards and providing a spark that Monmouth desperately needed. Reggie White, Jr., however, was nowhere to be found. He caught three passes for 40 yards but had almost no impact on the game. White did catch an apparent touchdown pass in the 4th quarter that would have given Monmouth a lead but the play was called back because White had obviously pushed the off defender to catch the ball. Instead of a go-ahead score, the Hawks were forced to punt from the PC 39. To be fair, much of White’s ineffectiveness had to do with Presby pressuring the Monmouth quarterbacks. Presby’s defensive line had been hit hard by the injury bug for the first portion of the season but MU starting quarterback Cody Williams was forced to scramble for most of the first half. When he left the game to an ankle injury, Kenji Bahar didn’t fare much better. Head coach Kevin Callahan has listed Cody Williams as “hopeful” for this week – that’s an injury designation that’s new to me; it’s better than “hopeless”, I suppose – but it’s hard to imagine that that won’t be the case again this week.
Defensively, Monmouth is led by S Mike Basile and have a pretty strong defensive front of their own, particularly in DL’s Darnell Leslie and Manny Maragoto. Still, it’s been quite some time since the Hawks’ D has put together anything that could be considered a quality outing. They shut down Lehigh for most of the game and Delaware State – again, for most of the game – but are averaging 30 points a game against over the last four weeks. Against Presbyterian, the secondary looked completely confused and it’s easy to believe, at this point, that the road warrior schedule might be catching up with them.
On the other side, Liberty comes into this game fresh off a solid win at Kennesaw that was as balanced a game as the Flames have put together all year. Offensively, LU got key contributions from three different running backs and QB Buckshot Calvert completed 73% of his passes while distributing the ball to 11 different receivers. Defensively, while Liberty gave up a lot of yards between the goal lines, they were strong where it mattered – the last one. Despite not getting any turnovers for the first time all season, two dramatic goal line stands will do wonders for a defense’s confidence and the Flames have got to be feeling good on that side of the ball. Meanwhile, freshman kicker Alex Probert banged home kicks from 47 yards, 50 yards and 47 yards again, becoming the first player in conference history to hit three kicks from beyond 45 yards in a single game.
Offensively, Liberty will try to pick up right where they left off, spreading the ball around and forcing the Monmouth defense to pick their poison. LU has had some injuries up front but, coming out of the bye week, appear to have finally found an OL combination that works. Defensively, Liberty will have to contain Chaney while, at the same time, getting pressure on Williams and/or Bahar. Bahar doesn’t see the field and get rid of the ball quite as quickly as Williams but he’s more of a physical athlete. Chaney, however, is the key cog in the Monmouth engine and how Liberty defends him will determine how well the Flames’ defense succeeds.
What Monmouth needs to do against Liberty: Keep the ball. A year ago, Liberty doubled Monmouth up in nearly every significant statistical category but gave the ball to Monmouth three times. This year, the LU defense was averaging more than three takeaways prior to the Kennesaw game. That number is under 3.0 now and Monmouth needs to make it go down even further.
What Liberty needs to do against Monmouth – Don’t let Reggie White, Jr., beat you. The defensive focus has to be on shutting down Chaney but White is still a big, physical receiving target and he’s turned more than one short catch into a long, highlight score simply by running through tackles.
(2-4) Presbyterian @ (3-2) Charleston Southern – Saturday, Oct 22nd, 6:00pm (ESPN3)
Presbyterian and Charleston Southern have played every year since CSU began their program in 1993 even through PC was in a lower NCAA classification for most of that time span. In their D2 days, PC owned a 12-game win streak against CSU but have gone just 2-7 against the Bucs since moving to FCS. The last several years have been very tight contests, however. In their last visit to Buccaneer Field in 2014, Presbyterian scored a touchdown on their opening drive and then made that single touchdown stand up for a 7-3 Blue Hose win. Last year’s matchup in Clinton was heading much the same way until CSU finally cracked the end zone midway through the 4th quarter to earn a 10-7 victory in the closest game of their season.
Presbyterian comes into this game fresh off a home win over Monmouth last Thursday night. Springing to life much like a California wild fire – burning brightly and once every few years – the PC passing game overwhelmed the Monmouth defense. Even after starting quarterback Ben Cheek – who was on his way to a career night – was forced out of the game to injury, John Walker picked up right where he left off. The result was the most yards through the air for PC since 2013 and finally allowed the offense a bit of balance to offset the ground game. Can Cheek/Walker and the receiving corps continue that pace against a CSU defense that hasn’t played a live game since October 1st? I don’t know because there are other questions that line up first:
- Is Cheek even available to play? During the Monmouth game, Cheek and his throwing shoulder were propelled directly into the Bailey Memorial turf by an unblocked linebacker. He was helped off the field by the PC medical staff and did not return. Head Coach Harold Nichols has said that Cheek’s status is day-to-day but it’s hard to look at that hit and assume that the player will be back in nine days’ time.
- If Cheek is out, is John Walker even the next man up? Presbyterian has seven quarterbacks on the roster and not much is known about any of them. Of those seven, only three (Cheek, r-Fr. Cal King and Fr. Mario Cusano) are Signing Day signees, typically the group where your first-team players eventually come from. Presumably, the rest – Walker and previous game-starter Will Brock included – are or were at one time walk-on players.
- Does it even matter? RB Darrell Bridges has been a constant for PC but the rest of the offense, regardless of starting QB, has been wildly inconsistent. There’s a very reasonable possibility that the wildfire against Monmouth may been more of a momentary blaze and that the Blue Hose offense will revert to a more recent form which in non-ironic fashion is pretty much formless.
As mentioned previously, this will be the Buccaneers’ first time setting foot on a game field since storming Coastal Carolina’s following a 59-58 double OT win three weeks ago. This will also be CSU’s first home game since facing Kentucky State all the way back on September 3rd seven weeks ago. Thanks to the unscheduled portion of the schedule – namely, Hurricane Matthew – CSU is pretty much in uncharted territory here. No FCS team in recent memory has ever had three open dates in the middle of an 11-game season. *(Eastern Washington did it in 2014 by playing in the FCS Kickoff game and scheduling only 11 games in a 12-game year)* Also, no FCS team in recent memory has ever had back-to-back open dates in the middle of the season. Through eight weeks, CSU has played five games and only three of those against comparable competition. This could make CSU the most rested and refreshed team in the country and it could also make them the least experienced and least mentally prepared.
One more thing is that CSU head coach Jamey Chadwell had been scheduled to sit out the Albany State game as a consequence of their NCAA issues earlier in the season. When that game was cancelled there was no indication of when that suspension would be moved to. Given the competitive nature of this series, its import to the season and the simple fact that this is CSU’s homecoming, it’s doubtful that this week will be that game.
There’s not much to say about CSU from a personnel standpoint at the moment. QB Shane Bucenell should start and pitch the ball to their stable of running backs. At this point, CSU has to be the healthiest team in the conference. Any lingering minor injuries left over from the Coastal game should have cleared up by now.
What Presbyterian has to do against CSU: Get a first-half touchdown. In Presby’s two wins this year, they’ve gotten the ball into the end zone at least once before halftime. In the games they’ve lost, they haven’t.
What CSU has to do against Presbyterian: Shake off the rust early because Presby is going to try to knock it off. Presby’s defense was aggressive against Monmouth and they’ll only be even more so against the conference front-runners.
One more miscellaneous note: as mentioned, this is both CSU’s and Liberty’s homecoming. Two other Big South programs (Gardner-Webb and Kennesaw State) held theirs this past weekend and both lost.