And here we are folks…the final week of the regular season. For some teams, they’re aiming for a solid win to grab a top seed, for others, they’re fighting for their playoff lives needing one last win to earn at least one more game, and for the rest, well….they’re playing for bragging rights and experience for next year. There’s only 4 games this week, due to the ISU’s having a bye week this weekend. So, here’s where the conference stands right now:
Team – Conference Record, Overall Record
#2 North Dakota State – 6-1, 9-1
#9 South Dakota State – 6-1, 7-3
#13 Youngstown State – 5-2, 7-3
#25 Northern Iowa – 4-3, 5-5
#23 Illinois State – 4-4, 6-5
#24 Western Illinois – 3-4, 6-4
South Dakota – 3-4, 4-6
Missouri State – 2-5, 4-6
Indiana State – 2-6, 4-7
Southern Illinois – 1-6, 3-7
NDSU, SDSU, YSU – should all be in the playoffs regardless of what happens this weekend (unless YSU gets completely blown out by MSU…then they might drop to being “on the bubble”).
UNI, ISUr, WIU – This is the group of teams that are borderline playoff teams. Depending on how this weekend’s games go for WIU and UNI (ISUr doesn’t play), we will likely see 1-2 of these teams in the playoffs, but all 3 would be highly doubtful.
USD, MSU, ISUb, SIU – these teams are all playing for next year at this point.
#13 Youngstown State at Missouri State @ 2 PM
#2 North Dakota State at South Dakota @ 2 PM
#24 Western Illinois at Southern Illinois @ 2 PM
#9 South Dakota State at #25 Northern Iowa @ 4 PM
Youngstown State at Missouri State
The Penguins are sitting at 7 wins and are looking for one more to solidify their spot in the playoffs. A win, or even a close loss and they should be in pretty easily, although if they get blown out by MSU, they might drop to being a “borderline” team. The Bears only made it to 4 wins so far through the season, shooting for their 5th (although one was a non-DI team). Still, considering last year they won 1 game against a DII school and were winless in DI competition, that’s a step up from where they were. So, in general, there’s not too much on the line for this game outside of YSU getting themselves set up for the playoffs.
Youngstown State still has one of the best defenses in the conference, only giving up an average of 115 yards per game on the ground and 184 through the air, and led probably the best pair of DE’s in the FCS, Avery Moss and Derek Rivers. They are also giving up the fewest points of anyone in the conference (5th in the FCS) at just over 16 points per game. Lining up across from them will be the Missouri State offense, which is sitting at the bottom of the conference standings in total yards per game, and second-to-last in scoring. In general, their passing game is a little better than their run game, with WRs Malik Earl and Zac Hoover both doing reasonably well, picking up a couple of games each at around 100 yards or more receiving. WR Deion Holliman can also be a threat on kick returns, currently sitting at the top spot in the conference for combined kick return yardage and having taken both a punt and a kickoff all the way back for TDs this season.
When YSU has the ball, however, they have not been very effective at scoring points, only putting up 21 ½ points per game so far in the season. Their offense is heavily skewed towards the run, mostly because that’s about the only thing that’s been somewhat reliable for them on that side of the ball. The Penguins have had troubles finding the right QB (and keeping them healthy) this season, and are currently on their fourth QB this season (although he had been the starter the previous two years, so it’s not like he’s inexperienced). They do, however, have the best run game (in terms of total yardage) in the conference, with 3 RBs (Martin Ruiz, Jody Webb, and Tevin McCaster) who are all in the top 15 for rushing yards per game in the conference. Trying to slow down YSU’s run game is the MSU defense, who’s had trouble this season, giving up more than 32 points per game. Their run defense isn’t too bad, sitting in the middle of the MVFC for yardage given up, but their pass defense is one of the worst in the conference and in the FCS. MSU also has the worst turnover margin in the conference, losing an average of 0.7 turnovers per game (-7 turnovers in 10 games).
Overall, I don’t see Missouri State putting up a ton of points on YSU’d defense…they’re just too good and MSU doesn’t really have enough key “playmakers”. I don’t really see the Bears getting too far into double-digits…maybe ~14 points. YSU should be effective enough on offense to get past MSU’s point total, mostly with their ground game, although they should be able to hit a few key passes against the MSU defense. I think overall it’ll be a fairly low-scoring game, but YSU will likely double-up MSU’s point total…getting to around 24-28 points.
TL:DR – Youngstown State by 14
North Dakota State at South Dakota
Like the previous game, this one is between a team looking to lock in their playoff position and a team that “playing for next year”. With a win, NDSU should be locked into either the #1 or #2 spot in the playoffs, assuring home field advantage all the way through the playoffs until the championship game. If they do lose, they would probably drop quite a bit in the standings, but still likely end up with a top-8 seed. South Dakota started off conference play fairly strong, going 3-1, but has struggled since, losing three straight games and eliminating them from playoff contention. They’re now sitting at 4-6 and a winning record is out of reach. It does, however, seem like nearly every game between two Dakota schools is a “rivalry” game and USD did hand NDSU their one loss last season, so there could be a bit of extra “energy” in this game due to those factors.
As has been the case most of the season, the NDSU defense is great at stopping the run…they’re the only MVFC team that’s giving up fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. Across the board their front-line is solid, led by DE Greg Menard and a pair of excellent LBs in MJ Stumpf and Pierre Gee-Tucker. The Bison defense has been somewhat vulnerable to the pass, although they have three players (DBs Tre Dempsey, Jalen Allison, and Robbie Grimsley) who are the top 3 players in the conference for interceptions per game…each averaging roughly ½ interception per game, which has helped NDSU to be tied for first (with UNI) in the conference for turnover margin per game with a +1 average (gaining 22 and only losing 12). South Dakota’s offense will be doing their best to score against the NDSU defense. Led by QB Chris Streveler, it’s primarily run-based, having the 3rd best ground game in the conference. A big part of this is the fact that Streveler (their QB) is #1 in the conference for rushing yards per game, and they have a pretty good RB with Trevor Bouma who is #5 in the conference in the same ranking. They don’t put up many passing/receiving yards, although they do have four players who are tied for 6th in the conference with 4 receiving TDs each.
NDSU’s offense is fairly similar to USD’s actually, with a QB who can put up decent numbers on the ground, as well as a very solid RB game, in this case, King Frazier and Lance Dunn who are both putting up over 60 yards per game. They don’t pass a ton, but when they do, they’re very selective and have a high success rate in yards per completion. Their offensive line is also very stout, leading the conference in sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed. USD’s defense, however, is not good. They currently rank last in the conference in total yards allowed, points allowed, and what will likely spell doom for the Coyotes, rushing yards allowed. They’re a bit better against the pass, but when they’re going against a team that’s one of the best in the conference at running the ball, they’re going to have a lot of trouble.
Late in the season is when the Bison really seem to do best and I don’t think they’ll be looking past this game to the playoffs. Plus they’re playing for a bit of revenge for the loss last year. I think that the Coyotes will probably have a hard time stopping the Bison run game. USD is last in the conference for time of possession, something the Bison have prided themselves on over the years (although they’re a little down this season). I see QB Easton Stick and his RBs spending most of the day just running the ball over and over again and coming away with a fairly decisive victory.
TL:DR – North Dakota State by 17
Western Illinois at Southern Illinois
After two straight losses, the Leathernecks find themselves with their backs against the wall. They’re essentially already in a “playoff situation”, having to win their final regular season game in order to extend their season into the actual playoffs (although even with a win, it’s not an assured thing). Southern Illinois meanwhile, can really only hope to play spoiler in this game, sitting at the bottom of the conference rankings and with only 3 DI wins currently.
Western Illinois’ strength is their offense, which is pretty balanced, ranking third in the MVFC in yardage both through the air and on the ground. The offensive line is pretty decent at giving the rest of the offence time to allow a play to develop, also sitting at third in the conference at preventing tackles for loss as well as sacks, specifically. SIU’s defense will likely have a hard time slowing them down, since they’re near the bottom of the conference in yards allowed. They’re one of 5 conference teams that are giving up 30+ yards per game, an odd stat considering the MVFC has usually prided itself on it’s tough defenses (there are still a few…UNI, NDSU, YSU…but not like it once was).
The Saluki offense is heavily pass-oriented, currently leading the conference with just under 320 passing yards per game, but their run game leaves a lot to be desired. They’ve had two primary QBs this season, starting senior transfer Josh Straughan for most of the season, but a couple of games ago, putting in sophomore (QB of the future) Sam Straub. It doesn’t look like there’s been any dropoff in production though, with Straub putting up 352 ½ yards per game in the two games he’s started. The Leatherneck defense is going to have to try to figure out a way to stop or at least slow down the SIU passing attack if they want to win this game, which is something they’ve had trouble with this season, ranking last in the MVFC in passing yards allowed, and frequently being burned by big passes. They’re better in short-down/goal line situations, since the field is shortened and they can get their talented LBs involved in stopping the short passing game. LB Brett Taylor is the standout, currently leading the FCS in solo tackles and sitting at 3rd overall in total tackles.
In general, it looks like both teams will likely be able to score “at will”, with lots of passing and lots of scoring. The teams look to be fairly evenly matched, but for the most part, Western has been good at winning the close games and has a bit more to fight for. I think (or maybe it’s just “hope”) that the Leatherneck defense will come up with a couple of key stops in SIU drives to give Western the advantage and come away with a narrow win.
TL:DR – Western Illinois by 6
South Dakota State at Northern Iowa
This game is probably the one with the most potential playoff impact out of the conference games this week. The Jackrabbits are pretty much a lock for the playoffs no matter what happens, but a win over a good UNI team could get them into the discussion for a top-8 playoff seed, giving them a first-round bye and ensuring they don’t have to be shuffled off to Fargo early in the playoffs….again. Northern Iowa on the other hand, is fighting for a slim playoff chance. They’re currently sitting at 5 DI wins, and while a win over SDSU would only get them to 6, there has been precedence set for a 6-5 team getting into the playoffs if they have a very tough schedule, close losses to good teams, and some wins over some really good teams…all things that appear to be lining up well for UNI to potentially be the second 6-5 team selected for an at-large playoff spot…but they gotta win this one first.
The Panther offense is completely different in the later part of the season, after having replaced “passing RB” (technically QB, but in practice…not really) Aaron Bailey with sophomore (and more “standard passing QB”) Eli Dunne. This makes it a little difficult to do a straight stat-comparison of season stats, since their offense turned from a “mildly effective” run-based one to a generally “highly effective” and more balanced one more than halfway through the season. Dunne has put up 281 yards per game in the three games that he’s started, along with 6 TDs, although 5 interceptions as well. RB Michael Malloy has also really emerged in the last couple of games, with 88 yards per game and 5 TDs in the last two. SDSU’s defense has been mostly “middle-of-the-pack” in most categories, but there’s also hope for the future, with one of their most talented defensive players, LB Christian Rozeboom, being only a R-Freshman, so he’ll be terrorizing MVFC offenses for 3 more years. Rozeboom is third in the conference with tackles and has 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 3 sacks this season. In general, Jackrabbit defense has been what I’d call “adequate”. Nothing spectacular, but given what their offense can do, they do well enough in most games.
So, what can the Jackrabbit offense do? Well, they lead the conference in total yards and scoring, putting up an average of 36.6 points per game. Their QB Taryn Christion is 4th in the FCS in passing TDs, they have a WR (Jake Wieneke) who is rewriting the conference career record books for receiving (as a junior) and leads the entire FCS in receiving TDs, and a TE (Dallas Goedert) who is #2 in the conference in receiving TDs and second only behind Wieneke for yards per game. They also have a very solid RB in Brady Mengarelli who leads the league in rushing yards per carry, and a O-line that is second in the MVFC at preventing tackles for loss. Going up against them is the UNI defense who just happens to be the best in the conference at stopping the pass. They’re also third in the conference against the run, at preventing the opposing team from putting points on the board, and at sacking the QB. That last one is in large part due to the extreme pressure applied by DL Karter Schult, who is #1 in the entire FCS at sacks and tackles for loss and has throughout the season accounted for a total of over 100 yards of “negative yardage” stopping opposing offensive players behind the line.
This is a very interesting matchup, with the team’s real strengths going against each other (SDSU offense vs UNI defense). UNI QB Dunne is good, but young, and has struggled with interceptions in a couple of his starts. That could lessen more as he gets more familiar with the receivers and the routes, but I think this will be the most telling stat of the game. If Dunne can put up a game like he had against Missouri State or Western Illinois, UNI has a very good chance at winning this one, but if he plays more like he did in the NDSU game (4 INTs), it could be a disappointing game for Panther fans. The UNI defense will put pressure on SDSU’s Christion, which could limit the long passes (like they often do with Wieneke), forcing them to rely more on the short passes…but they’re good there too, mostly going with Goedert on those. Overall, I think the teams are pretty evenly matched, but I think that SDSU’s passing game will be just a little too much for UNI’s defense and come away with a very close and exciting win. Still, a UNI win would not really surprise me in the least…I’d consider this a “coin flip” game…which says a lot to how far UNI has come since going 2-4 in their first 4 games.
TL:DR – South Dakota State by 1
Also, one more thing, regardless of how my Leathernecks finish up, whether our season is over Saturday afternoon or if it extends into next week or even further, I’ll be continuing my write-ups for all games involving MVFC teams for as long as MVFC teams are playing…which given how NDSU has done the last 5 years in the postseason, could be all the way to the end.