(in my best John Facenda voice…that’s the NFL Films guy)
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Missouri Valley Football Conference, where every Saturday is a battle. It doesn’t matter what the rankings are; it doesn’t matter if you’re the 5-time defending national champions or a team that only won one game last year, because in this league, upsets happen all the time. In this league, we pride ourselves on tough defenses, hard-nosed running games, and winning the game in the trenches. This is the land of deafening domes and frozen tundra; fighting for playoff spots in blizzards and trying to call out plays when you can’t even hear yourself think. This is Missouri Valley football.
(how’s that…one take…we good?)
Last week the conference matchups technically began with a battle of ISU’s, but this week, the conference kicks it into high gear with all ten teams in action against one another. Here are the matchups for this Saturday (all times listed in Central and all rankings from the AGS Weekly Poll):
#19 Illinois State at #1 North Dakota State – 1 PM
Missouri State at #21 Indiana State – 2 PM
South Dakota at #15 Youngstown State – 3 PM
#34 Southern Illinois at #13 Northern Iowa – 4 PM
#6 Western Illinois at #17 South Dakota State – 6 PM
All games available on ESPN3/WatchESPN.com
#19 Illinois State (2-2) at #1 North Dakota State (3-0) – 1 PM
First up, we have the ISU Redbirds traveling to Fargo to take on the Bison of NDSU.
Illinois State is now 2-2 on the season after starting off hot by beating Valparaiso handily, taking down Northwestern, but then losing to OOC rival Eastern Illinois and at Indiana State. North Dakota State is 3-0 after beating Charleston Southern and Eastern Washington, both in OT and both at the Fargodome, and then heading down to Iowa City to take down the (at the time, #13 FBS ranked) Hawkeyes. Last weekend, the Bison had their bye.
In general, ISU has had a fairly stingy defense (allowing 14.6 points per game) in the first three games, but was unable to contain Indiana State’s surprisingly potent offense, allowing 34 points against the Sycamores. Still, ISU’s strength is their defense…currently the 8th best in the FCS in terms of total yards allowed, with a focus on passing defense…allowing 165.8 yards per game through the air and 113 yards per game on the ground. This defense is led by a pair of talented linebackers in Sr. Alejandro Rivera (32 tackles, 1 sack, 1 int) and Sr. B.J. Bello (29 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), as well as preseason All-MVFC DB Junior Alec Kocour (28 tackles, 1 int).
Offensively, the Redbirds are down significantly from the last couple of years, although they’re still fairly decent (that’ll happen when you lose two key pieces of one of the best offenses in the FCS) and are ranked 35th in the FCS for yards per game. Their passing offense is a bit stronger than the running side of things this year, being 49th in rushing offense, but only 30th in passing offense. This is headlined by QB Jake Kolbe and WR Anthony Warrum. Warrum has picked up 403 yards and 2 TDs this season through the air. Rushing-wise, the top guy is RB George Moreira, who’s averaging 60 yards per game (6.9 yards per carry) and has 3 TDs so far.
Now for the Bison. Even if you consider them a bit down from the last year or two (young QB, two games going to OT), there’s still very little that NDSU does poorly. I would say that this year, it looks like their real strengths are their ground defense, punt coverage, and the ability of their offense to grind away at a defense (something most of us have probably seen them do time and time again). Currently they have the #1 punt defense, averaging allowing -4 yards per punt (there’s only 5 FCS teams with a negative number there, and most don’t have anywhere near the strength of schedule that the Bison do, with the possible exception of Eastern Kentucky, who’s played two FBS teams…not very good FBS teams, but still, FBS teams).
I think NDSU’s defense probably took a little bit of a hit with the loss of preseason All-MVFC LB (and legitimate NFL prospect) Nick DeLuca with a season-ending shoulder injury, but the Bison have always been all about the “next man up” and they’ve never seemed to have a problem filling a hole with a player who can get the job done. DeLuca was leading the team in tackles with 26, but you’ve got a few others that aren’t slouches either. SS Robbie Grimsley is now active team leader in tackles with 20, 1 sack, 1 int, and 1 forced fumble. Past that, they have 3 other defensive players with interceptions and another with a forced fumble. Really, though…a large part of the defensive strength is the front line, headed by preseason All-MVFC (as well as a slew of other awards) DE Greg Maynard.
Offensively, QB Easton Stick is well qualified to step into the role vacated by current Eagles star QB Carson Wentz. He’s less of a passing QB than Wentz was, but can still make things work (as evidenced by the 3-0 start). Stick has only put up 191.7 yards per game and 5 TDs through the air, but he also has 46.7 yards per game and another TD on the ground, so he can scramble pretty well when the need arises. Primary receiving targets are WRs Darrius Shepherd and RJ Urzendowski, who are both averaging over 45 receiving yards per game and have 3 receiving TDs between them. The primary focus of the offense is to use the run game to grind down the opposing defense as well as the clock. They do this with a combination of the running QB as well as a pair of talented RBs in Lance Dunn and King Frazier. Both Dunn and Frazier average over 70 yards per game, Dunn has 2 TDs, and Frazier has 3.
So, looking at all of that, plus the fact that the game is at the Fargodome, I think definitely gives the advantage to the Bison. Due to MVFC scheduling, ISU hasn’t played a game at the Fargodome since November 2013. They did play NDSU in the FCS championship game two years ago in “Fargo South”, but that’s not quite the same as actually being in the dome…on Homecoming…coming off a Bison “upset” of a highly-ranked FBS team. NDSU seems like they usually get hit with one “speed bump” just about every season, usually a loss to an unexpected MVFC team, but I don’t think this one’s it. I think that the Bison will shut down the Redbird’s offense and come away with a win by a couple of scores.
TL:DR – North Dakota State by 14
Missouri State (2-1) at #21 Indiana State (3-1) – 2 PM
Hey Bears, shouldn’t your record be 2-½? MSU is coming off a loss at K-State in a game that was called at halftime due to the weather (it was already well on it’s way to a blowout at that point anyway) and without their starting QB due to…let’s call them “legal issues”. Meanwhile, Indiana State had a great weekend, beating the Illinois State Redbirds in Terre Haute, IN in a close, exciting game.
ISU QB Isaac Harker has been something of a “breakout success” so far this season, putting up rather impressive numbers for a player that many outside of western Indiana hadn’t been paying much, if any, attention to. Harker currently is 5th in the FCS in passing TDs and 9th in passing yards. To be fair, the two ISUs have had one more game to play than the rest of the conference teams, but even in terms of yards per game, Harker is 16th in the FCS…not too shabby for a team that was expected to finish probably lower-middle of the conference. ISU has two receivers currently averaging over 77 yards per game, WRs Bob Pugh (82 ypg and 1 TD) and Robert Tonyan (77 ypg and 5 TDs). Pugh does double-duty, also returning kicks, making him the team leader in all-purpose yards with 154.3 per game. The Sycamores don’t have much in the way of a “big yardage” rusher, but RB Roland Genesy can get the job done when needed, averaging just under 59 yards per game but also putting up 3 TDs. He had 2 of them against Illinois State, both from 2 yards out, so it sounds like the Sycamores generally look to move the ball downfield primarily with passing, but then call on Genesy to punch the ball in for the score once they get close.
On the other side of the ball, LB Jameer Thurman leads a defense that, while not always looking that strong on paper (allowing 438.8 yards per game), has been able to make some key plays in specific situations to help them win games. Thurman leads the team with 32 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 1 fumble recovery. ISU has four other players with over 20 tackles this season, but it was the sack by Redshirt Freshman LB Jonas Griffith that caused the Illinois State fumble and sealed the win for the last weekend.
Missouri State, despite having a 2-1 record, has been struggling the last…well…decade. It did seem like they were starting to get better this year, but with the stuff going on this last week, it’s hard to say if they’ll be able to sustain any of it, or if they will sink back to the position of MVFC whipping-boy. It’s actually really hard to determine much from their offensive statistics, since their starting QB, who was putting up 212 yards per game, has been suspended indefinitely (as of this “going to press”) and the backup QBs who got playing time against K-State didn’t do so well, because K-State is a halfway decent Big 12 team and MSU is not NDSU or UNI. It looks like they spread the ball around a bit on the ground, with three players averaging between 44 and 52 yards per game (TBs Calan Crowder, Nick Masoner, and Jason Randall). Their current top receiver is Malik Earl, with 42.3 yards per game, although it remains to be seen if the combination of Brodie Lambert (likely the new starting QB for the foreseeable future) and Earl will be able to put up decent numbers against a FCS team.
Things look a little better for the Bears on the defensive side of the ball, with the 8th best rushing defense in the FCS, allowing 89.3 yards per game on the ground. They are currently 18th in the FCS for passes intercepted with 5 so far this season and they’re allowing 19 points per game, good for 13th. The defense is led by preseason All-MVFC LB Dylan Cole with 22 tackles, 1 int and 1 forced fumble. LB McNeece Egbim is next with 18 tackles, ½ sack, and 1 int. DL Colby Isbell currently leads the team in sacks with 2.5 and has a total 5.5 tackles for loss resulting in 27 yards of “receding offense”. MSU also has a pretty good kick returner in Deion Holliman, who’s currently 9th in the FCS with 31.5 yards per return and has return for a TD so far this season.
I think that overall, things are looking much better for the Sycamores than they are for the Bears right now, both on the field and off, and that will help lift ISU to a win by a relatively wide margin.
TL:DR – Indiana State by 20
South Dakota (1-2) at #15 Youngstown State (2-1) – 3 PM
South Dakota is off to a 1-2 start after losing at FBS New Mexico, then beating Weber State in a come-from-behind, 2 OT victory, and then laying a 4th quarter “egg” by giving up 17 points in the 4th and last couple of minutes of the 3rd quarter to force another pair of overtime sessions, this time against North Dakota and this time ending in a USD loss. Youngstown State is 2-1 with solid wins over Duquesne and a really bad (sorry RMU fans) Robert Morris. Their only loss was to FBS West Virginia in a game that was tied at halftime and required a career performance by WVU’s QB to pull away in the second half.
The South Dakota Coyotes (that’s kai-oat, just fyi, there’s no “eee” sound at the end of it) are led offensively by dual-threat QB Chris Streveler. Streveler is putting up 169 yards per game and 9 TDs through the air, but also 115.7 yards per game and 4 TDs on the ground…he’s actually 8th in the FCS in rushing yards per game currently. His two primary receivers are WRs Shamar Jackson and Riley Donovan, both with between 41 and 46 yards per game; Jackson with 4 TDs and Donovan with 2. Overall they have been putting up 406.7 yards per game, 227.3 of it rushing and 179.3 of it with passes, so they’re primarily a “run-first” team.
Defensively, USD is giving up 459.7 yards and 48 points per game (both put them in the bottom 20% of the FCS. Most of that is their 117th ranked rushing defense, allowing 267.3 yards per game. LB Jet Moreland, Alex Coker, and Jim Litrenta, and DB Jacob Warner each have between 22 and 25 tackles this season, Warner with a forced fumble and fumble recovery, and Coker with 3 sacks with a net result of a 20 yard deficit for opposing offenses. USD’s kicking game is very strong, with Sr. K/P Miles Bergner currently averaging 47.9 yards per punt (leading the FCS) as well as being 4-4 on FGs (three in the 30-39 yard range, and one from 50 yards).
Their opponent, Youngstown State is a bit harder to track on the offensive side of the ball. Their top rusher, TB Martin Ruiz, has been pretty consistent, averaging just over 100 yards per game and has 4 TDs so far. Beyond that though, their starting QB, Ricky Davis, was held out of their last game due to concussion symptoms, and their other primary rusher, TB Jody Webb sat out for a couple of games, I assume after getting a bit banged up in their opener. What I do know is that both those guys will be back this weekend after having a bye week to heal up, so the offense that USD sees will be somewhat different than the one that played against Robert Morris.
YSU has one of the better D-lines in the business, headlined by MVFC preseason All-Conference DE Derek Rivers, who along with DE Avery Moss, who each have 2 sacks and combined have 10 QB hurries, so they’re both pretty good at getting in there and pressuring opposing QBs. SS Jameel Smith currently leads the team in tackles with 17. Overall, the Penguins have the 6th best rushing defense in the FCS, allowing only 85.3 yards per game on the ground, although they do give up 231 yards per game through the air.
Overall, I think this matchup leans heavily towards a Penguins victory. YSU is weak against the pass, but against a run-first offense like USD’s, they should be able to shut them down pretty effectively. With YSU being also a very run-heavy team (and good at it) against USD’s horrible run defense, I think that YSU will mostly just do that all day, with occasional passes thrown in there to “spice things up a bit” and keep the USD defense spread out a little. I don’t really see this one going USD’s way at all, so I think they’ll fall by a couple of scores. Side prediction: YSU goes to town on USD’s run defense and puts up over 300 yards on the ground alone.
TL:DR – YSU by 12
#34 Southern Illinois (2-1) at #13 Northern Iowa (1-2) – 4 PM
SIU and UNI…these two MVFC/MVC foes have a long history of competitive games in a variety of sports, although the last couple of years (at least on the football field and the basketball court) the Panthers have held the advantage. SIU is 2-1 after a fairly close season-opening loss at FBS Florida Atlantic, then beating Southeast Missouri State and Murray State (so, SIU is now 2-0 in the Ohio Valley, I suppose). UNI kicked off the season with a win at in-state FBS “doormat” Iowa State, but then followed that up with losses at home against a good Montana team and then out on the “Inferno” against Eastern Washington…honestly, I think so far, Iowa State has been the easiest opponent UNI has faced, which really says something about the strength of the top teams in the FCS this year.
SIU’s offense is led by Senior transfer QB Josh Straughan. Straughan is averaging 307 passing yards and 2 TDs per game, good for 5th in FCS in ypg. I looks like the receptions are spread around quite a bit, with 3 WRs all getting 12 or more catches so far this year and all having between 48 and 60 yards per game. WR Billy Reed has 2 TDs and WRs Connor Iwema and Jimmy Jones each have 1. Rushing the ball is primarily RB Daquan Isom, who has been putting up 84.67 yards per game and has 1 TD, and Jonathan Mixon who has 2 TDs this season. The Salukis’ offensive production of 497 yards per game is good enough for 7th in the FCS.
On defense, the team tackles leader is preseason All-MVFC LB Chase Allen who has 29 tackles, 3.5 for loss (1 sack) and 1 forced fumble. DE Deondre Barnett only has 12 total tackles so far, but has 4 for loss (3 sacks), and 2 forced fumbles. Overall, they’re giving up 388.7 yards and 25.7 points per game (both roughly middle-of-the-pack in the FCS). They are a bit better at their run defense, holding teams to 145.3 yards per game as opposed to 243.3 yards through the air.
The Salukis currently have the best kickoff return game in the country, averaging 34.1 yards per return…mostly based on the play of Freshman RB DJ Davis, who has had 9 returns at 34.33 per return and kick returned for a TD.
While SIU is strong in the passing game, UNI is strong in the running game. QB Aaron Bailey doesn’t put up huge passing numbers, averaging 167.67 yards per game and passing for 2 TDs, but it’s on the ground where he can really burn an opposing defense. Bailey is averaging 74.33 yards per game running the ball and has 3 rushing TDs. They also have RB Tyvis Smith with 83.67 yards per game and 1 TD. When Bailey does pass, he frequently targets WRs Jaylin James (9 catches w/ 43.67 ypg) and Daurice Fountain (11 catches w/ 39.67 ypg and 1 TD). Previously mentioned RB Tyvis Smith also gets in on the receiving game with 9 catches, 24.33 yards per game, and 1 TD.
The Panthers defense is headlined by preseason All-MVFC DL Karter Schult. Schult currently leads the FCS in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (6.5) as well as having 21 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, and 1 safety. Other defensive stars include DB A.J. Allen with 24 tackles, and (son of the Head Coach) Jared Farley with 22 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, and 1 interception. UNI boasts the 5th best rushing defense in the country, only giving up 67.3 yards per game on the ground, however, they do seem to be vulnerable to the passing game, giving up 238 yards per game.
I think that this game will go a long way towards showing if UNI is really not as good of a team as most people thought they’d be this year, or if they’ve just been matched up with incredibly tough teams all season so far (I know the second one is true…a Big 12 team, and the current #3 and #11 ranked FCS teams…everyone would have a tough time with that schedule). It’s definitely going to be an interesting game with an interesting mix of matchups. The one that I see as being key to this game though, is SIU’s rushing offense against UNI’s run defense. UNI has a HUGE advantage here and I think they’ll use it to their advantage to shut down the run, put pressure on the QB and force him into uncomfortable positions. That, plus homefield advantage suggests to me a UNI win.
TL:DR – UNI by 10
#6 Western Illinois (3-0) at #17 South Dakota State (1-2) – 6 PM
Disclaimer: I’m a huge Western fan and have been to all of the games so far this season, so my descriptions and info for WIU will be a bit of a different style, having seen them play in person.
The final MVFC game of the day matches up a surprisingly strong Western Illinois team (and yes, until they stop exceeding my expectations going into the season, I’ll keep calling them that) with an offensive powerhouse in South Dakota State. Western is 3-0 on the season, having defeated current #16 Eastern Illinois, #37 (in the ORV section) Northern Arizona, and holding off a late charge to take down the FBS NIU Huskies. SDSU hasn’t fared quite as well, although it’s also been against a couple of VERY good teams. They started the season by putting a bit of a scare into then FBS #13 TCU, being only 4 points down until nearly halfway through the 4th quarter, then beating Drake (although by not as much as I thought they would) and then losing a (at the time) surprising game against Cal Poly. Cal Poly has since demonstrated that they are much better than initially thought with a win over Montana, so that loss hurts the Jackrabbits a bit less than it might have at first. SDSU had a bye last weekend to sit at home and watch the Leathernecks play NIU to see what they’d need to get ready for.
The Leatherneck offense is run by QB Sean McGuire. A sophomore QB who won the starting job from 3-year starter Trenton Norvell (who’s still on the team), McGuire has put up 253.33 yards per game and has 4 passing TDs as well as 2 rushing TDs. Primary WR Lance Lenior is putting up 109.67 yards per game and 1 TD receiving, including a 231 yard day against Northern Arizona. The #2 WR Joey Borsellino has 61.67 yards per game, including 148 against FBS Northern Illinois last weekend. Sophomore Isaiah “Zeke” Lesure has caught 2 TDs and really has the ability to get up in the air to snag a high pass or way down low to grab a TD throw that’s going under a defender’s hands. Running the ball, it’s primarily the “McShane Show” with Sophomore RB Steve McShane currently sitting at an FCS-best 147.3 yards per game. McShane is also 6th in the FCS with 5 rushing TDs so far. Overall, the Leathernecks offense puts up 444 yards per game, 20th in the FCS and is fairly balanced in general. They put up a few more yards in the air than they do on the ground, but the ground game is the focus generally.
Defensively, the star is preseason All-MVFC LB Brett Taylor who is currently 4th in the FCS averaging 12 per game. Taylor also has 3.5 tackles for loss including 2.5 sacks, and 1 int and really has the ability to break through and put pressure on a QB. Sophomore DB Xavier Rowe is second on the team with 24 tackles. Looking at the defense overall gives some interesting numbers…check out these rankings for the Leatherneck defense (and then I’ll explain):
Total Defense – 481.7 ypg, 107th in the FCS
Passing Yards Allowed – 305.7 ypg, 113th in the FCS
Rushing Yards Allowed – 176 ypg, 75th in the FCS
Scoring Defense – 21.3 ppg, 26th in the FCS
Red Zone Defense – .444 scoring %, #1 in the FCS (and the only one under .500).
So, the best red zone defense, but one of the worst defenses in terms of yards allowed, especially through the air. How does that work? Western has a phenomenal front line and LBs, but the secondary is “suspect” at long range. Similar to last year, Western has been burned by long pass plays. If a team gets off a long play, usually a pass, and gets to the end zone, they score (duh). But, if the player gets taken down in the red zone, or the team is trying to conduct a sustained drive down the field and they reach the red zone, the Leatherneck defense is able to really step up and in the majority of situations, stop them from scoring, or at least, hold them to a 3 point attempt. Out of the 9 times that opposing teams have reached the red zone, they’ve only had 3 TDs and 1 FG, which means that 5 of the times, the opposing team came away with no points. Part of that was due to NIU having to go for it on 4th down to try to take the lead near the end of the game…twice…and twice they were turned away, but still, that was stopping an FBS team from getting a TD or even a FG.
A couple of other things that Western has going for it is turnovers and time of possession. Through 3 games, they have not lost the ball. Zero fumbles, zero interceptions. Combine that with the 4 turnovers that they’ve gained, and Western is 13th in the FCS in turnover margin. Also, because Western pretty much either forces a 3-and-out after a 1st down or two, or gives up a big quick play for a score, they are currently #2 in the FCS in time of possession, averaging 34:58 per game.
Now, onto South Dakota State. Like Western, SDSU has a very talented offense, although the Jackrabbits have a bit more of a pass focus. That’ll happen when you have a pretty decent QB and probably the second best WR in the FCS. The preseason All-MVFC WR Jake Wieneke is currently averaging 109.7 yards per game and has caught an FCS-high 8 TDs, which brings him to 35 career TD receptions and holds the SDSU record for that (and he’s only 3 games into his Junior year). In addition, they have an extremely talented TE who was also a preseason all-conference selection, in Dallas Goedert, who currently has 83 yards per game and 3 receiving TDs. The QB making those throws is primarily Taryn Christion, a sophomore who’s putting up 269.7 yards per game through the air and has thrown for 10 TDs and rushed for 2 more. Christion is currently 3rd in the FCS in points responsible for per game (that’s TDs he’s throwing + TDs he’s running for). What this adds up to is 290.3 total yards per game (16th in the FCS) and an offense that puts up 42.7 points per game (8th in the FCS).
As good as the offense has been, SDSU’s defense has kinda been heading the opposite direction (playing a couple of very good offenses though, so you should take it with a grain of salt). They allow 41.7 points per game and are giving up 524.3 yards per game, 247 through the air and 249 on the ground…all of which put them in the bottom 20% of the FCS rankings. SDSU has 3 players with 20 or more tackles: LB Jesse Bobbit with 29 and 1 interception, LB Cristian Rozenboom with 24 and ½ sack, and DB Nick Farina with 20.
So, up to this point, SDSU hasn’t had any trouble putting points on the board, but they have had trouble stopping opponents from doing the same. Western, on the other hand, is a little more balanced with a bit better defense, but not quite as good (but still pretty darn good) offense. Before the start of the season, I had Western’s game with SDSU penciled in as a loss for the Leathernecks, but given what I’ve seen so far this season, I think it’s much closer than I initially thought. I think that the teams will likely trade scores throughout the game resulting in a “whoever gets the ball last wins” type of game. Wieneke will have a big day receiving, McShane will have a big day running, but (and I realize that this is the “homer” in me) I think Western can come away with the win. It’ll be close…maybe even OT….but due to the ability to stop a drive in the red zone, I think that actually gives Western a slight advantage, even though the game is at SDSU.
TL:DR – Western Illinois by 3