ETSU 24 VMI 6
In perhaps the only conference game of the season ETSU was favored to win, they did so with ease against VMI. Mistakes plagued the Keydets all day as they threw two interceptions, including a pick a six. The Keydets were held to less than 200 yards of offense and less than 2 yards per rush against an ETSU team that had struggled all year to stop the run. ETSU QB Austin Herink only needed to throw 15 passes on the day, completing 8 of them. ETSU ran the ball 50 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns. Though ETSU racked up yardage against the Keydet defense, they only had 2 3-or-4 and outs on the day. They fumbled the ball once and turned the ball over on downs twice, including on their final possession inside VMI’s 5 yard line. A fourth-quarter score gave the Bucs a 24-6 lead, effectively putting the game away with 10 minutes remaining. ETSU dominated time of possession by a margin of 34:57 to 25:03.
As “close” as this game was, it doesn’t do proper justice to the amount ETSU has improved from this year to last or how far VMI has fallen from their 3-8 mark last year. Last year in Lexington, VMI blew out ETSU by a score of 37-7. A 45 point swing from one year to the next is impressive in any context, but the reality is that ETSU took it easy on VMI. This year in games where ETSU scored a comparable amount to this game, Quarterback Austin Herink and the pass game had to throw the ball 27+ times to stay competitive because other teams sufficiently shut down the ETSU run game. Herink’s 15 passes thrown is a season-low for the junior QB and the fact they called a run play 77% of the game when the Bucs have the second best passing game in the conference speaks to the approach Coach Carl Torbush wants to build in the near future. ETSU still isn’t where it needs to be in the trenches, averaging less than 3 yards per carry against VMI, a team that’s given up 4.5 yards per carry and over 200 yards per game this season. Having said that, if you’re an ETSU fan you have to feel content with this game because they controlled it and it would have been much worse had Torbush unleashed the ETSU pass game against the second-to-last VMI pass defense. Next week ETSU plays a Samford team with a strong defense and a veteran QB looking for revenge after the Bucs beat upset Samford in the last game of last season.
For the 0-10 Keydets, this game continues a frustrating trend as VMI hasn’t scored 20 points on any team in division one this year. In conference play, their offense has only broken 10 points once (VMI scored 14 against Mercer, but one of those touchdowns was a pick 6). Meanwhile, their defense has allowed every opponent to score 20 points or more on them this season. Luckily for the Keydets, next week they play Wofford at home on Veterans’ Day. They have nothing to lose. Though Wofford may be 8-1, they’ve won 8 of their games by a touchdown or less. Last year in Spartanburg, after three quarters VMI only trailed by three points. Though VMI has looked bad this season, an upset next week is possible. Under similar circumstances in 2002, VMI beat a Wofford team competing for playoff positioning and a conference championship. The loss infamously kept Wofford out of the playoffs and the keydets will be looking to repeat on Saturday.
Samford 20 Mercer 3
Samford bounced back from their upset loss to Chattanooga last week with a nice 20-3 win over Mercer in Macon. The Samford defense outscored the Mercer offense 4-3, recording two safeties on the day. The Bulldogs were still afflicted by the turnover bug, fumbling 3 times and throwing an interception. For the first time in a while, a Samford victory can be attributed squarely on the defense, holding Mercer to below 200 yards on the day. The Bulldog offense turned the ball over twice inside the Mercer 20 and fumbled a punt return at mid-field. Though Samford recorded 467 yards of offense, including 369 yards on the field and 7 of 15 on third downs, turnovers could have made this game more competitive; luckily the Bulldog defense rallied. The Mercer offense was downright anemic coming out of the bye week, rushing for a season low 33 yards on 26 carries. Redshirt Freshman Quarterback Kaelen Riley had shown improvement all year, but completed less than 50% of his passes (18 of 38), throwing no touchdowns and an interception. On one play inside their own redzone, the Bears managed to snap the ball before the recipient was ready and that resulted in a safety. The Samford pass rushed harassed Riley all day, resulting in 3 sacks. The Bears converted a measly 4 of 16 third down conversions and by far had their worst game of the season.
For the Bears, there’s only pride to play for this season. Sitting at 4-5, they will miss the playoffs. Next week they travel to Cullowhee, North Carolina to play Western Carolina and then another road trip to play Alabama. Under normal circumstances, the best bet would be that the game next week would be competitive, but it looks like this Mercer team is broken. Though Mercer isn’t known for winning close games, they are known for playing everyone competitively, especially at home. They didn’t look that way this week. If they continue on this path they could finish the year at a poor 4-7 that doesn’t reflect the talent and potential of this team.
For Samford, they are already playing their playoffs. With a strong field in the FCS this year, it’s unlikely that 7-4 with 6 D1 wins and a bad loss to Chattanooga will make the playoffs for Samford, but an 8-3 record would probably be a lock. The Bulldogs are 6-3 and need to keep winning to make the playoffs. They play ETSU and Furman at home over the next two weeks, and neither will be a gimme. If the defense maintains the rate they get teams off the field, they may well earn the title of the best defense in the Socon. To be in a position to win, however, they have to cut down on the turnovers, averaging 5 per game over the last two games. Next week against ETSU is no gimme either, as the Bucs beat Samford in Johnson City last year. The Bucs are a better team this year than last so Samford will be challenged.
Western Carolina 31 The Citadel 19
Reports of Tyrie Adams’s demise were greatly exaggerated as Western Carolina earned a solid win against the Citadel on the road in Charleston. Returning from an ankle injury suffered last week against Furman, Adams resumed the helm, completed 14 of 21 passing for 133 yards, three touchdowns and rushed for 50 yards on 7 carries against the stout Citadel defense. Detrez Newsome had another phenomenal game, rushing for 197 yards on 24 carries. The Bulldogs outgained the Catamounts 420 to 386, including outgained them on the ground 367 to 253, but 5 turnovers ultimately cost them the game. Senior QB Dominique Allen threw 3 interceptions on only 8 passes and the Citadel could not overcome. When the Citadel failed to convert on fourth down inside Western Carolina territory, the Catamounts put the game on ice with a 71 yard touchdown drive with 6:14 remaining.
With the loss, the Citadel is completely eliminated from playoff consideration. In the end, offensive execution may be the difference between this year’s team being a forgettable 5-6 or 6-5 and competing for a socon championship and playoff consideration. After coming out of the gates stomping Newberry, PC and ETSU, their offense has failed to score more than 21 points in six straight Socon games. Though the Bulldog defense is solid on the year, still #1 in total defense as of this writing, it could not overcome the holes the offense dug them into this year. Next week they play Furman in a game that promises to be competitive as it is a rivalry game. The Citadel is playing for a winning season as they will likely lose to Clemson in two weeks. Furman will continue to play for a playoff spot, and they appear to have the advantage, coming off a bye in what will likely be an emotional senior day for a young team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013.
Western Carolina added to their playoff resume, likely punching their ticket. For the first time in a while, the Catamounts have 7 division one wins through 10 games this year. Next week they play an ailing Mercer team at home in what may be Detrez Newsome’s final home game as a Catamount. The Catamounts still haven’t solved their run defense problems as the Citadel ran for over 300 yards against them. To complicate their game against Mercer next week, the Bears still have one of the best defenses in the Socon and points may be difficult. For the Catamounts the thinking is simple: win and they are in the FCS playoffs for the first time in a long time.
Wofford 24 Chattanooga 21 (2 OT)
Once again, Wofford won a game by a touchdown or less. If you’re keeping score on at home, the Terriers are 8-1, but with 8 games coming down to the wire in the fourth quarter or overtime (the Terriers are 2-0 in OT this year). This time, they faced a resurgent Chattanooga Moc team that was looking to win against a top 10 team on the road for a second straight week. For most of the game it was a defensive struggle as the Chattanooga defense limited Wofford to two first downs in the first half and dominated time of possession by about 9 minutes in the first half. The Mocs were able to maintain two first-half drives for over 8 minutes but failed to reach the endzone in either. Had it not been for a fumble on a freak tackle by Wofford cornerback Devon Watson, the Mocs may well have led at the half 6-0. Three plays later, the Terriers scored to take the lead into the half 7-6. In the second half, the Terriers were much more successful moving the ball, but were only able to get one touchdown. A tipped punt put Chattanooga inside Wofford’s territory with less than 2 minutes left. Freshman QB Cole Copeland threw a touchdown with 16 seconds left and caught the two point conversion on a trick play. The teams exchanged touchdowns in Overtime, and in the second overtime Copeland threw an interception. The stout Chattanooga defense forced Wofford to settle for a field goal, where Luke Carter won the game from 34 yards out.
This year has been a struggle for the Chattanooga Mocs, but there’s many reasons to be optimistic going into 2018. They’ve had offensive line problems all year, failing to rush for 50 yards in many games, but in the last three games Coach Arth has made the adjustments needed to win games, rushing for 99 yards or more in three straight games. Cole Copeland isn’t quite where he needs to be to be a great QB, but there were sparks of improvement in this game, as he completed 27 of 39 passes. The gameplan going into this game was perfectly executed for the Mocs, as they were able to milk clock and lean on their (currently ranked third) defense to put them in a position to win. The Mocs have a bye this week, then they play intrastate rival ETSU for pride. If Copeland and the offensive line can continue their improvement while the defense plays solid, they may be favored to win.
For Wofford, the only thing relieving the sting of winning ugly so much is sitting pretty at 6-1 in the Socon and 8-1 overall. For one reason or another, Wofford can’t make the play that puts the game on ice with 5 minutes left, but the Terriers find a play to put it on ice with 5 second left, The Terriers just need to win against VMI this week in Lexington, VA and they’ll win at least a share of the Southern Conference title and the out-right automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The Terriers can’t afford to look ahead or treat this game as given, because quite frankly no game this year has been a given. History shows here are plenty of reasons to think VMI will give the Terriers everything they want and more (see the final paragraph of VMI-ETSU above). At this point, there’s a 99% chance the Terriers are in the playoffs, regardless of the outcome of next week. Mike Ayers remembers 2002 and I’m certain he’ll have his team prepared.