SOCON: Week 3 Preview

Wofford is out to an early lead in the conference race having sneaked by both Furman and Mercer to start the season. They have the week off before playing Gardner-Webb in two weeks. This week is still predominantly out of conference opponents, with a few FBS thrown in, so there will still be questions regarding how the teams are shaking out. Furman faces NC State, Mercer travels to Auburn, and Samford plays Georgia. UTC hosts Tenn-Martin, WCU travels to Gardner-Webb, and VMI is on the road at Robert Morris. In the only conference match up, The Citadel travels to Johnson City to play ETSU.

SOCON Weekly Notes

(As always, hyperlinks in blue and all times eastern.)

Furman at NC State 12:20PM (ACC network) (Furman game notes)

Furman has had a rough start under their new Head Coach Clay Hendrix. It looked as though the Paladins were off to good start having taken conference favorite Wofford to the wire in week one. Then they stumbled big time, coming up short at home against former SOCON member Elon. Furman spotted Elon 21 first quarter points. Two of Elon scores followed Furman fumbles deep in their own territory. Furman will face a tough ACC team in NC State. 7-6 last year, the Wolfpack have started 1-1 with a loss to South Carolina and win over Marshall. Furman actually has a winning record against NC State, but the last time they played was in the 80s when they went 2-1 against NC State.  But this isn’t your father’s Paladins. Furman still has lots of rebuilding issues.

On Offense they are led by Senior PJ Blazejowski who has gone 18-37 passing over the first two games. His yards total 362 on the year with 1 TD pass and no interceptions. One thing Furman has done is ramped up their rushing game. They average 209 yards a game so far. That is much better than last year’s average. Running backs Darius Morehead (RSF), Antonio Wilcox (Sr) and QB Blazejowski have all been contributing. As far as total yards per game goes, Furman has put up 390. They have moved the ball ok. They have a 46% third down conversion rate. They have also kept down the penalties with only 5 to date over two games. They have only held the ball for 26 and a half minutes on average though. They are even in turnovers to date.

On defense, they have given up just under 400 yards a game. They did hold Wofford to 269 yards on the ground. Furman usually has a pretty good defense against the run. They also gave up 311 yards passing to Elon. They sacked Elon 3 times and Wofford twice. They held opposing offenses to a 36% third down conversion rate. They also gave up all four, fourth down tries by opponents; two to each team.

It is obvious that a culture change needs to occur at Furman. They have had a rough couple years and it will take more than a few games to turn things around. They have some talent though and they will win some SOCON games.

This game will probably not tell us much on how well the Paladins are improving. Furman usually plays FBS teams tough, but expect NC State to win easily 38-17.

#12 The Citadel at East Tennessee State 1PM (ESPN3) (The Citadel game notes) (ETSU game notes)

In the only conference match up this week, the Citadel Bulldogs, ranked #12 in the AGS poll, travel to Johnson City, Tennessee to face the ETSU Bucs. Last year The Bulldogs routed ETSU at home 45-10. So far this year the Dogs have faced Div II Newberry and Presbyterian of the Big South Conference. Although easily winning both, they were a bit sluggish to start with lots of new faces. ETSU began the year with a victory over Div II Limestone and suffered a thrashing by the 2016 FCS National Champion James Madison.

So far on offense, The Citadel is doing what it does best, running the ball. It is second in FCS in rushing at 405 yards per game. But it did something last week that Bulldog fans have longed for even if running has produced results, and that is pass the ball, successfully, a little more. If for nothing else, to open up their running game even more. Last week against Presbyterian, the Dogs threw 4 passes. Not many, but they went 4 for 4 for 104 yards. Oh, and three of those passes went for TDs. That certainly helped the Bulldogs pass efficiency stat. Overall the Dogs have averaged 497 yards a game. They have racked up an impressive 66% third down conversion rate as well. Granted the competition was not terribly stout, but it was what was needed with a lot of new faces on their offense. At QB, Senior Dominique Allen is again at the helm. But what is also interesting is that Sophomore QB Jordan Black has also had extensive playing time. I don’t think there is an issue at QB, but playing time has been about 50/50 so far. Black started the first three games last year when Allen went out with a one game suspension and injury. There is no doubt Black is probably the better passer and an elusive runner, but Allen is much more of a bruiser on keepers and he can pitch the ball with much better finesse and timing than Black can.  It’s good to have two very capable QBs ready to go.

On defense, the Dogs have not missed much after losing an All American DB. There is a bit of a learning curve going on, but that has not stopped the swarming type of defense they have been executing the last few years. They have been allowing 252 yards a game on average including 94 yards on the ground and 158 passing. They did have one lapse in the PC game in the first quarter where their stud running back torn one up the middle for 76 yards. The Dogs adjusted and did not let PC cross midfield on a drive until the fourth quarter and only twice all game. They have snagged 4 interceptions so far and are at +4 in turnovers overall. The most dominating stat though has to be their time of possession which is almost at 38 minutes a game which keeps their defense fairly fresh. They have held opponent to a 33% third down conversion rate.

Special teams have not been an issue yet. Their kicker is solid. They have also been good in regard to penalties with 5 in two games and, as an editorial note, two of those were extremely questionable.

ETSU is obviously still a work in progress in only their third year back on the gridiron. It is pretty hard to judge them yet with only games against Limestone and JMU…talk about extremes.

The Bucs are led by Junior QB Austin Herink. To date he has gone 28/47 with 3 TD passes and 1 interception. He averages 179 yards a game. Overall the Bucs have averaged 277 yards a game with 98 on the ground. They totaled just 175 total yards against JMU. They have about a 38% third down conversion rate. They are even in turnovers on the year. They have had 10 penalties so far over two games.

On defense, they allow 324 yards a game. JMU totaled 426 total yards. Their one TD against JMU came on a pick 6 in the second quarter. They also gave up 193 yards rushing to Limestone, more than they did against JMU so they may have improved. They have allowed opponents to convert thirds down 40% of the time.

ETSU also has the lowest net punting average in the SOCON at just under 30 yards.

If the Bucs can hold onto the ball and keep it away from the prolific running of the Bulldogs, then maybe they can make a game of it. Newberry showed some cracks in the Bulldogs pass defense although they improved a bit last week. If Herink can complete a few and keep the sticks moving, and their defense can get a few stops, then they might have a shot. But it will be a bit too much for this still young Bucs program. Look for the Bulldogs to go 3-0 with a 37-13 win.

VMI at Robert Morris 3PM (NEC) (VMI game notes)

After being demolished by Air Force to open the season the VMI Keydets needed a boost last week. They didn’t get it. Div II Catawba came into Lexington and took it to VMI. The good news is there is nowhere to go but up for VMI. On offense they were decimated by graduation this year. There are 16 freshmen or sophomores on the offensive two deep. There is no doubt that something has to change for VMI. Maybe it is already happening. It is still early for Coach Scott Wachenheim in only his third season. Only time will tell. If they can build some experience, maybe things will turn around.

VMI is led by sophomore QB Austin Coulling. In his two outings he has passed for 18/40 for 224 yards, 1 interception and no TDs. Running the ball has been a bit better this year for the Keydets. They have only averaged 118 yards a game, but sophomore Daz Palmer has averaged 79 a game which is currently good enough for 4th in the SOCON. They have averaged only 237 yards a game, but that was hurt by AFs dominating performance which held the Keydets to just 95 total yards. They did much better against Catawba with 379 yards. They are having a serious issue converting third down though and are at just 20% on the year.

Defense should have been a bright spot for VMI, but they are allowing 539 yards a game including 417 against Catawba. They have been on the short end in time of possession averaging just 26 and half minutes a game. Their offense is not doing them any favors. They have also given up 242 yards a game passing. They have had 5 sacks though, including 3 against Catawba. VMI has some stout players on defense, but it has been a tough two games.   They could not stop Catawba when they needed to late in the game.

As always, VMI has played a very clean game with just 2 penalties total in two games. They are -1 in turnovers. They have also had good punting averaging just over 45 yards a kick.

The Robert Morris Colonials of the Northeast Conference come into the game 1-1 having beaten Dayton and losing to 2016 FCS runner up Youngstown State. The last time these teams met was in 2013 when Robert Morris won in double OT, 37-31.

The Colonials pass a bit more than run, and have averaged 233 yards total a game. They only convert third downs about 26% of the time. They also average about 28 minutes time of possession per game.   On defense they have given up 343 yards a game split pretty equally between passing and rushing. They have allowed opponents to convert third downs about 42% of the time. They are 2/5 on FG attempts.

VMI can win this game if they have not been totally demoralized. It may be tough on the road for the Keydets, but they have to stop the bleeding at some point. We will see if some leaders emerge on this young team. However, expect VMI to fall again, 24-17.

Mercer at Auburn 4PM (SEC Network) (Mercer game notes)

The Mercer Bears face off against Auburn this week in its first of two games against the SEC this year. They face Alabama later. Of all the teams that Mercer could face this week, Auburn has got to be the last one they want to play. They will be pissed off after a hard fought battle against Clemson last week. Mercer had a tough game as well against Wofford where they should have won. But the Terriers snatched victory from the jaws of defeat late. Emotions may be high on both team in this game.

Mercer started off the season by easily handling Jacksonville 48-7. They appear to be no worse for wear having graduated their first class last year. Their starting QB is Fr Kaelan Riley. To date, he has gone 32/54 and averaged 187 yards a game. He has tossed 5 TDS and 4 interceptions. Mercer has averaged 336 yards a game overall including 142 on the ground. They have converted 50% of their third downs and held the ball about 29 minutes a game. They had a good kickoff return to start the game against Wofford and another good drive in the first to go up early on the Terriers 14-0 early. That should have been enough to lead to a victory. But Wofford fought back and a Mercer interception in the third quarter and a late Mercer fumble completed a Wofford comeback victory.

On defense, Mercer has allowed 304 yards a game. That includes 367 against Wofford. The Bears held Wofford to 274 yards on the ground as well. That’s not too bad. While the Wofford game skews the stats a bit as well, Mercer has allowed just 94 yards through the air per game. They may allow just a few more against Auburn.

Mercer has also had some success returning punts. Five returns have given them almost 15 yards per return on average. They are -2 in turnover margin due primarily to their young QBs interceptions. That better tighten up against Auburn.

Auburn is 1-1 after demolishing Georgia Southern and losing to Clemson. They have averaged 326 yards a game with a bit more rushing than passing. On defense they are animals who have allowed just 181 yards per game. They held Georgia Southern to under 100. They held Clemson to just 281. Mercer had better have some tricks up their sleeves.

I am sure that not many of the Bears faithful have much hope for this game, but if Mercer is to keep it respectable, they need to have zero turnovers, flawless special teams execution, and have a few drives where they move the sticks. That is a pretty tall order. Look for Auburn to roll 49-7.

Western Carolina at Gardner-Webb 6PM (Local TV / BSN) (WCU game notes)

WCU might be getting something together this year. To open the season they traveled out to Hawaii and blew a game they might have won if not for special teams. Last week they demolished Davidson. Not a big accomplishment, but they did it convincingly.   Their biggest problem recently has been defense. They were basically last in the SOCON, and pretty close to last in all of FCS last year. Things might be taking a turn for the better this year.

They have some weapons on offense. Sophomore QB Tyrie Adams is good. So far he is 33/53 for 644 yards in two games with 6 TDs and only 1 interception. Running back Detrez Newsome leads the SOCON in rushing with 158 yards a game. Granted that was padded a bit with Davidson where he had 288 yards, but he is good. He also earned SOCON Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance. He also returns kickoffs and catches a pass or two. It is important to point out that Adams had 107 yards rushing against Hawaii as well.   WCUs ridiculous 778 yards against Davidson may be an anomaly, but they totaled 482 against Hawaii as well. That’s pretty good even though I would easily put Hawaii’s defense behind UTCs, Wofford’s or The Citadel’s defensive units. WCU appears fairly balanced behind both Adams arm and Newsome’s legs. They have converted third downs about 38% of the time. All those gaudy numbers were put up with only a 27 minute time of possession average as well. They scored quickly. They are at -1 in turnovers and have averaged 7 penalties a game for 70 yards. Those stats need a little improving.

On defense, the biggest question for them this year, they appear to be doing a little better. They have allowed 375 yards on average with Hawaii gaining 453. They allowed Davidson 297. So they still have some work to do. However they have allowed their two opponents to convert third downs only 29% of the time so while they may be giving up some big plays, they are getting the job done occasionally. They held Hawaii to 5/12 on third downs. They have 4 sacks to date and 4 interceptions.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb have had a tough season so far. After getting clobbered by NC A&T 45-3 they went on the road to Wyoming and got punched again 27-0. They haven’t scored a TD yet. They have averaged just 155 yards a game with most coming on the ground. They are usually better than this. In fact they have played more than a couple good teams very close the last few years. It isn’t much better on defense for them. They have given up 426 yards and 36 points per game to date.

This is a perfect opportunity for WCU to get an out of conference victory. The Cats need to have a solid performance by their special teams and let their offense go to work, and be at least respectable on defense. It might be a high scoring affair. Look for WCU to win on the road 38-24.

UT-Martin at #19 Chattanooga 6PM (ESPN3) (UTC game notes)

The Mocs have had a pretty tough schedule to start the season with JSU and then LSU. It is hard to start 0-2 even to good teams. They have a new coach and a new, or at least temporary, QB. They obviously have fallen off a bit with these transitions, but they are still a pretty tough opponent.

With their expected starting QB Alejandro Bennifield out due to academics for a few games, in camp they turned to SEC transfer Nick Tiano. His performance against JSU was not bad overall, but it took him a while to get going…something that you can’t do against a good team like JSU. Against LSU he looked better even if the score didn’t reflect it. He was 15/32 for 174 against LSU. He also threw 2 interceptions which didn’t help. He went 23/43 against JSU for 218. He also threw two interceptions in that game. On the ground UTC has averaged just 72 yards a game. That is a serious issue for a team that was basically perfectly balanced between passing and running last year. The Mocs have just 144 yards rushing in two games. Oh my.

On defense they have allowed 410 yards a game pretty much balanced between pass and rush. That includes 366 by JSU and 454 by LSU, two very capable opponents. On third downs they have allowed a 42% conversion rate. Their defense has had two interceptions and but only 2 sacks so far.

The Mocs are -3 in turnovers, just over 29 minutes time of possession, and have committed 11 penalties total so far. All these numbers point to some obvious transition pains.

The Tennessee Martin Skyhawks are 1-1 with a victory over Div II Clarion and a 45-23 loss to Mississippi. They led Ole Miss at one point in the 2nd quarter 16-7 and they only trailed 17-16 at half before a dismal third quarter put it out of reach. Tenn-Martin gained 334 yards and gave up 543 in that game to Ole Miss. They run a bit more than pass, so UTC can limit the Skyhawks’ output with their above average run defense. The Skyhawks are a good team, no doubt. They have 9 winning seasons over the last 12 years, but they have been in JSU’s shadow for a while in the OVC. They would make a big statement towards an at large bid come November if they win this.

UTC can win this game if they can get focused after starting 0-2 and limit turnovers. With another week under his belt, Tiano should be a bit better. However, more than anything UTC had better get some sort of running game going. They need to, If not for this game, then in preparation for the SOCON schedule. The Mocs will be hungry for a victory here and two losses to an OVC team would be a little bit much to swallow in one season. Look for UTC to win 31-21.

#18 Samford at Georgia 7:30PM (SEC network) (Samford game notes)

Samford is 2-0. That would be good except for the fact that they could have easily been 0-2. Kennesaw State gave them all they could handle in week one with the Samford Bulldogs taking it 28-23. Kennesaw State is not a bad team, but Samford should have handled them with a little more ease. Week two was a little disappointing as well. Not that they were in serious jeopardy of losing to Div II West Alabama, but it got uncomfortably close and it should not have. Samford led 42-14 half way through the third. They held on to win 49-41 after West Alabama scored 20 in the fourth. It almost appears like they are playing down to their opponent. They have also been known to play up to better competition. Against Georgia this week, they will need to.

Samford has averaged 375 yards a game with most, obviously, coming through the air. As the SOCON’s most prolific passer, Jr QB Devlin Hodges has gone 46/71 for 558 yards in two games. He has 7 TDs and thrown two interceptions. What is concerning for Samford, as it was last year, is a lack of a running game. They have averaged just 96 yards a game to date. If they couldn’t get a running game going against Kennesaw State and a Div II team, they will find it much harder against the meat of the SOCON schedule and more relevant this week, against an SEC team. They do get it done through the air, but they are in a hard spot when running is called for. Some can say that many of their short quick passes are no better than runs or pitches. Regardless of how one views it, they have a respectable 43% third down conversion rate. Their time of possession is just over 27 minutes and their defense has been tasked heavily again this year.

Samford’s defense gave up 545 yards to Kennesaw State and 422 yards to West Alabama. That is not good. Not good at all. More to the point they have surrendered 32 points a game on average. They have snagged 3 interceptions, two for TDs, and logged a SOCON leading 6 sacks. Their defense gives up just over 4 yards a rush on average and 9 yards per pass attempt. Like last year, with their offense being so explosive and scoring quickly or going three and out, their defense is hard pressed every game. That is a good problem to have, the scoring quickly part, but their defense does not appear up to the task of being on the field for 35+ minutes a game with the offense off the field so quickly in many cases. I suppose their strategy is to just run a track meet and hope that the other team stumbles. Only problem is sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Georgia appears to be back after an off year. They topped App St 31-10 to open the season and beat Notre Dame last week 20-19. There is no doubt Samford will have its hands full. On offense the Georgia Bulldogs average 347 yards a game. They rush a bit more than pass. On defense they allow just 275 yards a game. They pretty much shut Notre Dame’s rushing game down but gave up 211 yards passing so Samford may put some passing yards up. We know Samford can rise to the occasion as they did against Mississippi State last year where they put up gaudy passing numbers. But Georgia will be much harder to handle. Expect the Bulldogs, the Georgia variety that is, to run away with it, 48-17.

Written by 

Born and raised in New Jersey, but gravitated south to graduate from The Citadel in 1985. Served 23+ years in the USAF retiring in 2008 as a Field Grade Officer. Logged 4600+ flying hours as an Aircraft Commander and Instructor Pilot in the KC135. After retiring from active duty, worked as a Program Manager on various Air Force weapon systems. Retired completely as of May 2016. I have followed SOCON football since my days as a cadet. I like statistics, but also find value in looking at the intangibles as well, such as a team's emotions and motivation.

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