BIG SOUTH: Week 11 Preview

(4-6) Gardner-Webb              OFF

After ten straight weeks of games and after finally getting the marquee win the Runnin’ Bulldogs have been so close to fetching all season long, they finally get a week off.

Unfortunately, it comes at nearly the worst possible time.  Gardner-Webb is playing really well right now, has just beaten the 8th-ranked team in the nation on the road and has a ton of momentum to carry over against no one.

Also, this is one of the worst spots on a college football schedule to place an open date since there is just a single game remaining on the schedule on the other.  Open dates are primarily used for rest, re-evaluation and recruitment so having that open weekend in the last two weeks of the season is really counter-productive.  Mentally, it’s hard to come back from a week off to play just a single game and it’s a little late in the year to make significant schematic changes.  Recruitment is less effective since many high schools are now into their playoff season, not knowing where they’ll be playing if they’re still playing and not always wanting a college coach coming around to distract their best players from the most important games on their schedule.

What Gardner-Webb has to do in the open week:  Keep it salty.  G-W delivered a Trump-level upset to the Big South race last week and that was due in large part to their will to outplay a quality opponent when they had nothing left to play for.  A win over Monmouth the following week wouldn’t necessarily build on that but it would surely carry their momentum into the offseason, whereas a loss to the low-flying Hawks would just as certainly derail it.

(4-6) Monmouth                    OFF

Just like Gardner-Webb, Monmouth finally gets an open date after playing ten straight games with seven of them having been on the road.  Unlike Gardner-Webb, Monmouth is a team desperately in need of a break as fatigue has clearly set in with the Hawks.  Starting with Presbyterian all the way back on October 8th, Monmouth began fading, unable to compete, in the 4th quarter and that trend continued the following week at Liberty.  Since then, however, that moment of competitive drop-off has become early in the 3rd quarter as the Hawks began to nosedive shortly after halftime against Kennesaw and Coastal Carolina.

Unfortunately, this break doesn’t actually provide much of a break for Monmouth.  Thanks to the newly-begun renovation on their home stadium, Monmouth’s final game after the open date will also be on the road, their 8th away game of the year.  To be fair, that last contest was originally designated as a home game for Monmouth but the MU administration gave it up in order to begin construction as soon as possible.

What Monmouth has to do in the open week:  Relax.  Enjoy being at home on a Saturday, even if it’s literally your actual home.

(2-7) Presbyterian @ (7-2) Kennesaw State – Saturday, November 12th 12:00pm (American Sports Network)

A year ago, Presbyterian won this game 14-6 to close out the season for both teams.  The Blue Hose came away with the win despite being held to just 7 first downs and 187 yards of total offense.  For their part, KSU racked up 350 yards of offense but turned the ball over four times, including twice inside the red zone and only managed two field goals on the day.  Although they held PC in check for the vast majority of the game, Presby RB Darrell Bridges got loose for an 84-yard carry at the end of the 1st quarter that accounted for 45% of PC’s offensive output on the day and also set the stage for a short touchdown pass from QB Ben Cheek that would, ultimately, provide all the scoring the Blue Hose would need on the day.  The victory snapped a 7-game losing streak for PC and sent them into the off-season with a sense of optimism and left KSU knowing they dropped a game they should have one and carrying a bad taste in their mouths through the winter.

Presbyterian comes into this game having just enjoyed one of their best defensive efforts of the season, holding Liberty to 16 points, but also their worst offensive showing of the year in a year full of bad offensive showings.  PC turned the ball over four times, scratched out just 175 yards of offense and had their only scoring threat of the day snuffed out when a low field goal kick disappeared into a swarm of Liberty defenders and didn’t come out.

Offensively, Presbyterian needs help but have nowhere to turn.  Teams are stacking the box against Darrell Bridges and daring Cheek to beat them.  However, Cheek has suffered two game-ending and game-missing injuries already this season and hasn’t been at full strength since PC’s first week of the year at Central Michigan.  To counteract this, PC has been stalling at the line of scrimmage from the outset, draining the play clock before getting the play off in an effort to protect their QB, shorten the game and allow their defense to make as much an impact on field position and possession as possible.  The result has been fewer injuries, but also fewer points and a lot frustrated spectators.  After being blanked by LU, PC is now dead last in all of Division I in scoring offense at 9.0 points a game.  At the current pace – with Kennesaw this week and FBS South Alabama on deck the week after – Presbyterian will score less than 100 points for the entire 2016 season.  That’s an ignominious feat that hasn’t been accomplished over the course of eleven games since an 0-12 Austin Peay team scored just 90 points in 2013.

Kennesaw, however, is absolutely rolling.  After losing to that same Liberty squad, KSU is on a three-game win streak during which they are averaging 50 points a game.  Worse for Presbyterian, all the significant contributors (ie., WR Justin Sumpter and QB Trey White) for KSU who had missed sizeable portions of the season due to injury have returned, ready to play.    Even if they had no motivation of correcting a mistake from last year coming into this game, Kennesaw has a very long shot – and I mean VERY long as in Apollo 11-type trajectory – at making the FCS playoffs.  So many things would have to break their way that it’s hardly worth mentioning but all of it would hinge on the Owls winning their last two games and making as much noise about it in the process.

What Presbyterian has to do against Kennesaw:  Protect the football.   PC turned the ball over four times against Liberty, effectively nullifying a solid defensive outing for the Blue Hose.  Given PC’s turn toward “stall ball”, it’s impossible to control the clock if you’re giving it straight to the other team.

What Kennesaw hast to do against Presbyterian:  Let out that frustration.  Presbyterian is still a better than average defensive team that really knows how to play the option.  That said, KSU has a bevy of offensive weapons this year that they didn’t a year ago, particularly in Sumpter, Chaston Bennett and three quarterbacks (White, Chandler Burks, Daniel David) that have won games for the Owls.



(5-3) Charleston Southern @ (6-3) Liberty – Saturday, November 5th, 3:30pm (ESPN3, LFSN)

Here it is:  the de facto Big South championship game.

Charleston Southern comes into this game having won four of their last five games, including a wild 59-58 double OT thriller against FBS-bound Coastal Carolina.  That fifth of five games, however, was a loss to surging but sub-.500 Gardner-Webb that knocked CSU from the ranks of the top 10 in every FCS poll.

A month ago, Liberty was 1-3 and had just been shellacked at home by Jacksonville State to the tune of 48-19.  After the game, LU linebacker Dexter Robbins made the statement that Liberty would “be just fine” going forward.  True to his word, Liberty has now won five straight games and Robbins has been part of the reason for that, second on the team in total tackles with an interception to his credit as well as the crucial game-winning block on a field goal that allowed the Flames to defeat the aforementioned Gardner-Webb.

CSU has won the last two meetings with Liberty, 31-24 last year in North Charleston that effectively ended the Flames at-large hopes and 36-34 in Lynchburg, the year before that.  Liberty, however, had won nine straight against the Bucs, including a 56-14 win in 2013 that pushed a 10-win CSU squad completely out of playoff consideration.

Both teams have had issues under center this year.  CSU began the year with veteran leader Kyle Copeland at quarterback and Copeland played well against NDSU but was lost for the season with a knee injury a week later, forcing a cadre of redshirt freshmen to replace him.  Shane Bucenell has played the most frequently of the group with five starts to his credit.  The stars of the CSU offense, however, are the running backs, particularly Mike Holloway who is averaging 98 yards/game for the Bucs.

On the other side, Liberty also began the season with another player at the signal-caller position.  Stephon Masha, a veteran player like Copeland — but also a career backup – was inconsistent to start the season and the Flames’ coaching staff eventually opened up the quarterback competition.  That competition was won by true freshman Buckshot Calvert who has looked alternatively spectacular as well as … well, like a true freshman.  Also, like CSU, the strength of the Liberty offense in recent weeks has been the rushing attack and, in Liberty’s case, there’s a three-headed monster to deal with at running back.  Todd Macon has gotten the bulk of the first series’ reps but backfield-mate Carrington Mosley has provided big plays and big yards as has Frankie Hickson.

For all of that, this game will likely be decided on defense and that is where both teams excel.  The Flames and Bucs are 1-2 in virtually every defensive statistical category in Big South play.  The only appreciably difference is that Liberty has managed to take the ball away at nearly a 2:1 ratio to Charleston Southern.

*Interesting stat:  since 2012, Turner Gill’s first season at Liberty, the Flames are 14-2 in the month of November.  Both of those two losses have come at the hands of CSU. *

This one’s going to be fun.

What Liberty needs to do against CSU:  Get the turnovers and don’t give ‘em back.  As stingy as the LU defense has been in taking the ball away, the offense has been nearly that generous.  Part of that is the product of a young quarterback’s learning curve but, now, it’s playoff season where ball security is a must.

What CSU needs to do against Liberty: Win the 4th quarter.  Watching the Gardner-Webb game, it was the Bulldogs who looked like the better team, particularly late.   Perhaps that was a product of G-W being used to playing in dogfight games (no pun intended) whereas CSU had been blowing opponents out, but the upshot was that Gardner-Webb, despite being shorthanded on offense, had a will to win that CSU just could not or did not summon.

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I've followed the Big South Conference football programs from since before the conference picked up the sport. I believe that numbers, statistics and trends are a lot more interesting than what your head coach said at the last booster luncheon. Sometimes, I use big words because big words are fun to say out loud. Less often, I know what those big words mean. My opinion is my own and has been developed by time and evidence. It can only be changed by hard cash.

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