BIG SOUTH: Week 9 Preview

(3-4) Bucknell @ (4-2) Charleston Southern – Saturday, Oct 29th,  11:45am (Big South Network)

After not playing a home game in nearly two months, this week Charleston Southern now gets their second home game in as many weeks.  In keeping with a season of firsts for CSU, this week the Bucs host first-time opponent Bucknell out of the Patriot League.  CSU has not played a Patriot League team since hosting Georgetown back in 2006.  For their part, Bucknell has played a Big South program only once with that being a successful visit to VMI that closed out the 2013 season and VMI’s tenure in the Big South.

Charleston Southern comes into this game after manhandling a spectacularly unproductive Presbyterian team in every aspect of the game.  The Bucs did pretty much whatever they wanted on offense as the running back duo of Ben Robinson and Mike Holloway both scored touchdowns as did the quarterback duo of Shane Bucenell and Robert Mitchell.

For their part, the Bucknell Bison (bi-sun in this case, not bi-zun) are coming off a 42-17 win over 1-7 Lafayette. Defensively, Bucknell and looks very similar to Presbyterian.  Both run a four-man front on defense that tries to get up the field quickly to disrupt offensive motion. Offensively, Bucknell utilizes a lot of different offensive formations to create mismatches which, also like Presbyterian, has only been somewhat successful.  In terms of computer rankings, Bucknell is currently ranked ten spots below Presbyterian so that bodes well for the host team. The Bison are quarterbacked by 6’6” senior RJ Nitti who has missed most of the season with injury but returned last week against Lafayette.  He wasn’t especially impressive in that win but he didn’t need to be as Bucknell rolled up nearly 300 yards rushing against Lafayette’s porous defense.  This will Bucknell’s first game this season against an opponent from the upper portion of FCS but they will face two more (Lehigh and Fordham) in the next three weeks.

What CSU has to do against Bucknell:  Jump out in front early.  Bucknell isn’t especially good at throwing the ball and will be at a significant disadvantage if CSU forces them to play catch-up.

Best case scenario for CSU against Bucknell:  The Bucs pick up where they left off last Saturday night.  Bucknell is a very similar opponent to Presbyterian on each side of the ball just in a different shade of a blue.

Worst case scenario for CSU against Bucknell:  Bucknell gets turnovers on defense and can dominate the time of possession on offense.  CSU is still better equipped than Bucknell in the passing game to come from behind though.



(5-2) Kennesaw St @ (4-4) Monmouth – Saturday, Oct 29th, 1:00pm (Big South Network) 

Monmouth hosts Kennesaw State for homecoming in just their third but still final home game of the 2016 season.  This will also be the final game ever played at the current Kessler Field.  Monmouth’s stadium is scheduled to undergo a demolition and radical re-construction in the off-season so MU is trying to get as quick a jump on that as possible.  There have been bulldozers on site since August and those machines may be revving up by the end of the 4th quarter.

Kennesaw comes into this game fresh off of a dominating first half at Gardner-Webb that became a very un-dominating fourth-quarter stalemate at the end.  Much like their game at Furman several weeks prior, the Owls jumped out to a huge lead only to have both the offense and defense run out of gas in the second half and have to grip and claw just to hold on to that lead to the final whistle.  In both cases, they were successful but this pattern would seem to play directly into the hands of their hosts this week, the Monmouth Hawks.

Badly in need of a home game, Monmouth comes in fresh off of giving a program-record 683 yards of offense at Liberty.  However, in the game, Monmouth found themselves buried under an avalanche of Liberty points in the first half and all but declared dead.  Instead, the Hawks clawed their way back up and came close to breaking through late in the second half.  This is a game between one program that can’t quite seem to kill off their opponent and one program that just absolutely refuses to die.  It’s like the plot of a Wes Craven movie so it’s only fitting that this game is being played on Halloween weekend.

Kennesaw’s offense is just red-hot right now.  Last week, marked the return of pre-season starting quarterback Trey White for a few plays.  Chandler Burks started and finished the game but it hasn’t really mattered who’s under center for the Owls.  Thus far, ETSU and Liberty have been the only teams that held KSU under 36 points and, not coincidentally, those are Kennesaw’s only two losses.  In their three wins against FCS competition, they’re still averaging an eye-popping 45 points per game which is just astounding for a second-year program.

A year ago, Kennesaw won the opener in this series, 23-13, behind a stout effort from their defense.  That defense, however, has been more or less absent in recent weeks.  In their last four games against FCS competition, KSU has surrendered more than 36 points a game.  They play an extremely aggressive blitz-heavy style of defense – even when up multiple scores – that has left gaping holes in the secondary and allowed both Furman and Gardner-Webb to quickly score and get back into games.

This, however, fits exactly what Monmouth prefers to do on offense.  The Hawks love the screen, the draw and the stretch play, all things that work really well against defensive blitzes.  Cody Williams got the start for Monmouth at QB but it was the late substitution of Kenji Bahar in the third quarter that jump-started the Hawk O.  Williams suffered an ankle injury at Presbyterian and his throwing mechanics looked suspect against Liberty.  Bahar doesn’t have the level of experience with the offense that Williams does but he’s most likely the healthier and more effective option right now.  Defensively, the Hawks also love to blitz.  Against Liberty, they simply would not stop blitzing the Flames’ freshman quarterback and taped-together offensive line.  It didn’t work – like, at all – but the Hawks kept doing it all the way to the final whistle and I can only guess it’s because they were trying to keep their players in an attacking mindset.

What Kennesaw has to do against Monmouth:  Score late.  Against their last three FCS opponents, the Owls have 17 second half points total.

What Monmouth has to do against Kennesaw – Hang in and don’t fall behind by too much in the first half.  Recent history suggests that the Hawks will have a chance late to steal this one.


(5-2) Coastal Carolina @ (2-5)  Presbyterian – Saturday, October 29th, 2:00pm (Big South Network)

Fresh off of an absolute traveshamockery of a college football game at Charleston Southern wherein Presbyterian gave up over 500 yards of offense to CSU and just barely managed to crack 100 yards themselves, the Blue Hose host Sun Belt Conference-bound Coastal Carolina for homecoming.  That probably seemed like a much better idea when this schedule was released last December.

Presbyterian is in desperate need for some answers on offense.  The quarterback position has been in flux all year for PC as pre-season starter Ben Cheek was injured in Week 2, returned after the bye week to start the next two games only to be injured again in the Thursday night win over Monmouth.  Will Brock stepped in for Cheek initially but he suffered a lower leg injury against Florida Tech and hasn’t been seen since.  Third-teamer John Walker finished the Monmouth game admirably but was just as ineffectual as the rest of the PC offense against CSU.  Through seven games, Presbyterian has only managed to score seven total touchdowns for the entire season with the first four of them coming against non-scholarship Campbell on September 17th.  Since then, the Blue Hose have managed just 30 points in over a month and are averaging just 5.5 points a game against scholarship competition.

For their part, Coastal’s “season of change” has become more a season of survival as the injury situation in Conway has gone from “pretty bad” to “dire”.  Having already lost three quarterbacks for the season and having to slap a jersey on an intern just to run practice (<- there’s a link), Coastal lost their starting right tackle on the first play of the game against Gardner-Webb to injury and All-American RB De’Angelo Henderson shortly thereafter.  Last week, the Chanticleers hosted previously 1-5 Central Connecticut State in what under normal circumstances should have been little more than a pleasant jog around the teal turf for the home team.  Instead, CCU needed two defensive touchdowns from LB Alex Scearce to build a 23-3 halftime lead and then a 4th-quarter defensive stand to hold off a late Blue Devil charge that allowed the hosts to escape with a 33-25 win.

These two teams have faced each other nine consecutive years with Coastal winning the last eight in a row by an average of 20 points.  As long as the injury list is for Coastal and as hampered as they are by it, there should still be more than enough talent on that sideline to handle this particular Presbyterian team that seems deadest on setting some offensive records for all the wrong reasons.

What Coastal has to do against Presbyterian:  Get a single touchdown since, statistically speaking, six points should be sufficient.  More realistically, Coastal needs to keep pounding the rock on offense.  Henderson and (also injured) Osharmar Abercrombie aren’t the only talented running backs on the Coastal roster.  Defensively, keep pressure on whatever quarterback Presbyterian rolls out there.  Aside from Brock, poise has not been the hallmark of that position this year.

What Presbyterian has to do against Coastal – Improve over last week.  Admittedly, that’s a pretty low bar to hurdle but you have to work with what you’ve got.




(3-5) Gardner-Webb @   (4-3)   Liberty – Saturday, October 29th, 3:30pm (ESPN3, LFSN)

In terms of the Big South conference title, this game is easily the most significant match-up of the day.  Liberty needs to win this game in order to keep their forward momentum going and, at 2-0 in conference play, to keep pace in the standings with Charleston Southern.  For Gardner-Webb, this is the first in what is, essentially, the most crucial two weeks of their 2016 season.  After visiting Liberty this weekend, the Runnin’ Bulldogs will head down I-26 to Charleston Southern the following Saturday.  G-W (1-1) is a game back of both teams in the standings and desperately needs to make up ground to have any chance at all of earning their first Big South title since 2004.

Offensively, Gardner-Webb comes into this game after an offensive showcase against Kennesaw State that featured 100-yard rushing days from both RB Khalil Lewis and QB Tyrell Maxwell as well as receiving touchdowns from three different wide-outs.  Unfortunately, that offensive effort fell short late as G-W failed to convert on 4th down attempts on back-to-back drives in the 4th quarter.  Even more unfortunately, the game was also a defensive fiasco in which the Bulldogs gave up 40 first-half points and dig a hole that their offense just couldn’t quite climb out of.

Liberty had a nearly polar opposite day last week, dominating Monmouth early and building a big lead only to have Monmouth make a late charge.  The Flames eventually blunted that charge in the 4th quarter but there were certainly a few chewed-down fingernails on the Liberty sidelines last Saturday.

This game does or should mean a lot to Liberty for no other reason than it would represent a return to form and some closure on the disappointments of 2015.  Prior to last October, Liberty had won eight straight in the series and the Flames’ hopes were burning high, coming off of a playoff season and ranked 14th in the nation and with early wins over #10 Montana and an FBS bowl-bound Georgia State team.   Those hopes were quickly extinguished in the North Carolina rain as Gardner-Webb, who had been completely shut out against Liberty for two straight years, exploded for 27 first half points on their way to a 34-20 win.  That loss pretty much ended Liberty’s shot at the Big South autobid and, along with a loss at Monmouth the following week, made the difference between an 8-3 year with a good case for an at-large bid and a 6-5 season  with everyone sitting at home in November.

The bottom line is that we really don’t know how good either team is yet.  After competing well against some high-caliber teams in the first half of the season, Gardner-Webb has only wins over Elon, Presbyterian and D2 Benedict to show for it and just lost two straight games at home.  By contrast, Liberty took nearly all of September to get off the ground, particularly on offense, but have now won three straight.  Of those three wins, however, only the win over Kennesaw was against a particularly strong opponent.

It would seem that the two team’s statistical trends are at a crossing point here but there’s one more thing to consider and that is that Gardner-Webb has a long history of fading late in the season.  It’s been a pattern for a while but one that has become more pronounced over the course of the last three years.  In games played in the latter part of the season (defined here as on or after October 15th), Gardner-Webb is 6-11 in those games since 2012.  During that same time span, Liberty is 13-5.  Bear in mind that these games are primarily Big South conference competition when a team’s postseason hopes are most on the line.

What Gardner-Webb needs to do against Liberty:  Stay out of 3rd-and-long situations.  The Gardner-Webb offense is dramatically improved but that’s been their kryptonite this year.  Defensively, resist the urge to bring extra pressure on Liberty’s freshman quarterback.  Buckshot Calvert is playing really well at the moment and blitzing only makes it easier for a hot QB to make his reads.

What Liberty needs to do against Gardner-Webb – Keep Maxwell and Lewis out of the end zone.  While Liberty has given up a lot of big plays and yards between the 20’s this year, they have been fairly strong inside the red zone.  The Bulldog offense is built around creating space for Maxwell and Lewis to run; if Liberty can force G-W to go to the air in scoring situations, it’s to the Flames’ advantage.  On offense, keep spreading the ball around.  In the current three-game win streak, the offense has featured at least eight different receivers and key contributions from every healthy running back in every game.  That kind of multiplicity is hard to come by, particularly in FCS.

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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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