SOCON: Week 5 Preview

It’s the first full week of conference play and the race for Southern Conference should become a “little” clearer after this week. First off, the Bucs of ETSU meet Furman in Greenville. The Citadel travels to Samford in a battle of the Bulldogs. VMI travels to Mercer to take on the Bears in Macon. WCU goes to Chattanooga. And in the only out of conference game, Wofford takes on the Blue Hose of Presbyterian in Clinton, SC.

SOCON notes

ETSU at Furman 1PM (ESPN3) (ETSU notes) (Furman notes)

Both of these teams are coming off big wins and each will be playing hard for another one. This past week ETSU upset Mercer and Furman dismantled Colgate on the road. Both teams are young. ETSU is still in that initial build phase and does not have the depth of experience yet. While Furman may have the additional experience of an established program, they are a young team. A lot will depend on which coach can coax more out of his team.

Furman is one of those Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde teams. They have flashes of brilliance and moments of ineptness. But for a young team that is not uncommon. Sitting at 1-3 with close losses to Wofford and Elon, and a not so close loss to NC State, Furman could have easily been 3-1 right now. Gaining his first victory as a head coach last week, Furman’s Clay Hendrix will try and pick up win #2 in front of the Paladin faithful.

Furman’s Senior QB PJ Blazejowski, has done ok this year. Overall he is 40/74 with 793 yards averaging just under 200 yards a game. He has thrown 5 TDs and 2 interceptions. Furman has been running the ball a bit more this year. To date they are averaging 172 yards a game. Fairly balanced now, they have been moving the ball pretty well with a third down conversion rate of 47%. One area they need to improve on is in turnovers. They sit at -2 on the year. They do lead the conference in the least penalties with just 12 all year so far.

On defense they have surrendered 392 yards a game along with 30 points. Against the pass they have given up 214 a game and 178 against the run. They lead the conference in sacks with 11. That included 5 this past week against Colgate. They have been holding the opposition to a 37% third down conversion rate. They have only snagged 1 interception all year so far. They forced a bunch of turnovers this past week and that helped them get out to an early, dominating lead over Colgate.

ETSU has been a bit stingy giving up the ball. They sit at +2 on the year. Junior QB Austin Herink has only thrown 2 interceptions to date. Overall he is 72/112 for 823 yards with 6 TDs. The Bucs have averaged 206 yards a game through the air. One area that’s needs some work for the Bucs is in their running game. They only average 81 yards a game. Herink has been sacked 10 times so far as well. ETSU has only converted third downs 34% of the time. They are only putting up 23 points a game. Sitting at 2-2, 1-1, the Bucs have been solid, but not spectacular on offense. They have had some good drives which scored points. They are 7/8 in the red zone with 5 TDs.

On defense they have allowed 372 yards a game with just under 173 coming through the air and 199 on the ground. Their run defense stats obviously took a hit with both JMU and The Citadel running up some high numbers. They also have only 3 sacks on the year. They sit at 43% in stopping teams from converting 3rd downs.

ETSU has averaged just under 30 minutes of possession each game. They need to do better, especially against explosive offenses. The best defense for them at this point is to keep the ball away from opposing offenses. They held it 36 minutes against Mercer in their victory. Furman was not exactly explosive this past week. They didn’t need to be.  ETSU needs to grind out some drives, move the sticks and keep the turnovers down. If they can stay close to the Paladins, like they did with both The Citadel and Mercer, they can be in it.

After the Bucs emotional victory last week, the Paladins, at home, may be a bit much for them. Furman won handily this past week, but did so due to their defense and the forced turnovers more than their offense. Their average starting field position was in Colgate territory. The Paladin offense will get into the act a bit more this week. Look for a Furman victory, 33-17.

#11 The Citadel at Samford 3PM (ESPN3)(The Citadel notes) (Samford notes)

Samford’s late loss to WCU last week had to be disheartening for the Samford Bulldogs. Unable to score from the 3 yard line in four plays, after driving from their own 1 yard line in the last minute of the game, has to be frustrating. Samford by far has one of the most explosive offenses in the conference, and all of FCS for that matter. But their utter lack of any real running game has hurt them in many ways. On the flip side the same could be said about The Citadel Bulldogs and their scant passing game.

The Citadel leads FCS in rushing averaging 380 yards a game. However, they have averaged 96 through the air as well. Not great, but that is a little bit better than last year. More impressive is they already have 5 passing TD so far as compared to 5 for all of last year. But like Samford, they are a bit one dimensional. However, they can move the ball running most of the time. They average 476 yards a game with 5.9 yards per play average. They tally 26 first downs a game with a ludicrous 61% third down conversion rate.  They do this while holding the ball over 37 and a half minutes a game. That keeps their defense fairly fresh

The Charleston Dogs currently lead the SOCON in total defense giving up only 237 yards a game. That is a bit skewed with their schedule so far, but they have been mostly effective. One area that is of some concern, especially for this game, is their secondary. They have been burned a few times.  Through the air they have given up 166 yards per game. They have 5 interceptions to date, along with 6 sacks. On the ground they have surrendered an enviable 71 yards a game.  While defending third downs they have allowed only a 27% conversion rate. Considering Samford’s prolific passing game, these numbers will obviously take a hit.

Samford leads the SOCON and comes in at 5th in the FCS for passing yards per game with 329 per game. They are formidable to say the least. Junior QB Devlin Hodges has gone 110/172 for 1301 yards with 13 TDs. He has only thrown 2 interceptions all year. He is dangerous with the short passes, which many liken to no more than pitches, to throwing the deep ball. He has a huge stable of capable receivers to choose from. Hodges has been sacked 6 time to date. Not bad considering the number of passes he has attempted. His offensive line does a pretty good job protecting him. While they are all in protecting him, they are not very good at creating holes for their runners. Samford again has a dismal running game. They are not in last place in the SOCON, but pretty close with a 76 yard per game and 2.8 yard per carry average. Their play selection has been roughly 61% pass, 39% run. They just don’t run the ball very well. Their drives are pretty fast as well. Whether they go three and out or drive the length of the field, their offense does not hold the ball very long. Their average time of possession is about 27 minutes a game, which is actually better than their TOP last year which was under 25 minutes. Whether they go three and out or score quickly, their defense stays on the field a long time.

Samford has been giving up 532 yards a game! They gave up over 600 last week to WCU…almost 200 more than they let Georgia gain. And this brings up a motivation issue. Samford has a habit of playing up or down to their competition. They let Kennesaw St and West Alabama stay in games that should have been put away. It is hard to understand a coach that can’t get his players to produce consistently. But back to the numbers. Against the run Samford gives up 231 yards a game, against the pass 301. They allow opponents to convert about 42% of the time on third downs. They do have 9 sacks. The ‘Bama Bulldogs have allowed opponent to score 12 out of 14 times while in the red zone. To say they have some issues on defense is an understatement. It almost seems like they have decided to just try and outscore the opposition and hope for a couple turnovers to tip the balance. On the year they are at +3.

Last year’s game in Charleston was a barn burning OT win by The Citadel.  A repeat of last year’s game is likely. Samford can score quickly, even against a determined defense by The Citadel. The Cadets will be able to drive against Samford at will, but they will chew up clock and shorten the game for both teams. The game will come down to turnovers or special teams. Like Samford. The Citadel is at +3 in turnovers on the year. There have been a couple miscues by both teams on special teams so far. It is pretty much a toss-up, except The Citadel secondary may make the difference. If it stands up, it will be a long day for Samford. If Samford gets the edge, it will be a long day for The Citadel. It will probably be somewhere in between so give the edge to Samford at home, 28-24.

VMI at Mercer 4PM (ESPN3) (VMI notes) (Mercer notes)

The VMI Keydets (0-4, 0-1) travel to Macon Georgia to take on the Mercer Bears (1-3, 0-2). Mercer has had a disappointing season so far. After graduating their first class since starting up football again, and being competitive almost immediately, they seem to have stalled a bit. After blowing out Jacksonville, they have played three close games against a wide variety of teams in Wofford, Auburn, and ETSU. And while they did ok against Auburn, a victory would have been tough even if they played them close. They could have easily won against Wofford and ETSU. If Mercer has had a disappointing season, VMI has had a dismal one so far. They have been blown out by Air Force and UTC and embarrassed by Robert Morris and Div II Catawba. But don’t count on them folding the season.  The Keydets will not do that.  They need to regroup and build on whatever strengths they have.

VMI’s numbers are pretty bad on both sides of the ball. They gain only 205 yards a game and give up 453. Their average score to date, 7-43, is not surprising. It will be interesting to see who they start at QB. They have been using Austin Coulling up until the last game. They also played Duncan Hodges and another QB in their last game. Not sure if that was a message to Coulling after he threw two first half interceptions or just an opportunity to get some playing time for the backups after being down big. In any event, the Keydets have issues on offense. They seem to have been a one trick pony with Al Cobb last year.

On defense, which should have been somewhat a bright spot for them, they are struggling as well. They surrender 195 yards a game on the ground and 258 through the air. They have allowed opponents to convert third downs at a 55% rate. Part of the problem is they only have a 25 minute time of possession and are -7 in turnovers on the year. Their defense is tired. Against Mercer on the road, their problems may continue.

Mercer has put up some pretty good number on offense. Freshman QB Kaelan Riley has been starting and he will be good. He has gone 67/108 for 776 yards so far with 7 TDs and 4 interceptions. His 196 yards per game through the air and the Bears 133 yards per game on the ground have allowed Mercer to convert about 38% of their third downs. Riley has been sacked only 4 times so far as well. They have been averaging 27 points a game.

On defense the Bears have given up 376 yards a game along with only 21 points. The yards against them have been pretty balanced between pass and rush so far.  They allow third downs to be converted about 48% of the time. That was skewed a bit by their game against Auburn who drove the ball pretty much at will. What kept them close in that game was turnovers. Overall, they at +2 for the year. They only have 2 interceptions and 6 sacks on the year.

Mercer has benefited the most of any SOCON team so far in opponent penalties gaining 73 yards per game on average. They commit about 45 yards a game in penalties on average. They lead the conference in punt return average with almost 15 per return.

Mercer sort of fell apart last week late. They should have won at ETSU, but they just could not finish. They really do play better while down. But don’t expect them to let up this week. They will go up early against VMI and then they will be very methodical in pressing home a victory. Mercer easily wins 42-10.

#24 Western Carolina at Chattanooga 6PM (ESPN3) (WCU notes) (UTC notes)

Who would have thought that by week 5 the Catamounts of WCU would be ranked and the Chattanooga Mocs would not be. Now at 3-1, 1-0 after knocking off a ranked Samford team last week, the Cats are poised to make a run for the Southern Conference Championship. A victory here would be huge for them. Chattanooga, 1-3, 1-0, bounced back big time last week in their dominating win against VMI. A victory here is a must to save the Mocs season. If they lose here, their playoff chances will evaporate unless they pull out a SOCON championship.

WCU has been a offensive machine this year. They have averaged 571 yards a game, 7.6 yards a play and over 40 points a game. That will go down this week for sure, but they have an explosive offense. Cats QB, sophomore Tyrie Adams is 66/107 for 1080 yards with 270 yards per game. He has thrown 10 TDs and only 3 interceptions so far. He is also number 2 in rushing for the Cats on the year with 74 per game. He is easily the best dual threat QB in the conference right now. The leading rusher for WCU has been Detrez Newsome with 139 yards per game. He averages 8 yards per carry. He also averages 20 yards receiving per game and returns kickoffs. They better keep him healthy. Overall the Cats run for 296 yards a game. WCU moves the ball well. They average 25 first downs a game and convert third downs 41% of the time. The Cats QB has been sacked 10 times so far.

While their offense has been exceptional, the Cats defense, which was the big question mark for them this year, has been improved, but is still wanting. They give up 434 yards a game or about 5.6 yards a play. This breaks out to 184 yards rushing and 250 yards through the air. They hold opponents third down conversions to 36%. They have 7 sacks and 5 interceptions so far. Their defense is better, at least a little bit, but when they face a good offense, their weakness become apparent. They gave up 600+ yards last week against Samford. An explosive offense to be sure, but overall they are at least moving in the right direction on defense. They made a nice goal line stand when it counted last week to preserve their win.

WCU’s defense better have their game face on this week against Chattanooga. It is assumed that Alejandro Bennifield will return this week after being suspended for some academic issues. So far the Mocs offensive output has been pretty bad: 270 yards per game or 4.3 yards per play. Compared to previous years that is pitiful. That includes 74 yards on the ground and 196 through the air. Even with their blowout victory last week at VMI, where they had a short field most of the day, they have been anemic on offense under transfer QB Nick TIano. He has also been sacked 11 times so far. This week may be different. They will still have issues running, and Bennifield may be a bit rusty, but the Mocs offense needs to get going if they have any hope to salvage their season.

While their offense has issues, the Moc’s defense is fairly stable. They allow 319 yards per game and 5.6 per play on average. They allow a 38% third down conversion rate. They have grabbed 5 interceptions, but only had 4 sacks which is historically pretty low for them. Overall, they at -2 in turnovers, which has not helped them.

It is going to be important for the Mocs that Bennifield does well in this game. For first year head coach Tom Arth, this will be important as well. Many of the Mocs faithful have already questioned his hiring. A loss here will just get folks up in arms prematurely.  To be fair, this only game 5. It will take him time to establish himself. It might take a year or two. WCU’s offense will be a good test for Chattanooga. Do not expect WCU to put up gaudy numbers this week. The Cats will move the ball, but their averages will take a hit when facing the Moc’s defense. If there was an opponent to have for Bennifield’s first game back, WCU is it. While the Cats defense may be better, they still have not arrived yet. Look for Chattanooga to control but not dominate the game. Mocs win 35-28.

I will also take this time to note the passing of long time Catamount fan Richard McClellan (AKA Catamount Man on AGS). I met Richard last year at a gathering of Upstate SC AGS posters. We also got together for The Citadel/WCU game last year. He was very good host and made me feel at home. I enjoyed his company and will miss him. Rest in peace Richard.

#8 Wofford at Presbyterian 7PM (Big South Network) (Wofford notes)

The Wofford Terriers (3-0, 2-0) have won their games by a total of 5 points. Talk about being close. They have not put up big offensive numbers. They have won by ball control, not turning the ball over, and some stout defense. Presbyterian (2-2) has had a tough time. Wins against Campbell and barely winning against NAIA Cumberland have not taken any of the sting out of losing bad to both Wake Forest and The Citadel. The Blue Hose did not need Wofford this week.

The Terriers have totaled 363 yards per game with most obviously coming on the ground. They average 259 yards a game with 4.9 yard per carry. They have also averaged 104 yards passing each game. Wofford switches out QBs a bit. Their primary passer is senior Brandon Goodson. He is 22/34 for 97 yards a game so far with no interceptions and 1 TD. Like most option teams, Wofford controls their games with steady drives which chew yards and clock. They average about 33 and half minutes a game. They convert third downs about 40% of the time. Fullback Andre Stoddard had a big day this past week against Gardner-Webb with 91 yards on 16 carries and two TDs. He is a beast punching through holes like magic sometimes.

By far the Terriers strength rests with their defense. They have held opponents to 309 yards a game. This includes 122 on the ground with a 3.7 per carry average. Through the air they allow 187 yards a game. They have only had four sacks, but have grabbed 4 interceptions in 3 games. They have allowed opponents to convert third downs 42% of the time. In the red zone on defense they have allowed teams to score 10 out of 11 times, but the point there is they have only have allowed teams into the red zone 11 times in 3 games.

They have attempted three field goal to date, and made all three with a long of 44. They only have a net punting average of 35 yards.

Presbyterian has all sorts of issues on both sides of the ball. They gain only 293 yards a game on offense. They give up 456. They average only 17 points a game. They scored only 7 each against The Citadel and Wake Forest. They will have a hard time moving the ball against Wofford. Coupled with Wofford’s ball hogging ways, Presbyterian will be hard pressed to score many points in this game. The Blue Hose had big issues stopping The Citadel’s running game earlier this year, giving up 435 yards. They will have problems against the Terriers as well. Wofford should easily handle the Blue Hose and win 38-3.

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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