Three conference games, headlined by the preseason Game of the Year, are on tap for Saturday’s action. While it’s just game one for six OVC teams, every conference game is important for teams looking toward a postseason appearance. Along with the OVC games, we see our last non conference games.
Eastern Kentucky at #8 Eastern Illinois (1:30 p.m. CDT)
TV: At OVC Media Day, this was the game that everyone circled on their schedule. The defending OVC champs hosting the preseason number two, and it’s even the ESPN3 OVC Game of the Week.
Both teams come into the game trying to prove something. For the Panthers its that they are can handle the pressure of being the defending champions. In non conference play you don’t have the target on your back every week, now they do.
The offense has been even better than advertised with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo just one touchdown pass away from setting both the school and OVC career touchdown mark and 153 passing yards from the conference’s passing record. Besides the air attack that we have come to know from the Panthers, the ground game has provided another element that defenses must prepare for and EKU would much prefer the yards come on the ground.
The Colonels come in just 2-2 and have found a running back in J.J. Jude at least for the moment. The Colonels are going to try and kill the Panthers by running the ball and keeping the possession very heavy on their side. It’s something Eastern Kentucky thrives in, leading the conference with just under 32 minutes of possession a game; EIU is 8th with 26 minutes of possession. If they can’t convert on 3rd downs, then it could be a long day watching the defense tire.
While we will focus on the defense in our key to victory the Colonels do have major advantage and that’s special teams. Eastern Kentucky has demonstrated their abilities with their ESPN Top 10 play but in close games, the kicking game is huge. EKU has yet to miss a PAT, something EIU needs help in.
Key to Victory: Eastern Illinois passing attack versus the Eastern Kentucky secondary.
Easier said than done as Garoppolo’s career low in passing under Dino Babers is just 220 yards in a win against JSU last year. EIU averages over 400 yards a game in the air and EKU averages just under 300 yards a game in the air. If the Colonels can limit the damage to 275 yards, then it could be a game, breaking the offensive flow the Panthers thrive in.
Tennessee State vs Central State in St. Louis (2 p.m. CDT)
CB: If I’m a St. Louis football fan, who is looking at this game as a potential Saturday distraction, I’m probably a bit confused. Because, for some unknown reason, a FCS team from Tennessee is playing a Division II team from Ohio in our NFL Stadium in Missouri. At least when SIU and SEMO played in St. Louis last week, it was two teams with ties to the area, with a strong alumni base in the area. I’m not sure either of these schools can really claim that.
Given the opponent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ronald Butler under center to start the game. He was fairly solid in last week’s win at Tennessee Tech, and while I don’t think he’ll remain the starter deep into conference season, getting him in-game reps now is great for the freshman’s future. Michael German will almost certainly play; he’s still knocking off the rust, and he’s the more dynamic option when the OVC schedule heats up.
Central State, by the way, is 0-3 against D-II competition this year, having yet to play a D-I opponent. So, this could get ugly early.
Key to Victory: Um, well, remembering what color your team’s jerseys are?
Murray State at Jacksonville State (3 p.m. CDT)
TV: In a series dominated by the Gamecocks, 19-1 all-time against Murray State, we see our first clash of styles. The offensive minded Chris Hatcher against the defensive minded Bill Clark.
For the Racers, the gameplan is simple, get in a flow for the offense. In the Hatch Attack, dump offs put the safeties to sleep so the team can go for the homerun ball later. That has yet to happen against major competition consistently. Walter Powell is coming off a game with just four receptions, not because he was covered but because Maikhail Miller went with short passes. Against the Gamecocks, the offense is going to have to open up or you could see a tenth straight loss to the Gamecocks.
ZW: The biggest question on offense this week is the health of running back Troymaine Pope. Pope sat out last week’s game after getting banged up late versus North Alabama. Against Murray State’s Swiss cheese defense, having Pope back would give the Gamecocks another weapon to help win the game. Last week’s 300+ yard air show by Max Shortell was a drastic improvement from previous weeks; look for more of the same this week.
The defense will finally be tested against the “Hatch Attack” spread offense directed by Coach Chris Hatcher and quarterback Maikhail Miller. Expect the young Gamecocks secondary to be tested early and often. The up-tempo offense will mean lots of front seven rotation and the potential for blown coverages.
As always, the conference opener will be a big measuring stick for the Gamecocks. Coach Clark needs to continue coaching ball security to prevent another 4th quarter meltdown.
Key to Victory: Jacksonville State’s ground game against the Murray State defense.
TV: As referenced by Zack, the Racers run defense has been non existent, allowing 264 yards a game on the ground. Not only does this keep the defense on the field and play perfectly into Jacksonville State’s game plan, it keeps the up-tempo offense on the sidelines waiting. The target number we believe is 175 yards, if the Gamecocks offensive line can win the battle in the trenches for their power running backs, watch out and don’t fall asleep Racer offense.
#23 UT Martin at Southeast Missouri (6 p.m. CDT)
TV: The two teams in the OVC that have yet to name a starting quarterback open conference play against one another.
UTM Head Coach Jason Simpson once again repeated that both quarterbacks will play in the game, then again he said that before the Skyhawks knocked off Central Arkansas in which Jarod Neal saw action in three plays. Dylan Favre is the “unofficial official starting quarterback” to us and we are going to stick with it.
The Skyhawks defense has been the stonewall that Simpson has come to build every year and it allows the offense to play the way they want, balanced with the occasional go for broke approach. That being said fourth quarters have been a problem for the Skyhawks who try and go conservative and put it all on the defense.
Tony Samuel opened the playbook and called passing plays last week, showing they there are some on the Redhawks playsheets. Samuel did stay that while it was nice to throw the ball, the element of surprise is gone and defenses could be ready for it.
SEMO needs to join the rest of the league and throw the ball, especially with no running back stepping up as they had hoped with their leading rushing being Ron Coleman with 79 yards. Kyle Snyder was advertised to bring a passing attack to a running team, now it may be the Redhawks need the arm to go anywhere this season.
Key to Victory: Touchdowns in the red zone
Now we are implying that both offenses do get into the red zone, something one team might not have many chances at so that makes it even more important. Both teams are middle of the conference in both offense and defense when inside the 20 yard line so getting a defensive stand or a touchdown could win the game in the fourth quarter.
Indiana State at Tennessee Tech (7 p.m. CDT)
CB: Tennessee Tech has had a fairly easy non-conference schedule up to this point in the season. They opened the season against a NAIA opponent, took their annual beating at the hands of an FBS opponent, and then traveled to a low-level FCS program in Hampton.
This is not one of those teams. Indiana State is coming off a 7-4 year in the highly vaunted Missouri Valley Football Conference. This year, they’re 1-2, with both losses against FBS opponents, including just a six-point loss at Purdue in Week 2. Tennessee Tech didn’t look great against Tennessee State last week in their OVC opener, and things just get harder this week.
If there’s a phrase to describe the Golden Eagles offense through four weeks of the season, it this: one-dimensional. Tennessee Tech is just one of two OVC teams averaging more yards on the ground (165.5 ypg) than through the air. (149.2 ypg) The other? Austin Peay. It’s not a recipe for success, as without a significant threat through the air, it’s easy for teams to bunch up at the line to try — and often succeed at — stopping your rushing game.
Indiana State is the complete opposite on offense. Despite playing two of their three games against FBS competition, the Sycamores lead the Missouri Valley Football Conference in passing yards per game (288.0 ypg) and are ninth in the conference in rushing. (136.0 ypg) Defensively, they’re going to be a tough team to open up the passing attack against, allowing less than 200 yards a game through the air.
Key To Victory: Stopping the run.
ISU All-American running back Shakir Bell is expected back in the lineup for the Sycamores after missing the last two weeks. He adds that extra dimension to Indiana State’s offensive attack, and if he gets going, that only makes their passing attack potentially more explosive.
Also, it wouldn’t hurt for Tennessee Tech to throw a few balls deep. And maybe catch one or two.