The regular season comes to an end this week in the FCS and for the conference it is all about playing for the future and seniors embracing that final moment doning their team’s jersey. While the conference’s automatic berth has been clinched and the potential at-large team from the OVC is off, this week still offers us all those plays and memories that will have to last us until spring.
Eastern Kentucky at Murray State (12:00 p.m. CDT)
TV: In a battle of two of the conference’s founding members, this rivalry has been anything but competitive. The Colonels have won the last eight meetings against the Racers and haven’t lost in Murray since 1999.
Things are different though. Both Murray State and Eastern Kentucky have failed to live up to preseason expectations and will have open quarterback competitions during the spring even though both starting quarterbacks return next season. Coming into the season it was Jared McClain and Maikhail Miller who were tasked with getting their team’s victories, now McClain has a short leash and Miller watches the games on the sideline. You can’t blame either coaching staff for making the changes, as both have struggled with turnovers and inconsistent play.
With quarterback issues the running game has become crucial for the offenses and we could see a very short game due to both teams pounding the rock. Well at least we should and we know EKU will do that, Murray State should follow that.
Eastern Kentucky has been a share the load type of team with four players with at least 85 carries on the year. The team has combined for over 2,000 yards but doesn’t have a running back with 700 yards. J.J. Jude leads the team with 609 yards on 150 carries and has six touchdowns, McClain leads the team with seven scores.
For Murray State it seems Chris Hatcher is trying almost pressing to use his style of play. With All-American Walter Powell out for the season, the Racers only ran the ball 17 times last week against the Tigers. Maybe they are hoping teams are going to expect the offense to change but in football you have to get the ball to your best player and for Murray State that is running back Jaamal Berry. Berry has had big games when the offense is put on his shoulders and in his final game for the Racers, he will look to run all over the second best rushing defense in the conference.
Eastern Illinois at UT Martin (1:00 p.m. CDT)
TV: The Panthers have already wrapped up the OVC championship for the second straight season and will now look to go undefeated in the conference, something that hasn’t happened since 2007 when EKU claimed the title. For Martin, it’s a last ditch effort to get in the discussion for an at-large bid but even with a win over the No. 2 team in the country it seems unlikely.
The Skyhawks defense is going to have to pick its Panther poison and it seems both may be lethal. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown for over 4,000 yards on the season which makes game planning for the passing attack a key priority. The other game plan is having to account for running back Shepard Little who has exploded onto the scene since the Panthers 55-33 win against SEMO. Including the Redhawks game, Little has rushed for 762 yards on just 99 carries (7.7 yards per carry!) and scored nine touchdowns on the ground. Little’s performances has shot him from middle of the pack in the conference for running backs to the top of the lists as he averages over 107 yards per game.
While the Skyhawks defense will have to deal with the Panthers, UT Martin is coming off a thrilling win over Eastern Kentucky. The ground attack from the Skyhawks will be used to shorten the game but if EIU can get up 14 or 21 points then the Skyhawks will have to throw the ball, something they haven’t done too well this season. In the win last week the Skyhawks ran for over 200 yards and passed for just over 150 yards. Being down the Skyhawks may need 250 yards passing from Jarod Neal or Dylan Favre, so maybe Jeremy Butler can get open or we could see the game dictated by EIU like we have seen all year long.
Austin Peay at Tennessee Tech (1:30 p.m. CDT)
ZW: What we are dubbing as the Pride Bowl, Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech square off in what could be the hardest game to watch this year. With both teams at the bottom of he conference, the only thing left to do is beat the other team and say, “At least we didn’t finish last.”
Saturday’s matchup will be won based on quarterback play (or the lack thereof). If one of the gunslingers can manage to get over 200 yards, their team will win. That’s easier said than done unfortunately.
TV: I see this game as the OVC Future Bowl. Both teams have very young but talented pieces that have taken their growing pains against the rest of the conference. Quarterbacks Timarious Mitchell, Andrew Spivey of Austin Peay and Jared Davis and Darian Stone have all played late in the season. These two teams have amazing young running backs in Omar Williams and Ladarius Vanlier. On the outside the Govs have Darryl Clack and TTU counters with Krys Cates. The other side of the ball has been a struggle but it will come in time.
Southeast Missouri at Jacksonville State (3:00 p.m. CDT)
ZW: Jacksonville State hosts SEMO as it’s last chance to get some style points to win a playoff bid. While it’s unlikely that will happen, JSU is a big time favorite against the Redhawks because SEMO can’t air it out and stretch the field. The Gamecock defense will load the box and blitz against SEMO until quarterback Scott Lathrop proves he has a big time arm to go along with his athletic running skills.
Going into the game, running back DaMarcus James has a shot to break the OVC record for rushing touchdowns. On the other side of the field, SEMO likes to run the ball as well and will likely do so more than 75% of their snaps on Saturday. With somewhat wet conditions expected, there may be more than a few turnovers and that could be what sparks either a blowout by JSU or a late season upset by the Redhawks.
With all but one game left to play, we know where both teams stand, and all signs point to a lopsided win for Jacksonville State. A nine win season would be considered an incredible success story among the conference when you consider the critical injuries that have left the Gamecocks scrambling for offensive weapons. If SEMO can pull off the unlikely upset, they will save their season with a win against one of the conference’s best teams.