The calendars have turned to the final month of regular season college football and now is the time for teams to either keep or lose their pleas for wanting an at-large selection. While the conference is known for basketball and fan bases have already shifted to that, the gridiron in entering it’s push for November Madness.
Tennessee Tech at Eastern Illinois (Noon CDT)
CB: Oh boy. A team that really struggles to put up points and move the football goes to play one of the best offenses in the nation.
In one of their more lackluster performances, Eastern Illinois is coming off 567 yards of offense against the OVC’s top-rated defense in Tennessee State. Jimmy Garoppolo again lead the air raid, throwing for more 400-yards. The Panthers did have a somewhat uncharacteristic two turnovers in the win, and as is their way, missed an extra point.
We all know the offense is great, but what’s really noteworthy is Eastern Illinois’ defense. The Panthers are second in the OVC in scoring defense, fourth in total defense despite an up-tempo offense that gives teams more possessions. They’re second in the league in turnovers forced, hold opponents to a 29% conversion rate on third down, and have allowed just six red zone touchdowns all season. Senior defensive lineman Pat Wertz is second in the conference in sacks, and Jourdan Wickliffe leads the league in forced fumbles.
Winless in the OVC, Tennessee Tech’s struggles on offense are apparent. The Golden Eagles average less than 300-yards a game, better only than lowly Austin Peay. While not outstanding, the defense is serviceable, if they could get any scoring production, and weren’t continually forced to defend a short field after a three-and-out.
One of the bigger issues on offense is their inability to stretch the field. The Golden Eagles have used multiple quarterbacks throughout the year, but neither are a great deep-throw threat. Darian Stone does average more than 10-yards a completion, but it hitting just above 50% of his passes on the year. Freshman Jared Davis isn’t even averaging that, but is slightly more accurate.
For comparison, EIU’s Garroppolo averages more than 14 yards a completion. So does JSU’s Max Shortell.
Key to Victory: TTU hoping for a major let-down game?
CB: If Tennessee Tech has any chance of winning, they need EIU to have a major breakdown following the emotion of their big homecoming win a week ago. By major breakdown, I mean an inability to get off a play.
Tennessee State at Eastern Kentucky (Noon CDT)
While putting a second team in to the postseason appears a given, the OVC’s recent poor history in the FCS playoffs dims the prospects of a potential third Ohio Valley team playing in December. Essentially, that makes this an elimination game, with the loser needing quite a bit of help down the stretch to finish second in the conference.
It’s also a game that could go to the wire: Two of the last three matchups between the Colonels and Tigers were decided by a field goal.
After opening OVC play with a loss at Eastern Illinois, the Colonels have quietly put together a three-game win streak, but did so against opponents who are a combined 4-21. The defense has been outstanding during that stretch, holding all three opponents to 10 or fewer points. Their front seven is especially strong: The Colonels lead the OVC in rush defense, allowing just over 100-yards per game on the ground.
This makes TSU’s quarterback situation a bit more pressing. Freshman Ronald Butler has been solid throughout the year, doesn’t turn over the ball, but like most young players doesn’t throw the ball downfield as often. Michael German missed the Tigers game against Eastern Illinois with an injury, but can provide more a challenge to the EKU secondary if healthy to play.
Another interesting battle is between EKU’s ground attack and TSU’s top-ranked defense. Despite their last three games being against teams with a combined four wins, the Colonels are struggling to move the football at times. The Colonels are middle of the pack in scoring and total offense, and 7th in passing offense with quarterback Jared McClain under center.
Key to Victory: An early lead, and making the most of each possession.
Possessions will likely be at a premium: TSU and EKU are 2nd and 3rd in the OVC in time of possession, both would rather pound the football that attack through the air. A two-possession lead in this game may be near-insurmountable, so getting off to a fast start is key for both teams.
Urbana University at Southeast Missouri (1 p.m. CDT)
CB: Generally, I have a rule. I don’t do previews for games against non-Division I teams. But I’m making a slight exception, and writing a slight preview for this game for one reason: it could be the beginning of a Redhawks win streak.
Key word: could.
After Urbana (which should a win, even with their 6-2 record) the Redhawks host Tennessee Tech and then travel to Austin Peay.
Three in a row? It’s very possible.
It’s the first ever meeting between Southeast Missouri and the Division II school from Ohio. The Redhawks have never lost to D-II school under head coach Tony Samuel. Urbana is led by quarterback D.J. Mendenhall, who has thrown for more than 25-hundred yards and 29 touchdowns.
Murray State at UT Martin (1 p.m. CDT)
TV: A battle between two of the conference’s best wide receivers, it could be another high scoring contest between two teams that need to win out in November.
Just a year ago these two teams met at Stewart Stadium with Derek Carr and Casey Brockman leading their teams to 125 points and over 1,000 yards of passing. This year both of these teams are not the passing teams they were back then so don’t expect those kind of numbers.
Murray State’s once might passing attack is there in the amount of attempts we see, but the yards aren’t there at all. Quarterback Maikhail Miller hasn’t stretched defenses much this year and has depended on his feet in moments. Walter Powell is a leader in the FCS with 13 receiving touchdowns on the year and will be the top assignment for the Skyhawks defense.
The Racers have found a ground game and will need to establish it early in the game if they want to find an offensive rhythm that they haven’t had the majority of the season. Jaamal Berry is coming off one of his best games as a Racer and Duane Brady has recovered from a foot injury that caused him to miss the Racers homecoming contest against Austin Peay.
The Skyhawks could see the return of quarterback Dylan Favre at some point in the game but it is doubtful as he is just weeks removed from a knee surgery. The offense with Jarod Neal at the helm has relied solely on D.J. McNeil to pound the ball up the middle of defenses so that their other weapon can get some opportunities on the outside.
Just like Powell, Jeremy Butler is target of the defense. Butler leads the team with 61 receptions, and has seven of the team’s 12 passing touchdowns. Taking on a Racers secondary that is prone to giving up yards but not points, it could be a nice day for Butler and McNeil.
Key to Victory: Secondary
As mentioned above both teams have elite wide receivers making them the focus of the preview. Quarterbacks Neal and Miller might have to find other targets in order to get double and triple coverage off the star receivers. Whichever defense can keep a star receiver locked down and in normal numbers and not elite yardage, could be leading Martin, Tenn. with a victory.
Jacksonville State at Austin Peay (4:00 p.m. CDT)
CB: Does this fall under my “I don’t preview games against non-Division I teams,” rule? No? Are we sure?
Since rejoining the Ohio Valley Conference in 2007, the Governors have not beaten Jacksonville State. They’re 0-7 all time against the Gamecocks. But they’re coming off their best offensive performance of year: 14 points and two touchdowns, the latter matching their season total, in a loss to UT Martin.
There is a bit of a history watch going on with Austin Peay, and no, it’s not the good kind. Since joining the OVC in 1964–including its 10-year hiatus for non-scholarship football–the fewest number of single-season points scored by the Govs is 68 by the 1964 team. The year before before joining the OVC the Governors tallied just 24 points in 1963. That second record isn’t in jeopardy, but the first? The Govs have 40 points this season with four games to go.
Jacksonville State is banged up all over the field, but especially at the skill positions. Quarterback Max Shortell is expected back, (but is he really needed?) but two his top targets at wide receiver remain out.
If JSU is going to make a playoff push, they’re going to need some help. The Gamecocks have already lost to Tennessee State this year, and still have Eastern Illinois on their schedule, along with Eastern Kentucky.
As a note, Gamecocks safety Brandon Bender will miss the first half of the game for violation of the new targeting rule last week against Tennessee Tech.