As we reach the (almost) midway point of the MVFC season, we are likely down to four possible playoff teams. Illinois State is 0-3, South Dakota lost its second game unexpectedly to Missouri State, and UNI fell to 2-2 with losses to SDSU and SIU. UNI now is squarely behind SDSU, SIU and UND and it is doubtful they would get chosen over any of those teams, nor is it likely the MVFC gets three of the six possible at-large bids. It is down to three Dakotas and SIU, who is looking to end a long playoff drought. With that said, here are the power rankings for this week.
Week 5: MVFC Power Rankings
1.) North Dakota (No Change), 4-0, AGS #1, STATS #2: The Fighting Hawks continued their undefeated season with an easy W over Western Illinois, 38-21. UND controlled the game, jumping out to a 31-7 lead before cruising to the win. QB Tommy Schuster was a stud in North Dakota’s first road game as an MVFC team, completing 29 of 37 passes for 328 yards and three scores. The Hawks had a pair of runners fall just short of the century mark as Otis Weah ran for 99 yards on 17 carries while Luke Skokna added 97 on 15. The Fighting Hawks were 8/12 on third down and outgained the Leathernecks 544-362. That includes a 216-26 advantage on the ground where the UND defense held WIU to 1.9 yards a carry. The Fighting Hawks scored on five of their first six possessions (the other was a turnover) and punted only once against the entire game the struggling WIU defense. Incredibly, UND had possession of the football for over 41 minutes of the game, completely controlling the pace. North Dakota now has a huge throwdown with North Dakota State coming up on Saturday. If they win that one, they could take an L in one of their final three games and still guarantee they win the league automatic bid. The Fighting Hawks have a manageable schedule down the stretch and with wins over SIU and SDSU under their belt they are already are looking good for a playoff berth no matter what happens against the Bison. Crazily, NDSU needs the win much more than UND. That has to feel good to the Fighting Hawk faithful.
2.) Southern Illinois (Up Two), 3-1 (4-1), AGS #5, STATS #5: Southern Illinois came back from a 13-0 halftime deficit and hung on for dear life in the final moments, beating UNI 17-16 and putting themselves in great position for a playoff berth. It wasn’t a pretty start for SIU, who was probably lucky to be down just 13-0 at halftime after a first half in which they found just about every way not to score. They punted, fumbled, turned a ball over on downs and threw an interception in the first frame while the Panthers drove the ball inside the ten in four of their five first-half drives but only came away with 13 points. The Salukis flipped the script in the second half, though, as they had three long drives to begin the period that resulted in two TDs and a field goal. The last TD drive was led by SIU’s third string QB, Stone Labanowitz, after starting QB Nic Baker went down with an injury. It gave SIU a 17-16 lead. Both defenses would stand tall from there, although UNI threatened to pull it out with an extremely late big play that got them down inside the red zone again. But a 30-yard field goal attempt went wide left and SIU were the winners. SIU had by far the best day of any offense against the UNI defense so far this season, gaining 416 yards. They converted on 7-13 third downs while UNI was 0-9, and their QBs combined to go 20-28 through the air for 228 yards, two TDs and a pick. Romeir Elliot carried the load on the ground with 80 yards on 20 carries. The Salukis have set themselves up well for a playoff spot with wins over NDSU and UNI, and a loss to only undefeated UND. They have a HUGE one with SDSU on Saturday, the winner of which is home free for a playoff spot. The loser will still have a decent shot though. SIU’s playoff drought is in serious jeopardy.
3.) South Dakota State (Down One), 3-1, AGS #6, STATS #6: It wasn’t pretty, but SDSU hung on to beat Youngstown State in Brookings, 19-17. The win sets up a massive matchup between the Jackrabbits and the Salukis in Carbondale next weekend. Things started off swimmingly for SDSU as they drove 75 yards in six plays for a TD on their opening drive. They added a field goal on their next drive (after a YSU interception) to go ahead 10-0 early. The Penguins battled back for a TD on their next drive, and the defenses controlled the action the rest of the way into the break. SDSU had two more long drives to start the second half that resulted in a TD and a missed field goal to put the Jacks up 16-7. But later in the game Youngstown was able to turn an interception into a TD to take a 17-16 lead. Getting the ball back with 2:31 to go, freshman QB Goronowski engineered his second come-from-behind game winning drive already this season. He drove SDSU 67 yards in ten plays, setting up a game winning 29 yard field goal by Cole Frahm (which SDSU made, unlike UNI in a similar situation). The Jackrabbits outgained YSU in total yards 300-251 as the Penguins were only able to muster 55 yards through the air. Goronowski was just 12-28 for 158 yards, a TD and a pick. Pierre Strong carried 21 times for 124 yards. SDSU could just as easily be 1-3 as 3-1 if it weren’t for two huge game winning drives by Goronowski who is proving to be a gutsy QB as a freshman. The Jackrabbits will lineup against SIU in Carbondale on Saturday in what could be a playoff spot determining game.
4.) North Dakota State (No Change), 3-1 (4-1), AGS #7, STATS #4: NDSU improved to 3-1 on the MVFC season with their 21-13 win over Illinois State, but I doubt most Bison fans are thrilled wit the performance. The Bison took a 14-0 lead early, but struggled to the finish. After throwing a pick on their first possession, the NDSU defense forced a punt that Jayden Price returned 85 yards to paydirt. North Dakota State orchestrated an eight play, 67-yard TD drive on their next possession to claim a 14-0 lead. The Bison defense shut down Illinois State for the rest of the half, but they weren’t able to do much with the ball themselves and they went into halftime up 14-0. The Bison offense continued to struggle in the second half, with turnovers on their first two possessions. The second cost them a chunk of their lead as ISU was able to convert it into a TD to cut the lead to 14-7. Two punts later ISU put together their best drive of the game and scored again to make it 14-13. To their credit, with the game on the line, the NDSU offense came through with a 13-play 84-yard TD drive to push the lead back to 21-13. ISU drove to midfield on their final possession but stalled there for the final 21-13 margin. The defenses were the story in this one, as neither team surpassed 300 yards of offense. QB play was nowhere to be seen. Zeb Noland was 6/13 for 72 yards and two picks leading to his finally being benched. Cam Miller came in and was an improvement over Noland, going 5/7 for 61 yards. Miller was also the Bison’s leading rusher with 72 yards on the ground. Has NDSU found their QB to right the ship moving forward? NDSU is now 3-1, but all their wins have come against the league’s bottom half while their lone game against a top-half team was a 38-14 loss to SIU. We’ll find out just how good they are as they begin their gauntlet of three Dakota schools in three weeks followed by a trip to the UNI-Dome. They start by hosting North Dakota on Saturday.
5.) Northern Iowa (Down Two), 2-2, AGS: #11, STATS #10: In a given year, a football team may have one absolutely heartbreaking loss that they feel they absolutely gave away. Maybe in a bad year they might have a couple. However, the UNI Panthers seem to deliver heartbreak at least once a month. They did it for the second time in four games this Saturday as they missed two short field goals and failed to capitalize on several opportunities in a 17-16 loss to Southern Illinois. The Panthers took a 13-0 lead into the locker room at halftime, although they had to feel like it should have been more. UNI drove into the red zone (often inside the ten) four times in five first half drives, and only came away with one TD and two field goals. The TD required the assistance of two questionable defensive penalties on third down and it STILL took until fourth down for UNI to be able to punch it in. In the second half, the typical UNI script started to unfold. SIU scored on its first three possessions, doing just enough to take a 17-16 lead late in the fourth quarter. UNI stayed quiet until an absolute last-ditch effort, a 52-yard pass on fourth and ten from their own 24, set up a chance for them to steal a victory at the very end. But alas, their 30-yard field goal went wide left with 7 seconds left, and they lost yet another close one. The Panther defense had its worst game of the season so far, giving up 416 yards of offense including 192 on the ground, but this one can once again be blamed on the UNI offense. Will McElvain was mediocre once again, going 10-22 passing, although it was probably his best game of the season. He did throw for 254 yards but most of that was on three long passes. He remains stuck on one TD pass for the season. UNI now finds itself without a realistic path to the postseason. They’re squarely behind UND, SDSU and SIU and it is unlikely the MVFC will get four teams in. It appears they have wasted yet another championship caliber defense. They host Missouri State next week.
6.) Missouri State (Up Three), 2-1 (2-4), AGS RV, STATS NR: Are the Bears playoff contenders? I’m not sure I would go that far yet, but they are an intriguing 2-1 after ruining South Dakota’s home opener, 27-24 on Saturday. The Bears were beaten statistically as the Coyotes outgained Missouri State 440-330. The turnovers weren’t a huge factor either, as the Coyotes had only one to MSU’s zero. In the end, the Bears just found a way to win. Both teams punted on their first two drives before both had consecutive scoring drives. USD scored two TDs while MSU had a TD on a kickoff return and a field goal. Then MSU had the biggest play of the game with a 36-yard pick six by Montrae Braswell to take a 17-14 lead. USD added a field goal and ended the half with an 83-yard drive that resulted in a missed 24 yard field goal. The game was tied at 17 at the break. Both teams started the second half with two punts and a TD, making the score 24-24 after three quarters. In the fourth, MSU caught another break as they were able to block a 44-yard Coyote field goal attempt. They then drove down the field for a field goal, forced a quick USD punt. They ran out the clock on their final drive, securing four first downs to ice the 27-24 win. Missouri State’s quarterback Jaden Johnson was 16/25 for 162 yards through the air before leaving the game late with an injury. Jeremiah Wilson ran for 53 yards and a TD on 13 carries. We’ll get a chance to see just how “for real” MSU is when they head to UNI on Saturday.
7.) South Dakota (Down One), 1-2, AGS RV, STATS RV: South Dakota opened its new and improved DakotaDome this weekend with a disappointing loss to Missouri State. Missed opportunities were the name of the game for the heavily favored Coyotes who outgained the Bears 440-330 but missed two field goals, gave up a kickoff return TD and threw a pick six in the 27-24 loss. Freshman QB Carson Camp was a decent 22 of 34 for 339 yards, a TD and a pick. Running back Kai Henry ran for 76 yards and a TD on 23 carries. However, the defense was unable to force a turnover the entire game. After both teams started the game with two punts, the Coyotes engineered a short TD drive to take a 7-0 lead. MSU responded by returning the ensuing kick 100 yards for a score. Undaunted, USD engineered another quick TD drive to take a 14-7 lead. On the next drive MSU converted on three third downs and kicked a field goal to make it 14-10. They took the lead on USD’s next drive when Camp threw a pick six. On the next drive USD drove 83 yards to the MSU two where they had it first and goal but were only able to get a field goal out of it. On the next drive they again drove inside the ten but missed a 24-yard field goal. The Coyotes went into halftime tied at 17 when they probably felt they should be up 28-3. USD took a 24-17 lead in the third quarter on a couple of long Connor Camp passes, but MSU answered with a long TD drive, converting on 4th down at one point and scoring on third and goal from the six. South Dakota’s final frustration came when their 44-yard field goal was blocked and MSU drove down and kicked a field goal on their next drive to take a 27-24 lead. MSU ran out the clock on their next drive, getting four first downs and converting twice on third to seal the win. If the Coyotes avoid the pick-six and play solid special teams, they probably win this one 38-13. Instead it was a frustrating 27-24 loss. They’ll hope to work out their frustrations at Youngstown next Saturday.
8.) Youngstown State (No Change), 0-4, AGS NR, STATS NR: The Penguins nearly pulled off a coup in Brookings, losing on a late field goal to SDSU 19-17. Any loss stings, but this one at least shows that YSU is making strides under their new coach. Despites additional player defections earlier this week, YSU was clearly not intimidated by the highly touted Jackrabbits. After quickly falling behind 10-0, YSU went to work with a long TD drive highlighted by a 42-yard TD run by Jaleel McLaughlin to make it 10-7 at half. They actually had a chance to tie after an interception set them up with great field position, but had a 43 yard field goal blocked. In the second half, SDSU got another quick TD drive to take a 16-7 lead, but YSU answered with a field goal and later scored a TD after an interception set them up in the red zone. They forced an SDSU punt on the next possession but went three-and-out on their next try. SDSU got the ball with just under three minutes to go and for the second time this year slowly moved down the field for the winning score, which they tacked on with 30 seconds to go. I doubt YSU and their fans want to look at this as a “moral victory”, but it really is. The kids now know they can hang with a squad like SDSU. One of Youngstown’s problems was QB Mark Weid who only completed 7 of 13 passes for 55 yards. But McLaughlin made up for it on the ground with 122 yards and two scores. The Penguins have now finished a gauntlet of NDSU, UNI, SIU and SDSU to start their season. There is reason to believe things will get better for them, starting with this weekend as they host USD.
9.) Illinois State (Down 2), 0-3, AGS RV, STATS RV: Illinois State has a quarterback problem. A dual-threat QB at the FCS level is usually just a guy who can run well. Bryce Jefferson is starting to look like one of those guys. He completed just nine of 26 passes for 124 yards, a TD and a pick in Illinois State’s 21-13 loss to North Dakota State. ISU has now played three hard-fought games, but have yet to come up with a win. Now, the preseason #7 team is likely out of the playoff race. ISU played hard and their defense did a number on NDSU, holding them to 287 total yards. They forced four Bison turnovers and five punts, but it wasn’t enough as the Redbirds punted or threw a pick on their first eight possessions and couldn’t get anything going offensively. ISU had 133 yards on the ground but it took them 41 carries to do it (a 3.2 ypc average) and they just really struggled. After falling behind 14-0 early, including an NDSU punt return, ISU drove to the Bison 24 late in the first half before an interception ended their chance. In the second half, the ‘Birds were able to turn an NDSU fumble into a 47-yard touchdown drive. They got within one on their best offensive series of the game, a ten-play 80-yard TD drive early in the fourth quarter. NDSU answered with a drive of their own and the ‘Birds could only get to midfield on their final try, losing 21-13. Illinois State will have an opportunity to get off the schnide at home against Western Illinois next week.
10.) Western Illinois (No Change), 0-3, AGS NR, STATS NR: The Leathernecks are actually moving the ball a little bit, they are just completely unable to stop anybody. Last week, WIU gave up 42 first half points and 531 total yards against SDSU. This week was a slower paced game but Western still gave up four TDs and a field goal on their first six defensive possessions as North Dakota racked up 544 yards and held the ball for over 41 minutes in WIU’s 38-21 loss. The game wasn’t even as close as the score makes it look as UND had a 31-7 lead late in the third quarter. On the positive side, WIU was able to move the ball a little bit. They weren’t able to establish any type of running game as they were only able to muster 26 yards on the ground. However, QB Connor Sampson was once again effective, completing 33 of 47 passes for 336 yards and a score. The Leathernecks are going to need a better effort from their defense, and they will need to establish some type of running game if they want to avoid a winless season. They hit the road to face Illinois State in a battle of winless teams next week.
We’ve got some big ones next week! I am looking forward to seeing the playoff picture take shape as we move into the second half of the season. Until then, sayonara.