Kudos to Missouri State who are now 3-1 in the league after another road victory, their third of the season. They’ve picked on three of the worst teams in the league in WIU, USD and UNI but three road wins are three road wins for a squad that was picked ninth preseason. Beyond the Bears, the league’s playoff hopefuls did some sorting out this week as SDSU blew out SIU and NDSU did the same to UND. The pool is down to four realistic playoff teams in the MVFC, and likely three of them will get the call. One team that won’t be making any more calls this spring is Illinois State who has opted out of the remainder of the season. Here is where we stand after this week. I am publishing this before the release of the AGS poll so those rankings will not be included.
Week 6: MVFC Power Rankings
1.) South Dakota State (Up Two), 4-1, STATS #4: Jumping to the top of the pile this week is South Dakota State who claims the top spot after an absolutely dominant 44-3 victory over Southern Illinois in Carbondale. SDSU outgained Southern 464-213 in this one while holding possession for over 36 minutes. SDSU forced four SIU turnovers (to just one for SDSU) and had 26 first downs to SIU’s 11. SDSU did all this while completing just eight passes on twelve attempts, instead preferring to lean on a run game that delivered 394 yards on 59 carries. Isaiah Davis was one of three SDSU runners with solid numbers on the day, running for 150 yards on 22 carries for 3 TDs. QB Mark Goronowski showed his versatility by rushing for 103 yards on 13 carries and two TDs while Jordan Meachum added 88 yards on 13 carries. The Jackrabbits missed a field goal and fumbled on their first two possessions, allowing SIU to take a 3-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. But that changed quickly. SDSU scored two TDs and a field goal (on a drive that likely would’ve been a TD had the clock not run out) while SIU fumbled and threw a pick to end the half, giving the Jackrabbits a 17-3 lead at the break. The second half started with an SIU pick, turnover on downs, and another pick, while SDSU added three touchdowns and a field goal to take a 41-3 lead after three quarters. The Jacks added a field goal in the fourth quarter for good measure. South Dakota State is now looking to be very good shape for a playoff spot now even if they lose at NDSU in two weeks. They were scheduled to host Illinois State this Saturday but after the opt out by ISU they’ll look to have the week off and prep for the showdown with the Bison.
2.) North Dakota (Down One), 4-1, STATS #6: It was not a good week for the Fighting Hawks. They are in the midst of their best season as an FCS program, and they went to Fargo thinking they had a chance to really deliver a knockout punch to their in-state rivals. Instead of coming back to Grand Forks with a victory, they are instead reeling after a 34-13 loss. To the Fighting Hawks fans, I say do not despair. Look at the big picture. You are 4-1, and you have Ws over South Dakota State and Southern Illinois in your back pocket. Your remaining schedule is manageable, and you can probably even lose one of your final three games and still get into the postseason. If someone would have told you before the season that you'd be 4-1 at this point in the year, you likely would have taken it. Just stay the course. All that said.....yeah this was not a good week. The Hawks could not stop the Bison running game and were outgained 456-304 overall. Tommy Schuster was just 13-26 for 143 yards, a TD and a pick. Otis Weah had another good day on the ground with 129 yards on 13 carries with a TD, but 74 of that game on one play and he was outshone by NDSU's Hunter Luepke who had 190 yards and 3 TDs. Things started off fine for UND. After allowing a Bison TD early on, they responded with one of their own. Otis Weah scampered 74 yards to paydirt on the first play following a Bison interception to make it 7-6. But NDSU responded with a 16-play 82-yard TD drive to increase the lead back to 14-6. The Hawk offense couldn't get anything going and after NDSU hit on another big play right before half it was 21-6 at the break. UND opened the second half with a TD drive to make it 21-13, but NDSU again responded with a long TD drive of their own to push it back to 28-13. The Fighting Hawks couldn't get anything going after that and NDSU tacked on two field goals to make it a 34-13 final. UND just has to flush it and move on. They'll play at the improving Youngstown State Penguins next week.
3.) North Dakota State (Up One), 4-1 (5-1), STATS #2: You may be wondering how I could have NDSU behind UND after the Bison just kicked the Hawks' butts. And that is a fair question. But I had a dilemma on my hands as the results of last week left the MVFC with three teams with one loss and another with two (not including Missouri State). SDSU had lost to UND in a relatively close one, but had just blown out SIU on the road. UND had wins over SDSU and SIU in their back pockets before they lost to NDSU. The Bison have not had as challenging of a schedule. And after losing to SIU badly this was their first win of note. When it comes down to it, I believe North Dakota is still in better position to qualify for the playoffs than NDSU right now, even after this result. But at the end of the day, NDSU may be the best team in the league. If it is meant to be, Bison fans, you'll find your way to the top of this list soon enough. They certainly look like a team that feels a lot better about itself after their 34-13 shellacking of North Dakota in Fargo. A 55-yard touchdown run put the Bison up 7-0 early, but they continued their struggles at the QB position with interceptions on their next two drives. At that point, Cam Miller entered the game and led the Bison on a TD drive, mostly with his feet and with the help of his running game. Zeb Noland then re-entered the game and threw a 63-yard TD pass right before the half to put the Bison up 21-6. The defense forced the Fighting Hawks to turn it over on downs or punt in five of their six first half drives. The Hawks scored to open the second half and make it 21-13, but NDSU answered with a 14-play 75-yard TD drive in which Hunter Luepke and Dominic Gonella slowly ran the ball bit by bit into the end zone. It was pretty uneventful after that as NDSU played stout defense and tacked on two field goals for the 34-13 win. North Dakota State continues to get little from the QB position as Zeb Noland and Cam Miller combined to complete just 8 of 19 passes for 140 yards, a TD and an interception. But it didn't really matter as the Bison put up 316 yards on the ground and outgained UND 456-304. The defense kept UND's passing attack at bay while Hunter Luepke ran for 190 yards and 3 TDs and Dominic Gonnella added 83 yards on 12 carries. UND will head to the DakotaDome to play South Dakota next weekend.
4.) Southern Illinois (Down Two), 3-2 (4-2), STATS #10: If the playoffs started today, Southern Illinois would probably be on the outside looking in. And that really isn't fair. The Salukis drubbed NDSU earlier this season, ending their 39-game winning streak. However, in their other two games against the top teams in the MVFC the Salukis have been uncompetitive. They got blown out by North Dakota, 44-21, in week one. And now this week they took it on the chin in a big way, losing to South Dakota State 44-3. If you assume the MVFC is only going to get three teams in (and that is what I think is going to happen), the Salukis have to be the odd men out at the moment. Southern actually got off to a pretty good start in this one. They kicked a field goal and forced a Jackrabbit turnover early on. After that, though, it was pretty ugly if you're a fan from Carbondale. SDSU scored on its next seven possessions as the Salukis were able to force only one more punt the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the Salukis possessions ended with: fumble, interception, interception, downs, interception, punt, downs, punt, downs. So yeah.....this one got away from them. Turnovers tell the story in this one (SIU had four to the Jackrabbits one), but it takes more than a few picks and fumbles to cause a disparity like this. The Salukis were outgained 464 to 214 in total yards, with an astronomical difference of 394 to 191 on the ground. SDSU only threw twelve passes the entire game as they were able to do what they wanted on the ground, averaging 6.7 yards per carry in 59 attempts. After a strong debut against UNI, third stringer Stone Labinowitz came back down to Earth, throwing for just 41 yards and a pick. SIU ended up going back to Kare Lyles in the second half and he struggled, completing almost as many passes to Jackrabbits (2) as Salukis (3) in his eight throwing attempts. SIU used two other guys as throwers but none of them were the answer. They could not establish a strong running game either as several guys combined for just 121 yards on 33 carries. SIU is down but not out with a manageable remaining. It starts next week against Missouri State. SIU just needs to win out and hope the chips fall correctly for them to return to the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
5.) Missouri State (Up One), 3-1 (3-4), STATS RV: The committee says they will use fall results when determining playoff spots. If that is true, MSU probably signed their death warrant by playing Oklahoma and UCA twice during the fall and entering the spring season with an 0-3 record. But I don't think the MSU brass thought the Bears would win three road games to start the spring season either. If you disregard the fall results, MSU is 3-1 with three MVFC road victories. Granted, those wins come against three of the worst teams in the league in WIU, USD and UNI, but MSU was supposed to be one of the two walkover wins for MVFC teams this year. No matter how you slice it, Coach Petrino's rebuild is ahead of schedule. It still seems very unlikely, but MSU does still technically have a shot at the league title and automatic berth. That will be true until it isn't. As for last week, the Bears were only able to put up 236 yards and averaged just 1.7 yards per carry on 36 carries for 62 yards. But a 95-yard TD drive on their opening possession held up for the rest of the game as they kept UNI's offense out of the end zone. Six of seven possessions were either punts or interceptions after the initial TD, but it was enough. On their final possession MSU converted with a 14-yard run on 3rd and 9 to ice the game in victory formation. Matt Struck became yet another backup QB to beat UNI converting on 19 of 25 passes for 174 yards, a TD and a pick. The Bears will host SIU next week, if they win that one, we can start talking about the playoffs. As it is, the Bears should be happy with how the season has gone so far.
6.) Youngstown State (Up Two), 1-4, STATS NR: Youngstown State started the season with a gauntlet of tough games and although they never found themselves on the winning side of the scoreboard during the first four weeks of the season they were seemingly edging closer and closer. After 25-7 and 21-0 losses to NDSU and UNI to start the year, they were within eight of SIU (30-22) and had SDSU on the ropes before losing on a last second field goal 19-17. As they hosted USD this week it felt like they were on the precipice of getting over the hump and in the end they did, 28-10 over the Coyotes in a game that wasn't even as close as it seemed. The Penguins had a nice 69-yard TD drive on their first possession and adding three more on a field goal with their next possession. After going into the break up 11-3, they fumbled on their first drive of the second half but USD gave it right back with a fumble of their own. From there they had total control, scoring a TD, a field goal and a TD on their next three drives to take a 28-3 lead. After USD finally scored to make it 28-10, the Penguins had probably their most remarkable drive of the game. They held the ball for over eight minutes, running 15 plays that only covered 45 yards while converting on third down twice and fourth down twice. This ran out the clock. Youngstown QB Mark Waid converted only 9 passes on 13 attempts for 84 yards and a TD, but he didn't need to do much more than that. Running back Jaleel McLaughlin carried the ball 28 times for 166 yards to lead a rushing offense that produced 303 yards total, out gaining the Coyotes on the ground 303-12. YSU is nowhere near a playoff spot, but they are playing good ball and can still play spoiler next week when they host North Dakota.
7.) Northern Iowa (Down Three), 2-3, STATS #22: The UNI fanbase has experienced disappointment and anger, but that has now past. What is setting in right now is apathy, which is worse. The Panthers suffered an exodus of talent after the fall season was cancelled that was probably the biggest of any FCS team. Still, the expectations were high in Cedar Falls. Panther fans had their heart broken twice already with last second losses to SDSU and SIU to effectively end playoff hopes. This week, though, they hit a new low. UNI lost at home to Missouri State 13-6, and never even sniffed the end zone in the process. The Panthers looked completely listless as they only mustered 242 total yards and a remarkably poor 27 rushing yards on 26 carries. They looked unprepared and unfocused as they committed 10 penalties for 57 yards. Freshman QB Justin Fomby looked sharper throwing the ball than Will McElvain who he replaced in the lineup due to COVID, but his final stats of 18-29 for 215 yards and a pick didn't look it. The UNI defense gave up a 95-yard TD drive to open the game and that was all MSU would need as UNI would get into the MSU red zone only once (and would turn a first and goal at the 5 into three points as they are want to do). I would go through the play-by-play here but there isn't much to say. UNI threw a pick, kicked three field goals (and made two) and punted six times. MSU scored a TD on their first possession and kicked two field goals over the course of the remainder of the game. That's it. Mark Farley will probably get a pass due to the COVID defections, but if UNI continues to do less with more into the fall you've got to think he would have to be on the hot seat in Cedar Falls. The Panthers might have a shot to get into the W column next week against WIU, but I wouldn't bet a lot of money on it at this point.
8.) South Dakota (Down One), 1-3, STATS NR: The Coyotes have seemingly regressed each week since their surprising season opening win at Illinois State. Since then, they were beat decisively at UND, gave away a home game against Missouri State and this week got blown out by the previously winless Youngstown State Penguins 28-10. The game wasn't even as close as the score makes it look, as the Coyotes trailed 28-3 before they finally cracked the end zone in the fourth quarter. The Penguins put the game on ice with a remarkable 8-minute fifteen play drive that only covered 45 yards to run out the clock. This type of inconsistency is to be expected when you are starting a true freshman under center like USD is. Connor Camp has a bright future, and he did complete 21-30 passes for 214 yards (and a pick), but he hasn't been able to consistently lead USD to points. The bigger problem has been the ground game, or lack thereof. USD only managed 12 yards on 26 carries. Even if you omit Connor Camp's -26 yards from regularly getting sacked, the USD backs could only cobble together 38 yards on 19 carries. The running game is what led to the Coyotes getting outgained 387-226 despite holding the Penguins to just 84 yards through the air. Out of the playoff hunt, the Coyotes will try and play spoiler when they host NDSU next week.
9.) Western Illinois (Up One), 0-4, AGS NR, STATS NR: The Leathernecks are probably not going to win a game this year, but they have certainly not given up on trying. This week, WIU punted or turned it over on downs on ten of their first eleven possessions against Illinois State. On the other possession they scored a field goal on a three-and-out drive following a turnover. They trailed 23-3 after three quarters. But they remained in this game until almost the bitter end. They orchestrated an 11-play 75-yard TD drive, and after an ISU field goal they put together another 9-play 65-yard TD drive to make the score 26-18. That would be the final score, though, as their defense was unable to stop the Redbirds from converting and they were able to run out the clock on the next possession. While the game was close on the scoreboard it was not close statistically. They were outgained 441-249 and were blown away 274-56 on the ground. WIU was just 2-14 on third down (to ISU's 9-18). The Leathernecks did play turnover free ball and Connor Sampson was 22-42 for 193 yards and a touchdown. Had the Leathernecks been able to put together any type of a run game this might have gone differently. Western did move up a spot in the rankings by simply surviving, as ISU’s opt-out puts the Leathernecks into the 9-spot. WIU hosts UNI next week and will be looking for their first win against the reeling Panthers.
10.) Illinois State (Down One), 1-3, STATS RV: Illinois State opted out of the remainder of the season, citing injuries particularly on the defensive line. This will be the final time they are ranked in these power rankings. The fact that they still received votes in the top 25 despite being 1-3 and OPTING OUT OF THE ENTIRE SEASON is absolutely laughable. That said, the Redbirds got their first (and only) win and statistically dominated the overmatched WIU Leathernecks, but the game still came down to the final minutes with the outcome in doubt. After the defense stopped WIU on downs at midfield in the first quarter, ISU orchestrated a 10-play 52-yard TD drive to take a 7-0 lead. A Bryce Jefferson fumble on the next drive led to a WIU field goal. But the QB made up for the blunder with a long pass and a separate TD pass on the ensuing 4-play TD drive to take a 14-3 lead. That was the score at halftime, and the ISU offense played much better in the second half. They scored on three of their first four drives, while running out the clock on the last drive to hold onto the 26-18 victory. The ISU defense had a great day against the Leathernecks holding them to 249 total yards. They ran out of gas a bit at the end, giving up two long TD drives late, but before that had held the Leathernecks to just 109 yards through three quarters. Bryce Jefferson played his best game, throwing for 167 yards and a TD (as well as a pick) on 17-23 passing, although he wasn't able to do his normal damage on the ground. That honor went to freshman running back Nigel White who ran for 112 yards on 14 carries while another freshman Pha'lek Brown added 108 yards on 21 carries with a TD. The season was still a huge disappointment for the Redbirds, but perhaps ending it with a W will give them some momentum into next year.
Three and a half weeks to go. Should be an exciting finish. See you next week.