By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
Only the CAA champs, Towson, are fortunate enough to be at home and they're playing a 10-1 team. No such thing as an easy game this time of year! There are no polls and little other news this week, so let's get down to business. (If you missed last week's recaps you can find them here)
THIS WEEK'S GAMES
James Madison at North Dakota State
Let's kick things off with the Dukes heading to Fargo, ND to take on the the #2 seeded Bison. This is the first meeting for the schools and the longest trip, in terms of miles, in the history of the James Madison program. The Missouri Valley Football Conference champs will welcome Mickey Matthews and company to the FargoDome and hope to do what Eastern Kentucky couldn't accomplish last weekend, i.e. be more physical than James Madison and execute a similar style of play better.
We all know what JMU is going to try to do with a heavy influence on the running game and let Justin Thorpe and his stable of running backs control things offensively. The Dukes will also try to defend the run and pressure the quarterback.
For North Dakota State, it's a similar formula although they will put the ball in the air a little more. Quarterback Brock Jensen completes 70% of his passes and averages 20-22 passes a game, while the two-headed running game features Sam Ojuri and D.J. McNorton. Ojuri averaged almost six yards a carry while McNorton was just shy of 5 while the two combined for 19 touchdowns. Jensen threw for only 11 scores, but was intercepted just a couple of times. The offensive balance was a big part of the 10-1 record that North Dakota State rode all the way to a #1 ranking a few weeks ago.
The Bison are the only team left in the playoffs who knocked off an FBS school this season, and their schedule was a quality one as the Missouri Valley is a deep conference that could have had as many as five playoff teams before some disappointing losses the last weekend.
A lot of teams would be intimidated heading into the FargoDome against a team this solid, accomplished and physical. However, James Madison is used to hostile environments in the CAA and more than ready to go toe-to-toe with the Bison. I've kind of had a feeling about this game since the playoff field was announced and still do. In a mild upset, I think the Dukes leave Fargo with a win.
Dukes are Up 24, Bison out to Pasture 20
Maine at Appalachian State
Nine years ago, when the same two teams last met in the postseason, Maine went down to Boone, NC and came away with a surprising 14-13 victory. However, coach Jack Cosgrove knows that this time will be different. He's still hoping to head back to Orono with another upset, but the game will be almost a polar opposite of that contest. As he recollected on this week's coaches call, the Black Bears were down to their third string quarterback that day, but they were a heavy I formation running team and were able to grind out a win. Appalachian State was also a tailback focused offense, a world away from the spread formation that Jerry Moore has used to win three national championships in the last decade.
Maine won at JMU earlier this year so I don't expect them to be overwhelmed by the moment, especially with the senior leadership of Warren Smith and Pushaun Brown on offense. I also expect that both teams will be able to move the ball. Given that, I think that the game will come down to the breaks and bounces that so often are the difference in the playoffs. Maine got a bunch of those early this year as they jumped out to a great start, but they started to show some holes in late losses to Towson and New Hampshire. While there's no shame in losing to those playoff teams, the turnovers that started to pop up in those games will prove deadly in a road playoff game.
While this is not an Appalachian team on the level of some recent years, it's still a dangerous squad that knocked off Georgia Southern, a team thought to be the best in the country. With DeAndre Presley moved from quarterback to more of an all-field threat, they can challenge a defense in a number of ways.
All in all, I expect a strong effort from a Maine team that's been good on the road all season. With two weeks to get healthier, I think Brown will be ready to compete at the level he held earlier this season. Still, Maine has shown a habit of falling behind and needing some good fortune to close out several games this year. That's not a recipe for success at Kidd-Brewer stadium. Mountaineers get a little bit of revenge from 2002.
Boys from Boone 31, No Go Orono 23
Old Dominion at Georgia Southern
What else can you say, but welcome to FCS, Monarchs! First, you get crosstown foe Norfolk State and after dispatching them the reward is a road game against arguably the best team in the country, Georgia Southern.
I've been on the Monarch bandwagon all year and at mid-season forecasted a 9-2 finish. Also, I think Taylor Heinicke and the offense will have success moving the ball against a good Eagle defense. But these games aren't decided on offense. Any game against Georgia Southern comes down to one thing and one thing only. Can your defense, especially given only one week, stop the vaunted triple option attack?
The offense that put Statesboro, GA on the map under Erk Russell in the 80s and early 90s has made good defenses look bad for decades. For those who didn't notice, Georgia Southern even made hay a couple of weeks ago against an Alabama defense that many feel is one of the best the country has seen in many years. Quarterback Jaybo Shaw and company can move the ball against anyone and probably gave Bobby Wilder and his defensive coaches staff a couple of sleepless nights this week.
Unfortunately, this is not a great Old Dominion defense. It's a solid unit, but both Towson and Delaware, the two best offenses they faced this year, were able to move the ball against them. Georgia Southern will present an even tougher challenge, so I think the Monarchs will be forced to outscore them to win. Can it be done? Sure. This team has shown itself to be explosive offensively, case in point last week when Heinicke led a 35-0 run in the middle of the game against Norfolk State.
However, in the end I think the Monarchs highly successful first CAA year comes to a close where many other teams have seen their playoff dreams die. Tell the 12th Monarch to cue up the Allman Brothers "Statesboro Blues".
Eagles 37, Monarchs 27
New Hampshire at Montana State
There are few things more reliable in college football than New Hampshire playing a road game in the FCS playoffs. The Wildcats stretched the longest-running playoff streak in FCS to nine this year and were rewarded with a trip to the wonderful outpost of Bozeman, Montana. The Bobcats of Montana State had visions of a possible #1 or #2 seed but were pounded by their archrival Montana in the Brawl of the Wild two weeks ago. Did the loss expose a weakness or was it just a poor performance in a rivalry game? We'll find out on Saturday afternoon.
New Hampshire will head to Big Sky country armed with the highest scoring offense in the CAA and they should be able to score, even against a pretty solid Bobcat defense. The question, as usual, will be on the other side of the ball. The movie "A River Runs through it" is set in Missoula but many of the scenes were filmed in Bozeman. Coach Sean McDonnell will be hoping that he doesn't see the Montana State offense running through his defense all day.
While Darius McGhee is the Bobcats' marquee player, it's the running game that has done much of the damage for the home team this year. The team rushed for more than 200 yards seven times and scored more than 40 points in each of those games. Sophomore Cody Kirk amassed almost 1,300 yards along with 14 touchdowns and his teammate junior Tray Robinson added almost 600 more. They will put pressure on an average New Hampshire defense that has been susceptible to the run, most notably in the recent game against Towson when they surrendered 56 points.
I think this game will come down to Montana State's mindset after the humbling loss to Montana and whether or not the Wildcats can win the turnover battle. If they can't force McGhee into a mistake or two, I think New Hampshire will fall short again.
Agricultural College of the State of Montana 34, New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts 27
GAME OF THE WEEK
Lehigh at Towson
The only game of the week between conference champions kicks off at Unitas Stadium at 3:30. It's also the only game between former conference foes. And it's certainly the only one involving a team that was honored by the President this past week.
It's all new territory for a Towson program enjoying a spot in the FCS playoffs for the first time in its history. Given all the attention that has been lavished on the Tigers in the last two weeks, it will be imperative for coach Rob Ambrose to keep his team focused on the job in hand. It's easy to let something like a visit from the President distract from the importance of the game at hand and we'll find out Saturday if the Towson coaching staff has done its job.
For Lehigh, the playoffs are old hat, and most of this group was on hand when the Engineers pulled off the upset at Northern Iowa in last year's postseason. The Patriot League champs are 10-1 for a reason and will not be intimidated facing a road game against the CAA's best squad.
Lehigh is led by Chris Lum, the impressive quarterback named earlier this week as one of the three Payton award finalists (Sports Network) to go along with being Patriot League player of the year. The senior completed 67% of his passes for 3,700+ yards and 31 touchdowns. Lehigh's only loss of the season was in overtime to New Hampshire early in the season before rolling through the Patriot League schedule undefeated for the second straight year.
Towson's offense is built around Terrance West, who led FCS with 27 touchdowns this year, a remarkable achievement for a freshman. The newcomer finished in the top 10 of the Payton Award voting and probably would have been a threat for the top 3 if he was an upperclassman.
Towson's defense is not in the class of its offense, as evidenced by several games in which the Tigers simply outscored the opposition (most notably the Richmond game in which the Spiders never punted). Fortunately, the offense converts so many third downs and controls the ball enough that the defense is not asked to win games.
So, expect plenty of fireworks at Unitas Stadium on Saturday evening. Lehigh is used to playing CAA teams and is used to winning games, period. The Engineers will give Rob Ambrose and his team a stiff challenge. However, I think this Towson team is on a special run and although I expect some early butterflies from the young group, eventually West, Enders and others will be too much for their old conference foes. Lehigh holds a 10-1 edge in the series, but they've never faced a Towson team of this quality. The Turnaround Tigers keep rolling.
Towson 37, Lehigh 31
Northern Iowa over Wofford
Sam Houston State over Stony Brook
Montana over Central Arkansas
Georgia Southern over Appalachian State
Montana over Northern Iowa
Montana State over Sam Houston State
Towson over James Madison
Georgia Southern over Towson
Montana over Montana State
Georgia Southern over Montana
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Enjoy the games this weekend and always feel free to offer thoughts, advice, criticism and scouting reports at email@example.com.