FCS’ 2021 spring season continues to make us say, “Wait, WHAT?” The season’s eighth full week was no exception.
Kennesaw State was favored over Monmouth in the de facto Big South title game, and Monmouth won, 42-17. In Sunday’s Northeast Conference Championship, road underdog Sacred Heart lost a two-score lead in the fourth quarter but completed a fourth-and-14 bomb in overtime and won. Third-ranked Weber State moved to 5-0 and won the Big Sky with its fourth straight by-the-skin-of-the-teeth escape, this one over Idaho State. North Dakota State thought seriously about losing to Northern Iowa. Southeastern Louisiana overcame a double-digit deficit against Nicholls, then almost blew one as well. Mercer upset ETSU. Morehead State upset Valparaiso. Presbyterian upset Davidson. Alabama A&M hung 533 yards and 52 points on a cratering Jackson State defense. Of 26 weekend games, 11 were decided by one score.
The spring season has managed to pack a full season’s worth of drama into just a couple of months, and we’re only just beginning. Quite a few playoff spots are on the line in Week 9 — playoff selection is on Sunday — and we’ve got five ranked-versus-ranked battles to look forward to. Let’s preview maybe the spring’s most dramatic weekend yet.
Finally, the Dakota Marker
On March 20, in a pair of battles between top-10 Missouri Valley teams, No. 6 South Dakota State pummeled No. 5 Southern Illinois, 44-3, while No. 4 North Dakota State pushed second-ranked upstart North Dakota around, 34-13. But these teams have combined to play just two games in the three weekends since — an SIU loss to Missouri State on March 27 and NDSU’s 23-20 win over Northern Iowa last Saturday.
Cancellations and postponements have dominated MVFC story lines, but it appears the numbers of available players are beginning to look favorable again. Granted, North Dakota, now No. 6, still won’t get a game in this weekend after Youngstown State had to cancel, but SIU scheduled a home game against a top-20 Southeastern Louisiana, and more importantly, we finally get our Dakota Marker game. NDSU-SDSU was originally scheduled for April 3, but it got moved to the eve of the playoff.
Odds are good that both the Bison and Jackrabbits will make the 16-team playoff field regardless of what happens in Fargo, but the winner will end up MVFC co-champion (alongside North Dakota and Missouri State) and will snare one of the top seeds in the playoffs.
What should we expect? Well, this is still NDSU-SDSU, so … physicality! SDSU runs the ball over 60% of the time; running back Pierre Strong is healthy again after missing the SIU game, and in his absence against the Salukis, backup Isaiah Davis rushed for 150 yards and three scores. Against UNI, meanwhile, NDSU leaned on the run as it has all spring — Hunter Luepke and Dominic Gonnella combined for 29 carries and 125 yards, and quarterback Zeb Noland was able to complete passes of 61, 36 and 25 yards against wrong-footed safeties. Whoever controls the line of scrimmage will win the Dakota Marker, as always.
Finally, Richmond-JMU too
Like NDSU-SDSU, the original JMU-Richmond game was also supposed to happen on April 3, but it got canceled, just as two other JMU games have; the unbeaten Dukes have played just once since March 6, which means they need Saturday’s game against the Spiders both to secure a potential Colonial Athletic Association title and knock off some rust before the playoffs.
The Dukes’ last game, a 38-10 win over William & Mary on March 27, was probably their best to date. They averaged 6.6 yards per play to the Tribe’s 4.0, jumping out to a quick and emphatic early lead and cruising. The defense, a strength all season, didn’t allow a touchdown until garbage time, and an offense that has been jittery at times looked strong: Cole Johnson completed 16 of 22 passes for 220 yards, while Kaelon Black rushed for 141. Johnson struggled enough early on that he was benched in favor of backup Gage Moloney, but Moloney was unavailable against W&M due to COVID-19 testing and tracing, and Johnson made the most of his extra opportunity.
Richmond looked almost equally strong in its last performance, a 38-17 win over Elon. Joe Mancuso went 21-for-35 for 251 yards and two touchdowns, and Aaron Dykes and Savon Smith combined for 21 carries and 139 yards. It’s unlikely either team will be able to run the ball particularly well, though. JMU D-linemen Mike Greene and Mikail Kamara lead a dominant Dukes front with 11.5 combined tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, and JMU is allowing only 10.8 points per game and 3 yards per play. But Richmond’s own defensive front, led by Darius Reynolds and Kobie Turner, could force JMU behind schedule and make life difficult for whichever Dukes QB is behind center.
Can Sam Houston continue to dominate?
No. 5 Sam Houston at No. 25 UIW (12:00 p.m., ESPN+)
JMU took its time in easing past Robert Morris and thought hard about losing to Elon. North Dakota State got walloped by SIU and nearly lost to UNI. Weber State almost loses every single week — its last four wins have come by a combined 18 points.
None of FCS’ top teams have looked consistently dominant this spring, but K.C. Keeler’s SHSU Bearkats may have shown as much upside as anyone. They began the spring with a 43-38 win over a good Southeastern Louisiana, then proceeded to destroy Nicholls and Lamar by a combined 133-24. After a shaky performance against Northwestern State, they jumped out to a 27-3 lead against McNeese State last Saturday before winning, 27-13, and their résumé at this point is as strong as anyone’s.
Bearkats quarterback Eric Schmid has struggled in these last two games, completing just 52% of his passes with four interceptions and five sacks. Playing Incarnate Word is a double-edged sword — it will allow SHSU’s offense a chance to get rolling again (UIW allows 41.8 points per game), but it will test the hell out of the Bearkats’ defense (UIW scores 47.6). Cardinal quarterback Cameron Ward is throwing for nearly 400 yards per game, while running back Kevin Brown is averaging nearly 180 rushing and receiving yards. The last three UIW games (one win, two losses) have seen combined point totals of 111, 120 and 96 and yardage totals of 1,196, 1,194 and 1,334. SHSU better be ready for a track meet.
The first and only CAA North title will be decided in Philly
We haven’t seen much of Villanova this spring. The Wildcats started slowly, narrowly edging Stony Brook and falling to Rhode Island in overtime; they looked great two weeks ago in a 44-17 throttling of Maine, but that’s the only game they’ve played in the last month, and now the degree of difficulty rises: they must face an unbeaten Delaware team that has won its four games by an average of 25 points per game.
The Blue Hens’ strength: defense. They’re allowing 9.5 points per game and 3.6 yards per play; opponents are completing just 49% of their passes with a 1-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio. VU quarterback Daniel Smith has not met expectations this spring, producing just a 108.7 passer rating and 51% completion rate, but the VU run game is excellent — Justin Covington and Jalen Jackson: 55 carries, 387 yards, nine TDs — and the defense rebounded against Maine after struggling against URI. It’ll be tested by Delaware QB Nolan Henderson (67% completion rate, 153.7 rating), though.
If JMU beats Richmond, the Dukes will probably earn the CAA’s official automatic bid, but even with the MVFC likely commandeering at least two of the six at-large slots, the winner of this one will take the unofficial CAA North title and feel pretty good about its at-large chances, especially if it’s Delaware.
An interconference playoff play-in?
No. 17 Southeastern Louisiana at No. 18 SIU (1 p.m., ESPN+)
God bless impromptu scheduling. After a run of cancellations and with just over a week’s notice, SIU and SELA agreed to play each other on Saturday. Both are borderline contenders for an at-large bid, but the winner might have a playoff-worthy resume if other results break just right.
That SIU is this close to the playoffs while playing three QBs in seven games — Nic Baker, Stone Labanowitz and Kare Lyles have combined for 1,300 passing yards, eight TDs and nine INTs (running back Javon Williams Jr. is 6-for-11 for two TDs as well) — is certainly unique, but this has primarily been a defense-driven team: SIU has scored and allowed more than 30 points only once each all season.
The Salukis have been playing a different sport than SELA, in other words. The Lions have scored at least 38 points in four of six games and have allowed at least 43 in three; Southland football is not Missouri Valley football, and it’s exciting that we don’t have to wait for the playoffs to see these two conferences playing against each other.
Other games to watch
No. 23 Mercer at Samford (1 p.m., ESPN+). Relative Southern Conference newcomer Mercer has never won a SoCon ring and began this season 1-5 going back to three games in the fall. But it’s since won four games in a row, including three straight over ranked teams. With a win over a super-competitive Samford (3-3 with three one-score losses) and a VMI loss to The Citadel, the Bears would score a share of the conference title.
The Citadel at No. 15 VMI (1:30 p.m., ESPN+). Despite losing starting quarterback Reece Udinski to an ACL tear, and despite losing to ETSU in their last game, Scott Wachenheim’s VMI Keydets still control their own destiny in the SoCon race, but their Citadel rivals have won two straight since an 0-9 start. This game is trickier than it seemed it would be a month ago.
Holy Cross at Bucknell (2 p.m., CBSSN). Holy Cross is on the verge of a playoff bid despite having played only two games. The Crusaders haven’t played since March 27, but they’re projected favorites over 2-1 Bucknell. (This year has been so weird.)
Southern vs. Grambling (2:30 p.m., NBCSN). You should watch the Bayou Classic because (A) You should always watch the Bayou Classic, (B) It’s in Shreveport, which is unique and (C) Southern has looked really, really good in its last two games, wins over Jackson State and Texas Southern by a combined 85-37.
Alabama A&M at Alabama State (7:30 p.m., ESPNU). Alabama A&M has struggled for games — the Bulldogs have played only two so far — but they’ve looked good when they’ve gotten the chance, throttling South Carolina State, 31-7, then hanging 52 points on Deion Sanders’ Jackson State. They could be in position to play in their first SWAC Championship Game since 2011, but they first have to handle their business against running back Ezra Gray and Alabama State in the Magic City Classic.