The universe tends to right itself on the field.
For a few weeks in March, it looked like the top two college football teams in the Missouri Valley might end up being upstarts North Dakota and Southern Illinois. The Fighting Hawks and Salukis were a combined 7-1 in conference play, while heavyweights North Dakota State and South Dakota State had each looked terribly vulnerable in losses by scores of 38-14 (SIU over NDSU) and 28-17 (UND over SDSU) on Feb. 27. This one-time-only FCS spring season had experienced upheaval and seemed on the brink of more.
Then came last weekend. NDSU beat North Dakota 34-13 in the Fargodome, while SDSU went to Carbondale and pummeled SIU 44-3. The Bison and Jackrabbits bullied their respective opponents to the tune of 708 combined rushing yards.
Granted, the vulnerability isn’t all gone. NDSU quarterback Zeb Noland, for instance, completed two of his first four passes for 49 yards against UND but went just 3-for-9 with two interceptions thereafter. At some point in the upcoming spring playoffs, he will have to nail a big throw, and we don’t know that he will. But last week was a reminder that we probably shouldn’t go too far overboard on the “CHAOS!!” talk just yet. After all, the top four teams at the moment, according to Stats Perform data, are James Madison, NDSU, Weber State and SDSU — pretty much how things started a few weeks ago.
Week 6 of the spring season brings a little bit of calm before an impending storm. Next Saturday — with no postponements, hopefully — there will be SDSU at NDSU and JMU at Richmond, plus Eastern Washington at UC Davis, Southern at Jackson State and the rivalry game of all rivalry games, Lehigh at Lafayette. But this week, the slate is a little lighter.
The cupboard of storylines is never empty, however! Let’s walk through what the weekend has in store.
Note: Rankings listed below are the STATS FCS top 25 found at NCAA.com, and all times are Eastern.
No. 1 still has something to prove
No. 1 James Madison at William & Mary (1 p.m., FloFootball.com)
The Colonial Athletic Association’s season has featured a solid number of postponements; only two teams (Stony Brook and Elon) have gotten in three conference games to date, and they’re both 0-3. With only four weeks left in the regular season, we’re still trying to learn about some of the country’s higher-ranked teams.
Top-ranked JMU has dealt with back-to-back postponements and hasn’t played since narrowly avoiding an upset bid from Elon three weeks ago. The Dukes’ Saturday opponent, meanwhile, walloped Elon by three touchdowns last Saturday.
JMU has beaten William & Mary four consecutive times, by an average score of 42-11. The Dukes’ offense has been slow to warm up so far — zero points in their first five drives against Robert Morris, two field goals in their first nine drives against Elon — but the defense has been impenetrable. Big defensive end Mike Greene has logged 6.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in three games, and JMU is averaging more than nine TFLs per game while allowing just 2.8 yards per play.
W&M hasn’t been much more generous. The Tribe allowed only 31 combined points to Richmond and Elon, and while they aren’t making as many plays behind the line, they’ve already defensed 13 passes, intercepting one and breaking up 12 more. Sophomore boundary safety Malcolm Spencer has three of those breakups and one of the team’s nine TFLs. JMU’s Gage Moloney is now listed as the starting quarterback after Cole Johnson threw four interceptions; this sticky secondary will be his biggest test yet.
With defenses this dynamic, the winner will likely be whoever generates more big rushes. JMU’s Percy Agyei-Obese is averaging 6.2 yards per carry with four scores, while W&M freshman Malachi Imoh exploded for 137 yards and three scores on just 10 carries last week against Elon. Easy points will be vital currency because it will be difficult to sustain drives.
No. 13 Incarnate Word at No. 17 Nicholls (noon, ESPN+)
Nicholls and Sam Houston were generally regarded as favorites in the Southland Conference this spring, and they haven’t yet disappointed, going a combined 6-1. (Nicholls’ only loss: to SHSU, albeit in blowout fashion.)
Another contender has barged into the picture, though. Incarnate Word has managed only one winning record in its past four seasons, but the Cardinals are 3-0 and averaging 49 points per game so far this spring.
Freshman quarterback Cameron Ward has thrown for 351 yards per game, wide receivers Tre Wolf and Jaelin Campbell are averaging 18.3 yards per catch, and running back Kevin Brown has gained 585 yards on only 47 combined rushes and receptions. Nicholls is explosive in its own right, but the Colonels allowed a scary 71 points and 556 yards to SHSU their last time out. This will likely be a track meet, and UIW might be able to do enough damage to move to 4-0.
VMI watch: brave, bold and still unbeaten
No. 14 VMI at Wofford (1 p.m., ESPN+)
You have a chance at your first 4-0 start in 40 years, and you just scored to get to within one point in overtime. Do you keep the game going, or do you go for two points and the win?
VMI head coach Scott Wachenheim chose the latter. And it worked.
— Blake Gardner (@_BlakeGardner) March 20, 2021
Reece Udinski’s two-point pass to Jakob Herres gave the Keydets a 38-37 win over Samford and the aforementioned 4-0 record. They are a half-game up on Chattanooga in the Southern Conference race, and after winning three games with defense, their quick-passing offense came up big against Samford when it had to.
The road doesn’t get much easier on Saturday. Wofford is only 1-2, but the Terriers have been to four straight FCS playoffs and suffered a down-to-the-wire loss to Samford two weeks ago. Like seemingly everyone in FCS, they have an explosive run game, and defensive end Micheal Mason has five TFLs and three sacks in three games. Can chaotic linebacker Connor Riddle & Co. keep VMI’s run going?
It’s always Rivalry Week somewhere
Randolph-Macon at Hampden-Sydney (1 p.m., Boxcast.TV)
This pandemic season has left a lot of rivalry games temporarily on the sidelines in recent months, but one of the sport’s oldest will kick off for the 125th time on Saturday afternoon. Division III’s Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon have played each other since 1893, and while HSC leads the overall series by four (58-54-11), RMC has won eight of the past nine — including a 45-3 pounding in 2019 — to close the gap significantly.
Both teams are 3-0 in this abbreviated spring season, and they’ve done similarly well against common opponents: HSC beat Shenandoah and Guilford by a combined 57 points, RMC by a combined 58. Signs point to a tight game, and the contrasts are noteworthy: HSC is allowing four points per game and 3 yards per play, and RMC is scoring 40 per game and gaining a steady 5.7 yards per play.
More games to watch
Saturday afternoon: No. 6 North Dakota at Youngstown State (noon, ESPN+). Despite the loss in Fargo, UND is still tied with NDSU and SDSU atop the MVFC standings and is still in great shape for a playoff bid … at least as long as the Hawks take care of business moving forward.
Saturday afternoon: Mercer at No. 9 Chattanooga (noon, ESPN+). Rusty Wright’s Mocs remain unbeaten in the SoCon race … barely. They return home to face Mercer after winning road games against The Citadel and Furman by a combined three points.
Saturday afternoon: Duquesne at Bryant (noon, ESPN3). Duquesne leads the Northeast Conference race at 3-0 and has already vanquished one of the other NEC contenders (Stony Brook). Now comes the other. Bryant is 2-1 after back-to-back one-score wins.
Saturday afternoon: No. 2 North Dakota State at South Dakota (2 p.m., ESPN+). Last week made it clear: NDSU can still bully opponents into submission. We can probably assume the same thing this week, especially considering USD allowed 304 rushing yards to Youngstown State last week.
Saturday afternoon: Northern Arizona at No. 3 Weber State (3 p.m., Pluto TV). Weber State gets going after a bye week; the Wildcats should have a chance to build an offensive rhythm against an NAU defense that gave up 607 yards and 45 points to EWU in its most recent game.
Saturday afternoon: Cal Poly at No. 12 Eastern Washington (4:05 p.m., Pluto TV). EWU star Eric Barriere has thrown for 1,207 yards in three games, and the Eagles have needed it — after an upset loss to Idaho, they barely survived against Idaho State, 46-42, the last time out.
Saturday night: Alabama State at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (8 p.m., ESPN3). A potentially fantastic Jackson State-Prairie View A&M game got postponed, but the SWAC still has one headliner. ASU handed Deion Sanders’ JSU squad its first loss last week in a thriller thanks to Ezra Gray’s 195 rushing yards and three scores, but the Hornets now have to go up against surprising West Division leader UAPB. The Golden Lions have already won at Southern and Grambling this spring.
Sunday afternoon: Austin Peay at No. 7 Jacksonville State (3 p.m., ESPN+). Sunday is OVC Day once again, and it’s now APSU’s turn to try to accomplish what four other OVC teams have not: staying close to JSU. The Gamecocks have won four conference games by an average of 31-12.