Thursday, August 29, 2013

Game Week! Picks and prognostication, Thursday games

Game week is finally here, and a few MVFC teams will be kicking off their 2013 campaigns tomorrow already. A few teams have some very intriguing early tests, most against FBS teams that are very beatable, and it should make for some good run through next week as we analyze what all went down. Let's go game-by-game and see what kind of hope the Valley has to notch a few Week 1 victories.

Thursday, Aug. 29th

Indiana State @ Indiana - The big story on the FCS side of this matchup is that Shakir Bell is going to be asked to do everything for the Sycamores this season, who narrowly missed out on a playoff berth last year despite going 7-4 with a win over eventual national champion North Dakota State. The Sycamores lost to the Hoosiers last year by a score of 24-17, putting up 387 yards of offense on a team that would go 4-8 and finish fifth in the Leaders division of the Big Ten. Two stats that stick out to me about last year's game is that the Sycamores finished just 3-12 on third downs and coughed up two turnovers to Indiana's zero. That tells me that if Indiana State can limit the mistakes and execute well, they have every chance to be right in this game against an Indiana team that's put up 10 wins in the last three seasons. My gut tells me that the Hoosiers will stave off a hungry ISU team that is ready to prove itself to their new head coach, but don't be surprised if the Sycamores lead at some point in this game.
Pick: Indiana 28, Indiana State 17

Illinois State @ Ball State - Illinois State is, in my mind, one of the biggest question marks in the Valley this season with former Iowa State QB Jared Barnett. Illinois State has obviously graduated a lot of good weapons on offense, but retains a few players who were effective in the passing game; particularly junior receiver Lechein Neblett, and to a lesser degree senior Phil Dudley. Those two were the second- and fourth-highest receivers in yardage last season, and face a Ball State secondary that gave up 3,319 yards and 28 touchdowns through the air last season. Senior rusher Cameron Hunt also returns for his senior campaign after finishing second on the team in rushing yards.
Illinois State memorably handled last year's FBS opponent, MAC member Eastern Michigan, in a 31-14 game that saw star QB Matt Brown (now graduated) tally only 155 yards and a touchdown in the game - it goes to show that Illinois State could beat teams without him. Ball State, however, ended up being a lot better than Eastern Michigan last season - 9-4 for the Cardinals versus a dismal 2-10 for the Eagles. The competition will be stiffer, but I think the Redbirds can find a nice core in Barnett and Hunt and can eke out a win in Muncie.
Pick: Illinois State 31, Ball State 28

Missouri State vs. Northwestern State (SLC) - Here's a matchup of two FCS teams that both finished two spots from the bottom of their respective conferences that's more intriguing than it sounds, at least for fans of the Missouri Valley. Northwestern State finished 4-7 in a Southland Conference last season that was reasonably lower than the Missouri Valley in terms of top-to-bottom competitiveness. Missouri State, on the other hand, scraped together three wins in the Valley but could potentially have notched one very impressive win over then- top-ranked North Dakota State if not for a timely Christian Dudzik interception in the endzone as time expired in the 4th quarter. The Bears are going to be an interesting team to watch this year with a developing offense and a defense led by a player garnering rare defensive honors for the team in junior safety Caleb Schaffitzel. MSU's offense managed to put a scare into the Bison last year - with a little more execution and some bounces their way, could they potentially do the same to some other teams? This game will depend on what the Bears can establish offensively - run or pass, get something going, and a team from a superior conference, should (operative word being "should") be able to handle a second-tier conference foe.
Pick: Missouri State 24, Northwestern State 13

Western Illinois vs. Hampton (MEAC) - Western Illinois was unfathomably bad offensively last season, notching a mere 23 points against Pioneer member Butler last year and averaging less than 10 points per game in conference play. Other non-conference games for last year's Leathernecks included a 10-point win over D-II Indianapolis and a 34-point drubbing by Iowa State. The culprit last year was an offensive identity that seemed to always be in flux and an inability to simply advance the football - leading rusher Nikko Watson, who returns this season as the clear frontrunner at the tailback spot, put together just 673 yards and a single touchdown on the ground in all of last year, and the passing game fared little better with three players all taking significant snaps at the quarterback position and none of them earning better than an 81 passer rating. Logic dictates that head coach Bob Nielson has some tricks up his sleeve to slap the 'Necks into fighting shape, but with such poor offensive production (and correspondingly poor defensive production because, hey, when you're on the field all the time because your offense can't convert 75% of its third downs, what do you do?) it's difficult to tell what kind of future lies in wait. Needless to say my faith in WIU is not great, and if they weren't playing a team that only won three games with a MEAC schedule last season I'd pick the Valley team to lose. As is, I'll pick Western Illinois in a game that will have fans dozing off in the stands.
Pick: Western Illinois 18, Hampton 10

Youngstown State vs. Dayton (Pioneer) - Another non-scholarship out-of-conference opponent for a Valley team, but this one should land squarely in the home team's favor. Youngstown State has had a weird last few years, culminating in a campaign last year that started out great but was derailed after their mammoth collapse at North Dakota State (48-7). Quarterback Kurt Hess is entering his final season at YSU, and after last year's seven wins wasn't enough to get the Penguins into the playoffs this team is doubtless hungry for more. Hess has a few toys to play with on offense that will total half of last year's receiving yards and touchdowns, and running back Torrian Pace will be there to take some of the load off with his 5-11, 225-lb bowling ball-esque frame. The question is whether or not Hess can fashion his receivers into less a receiver-by-committee (oddly enough, the Penguins had nine players catch passes for 90 yards or more last season but not one eclipsed 430 yards for the season) and can establish a few targets as go-to guys that can consistently produce and demand respect form opposing defenses. Particularly, a big part of that passing anomaly was the fact that Jamaine Cook rushed the ball almost 300 times last season. He's gone now, and who knows whether Pace can handle that kind of workload. This is a game for Hess to get back to the superb form he showed in his early years, and if he can execute and his supporting cast can do their work, the Penguins should handle the Flyers easily.
Pick: Youngstown State 48, Dayton 18

I'll have the rest of the picks up before kickoff tomorrow. Enjoy the games!