What a hellacious let down the 2020 season turned out to be for players, coaches, fans & schools. For the Herd there would be no fall follow up to the “quick re-load” National Championship in 2019. The anticipation of getting another FBS scalp at the expense of the defending Pac-12 champs, the Oregon Ducks, fizzled. Next when the CAA & Big Sky bowed out of fall ball, the MVFC had nowhere to go but suspending the season to spring (especially since the playoffs & National Championship are tied to this spring schedule). Enough whining & crying, we have a game to play and I am here to give you my expert analysis as usual.
The Central Arkansas Bears of the Southland Conference (same as Sam Houston State & Nicholls) decided to accept the Herd’s offer to come & play in Fargo. Matt Larsen (SU’s Athletic Director) said he put out over a 100 offers (including multiple FBS schools), but the Bears were the only takers. They also are one of the few FCS teams who decided to play their schedule in the fall and not the spring.
The Bears have played three games so far this season (I have watched all 3). They opened by beating 2019 quarter final playoff team Austin Peay, 24-17. Scoring the winning touchdown with 34 seconds left, a thrilling opening game win at a neutral site in Montgomery AL. How good was Austin Peay? They finished their fall schedule by playing two FBS schools. Pitt killed them 55-0 & Cincinnati 55-20 (42-6 after 3 quarters before the subs filled the field). For the Bears this was a poor quality win against a so-so Austin Peay team.
Next Central played FBS UAB (University Alabama-Birmingham). The score of 45-35 looks much closer than it really was. UAB moved the ball at will. UAB gave up a fumble for a TD & an interception return to the 4 yard line, which the Bears scored on. UAB wasn’t done with the gifts. Leading 28-14 with 2:38 until half, they fumbled a punt on their own 15 yard line that the Bears turned into a TD. The 28-21 score at half doesn’t tell the story of who was winning in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
In the 2nd half, UAB methodically worked the lead to 45-21, before letting Central score late against the subs with 5:32 & 32 seconds left in the game. These two late scores gave the Bears 148 of their 293 total yards for the game. The truth is UAB moved the ball both on the ground (233 yards) & through the air (224 yards & 24 /34 passing completion rate). I feel the Bison are a better team than UAB.
The Bears next opponent was closer to home. They played MVFC football foe Missouri State at home last Saturday. Mo. State’s lone win last year was against W Illinois 37-31 in OT. Western won one game last year as well. Bobby Petrino was brought in as Head Coach from a scandalous discharge at the FBS level to change the Bear’s fortunes.
This was not a good looking win for Central Arkansas. Mo. State more than held their own in the trenches. They out gained Central 291 total yards to 177. Both teams couldn’t run the ball with the Bears garnering 98 yards on 37 carries (2.7 YPC) & Mo. State only amassing 42 yards on 42 carries (YPC). A redshirt freshman QB for Mo. State carved up the Bears for 249 yards with a completion rate of 25/44 & one INT.
What won the game for Central Arkansas? Turnovers, leading to short fields. Their first score was a 7 yard drive after a fumble. The second was a 34 yard drive after another turnover. The third TD was a 23 yard fumble return to tie the game in the 4th quarter. The winning TD came on a punt return. Their offense didn’t look good at all.
To sum up their first three games, they seemed to regress. They clearly out played Austin Peay, then were over matched by an average FBS team and where lucky to get a win against a bad Mo. State team. If they play at the level they did against Mo. State, the game will be over by halftime.
Let’s look at the battles in the different position groups and stay in keeping with my foundational focus, defense wins championships. The Bear’s OL is big (lots of 300 pounders), but squat with some non-lean belly baggage. Other than against Austin Peay, they don’t get much push. After three games they are averaging 125 YPG in rushing. If that was the Herd’s line, we would be in outright panic mode. I feel Code Green should be able to contain their run game. They rotate two RB’s & neither is an above average college running back. I fully expect the Herd to turn them into a single dimensional attack.
Breylin Smith is the returning starting QB who passed for 3,704 yards & 32 TD’s and a completion rate of 316/490 (64.5%). This is excellent production from their signal caller and was done as a sophomore. He is very mobile (extending plays), but is not a pure running threat, as seen in that he totaled -39 yards rushing for the season. A bigger concern is he threw 16 interceptions (not good).
To combat this skilled, mobile QB our defensive ends will need to put pressure on him and stay in their lanes, so he doesn’t sneak out of the pocket. Another plus for Code Green is our depth. We can rotate fresh legs in and out of the game and not lose quality.
Our LB’s aren’t facing any “big backs”, but will need to always keep an eye on Breylin breaking contain.
The Alley Cat’s will have their hands full with two long & lean wide receivers. Tyler Hudson (6’ 2”, 185 lbs) caught 55 passes for 975 yards as a freshman. Team mate Lujuan Winningham (6’3”, 190 lbs) caught 50 passes for 814 yards. So far in 2020 this tandem has 23 catches for 300 yards.
Defensively they play the same type of defensive front as UND. Their best player is A’Javius Brown (6’ 2”, 320 lbs). He’s the real deal. Big & mobile. He’s flanked by DE’s that are 285 to 300 lbs. The Ram’s & Tyler Roehl need to utilize our whole breadth of offensive weapons like we did versus Montana State and unlike we did versus IL State in the playoffs. If we allow Central to crash the A & B gaps with beef & LB’s, they are big enough to stuff it (Cal-Davis did the same).
I think we have a big advantage with our RB’s versus their LB’s. Both UAB & Mo. State were able to pick on the underneath coverage’s. They were flat out bad in covering swing routes & RB’s on fly patterns. They have yet to play against RB’s as good and diverse as ours. Add in that these LB’s will also be called onto help cover Gindorff (6’ 6”, 267 lbs) & Babicz (6’ 6”, 254 lbs), they face a herculean task even for All-American, NFL quality prospects at LB. I don’t think their unit rises to that level.
Last year was a first in a long time that NDSU had a deep threat (I am biased, but I think you have to go back to when I played with Pete Lana & Ralph Wertz, both NFL prospects), with Christian Watson busting out by season’s end. Phoenix Sproles isn’t lead footed either. Did I mention we have a QB who can get them the ball frequently?
In summary, I think, even though this is our first game, we just have too many weapons for this average defense to contain. If UAB can score 45, so can we. Also if both UAB & Mo. State held them to an average of 234 total yards on offense and 99 yards rushing, I like our chances to contain their offense. It might take a quarter to shake our off season rust, but I expect a track show once we get it going.