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Ryan Brown

Week 1 Column, Part 2 (Saturday games)

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This is a huge Saturday for the SAC. They need a major bounce back season and a good start will go a long way. Yes Randolph picked up the biggest honor in league history but on the other side, the
conference had only two teams with a winning record for the first time in the 38 year history of the SAC.
The 2011 season also marked the first time since 1994 that at least one team didn’t have nine wins or
more and only the second time since 1994 that the SAC failed to win at least one playoff game. With the individual award in the books, it's time to get back in the national talk as a conference. Here we go!

Saturday (In order of time)


Tusculum (0-0, 0-0 SAC) @ Urbana (0-0,0-0 GLVC)
12:00 p.m. - Urbana, Ohio
SAC Members Picks = TC (11) over UU (6)
Spread = Tusculum (+6)
Last meeting = Tusculum 39, Urbana 36 (2010)

The Tusculum Poineers will try to win their third straight season opener as they open up what hopes to be a bounce back year in 2012. The Pioneers beat Charleston (W.Va.) in ’10 and West Georgia last season. They have been pretty good over this stretch in the non-conference but things have just fallen apart come conference time. Three straight 2-5 SAC seasons. But that conversation is for another day, this is about the season opener.

Even though it feels like he has been there forever, Bo Cordell is back. For two more years. He went out in the third game last year with a foot injury and got a redshirt. Backup Torrey Slaven came in and did a fantastic job in relief. 17 touchdowns against only three INT’s in seven games is solid work. Cordell had five picks in his only three games. I thought they would have a great QB battle in preseason but it wasn’t to be. Head coach Frankie DeBusk was sticking with Cordell and Slaven is no longer listed on the Pioneer roster. No word on where he transferred.

Cordell returns but no longer flanked out to his right and left are future Pioneer hall of famers in Rashaad Carter and Deonte’ Gist. Statistically,running back Brian Marshall is the leading returning receiver. Xzanvion Smith has been anointed the next big target for Cordell. If Bo’s injury proved anything last year, it is that this is very much a system offense. And that involved everyone, especially the wideouts so look for TC to develop them well. The offensive line will be raw on the left side with a redshirt-freshman at center and left guard and a true sophomore protecting Cordell’s blind side.

The majority of the Tusculum faithful will have their eyes pinned on the defensive side of the football. There is no hiding it: Cordell & Co. are not a defensively friendly offense. But that's no excuse for the level of struggles over the past season and a half. Last year the Pioneers finished top five in pass defense and bottom five in rush defense. New D-coordinator Mike Iezzi (eye-ezzy) will try to find a happy medium in between those two. Nine of the 11 opening day starters are either juniors or seniors. The time is now to support this offense and get back to top four in the SAC.

Urbana hails from the Great Lakes Football Conference and will face the ‘Neers for the fourth time since 2008. The Blue Knights return a staggering 19 starters from last seasons 8-3 squad. Urbana finished the 2011 season on fire, winning six in a row to close out the fourth year for head coach David Taynor. But let’s be honest about those six opponents. Combined 2011 record? How about 16-49. Only one with a winning record and that was 6-5. So don’t read much into that. What you should think about is 19 returning starters. I would bet (if I was a betting man) that is close to tops in nation. Same story with the defense for the Blue Knights. Solid numbers but against what kind of opponents?

I think there are so many variables you can look at. A lot of people pay way too much attention to the long drive. The Pioneers will stay Friday night so throw that out. Will the defense for Tusculum be well versed enough in the new 3-4 scheme to sneak a road win? Can Cordell shake off the rust of over 11 months off and find new weapons in a hurry?

If I am wrong, I will blame the lack of knowledge of the strength of the GLVC but I really like Tusuclum in this one. Fresh start for the defense, Cordell out to prove he is back and an Urbana team that just really wasn’t tested over the last half of 2011. The Blue Knights have to be favored being at home and coming off an eight win season but something tells me the Pioneers are going to turn it around and can pull off the upset.

Prediction : Tusculum 28, Urbana 24

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Catawba (0-0, 0-0 SAC) @ West Liberty (0-0, 0-0 WVIAC)
1:00 p.m. - West Liberty, West Va.
SAC Members Picks = CAT (12) over WL (8)
Spread = Catawba (-4.5)
Last meeting = Never

Catawba took a step back in 2011 after a solid 2010 campaign, finishing 2-5 in the SAC with just one non-conference win. They struggled down the stretch again, finishing 1-4 in 2011 after 0-2 in 2010. Catawba seemed like they never could mesh together at the right times, especially on offense.

Quarterback Jacob Charest returns for his second season under center and can only hope for a major improvement in 2012. The first season under Charest turned out to be the worst offensive season in the Chip Hester era. Catawba scored just 206 points in 11 games, ranking 126th in Division II. Lenoir-Rhyne quarterback Major Herron, who ran the option, tossed more touchdown passes than Charest. The good news is Charest will have four offensive linemen back along with brother Nate Charest back at wide out. The offense must get better in the red zone, after converting just 65 percent of opportunities. Charest is a good runner and moved out of the pocket frequently and it will be interesting how much that continues in 2012. Bobby Morrison will take over as tailback and needs to have a good year to balance out the offense.

A pair of former defensive freshman of the year in CJ Barksdale and Damien Lee will lead a veteran crew on the front line. The loss of Lakeem Perry definitely hurts but expect senior Cory Johnson to step up as the leader in the middle. LJ McCray had become one of the best returners in the nation but missed 10 games last year and will a huge boost to this team and the secondary. The Indians forced a league-high 22 turnovers but only five of those were interceptions and it showed by finishing seventh in pass defense. Catawba has all the tools to be a really good defense but execution will be a major key.

West Liberty, to put it lightly, was not good in 2011, snapping a streak of six straight winning seasons. They finished 1-10, with the lone victory over a 1-9 West Virginia State team. They played some teams close but just didn’t have enough offensive firepower to hang around. As expected they were picked to finish seventh in the soon to be defunct WVIAC. The Hilltoppers are only two years removed from a 11-2 record but pinned the ugly 2011 season on injuries and graduation. Quarterback LD Crow is back and pressure is on after 23 interceptions in 2011. Leading receiver Brandon Schroeder returns but WLU will break in a pair of seldom used running backs. Good news for the defense. Only place is to go up and they need to in a hurry.

This game is anyone’s guess to start a season. Catawba was terribly flat in the opener last year, losing to Saint Augustine’s 30-5. West LIberty fell so hard, so fast after two great seasons. All signs point to the lines controlling this game. Catatwba will lean on Barksdale and Lee to exploit a weaker WLU offensive line. You have to believe both of these teams will improve their win total in 2012 but I just can’t justify picking a 1-10 team with nothing else to base it upon. The Hilltoppers will return to wining form soon but Catawba will escape West Liberty with a win and will have a great chance to go 2-0 next week at home.

Prediction : Catawba 21, West Liberty 17

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Wingate (0-0, 0-0 SAC) @ St. Augustine’s (0-0, 0-0 CIAA)
1:30 p.m. - Durham, N.C.
SAC Members Picks = WU (17) over SAU (3)
Spread = Wingate (-3.5)
Last meeting = Never

We all know how long the off-season drags along, and how long it takes for football season to come back. No one felt that worse than Wingate. They went into the LR game sitting at 5-3 with still a shot at the SAC title. Three ugly losses later, the Bulldogs failed to defend their title and were sent into the break with a bad taste in their mouth over what really wasn’t that bad of a year. One more score or one more stop at Mars Hill and the entire SAC landscape is changed.

Objective number one in the preseason was replacing quarterback Cody Haffly, who could go down as one of the best to ever play in the SAC. Redshirt-junior Robbie Nallenweg, who has backed up Haffly for two years, was named the starter from the start in the spring and will take over. Wingate’s revamped offensive line seems to be the real key to success. The Bulldogs finished last in rushing and rushing touchdowns while finishing seventh in sacks allowed. They must be able to mix it up with a young group of tailbacks and give Nallenweg time to find targets down field like all-american star wideout Chris Bowden.

The real question mark will be the defensive side of the ball. There is no way to avoid the reality of finishing last in points per game allowed and total defense. The Bulldogs have room to improve but two things to keep an eye on will be red zone defense (137th in NCAA) and opponent completion percentage (65% in 2010). Those two have to be first priority. The good news is that the Bulldog defense has a ton of talent and linebacker is the strength with three senior starters.

CIAA member and week one opponent Saint Augustine’s also experienced a losing season in 2011. The Falcons were picked in the top four of the 12 team league. They return 17 starters, none more explosive than all-purpose star Tyron Laughinghouse. He is the leading receiver , kick returner, and punt returner. You have to wonder if he can handle all three all season long. That is a lot of abuse and plays. Quarterback Teddy Bacote is in his third year as starter and is already the school record holder in touchdowns. Star junior linebacker Chaz Robinson went over the century mark in tackles last year and leads the physical defensive unit for coach Michael Costa.

This is another one of many interesting and hard to predict games. WU has only lost once in the 11 season openers for Joe Reich, coming last year in double OT to Valdosta. Both teams won 9 games and had a tailback rush for over 1,000 yards in 2010. Last year both running games combined for 1,500 yards on the ground and the records showed. That has to be the key for Saturday’s game: Who can have enough success to open up passing game? Wingate has another brutal non-conference schedule and has to treat this as a must win. They are also eager to show off the improved defense and debut R. Nallenweg under center. St Aug’s has their sights on dethroning Winston-Salem State and playing in another Pioneer Bowl.

Prediction : None (Calling game)

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Brevard (0-0, 0-0 SAC) @ Presbyterian (FCS) (0-0, 0-0 Big South)
1:30 p.m. - Clinton, S.C.
SAC Members Picks = PC (18) over BC (2)
Spread = Brevard (+27)
Last meeting = Never

The Tornados are searching for a way to return to 2009 form when they won seven games and returning to Brevard Memorial Stadium may help that. I feel like we are always talking about it but Brevard was yet again in just about every league game but faltered. Head coach Paul Hamilton and company were 6-0 in games decided by seven points or less in the 2009 and 2010 seasons combined. They didn’t experience the same kind of success in crunch time during 2011, going just 1-4. Four of the SAC losses came by a total of a 17 points.

Redshirt-senior quarterback Aaron Reese is one of seven returning starters on offense and should be ready to improve in his second full season as starter. Reese had good success in his first season in triple option but must improve decision making through the air (46 percent). It is easy to see how important the four to six passes a game can be in an option style offense. Reese has a major threat in stud wide receiver Eric Watts, who caught 33 passes last year, up 15 from his 2010 total. Watts also hauled in 8 touchdown receptions last season, easily the most for a wide out in the Hamilton era. Former SAC freshman of the year Kelvin Jeter saw his touches decline from 137 in 2010 to just 101 in 2011. This must return to 2010 form and beyond.

The BC defense finished 2011 as the number three unit in the conference but it will be a different story this year with a conference low three starters returning. It isn’t so much that they only have three, but that none of the three are named Prince Simunyu, Michael Gist or Christian Lumbu. All three were all-conference and major contributors, with Simunyu collecting 112 stops, including 11 for loss. Lumbu helped BC finish second in sacks. The Tornados will rely heavily on Rufus Jenkins to lead this young defense to another top three SAC ranking. The first focus should be getting better on third down, after ranking last in the league last season.

There is a ton of excitement in Blue Hose country after Presbyterian turned in a school record (at D1 level) four wins and are now full-fledged Division I members. PC returns 17 starters for a team that is already talking about Big South Championships. The quarterback situation is still a major concern with PC, having two redshirt-freshman listed on the depth chart. They will have experienced backs and receivers to help relieve the pressure but the Blue Hose will go as far as the rookie QB takes them. The difference at their level of Division I defense always turns to physicality, something they must have to make a run at the Big South.

Brevard played well against Gardner-Webb the last two seasons and I think they will again versus PC. Of the 17 returning starters for the Blue Hose, eight are on offense. As I mentioned earlier, BC only has three defensive starters back. Bad news for the Tornados. I like BC to find the end zone a couple times but not enough in Clinton on Saturday.

Prediction : Presbyterian 45, Brevard 21

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Elizabeth City St. (0-0, 0-0 CIAA) @ Newberry (0-0, 0-0 SAC)
6:30 p.m. - Newberry, S.C.
SAC Members Picks = NC (14) over ECSU (6)
Spread = Newberry (-3)
Last meeting = Newberry 49, ECSU 33 (2006)

After turning in five straight winning seasons, the Wolves have stumbled to consecutive 4-6 seasons. Hidden in the 2011 record was yet another brutal non-conference schedule but on the other side a solid 4-3 record and a third place finish in the South Atlantic Conference. Even deeper inside the numbers will show that Newberry lost the last five games of season by average of five points. This team was close in 2011 and has to be using that as their motivation. The coaches have spoken as well, picking them to be back in the top three.

In 2009 when Newberry finished 6-4, quarterback Brandon Gantt took 96 percent of the snaps. In the past two seasons due to injury and inconsistency, four different Wolves have been under center for at least 28 plays. After Bryan Ehrlich has transferred, it looks like the offense will be WT Murden’s for the taking. Murden only started two games but completed on 65 percent of his attempts. Newberry threw a SAC high 15 picks last year and must get consistent play from the redshirt freshman to direct the number five offense from a year ago. The Wolves need help at wide out with pro prospect Brandon Bostick moving on after catching seven of the 14 TD passes from a year ago. The true bright spot from this unit in 2011 was the offensive line, which returns three starters that only allowed an astonishing five sacks during 306 drop backs in 10 games.

Head coach and defensive coordinator Todd Knight brings back my pick for pre-season defensive player of the year candidate in linebacker Apollo Stretch along with six other starters. Stretch is as good as they come, piling up 105 tackles last year for the Scarlet and Gray. The Newberry defense finished third, fourth, or fifth in almost every defensive category last season. With that being said, the good news is it seems they are just a few adjustments with personnel from getting back to being great. The major advantage they
had was in the red zone, ranking 15th in the nation. Stretch is joined by three other returning starters at linebacker, which will be the strength of the team. Replacing a pair of defensive linemen will be the main focus in the eight man front coach Knight likes to run.

Elizabeth City State is riding high after a playoff berth last year and being pick to win the CIAA north in 2012. All-American Daronte McNeil returns after a stellar ’11 season, rushing for 1.600 yards and 22 scores. That is the good news for the Vikings. The bad news: according to the depth chart, NONE of the offensive line has game experience. How does that happen? Should be an interesting combo with McNeil. If there is one thing we know about a CIAA defense is the physical play. Newberry must be ready for that. The Vikings are also no stranger to going on the road in a tough environment, nearly upsetting Delta State before losing in overtime.

According to the SAC board, Knight is under pressure. I always put a lot of stock into tough non-conference schedules, which the Wolves have again. He could've scheduled cupcakes and had a better record. If Newberry’s season is going to get off to a good start, it has to start in the first quarter. The Newberry offense managed only 38 points during the first 15 minutes. That has to change. I know I am approaching “SAC Homer” level with all these picks but I really like Newberry. The front seven is the strength of their team and the lack of experience on the ECSU o-line makes me lean towards NC in the game of week. Plus playing next to the graveyard under the lights at Setzler is always tough.

Prediction : Newberry 23, Elizabeth City St 21

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#23 Lenoir-Rhyne (0-0, 0-0 SAC) @ Concord (0-0, 0-0 WVIAC)
7 p.m. - Athens, West Va.
SAC Members Picks = LRU (17) over CU (3)
Spread = LR (-2.5)
Last meeting : Lenoir-Rhyne 26, Concord 6 (2011)

16 years, multiple coaches, no championships. Enter Mike Houston: one year, one championship. And of course I know Goldsmith had a lot to do with building this team. Houston will try to make it two-for-two as the Bears begin their title defense. LR scored 195 points in the final four games in 2011 and seemed to be blazing their way into the postseason but the season ended without their first ever D2 playoff appearance. One fourth quarter fumble at Tusculum cost them the NCAA spot and with that being said, no need to ask where this team wants to go next.

Three-year backup quarterback Ruben Hayes will finally get his chance to run the show. Major Herron is a huge loss to this team but because of his injuries and struggles up until last year, Hayes has seen action in 18 games in three years. What a huge advantage for this offense. Coach Houston shouldn’t lose any sleep over the quarterback position. All-American tackle Chandler Reardon has graduated but he will be only loss on a very good line. Isaiah Whitaker and Corron Boston will anchor the backfield in the “Bear-Bone” option attack while Artis Gilmore will step up as the number one receiver in a role that proved to be a huge asset last season. This offense can be great again. Hayes has the blueprint and time will tell if he can build another run towards the postseason.

Coach Houston should once again be excited about his defensive unit. Seven returners are back for the number 10 defense n the nation. LR once again had the defensive player of the year in Demetrius Green who returns for his final year. The Bears lost four starters but have the anchor back at the secondary (Michael Green), linebacker (D. Green) and lineman (Brandon Martin) to lead the new faces. Lenoir-Rhyne forced the least turnovers (shockingly with co-champ Mars Hill) in the league and must find a way to get more takeaways this season if the offense runs into trouble. The Bears biggest asset may have been the ability to close games, allowing only a mind-blowing 21 fourth quarter points in 2011.

Concord is riding high after a winning its first WVIAC title in 22 years and a first-ever playoff berth. The Mountain Lion offense will return plenty of talent and will be an exciting match-up against the vaunted Bear defense. Quarterback Zack Grossi is a three-year starter and will be full of confidence. Three receivers that caught 13 of his 17 touchdown passes are back to help the continuity on offense. And the real plus comes on the offensive line. Four out of five returning starters can not be understated enough. A huge plus for what should be an even more improved offense from last season. The Mountain Lion defense is highlighted by the defensive line which will be crucial in stopping the option.

This game a year ago between the Bears and Lions was a wild one in the West Virginia storms that delayed the game two hours. Houston credited his team with handling it better and going on to win by 20. There is no way to tell how Hayes will handle the spotlight but LR didn’t hit their stride until mid-season and still won by 20 on the road last year (by the way why is this game not in Hickory?). As long as the weather is better, I expect more points score on both sides. But the difficulty to prepare for the Bear Bone attack and the LR defense, which is as good as Concord will see all season, makes the difference Saturday night.

Prediction: #23 Lenoir-Rhyne 30 , Concord 20


-Ryan ( @RyanBrown_PxP )

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  1. ironcheftvdinner's Avatar
    The simple answer to your question as to why LR is going back to Concord this year it to balance out LR's home schedules for 2012 & 2013.

    LR was left with only four home games in 2011 after the SAC office changed LR's scheduled/contracted game with NGU in Hickory to Tigerville. There would have been six home games this year and back to four next had LR & Concord not reached a deal to change their game sites for 2012 and 2013.
  2. Ryan Brown's Avatar
    Thanks for the response iron. Makes sense and should be a good game.