Matt Witwicki

NSIC - Week 11 Preview

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Pictured: MSU-Justin Taormina (RB), Evan Perrizo (DE)..USF-Jason Towns (RB), Dennis Gardeck (LB)
Images: MSU Athletics

Week 11 NSIC Preview & Playoff Outlook
My column this week will be a brief look at each game, while also taking a peak at the Regional Rankings and how things might play out come Sunday with the D2 playoff pairings being announced.

Thursday, November 9
Augustana (4-6) at Winona State (9-1)

The Vikings simply haven’t had the type of season that’d wished for, especially considering they’d put up 17 wins during the previous two campaigns. Injuries and uncertainty at the quarterback spot can be looked at as immediate reasons, but the Vikings now find themselves in a position to play spoiler against a team they’ve got a budding rivalry with. The Vikings have squeaked out last second wins against Winona each of the past two seasons, which has left a bad taste in the mouth of the Warriors. WSU comes into this Thursday contest riding high with just one loss, also sitting at 4th in the Regional Rankings, indicating a home game come round one of the playoffs. While AU doesn’t look like a playoff opponent with their 4-6 record, I’d assume Head Coach Tom Sawyer will have his squad approaching this game with that mindset. Another loss and WSU is at risk of not making the playoffs. However, the Warriors were without their starting quarterback Darren Beenken last week at SMSU, as he took quite a few shots in their loss at Mankato. Owen Burke filled in at quarterback, but is completing just 47% of his passes in spot-duty for WSU. I’m expecting WSU to be fired up for this tilt, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see AU give the Warriors a scare in a lower scoring contest.
WSU 27-17

Saturday, November 11
Minnesota-Duluth (8-2) at Mary (1-9)

The Bulldogs have pitched a shutout of their opponents for 4 straight contests, which is quite the feat. UMD is peaking at the right time, even if it’s been against the weaker North Division of the conference. The Dogs don’t control who they play, you play who’s on the schedule. I’m expecting UMD to look to continue their defensive shutout against a Mary team that’s faded more as the year has continued. With UMD sitting in the 8 spot right now in the rankings, I’d expect them to try and impress voters with a lopsided win.
UMD 58-0

Northern State (5-5) at Minnesota-Crookston (0-10)
Coach Tom Dosch has done a great job of taking his young Wolves squad and getting them to, and likely above the .500 mark. Before the season I had this team being just under that mark, as they had turnover at key positions and the loss of top players. While the Wolves started out rough, they’ve rebounded and have side-stepped having a lost campaign. RB Nick Truen is 191 yards from a 1,000 yard season. He had a strong game a week ago, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the senior ball-carrier reached that mark against a Crookston defense that’s struggled once again this fall. Adam Connette continues to be the best player in the league on a bad squad, as he’s now caught 60 balls and has 8 scores. I like the Wolves in this one and I think Coach Dosch will have his squad fired up to end the season above .500.
NSU 45-13

Bemidji State (7-3) at Minnesota State-Moorhead (5-5)
The Battle for the Axe resumes this weekend in Moorhead. The Dragons upset the playoff bound Beavers a year ago, so there should be plenty of energy in the air for this one. Both squads have been on a recent upswing on what’s been an otherwise been a season of high expectations that haven’t quite been met. BSU has destroyed any of the squads in the lower half of the league, but have stumbled offensively against the more capable teams in the conference. That said, I’m not entirely certain which BSU shows up for this one. Enter MSUM and their new signal-caller, Jakup Sinani, who was merely 26 of 32 a week ago against Minot. While Sinani hasn’t been putting up strong numbers against good competition, he does move well in the pocket and looks like he’s got a solid future in the NSIC. Watching BSU struggle against SCSU a week ago, I’m going to side with Moorhead to finish the year strong and retain the Axe.
MSUM 31-27

Upper Iowa (6-4) at Wayne State (5-5)
While it’s not a marquee matchup this weekend, I’m expecting this to be one of the most competitive games in the conference this weekend. Both of the starting quarterbacks might not play, as WSC’s Zach Osborn has been on the shelf due to a helmet-to-helmet hit against WSU a few weeks ago, and Brent Lammers has been hobbled due to an ankle injury. I’m expecting Lammers will try and give it a go, as he did a week ago, but without his ability to cut and execute the zone read runs he’s known for, I’m not sure how effective he’ll be. Wayne is more explosive in the passing game, but UIU has the more reliable running attack. I like the Peacock defense easily more than what I’ve seen from WSC this year on that side of the ball. With that, I’m taking the road team to outlast the Wildcats.
UIU 24-20

Southwest Minnesota State (2-8) at Concordia-St. Paul (1-9)

Both squads come into this contest unhappy about how their season turned out, and looking to finish on a strong note. SMSU has really not been themselves without their star gunslinger Blake Gimbel, but wideout Nate Huot has still put up good numbers. CSP found themselves in a well-contested game against Augie a week ago, but couldn’t finish the climb. I think they are ready to get a win this weekend, equaling their win total from a season ago.
CSP 27-20

Minot State (2-8) at St. Cloud State (6-4)
The Huskies were looking good a few weeks ago, but have since dropped a few games and found themselves in the middle of the pack. QB Dwayne Lawhorn has shown to be a rising star in the conference, but he struggled last week against BSU, completing just 15 of 37 throws. SCSU seems to perform best when their running game is the driver of their offense, and they struggled there as well, with 28 yards on 29 carries. The unsung hero of SCSU this season has really been their defense, which has given them a chance to win just about every game this season. Minot State played Moorhead tight, but came up just short a week ago. QB Zac Cunha will look to finish out his long career with the Beavers with a win at St. Cloud, but I’m expecting strong resistance from the swarming SCSU D. I like the Huskies finishing with their best season since being a playoff team years ago.
SCSU 31-14

Minnesota State-Mankato (10-0) at Sioux Falls (9-1)
The Mavericks and Cougars meet again for the South Division Title, which has become a bit of a regular occurrence. A season ago USF beat the Mavs for the first time since the Cougars joined the NSIC in 2012. Mankato has been quite the sticking point for USF otherwise.

This season both squads have shown to be the best defenses in the league, while being power running, physical, football teams. With the loss of All American RB Max Mickey, USF has leaned heavily on his backup Jason Towns to keep the chains moving for the Cougars. Towns has a smallish frame, at 5'6, but does have the ability to break big runs. While USF hasn’t established a lot in the passing game, they have gotten strong performances from Towns over the last month, giving the Cougars enough offense, coupled with one of the best defenses in D2, allowing them to stay in the playoff hunt. The Cougars have escaped with wins against squads like Augustana and UIU, in what could be characterized as bowling-shoe-ugly games, but the Cougars kept on winning.

MSU has pretty much steamrolled everyone in the NSIC to this point, including an unbeaten Winona squad, but did stub their toe a bit last week in a game against Wayne in which they seemingly had things well in-hand. With a 27-7 lead, the Mavs allowed the visitors to tie the game up at 27, until MSU hit the gas again and won the day 48-27. This game created a sense of vulnerability towards the Mavs. Like the Cougars, Mankato has also lost their superstar running back, Nate Gunn. Gunn has been out with a leg injury and like Mickey, will likely miss this regular season finale as well. Speed-back Just Taormina has stepped in for the Mavs, much like Towns has for USF, and is now just 74 yards away from a 1,000 yard campaign. Neither back is the conventional between the tackles running back, but both have been good performers.

As for the game itself, it should be a very physical game with strength on strength when the MSU offense goes against the Coo D. The Mavs have been averaging over 300 yards a game and 7 yards a pop on the ground. I’m expecting to see the Cougars limit MSU in that regard, but the ability for MSU to hit plays down the field in the play action passing game will likely be a considerable challenge for USF. If so, that could spring open the running game for the Mavs. The Cougars struggled with the balance shown by Winona about a month ago, and I think we’ll see signs of that again this week in Sioux Falls. MSU’s wideouts and tight ends are huge targets and can go up and get a ball like no other offenses in the NSIC. Neither squad has seen much in a way of good passing attacks in the NSIC this fall, mostly due to injury to a lot of starting quarterbacks in the league. USF has big corners to battle the large pass-catchers of MSU, so that battle will be worth watching.

On the other side of the ball, MSU is very good upfront and really bothered Winona when they needed to pass in the back half of that football game. The Mavs have also been strong against the run themselves. The USF offensive line will have a lot on their plate in this matchup. Ian Fieber has been less than sharp over the past few weeks and will need to get in a rhythm, as USF will likely not be able to run the ball consistently against Mankato as they did the last few games. I’m expecting USF to need to be able to make plays down the field in the passing game. The Mavs have given up plays in the back half of their defense, but their front four often get pressure, not allowing opposing quarterbacks a lot of time to operate.

While I’d give USF an edge over MSU defensively, the gap is slight. On the other side of the ball I’d give the Mavs a sizeable advantage over the Cougars, seeing at the Mavs have been able to make plenty of big plays with their passing game when needed. USF hasn’t shown they can stretch the field on a regular basis, and that's been the achilles heel of this Cougar offense so far. With that, I’m taking Mankato to get ahead early and force the Cougars to play catch-up.
MSU 34-20

Playoff Picture (Super Region 4) – Top 7 Teams Make Playoffs
If Sioux Falls were to beat MSU, there’d be a 3-way tie for the NSIC’s top spot. Each of the 3 teams (USF, MSU, WSU) would be 1-1 in the round robin between them, so the additional criteria would seemingly be viewed to determine how to slot the 3 squads. USF would likely have the upper hand, being the only of the 3-squad unbeaten on the road, which is one of the most reference criteria items. SOS and other measures would likely be a virtual tie. If the committee were to look further into the 3 squads, in the event of a 3-way tie, they might look at their entire resume for each team and how much each squad dominated other common opponents. If so, USF falls a bit in that regard, with MSU looking the part of the best NSIC team for the better portion of the season.

Below is the actual selection criteria put for by the NCAA.

The teams..
MSU-Mankato – The Mavs should stay at #1 with a win and they are 2 score favorite per Massey Computer Rankings. However, if they lost at USF, a drop to the middle of the pack would be likely.

Central Washington – CWU is a slight favorite on the road at HSU. If they stay unbeaten, they should stay at #2, but there’s an outside chance MW State could get a bump if they beat ENMU. CWU doesn’t get double credit in SOS for beating HSU twice. I still think CWU stays at 2 with a win, but with a loss they are at risk a bit. The Earned Access rule (see below) does not apply to the GNAC, due to conference size (too small). But I think CWU would still get in with a loss, but I’m guessing the GNAC might not get 2 squads in the dance. It just doesn’t seem like the GNAC gets much love from the committees. We will see.

Midwest State - MW was tested a week ago, almost losing to Tarleton in OT. With a win, they are in the 3 spot, possibly could be looked at as a 2-seed, but their lack of games hurts them. A loss and they’d be near the end of the line in the 1 loss grouping, but still should make the dance.

Winona State – play Thursday against Augustana in what should be a tester. WSU drops that game, all the sudden they risk not making the playoffs. They still have great numbers when it comes to the core criteria, but 2 losses puts any team at risk in SR4. A win and they stay at 4 and get a home game. If a few teams lose ahead them, they could get slotted higher. Don’t be shocked to see WSU on that 3 line after this weekend.

Sioux Falls – a two score underdog, hosting Mankato. While the Mavs will be a tough Dragon to slay, the Cougars top rated defense has the ability to keep them in any game. A win could vault USF into getting a home game, but a loss puts them on the cusp of elimination. USF could land as the top 2-loss team, and on the 7 line (if the favorites all win), but if there’s an upset of one of either CWU or MW State, then USF would be in trouble, as they’d be a the potential for 7 teams that have 1 or less setbacks.

Colorado Mesa – on paper Mesa looks like a good favorite to win at APU, but Massey has them losing 38-31. The GNAC has looked better during OOC games, which now suggests Mesa has a fight on their hands in the late game Saturday night. With a loss, Mesa is likely out, as a 2 loss CSUP team would land ahead of them, per the criteria, having won that matchup head-to-head. With a win, they stay roughly where they are now, maybe a spot higher.

Texas A/M Commerce – they have a tester with Tarleton, but Commerce has looked like they are probably the best team in the LSC this season. With a win, they will stay about the same, maybe a touch higher. With a superstar QB, they are the road team that nobody wants to face in R1.

Minnesota-Duluth – while I’m still a bit perplexed by UMD moving up this far (ahead of 1 loss squads), they do look good in the other measurables in the core criteria, as shown. UMD has been red-hot, but will have their SOS take a hit with Mary this week. I have a feeling UMD might’ve peaked in the rankings, but there’s a lot of big games to play this week. If the RMAC fell out of the race, UMD would have the door open to make the dance. If not, they will get the Mineral Water Bowl bid over USF (if tied), as they’ll be a conference champion. (yes, that comes before head-to-head results, weird..I know)

Eastern New Mexico – the triple option threat of SR4 will be a tough matchup for MW State, and if ENMU wins, they are in, more than likely. A loss sinks their ship, per the numbers. This game is also a late start.

Humboldt State – HSU hasn’t gotten much respect so far from the committee, and is the one team that I think hasn’t been given a fair shake. That said, they should have their chance to play their way in. With a loss, they are done.

Colorado State-Pueblo-The reason I have CSUP listed at all is that I feel they are laying in the weeds and could sneak up and possibly get a spot. They are a longshot for certain, but if Mesa loses, and then some of the others in front of them, CSUP could land in the 8 spot. If so, they would get in the dance due to Earned Access (EA). If so, a NSIC team could be pretty upset about that.

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