Chuck Bitner

SAC Football: Week 4 Preview

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The threats from Hurricane Florence forced numerous changes to the week three college football schedule. Only one of five SAC games went off as originally planned. Three were rescheduled and one was cancelled. Its definitely a hardship to move football games during the same week and I am grateful to everyone that contributed to making those games happen. Thankfully we were able to get most of them in, and most importantly all of the games that will impact conference standings were played.

Highlights from Week 3

Our lone casualty of the weekend was the UNC Pembroke at Catawba game. Sadly, UNCP had to cancel for a second week in a row as the impacts of flooding in eastern North Carolina have forced the closure of the campus. As of Thursday morning, the campus remains closed to students and will re-open no sooner than Monday, 9/24.

Tusculum’s Jordan Shippy set a new school record for rushing yards in a single game with 258 in the win over Limestone. Shippy averaged 7.4 yards per carry and scored three times. The one game tally of 258 yards is more than he rushed for in 10 games in 2017 and just shy of his 276 for the 2016 season. Shippy is now leading the SAC in total rushing yards (375), rushing yards per game (125) and rushing TDs (4).

Limestone’s defense spent too much time on the field, but it allowed DB Josh Simmons to set a new school record for tackles in a game with 19. Eleven of them were solo stops.

Speaking of stats, Lenoir-Rhyne’s resurrected offense currently leads the SAC in the following team categories: points per game (47.3), yards per game (480), yards per pass completion (19.3), passing touchdowns (10), rushing touchdowns (9), first downs (total and per game), 3rd down efficiency (51%) and 4th down efficiency (75%) .
After three weeks, here is look at the conference rankings from my point of view.

1. Carson-Newman (2-1, 1-0)
It’s not every week that you can make as many mistakes as Carson-Newman did and still beat a good team by 17 points. There are two ways to look at the outcome. 1) They were lucky. They were penalized 16 times for 136 yards and had three scoring plays negated, but still got out with a win. 2) They were good enough to overcome the penalties and still win by three scores. Had the Eagles not destroyed themselves with mistakes, Wingate would have been on the ropes at halftime. They’re going to have to play a cleaner football going forward, but it was pretty clear Saturday night that they were the better team and one of their toughest obstacles is now behind them.

2. Lenoir-Rhyne (2-1, 1-0)

Three weeks, three very impressive performances for Lenoir-Rhyne. The Bears went 3-and-out on their first possession but then scored TDs on six of the next seven drives. Mars Hill showed signs of life in the second half, but this game was over five minutes before halftime. The Bears’ offense was unstoppable and they also added big plays on special teams and defense. Given the short week of practice and preparation, I really liked how the Bears’ coaching staff managed the second half. They got a lot of young players into the game and let them play a bulk of the 3rd and 4th quarters. Grayson Willingham didn’t even play after halftime. Even when Mars Hill started to inch back into it, they didn’t overreact. After building that big lead, the objective was just to secure the win and move on. An extra couple of days rest heading into the road trip to Wingate is a nice bonus.

3. Wingate (2-1, 0-1)
The Bulldogs put in a courageous performance on Saturday night at Carson-Newman. They were not the better team but they found ways to stay in the ball game until late in the 4th quarter. Carson-Newman had opportunities to put the Bulldogs out of it but Wingate found ways to stay alive, either with a big stop on defense or a TD when the game was on the line. The defense wore down a bit and started giving up big chunks to the Eagles in late stages of the 3rd quarter but they played very well and gave the offense the time it needed to get something going. They didn’t quite have enough offense and made far too many mistakes but they sure showed a lot of fight. They need to get over the loss in a hurry and get refocused for a big meeting with LR Saturday night.

4. Catawba (1-1, 0-1)
Sadly, Florence forced the cancellation of Catawba’s home opener and the game will not be made up. It’s a shame to lose a home game and now the Indians must wait until September 29 to play in front of the home crowd for the first time. As a reminder, UNCP has a scheduling alliance with the SAC but games against the Braves do NOT count towards conference standings, so this does not impact Catawba in the SAC championship race. A little extra time to rest up and reflect on their offensive inconsistencies won’t hurt, but the loss of the 11th game could be a problem if the Indians are in playoff contention by November.

5. Tusculum (2-1, 1-0)
Tusculum followed up their explosion at Shorter with another big performance at home against Limestone. The Pioneers haven’t been known for running the ball in recent seasons, but their ground game erupted for 390 rushing yards (6th most all time and the most since moving to NCAA status in 1998). Jordan Shippy set the individual single game rushing record with 258 yards. Limestone is struggling, but that is still a big time performance for the Pioneers and the defense is continuing to play at a high level. I was really down on Tusculum after their 3-point showing in the opener but I am very impressed with the last two weeks. They haven’t played the stiffest of competition but they are building momentum for the tough games coming up.

6. UNC-Pembroke (1-1)
UNCP ended up with an unplanned bye week due to the cancelled trip to Catawba. It’s a shame to break up the momentum they had from the late surge at WSSU and the breakout performance at home against ECSU. Now they have to find ways to overcome the major disruptions that Florence brought to their campus and community.

7. Newberry (1-2, 0-0)
Newberry got their first win of the season Thursday afternoon with a 27-14 win over Virginia University of Lynchburg. They won the game which is all that matters but it wasn’t a great day for the Wolves. They should have easily outmanned VUL and being the home team should have been a significant advantage in this rescheduled meeting. VUL had a legit shot to win the game in the fourth quarter and that was not expected. I want to give credit to the Dragons for showing up and playing good football, especially on defense. It was a great performance for them. But I also really have to question how prepared Newberry was. I’m trying to avoid overthinking it. It’s hard to judge exactly how the distractions of the week impacted the team and their preparations. The defense stepped up for VUL’s final three drives with just a six point lead to protect, so it was good that they delivered with the game on the line. I just didn’t expect them to be in that position.

8. Mars Hill (0-3, 0-1)
Moving a road game from Saturday night to Thursday afternoon with two days notice is a tough assignment, and it sure looked like Mars Hill was feeling the effects of it. A lethargic start in the re-scheduled game at LR put Mars Hill in a deep hole they simply couldn’t get out of. Down 42-7, they were out of the game by halftime but they did make some things happen after the break and hopefully found something to build on. The game changes a lot when one team is up by five touchdowns but Mars Hill did find ways to move the ball in the second half. Backup QB James Urzua lead two scoring drives in the 4th quarter and ended up passing for 177 yards. Austin Brown is their leader, but Urzua may be the future so meaningful game experience for him was the bright spot of the day. The Lions are back at home this week against Catawba, and that may be an opportunity for a better day with the Indians’ offense struggling to get going.

9. Limestone (0-3, 0-1)
Limestone is the only team in the SAC to have opened the season with three straight road games. Unfortunately, the results reflect that. I expected lopsided scores in meetings with Gardner-Webb and West Georgia, but they should have been able to compete with Tusculum. The Saints gave Fr. Alec Morton the start at QB but it won’t a memorable occasion. The Saints struggled all day against Tusculum’s experienced secondary and Morton was only able to complete 13 of 35 attempts and had four passes picked off. The defense was shredded by Tusculum’s normally modest running game, which was really a bad sign for the rest of the season. I’m a little worried for Limestone. This was supposed to be one of the more even matchups they were going to have this year and they were soundly outplayed. Looking ahead, its hard to see many potential Ws in the remaining schedule. They have their home opener against West Alabama this weekend, which should be ugly, but if they can rise up and beat Mars Hill in week 5, it will at least give them a chance to have a more competitive second half of the year.

Week Four Schedule

Catawba at Mars Hill 1:00
Either Catawba’s offense on Mars Hill’s defense will have a better day this weekend. Maybe they both will and if so, this should be a competitive game. If both continue to struggle, it’s going to be hard to watch. The Indians made a lot of plays in their win at WSSU but they were still inconsistent. The passing game is all over the place and the running game hasn’t come around yet. The Lions are allowing more than 200 yards per game on the ground. I think Catawba will work on establishing the run with Kenyatta Greene and that will take some pressure off Reid Carlton to make pays throwing the ball. Mars Hill has playmakers but yards have not translated to points and I think that trend will continue. They’ll move the ball between the 20s but Catawba’s defense isn’t going to surrender many points.
Catawba 34 Mars Hill 14

Carson-Newman at Newberry 1:00
After one week at home, the Eagles are back on the road this weekend heading to the not-so-friendly Setzler Field at Newberry. The Eagles have lost their lost three visits to Newberry by an average of 21 points. But history is rarely relevant when two teams get together and it won’t be in this case. Carson-Newman is the better team and if they don’t repeat the mistakes they made last week, I think they will win this by double digits. I see this playing out a lot like last week’s game against Wingate. Newberry’s defense is very good and will keep them in it. The offense isn’t bad but is inconsistent and in my opinion, still lacking a true identity. They’ve used three quarterbacks and all have made plays but none have taken command of the offense. I think Greg Ruff is their best passer and they’re going to need him and WR Markell Castle to hook up a lot in this game. But Carson-Newman’s defense is hitting its stride and they don’t give up big plays. The Wolves are going for three straight wins over Carson-Newman (something they’ve never done before) but I don’t think they’ll get it.
Carson-Newman 28 Newberry 16

West Alabama at Limestone 1:00
Limestone finally gets to play at home for the first time this season and it will be against an out of conference opponent. West Alabama is coming to Gaffney and they’re not going to be in a good mood. The Tigers were thumped by a score of 58-24 in their GSC opener at Valdosta State. The defending GSC champs haven’t really lived up to preseason expectations so far. They’re either going to come to Gaffney a little shell shocked, or they’re going to have a bad taste in their mouths and take out some frustrations on Limestone. I fear its going to be the latter, and it will be bad news for the Saints who were gutted by Tusculum last week. UWA does have a lot to work on though. They haven’t been running the ball very well and they also need to step up on defense. Limestone should be the perfect opponent to work on their problem areas. The Saints have trouble stopping the run and they’ve been putting their defense in bad situations with turnovers. Hopefully they can avoid that on Saturday but this should still be a convincing win for the Tigers.
West Alabama 45 Limestone 14

UNC Pembroke at Tusculum - CANCELLED
I had Tusculum winning by 4 points in a close, defensive game that could go either way.

Lenoir-Rhyne at Wingate 6:00
Wingate suffered a tough loss last week at Carson-Newman but they have to leave that behind them in a hurry and refocus for the resurgent Lenoir-Rhyne Bears. LR is an extremely dangerous team right now, for many reasons. First, and most simply, they’re playing really well. All three phases of the game have been performing at a high level and they are minimizing mistakes. Second, this class of players is experiencing winning for the first time. They’re hungry. They’re getting a taste for winning and they want more. Third, we have no idea what their ceiling is for this year. They are playing with so much confidence right now and they expect to win.

By contrast, Wingate is a much more experienced team. They should have the right makeup to bounce back from the loss at C-N but we’ll see. They didn’t do it last year after they lost at Tusculum and they were handled at home in the first round of the playoffs. Hopefully the veterans on the team learned from that. Their defense is still very good and they will be a big challenge for the Bears. Wingate’s keys to victory are to prevent a fast start for LR and establish the run. Mars Hill was able to make some plays running the ball last week and Wingate has that big O-line to work with. Shaw Crocker is playing just fine at QB and he made a lot of 4th quarter throws last week that impressed me. If they can take some pressure off him and rely on the running game to carry the load, they’ll have a very good chance to get back on the winning track.
Wingate has some favorable matchups in this game, but I think they are still a little too inconsistent on offense.
Lenoir-Rhyne 24 Wingate 20

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