GAC Playoff Preview - Second Round

November 22nd, 2023 6:00am

GAC Playoff Preview - Second Round

The playoffs continue for the GAC this week as No. 1 seed Harding takes on No. 4 seed Central Missouri. 

You probably could not find a matchup that is more different from an offensive style perspective. The Bisons are the No. 1 rushing offense in the nation, averaging 422 yards per game out of their flexbone triple option offense. The Mules are the No. 1 passing offense in the nation, averaging 417 yards per game. So, what is going to prevail on Saturday? Let’s dive in.


When Central Missouri has the ball…

As Henderson State found out the hard way last week, the GAC possesses no offense capable of preparing opponents for what the Mules bring to the table. UCM was up 35-0 at the end of the first quarter against the Reddies and things were effectively over at that point. The Mules score quickly and are ruthlessly efficient when they have the ball. The plethora of weapons makes the offense really difficult to defend because no extra attention can be given to any one player. Against Henderson State, 1,000-yard back Marcellous Hawkins had only three carries for 12 yards and five different players caught a touchdown pass with no receiver catching more than four passes. That’s balance that puts a ton of stress on the defense. 

While the Mules possess the best offense in the nation, the Bisons (by the numbers) have arguably the best defense in the nation. The Bisons rank first in the nation in total defense and second in scoring defense. They’re fifth in rushing yards allowed and third in passing yards allowed. More importantly on the passing defense, the Bisons are first in the nation in both yards per attempt and yards per completion. They’ve also picked off 19 passes—one fewer than the Mules, ironically—and returned five of them for touchdowns. Of course, people will point to the opposition and say the Bisons haven’t been tested thoroughly. There’s a case to be made there, certainly. However, Harding also did to those underwhelming opponents what you’d expect a dominant team to do: they dominated them. Four shutouts don’t just happen. Harding is a really deep and disciplined defense that has playmakers at every level. 


When Harding has the ball…

The UCM defense forced three and outs on three of Henderson State’s first four possessions (and intercepted Andrew Edwards on the fourth possession), allowing the Mules to jump out to a big lead and completely demoralize the Reddies. As noted in last week’s preview, the Mules have one of the best run defenses in the MIAA, but just as the GAC doesn’t possess the same level of passing offenses as the MIAA, the inverse is true for rushing offenses. There’s no school in the MIAA that would effectively prepare the Mules for the flexbone. Now, defending it is entirely based on defenders not getting bored with doing the exact same thing over and over and over again for 60 minutes. There’s not some magic pill; it’s all about discipline. Do the Mules have that level of discipline? We’ll find out Saturday. 

Harding is going to churn out yards, just like the Mules are going to churn out yards. I’d be very surprised by either defense considerably slowing down the opposing offense. The big deal for Harding is scoring. They’ll be able to move the ball slowly down the field, but if they drive 60 yards and don’t come away with points, that’s going to be the death knell for the Bisons. Points have to consistently go on the board to keep pace with the Mules. Henderson State had six drives over three minutes in possession and scored on just two of them. Now, it was 35-0 by the time the Reddies mustered a drive of that length, but the point remains. Harding must score and not just possess the ball because they won’t be able to hold the Mules down completely. 


Final Thoughts…

I think the conversation following UCM’s steamrolling of Henderson State last week has been one centered on the inadequacy of the GAC teams. However, I think the pendulum has swung way too far into the camp that UCM will do something similar to Harding just because of the Bisons’ 11-point road win in Arkadelphia earlier this year. We could come on here Saturday at 5 p.m. and find that very well was the case. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. The Harding defense is very good and the offense has been clicking on all cylinders this season. The extra week of preparation didn’t hurt. The Bisons will be hungry and ready to go in front what should be a fantastic crowd in Searcy. 

Is that enough to stop the Mules from coming in and getting the road win? I don’t know. I’ll admit the rapid destruction of the Reddies has given me pause on this one. I do think the Harding defense is considerably better than Henderson State’s and I think the Bisons can get off to a much better start on Saturday. I’ll be interested to see if the UCM defense comes out a little tepid, trying to figure out the flexbone or if they’ll be overly aggressive, opening themselves to pitches or a play action pass over the top. Either way, I think the Bisons get it done.

Harding 38, Central Missouri 35