December 6th, 2019 10:00am
2019 SR4 Playoff Preview (Round 3)
Texas A&M Commerce Lions (11-2) at MSU-Mankato Mavericks (12-0)
The squads met once before with the Lions escaping Mankato with a 31-21 victory in this same playoff round, two years ago. The game was highly contested with MSU clinging to a 18-13 lead at half. However, in the back half of the game MSU struggled to make tackles in the open field against the faster Commerce ballclub. The Lions went on to capture the 2017 D2 National Championship and their quarterback Luis Perez won the Harlon Hill award.
While the Lions do return players from that ’17 squad, few were difference-makers back at that time. However, the top producers on offense for the Mavs today were the same back in 2017. Nate Gunn (RB) and Shane Zylstra (WR) were the top producers for the Mavericks in 2017, while MSU was splitting reps quarterback between Ryan Schlichte and JD Ekowa.
TAMUC Players to Watch:
#2 Miklo Smalls (QB) is a transfer from Rice University. The sophomore quarterback has completed 66% of his passes with a total of 25 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. Smalls has thrown for 227 yards per game and rushed for over 100 yards each of the last two weeks.
#17 Ryan Stokes (WR) has caught 44 balls for 621 yards this season with 4 touchdowns.
#20 Dominique Ramsey (DB/KR/PR) is a capable DB who’s nabbed 3 picks but is especially dangerous in the return game with 2 scores this season, 1 last year in the playoffs against Duluth.
#15 Terrell Collins (LB) is an Arkansas Razorbacks transfer who led the Lions in tackles with 83, 9.5 going for losses, 3.5 sacks.
#4 Jalon Edwards-Cooper (DB) is a jack of all trades for the Commerce defense. Edwards-Cooper was second on the squad in tackles with 64, while also getting 6 tackles for loss, 2 for sacks, and also nabbing 3 interceptions.
MSU Players to Watch:
#23 Nate Gunn (RB) once again has put forth a tremendous season, currently sitting at 1,383 yards rushing with 23 scores.
#84 Shane Zylstra (WR) is a 6’4 target in the Mavs passing game who has a chance to play on Sundays. This year number 84 has 1,379 receiving yards (20 yards per catch) and has reached the end zone 15 times.
#5 Ryan Schlichte (QB) is the starting quarterback in the Mavs dual signal caller system. Schlichte has completed 56% of this throws for 15 scores and 5 picks.
#3 Zach Robertson (LB) is the leading tackler on the Mavs with 56. Robertson also netted 10 tfl, 4 sacks, and 2 picks.
#20 Cole Schroedermeier (S) leads the MSU secondary with 4 interceptions. Schroedermeier has also helped in run support, currently second on the squad in tackles with 49.
TAMUC Offense (33.9 points per game)
Commerce has been a steady but not dynamic offense this season. During the Lions championship run of 2017 the squad had a high-flying attack that threw for over 300 yards per contest and liked to get the ball to the perimeter via screen passes, allowing their speedy wideouts an opportunity to make plays in the open field. The 2019 version of the Lions offense no longer has star quarterback Luis Perez, but instead have a more versatile playmaker in QB Miklo Smalls. Smalls is still a very capable passer, but the offensive approach of the squad is a little different than ’17, with Smalls being turned loose as their main ball-carrier since the do-or-die postseason began. The Rice transfer has seen double-digit carries each of the last two games, amassing 100 plus yards in each contest. In both the Tarleton and the Mines playoff games Smalls was able to get loose for chunk yards while also having a long scamper as well. Outside of Smalls, the Lions have seen changes week-to-week in their running game due to injuries at the position.
Smalls has two main targets in the passing game, Ryan Stokes underneath and Chance Cooper down the field. Both wideouts are solid, while neither has been standout during the course of the year. The challenge for MSU will be both wideouts run well and can turn a small grab into trip to the endzone. Smalls has been a very good passer during the season, but in the playoffs he’s completing just over 50% of his passes, with 2 picks, 1 score.
Overall the Lions offense is not one of the better units in the playoffs. That said, they have playmakers that have homerun ability, especially their dangerous signal-caller who has opponents holding their breath every time he tucks and runs.
MSU Offense (47.7 points per game)
The Mavs offense has virtually the same identity as years past, which is to be expected since they return nearly everyone from a season ago. It all begins and ends with the MSU offensive line and the tremendous inside running of Nate Gunn. The road graders upfront are massive, and Gunn has a lot of big game experience. Number 23 scored 6 times and rushed for over 250 yards against a nationally ranked USF defense, while also called upon 50 times last year in a snow playoff game against Tarleton State.
Ryan Schlichte is still splitting reps with JD Ekowa at quarterback, but it seems like Schlichte is playing some of his best football down the stretch. Both signal-callers will be asked to run the ball occasionally, keeping the defense honest. Like with Commerce, it seems the Mavs lean on their quarterback to run a bit more often during the biggest of games. The Mavs quarterback duo struggled against the Lions back in 2017, combining for 10 of 34, with two scores and a pick. When the Mavs have struggled in the postseason, often it can be connected with inefficient quarterback play. A week ago, the duo combined for 11 completions on 17 attempts for 257 yards, one score and two picks. In the two biggest games the last month (USF, CSUP) starting quarterback Ryan Schlichte has completed 15 of 23, good for 65%. Ekowa 7 for 17 (41%), with 3 interceptions.
The passing game for MSU runs through Shane Zylstra, the top wideout in the NSIC. Zylstra’s mix of height and speed make for an extremely tough defend. The Mavs will look to get Zylstra the ball early and often, all the more in high profile games. Zylstra slammed the door on any hopes of a CSUP comeback a week ago with his 74-yard deep crossing route and score just after the halftime break. Justin Arnold will need to continue to make chunk plays as well for the Mavs offense so that the defense doesn’t just key on Zylstra.
The Mavs offensive line has become a major factor as the season has continued, playing a huge role in the pounding running style the Mavs employ with Nate Gunn. A week ago, most figured MSU would be limited offensively but instead they put up 547 yards of offense against one of the top defenses in D2. Keep in mind that’s with Nate Gunn not having a strong day, finishing with only 74 yards on 16 totes, but scoring twice. Uncharacteristically Gunn put the ball on the deck twice, then departing for the last quarter of the contest. One would assume Gunn was removed as a result of ball protection, but if he’s injured that changes the dynamic of this matchup. Assuming Gunn is healthy, he will be the focus of Commerce and if they cannot keep him under 100 yards this game the Mavs will be ringing the victory bell after the game.
TAMUC Defense (18.5 points per game)
The 4-2-5 defensive approach by Commerce gets to the ball quickly and can be especially tough against the pass. The Lions have d-backs who fly around, like CSUP a week ago. The 4-man front of the Lions can get home, having sacked the quarterback 41 times this season. TAMUC gives up 316 yards of offense per contest, 111 on the ground and 205 through the air. The squad is +6 in turnover margin, with a surprisingly low 11 interceptions in ’19. On paper, the Thunderwolves defense from a week ago is better than the Lions defense heading into the Blake this week. CSUP allowed 14ppg while TAMUC is at 18ppg, but one could make a case the LSC is better than the RMAC, thus Commerce has played tougher competition. That said, CSUP did defeat Commerce earlier this season 24-17 in Pueblo.
The Lions have played against superstar wideout Zimari Manning at Tarleton, so they’ll be battled tested to face Mavs wideout Shane Zylstra, especially since they saw him in 2017 as well. Manning went for over 220 yards and 3 scores in the 2 games against Commerce, so they didn’t exactly shut him down. Another thing worth mentioning is while Commerce was able to limit the Texans to 16 points in their opening round win, Tarleton was without star running back Daniel McCants who was sidelined with a hammy. All said the Lions have limited both of their playoff opponents and have allowed only 19 points between their two contests.
Expect TAMUC to try and stop the run first and make the Mavs a passing team, which is when the Lions can get after the quarterback. A week ago, Commerce sacked Mines ten times and made any comeback efforts difficult with the pressure on the quarterback. The Mavs protect their passer better than Mines, but Commerce is athletic upfront and isn’t afraid to being bodies after the quarterback to disrupt the offense. The speed of the Commerce will be needed in run support to help slow down the Mavs running game and there could be some interesting collisions with Nate Gunn and the second level if/when he breaks through. The Lions were able to keep the Orediggers well under their season rushing average a week ago, but with the Mavs haven’t been slowed down in the running game all season, so Commerce will certainly have their hands full with that task.
MSU Defense (12 points per game)
The Mavs allow a miniscule 228 yards per game, good for tops in D2. MSU got the quarterback to the turf 41 times this season, often caving in the opposing pocket. The MSU defense produced 19 interceptions and ended up +14 in turnover margin. The Mavs secondary has looked better this year than in the past but did struggle against Sioux Falls in week 10 (a 42-39 win). In that contest the Mavs did shut down the run but gave up big plays in the back half. That game was the lone blemish on an otherwise tremendous year for the MSU D.
Saturday the Mavs will look to assert their physical style of play against a Commerce squad who can play physical as well. With the Mavs also playing a 4-2-5 scheme MSU likes to clog up the running lanes with their 4-man front, while also getting key production from players like #99 Brayden Thomas, who’s netted 13 tackles for loss, having reached the quarterback 9 times. Thomas and his mates will look to make things challenging in the pocket the way they did with the Thunderwolves a week ago.
The MSU defense had a few bodies leave the CSUP game mid-second half, but all indications are they’ll be suited up ready to play come Saturday.
A very key point anytime an NSIC team plays a team from Texas seems to be the speed at the skill positions of the warm weather squad. Stylistically this game is a turbo-diesel pickup truck against a sports car. The Mavs would like to play the more bruising style while the Lions have the speed on both sides of the ball to cause MSU worry. The single biggest area of concern with regard to speed will be when Commerce ball-carriers have the ball in open space. This has been a pain point with the Mavs during playoff runs from Commerce in ’17 to Ferris a year ago. If the Mavs can be quick to the spot they can limit Commerce offensively, but that’s still to be seen.
An area that could be key in this contest is Commerce ability to make plays in the special teams. A week ago, the Lions pulled off two successful fake field goals, turning them into game-changing plays. In 2017 the single biggest play was a long punt return for a score by the Lions, which is similar to what UMD experienced with TAMUC just last year in the postseason when the Lions came up to Duluth and handled the Bulldogs. The player that returned the long punt for a score was Dominique Ramsey, who has 2 returns for scores in ’19 and is a key player in the game Saturday. Ramsey gets chunk yards on a regular basis in the return game and might be the most dangerous player on the field for Commerce this weekend. The Mavs don’t have quite the same firepower in the return game, making this an area concern for Maverick fans.
Both squads are coming into this round of eight contest riding high and playing very well. Each fanbase has to be feeling very good about their squad. This is probably much the same with the six squads left in the dance. Personally, I think Commerce is a dangerous opponent. However, I think if MSU is going to win a natty, this is the year. The MSU defense is getting after people and the offense for the Mavericks is probably as good as I can recall during their run during the last 8 seasons. I feel that if the Mavs offense had a great deal success against CSUP they can get it done against TAMUC as well. I also feel that it’ll take a top offense in D2 to topple MSU and while Smalls is a real threat and will make plays in this one, I don’t feel Commerce will be able to move the chains often enough to have sustained success offensively.
Mineral Water Bowl
Nebraska-Kearney (6-5) vs Winona State (8-3)
The Lopers come into this game a mixed bag. They finished at a rather pedestrian 6-5 mark but recorded an eye-popping win over current national title contender Northwest Missouri State 24-17 in week 7. Since that time Kearney has lost 3 of their last 4, including allowing 57 points in their last outing against a 6-5 Washburn squad. The Lopers will look at attack the Warriors with an option offense, but unlike most game-weeks, WSU will have weeks to prepare for this much different approach.
The Warriors won 7 of 8 to close out the year, with a late score by Augustana in week 10 spoiling their chances to make the playoffs. The WSU offense hasn’t been explosive, but it’s still be in the upper half of the NSIC. The WSU defense played very well as the season continued and will need to play assignment football on Saturday against UNK.
I think UNK will be a tougher opponent than their record would indicate, but I think WSU has a key players defensively that’ll be playing their last game and will be determined to go out a winner. I’m favoring WSU to make enough plays in the special teams and to outlast the Kearney.