NSIC Preview Week Ten

November 8th, 2019 10:00am

NSIC Preview Week Ten

Saturday, November 9

Southwest Minnesota State (3-6) at Concordia-St. Paul (5-4)

Concordia has been eliminated from playoff contention but still has two weeks left to put a stamp on the program’s best campaign in more than five years.  QB Maxon Hutton had played nearly every snap this year for the Bears but was injured on a running play early in last week’s Augie contest.  CSP now faces more offensive challenges.  The squad kept things close only to see AU pull it out in the final seconds.  Wideout Jared Olsgaard did nearly everything asked of him while filling at quarterback, rushing the ball 14 times and taking to the air for 21 attempts. 

The CSP defense played Augie tough, limiting the Vikings to 320 yards and just 46 yards on the ground.  Unfortunately, when the Bears needed to get stops in the closing moments, they fell short. 

SMSU looked like it might become a sneaky team earlier this fall but since beating SCSU (which felt like a big win at the time), the Mustangs have gone 1-3 and were thumped 41-13 a week ago at home by Winona State for the sledge-trophy.  Daniel Davis is a scintillating receiver who’d be the clear-cut best pass-catcher in the league if there wasn’t some tall fella in Mankato grabbing balls and stealing headlines.  Davis will finish with more than 1,000 yards and double digit touchdowns. 

It wouldn’t shock me if SMSU jumped up and got the Bears in this one, but I feel Concordia is just far better defensively and will do enough offensively to prevail. 

CSP 31-27

Minot State (3-6) at St. Cloud State (3-6)

Both teams have been losing a lot more than winning over the last month.  Minot State allowed an eye-popping 513 yards in the air to Moorhead, falling 49-20.  The Beavers reached three wins after seven weeks, their best start during the D2 era but is once again stumbling and running a real risk of finishing the year on a four-game losing streak. 

St. Cloud has become perhaps the NSIC’s most disappointing 2019 squad , especially given it was bringing back one of the better quarterbacks in the league, weapons for him, and a decent defense.  Maybe I had expected too much of SCSU, but I thought they had things in-place to have a very good campaign.  The Huskies have lost six of their last seven, including a one-sided setback a week ago at Bemidji against the Beavers 3rd string signal-caller. 

Saturday really comes down to who’s going to show up ready to win.  In years past I’d take St. Cloud without reservation but Minot has played SCSU well in the recent past and I’ll take the Beavers to win.

Minot 23-21

Augustana (7-2) at Winona State (7-2)

Both teams have been hot the past month and are seemingly fighting for their playoff lives in this battle of regionally ranked squads.  Augie is in the seventh and final playoff spot while Winona sits ninth.  AU should be a playoff lock with a win while Winona needs a victory and for Mankato to defeat USF which is sitting just ahead of the Warriors in the Regional Rankings. 

Tom Sawyer’s boys have won five straight and improved on both sides of the ball in the process.  Earlier this fall WSU was a bit out of sorts in bad showings at USF and MSU.  Since then, Sam Santiago Lloyd has become a top runner in the conference and the WSU offense has shown nice balance.  QB Owen Burke has been solid but not outstanding while nursing a sore knee. Burke was relieved by 5th-year senior John Rumpza against SMSU. Rumpza completed all five of his passes vs. the Mustangs and is 8 for 8 on the year with two scores.  Rumpza’s experience gives the offense more confidence in a replacement signal-caller than if it was a young player getting thrust into a game prematurely.  It’s to be seen if Burke will play this weekend and could very well be a game time decision. 

WSU has become sounder defensively as the season’s progressed.  Led by veterans Michael Gomez (DE) and Nick Pridgeon (LB), the Warriors have been pestering opposing quarterbacks, while d-backs such as Isaiah Hall and others are patrol ling the back half nicely.  WSU is fourth in the NSIC in points allowed (16) and also fourth in yards allowed (370ypg).  The area in which the Warriors really shine is interceptions.  They are tied with USF for the league lead with 17. 

Augustana continued its winning streak last week prevailing in the final seconds over Concordia.  Truth be told, I was a bit surprised the Vikings struggled as much as they did against a CSP team playing its backup quarterback.  Augie played a decent first half but was up only 14-10 at the break.  After intermission CSP had more vigor and presented the Augustana offense challenges by tightening things up and getting pressure on the quarterback.  The Vikings looked lifeless offensively for much of the second half save for the last possession when they rode running back Jarod Epperson play after play, securing a 21-20 win.  The AU running game was almost non-existent until the last drive, and this is an area that needs to be better in big games. 

The Viking passing game is still not as explosive as preseason expectations but QB Kyle Saddler did hit on 22 of 36 passes last Saturday, his best numbers this fall by far against a good defense.  Saddler leads the conference with 222 ypg but has completed only 45% of his tosses when playing against the better NSIC defenses with six interceptions and just two TDs.  This presents a challenge as Winona is a stout, veteran defense with an experienced secondary and a front that can get after the passer.  Augie must get the ball on the perimeter to Epperson and the Vikings top flight receiving corps and let them make plays underneath unless they want to stir up the hornet’s nest in Winona’s back half.  Augustana has probably the deepest receiving corps in the conference, yet the Vikings have struggled to be explosive in the passing game.  

The Augie defense continues to be one of the NSIC’s best.  It contained CSP a week ago, keeping the game within reach until the offense could steal a W in the closing moments.  The Vikings are tasked with slowing down the Warriors battering ram running back Sam Santiago Lloyd.  With a young WSU offensive line, I like the proven Augie front seven to limit Lloyd and force the Warriors to the air, where they’ve been hit and miss this year. 

Both teams should be able to control the action a fair amount given the strength of the defenses.  Each squad’s kicking game is strong, but the Winona State return game is tops in the league and Jake Balliu and Isaiah Hall can be gamebreakers.

This one looks like it could go either way, but I like WSU at home by the slimmest of margins. 

WSU 23-20

Bemidji State (6-3) at Minnesota State-Moorhead (5-4)

BSU rebounded nicely from a setback at Concordia the previous week by thumping SCSU 38-14.  Freshman running back Makalo Harn stepped forward for the Beavers in the absence of star Jalen Frye, rushing for 112 yards and two touchdowns on a workman-like 28 totes.  Like Frye, Harn is a smaller back who relies on quickness to get upfield quickly.  Quarterback Emmett Enright had his coming out party throwing for 435 yards with three scores and just one pick.  This was far and away the best effort for the former 3rd stringer. His connection with wideout Brendan Beaulieu (11 grabs for 177 yards) has to be promising for Beavers fans.  Considering the challenges Bemidji has encountered offensively this year, Enright’s ability to ignite the passing game makes them a much tougher defend. 

Moorhead exploded with over 500 yards in the air at Minot in the triumphant return of often injured QB Jakup Sinani.  When Sinani is healthy he can be the most dynamic quarterback in the NSIC despite the Dragons allowing a second worst 36 sacks.  Star receiver Jake Richter returned to form with 10 grabs for 207 yards and a score.  Ty Jochim has become the back of choice for the Dragons as he continues to give the squad steady production weekly. 

BSU has been the better defensive unit this fall, primarily against the run, but since Moorhead doesn’t put a heavy reliance on its ground game, I like the Dragons ability to throw the ball in this one.  The fact they are a plus 11 in the turnover margin impresses me as well. 

MSUM 38-34

Minnesota State-Mankato (9-0) at Sioux Falls (7-2)

This has a similar feel to 2017 when the stage was set for a nearly identical matchup.  The Cougars had one loss at that time, vying for their playoff lives, while Mankato was unbeaten and top ranked.  Funny thing, each team’s makeup isn’t a lot different.  Both are physical, run-based offenses who defend well (USF is number one in the nation, MSU number two in total defense).  This time around though I contend MSU is stronger and more experienced than that ’17 squad, while also better defensively.  USF is more diverse offensively due to the running and throwing abilities of QB Caden Walters, while the Cougars are also stronger defensively.

I think this game comes down to three things.  First: Can USF limit Nate Gunn from running downhill and Shane Zylstra from stretching the field?  I think the Cougars can keep Gunn under 100 yards, but it’ll be hard to do while not putting needed resources in the secondary to force MSU to throw underneath.  That’s the catch 22 with Mankato, if you sellout in hopes of stopping the run you likely spring a leak in the back half with Zylstra being too much for one-on-one duty.  Second:  Can USF throw the ball effectively like it did in 2017, a game the Cougars led by 10 points in the middle of the fourth quarter before falling 27-23?  Third: Can USF play a clean enough game with ball security and snaps (both shotgun and special teams) to keep this game close?  This has been a trouble spot for the Coo in their two setbacks this year.

Physically, MSU always looks different coming off the bus than other NSIC teams (physically imposing).  This years Mavs are no different.  The entire Kato offensive line returns from last year’s final four squad and continues to move the line of scrimmage for Nate Gunn, a player who will be remembered long from now as the NSIC’s top inside runner of this era.  Quarterback play has been the Achilles heel for MSU in big games the last few years. The play of the Schlichte/Ekowa duo will be important especially if USF slows down the Mavs run game, forcing them to the air.  If you’re USF, make everyone else not named Gunn and Zylstra beat you.  Much easier said than done. 

I think this contest plays close again, like 2017. But keep in mind Gunn didn’t play two years ago.  He is the last opponent to rush for 100 yards vs. this defense (30-121 in ’18).  While defense will likely control the action, the Mavs lean heavily on their star wideout (Zylstra) and it’s my feeling he’ll make enough plays for Mankato to secure a well fought W. 

MSU 30-20

Upper Iowa (2-7) at Wayne State (3-6)

While UIU outlasted Duluth a few weeks ago, it was largely due to the fact UMD was playing a backup QB and turned the ball over 6 times.  This point was further driven home the next week when the Peacocks were thumped at home 47-10 by USF. 

Wayne State, like UIU, is playing out the string of what’s now a lost season.  Neither team is coming in flying high, but I think Upper Iowa has shown better lately and with that I’m taking them on the road in a coin-flip game. 

UIU 27-20


Minnesota-Duluth (6-3) at Mary (1-8)

It’s very odd to be writing about a Duluth team that’s struggled and is playing out the string of a lost season.  That said, UMD got back-on-track a week ago with a 63-0 squashing of Crookston.  The Dogs ran the ball at will on the Golden Eagles, netting 448 yards on the ground.  Cazz Martin and Wade Sullivan both nearly went for 200 yards a piece in the blowout. 

Mary hung around for a good portion of the first half at Northern, before the Wolves were simply too much.  The Marauders defense has continued to be the pain-point, allowing an average of 42 ppg.  The Mary offense was without QB Logan Nelson again and just isn’t the same team without him.  Avery Gould was ok a week ago as his replacement, but his three interceptions further fueled the NSU offense.  Mary has some young playmakers on offense so I can foresee a time in the near future when the Marauders will be compared offensively to Moorhead. 

Mary could hang around IF Logan Nelson plays.  If no Nelson, expect UMD to get after Mary upfront and roll. 

UMD 42-20


Northern State (5-4) at Minnesota-Crookston (0-9)

Wolves QB Hunter Trautman showcased himself in the one-sided conquest of Mary.  Trautman completed 21 of 28 with two scores and rushed for 88 yards and two more touchdowns.  Dakota Larson caught 10 balls for 101 yards and a touchdown.  Most NSU fans felt this connection was going to be among the most prolific in the conference, but it hasn’t really been that way until just recently.  For the season Trautman has just 9 touchdown passes to 8 interceptions.  Expect this combination to boost their numbers against a Crookston defense that’s last in the league. 

NSU 52-13


Playoff Outlook:

Things were virtually unchanged in week two of the Super Region Four Regional Rankings.  Mankato remains #2, Augie #7, Sioux Falls #8, and Winona #9.  That said, the outcomes of MSU at USF and Augie at Winona will impact the final Regional Rankings when announced November 17th. Keep in mind, the loser between Commerce (#6) and Angelo State (#5) next week will slip into either 7 or 8 and have a say on who makes the playoff field. 

MSU has a SOS (strength of schedule) of .516.  Top seeded Tarleton State’s SOS is .577.  TSU will experience a massive drop in SOS the next two weeks when it plays a pair of one-win squads to close out the year.  It seems likely MSU will come even with TSU with regard to SOS if it defeats USF.  The Mavs could possibly pass them come next Monday as the Minnesotans resume’ would look better head-to-head than Tarleton.  SOS is a combination of the strength of schedule of your opponents and your opponent’s opposition.  There are a lot of moving parts weekly.  The committee could view Tarleton’s wins over Commerce and Angelo as better than MSU victories over lower ranked Augie, USF, and Winona. Margin of victory isn’t officially part of the selection criteria, but a resounding win at Sioux Falls might make Mankato’s argument stronger if the committee is splitting hairs with TSU and MSU.  It’s my assertion that with SOS no longer an issue for Mankato next Monday, and with two extra D2 wins, the Mavs will be ranked as the top squad in Super Region Four, IF they win at Sioux Falls. If the Cougars beat the Mavs, it’s back to the drawing board. 

With the playoff ramifications, Saturday’s MSU/USF and AU/Winona State games are the biggest of the year in the Northern Sun.