October 15th, 2021 7:00am
State of the NSIC
I’ve stated this before, but after 6 weeks of play it looks like the NSIC isn’t likely to produce a top playoff seed or host many playoff games as the league is seemingly cannibalizing itself. The Northern Sun has some very good teams, but I don’t see a fire-breathing dragon like Mankato in recent years. Prove me wrong, please.
Keep in mind 7 teams make the playoffs from Super Region Four. SR4 consists of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (primarily Colorado based), the Lone Star Conference (Texas oriented) the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (West Coast) teams that remain, such as Central Washington and the NSIC. The region has just two unbeaten squads left, Colorado Mines and University of Texas at Permian Basin (UTPB). Mines has squeaked by in some close games against mid-level opposition while UTPB is unbeaten in D2 competition but has a blemish that doesn’t count against them in a loss at FCS Abilene Christian. The Falcons have their toughest games in the LSC in front of them yet. That said, the SR4 playoff picture looks wide open. Based on key games yet to be played among top 10 regional opponents, expect a few two and three loss teams to make the dance. The NCAA will release the first regional rankings after week 8 and they will give a snapshot of who’s vying for playoff spots. If you want to learn more about the playoff selection process, we will be discussing this on our D2 football show on Sunday evenings, 7pm central. The link will be on the main page of the website on Sundays.
The NSIC continues to be a pass-heavy league. Northern State’s Hunter Trautman is second in the country with 342 yards per contest, trailing Tyson Bagent from Shepherd, a likely finalist for the Harlon Hill award. Trautman is joined in the top 10 nationally Brandon Alt (BSU) and Logan Nelson (Mary). All throw for more than 320 yards per contest. Trautman and Nelson are both in the top 20 in passer efficiency as well. Interestingly, Wayne State newcomer Nick Bohn is also in the top 20 in efficiency, with his 3 starts against UMD, Winona, and Mankato.
With USF’s Thuro Riesdorfer missing time due to injury, the NSIC doesn’t have a top ten rusher nationally. Jarod Epperson from Augustana leads the conference at just over 100 yards per game. Outside of those two players, there isn’t anyone who looks like they’ll top 1,000 yards this year. Since the conference is throwing the ball so much, it’s no surprise Danny Kittner from Mary leads all of D2 in catches and yards by a wide margin. Kittner is just 17 yards short of a 1,000-yard season with 69 catches through 6 weeks. Dewaylon Ingram (NSU), Armani Carmickle (UMD), and Brendan Beaulieu (BSU) all are in the top 20 in receiving yards per game nationally, while Luke Little joins his teammate from Mary on the list as well.
Erik Hansen from Upper Iowa is third in tackles for loss in D2, while Northern backer Nate Robinson is also in the top 10. Brad Dati and Nate Pearson from Duluth also make the list, rounding out the top 20.
The NSIC doesn’t have any teams in the top 20 defensively in either total defense (yards) or points allowed. This could be a telling stat come playoff time. Augie, MSU, NSU, and Wayne are all in the top 20 in scoring, while Northern and Wayne are 1-2 in turnover margin nationally, at plus 17 and 16.
As for this week’s schedule, the opening game of the day is the headliner and for the most part the remaining games feature more likely one-sided contests than nail biters.
Games for Saturday, October 16
Augustana (5-1) at Wayne State (5-1)
The Vikings rebounded from their upset loss to Sioux Falls by beating Upper Iowa in a game in which they needed to play 4 quarters as the Peacocks wouldn’t go away. Augie’s 37-20 triumph wasn’t awe-inspiring, but it was a step in the Vikings re-establishing their passing game as Kyle Saddler threw for 377 yards and 4 scores, hitting from deep a few times. Saddler has still yet to be sacked through 6 games, an amazing feat if you really think about it. Sean Engel was Saddler’s main target grabbing 10 balls for 153 yards and 3 scores. Jarod Epperson got lite work in the running game with only 10 carries but was productive with 62 yards and a score. Epperson did catch 6 passes as he is a real threat due to his elusiveness out of the backfield. The Augie offense tops the NSIC with 42 points per game, but they are now play a difficult stretch of schedule which has Wayne State, Mankato, Winona State and Duluth the next four weeks.
The Augie D is the NSIC’s best, allowing 18 points per game. Star defensive back Eli Weber has been all over the field leading the Vikings in tackles in each of the last two weeks. Middle linebacker T.J. Liggett is an unheralded star, leading the squad in tackles. Augie continues to be fantastic against the run, sitting atop D2 in that department at 20 yards per contest. The next team on the list is NWMSU, who’s at nearly 50 per game, which shows just how good the Vikings have been at stopping the ground game.
Wayne State sure looks like the new kid on the block who’s causing a stir. With consecutive wins over Duluth, Winona, and Mankato, I can’t recall as impressive a stretch during the time I’ve been covering the NSIC. When the Wildcats found themselves down 24-7 and looking like the stage at Mankato might be a little too big for a young team, they rallied, and found a way to have a 28-point 4th quarter and zipped past the Mavs for a 35-24 win. It was simply wild to watch the momentum swing. While MSU is still trying to figure out what happened, the Mavs continually turned the ball over down the stretch and the ‘Cats cashed in with touchdowns each time they were given the opportunity. WSC QB Nick Bohn once again was a steady handed leader completing 14 of 18 throws, despite getting bounced around a lot in the first half by a fierce MSU pass rush. Bohn also found pay dirt twice on the ground. He is probably the slipperiest quarterback in the conference. Anthony Watkins did a fantastic job finding daylight as he got loose on scoring runs of 40 and 32 yards to put the Wildcats ahead for good.
The ’Cats D finished the day plus 3 in the turnover department, which is why they are among D2 leaders in that category. Wayne is currently 4th in the NSIC in points allowed, a level they haven’t reached in a decade or more. Freshman linebacker Alex Kowalczyk continues to be a rock. He had 13 stops at Mankato, 3 of them tackles for loss. Wayne State is tied with Northern with 11 interceptions and trails only Duluth for the sack lead.
Outlook: This is a really tough call. I’ve said a few times this year that Augie might be the league’s top team, but Wayne has to be the highest ranked Northern Sun squad based on accomplishments. I still feel the Vikings are the NSIC’s most complete team in the NSIC. Augie didn’t prove that in a loss to rival USF, committing 2 key mistakes while the Cougars had none. I fully realize Wayne has been extremely opportunistic so far this season, but I think the Vikings run defense will limit the ‘Cats offense and the volume of weapons for AU on offense will be too much. I’m really looking forward to watching this one.
Prediction: Augie 31-24
Minnesota State-Moorhead (3-3) at Bemidji State (4-2)
The Dragons had their way with Minot a week ago, with the 29-17 score not being indicative of the way Moorhead jumped out to a huge lead and just rode the game out.
In St. Paul the Beavers had one of their more complete efforts of the season, thumping Concordia 42-14. Malik Williams has reemerged for the BSU offense and Brandon Alt had his most efficient performance of the year, completed 18 of 31 for 354 and 3 scores. Linebacker Gabe Ames continues to be among the best defenders in the conference, netting 3 TFL’s and a sack, along with a fumble recovery.
Outlook: I feel Bemidji has a higher ceiling than what they’ve shown. I’ve stated before that Moorhead typically takes care of business against teams it should beat and will compete, but seldom upend top squads. This game could see 100 passes thrown as neither team has put a premium on running the football. I’m leaning towards the upside of BSU in the Battle Axe game but wouldn’t be surprised if the Dragons bit em.
Prediction: BSU 41-38
Minnesota State-Mankato (4-2) at Upper Iowa (0-6)
MSU is licking wounds after a disastrous 4th quarter in which the Mavs threw 2 interceptions, fumbled and botched a punt attempt against Wayne State. What felt like a commanding 24-7 lead entering the final quarter ended up a 35-24 defeat, one that could very well hurt the Mavs playoff chances. MSU had 11 more first downs than WSC, but fell victim to the big play, giving up scores of 40, 71, 32, and 21 yards. The MSU signal callers played solid until the final quarter when ball security became an issue. MSU was again without leading rusher Kaleb Sleezer, due to injury, but was still able to run the ball effectively using a slew of ball carriers. One bright spot coming out of the loss was the clear emergence of Jalen Sample as the Mavs main wideout, catching 12 balls for 109 yards and a score. Sample had shown signs that he could be the main dude in the passing game. MSU’s biggest defensive concern has to be how they didn’t have fits in the run game which permitted big plays. Mankato had 5 first half sacks but at key times down the stretch Wayne QB Nick Bohn had a good pocket to throw from, including on his long post route completion that really got the Wildcats back in the game. Obviously having a Kato safety lose their footing had a lot to do with that play going for a score as well.
Upper Iowa transitioned to the 3rd signal caller of the 2021 campaign. In steps Zach Reader, a redshirt sophomore from Wisconsin. Reader played in 8 games for the Peacocks in 2019, so this isn’t his first time leading the squad. Reader was effective against a good Augie defense, completing 25 of 47 for 338 yards and 3 scores. He was picked once and sacked 5 times. Like the rest of the NSIC, the Peacocks were unable to run the ball against the Vikings, finishing the day with 35 yards net. UIU hung around for a half but Augie earned an eventual 37-20 victory at home. Upper struggled to contain the Viking passing game, giving up four scores through the air, two of them over 50 yards.
Outlook: I’ve said for weeks UIU is a winless team that still has fight in them, and they’ll find a win yet this season. However, I don’t see that win coming this weekend. I’m taking MSU in a bounce back game as the bar of expectation set by Todd Hoffner and his staff simply won’t allow the Mavs to bring their stinkin’ thinkin’ from a week ago into this next contest.
Prediction: MSU 40-17
Concordia-St. Paul (1-5) at Minnesota-Duluth (5-1)
The Golden Bears are trying to find their way after losing a 4th straight game. A week ago, CSP saw a mix of signal-callers get time in a 42-14 setback against Bemidji State. The Bears were only able to gain 10 first downs and must find some offense if they are going to notch another game in the win column this fall.
For a second straight week UMD pulled one out of the fire, this time against UMary 31-27. The triumph keeps the ‘Dogs playoff hopes alive as UMD has weathered the storm of no John Larson better this year than in years past. Logan Graetz saw action at quarterback for a second straight week, filling in for the injured Larson. Graetz looks like the guy who’ll take control of the Bulldog offense once Larson’s playing days are over in a few months. Graetz is a big bodied 6-4, 214lbs, and came to Duluth via NDSU. While he was just 13 of 24 passing in Bismarck, he did land four of those passes for scores. Cazz Martin helped the young quarterback by toting the ball 17 times for 141 yards. Key for UMD was limiting the Mary passing game to just 244 yards, pressuring QB Logan Nelson often and sacking him 3 times.
Outlook: While UMD is nursing plenty of injuries on offense, this should be a week for them to spread the wealth against a CSP team mired in a bad stretch.
Prediction: UMD 38-10
Southwest Minnesota State (2-4) at Winona State (3-3)
SMSU played USF to a 0-0 halftime score in one of the more boring NSIC contests I’ve watching in a long time. Both teams looked offensively challenged before things picked up in the second half. Unfortunately for the Mustangs, they turned over the ball and the game to the Cougars with 4 interceptions. SMSU struggled to throw to their own colored jersey, completing just 17 of 43 passes for only 125 yards through the air. On the flipside, the 4 picks by the Coo defense went for 166 yards. This means the Cougars had more yards off the arm(s) of Mustang QB’s than did SMSU. That can’t be a good sign.
Jesse Sherwood has really come on for the SMSU running attack. Sherwood gained 88 yards and had a score against a solid Cougar defense. Oddly, Southwest has turned into a squad that’s more likely to have success on the ground than via the air.
Winona State played chase on homecoming against a high-powered Northern State offense that really put the throttle down in the first half. The Warriors had less than 100 yards at intermission scoring only once offensively, with the kick return game from Jake Balliu giving them a lift otherwise. With the Wolves hanging a 35-spot on Winona, this game felt much like the NSU offensive showcase against USF, where the Wolves they flung the ball all over the yard and the Cougars had no answer. To the credit of WSU, it got off the canvas and battled back, including a valiant effort from QB Owen Burke. Burke launched deep shots down the field to the tune of 334 yards and 5 scores. He also threw 3 picks and suffered 5 sacks which took a toll. The Warriors slowed NSU down in the 4th quarter, but unfortunately the damage was already done in the 52-49 setback.
Outlook: This is a rivalry game, the Battle for the Sledge, and the Warriors have held the hammer since 2016 and don’t showing any signs of giving it back anytime soon to the Mustangs. SMSU is struggling at the quarterback spot and the Warriors should be able to limit points. With 3 losses, Winona is in desperation mode and can’t afford anymore setbacks. I’d like to think the Warriors are better than their 3-3 record, but I’m not sure they are.
Prediction: WSU 38-20
Mary (2-4) at Sioux Falls (4-2)
After 6 weeks it’s still hard to know exactly who USF is. The Cougars found themselves in a rock fight a week ago, tied 0-0 at half with an offensively troubled SMSU squad. The Cougars were not able to establish the running game and the passing attack wasn’t clicking either. Fast forward to the 2nd half and the emergence of Landon Freeman. The SMSU wideout transfer found running room to the outside and scampered for scores from 20 and 69 yards to give the Cougars the needed separation from the Mustangs. Freeman’s burst in open space could very well get him more touches, especially with bell-cow back Thuro Riesdorfer nursing an injury. Missing their feature back, the Coo has struggled to find offensive consistency, putting them at risk of keeping up with a high-powered Mary offense. USF has been capable passing but needs a better collaborative effort with the running game in future weeks with strong opposition ahead. USF is scoring 31 points per game, the lowest average since 2017 when they missed the postseason, finishing 7-4. QB Adam Mullen is among the league’s best in completing 65% of his throws and might be asked to shoulder more of the load this week if the running game doesn’t get on-track early.
The Coo D nabbed 4 interceptions off a weak SMSU passing game. The picks really sealed the contest in Marshall, taking scoring chances away from the Mustangs when it looked like they were going to hang around. USF is 2nd in the NSIC in points allowed at 20 a game. The Cougars are led in tackles by cornerback Dorian Fedrick, which is somewhat unusual, and DE Joey Wehrkamp leads in TFL’s with 8. The USF defense has rebounded well since the air raid in Aberdeen, limiting Augie to its lowest output of the year and keeping SMSU to just one score.
Mary is almost the complete opposite of Sioux Falls in terms of offensive identity. The Marauders look to throw the ball 40 plus times a game while the defense tries to hold on tight and keep the opponents from outscoring their prolific offense. The UMary defense allows 37 points per game, a measure that’s high for an up and coming squad. They are 12th in the league in points allowed. The Marauders are scoring 34 points a contest, good for 6th in the league, so it’s almost a wash.
Logan Nelson is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, which is great to see given the tough years he’s gone through when the offense was finding its way. While star wideouts Danny Kittner and Luke Little understandably get the headlines, running back David Small has emerged as a threat in the ground game, giving the Marauders some balance. The junior transfer from the University of South Florida ran for 133 yards vs. UMD on 18 totes, along with a score. Small could very well end up near the top of the NSIC rushing stats if he continues his pace for the remainder of the season.
Outlook: This is a scary game for the Coo. Considering the big games USF still has on the horizon (Winona, Mankato, Wayne) a loss to Mary would be devastating. Mary has already shown it can surprise a top half squad after getting out to a 28-0 lead at Northern, eventually outlasting the Wolves 49-42. Unlike Northern, the Cougars aren’t built to score fast and surge back from a big deficit. USF likes to control the ball with the running game, be opportunistic in the passing game and limit the opponent with strong defense. I state that because if Mary jumps out fast, USF could be in trouble. USF’s two losses were to pass-happy Bemidji and Northern and UMary is comparable in that regard. I would point out Mary had trouble stopping a UMD squad playing without its top quarterback. That said, I think the USF defense gets enough stops and the USF offense finds just the right amount of success on the ground and through the air to win a hotly contested game with the Marauders. The clash of styles should make for a good watch.
Prediction: USF 31-27
Minot State (0-6) at Northern State (4-2)
Minot’s tough 2021 campaign continued last week with a 29-17 loss against Moorhead in a game the Beavers trailed 29-3 at half. Dawson MacLeary threw for 298 yards and a score, but was picked twice, sacked three times, and was forced to the air 52 times. Ali Mohamed ran for 86 yards and a score, but the Beaver offense did the brunt of their damage as the Dragons looked to close out the game. A positive for Minot was limiting MSUM to 274 yards of total offense and 29 points, well below the 50 points per game clip they’d been allowing.
The Wolves exploded for nearly 600 yards and 34 first downs at Winona, outlasting the Warriors 52-49. Hunter Trautman took over the lead in passing in the NSIC with his 418 yards and 5 scores (no picks) against WSU. At times the Wolves look like the most prolific offense in the league, with a handful of weapons that can gain chunk yards. The NSU D has been extremely opportunistic in the turnover game, leading all D2 after 6 games. However, the Wolves are middle of the pack in points allowed with 30 per clip. Turnovers are hard to count on, so the NSU D will need to step up if they are looking to make the postseason.
Outlook: As predicted, NSU stepped up to the challenge at Winona and took care of the Warriors. This seems to be the pretty clear trend for NSU..stepping up against the top teams and playing down to the level of the lower ones. Minot is last in points scored and allowed, so I don’t see a letdown this week from the Wolves.
Prediction: NSU 41-14