Deep MVC prepares for another tough weekend

(STATS) - The Missouri Valley shared the national spotlight two weeks ago when four-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State lost a thriller at Montana in the first college football game of the season on any level.

Last week reaffirmed something Bison coach Chris Klieman already knew.

"The Missouri Valley Conference is a wide-open race this year," Klieman said. "If you don't have your 'A' game or you don't come ready to play, you're going to get whipped."

South Dakota State moved up seven spots in the STATS Top 25 to No. 9 with its first-ever win over an FBS school, 41-38 at Kansas. Southern Illinois nearly pulled off a stunner of its own before falling 48-47 at Indiana, and Pittsburgh got all it could handle from No. 17 Youngstown State before the Penguins fell 45-37.

That's not even mentioning Western Illinois and No. 21 Indiana State beating their fellow FCS opponents by a combined 63 points, or the fact that six of the Valley's 10 teams are ranked.

The Leathernecks (at Illinois) and Sycamores (at Purdue) have their shot at Big Ten competition this weekend

"Who is the clear favorite right now? There's a lot of teams that can kind of pound their chest and say, 'We are,'" Salukis coach Dale Lennon said. "Every weekend is going to be interesting to see how things play out. The preseason stuff is behind you now and everything is in front of you. You just have to go out and prove it each week. The evenness of the league is going to be interesting to watch."

Most of the Valley gets back to business Saturday against FCS opponents, including four matchups against the similarly deep Big Sky.

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BANGED-UP BISON=

Standout quarterback Carson Wentz suffered an ankle injury in NDSU's 38-35 loss at then-No. 12 Montana on Aug. 29 that dropped the Bison to No. 2 in the STATS poll. Wentz has practiced on a very limited basis, and it's still unclear if he'll play in Saturday's home matchup with Big Sky foe Weber State.

The Wildcats trailed Oregon State 13-7 after three quarters last week before giving up 13 unanswered points. Safety Josh Burton had an interception as Weber State held the Beavers to 110 passing yards.

Wentz was picked off twice - once by Burton - in last season's matchup in Utah, but NDSU still won 24-7. If Wentz is forced to sit, Easton Stick would get the nod.

"Right now we're implementing a game plan that either Easton or Carson could run," said Klieman, whose team's 23-game home winning streak is the longest active run in all of Division I. "If it came down to it where Carson couldn't go, we may have to trim some stuff just because you have a redshirt freshman compared to a fifth-year senior."

Guard Zack Johnson will be out at least four weeks with a broken foot Klieman said he suffered running at practice, which likely stemmed from a stress fracture that went undetected.

Klieman expects all-conference cornerback CJ Smith to make his season debut after having offseason meniscus surgery.

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TOP 15 CLASH=

Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley didn't feel the need to discuss last week's 31-7 loss at Iowa State. The 14th-ranked Panthers quickly moved on in preparation for Saturday's visit from No. 7 Eastern Washington, the three-time defending Big Sky champion.

The Eagles lost quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. when he transfered to Oregon, but their offense didn't appear to miss a beat in a 61-42 loss to Adams' Ducks last week with Jordan West and Reilly Hennessey both getting time under center. West finished 23 for 34 for 293 yards and three touchdowns, while Hennessey completed 14 of 21 for 145 yards and two scores.

Junior receiver and STATS All-America Cooper Kupp set career highs with 15 receptions and 246 yards to go along with three TDs.

"It kind of speaks for itself where they're ranked and the number of points they scored against Oregon last week," Farley said. "They're an extremely good football team. They have a great system."

The Eagles will be without linebacker John Kreifels, who was suspended by coach Beau Baldwin for delivering a late hit on Adams and then taunting the crowd after being ejected.

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MVC-BIG SKY SHOWDOWN=

The Valley and Big Sky showed last weekend why they're widely considered to be the best conferences in FCS. Besides Weber State's and Eastern Washington's strong showings against FBS foes, Portland State won at Washington State and North Dakota beat Wyoming. Southern Utah nearly pulled off its own upset before falling 12-9 at Utah State.

South Dakota State, fresh off its own win over an FBS school, hosts Southern Utah, while South Dakota visits UC Davis in the other interconference matchups.

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PELINI'S HOMECOMING=

Bo Pelini has downplayed his return to his hometown ever since being introduced as Youngstown State's new coach. He's doing much of the same as the Penguins prepare to face Robert Morris in his first home game Saturday night.

YSU has won 19 straight home openers.

"I haven't really thought much about it," Pelini said. "I've coached in a lot of football games in a lot of different venues. It's not about me. It's about this football team and about these kids and getting this football team better."

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REDBIRDS CATCH A BREAK=

Fourth-ranked Illinois State looks to bounce back from a loss at Iowa when it faces defending MEAC champion Morgan State. The Bears, though, are trying to adjust after having 10 players ruled academically ineligible, including six starters.

The Redbirds have won 13 straight at home.

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