Bring on conference play (and gladly)
(STATS) - Maybe all the talk about the wide-open national picture means we're getting ahead of ourselves.
No need to think big picture when the conference title races are promising to be exceptional this season.
All that was needed Saturday night were two eye-opening results to change the feel of races in a couple top FCS conferences:
In CAA Football, defending champion New Hampshire fell to Stony Brook 31-6. Down in the Southland Conference, Lamar pulled off a 49-46 surprise at No. 3 Sam Houston State. UNH and Sam Houston were both national semifinalists last season.
UNH was forced to try to win on the road without starting quarterback Sean Goldrich, but the Wildcats' loss had as much to do with Stony Brook's stout defense, which continues to be one of the nation's best (All-American end Victor Ochi had 3½ sacks).
Meanwhile, Sam Houston had little excuse in losing after an extra week of preparation, but Lamar quarterback Carson Earp and running back Kade Harrington proved to be just as good as the Bearkats' many skills position players.
Both games served as reminders that teams within conferences are closer than perceived.
Defending champs North Dakota State and Eastern Washington brought a little normalcy back to a typical Saturday in the Missouri Valley and Big Sky, respectively. But both conferences have had six teams in the FCS Top 25 in each of the first two regular-season polls, so there's reason to anticipate competitive races there.
The CAA could bunch up if Villanova has to spend significant time without star quarterback John Robertson, who injured his right knee in a narrow win over Delaware. Meanwhile, Big Sky power Montana lost both a game and its starting quarterback (Brady Gustafson to a broken leg) Saturday night.
Parity on the national scene? There should be parity in many back-and-forth conference races, too.
SECOND AND 10
Ten more observations from the FCS weekend:
- In its debut atop the FCS poll, Jacksonville State played like a true No. 1, which is saying a lot considering the up-and-down nature of top 10 teams early this season. The depth of the Gamecocks' running game (349 yards) continues to set up quarterback Eli Jenkins and the passing game. Plus, the defensive line has to be the best in the FCS, with Darius Jackson adding significantly to a unit that already had three Ohio Valley standouts. If the Gamecocks win at UT Martin next Saturday, the defending conference champions should get on a nice roll considering their schedule.
- A perfect weekend is rare for any conference when all the teams are in action, but the Big South netted a 7-0 record led by No. 15 Liberty's 31-21 win over No. 8 Montana in one of the better intersectional matchups this season. Big South teams are 9-2 at home.
- The Big Sky didn't have it so good in a weekend of high-profile matchups. In addition to the Montana loss, No. 17 Cal Poly came up short against No. 9 Northern Iowa and North Dakota was gobbled up by North Dakota State. The game everybody is still talking about is No. 14 Eastern Washington's 55-50 non-conference win over No. 11 Montana State, which saw the two teams rack up 1,385 yards. In their win, the Eagles averaged 11.7 yards on 57 plays, recovered two onside kicks and stopped a pair of two-point PAT attempts.
- Montana State quarterback Dakota Prukop accounted for 549 total yards and five touchdowns, and Eastern Washington signal caller Jordan West (21 of 24, 410 yards, six TDs) had an improbable 313.5 passer efficiency in the score-athon. Some of the weekend's other big statistical performances came from: Dayton workhorse running back Connor Kacsor (40 carries, 244 yards, three TDs) against Duquesne; Lamar running back Kade Harrington (230 rushing yards, 313 all-purpose yards, three total TDs) against Sam Houston; Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp (12 receptions, 201 yards, three TDs) against Montana State; Weber State defensive back Jawian Harrison (three interceptions against Sacramento State) and Sacramento State linebacker Darnell Sankey (27 tackles) in the same game; Stony Brook defensive end Victor Ochi (nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) against New Hampshire; and Coastal Carolina kickoff returner Devin Brown (five returns, 195 yards, 93-yard TD return).
- Ivy League teams went 4-4 in their opening weekend, but the play was way beyond average. While the wins came from the top four teams in the league's preseason poll (Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale and Princeton), Brown lost by only four points to Northeast Conference favorite Bryant and Columbia hung close for over three quarters with Patriot League favorite Fordham. Plus, there was terrific play by the league's starting quarterbacks (Brown's Marcus Fuller had 403 passing yards). The teams picked for the Ivy's second tier returned a high number of starters this season, so there figures to be some upsets in the league schedule.
- The FCS Game of the Week wasn't a three-point difference for the first time this season, but Chattanooga quarterback Jacob Huesman is worth way more than a field goal. The No. 10 Mocs won one of the bigger games on their schedule, 31-21 at Samford, to get a jump on a Southern Conference it didn't lose against last year. Huesman had 331 total yards and three total touchdowns, became the third player in SoCon history to record 4,000 yards passing and 3,000 yards rushing in a career, and staked an early claim to a three-peat for conference offensive player of the year. It's an improved conference, however.
- That the SoCon is rebounding was evident in Saturday's most competitive FCS-FBS matchups. Jon Croft Hollingsworth's 55-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter proved to be the winning margin in Furman's 16-15 win at UCF - the fifth by an FCS team over an FBS opponent this season and the Paladins' first since 1999. Wofford's triple option put a scare into Idaho with 326 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, but the Terriers fell 41-38. The overall results are still one-sided, though, as the FCS went 1-16 on the weekend and fell to 5-85.
- Idaho State of the Big Sky saw first-hand why schools have greener pastures in mind when they make a move from the FCS up to the FBS. The Bengals were routed 52-0 by Boise State, the one-time Big Sky program which has enjoyed unbelievable success since making the move in 1996. Schools know they won't duplicate what the Broncos have done, but coming close is not even fathomable today. Most potential risers have to decide whether they want to be a big fish in a smaller pond or a small fish in a vast pond.
- North Dakota State athletics couldn't confirm on Saturday whether the Bison have ever given up fewer than the 66 yards that North Dakota squeaked out in a 34-9 rout between the two rivals, who met for the 111th time but the first since 2003. But it was certain the Bison issued a statement with their dominating performance. The leading names may be different for a defense which returned only four starters from last season's unit that fueled a fourth straight FCS national title, but the likes of Nick DeLuca, Jordan Champion and Nate Tanguay surely have some more bruisings in them.
- The Northeast Conference has been on the rise since gaining an automatic bid to the playoffs in 2010, but Saturday's results were disappointing for the conference. Two-time defending champion Sacred Heart and Duquesne - both off to 2-0 starts - lost to non-scholarship Pioneer Football League squads, Marist and Dayton, respectively. Plus, Brandon Dagnesses' late interception in the Bryant end zone was needed for the preseason favorite to hold off Brown from the non-scholarship Ivy League. Also, Wagner, which tied for last year's title, fell 31-16 at home to previously winless Monmouth, an NEC member until two years ago.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
No. 1 Jacksonville State (2-1, 1-0 OVC), beat Tennessee State (2-1, 0-1), 48-13
No. 2 Coastal Carolina (3-0), beat Western Illinois (1-2), 34-27
No. 3 Sam Houston State (0-2, 0-1 Southland), lost to Lamar (2-1, 1-0), 49-46
No. 4 North Dakota State (2-1), beat North Dakota (2-1), 34-9
No. 6 Villanova (2-1, 1-0 CAA), beat Delaware (1-2, 0-1), 28-21
No. 7 South Dakota State (2-0), Idle
No. 8 Montana (1-2), lost to No. 15 Liberty (2-1), 31-21
No. 9 Northern Iowa (2-1), beat No. 17 Cal Poly (1-2), 34-20
No. 10 Chattanooga (2-1, 1-0 Southern), beat Samford (2-1, 0-1), 31-21
No. 11 Montana State (1-1), lost to No. 14 Eastern Washington (1-2), 55-50
No. 13 New Hampshire (1-2, 0-1 CAA), lost to Stony Brook (2-0, 1-0), 31-6
No. 14 Eastern Washington (1-2), beat No. 11 Montana State (1-1), 55-50
No. 15 Liberty (2-1), beat No. 8 Montana (1-2), 31-21
No. 16 Youngstown State (2-1), beat Saint Francis (1-2), 48-3
No. 17 Cal Poly (1-2), lost to No. 9 Northern Iowa (2-1), 34-20
No. 18 Fordham (2-1), beat Columbia (0-1), 44-24
No. 19 Portland State (2-0), Idle
No. 20 Southeastern Louisiana (2-1), lost to Ohio (2-1), 35-14
No. 21 Eastern Kentucky (1-1), Idle
No. 25 Harvard (1-0), beat Rhode Island (0-3), 41-10
A LOOK AHEAD
The fourth full week of the FCS season doesn't have as many top matchups as the prior weeks. It begins with a Thursday night matchup because Pope Francis' weekend visit to Philadelphia has moved up the date of Penn at Villanova. No word on whether the Pope has designed a Hail Mary pass for Villanova, the oldest Catholic university in Pennsylvania.
Big games on Saturday include: Big Sky, Cal Poly at Montana State and Northern Arizona at Montana; CAA Football, Stony Brook at William & Mary; Ivy League, Brown at Harvard; Ohio Valley, Jacksonville State at UT Martin; Southland, Stephen F. Austin at Abilene Christian; SWAC, Grambling State vs. Prairie View A&M in Dallas; and non-conference, Charleston Southern at The Citadel, Bryant at Coastal Carolina, Tennessee State at Florida A&M, Sacred Heart at Dartmouth, Chattanooga at Presbyterian and Liberty at Southern Illinois.