(STATS) - Morehead State posted its first winning season in eight years in 2015, but that campaign began with a blowout loss at James Madison. The Eagles return to the scene of that defeat Saturday night when they take on the 12th-ranked Dukes, one of two matchups for Pioneer Football League teams against STATS FCS Top 25 squads in Week 1.
The Eagles went 7-4 last season, their most wins since matching that record in 2007, and finished third in the 11-team PFL. They're picked to finish fourth in 2016 despite being led by senior quarterback Austin Gahafer, the reigning PFL Offensive Player of the Year and active FCS leader with 8,514 passing yards.
Gahafer, on the STATS FCS National Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Watch List, set career highs with 291 completions, 3,244 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. His worst game - and Morehead State's - came at James Madison in the opener.
Gahafer had season lows of 18 completions and 173 yards in a 56-7 loss Sept. 5, one of two games in 2015 in which he didn't throw a touchdown pass. The Eagles were held to season lows in points and total yards (252), while James Madison established a then-school record with 713 yards.
Still, first-year Dukes coach Mike Houston knows his team is in for a challenge.
"We've got to do a good job of putting pressure on (Gahafer), making him uncomfortable in the pocket," Houston said. "We've got to do a good job of making him move around in the pocket. And we've got to do a great job in the secondary of being disciplined in our coverages and not give up the big play."
Fourth-year Morehead State coach Rob Tenyer is hoping his team puts on a better performance in this year's opening game with the Dukes, who finished in a three-way tie for first place in CAA Football last season before being eliminated in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
"I told our team that we want to eat Thanksgiving dinner here in Morehead because that will mean we are getting ready for the FCS playoffs," Tenyer said. "... We have the makings to be a very successful team this year because of our depth. We do need to clean up some areas, and I feel like both sides of the ball need to play with a little more urgency and we'll be OK."
Valparaiso, which visits the defending back-to-back Missouri Valley Football Conference champion in No. 10 Illinois State on Saturday night, isn't in the FCS playoff conversation.
The Crusaders lost their last six games in 2015 to finish 1-9, are 9-68 overall since 2009 and have dropped 51 of their last 57 PFL contests. The Redbirds, meanwhile, reached the FCS championship game in 2014 and lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs last season.
"Our players relish that opportunity to play against a Division I scholarship program," Valparaiso coach Dave Cecchini said Tuesday. "The better the team, the bigger the challenge, the more excited they are to prove that they belong on that field. So they've got a little bit of a chip on their shoulders."
Valparaiso and Illinois State are playing for the first time since 1948. The Crusaders won the first two matchups in 1933 and '34 before the Redbirds took the last meeting.
James Madison has won three in a row against Morehead State to improve to 6-2 in the all-time series, including a 5-0 mark at home.
"We're in year four," Tenyer said. "Our goal ultimately is to take the next step and I think we made some tremendous progress in our first three years."
A win over a James Madison program that's won 16 of its last 18 regular-season games would certainly be a step in the right direction.