MVFC title at stake on regular season's final weekend
(STATS) - There's still plenty on the line in the Missouri Valley Football Conference heading into the final weekend.
While No. 4 North Dakota State is looking to extend its conference title streak, eighth-ranked South Dakota State and No. 15 Youngstown State have an opportunity to end their championship droughts Saturday. Northern Iowa, meanwhile, is in a must-win situation to reach the postseason and No. 23 Western Illinois hopes to add to its playoff resume.
"To have three teams essentially with one or two losses, I think is pretty impressive," NDSU coach Chris Klieman said of the title chase. "It shows you the parity in the league and that every game - even this week - has a great impact on (the) postseason."
Klieman's Bison (9-1, 6-1) are tied with South Dakota State (7-3, 6-1) atop the MVFC and can clinch at least a share of their sixth straight league crown with a win at South Dakota (4-6, 3-4). They captured outright titles in 2012 and '13 and also shared the 2011 crown with Northern Iowa and the '14 and '15 hardware with Illinois State.
NDSU, which was rated No. 1 by the NCAA Division I FCS selection committee in the rankings that precede Sunday's announcement of the 24-team playoff pairings, will try to avenge a loss to the Coyotes last season. South Dakota snapped the Bison's 26-game home winning streak with a 24-21 victory at the Fargodome on Oct. 17.
NDSU should be feeling confident after Darrius Shepherd's 84-yard punt return touchdown and Easton Stick's two first-quarter TD runs keyed its fourth straight win, 41-17 over Indiana State last weekend. It should help that King Frazier, who led the team in rushing before getting hurt, and Tre Dempsey, the club's leader in interceptions, are expected to return from injuries.
"We're excited that the difficult schedule we have had and the adversity we've faced with injuries and stuff that we've put ourselves in a position at least to play for another conference championship," Klieman said.
SDSU holds tiebreakers over NDSU and Youngstown State (7-3, 5-2), meaning the Jackrabbits would receive the MVFC's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs should they end up even with NDSU or in a three-way tie with NDSU and YSU.
They'll try to take care of business on the road against desperate Northern Iowa (5-5, 4-3), which needs a victory to have a chance at the postseason. The Panthers, winners in their last two, have allowed just 15 points per game over their last four.
Senior defensive end Karter Schult leads UNI with 67 tackles and 16 sacks. He was named MVFC defensive player of the week after finishing with three sacks in Saturday's 30-23 win over then-No. 19 Western Illinois (6-4, 3-4).
Led by sophomore quarterback Taryn Christion, the Jackrabbits rank second in the league with 317 passing yards per game. They showcased a different side of their offense with a season-best 415 rushing yards in Saturday's 28-21 win over South Dakota.
Now SDSU is hoping to utilize a balanced approach as it seeks at least a share of its first title since joining the MVFC in 2008.
"Their fans will show up and try to affect this game," Jackrabbits coach John Stiegelmeier said. "This is a playoff game for them with a chance to maybe get into the playoffs and a chance for us to win a conference championship."
Third-place Youngstown State needs a win at Missouri State (4-6, 2-5) and losses by NDSU and SDSU to claim a share of its first conference championship since 2006. The Penguins bounced back from a 24-3 loss at NDSU on Nov. 5 with a 21-14 win over Southern Illinois last weekend, while the Bears have dropped five of six following Saturday's 37-0 loss at Illinois State.
YSU has won the past two meetings, including 47-7 at home last November.
"It's the next one on the schedule," Penguins coach Bo Pelini said. "I haven't really been a part of the whole playoff selection and how that works. That's out of your control and you just have to go win the football game and whatever happens, happens."