Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Through the midway point of the 2012 season, it seems as if all the preseason hype about the Big Sky Conference has lived up to what many thought it could be. That is, a 13-team thunderdomeesque battle each week.
There's no question the competition between just about every school - the new, the prominent, the weak and the upstart - has made for a scary scenario for every coach. Five teams already have registered at least four wins this season, while Montana State, Eastern Washington, Cal Poly and Northern Arizona are all currently ranked in the FCS Top 25. Certainly, Sacramento State, Montana, North Dakota and others still play a vital role in the conference race.
It would only be fitting that two of the Big Sky's top teams, Eastern Washington and Montana State - selected in the preseason to finish first and second, respectively - would meet in a decisive game to essentially kick off the second half of the season.
"We love it. I mean, I just think it's such an opportunity and this is why you do what you do for 365 days a year," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said. "The kids are working hard, coaches are working hard - just like Montana State - it's for moments like these. Not that it takes away from other games because every game's an absolute blast and important, but when you're in these situations, let's be honest, these are big, but they're big in a way where you have to be excited and embrace it because it's fun. It's fun to go on the road against a great team and a great environment like we're going to see this weekend."
Eastern Washington has started the season 4-1 overall and 3-0 in the conference, having only lost in Week 2 to FBS Washington State. Baldwin's squad is trying to move to 4-0 in the Big Sky for first time in program history, but the Eagles have been outscored by MSU 66-28 in the last two meetings.
Second-ranked Montana State hasn't been too shabby, either, and enters the game with a 6-0 record, its best start since opening the 1978 season 7-0. There's a little bit of an unknown factor because EWU made a major change in Week 3, replacing SMU transfer quarterback Kyle Padron with redshirt freshman Vernon Adams.
Although Montana State coach Rob Ash has a small sample of the Eagles' young gunslinger, from what he's seen Adams looks a lot like one of his own players who has helped the program to a 25-6 record since 2010.
"I'm very, very impressed with him and he reminds me a lot of DeNarius (McGhee)," Ash said. "Just watching Vernon Adams on film, I see the same kind of things in him that I see in DeNarius. He's got incredible escape ability, he makes bad plays into good plays for his team and he throws with tremendous accuracy. Short, deep, all those different throws and he's been a great leader, too. He looks like a great competitor, getting the job done in crucial situations, which is what DeNarius' forte has been."
In just three career starts, Adams is completing 64 percent of his passes and has thrown for 579 yards and five touchdowns compared to just one interception.
"More than anything, I don't think people ever thought it was as much of a competition as I sometimes was saying it was," Baldwin said. "They thought, 'Oh, yeah, he's just saying that, that is just coach talk,' but it really was an incredible competition all the way through (preseason) camp. That's not taking anything away from Kyle ... but Vernon was right there competing with him day after day and it's just something where it was a battle, it was a serious battle going right into that Idaho game, which was Game 1 for us."
Montana State is led by McGhee, who has really developed into a stud since taking over as a redshirt freshman in 2010. In fact, the junior has thrown for at least one touchdown in each of the 31 career games and his 59 career touchdown passes put him just one shy of Kelly Bradley's MSU record of 60.
"DeNarius has been nothing sort of spectacular for us," Ash said. "From a football playing standpoint, what he brings to the table is, he's a winner. He's been our quarterback for two and a half years now, I don't know the exact number, but his record as a starter is just spectacular and he finds ways to win football games.
"He can throw and do it all, but more so than any of his physical skills is just his ability to lead. And then he's just as great a person off the field ... great student, business marketing major, close to 4.0 average, but he also is a really involved in community ... he could be mayor of Bozeman, he's just incredible."
The statistics are clearly showing that this should be a matchup between the high octane aerial assault of Eastern Washington - with an athletic quarterback and even more dangerous receiving corps - versus the physical and experienced defensive wall that is Montana State.
After all, EWU averages 280 yards per game passing and 448 yards of offense, compared to Montana State's defense, which gives up a mere 70 yards per game on the ground and only 315 yards of total offense.
For Baldwin, it's something you can't necessarily plan for.
"I don't consider their secondary a weakness, I don't," Baldwin said. "I think sometimes when a team is really good against the run, people automatically say, 'Well, their secondary is the weakness,' I don't consider that. They have some guys who have played a lot of football back there and they're great players."
On the other hand, Ash see's this game as an opportunity to show just how much improvement there has been in the Bobcats' secondary, which as of late, has been highly tested.
"I think it's good that we've had challenges in the secondary the last couple of weeks," Ash said. "We've had people throwing the ball down the field against us. I have to look at it as a coach and say this will help us get better at defending those balls. Having the turns in games to try and do that, hopefully we're making some progress, but we know it's going to be a really serious challenge. It's very difficult to stop Eastern Washington. ... There's no question about it, their receiving corps is a fabulous group of athletes, (Brandon) Kaufman and (Nick) Edwards and (Greg) Herd, they're all terrific."
The Eagles' strength certainly is the athletes on offense, who spread out defenses. Although the playing status of Edwards (knee injury) is unknown, Kaufman, Herd and (Ashton) Clark could legitimately be any team's No. 1 target. The key, however, will be Eastern's ability to run the ball - which it has struggled to do most of the season - and keep the MSU defense honest.
"When you face a great team, if you start getting real one-dimensional, whether it's run or pass, I think they can do some good things against you," Baldwin said. "But, you have got to be able to keep a good balance going into that (game), when the shots are there, or chances are there, take advantage of them. But otherwise, try and do everything you can to keep them off balance as much as possible."
Either way, two teams enter, one team leaves.
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for The Sports Network FCS Top 25 (all times ET):
Richmond Spiders (4-2, 2-1 CAA) at No. 12 New Hampshire Wildcats (4-2, 2-1), noon (Comcast SportsNet Regional)
Series record: Tied, 10-10
Last meeting: New Hampshire 45, Richmond 43 (Sept. 24, 2011)
What to Know: Richmond heads to "The Dungeon" in Durham, N.H., to face the Wildcats in a game which could give both teams a lot of momentum moving forward. Last season's early matchup could provide a blueprint for another high-scoring affair. UNH needed a 47-yard touchdown reception by R.J. Harris late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory in a contest which went back and forth for 60 minutes.
Last week, against Georgia State, New Hampshire relied heavily on running back Nico Steriti, who ran for 126 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 44-21 win. The sophomore has put up impressive numbers and leads the CAA in rushing with 91 yards per game. In fact, the Wildcats lead the conference with 259 yards per game on the ground - something that hasn't been their M.O. through the years.
Richmond enters the game under the radar (even for a CAA team with a 4-2 record). Quarterback John Laub has thrown for eight touchdowns versus two interceptions and rushed for six touchdowns through the team's first six games. The Spiders' passing offense is ahead of New Hampshire at No. 2 in the CAA with 270 yards per game, but their rushing attack is third from the bottom in the conference with 135 yards per game. Amazingly, opponents have sacked RU's quarterbacks just once, which will help versus the smaller front of UNH.
Expect UNH signal-caller Andy Valais and Richmond safety Cooper Taylor to play cat and mouse with each other all game long. Both have been stellar in the last couple of weeks.
The Spiders' aerial assault should be a major concern for the 'Cats, who give up the large majority of its 391 total yards per game through the air versus just 113 allowed on the ground. But, it is homecoming in Durham, which usually gives UNH its best crowd of the season and it is 20-1 in its last 21 games at Mooradian Field.
Prediction: New Hampshire 35, Richmond 32
No. 10 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (6-0, 0-0 Patriot) at Georgetown Hoyas (3-3, 0-0), 1 p.m.
Series record: Lehigh leads, 12-5
Last meeting: Lehigh 34, Georgetown 12 (Nov. 12, 2011)
What to Know: Lehigh and Georgetown meet for each team's first Patriot League contest of 2012. The Hoyas have never defeated Lehigh in Patriot League play, while they search for their third straight 1-0 league start. The Mountain Hawks have won an FCS- and Patriot League-best 15 consecutive regular-season games.
There will be a lot of emotions in D.C. on Saturday because last season, with the league title on the line, Lehigh beat Georgetown convincingly, 34-12, ending the Hoyas' magical season.
Lehigh hasn't exactly played the toughest of schedules in the FCS, but coach Andy Coen doesn't care; his team has found a way to win each week.
Quarterback Mike Colvin was named Patriot League Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Columbia one week ago, passing for 296 yards and four touchdowns. He ranks ninth in the FCS in total offense, averaging 313 yards per contest. All-America receiver Ryan Spadola, was probably the happiest Mountain Hawk in the win, because he recorded his first touchdown of the season after recording 20 touchdowns in his first three years as a starter.
Georgetown fell to Fordham, 38-31 last week, but are 2-2 in games decided by one touchdown or less. The Hoyas have had two major injuries to their starting and backup quarterback, so Stephen Skon has unexpectedly stepped in under center. The Hoyas have a legitimate chance to steal a win from Lehigh, especially with their defense ranking No. 35 in the FCS, giving up 327 yards per game.
Georgetown hasn't recorded a victory over Lehigh since 1925, and if it has any say this week, senior linebacker Robert McCabe, who leads the FCS in both overall tackles (83) and tackles for loss (10.5), will have to come up big once again.
Prediction: Lehigh 33, Georgetown 21
No. 8 Youngstown State Penguins (4-1, 1-1 MVFC) at No. 14 Illinois State Redbirds (5-1, 2-1), 2 p.m. (Valley TV)
Series record: Youngstown State leads, 11-10
Last meeting: Youngstown State 34, Illinois State 27 (Sept. 17, 2011)
What to Know: In probably the most intriguing matchup of Week 7, Youngstown State and Illinois State will meet to try and overcome both teams' first loss of 2012. To say both schools played poorly last week would be an understatement, but to say both teams are out of the national picture would be foolish.
The Penguins were stifled last week against North Dakota State, gaining just 211 yards and was just 3-of-10 on third down conversions. Redshirt freshman Andre Stubbs was the only bright spot, totaling 170 all-purpose yards, including 148 yards on kickoff returns. Quarterback Kurt Hess and running back Jamaine Cook, who had been so reliable all season long, had very average performances and will try to redeem themselves this week.
Illinois State, on the other hand, didn't exactly play bad on the defensive side of the ball and limited Southern Illinois to just 182 total yards. Still, four uncharacteristic Matt Brown interceptions and going 0-for-12 on third downs were the demise in the 17-0 loss. Stud running back Darrelynn Dunn didn't have a carry and his status is still unknown for this week. The Redbirds, which had been relatively balanced all season long, had just 41 total rushing yards.
Expect both schools to look a lot better after such disappointing performances one week ago. The teams have split the last two meetings: YSU won last year at home, while Illinois State scored a touchdown with 0.7 seconds left to win in 2010.
A win could still give some life for a chance in the conference title; a loss could be absolutely demoralizing.
Prediction: Youngstown State 24, Illinois State 21 (OT)
No. 13 Appalachian State Mountaineers (4-2, 2-1 SoCon) at No. 25 Samford Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1), 3 p.m.
Series record: Appalachian State leads, 5-1
Last meeting: Appalachian State 35, Samford 17 (Oct. 22, 2011)
What to Know: It's strange to think in Week 7 Appalachian State would be heading to Samford with a worse overall record and to be playing in a game that has a lot of meaning in the Southern Conference race for both teams. Either way, give credit where credit is deserved.
Samford is 5-1 for the first time since 1992 and ranked in The Sports Network FCS Top 25 for the first time since October 1993. It's exciting times for a program which picked up a solid 38-7 win versus The Citadel last week.
Besides the team's success, the biggest surprise has been the Bulldogs defense, which gives up 338 yards per game, good for No. 41 in the FCS. The secondary has been solid, allowing 166 yards per game through the air and only three passing touchdowns. First-year starter/transfer quarterback Andy Summerlin hasn't been overly impressive, but he's done a good job getting the ball to playmakers Fabian Truss, Kelsey Pope and Riley Hawkins.
Appalachian State has responded well since getting dismantled at home by The Citadel in Week 3. The Mountaineers have won three straight games and the offense is having different players step up each week. ASU's defense ranks No. 98 in the FCS, giving up 430 yards per game, but the offense has been capitalizing when it counts.
Samford faces a tough second-half schedule and should know whether it is a pretender or contender down the stretch after this contest. It always help to play App State at home, but the Bulldogs' secondary might not be able to handle its toughest foe to date.
Prediction: Appalachian State 30, Samford 21
Austin Peay Governors (0-6, 0-4 OVC) at No. 23 Eastern Kentucky Colonels (4-2, 2-1), 3 p.m.
Series record: Eastern Kentucky leads, 39-5
Last meeting: Austin Peay 23, Eastern Kentucky 17 (Sept. 24, 2011)
What to Know: Eastern Kentucky took a step back last week, falling to Tennessee State for its first FCS loss of the season. The Colonels led, 20-13 with 13:49 left, but TSU signal-caller Michael German scored with eight seconds left to preserve the win.
The good news for running back Matt Denham and Co. is that EKU is playing an Austin Peay squad which is winless. Denham averages 126 yards per game on the ground, while the Govs are allowing an alarming 45 points per contest, which ranks No. 118 in the FCS. Likewise, Austin Peay is scoring just 11 points per game, good for 113th in the FCS.
The Governors stole a win in the series last year and have won two of the last three meetings, but you can expect EKU to have its guard up.
Prediction: Eastern Kentucky 35, Austin Peay 14
Villanova Wildcats (4-2, 2-1 CAA) at No. 3 Old Dominion Monarchs (5-0, 2-0), 3:30 p.m.
Series record: Old Dominion leads, 1-0
Last meeting: Old Dominion 37, Villanova 14 (Oct. 22, 2011)
What to Know: Old Dominion picked a perfect portion of its schedule to have a bye week, because as a result of a couple Top 10 teams losing, the Monarchs moved to No. 3 in the FCS Top 25, the program's highest ranking in its young history.
In Week 5, ODU beat Richmond on the road, but after jumping out to an early lead, the Monarchs had to withstand a late rally and hang on for the 45-37 victory. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke actually looked human for once this year, completing 32-of-42 passes for 360 yards and he threw two touchdowns and two interceptions. The biggest surprise, however, was ODU's run game which racked up 232 yards after just 94 rushing yards the previous week versus New Hampshire.
Villanova fell to Richmond, 28-17, last week, in a matchup of early CAA surprises. It snapped a four-game winning streak dating to a Week 1 loss versus Temple. Redshirt freshman signal-caller John Robertson had his best statistical performance of the season - passing for 308 yards and rushing for 117 yards - marking the first time in a single game that he has surpassed 300 passing yards and 100 yards on the ground. The Wildcats totaled a season-high 460 yards of offense, but turned the ball over four times and were outscored 14-3 in the second half.
With an extra week to prepare, ODU has a slight advantage, plus it has sold out all 24 of its games at Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium.
The key to the game for the Monarchs will be stopping the CAA's No. 2-ranked rushing offense at 239 yards per game, and ODU allows 148 rushing yards per game, which ranks No. 5 in the conference. Nova's pass defense will be exploited early and often versus the FCS' No. 1-ranked offense, which has scored 37 total touchdowns and averages 654 yards per game on the season.
Prediction: Old Dominion 45, Villanova 30
Bucknell Bison (1-4) at No. 22 Harvard Crimson (4-0), 3:30 p.m. (CBSSN)
Series record: Harvard leads 5-3-1
Last meeting: Harvard 42, Bucknell 3 (Oct. 15, 2011)
What to Know: Since defeating Marist, 19-17, in Week 1, Bucknell has dropped four games in a row. It's not like the Bison are getting completely outplayed, losing by 16, six, five and seven points in the losses, and each opponent hasn't scored over 20 points this season. Rather, the Bison offense has been the issue.
Bucknell ranks last in the Patriot League in scoring with 10 points per game and last in the league in total offense with 260 yards per contest. The defense ranks No. 3 in the FCS against the run, allowing 65 yards per game and No. 20 in total defense with 316 yards per game.
Harvard moved up in the FCS Top 25 to No. 22 and is 4-0, winning its 13th straight game dating back to last season, which leads the FCS. The Crimson convincingly beat Cornell, 45-13, and limited the Big Red to just 13 rushing yards.
Senior quarterback Colten Chapple has been an absolute monster through the team's first four games. He is completing 67 percent of his passes for 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns versus just two interceptions. Like Bucknell, Harvard ranks in the top 10 in the FCS for rush defense. However, the Crimson are ahead of the Bison at No. 1, allowing 52 yards per game on the ground and have given up only one rushing touchdown and 208 total rushing yards through four games.
Even as statistically impressive as both teams' numbers have been (on defense for Bucknell), Harvard simply has too many quality athletes who should give Bucknell trouble on both sides of the ball.
Prediction: Harvard 42, Bucknell 13
No. 11 Stony Brook Seawolves (5-1, 1-0 Big South) at Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (2-3, 0-0), 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series record: Stony Brook leads, 4-0
Last meeting: Stony Brook 42, Coastal Carolina 0 (Oct. 29, 2011)
What to Know: Stony Brook faces arguably one of its two toughest remaining games when it heads to Brooks Stadium to face conference foe Coastal Carolina.
The Seawolves cruised to a 49-7 victory over Charleston Southern last week as quarterback Kyle Essington had his best passing game of the season, tying a school record with five touchdown passes. Stud running back Miguel Maysonet became Stony Brook's and the Big South's all-time leading rusher, with 88 yards. Maysonet entered the game with 3,561 yards and broke Conte Cuttino's school mark of 3,607 yards and Rashad Jennings' conference total of 3,633 yards.
Although he didn't pass the century mark, in his illustrious career Maysonet has had 16 100-yard rushing performances, including going over 150 yards 12 times and going over 190 rushing yards five times.
Opponents have to stop SBU's run game, but also must pay attention to Kevin Norrell and Jordan Gush. The team's leading receivers - Norrell has 27 receptions for 684 yards and five touchdowns) and Gush 12 receptions for 156 yards and four touchdowns - are consistently the most targeted weapons for Essington. The next top receiver has just four receptions on the year.
Coastal Carolina might be 2-3 coming off a bye week, but its losses have come at the hands of FBS Toledo and nationally ranked Eastern Kentucky and Appalachian State. Quarterback Aramis Hillary is 108-of-169 for 1,272 yards and has thrown nine touchdowns. He has also rushed for two touchdowns as well.
The Chanticleers have averaged 26 points in two meetings in Conway, N.C., and are desperate to avoid their first-ever four-game regular-season losing streak. As a program, CCU is 8-1 all-time when coming off a bye week - its lone loss coming against Furman in 2007.
Prediction: Stony Brook 40, Coastal Carolina 24
William & Mary Tribe (2-4, 1-2 CAA) at No. 4 James Madison Dukes (4-1, 2-0), 3:30 p.m. (Comcast SportsNet)
Series record: James Madison leads, 19-15
Last meeting: James Madison 20, William & Mary 14
What to Know: James Madison is coming off a huge three-point win over Towson in which junior quarterback Justin Thorpe scored on a scramble from nine yards out with 1:24 remaining. It wasn't the prettiest of games, but the Dukes' dual-threat signal-caller was 6-for-6 passing on the game-winning drive, registering 60 of his 116 yards through the air.
It's no surprise the Dukes would much rather run, then throw the ball - they average 216 rushing yards per game compared to 192 passing. The real strength of coach Mickey Matthews' team takes place on the other side of the ball. JMU's defense ranks No. 9 in the FCS, allowing 296 yards per game, and opponents have managed just two rushing touchdowns and seven passing touchdowns.
The fighting Jimmye Laycocks of William & Mary have looked much different the past two games after starting with a 0-4 record. The Tribe took down Georgia State and then survived a late rally last week to beat Penn, and in those wins they have averaged almost 35 points per game and 396 yards per game. Special teams play and the defense in general has improved, also forcing nine turnovers in the wins.
The Tribe still have a lot to play for and haven't won in the series since 2009. Quarterback Brent Caprio and running back Keith McBride have played much better and have even more confidence, but McBride suffered a concussion at Penn and second-leading receiver Ryan Moody also was injured. Both players' statuses are still unknown.
Matthews is fresh of his 100th career coaching victory, and he didn't get to that point by letting his team underestimate conference rivals. The Dukes play well in their nearly 25,000-seat stadium.
Prediction: James Madison 21, William & Mary 17
No. 6 Eastern Washington Eagles (4-1, 3-0 Big Sky) at No. 2 Montana State Bobcats (6-0, 3-0), 3:35 p.m. (ROOT NW)
Series record: EWU leads, 25-10
Last meeting: Montana State 36, Eastern Washington 21
What to Know: Eastern Washington and Montana State meet in Bozeman for a huge Big Sky matchup. EWU won the previous seven meetings leading up to 2010, but the Bobcats have won the last two games in the series.
Montana State has yet to lose in 2012 and its offense and defense have equally carried it to victory. In the last two games, the Bobcats have won by seven points in each contest, and they have passed every test that has been thrown at them.
Last week, in a crazy 48-41 win at UC Davis, MSU led 31-14 at halftime, but had to outscore the Aggies 17-3 in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Coach Rob Ash's squad has gotten a little healthier, while quarterback DeNarius McGhee is completing 67 percent of his passes and averaging 264 passing yards per game. He needs one touchdown pass to tie the program record of 60.
EWU played probably its most complete game of the season last week, defeating North Dakota, 55-17. Since coach Beau Baldwin made the switch under center to Vernon Adams, it seems the Eagles have improved on offense, which is scary when you consider the type of playmakers at his disposal. He has thrown seven touchdowns versus just one interception and the offense leads the FCS in red zone offense with a perfect 18-of-18 mark.
The key to the game will be EWU's passing attack versus the pressure of Montana State's defensive line and linebacking corps. The Bobcats give up the most chunks of their 315-yards-per-game average through the air, which spells trouble for the home team. However, McGhee always finds ways to help his team win, no matter how pretty, or ugly it is.
Prediction: Montana State 44, Eastern Washington 36
No. 16 Northern Arizona Lumberjacks (4-1, 2-0 Big Sky) at North Dakota (3-3, 1-2), 4 p.m. (Midco. Sports/Big Sky TV)
Series record: NAU leads, 2-0
Last meeting: Northern Arizona 41, North Dakota 0 (1985)
What to Know: After meeting for the first time in 1967 and the second time 18 years later in 1985, North Dakota hosts the Lumberjacks for the first time in Grand Forks, N.D.
UND is looking to snap a two-game losing streak after beginning the year with a 3-1 record. Before the two losses, North Dakota had scored at least 35 points in all of its games. Since then, it has scored just 17 points per game.
Eastern Washington surprised UND by rushing for 290 yards and totaled 458 yards on way to a 55-17 victory. Coach Chris Mussman has some questions about his offense, which was so prolific early in the season.
Last week, Senior quarterback Braden Hanson saw his first action under center since Week 1, when we was injured. He threw for 141 yards, while fellow signal-caller Marcus Hendrickson threw for 41 yards, but UND threw no touchdown passes. It looks like defenses have suddenly figured out the once-high-scoring UND attack.
Northern Arizona is coming off a bye week and looking to move to 5-1. The Lumberjacks have set themselves up nicely in the Big Sky with a 2-0 record, while running back Zach Bauman averages 118 rushing yards per game and has a conference-high seven rushing touchdowns. NAU has won four straight games, matching its win total from 2011. UND's offense certainly has the capability to put up big numbers, but Northern Arizona has played well on the road with wins at UNLV and Montana.
Prediction: Northern Arizona 28, North Dakota 25
Indiana State Sycamores (4-2, 2-1 MVFC) at No. 1 North Dakota State Bison (5-0, 2-0), 4 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series record: North Dakota State leads, 4-0
Last meeting: North Dakota State 27, Indiana State 16 (Oct. 29, 2011)
What to Know: Indiana State made great strides as a program over the last three years. In fact, if the Sycamores can win at least two of their last five games, it would mark the first time since the 1966-68 seasons that they could have three consecutive winning campaigns. Of course, coach Trent Miles has other plans in 2012, but the task gets even more difficult when ISU travels to the Fargodome to play the FCS' No. 1-ranked North Dakota State Bison.
Even the Bison exceeded expectations last week, winning handily, 48-7, versus then-No. 3 Youngstown State. In front of a Fargodome-record 19,065 crowd, NDSU won its ninth straight game over nationally ranked opponents dating back to last season.
No team in the FCS this year has looked more complete then the Bison, especially on defense. The team has held five of its last six opponents to under 250 yards of total offense, dating back to the 2011 national championship. Coach Craig Bohl's defense is ranked No. 1 in the FCS, allowing a stingy 205 yards per game, while opponents have scored just six total touchdowns all year.
Indiana State running back Shakir Bell has recently been held somewhat in check, even though he has rushed for 937 yards and eight touchdowns through six games, but he is the main hope for ISU to pull out a win on the road in a hostile environment. The Sycamores average a mere 152 yards passing per game, so if the running game is dormant, they could have some problems.
Prediction: North Dakota State 38, Indiana State 16
No. 5 Wofford Terriers (5-0, 3-0 SoCon) at No. 7 Georgia Southern Eagles (4-1, 3-1), 6 p.m.
Series record: Georgia Southern leads, 11-7
Last meeting: Georgia Southern 31, Wofford 10
What to Know: Wofford has passed every early test it's faced in 2012. Last week, the Terriers utilized a huge defensive effort, forcing three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter, to squeak by Furman, 20-17. Fullback Eric Breitenstein added his 24th career 100-yard rushing game with 158 yards on 21 carries and is currently 540 yards short of the school's all-time rushing record. Wofford is 5-0 for the first time since 1991, and the meat of its schedule heats up this week in Stateboro, Ga.
Since losing to The Citadel in Week 2, Georgia Southern has answered any early season doubts and has won three straight games. Last week at Western Carolina, the Eagles set an FCS single-game high in 2012, with 614 rushing yards in a 45-13 win. Quarterbacks Jerick McKinnon and Ezayi Youyoute are capable under center and it seems as if coach Jeff Monken will use whichever player benefits the offense more.
While the two high-octane triple option offenses - which rank No. 1 in the FCS at 448 yards per game (Wofford) and No. 2 at 437 yards per game (Georgia Southern - always take center stage, both defenses are better than expected. GSU ranks No. 3 in the FCS, giving up 270 yards per contest, compared to No. 18 Wofford, which gives up 315 per contest. Similarly, opponents have scored just eight total touchdowns on both teams.
Wofford has the advantage of a better passing game (if that makes any sense for two triple option teams) with quarterback Brian Kass having thrown for six touchdowns and two interceptions. The Eagles will primarily pass with Youyoute, not McKinnon, but they haven't had to catch teams off guard with the pass because the run game has flourished in the last couple of weeks.
The series has gone back and forth over the years, but, ultimately, Georgia Southern has faced better competition and it always plays well at home.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 24, Wofford 17
Western Illinois Leathernecks (3-2, 1-1 MVFC) at No. 20 South Dakota State Jackrabbits (4-1, 2-0), 7 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Series record: South Dakota State leads, 3-2
Last meeting: South Dakota State 27, Western Illinois 7 (Nov. 12, 2011)
What to Know: South Dakota State has been one of the more exciting surprises this season, having won four games in a row after a Week 1 loss at Kansas. If you didn't know running back Zach Zenner's name before the season, chances are you have heard of him now. In the Jackrabbits last game, on Sept. 29, Zenner crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the season, carrying the ball 30 times for 182 yards.
Zenner is averaging 215 rushing yards per game and almost eight yards per carry. Although he's only scored six touchdowns, SDSU relies on him heavily for success.
After scoring just three points in back-to-back weeks, Western Illinois rallied for just its second win in the last 17 contests when trailing at the half, taking down South Dakota on the road, 24-17. It seems senior quarterback Wil Lunt will be the guy under center moving forward. He won his first start since the 2011 opener and threw for 180 yards, while matching a career-high with two touchdown throws.
Obviously, the key for WIU will be loading the line of scrimmage and making SDSU beat it with the passing game. The Jackrabbits' quarterback, Austin Sumner (five touchdowns, nine interceptions, 743 yards passing), needs to improve if SDSU wants to contend for the Missouri Valley title. He is completing just 50 percent of his passes and while it hasn't necessarily hurt the Jackrabbits yet, eventually that could take its toll.
This game could be close early on, but Zenner will prove to be too much. The Jackrabbits have won seven consecutive games against FCS opponents dating back to last season.
Prediction: South Dakota State 28, Western Illinois 17
No. 9 Sam Houston State Bearkats (3-2, 1-1 Southland) at Nicholls State Colonels (1-3, 0-1), 7 p.m.
Series record: Sam Houston State leads, 16-10-1
Last meeting: Sam Houston State 47, Nicholls State 7 (Oct. 15, 2011)
What to Know: In the Battle of the Piney Woods last week versus Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State's defense was tested to the max. The Lumberjacks passed 76 times - versus just six rushes for 21 yards - while SFA quarterback Brady Attaway compiled a career-high 545 passing yards and six touchdowns. It look bad early on for the Bearkats, who didn't have a first down until the second quarter and had 22 total yards of offense after one quarter. However, somehow, some way, SHSU rode the ship and the defense bent, but didn't break, to hold on for a 51-43 win.
This week, Sam Houston should have few problems against a Nicholls State team which is improving, but not quite ready to make the next step just yet. Nicholls played great in the first half versus Central Arkansas last week, but was outplayed in the second half, gaining just 70 total yards and lost, 34-14.
Interestingly enough, Sam Houston is rushing for 259 yards per contest and scoring 39 points per game, but the receiving corps hasn't been as productive as expected. The team's top three receivers have scored just four touchdowns and quarterback Brian Bell has played better as of late. Trey Diller has been really the only consistent pass catcher. That being said, running back Timothy Flanders (90 carries, 500 yards, four touchdowns) has found his groove and the offense is finding ways to get on the scoreboard each week.
Prediction: Sam Houston State 42, Nicholls State 13
Maine Black Bears (2-3, 1-1 CAA) at No. 17 Towson Tigers (2-3, 1-1), 7 p.m.
Series record: Maine leads, 6-4
Last meeting: Towson 40, Maine 30 (Nov. 5, 2011)
What to Know: After picking up just about as much momentum as a team could get after a loss at LSU, Towson fell at James Madison by three points. JMU quarterback Justin Thorpe scored a touchdown with just 1:24 left to hang on for a critical, 13-10 CAA win.
The Tigers need to move on quick, because they play a seemingly inconsistent Maine team which shocked Delaware on the road last week, 26-3. Against James Madison, the Tigers defense gave up only 256 total yards to the Dukes and they still are ranked No. 6 in the FCS, giving up 282 yards per game. However, the offense turned the ball over three times, which cost Towson the game.
Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski had his best game of the season in the win at UD. He was 12-of-18 for 176 yards and three touchdowns through the air. The Black Bears defense was the key to the game, sacking the Blue Hens nine times. Junior defensive end Michael Cole picked up CAA Defensive Player of the Week honors for five sacks on his own and helped his unit hold Delaware's rush attack to 47 yards on 47 attempts.
Towson faces a wall midway through its season, partially thanks to a tough schedule. Yes, the JMU loss was only the first CAA defeat of the year, but Towson already has three losses overall and needs to win at least five of its remaining games on the schedule to have any shot at the postseason. It will not be easy, but the Tigers should get back on track at home.
Prediction: Towson 33, Maine 20
Tennessee State Tigers (6-0, 2-0 OVC) at Southeast Missouri State Redhawks (2-3, 1-1), 7 p.m.
Series record: Series tied, 10-10
Last meeting: Tennessee State 55, Southeast Missouri State 3 (Oct. 8, 2011)
What to Know: Although the series is tied at 10 games apiece, each team has traded victories over the last eight years. Tennessee State finds itself unbeaten at 6-0 and ranked in the FCS Top 25 for the first time this season. The Tigers are off to their best start since 2001 and are one of just two teams which have not allowed more than 20 points in a game.
TSU's defense ranks No. 8 in the FCS in scoring defense at 14 points per game, and 28th in total defense, allowing 323 yards per game. Last week, in a dramatic 23-20 win over then-No. 17 Eastern Kentucky, quarterback Michael German capped off a game-winning 68-yard drive when he rushed from one yard out, scoring with eight seconds left for the victory.
Southeast Missouri is coming off a bye week after falling at Jacksonville State to move to 1-1 in conference play. The Redhawks are 1-4 following a bye week under coach Tony Samuel. Southeast ranks No. 15 in the FCS in rushing offense, averaging 218 yards per contest, and running back Levi Terrell should give TSU some problems.
Ironically, the last time SEMO took down a ranked foe at home was against Tennessee State in 2008. Normally, this would be a trap game for the Tigers, but running Trabis Ward and German should prove to be too big of a difference. However, it will be another test for the TSU defense, which has been stout in 2012.
Prediction: Tennessee State 30, Southeast Missouri State 21
No. 21 Central Arkansas Bears (4-2, 2-1 Southland) at No. 19 McNeese State Cowboys (4-1, 1-1), 8 p.m.
Series record: Tied, 3-3
Last meeting: Central Arkansas 21, McNeese State 18 (Oct. 15, 2011)
What to Know: McNeese State hosts Central Arkansas in the Red Beans and Rice Bowl - a pivotal Southland Conference matchup between two of the conference's three ranked teams.
McNeese has a slight advantage coming off a bye week after a 30-22 win over Northwestern State in Week 5. There's no question the Cowboys play their best when they can run the ball with success. They rank No, 9 in the FCS, averaging 247 yards per game on the ground, even though running back Javaris Murray leads the team with only 306 rushing yards. The Cowboys defense has been a bit of a surprise, giving up just 63 rushing yards per game, which is No. 2 in the FCS.
Central Arkansas improved to 4-2 with a win over Nicholls State last week. The Bears trailed at halftime, 14-13, but scored 24 unanswered points in the second half, holding the Colonels to 70 yards of offense in the second half. UCA only averages 150 rushing yards per game, but the passing attack, led by Wynrick Smothers, has a lot of dangerous weapons to distribute the ball. The team's top three receivers have at least 250 receiving yards and have scored a combined nine touchdowns.
Both teams are well aware of each other's weaknesses and it could be another barn-burner of a game that has many implications for every team in the conference. UCA averages 39 points per game compared to McNeese State's 37. Which defense shows up is the million dollar question.
Prediction: McNeese State 34, Central Arkansas 31
Northern Colorado Bears (1-4, 0-2 Big Sky) at No. 15 Cal Poly Mustangs (5-0, 3-0), 9:05 p.m.
Series record: Cal Poly leads, 7-2
Last meeting: Cal Poly 56, Northern Colorado 21 (Sept. 29, 2007)
What to Know: Cal Poly enters the game with a wealth of momentum after picking up its fifth win of the season in somewhat uncharacteristic fashion. The Mustangs' go-to-guy in the backfield, slot back Deonte Williams, was hampered with an ankle injury and wasn't very effective, but somehow, some way, the defense and quarterback Andre Broadous played well when it counted to pull away with a win.
Northern Colorado has struggled yet again, but last week versus Montana the Bears were more competitive. They trailed 10-0 at halftime and 10-7 early in the third quarter before turnovers ultimately cost them the game.
It's a lot easier said then done, but NC's offense needs to be more productive. Quarterback Seth Lobato has thrown seven interceptions versus three touchdowns and is completing just 52 percent of his passes. Not to mention, the Bears' leading rusher, running back Tromaine Dennis, has totaled only 262 yards through five games, and the offense has scored three total rushing touchdowns.
Very few opponents have been able to figure out the Mustangs' triple option offense, and Cal Poly has the athletes to compete in the Big Sky race. Coach Tim Walsh should have one concern: that his players don't look ahead on the schedule which is very manageable. The game on Nov. 3 at Eastern Washington won't count toward conference standings and other foes (maybe besides Northern Arizona at end of season) shouldn't give Cal Poly too much trouble.
If the pass game keeps improving, imagine how scary the offense can be.
Prediction: Cal Poly 42, Northern Colorado 17