By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It seems funny to say a football team is facing a must-win in September, especially one that entered the season as a defending conference champion and holding a No. 18 national ranking.
Yet that describes Eastern Illinois' predicament this week. The Panthers, who went to the playoffs last year for the fourth time in the last five seasons, have had the most disappointing start of any team in the Football Championship Subdivision. They are 0-3 for the first time since 1999, losing at Iowa as expected and then to Central Arkansas, 37-7, and at UT Martin, 20-10, in their Ohio Valley Conference opener.
On Saturday, EIU desperately wants to change the script. The Panthers host Jacksonville State in Charleston, hoping to jump-start a season whose battery has been dead. The visiting Gamecocks, whom EIU was expected to battle for the OVC title, will roll into town with a No. 4 national ranking and a 3-0 record, which features the thrilling double-overtime upset of Ole Miss.
An EIU victory not only will change a lot for the Panthers, it would open up the OVC race to incredible possibilities.
But the Gamecocks, who have lost four of the last five meetings against EIU, likely see blood in the water as they prepare to take on the Panthers' injury- riddled lineup.
It says a lot that EIU's team trainer has been busier than some of the Panthers' all-conference talent.
Tailback Mon Williams isn't at full strength after missing the first two games with a strained knee and then having an ineffective season debut last Saturday at UT Martin.
And that's the good injury update.
On the offensive line, standout center Willie Henderson hasn't played since the opener because of back issues and won't play against Jacksonville State. A head injury has put starting tackle Ryan Grossman on the sideline. Possible starting tackle Mike Garrity is out for the year with an ACL injury. Even right guard Alex Pierce was banged up at UT Martin and is listed as probable for Saturday's game.
Plus, redshirt sophomore Brandon Large has struggled to replace last year's quarterback, Jake Christensen. The Panthers haven't found consistency in the pistol offense, an abbreviated shotgun system (run famously by the University of Nevada) in which the quarterback and running back are staggered in the backfield.
It all adds up to one of the lowest-ranked offenses in the FCS - one that hasn't scored in the second half of four straight games dating to last year's playoff loss to Southern Illinois.
"There's a long way to go yet and the league is really solid from top to bottom, so there's all kind of possibilities yet. You gotta continue to hope that you get a little bit better," said Spoo, whose program hasn't begun a season with four straight losses since 1977.
Spoo's counterpart, Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe, isn't buying into anything less than the usual tough game against EIU. His Gamecocks have won their last seven road games - the longest streak in the FCS - but have developed their own injury problem. Standout tailback Calvin Middleton missed last Saturday's overtime win at Georgia State with a bruised foot and might remain sidelined again this week.
"They got our film, we got their film," Crowe said. "I still see Eastern Illinois and they still see the same kind of Jacksonville State football team that they've managed to whip more than we've been able to whip them.
"Eastern Illinois' defense (led by senior outside linebacker Nick Nasti) is something that will give us a lot of trouble. They always have. I can't remember having a really good day - we've have a couple good halves against 'em - over time."
Five of the OVC's nine teams received votes in the conference's preseason poll and none is among the three atop the early standings at 1-0 - Austin Peay, Southeast Missouri and UT Martin.
Southeast Missouri's 24-21 win at Missouri Valley Football Conference power Southern Illinois, then ranked fifth nationally, was nearly as impressive as Jacksonville State taking down Ole Miss. The Redhawks, who beat Murray State in their OVC opener, go for another conference win Saturday at home against Tennessee Tech.
Should EIU topple Jacksonville State in the Gamecocks' conference opener, would it ever create one of the nation's more intriguing title races.
"Us coaches that have been here a few years, we've been saying that every year that this league is getting better, more competitive," Southeast Missouri coach Tony Samuel said. "This is not something overnight."
BACK TO BASICS
In addition to Eastern Illinois, eight other teams that were nationally ranked in the preseason have losing records heading into the final weekend of September: Elon (1-2, 0-0 Southern Conference); Holy Cross (1-2, 0-0 Patriot League); Montana (1-2, 0-1 Big Sky Conference); New Hampshire (1-2, 0-1 CAA Football); Prairie View A&M (1-2, 0-1 SWAC); South Dakota State (0-2, 0-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference); Southern Illinois (1-2, 0-0 MVFC); and Weber State (1-2, 0-1 Big Sky).
New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said it best this week about how his team can get back on track after it fell to Pittsburgh and, more surprisingly, Rhode Island in the last two weeks. It's a formula all of the above teams are probably subscribing to this week.
"You've got to go right back out to practice and get back to the fundamentals of doing what you do, what you have done well and what you can do well," said McDonnell, whose UNH squad hosts Lehigh (2-1) on Saturday in its final non- conference game.
"You've just got to go back to work."
OLD RIVALS REUNITE IN FARGO
South Dakota State, which is expected to fall to 0-3 when it travels to the University of Nebraska, was supposed to have the ranked team among the Dakota states, but on Saturday it's 18th-ranked North Dakota State (2-1) hosting 21st-ranked South Dakota (2-1) in a big game in Fargo.
Both teams own FBS scalps this season, with North Dakota State tripping Kansas, 6-3, on Sept. 4 and South Dakota beating Minnesota, 41-38, on Sept. 11.
Opponents scored 110 points in North Dakota State's first three games last season. This season, it's a mere 28 points as the Bison have allowed only one touchdown in their opponents' 11 trips to the red zone.
Playmaking linebackers Matt Anderson and Preston Evans will have their hands full with South Dakota quarterback Dante Warren, who has thrown for seven touchdowns, including three to Will Powell.
The two teams are former Division II rivals in the North Central Conference. North Dakota State made the jump to the FCS in 2003 and South Dakota followed in 2008, but when the Coyotes joined the Great West Conference that season, North Dakota State left the Great West for the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
The Bison have won 15 of the last 16 meetings, most recently in 2003, for a 48-25-3 series lead.
APP STATE'S NEW WEAPON
So much focus was on who would replace two-time Walter Payton Award winner Armanti Edwards as Appalachian State's quarterback that Travaris Cadet's switch from signal-caller to running back went under the radar.
There's no more hiding the game-breaking skills of the junior.
With top running back Devon Moore slowed by injury this season, Cadet has stepped in and rushed for a team-high 204 yards on 20 carries, including a 52- yard touchdown. He has caught three passes for 32 yards and is the Mountaineers' top returnman. He's providing 142.3 all-purpose yards per game.
"He's a very gifted athlete," coach Jerry Moore said. "He can play receiver, he's played quarterback, now he's a running back. As a running back, we just felt like we could get the ball to him when we wanted to more often than (at) quarterback. We're such an option team that (defenses) could force him to pitch and things like that. That was one of the reasons for moving him and he's handled it well."
The second-ranked Mountaineers (3-0) will have a difficult Southern Conference game on Saturday when they visit Samford.
DEVLIN IS A GO
Quarterback Pat Devlin will be back in the starting lineup for Delaware on Saturday when the seventh-ranked Blue Hens (3-0) play in the CAA's Top 10 battle of the week at fifth-ranked Richmond (1-1). The candidate for the Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) sat out last Saturday's 30-6 win over Duquesne after fracturing his non-throwing left wrist in the Sept. 11 win over South Dakota State.
The Blue Hens got a glimpse into the future in last Saturday's win as redshirt freshman Trevor Sasek was successful in relief of Devlin. Sasek wasn't taxed by the Duquesne defense, however, completing 7-of-9 passes for 75 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown to Phillip Thaxton.
"We were pretty conservative, we just ran the ball with Andrew (Pierce) and we didn't put a whole lot on Trevor," coach K.C. Keeler said. "But Pat was ready to play. It was just smart giving him a week down. He wanted to play, but at the same time he was excited for Trevor because he knows how hard Trevor has been working. Pat's all set to go and you'll see him out there Saturday afternoon."
NFL DRAFT STOCK RISING AND FALLING
Josh Buchanan, a voter in The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS Top 25, does a terrific job of evaluating the NFL Draft prospects of small-school players at JBS Scouting (http://www.jbscouting.com/). His weekly report includes a Top 100 list of all players below the FBS level.
Among FCS players, Buchanan says the players who have risen the most on potential draft boards from their early season play are Norfolk State running back DeAngelo Branche, Youngstown State wide receiver Dominique Barnes and Southern Illinois cornerback Korey Lindsey. He has Lindsey moving up to a fifth-round projection, and Branche and Barnes impressing enough to become solid undrafted free agents.
Conversely, Buchanan says Lehigh left tackle Will Rackley (fourth round to borderline draft pick), Appalachian State linebacker D.J. Smith (fifth or sixth round to undrafted free agent) and Southern Illinois quarterback Chris Dieker (possible seventh round to low undrafted free agent) have dropped significantly because of early season play.
The JBS Scouting Top 10 for FCS players, with their projected draft status:
1. Ben Ijalana, Villanova, OG, second or third round 2. Pat Devlin, Delaware, QB, fourth or fifth round 3. Korey Lindsey, Southern Illinois, CB, fifth round 4. Matt Szczur, Villanova, WR, fifth round 5. Curt Porter, Jacksonville State, OG, fifth or sixth round 6. Mark LeGree, Appalachian State, FS, sixth round 7. Cortez Allen, The Citadel, CB, sixth or seventh round 8. David Arkin, Missouri State, OG, sixth or seventh round 9. Will Rackley, Lehigh, OG, seventh round or undrafted free agent 10. Kenrick Ellis, Hampton, DT, undrafted free agent
SPEAKING OF PROJECTIONS ...
In the FCS Huddle has been projecting the potential FCS playoff field since the preseason. The projections are a long-range look at the season and can be found here.
Coaches on all levels will participate Saturday in the third annual Coach to Cure MD program.
American Football Coaches Association members will wear a Coach to Cure MD logo patch on the sidelines to support research for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
Fans can donate to the research by either going online to http://coachtocuremd.org/ or by texting the word CURE to 90999 (a $5 donation will automatically be added to your next phone bill).
THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER ...
Like South Dakota-North Dakota State, Saturday's Liberty at James Madison game is a matchup of two of the six teams to have beaten an FBS squad this season. Liberty edged Ball State and James Madison stunned Virginia Tech on Sept. 11 ... Speaking of Liberty, quarterback Mike Brown is 238 rushing yards shy of reaching the 1,000-yard career milestone for passing, receiving and rushing yards ... Great statistics from Youngstown State (2-1), which hosts Southern Illinois on Saturday. Last season, YSU's tailbacks scored only five touchdowns. Last Saturday against Central Connecticut State, Penguins tailbacks scored five times in the first half and went on to a school-record-tying eight rushing scores. They have 11 in three games, led by Adaris Bellamy's four and three each from Jamaine Cook and Jordan Thompson ... The big game in the Southwestern Athletic Conference is supposed to be at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, where defending champion Prairie View A&M will take on Grambling State in a West Division matchup. But there's another big one in Lorman, Miss., where Alabama State (3-0, 3-0) visits Alcorn State (2-0, 1-0) with first place in the East Division on the line. It's a battle of the SWAC's two highest- scoring teams. Most stunning this season was Alabama State going to Prairie View last Saturday and picking off the Panthers, 18-15, when Andrew Lyons drilled a 47- yard field goal with 23 seconds left ... The first night game will be held at Brown Stadium when the host Brown Bears face Harvard on Homecoming Day Saturday. Brown Stadium, built in 1925, will have temporary lighting ... Florida A&M of the MEAC and Tennessee State of the Ohio Valley Conference are meeting for the 50th time Saturday in the Atlanta Classic. Florida A&M has won the last eight meetings, and with a win would tie the series at 25-25 ... Bethune-Cookman has the highest-scoring team in the FCS, 56 points per game after a 70-10 wipeout of Edward Waters and a 42-7 win over future MEAC opponent Savannah State. The stakes are about to rise for first- year head coach Brian Jenkins, whose Wildcats host a strong Norfolk State squad on Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla. Jenkins is the only first-year FCS head coach out of 19 to remain unbeaten ... Another week, another potential record for Stephen F. Austin senior quarterback Jeremy Moses. With 10,243 career passing yards, he needs 316 yards to move pass former Central Arkansas quarterback Nathan Brown (10,558 yards between 2005-08) for the Southland Conference's all-time record. SFA hosts Lamar, which will join Southland competition next year ... And now for the next 500. Western Illinois will host Indiana State on Saturday's Homecoming Day looking to build on last week's 56-14 win over Sam Houston State - the 500th in Fighting Leathernecks program history. Coach Mark Hendrickson's squad is 2-1, surpassing last year's win mark in a 1-10 season. Heady quarterback Matt Barr is averaging 304.7 yards of total offense per game and has thrown for six touchdowns against zero interceptions, while fellow fifth-year senior Kyle Glazier, a linebacker, has been in on a team-high 27 stops, including two sacks. The Fighting Leathernecks are 500-413-36 all-time ... Montana State (2-1) has scored on all 17 trips to the red zone (nine touchdowns, eight field goals). No other FCS team that is perfect has more than nine trips to the red zone ... NCAA director of football Damani Leech told The Sports Network that this year's FCS playoff selection show will be on ESPNU, beginning at 10 a.m., on Sunday, Nov. 21.
JUST THE PICKS
Last Week's Record: 49-16 (.754)
Season Record: 183-44 (.806)
Sept. 25 Albany (1-1) at X-Duquesne (2-1), noon
Morehead State (1-2) at X-Marist (1-1), noon
North Greenville (1-3) at X-Presbyterian (0-3), noon
Austin Peay (2-1) at X-Wisconsin (3-0), noon
Bryant (3-0) at X-Central Connecticut State (1-2), noon
X-Robert Morris (2-1) at Wagner (1-1), noon
Northern Colorado (2-1) at X-Michigan State (3-0), noon
Lehigh (2-1) at X-No. 16 New Hampshire (1-2), noon
X-Towson (1-2) at Columbia (0-1), 12:30 p.m.
X-Yale (1-0) at Cornell (0-1), 12:30 p.m.
X-Jacksonville (2-1) at Davidson (1-2), 1 p.m.
Assumption (3-0) at X-Fordham (2-1), 1 p.m.
X-Old Dominion (1-2) at Monmouth (0-2), 1 p.m.
Georgia State (1-2) at X-Campbell (1-2), 1 p.m.
VMI (1-1) at X-Virginia (1-1), 1:30 p.m.
Sacred Heart (1-2) at X-Dartmouth (1-0), 1:30 p.m.
X-Holy Cross (1-2) at Georgetown (2-1), 2 p.m.
Howard (0-3) at X-Morgan State (1-2) in East Rutherford, N.J., 2 p.m.
X-Drake (1-2) at Valparaiso (0-3), 2 p.m.
Savannah State (0-3) at X-Albany State (3-0) in Waycross, Ga., 2 p.m.
Tuskegee (2-1) at X-Texas Southern (1-2) in Mobile, Ala., 2 p.m.
The Citadel (2-1) at X-No. 23 Furman (1-1), 2 p.m.
X-No. 4 Jacksonville State (3-0) at Eastern Illinois (0-3), 2:30 p.m.
X-No. 3 Appalachian State (3-0) at Samford (2-1), 3 p.m.
Sacramento State (2-1) at X-No. 14 Montana (1-2), 3 p.m.
Alabama State (3-0) at X-Alcorn State (2-0), 5 p.m.
No. 9 Eastern Washington (2-1) at X-No. 17 Montana State (2-1), 3:05 p.m.
X-No. 7 Delaware (3-0) at No. 5 Richmond (1-1), 3:30 p.m.
Colgate (1-1) at X-Syracuse (2-1), 3:30 p.m.
X-Florida A&M (2-1) at Tennessee State (1-2) in Atlanta, 3:30 p.m.
Indiana State (1-1) at X-Western Illinois (2-1), 4 p.m.
Clark-Atlanta (1-1) at X-Arkansas-Pine Bluff (0-2) in St. Louis, 4 p.m.
No. 13 Southern Illinois (1-2) at X-Youngstown State (2-1), 4 p.m.
X-Norfolk State (2-1) at Bethune-Cookman (2-0), 4 p.m.
Northwestern State (1-2) at X-North Dakota (1-2), 5 p.m.
Bacone College (1-2) at X-Nicholls State (0-3), 5 p.m.
X-Northern Arizona (1-1) at Idaho State (1-2), 5:35 p.m.
X-Chattanooga (1-2) at Western Carolina (1-2), 6 p.m.
No. 22 Liberty (2-1) at X-No. 3 James Madison (2-0), 6 p.m.
X-No. 10 Elon (1-2) at Georgia Southern (2-1), 6 p.m.
Lafayette (0-2) at X-Princeton (0-1), 6 p.m.
X-No. 8 William & Mary (2-1) at Maine (1-2), 6 p.m.
X-No. 11 Massachusetts (2-1) at Stony Brook (1-2), 6 p.m.
X-Delaware State (0-2) at Coastal Carolina (0-3), 6 p.m.
X-Harvard (1-0) at Brown (1-0), 6 p.m.
No. 24 Penn (1-0) at X-No. 1 Villanova (2-1), 7 p.m.
South Dakota State (0-2) at X-Nebraska (3-0), 7 p.m.
X-North Carolina A&T (0-3) at North Carolina Central (1-2), 6 p.m.
Tennessee Tech (1-2) at X-Southeast Missouri (2-1), 7 p.m.
Central State (1-2) at X-Dayton (2-1), 7 p.m.
Southern (1-1) at X-Alabama A&M (1-2), 7 p.m.
No. 21 South Dakota (2-1) at X-No. 18 North Dakota State (2-1), 7 p.m.
X-UT Martin (1-2) at Murray State (0-3), 7 p.m.
South Dakota State (0-2) at X-Nebraska (3-0), 7 p.m.
SE Louisiana (1-2) at X-ULM (0-2), 7 p.m.
Gardner-Webb (2-1) at X-Sam Houston State (0-2), 7 p.m.
X-Prairie View A&M (1-2) at Grambling State (1-1) in Dallas, 7 p.m.
No. 15 Northern Iowa (1-1) at X-Iowa State (1-2), 7 p.m.
Southern Utah (1-2) at X-Texas State (2-1), 7 p.m.
Lamar (2-1) at X-No. 6 Stephen F. Austin (2-1), 7 p.m.
No. 25 Central Arkansas (3-0) at X-Tulsa (1-2), 7 p.m.
X-Missouri State (1-1) at Illinois State (2-1), 7 p.m.
UC Davis (1-2) at X-Weber State (1-2), 8 p.m.
Mississippi Valley State (0-3) at X-Jackson State (2-1), 7 p.m.
No. 20 Cal Poly (2-1) at X-No. 19 McNeese State (1-1), 8 p.m.
X-Butler (2-1) at San Diego (0-3), 9 p.m.
Charleston Southern (2-1) at X-Hawaii (1-2), 11:30 p.m.