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The CSN Way: Whew, 2007
By Charles Burton, CSN Columnist
The season began – and ended – with historic victories from a college football team that attends classes in Boone, N.C.
Though there are many fans and many schools that comprise the Division I Football Championship Subdivision (or FCS for short), those championship-winning Appalachian State Mountaineers earned the right in 2007 to be the poster boys 32-31 lead with 4:36 remaining. Two blocked field goals and one heroic drive later, the Mountaineers won 34-32 in not just one of the greatest triumphs in college football history – one of the most entertaining and exciting ones, too.
Michigan was left saying woulda, coulda, shoulda. What if it had converted just one 2-point conversion in the second half? What if it had simply put one field goal through the uprights in the second half? What if it had stopped wideout CoCo Hillary’s catch at the 5-yard-line to set up the game-winning field goal?
But Appalachian State didn’t just have some luck on its side, it had a team full of heroes: Quarterback Armanti Edwards, who had three touchdown passes, one TD run and who directed a masterful drive to set up the game-winning field goal with 26 seconds remaining. Wideout Dexter Jackson, whose “shushing” of the “Big House” after his touchdown grab quickly became the iconic moment of the entire Division I football season. Linebacker Pierre Banks, who would keep the pressure on the Wolverines with 12 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. Kicker Julian Rauch, whose 26-yard-field goal that “he had dreamed about every day” was the stake that was driven through Michigan’s heart.
And, of course, safety Corey Lynch, who surged through the right side to block Michigan’s final attempt to avoid the upset with a 37-yard-field goal try.
Although the victory over Michigan was nice, the Mountaineers still had much work to do. With Edwards nursing injuries sustained before and during the Michigan game, Appalachian State would drop two of its next six games to put its Southern Conference title hopes in jeopardy. A 42-31 loss to Wofford snapped a 17-game winning streak – the longest in Division I at the time, and a heartbreaking 38-35 loss to Georgia Southern snapped its 30-game home winning streak on what was fittingly billed as “Black Saturday.” The defeats to their bitter rivals gave the Mountaineers two league losses, and (it appeared) put them out of the running for a SoCon title.
But just as in the Michigan game, luck seemed with the Mountaineers the rest of the season. Wofford would drop two SoCon games and Georgia Southern would shank a field goal against Furman to give Appalachian State a share of the title and a first-round playoff game. After beating James Madison 28-27 and watching No. 2 seed McNeese State and No. 3 Montana get upset in the first round of the playoffs, the road to Chattanooga suddenly went through Boone.
After beating Eastern Washington 38-35, Appalachian State had a possible chance for revenge against Wofford. Instead it had to face the co-champs of the Colonial Athletic Association in Richmond. In an amazing offensive performance, Edwards powered the Mountaineers to a 55-35 victory with 311 rushing yards, four touchdowns and a near-perfect day passing with 14 completions in 16 attempts for 182 yards and 3 TDs.
That meant Appalachian State would defend its national championship against Delaware, whose winged helmets look almost identical to those worn by that FBS team the Mountaineers beat in the first game of the year.
This time it would be running back Kevin Richardson who would be the hero in the 49-21 thumping of the Blue Hens. His 111 yards rushing and two touchdowns were the engine that made the championship game a resounding Mountaineer victory in which Appalachian State never trailed. Again, Edwards shined (198 yards passing, 3 touchdowns, 89 yards rushing). Again, Lynch stood out (8 tackles, 4 pass breakups). Other standouts such as freshman linebacker D.J. Smith (10 tackles), also would contribute.
But one play looked eerily like a reel from that game in the “Big House.” Near the end of the first half, Edwards would fire another 60-yard-touchdown pass to Jackson for a touchdown that was reminiscent of the “shush” moment at Michigan.
That picture – Jackson, pointing to the sky while streaking toward the end zone against a team with a winged helmet – is without a doubt the story of 2007.
STORIES OF THE YEAR
Conference by conference, here’s a look back at the “year that was” in FCS football.
Big Sky Conference
Champions: Montana Grizzlies
Game of the Year: Oct. 6, Montana 24, Eastern Washington 23.
It looked as if it could be the biggest test the Grizzlies would face all year in the regular season, and ultimately it was. With the lead changing four times in the second half, Grizzly kicker Dan Carpenter put a 34-yard-field goal through the uprights with 26 seconds left to seal the victory – and ultimately sealing the Big Sky title as well.
Highest Moment: Eastern Washington 44, McNeese State 15.
The Eagles gave the citizens of Cheney, Wash., a thrill as they pounded the undefeated Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs. That they won might not have been a surprise – that it wasn’t even close was a shock.
Biggest Disappointment: Montana State.
Although you could make a case for Portland State, whose celebrity head football coach Jerry Glanville had it limp to a 3-8 season in his first year, you have to believe that the Bobcats, with another first-year coach in Rob Ash, had it worse. From a fantastic 4-1 start (the only loss coming to FBS Texas A&M), to lose four of their last six was painful. The lowlight could be their 16-13 loss to Northern Colorado (1-11), breaking the Bears’ 16-game losing streak and for all practical purposes knocking the Bobcats out of the playoff race.
Player of the Year: Montana defensive end Kroy Biermann.
The senior also walked away with the Buchanan award after amassing 68 tackles, 15 sacks and five forced fumbles on the season.
Unsung Player of the Year: Northern Arizona safety Cyrus Igono.
Sure, he was a special-teams hawk with an eye-popping four blocked kicks (including one he returned for a touchdown), but he became even better on defense as the year progressed with three interceptions, including one for a touchdown.
What If: Montana had held off Wofford?
What if Carpenter had connected on that 47-yard-field goal and sent Wofford home in the first round? Might that have been the spark that would have it defeat Richmond and Appalachian State to get to Chattanooga – both games at home at Washington-Grizzly stadium?
A Peek Toward 2008:
The successor to departed Eastern Washington head coach Paul Wulff (off to Washington State) will have an excellent team to build upon, with quarterback Matt Nichols, super receiver Aaron Boyce and defensive end Greg Peach returning. Montana State might be one to watch, too, with several players returning, including standout linebacker Bobby Daly.
Big South Conference
Champions: Liberty Flames
Game of the Year: Nov. 3, Liberty 37, Coastal Carolina 24.
Rashad Jennings’ 174 yards rushing and three touchdowns marked the official passing of the torch for Big South supremacy to the Flames.
Highest Moment: Presbyterian 41, Coastal Carolina 34, OT.
It wasn’t a league game yet, but the Blue Hose showed that when they join the conference they will be an immediate factor after upsetting the Chanticleers in Conway, S.C. Tim Webb threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns for the Blue Hose.
Biggest Disappointment: VMI.
Rebuilding the Keydets was never going to be easy, but giving up more than 60 points three times to William & Mary (63-16), Liberty (73-34) and The Citadel (70-28)?
Player of the Year: Gardner-Webb defensive end Brian Johnston.
The senior, almost always double-teamed, still had a monster season with 74 tackles, 19 solo tackles for loss and six sacks.
Unsung Player of the Year: Charleston Southern linebacker Jada Ross.
All he did was have a “quiet” 131-tackle year, with four passes defended and three blocked kicks.
What If: Liberty had upset FBS Toledo?
Flames’ fans were incredulous. An illegal man downfield penalty to negate a 28-yard pass that would have set up the game-winning field goal? What if they had pulled off the upset? At 9-2, I believe that Liberty would have edged out New Hampshire and gotten into the field of 16.
A Peek Toward 2008:
Liberty graduated many players, but it returns quarterback Brock Smith and running back Rashad Jennings and several other all-league performers. Can Gardner-Webb or Coastal Carolina challenge the Flames?
Colonial Athletic Association
Co-Champions: Massachusetts Minutemen and Richmond Spiders
Game of the Year: Nov. 10, Richmond 62, Delaware 56, 5 OTs.
Just your average five-overtime game: Richmond quarterback Eric Ward dueling with Delaware quarterback Joe Flacco, Blue Hen running back Omar Cuff (233 all-purpose yards, two touchdowns) dueling with Spider running back Tim Hightower (113 yards rushing, one touchdown), and backup running back Josh Vaughn finally putting away the game-winning score. Did I mention that these teams would ultimately end up in the FCS semifinals?
Highest Moment: Delaware vs. The Gateway.
It looked as if Delaware – sent on the road to face the No. 1- and No. 4-ranked teams in the nation – would see its perfect record against teams from the Gateway Conference finally snapped. But after a 39-27 shocker at Northern Iowa and a hard-fought 20-17 victory at Southern Illinois, Delaware found itself the surprise team in the FCS championship – and in the process kept its perfect record against the Gateway intact.
Biggest Disappointment: CAA schedule-makers.
There were far too many dream matchups that simply didn’t happen because the CAA is such a large conference. As a result fans missed out on a chance to witness league matchups that they deserved to see. No quarterback duel between Delaware’s Flacco and UMass’ Liam Coen? No running back showdown between Hofstra’s Kareem Huggins and Richmond’s Hightower?
Player of the Year: New Hampshire quarterback Ricky Santos.
Although Delaware’s Flacco passed for more than 300 yards seven times in 15 games and surpassed 400 yards twice, Santos did the same without nearly so impressive a supporting cast on offense. “Super Santos” almost singlehandedly willed his Wildcats to victories over FBS Marshall, Delaware and Hofstra – and nearly knocked off Northern Iowa in the first round of the playoffs.
Unsung Player of the Year: Hofstra running back Huggins.
Had he not been injured in the 35-31 loss to Villanova, we might have seen the Pride return to the playoffs. Instead, we have to think about what might have been after seeing him amass 957 rushing yards and nine touchdowns to go with 641 return yards and two touchdowns – in only seven full games and two partial games.
What If: Mickey Matthews hadn’t run the ball on 3rd-and-goal?
The CAA featured so many “what ifs” – what if UMass had played Rhode Island on a sunny day? What if Huggins hadn’t got hurt? But the biggest “what if” involved James Madison’s near-upset of Appalachian State in the first round of the playoffs. Had James Madison coach Mickey Matthews simply lined up his field goal unit for the game-winning field goal in the closing seconds, we wouldn’t have been talking about the Mountaineers at all – the playoffs would be all about the Dukes’ monumental upset and how great quarterback Rodney Landers and safety Tony LeZotte were.
A Peek Toward 2008:
Get used to Richmond near the top of the CAA, featuring quarterback Eric Ward, super freshman Kevin Grayson and running back Vaughn. Villanova also might be interesting with quarterback Antawn Young and a team that finished the year strong – including a 16-10 upset of Delaware. And don’t forget UMass with QB Coen returning.
Gateway Football Conference
Champions: Northern Iowa Panthers
Game of the Year: Oct. 13, Northern Iowa 30, Southern Illinois 24.
It was a battle of unbeaten teams with the Panthers packing the UNI-Dome and playing like champions. But the Salukis would mount a furious rally and have a shot at winning with four seconds left. After four laterals, Southern Illinois wideout Alan Turner would fall six yards short of tying the score, after just barely getting knocked out of bounds by Chris Parsons. UNI would finish with an unbeaten regular season (its first unbeaten regular season since 1960 and first Gateway team to finish unblemished), while Southern Illinois would have only one loss.
Highest Moment: Southern Illinois’ run through the playoffs.
Head coach Jerry Kill – in his last games before accepting the job at Northern Illinois – had a magical run in the playoffs with victories over rival Eastern Illinois (30-11) and perennial power UMass (34-27). Quarterback Nick Hill, running back John Randle and linebacker Chauncey Mixon showed their talents. The 20-17 loss to Delaware ended up being Kill’s last game for the Salukis. An outstanding coach and person, he will be missed.
Biggest Disappointment: Illinois State.
Admittedly, the Redbirds played a brutal schedule including FBS Missouri, North Dakota State and three FCS playoff teams. Despite some bright spots, the Redbirds started the year with a thud losing 27-24 to nonscholarship Drake of the Pioneer Football League and never really recovered. The Redbirds became the first full-scholarship team to lose to a Division I nonscholarship team in history.
Player of the Year: Northern Iowa quarterback Eric Sanders.
A 75 percent completion rating? Yes – in 13 games, he completed 75 percent of his passes for 2,842 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also had only six interceptions – averaging less than one every two games. Say this about Sanders – the kid had nerves of steel.
Unsung Player of the Year: Youngstown State linebacker James Terry.
Lost in the history-making in the rest of the Gateway was the solid play of Terry, with 65 tackles, five and one-half sacks and nine quarterback hurries.
What If: Youngstown State had made its 13-0 lead over Northern Iowa hold up?
The team that had the best chance of upsetting the Panthers’ run at history were the Penguins, who simply couldn’t hold onto its lead going into the fourth quarter. Had they done so, they would have stood an excellent chance at going 8-3 and making the playoffs – and who knows how well they might have done?
A Peek Toward 2008:
Western Illinois and Missouri State had some nice victories in 2007 with outstanding young teams – the Leathernecks have standout running back Herb Donaldson and kicker Taylor Rowan returning, while Bears’ freshman quarterback Cody Kirby should continue his improvement. Look for one or both to be in contention. Another big question: will North Dakota State and South Dakota State jump in and become immediate title contenders?
Great West Football Conference
Champions: South Dakota State Jackrabbits
Game of the Year: Nov. 17, South Dakota State 29, North Dakota State 24.
Not only was the “Dakota Marker” on the line, but the Jackrabbits had a chance to deny the Bison an undefeated season and a Great West title in both teams’ last game in the Great West. And South Dakota State did just that when cornerback Brock Gentile intercepted Bison quarterback Steve Walker in the final minutes to preserve the “Marker” and the title. Jackrabbit running back Corey Koenig outdueled Bison running back Tyler Roehl – Koenig had 131 yards rushing to Roehl’s 79.
Highest Moment: North Dakota State 44, Central Michigan 14.
Victories over FBS teams are not all that uncommon, but the way the Bison completely dismantled a team that ended up playing in a bowl game this year made the entire subdivision take notice. It was the worst loss at home in 30 years for the Chippewas. Roehl had a monster day, rushing for 179 yards and three touchdowns, while Steve Walker was in big-time form going 25 for 31 with 261 yards and one touchdown.
Biggest Disappointment: The Southern Utah athletics department.
Southern Utah certainly had a tough year at 0-11 – until you take a peek at its schedule. It played THREE of FCS’ undefeated teams on the year (Montana, Northern Iowa and McNeese State), played two more teams in the top 10 (Southern Illinois and North Dakota State), three perennial playoff teams (Youngstown State, Montana State and Cal Poly) and finally a D-II powerhouse (North Dakota). The Thunderbirds showed real fight, having a chance to knock off some of these lofty programs – but athletic director Ken Beazer chose not to renew the contract of head coach Wes Maier. How can you give a coach a schedule such as that and expect him to succeed?
Player of the Year: North Dakota State running back Roehl.
Hard to believe that he didn’t have a single carry before this year after seeing him gain an amazing 1,431 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns … in 10 games.
Unsung Players of the Year: Cal Poly quarterback Jonathan Dally and Cal Poly wideout Ramses Barden.
Dally simply does it all: 763 yards rushing, 2,238 yards passing and an eye-popping 41 total touchdowns. Barden is Dally’s No. 1 target, with 1,467 yards receiving and 14 touchdowns.
What If: Cal Poly had held on against North Dakota State?
All it had to do was prevent the big play! Had Cal Poly prevented that Walker strike to Cole Heckendorf with 38 seconds remaining to suffer a 31-28 defeat, it would have been a strong candidate for an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs.
A Peek Toward 2008:
Cal Poly has Dally and Barden returning, which should make it the immediate odds-on favorites to win the Great West title and a possible playoff chance next year. North Dakota and South Dakota play a partial Great West schedule in 2008 and are scheduled to join the conference in 2009. Will they make the same kind of noise the Jackrabbits and Bison did?
Champions: Harvard Crimson
Game of the Year: Nov. 17, Harvard 37, Yale 6.
Like South Dakota State, Harvard had the opportunity most rivals only dream of: to ruin Yale’s shot at a perfect season and in the process win an outright league title. In the 124th meeting of “The Game,” the Crimson made it look easy by shutting out their bitter rivals for three quarters and allowing quarterback Chris Pizzotti to pass for 316 yards and four touchdowns. Incredibly, Yale’s two-touchdown deficit would be the first time all year that the Bulldogs would trail by more than a touchdown.
Highest Moment: Yale 38, Holy Cross 17.
The best out-of-conference victory came from the Bulldogs, back when running back Mike McLeod was in top form running for a then school-record 256 yards and five touchdowns. Their dominating victory over the Crusaders – holding on to the ball 38 minutes in the triumph with 412 team rushing yards – was a prototypical Yale victory on the year.
Biggest Disappointment: Princeton.
Tiger quarterback Bill Foran was supposed to step in seamlessly for the Ivy League player of the year last season in Jeff Terrell. Instead, he struggled mightily all year (five touchdowns and nine interceptions) as Princeton limped to a 4-6 record, winning only two of its last seven games.
Player of the Year: Yale running back Mike McLeod.
Only a junior, his numbers over 10 games were downright scary: 1,619 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. When you stop to consider that he was suffering a broken toe in those last two games, it’s scary to think what he could do next year.
Unsung Player of the Year: Brown wide receiver Paul Raymond.
He didn’t get most of the accolades this year (probably because he had only four touchdowns), but his steady 55 receptions and 978 yards receiving were a big reason why the Bears were in the upper echelon of the Ivy League.
What If: Penn running back Joe Sandberg wasn’t hurt all year?
Injured during the 8-7 loss to Lafayette in week two, you have to believe that the Quakers would have pulled that game out – and you also have to believe that they would have made a good run at Harvard and Yale for the Ivy League title, too.
A Peek Toward 2008:
Yale, with McLeod and linebacker Bobby Abare returning will be strong once again, but Brown might be challenging it next year: the Bears return quarterback Michael Dougherty and do-everything wideout Bobby Sewall. As always you can never count out Harvard or Penn either, with the Crimson’s running back Cheng Ho and the Quakers’ defensive lineman Joe Goniprow returning.
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Tri-Champions: Duquesne Dukes, Iona Gaels, Marist Red Foxes
Game of the Year: Nov. 10, Marist 17, Iona 14.
Marist kicker Chris Collins booted a 29-yard-field goal with under two minutes remaining to give the Red Foxes their second straight MAAC tri-championship. Marist running back Obozua Ehikiyoa added 89 yards rushing and a touchdown. It ensured that the final year of the MAAC would have tri-champions for the second straight year.
Highest Moment: Duquesne vs. the NEC.
It’s sometimes difficult to remember that a MAAC team without scholarships is at a disadvantage facing a NEC team with up to 30 scholarships, but it delivered three outstanding victories in its swan song against Sacred Heart (30-23), St Francis (24-17) and Robert Morris (17-14). One win would be a feat, but three in the same year demonstrates that Duquesne is more than ready to enter the NEC next year.
Biggest Disappointment: La Salle.
This was a disappointment not primarily because the Explorers suffered an 0-10 season – it was a disappointment because they announced they were discontinuing football after this year.
Player of the Year: Iona running back Dale Samuels.
The senior rightfully ended the year as the player of the year in the MAAC with 1,018 yard rushing and 10 touchdowns. He was the engine that made the Gael offense go.
Unsung Player of the Year: Duquesne quarterback Kevin Rombach.
The sophomore had an excellent season, passing for 2,410 yards and 20 touchdowns. Much of the Dukes’ offense is focused on wideout Bruce Hocker, but that’s not to say Rombach didn’t have an excellent year.
What If: Saint Peter’s hadn’t dropped football?
How long could the MAAC have held things together if the Peacocks hadn’t dropped football just a few months before the start of the season? We’ll never know the answer to that, but you have to believe that it could have been done.
A Peek Toward 2008:
Duquesne moves into the NEC, while the futures of Iona and Marist remain murky as nonscholarship football in the East dwindles to two teams. As of the end of 2007, the plan seems to be competing as independents. Here’s hoping the Gaels and Red Foxes continue to keep it together.
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
Champions: Delaware State Hornets
Game of the Year: Nov. 10, Delaware State 28, Norfolk State 21, OT.
It was a game that had a little of everything. Down 21-3, the Hornets put together an improbable 18-point comeback in the fourth quarter featuring wideout Shaheer McBride grabbing a teammate’s helmet to enter the game and catch a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Vashon Winton to spark the rally. After another late touchdown and two-point conversion, kicker Peter Gaertner’s 28-yard field goal would send the game into overtime. The Hornets would gut out another cardiac victory en route to a 10-1 season with their only regular-season loss coming to FBS Kent State.
Highest Moment: The Playoffs (Finally) Make a Rivalry.
The highlight was clearly on Selection Sunday when Delaware State, through the magic of the FCS playoffs, was paired with Delaware to finally allow the Hornets and Blue Hens a chance to face off (on national television). Although the Hornets were beaten soundly, it seemed to usher in a new era between Delaware and Delaware State.
Biggest Disappointment: Hampton President Bill Harvey.
How do you just elbow out such a successful head coach like Joe Taylor? Few would have predicted that the popular Pirate head coach would find himself looking for a job this year – especially after a hugely successful 15-year career at Hampton where Taylor suffered only ONE losing season (1996). But if you believe the reports coming out of Hampton Roads that’s exactly what happened – a game of chicken that meant Harvey shooed Taylor into the arms of leaguemate Florida A&M. Taylor might have been looking for respect, but Harvey should have treated his Hall of Fame-caliber coach better.
Players of the Year: Norfolk State linebackers Maguell Davis and Marquez Davis.
The “twin terrors” in the middle of the Spartan defense allowed the Spartans (8-3) to enjoy their best season ever in Division I. With a combined 209 tackles, five and one-half sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions between these twins, the rest of the MEAC will be happy to see these two graduate.
Unsung Player of the Year: Running back Chad Simpson, Morgan State.
Folks around the MEAC know how tough this senior was for the Bears – in 10 games Simpson amassed 1,603 all-purpose yards and 15 touchdowns in the defensive-minded MEAC this year.
What If: Norfolk State had simply beaten Howard?
How does Norfolk State lose to Howard (4-7) by a 17-10 score? Couldn’t Casey Hansen just complete that one pass to put the game in overtime? More importantly, had it not had that blemish on its record, might it not have gotten woofed by the NCAA Playoff committee and make the playoff field with a 9-2 record?
A Peek Toward 2008:
Big-time players in McBride and defensive back Akeem Green graduate, but Delaware State boasts some impressive players returning in quarterback Winton and running back Akeem Green. Hampton looks as interesting as ever with quarterback T.J. Mitchell returning, while South Carolina State sees running back William Ford return.
Champions: Albany Great Danes
Game of the Year: Nov. 17, Albany 49, Central Connecticut State 14.
It was over early – Albany linebacker Colin Disch and his Great Dane defense allowed only 13 first-half yards – but Albany’s emphatic victory put the finishing touches on a challenging NEC title run for Albany. Running back David McCarty would shine with 247 yards rushing and two long touchdown runs in Albany’s coronation.
Highest Moment: Albany 23, Fordham 20.
It was way too early to see that Fordham would eventually win the Patriot League title, but this victory stands out in a brutal out-of-conference schedule for the Great Danes. Albany held onto the ball for 40 minutes and never let Fordham’s run-and-shoot offense get on track, while McCarty would have “only” 143 yards rushing.
Biggest Disappointment: Robert Morris.
Thought by some to be a sleeper for the NEC title, the Colonials instead collapsed after gutting out a 9-8 victory over Morehead State. An embarrassing 40-13 loss to VMI (2-9) would usher in a five-game losing streak, where the Colonial offense would put up no more than 17 points a game.
Player of the Year: Wagner running back Jason Butler.
It might be surprising not to see the dynamic McCarty here, but no team was as dependent on one player for success as were the Seahawks. His 1,713 yards rushing, 175 yards receiving, and 13 touchdowns were what carried Wagner from the lower tier of the NEC to surprise NEC title contenders.
Unsung Player of the Year: Monmouth running back Dave Sinisi.
The Hawks struggled mightily out of the gates, but through the efforts of Sinisi Monmouth righted the ship, winning three of its last four games with its only loss coming to Albany. His 1,184 yards and 17 touchdowns might be a taste of things to come for Monmouth in 2008.
What If: The NEC had an autobid in 2007
If the FCS Playoff committee is able to work through the hurdles necessary to expand the playoffs, 2008 will be the first year that there is an expanded playoffs with the NEC getting an autobid. If that were the case in 2007, might we have seen a rematch of the Albany/Fordham game from Week 2 won by the Great Danes?
A Peek Toward 2008:
Albany has to be the odds-on favorite again with McCarty returning. But keep an eye on Monmouth, which has Sinisi returning and a core of players who took some lumps in 2007 but will most likely be better in 2008.
Ohio Valley Conference
Champions: Eastern Kentucky Colonels
Game of the Year: Oct. 6, Eastern Kentucky 28, Eastern Illinois 21.
The Panthers threw down the gauntlet to the Colonels: If you’re going to beat us, you’ll have to do it through the air. Eastern Kentucky’s Allan Holland ended up doing just that, connecting on 30 of 44 passing attempts for 327 yards and two touchdowns.
Highest Moment: Austin Peay’s successful return to the OVC.
By beating Southeast Missouri State 34-31 in double overtime, the Governors not only assured themselves their second winning season since 1985 – they were in the thick of the playoff hunt with a team that last year had zero football scholarships as a member of the Pioneer Football League.
Biggest Disappointment: Wherefore Art Thou, Skyhawks?
Tennessee-Martin started the year as favorites to repeat as OVC champions. Instead, it started a dizzying 0-6 before winning four of its last five games.
Player Of The Year: Eastern Kentucky defensive back Derrick Huff.
Sixty-four tackles and seven passes defended is the sign of a great defensive back, but what really set him apart was his FCS-leading nine interceptions, including three against Murray State.
Unsung Player of the Year: Tennessee-Martin running back Don Chapman.
The Skyhawks’ problems had nothing to do with Chapman, whose 1,125-yard rushing year with 11 touchdowns capped off a career with 5,017 total rushing yards and 48 touchdowns – the best in UT-Martin history.
What If: Tennessee State’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hadn’t blocked that kick?
The all-American standout had four blocked kicks on the year, but his blocked kick in overtime against Austin Peay gave Tennessee State a 33-32 victory and would ultimately give the Tigers the inaugural “Sergeant York Trophy” given to the winner of the quadrangular season football series among the four Ohio Valley Conference schools in Tennessee. If Austin Peay had made the kick and won in overtime, it would have earned the trophy – and might it even have been considered for a playoff spot?
A Peek Toward 2008:
Every year it seems as if an OVC team comes out of nowhere to compete for a title, but it seems difficult to fathom Eastern Kentucky or Eastern Illinois not competing for the title with their respective starting quarterbacks and quality runners returning. Could Tennessee State put everything together and make a run with running back Javarris Williams returning?
Champions: Fordham Rams
Game Of The Year: Nov. 3, Fordham 24, Holy Cross 21.
Linebacker James Crockett was the hero in this one, recovering a muffed punt in the end zone for a touchdown and nabbing the game-sealing interception with under a minute left. It capped off an improbable run at the title; in the preseason, the Rams were picked to finish sixth of seven teams.
Highest Moment: Patriot League vs. Harvard.
The games against the Ivy League mean a lot to Patriot League fans, and Lehigh and Holy Cross fans celebrated mightily after improbable last-second victories against the Crimson. Dominic Randolph completed a 40-yard bomb to wideout Thomas Harrison with 19 seconds remaining to grab a 31-28 triumph, while Lehigh’s “strip-and-scoop” from linebacker Tim Diamond and defensive lineman Paul Bode gave Lehigh a 20-13 victory.
Biggest Disappointments: Lehigh and Lafayette.
The preseason picks to battle it out for the league title ended up limping instead to 5-6 and 7-4 records, respectively. The Mountain Hawks lost five of their last seven games, while the Leopards lost three home games against Princeton (4-6), Fordham and Colgate to doom their chances. Lafayette’s 21-17 victory over rival Lehigh gave the Leopards bragging rights for the first time in four years.
Player of the Year: Holy Cross quarterback Dominic Randolph.
The pass-happy Holy Cross offense resulted in a banner year for Randolph with 3,604 yards passing and 34 touchdowns.
Unsung Players of the Year: Name a Fordham player
How Fordham could have only three players on the Patriot League first team is beyond me. Name a player: quarterback John Skelton, safety Matt Loucks, wideout Asa Lucas – they’re all good players that more than deserved their Patriot League title this year. It’s a solid team that should stay in contention.
What If: Colgate had been more consistent?
It’s hard not to look at Colgate (7-4) and see several games that it might have pulled out. What if it had rallied to beat Fordham (it lost 34-31)? What if it had gotten that extra touchdown to beat rival Cornell (it lost 17-14)? What if it had just held on to that seven-point lead against Holy Cross (it lost 27-20)? Win one – just one – of those games and Colgate is playing Northern Iowa in round one of the playoffs.
A Peek Toward 2008:
It’s difficult not to like Fordham to repeat as champions considering that its playmakers on offense and defense (Skelton and Crockett) return, while Holy Cross should continue to be a daunting opponent with Randolph in his senior year.
Pioneer Football League
Co-Champions: Dayton Flyers and San Diego Toreros
Game of the Year: Oct. 27, Dayton 35, San Diego 16.
The Flyers finally figured out what nobody else was able to do in the Pioneer League: stop Torero quarterback Josh Johnson. It would be Dayton quarterback Kevin Hoyng who would be the hero on this day, scoring four touchdowns and amassing 127 rushing yards and 252 passing yards.
Highest Moment: Dayton wins the “Gridiron Classic.”
The Flyers’ magical 11-1 season was capped off with a sound 42-21 thrashing of the NEC champion Albany Great Danes in the “Gridiron Classic” in Welcome Stadium. This time, Hoyng wasn’t content with passing for three touchdowns – he would catch one from running back Ben Shappie as well.
Biggest Disappointment: Butler’s freefall.
After a promising 4-0 start – granted, all against sub-D-I competition – the Bulldogs proceeded to lose seven straight against Division I teams. Losing 56-9 to San Diego and 61-0 to Dayton made it clear the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
Players of the Year: Dayton quarterback Hoyng and San Diego quarterback Johnson.
In the end, you have to honor them both. Hoyng got the Pioneer League title with 3,317 yards passing, 640 yards rushing and 40 touchdowns, while Johnson has insane numbers as well: 2,988 yards passing, 726 yards rushing and 45 touchdowns (and one, count’em one, interception). You can’t possibly pick one over the other – they both deserve honors.
Unsung Player of the Year: San Diego defensive end Eric Bakhtiari.
With all this offense, it’s sometimes easy to overlook that San Diego also featured one of the best pass rushers in the FCS - 75 tackles, including 23½ tackles for loss and 20 sacks is awesome in any league – and add two blocked kicks and three forced fumbles, too.
What If: Dayton had gone undefeated?
The one blemish on Dayton’s schedule – a wild 42-35 loss to Morehead State – meant a shared title for the Flyers. But what if they had gone undefeated, with a victory over an FCS playoff team in Fordham? Would it have been enough to send a PFL team to the playoffs for the first time?
A Peek Toward 2008:
It seems as if all the major teams in the Pioneer Football league are decimated by graduation, but San Diego does return running back J.T. Rogan, which could give it an edge.
Co-Champions: Wofford Terriers and Appalachian State Mountaineers
Game of the Year: Sept. 22, Wofford 42, Appalachian State 31.
It was the Mountaineers’ first defeat in more than a year, and the biggest dent of the legacy of the Michigan victory. Wofford, with a performance from the Terrier “O” Line that would make the fans in Gibbs Stadium proud, forged 291 yards rushing and 140 yards passing in head coach Mike Ayers’ bone attack. Defensively, safety Dan Tavani would grab an interception and help make an important stop to seal the victory.
After Michigan, it seemed inevitable. After “Black Saturday,” it seemed unlikely. After three and a half quarters against James Madison, it appeared over. But the Mountaineers managed to keep everything together to beat Delaware for their third-straight title victory in Chattanooga, 49-21. Although the Michigan upset was a high moment, the national championship was the highest.
Biggest Disappointment: Georgia Southern.
By all accounts it exceeded all expectations by going 7-4, but it was so maddeningly close to a SoCon title and a near-certain playoff berth that it makes you look at its losses and questionable scheduling. Playing FBS Colorado State at the end of the year? Shanking a certain title-winning field goal against Furman? Missing a game-tying 38-yard field goal in the second overtime against Elon? The overtime loss against Chattanooga (2-9)?
Player of the Year: Georgia Southern quarterback Jayson Foster.
It’s hard to look at Foster and think that the previous coach was wasting him at wide receiver. With head coach Chris Hatcher’s “Hatch Attack” Foster was nearly the entire Eagle offense with 1,203 yards passing, 1,844 yards rushing, 30 touchdowns (and add his 137 punt return yards, too.)
Unsung Players of the Year: Elon quarterback Scott Riddle and Elon wideout Terrell Hudgins.
Both underclassmen, these guys should be frightening defensive coordinators around the SoCon for the next couple of years. Riddle’s freshman season involved “only” 3,817 yards passing and 40 touchdowns, while Hudgins averaged more than 10 receptions a game to the tune of 117 catches for 1,474 yards and 18 touchdowns.
What If: Duran Lawson didn’t get hurt?
There were three 7-4 teams in the SoCon that made solid runs for the league title and berths in the FCS playoffs, but the team that could have been the best positioned were the Citadel Bulldogs – they entered their game against Georgia Southern at 5-2 with losses only to FBS Wisconsin and Wofford. However, once Lawson was lost for the year in the Georgia Southern game, the Bulldogs never recovered and lost to the Eagles and Appalachian State the following weekend. What if he hadn’t gotten hurt? Would they have pulled out a victory against the Eagles and maybe even won the SoCon championship?
A Peek Toward 2008:
As long as Appalachian State has QB Edwards, it has to be the team to beat. Elon seems poised to make an excellent run at the Mountaineers with Riddle and Hudgins at the helm. The rest of the league seems to need to reload significantly, but Georgia Southern looks as if it also could challenge with a young defense featuring defensive back Chris Covington and linebacker Quentin Taylor.
Champions: McNeese State Cowboys
Game of the Year: Nov. 11, McNeese State 27, Northwestern State 21.
Not many teams gave the Cowboys a challenge during the 2007 regular season, but the Demons (4-7) managed to claw back and tie the game at 21 midway through the fourth quarter. It would be the only game in McNeese State’s historic 11-0 season that the Cowboys would be tested, and they delivered: running back Todrick Pendland rumbled for a 63-yard touchdown to give the Cowboys the lead, and defensive back Jonathan Walker would seal the victory with an interception. Amazingly, McNeese would survive a litany of injuries to key players at wideout, running back and on defense. But it still managed to win the Southland title.
Highest Moment: Nicholls State 16, FBS Rice 14.
Winning a game versus an FBS team is always sweet. But doing it against ex-Texas State head football coach David Bailiff – who always had problems with Nicholls State as the Bobcats’ coach – was especially sweet. Nine of the points came from the defense (defensive back Ladarius Webb returned an interception for a touchdown) and special teams (a blocked punt through the end zone ended up being the difference in the game).
Biggest Disappointment: Southland athletic directors.
The teams of the Southland in effect kept most of its teams out of postseason consideration by late October. Knowing that new member Central Arkansas was playoff-ineligible, teams such as Nicholls State and Sam Houston State still elected to pack their schedules with sub-D-I opponents and FBS money games. Just switch one of those games with, say, Prairie View A&M (who played only 10 games in 2007) and their chances at the postseason would have increased astronomically.
Player of the Year: McNeese State defensive end Bryan Smith.
It’s hard to overestimate what Smith’s presence meant for the Cowboy defense with 51 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 10½ sacks and four forced fumbles last year. And that was only in 10 games.
Unsung Player of the Year: Central Arkansas quarterback Nathan Brown.
The Russellville, Ark., native didn’t miss a beat after playing a Division I schedule: his 3,084 passing yards and 27 touchdowns gave him Southland Offensive Player of the Year honors and a 6-5 record for his Bears.
What If: Sam Houston State had played Texas State’s schedule?
Let’s assume the Bearkats still would have lost to Central Arkansas and McNeese State. Could the Bearkats have gone 3-1 against D-II Abeline Christian, South Dakota State, Cal Poly and FBS Baylor, and still gone 4-2 against their Southland leaguemates? If they had, they would have been in the playoffs.
A Peek Toward 2008:
The scary part is that many of the standout players will take the field again next year. Bryan Smith is gone, but McNeese State fans will be enjoying Fourroux again; Central Arkansas fans will be enjoying Brown and running back Brent Grimes next year; Northwestern State will see running back Byron Lawrence and quarterback Germayne Edmond return; and don’t count out Sam Houston State with quarterback Rhett Bomar.
Southwestern Athletic Conference
Champions: Jackson State Tigers
Game of the Year: Nov. 3, Jackson State 43, Alabama A&M 40.
Down 20-8 at halftime, the Tigers would put together an offensive explosion in the second half, culminating with quarterback Jimmy Oliver’s pass to wideout Rodney Gray with three ticks on the clock to tie the game at 37. In overtime, Bulldog kicker Jeremy Licea would give Alabama A&M a short-lived 40-37 lead, but the Tigers would respond with Edward Lee’s one-yard touchdown run to win. The victory would be vital for the Tigers, as it would allow them to hold a tiebreaker over the Bulldogs and give them the chance to play for the SWAC championship.
Highest Moment: Comegy vs. Broadway.
Two league newcomers – second-year Jackson State head coach Rick Comegy and first-year head coach Rod Broadway – faced off in a dream SWAC championship game. The 42-31 scorefest featured 478 yards of passing and five touchdown passes – three by Jackson State quarterback Jimmy Oliver and two by Grambling State quarterback Brandon Landers. The victory would give Jackson State its first SWAC title since 1996 and its first victory in the SWAC championship game.
Biggest Disappointment: Grambling State.
What should have been a storybook season for the Tigers ended up with a three-game skid. One was to FBS Louisiana-Monroe 28-14 (who schedules an FBS game that late in the year?), the second was to hated rival Southern in the “Bayou Classic” in an embarrassing 22-13 loss, and the third was to Jackson State in the SWAC championship game. As the slide intensified, head coach Rod Broadway’s name started popping up for FBS coaching vacancies. That meant the end of the year was more soap opera than anything, at a time when it should have been about a historic resurgence in the program.
Player of the Year: Prairie View A&M linebacker Zach East.
In guiding the Panthers to their first winning season since 1976, East was the dominant force underneath with 127 tackles, three sacks and four forced fumbles. Victories against eventual champion Jackson State and Alabama A&M at home were particular high points for East and the Panthers – one of the best stories in college football last year.
Unsung Player of the Year: Southern quarterback Bryant Lee.
Lost in the shuffle with Brandon Landers and Jimmy Oliver’s performances was Lee’s, who were key to Southern battling for the SWAC championship. With 2,326 yards passing and 27 touchdowns, expect to hear his name called a lot in the years to come.
What If: Alabama A&M had beaten Prairie View?
At 8-2 going into the final week, some were saying that the Bulldogs might qualify for an at-large playoff bid if they finished at 9-2 and finished second in SWAC East. What if they were the team that won 30-20 on Nov. 18? Would they indeed have gotten a playoff berth?
A Peek Toward 2008:
With youth in key areas, it’s difficult to imagine Grambling State (quarterback Brandon Landers), Southern (quarterback Bryant Lee) and Alabama A&M (running back Ulysses Banks) not being in the mix for the title once again.