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« CSN So South: Three Big Games Kick Start 2008 SeasonCSN National All Stars, 9/22/2008 »

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CSN Down South: Who Can Push The Top?

By Jason Plotkin, CSN Down South Columnist

As we wrap up September, does anyone have a handle on the Southland? Can anyone tell me that outside of the two favorites – McNeese State and Central Arkansas – it has a team capable of competing for the conference title?

With conference play approaching, the answer is the same as it usually is. It’s going to be another free-for-all!


Only one team had a Division I victory last week - Texas State. With less than a minute remaining, I don’t believe the Bobcats thought they were going to win. Northern Colorado was moving at will with a chance to take the lead on its Texas visitors. A long pass, one of many for UNC which enjoyed one of its top passing performances in school history, placed the Bears within yards of the end zone. But a subsequent fumble enabled the Bobcats to escape with victory.

So, can the Bobcats emerge as a contender? While there’s no question that the Florida transfer heading up UNC is a quality quarterback, the Texas State defense has several questions. An 80-yard run in the first 15 seconds gave the Bears an early lead and a 75-yard pass with just a tick left in the third quarter also left Texas State looking as if its defense fell asleep. As we all know, there are talented quarterbacks in the Southland and of the same caliber as Northern Colorado.

On the bright side, the Bobcats have depth at runningback, but as was the case with Bradley George, they will need more consistency at quarterback with Clint Toon. If Texas State’s defense is going to yield points, the offense must score, too. Toon did make the Bobcats a bit nervous by burning a timeout on his first play from scrimmage, but he became more under control, though completing only 18 of 36 passes. A more productive defense and a consistent offense is needed for TXST to have success.

Next up for the Bobcats is a visit from Southern Utah. In eight previous meetings, the home team has earned a victory, highlighted by larger margins of victory when the games take place in San Marcos. A triumph over Southern Utah would put the Bobcats at 3-1 in nonconference play with what amounts to a “tap-in” still remaining against Texas Southern. With an impressive record heading into the SLC, this could be a team to watch.

But the conference schedule doesn’t unfold to the benefit of Coach Brad Wright’s team. It has four conference away games compared with three contests in the friendly confines of Jim Wacker Field at Bobcat Stadium. Tough tests against Sam Houston State and McNeese on the road loom for a team that also travels to Southeastern Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin. Historically lackluster on the road, perhaps the hard-fought victory at UNC and the showing at SMU might help the Bobcats when they travel the tough road that is the Southland.

Can other teams emerge as conference contenders? You better believe it. We’ve seen teams picked fourth or fifth in the conference in recent years become the league’s automatic qualifier. We also have seen slow starters emerge when the SLC comes around.

SHSU had a nice showing against Kansas before eventually bowing 38-14. Early mistakes against the 19th-ranked FBS squad cost the Bearkats a few scoring chances early. The offense moved the ball through the air and while there were fewer dropped passes than in previous outings, the Kats need more rushing yardage if they want to make a push in the SLC. James Aston is one of the top backs in the nation in several categories, and he will be looked upon to lead the attack.

The Bearkats head to Gardner-Webb (N.C.) in the most attractive contest of the week. This will be the first time SHSU has faced a Big South school. A victory against GW might not be comparable to a triumph over a Montana or James Madison, but a victory after a plane flight is what’s expected in the playoffs, which is the goal for this team. The last time the Bearkats won a playoff game following a plane flight came in 2004 when they upset Eastern Washington.

Nicholls State finally hit the field and while the offensive production was not where it was expected, what did anyone expect? The last Division I team to play a game, after all the Ivy Leaguers started their season earlier in the day, it’s difficult to tell where the Colonels stand. They have a tough schedule, including a road trip to a strong Northern Iowa to begin October after taking a week off. Coach Jay Thomas hopes to take advantage of what should be “clear sailing” as far as practice goes as his team prepares for the Panthers from the Gateway.

SLU coach Mike Lucas had his team in the thick of the game last Saturday in Ruston, La., against former conference rival Louisiana Tech. The Techsters pulled away late and survived 41-26. So, how’d Jay Lucas do on the ground? Lucas had 13 carries for 67 yards, the fourth straight game under 100 yards. Last year, he had six games above the 100-yard mark, including four of five down the stretch.

I expected a lot from Lucas, who finished 20th in the nation in yards per game last year. He ranks 98th this season, and being a columnist, I’ve taken heat for my remarks about Lucas.

Can anyone show me what he has done this year to prove me wrong? Fortunately for SLU, its passing attack has emerged led by Brian Babin, which is ranked 22nd in the nation. Chris Wilson might be a player to watch as a possible All-SLC player, one that along with Babin could be the difference between finishing in the top three or in the middle of the pack.

Scott Stoker, fresh off a victory over a solid Grambling team last weekend, saw his Northwestern State team fall flat against Cal Poly, 52-18, at home. Turpin Stadium has been a tough place to play, but the Mustangs made it their play yard, racking up points as the Purple Swarm defense buckled under four scores in Cal Poly’s first five possessions.

The Demons’ quarterback position was a question before the season, and it continues to be a concern. John Hundley, a transfer from La-Lafayette, was just 13-of-30 passing. He still needs to show that he can move the ball against some of the league’s stiffer defenses. But the Demons have a chance to show signs of life this week when they face Division II Southeastern Oklahoma. Unlike its poor showing against Texas A&M-Commerce, NWST needs to show improvement.

Picked to finish last this season, Stephen F. Austin hit the road against ranked Western Illinois and bowed 34-14. The underdog Lumberjacks did put up a respectable score against a strong FCS program. SFA has talented, and it could cause problems this season for SLC teams that dare overlook any of their conference foes. This program is still a work in progress and has another tough Missouri Valley foe this week when South Dakota State, fresh off a loss, comes into to Nacogdoches.

The two SLC favorites did what they were expected to do as Central Arkansas rolled Quincy 51-6 and McNeese stayed at home for its bye week. UCA came out strong, something that didn’t occur in any of its previous games. It will need the same start this week against Tulsa, its lone FBS game on the schedule. A strong showing against Todd Graham’s Golden Hurricanes would go a long way in registering with the rest of the nation that, as North Dakota State did during its transition, UCA might be a national title contender if it was afforded the chance. Did I just say that? UCA has the chance to prove it on the field this season.

McNeese should do as expected and beat Southern Virginia. It shouldn’t be much of a fight for the Pokes, who have had the last two weekends off (one due to a hurricane and one due to a bye). But a trip to South Dakota State looms after this week for coach Matt Viator’s team. McNeese has not had a chance to show much of its offense, and it should be another week til we can gauge that.

Southland Stars

All Nicholls State players deserve recognition after taking the field for the first time, on the road and against an FBS foe. For a team that had lost practice time and valuable in-game experience, the Colonels were no joke. They took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter and went into the half with the game knotted 10-10 against Memphis.

It’s difficult not to acknowledge the work of one LaDarius Webb of Nicholls State, who showed his knack for getting involved in nearly every facet of the game. Webb, projected to be a first-day NFL Draft pick next spring, scored the Colonels’ only touchdown when he picked up a blocked field goal and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. Defensively, Webb had seven tackles, also solo as the Colonels kept within reach of the Tigers for much of the contest.

* * *

Lagniappe – A Bit Extra To Write Home About

* Southeastern Louisiana’s Johnny Owen is one of the players featured in “Walking on Dead Fish,” a documentary about East St. John High School’s football team in Reserve, La. The team, as did the region, suffered a lot during fall 2005. With many schools not in session in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Owen from Brother Martin joined many other former rivals in the same lockerroom as members of the East St. John team. The documentary is narrated by NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.

* Continuing with hurricane stories, which never seem to get old in this conference, Northwestern State tailback Dante Austin had to take in members of his family after their residences were destroyed in Galveston, Texas, during recent Hurricane Ike. As of last word, NSU was checking into means necessary to help Austin and his family while avoiding violations of NCAA rules.

* Last hurricane story – Lamar’s football field looked more like a swimming pool in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Lamar, which will join the Southland in 2011 after hitting the gridiron in 2010, is no stranger to storms. The facility was ripped up when Hurricane Rita came through in 2005. The press box at Lamar was rebuilt with help from FEMA money.

* Sam Houston State’s AD Bobby Williams said in a halftime interview with SHSU radio voice Kooter Robertson that it’s attempting to fill the Oct. 4 gap in the schedule to make up the cancelation of the Prairie View A&M game. The available schools are Alabama State, Fordham, Jacksonville, Mississippi Valley State, New Hampshire and Wofford. If you need them and considering SHSU’s goal, they do not, Bryant and North Dakota also are available.