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TSN: UNI, SIU teams to beat in MVFC
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There was little doubt that the addition of North Dakota State and South Dakota State would make a brutal Missouri Valley Fall Conference race even more competitive.
But when the dust had settled last season, it was traditional powerhouses Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois sitting on top of the league. Things will likely be just as competitive in 2009, but UNI and SIU are again the teams that should set the pace.
Northern Iowa is looking for a share of its third consecutive MVFC title and has developed into one of the more consistent programs in FCS under coach Mark Farley, going from a top-10 team to a squad capable of winning a national title in almost any given year.
Southern Illinois is another team that has shown it has the depth to reload, rather than rebuild as it has taken its place annually in The Sports Network top-10. Even a switch in coaches, from Jerry Kill (now at Northern Illinois) to Dale Lennon, didn’t slow the Salukis down.
UNI and SIU meet on Oct. 17 in Cedar Falls, IA in what could decide the league title again. The home team has won every game in this series since 1997, which favors the Panthers this season.
North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Western Illinois, Youngstown State and even Missouri State could also be in the thick of a race that could be one of the best in FCS in 2009.
1. Northern Iowa (12-3 overall, 7-1 in conference, tied for first)
The motto for UNI since last season has been 13 seconds, for that was all that stood between the Panthers and a win over eventual national champion Richmond in FCS semifinals. Northern Iowa dominated most of the game, only to lose 21-20 on a game-winning drive by the Spiders.
It was a heart-breaking playoff loss for the third time in four years for a UNI program that had also lost a fourth-quarter lead to Appalachian State in the 2005 national championship game and suffered an upset loss to Delaware as the top seed to end a 12-game winning streak in 2007.
“Those are wounds that won’t heal,” said Farley. “The Richmond game - there is a lot to be learned from that game.”
Senior quarterback Pat Grace is one of a handful of players who has been on the team since the 2005 national title appearance. Grace’s ability as a runner and a passer (2,659 yards of total offense) has made him a Payton Award candidate and he leads an offense that has nine of 11 starters returning.
The Panthers lose all-time leading rusher Corey Lewis (4,003 yards, 39 TDs rushing), but Derrick Law (786 yards, nine TDs rushing) is a capable replacement. Josh Collins blossomed late last year as a freshman receiver when a pair of long-term starters were dismissed from the team.
Keeping Grace healthy is a huge key. He suffered knee and shoulder injuries that sidelined him several times last season, but one of the better offensive lines in FCS, led by center Austin Steichen and tackle Austin Howard, should protect him.
There is plenty of balance and experience on the Panther defense, paced by Buchanan Award candidate James Ruffin (69 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), along with linebackers Josh Mahoney (139 tackles) and Jamar Thompson (110 tackles).
Billy Hallgren (19-of-28 field goals, 51-of-53 PATs, 108 points) is a threat in the kicking game and could develop into a more consistent performer as a junior.
2. Southern Illinois (9-3, 7-1, tied for first)
There were plenty of question marks for the Salukis last season after they came within a heart beat of a national championship berth in 2007 and lost Kill as their coach. But Lennon made a pretty seamless transition from North Dakota as the new coach and led SIU to a share of the MVFC title with a young team.
“We’re fortunate that we expect to play for a league championship every year,” said Lennon. “Last year, there was a lot of curiosity about us. This year, there are greater expectations.”
The Salukis return 10-of-11 starters from a top-notch defense (36th overall and 30th in scoring nationally), led by Buchanan Award candidate Brandin Jordan (81 tackles), All-American Chauncey Mixon (75 tackles) at linebacker, All- American cornerback Korey Lindsey (six interceptions) and safety Marty Rodgers (82 tackles).
On offense, SIU has a hole to fill with all-purpose star and Payton Award candidate Larry Warner (2,249 yards, 13 TDs) graduating, but they do return Chris Dieker (2,002 yards of total offense, 19 TDs) at quarterback.
Slashing runner Richard White, power back Deji Karim and shifty Anton Wilkins will likely split time at running back, while a host of receivers, including former quarterback Joe Allaria and tight end Ryan Kernes.
All-American punter Scott Ravanesi (43.3 average, ranked fifth nationally) is another weapon for the Salukis.
3. North Dakota State (6-5, 4-4, tied for fourth)
After winning 20 of 22 games in 2006-07 and being tabbed as title favorites in the MVFC last season, the Bison stumbled badly during their first year in a new league.
“Not to make excuses, but we couldn’t stay healthy,” said coach Craig Bohl. “But, we were able to play a lot of youngsters and that will help our experience and depth.”
Nick Mertens, replacing miracle-working quarterback Steve Walker, took much of the blame in his first year as a starter. Now a senior, Mertens will be the key to success for an NDSU unit that lost receiver Kole Heckendorf (178 career receptions), tight end Jeremiah Wurzbacher (65 career catches) and one-time Payton Award candidate running back Tyler Roehl (2,583 yards rushing and 35 TDs in his career).
One of the biggest strength for the Bison should be the offensive and defensive lines, with tackle Keith Buckman an All-American on the offensive side.
NDSU must replace safety Nick Schommer, who has moved on to the NFL, linebackers Ramon Humber and Mike Maresh and defensive end Joe Lardonais, but there are plenty of young and talented players waiting in the wings.
Shamen Washington, a one-time All-American as a kick returner, was granted a sixth year of eligibility after suffering a second season-ending knee injury last year. If the speedster returns to form, he could fortify a typically strong special teams group that includes kicker Shawn Bilbeau.
4. Missouri State (4-7, 3-5, tied for sixth)
Most MVFC observers felt like it would only be a matter of time before ex-UNI coach Terry Allen turned Missouri State into a winner and this could be the year where those predictions come true.
Allen has been quietly building the Bears with young players, but now in his fourth year, that hard work could pay off as those inexperience athletes become upperclassmen.
“As all of the coaches can attest to, it’s a tough league to move up in,” said Allen, who won six Gateway Conference titles with Northern Iowa. “September will be the time where we see if we have improved as a football team.”
The Bears can build their offense around junior quarterback Cody Kirby (2,014 yards, 14 TDs passing) and senior All-American tight end Clay Harbor (40 catches, 11.4 average), but must replace junior running back Kingjack Washington (1,315 yards in two years), who is out, due to academics.
Guard David Arkin heads up a deep and experienced offensive line.
To compete for a playoff spot, however, MSU needs to develop on defense. The Bears showed some improvement during spring ball with a new 3-4 set, particularly with more emphasis on speed. The secondary, with safety Skylar Smith (80 tackles) and cornerback Cedric Alvis should lead the improvement.
5. South Dakota State (7-5, 6-2, third)
The Jackrabbits surprised everyone but themselves with a run for the MVFC title and the playoffs last fall. But all of that occurred with Ryan Berry at the controls of the offense.
The biggest question for the 2009 team is who will replace the cool and collected quarterback? Senior Ryan Crawford backed up Berry last season, but he will get plenty of competition from three other candidates.
Whoever wins the quarterback battle will have running back Kyle Minnett (1,311 yards, 14 TDs rushing) to rely on.
Defense will be SDSU’s strength, with Buchanan Award candidate Danny Batten (75 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks) heading up a strong unit. The Jackrabbits also have one of the stronger linebacking corps in FCS with Jimmy Rogers, Chris Johnson and Derek Domino and a pair of top-notch secondary performers in safety Conrad Kjerstad and cornerback Cole Brodie.
Coach John Stiegelmeier has led SDSU to its best run of success in school history.
“Football programs gain tradition through hard work,” said Stiegelmeier. “What we’re trying to do is create that tradition.”
6. Western Illinois (6-5, 4-4, tied for fourth)
The good news for the Leathernecks is that veteran coach Don Patterson will be back for a full season after recovering from tonsil cancer. The bad news is that the MVFC’s all-time leading rusher and Payton Award finalist Herb Donaldson has graduated after gaining 4,746 yards and scoring 50 touchdowns.
WIU also lost linebacker Jason Williams, who was the highest NFL draft choice (third round, Dallas Cowboys) among FCS players.
Dre Gibbs (573 yards rushing, 7.3 average), who blocked for Donaldson as a fullback last season, will switch to tailback and has a similar style to Donaldson. The Leathernecks will expect more consistency from senior quarterback Matt Barr (1,507 yards of total offense) as they try to find more balance on offense.
“The best teams we’ve had have been very balanced,” Patterson noted.
Linebacker Kyle Glazier (92 tackles) actually had more tackles than Williams last season and will be counted on to lead a defense that ranked 25th nationally last season. Safety Tim Franken had four interceptions and Patrick Stoudamire is among the top cornerbacks in FCS, anchoring a talented secondary.
7. Youngstown State (4-8, 3-5, tied for sixth)
When All-American defensive tackle Mychal Savage went out for the season with a shoulder injury in the first quarter of the opening game with Ohio State, it turned out to be an omen for the entire year for a Penguin team ranked 12th nationally in the preseason.
“I’ve never been through anything like it,” said YSU coach Jon Heacock, who is taking on defensive coordinator duties for the first time since Jim Tressel was the head coach. “We’ll be a relatively young team again, but it will help to have those players back from injury.”
Defensive tackle Crispin Fernandez, now a senior, was the only player on defense to start all 12 games last season. The bright side is that Savage, a Buck Buchanan Award candidate, and many of the other injured are back to lead a young defense that returns 25 lettermen.
On offense, athletic Brandon Summers (1,540 yards passing) returns at quarterback to bring stability to a position that lacked it for most of last season. Summers, who came on late to throw for 864 yards and 11 TD passes in his final three games, has a blossoming target and pro prospect to throw to in Donald Jones (31 catches, 16.5 average, seven TDs).
8. Illinois State (3-8, 2-6, eighth)
Few teams have fallen as fast as the Redbirds, who were an FCS quarterfinalist in 2006, but have slipped to 7-15 since. That cost Denver Johnson his job and new coach Brock Spack comes in from Purdue to try to rebuild the program.
“We’re in the process of changing a mind-set in our program,” said Spack. “We’ll find out quickly where we are at.”
Illinois State allowed more than 200 yards rushing per game (106th nationally) a year ago - a stat that was further aggravated by a league that emphasizes the running game. The Redbirds were also 115th in turnover margin and 95th in scoring defense (31 points per game).
Strong safety Kelvyn Hemphill is ISU’s top returning defender, but this is a unit that needs an almost complete overhaul. Fortunately, Spack was the defensive coordinator at Purdue.
Geno Blow, a tailback with 1,574 career yards, could be a force offensively, if he can stay healthy. Eyad Salem (63 catches, 13.4 average, eight TDs) could be a premier receiver, if the Redbirds find a quarterback to get him the ball. Sophomore Drew Kiel and redshirt freshman Matt Brown are battling for the starting QB job.
9. Indiana State (0-12, 0-8, ninth)
For Sycamore coach Trent Miles, Aug. 27 can’t get here soon enough. Indiana State has dropped an FCS-worst 26 straight games, dating back to an Oct. 26, 2006 win over Missouri State and the Sycamores hope to end that losing streak in their season opener against Quincy.
The personable Miles - an Indiana State alumnus - and his team came close a couple of times last season, falling 24-21 to Southeast Missouri State early in the year and losing 27-24 to Missouri State in overtime in the final game of the season.
“We’re changing an attitude, we’re changing a culture,” Miles said. “We have a chip on our shoulders (with the losing streak).”
The Sycamores return nine starters on defense and 10 on offense and have just five seniors on their squad. They will also feature a new offensive coordinator in Troy Walters in their multiple-set attack.
Darrius Gates rushed for 566 yards (5.0 average) last season and could be a breakthrough performer this season. But the Indiana State passing game needs an overhaul, with top returning QB Ryan Roberts throwing for just 294 yards last year and receiver Ryan Patrick hauling in just 25 receptions.
Senior strong safety Donye McClesky was a defensive force last season with 98 tackles and a pair of interceptions, while free safety Alex Sewell totaled 90 tackles and linebacker C.J. Cook added 53 during their freshman campaigns.