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CSN Down South: Southland Shakeup
By Jason Plotkin, CSN Down South Columnist
The first week of conference play showed a glimpse of what Southland Conference fans have come to expect through the years.
Before the first day of conference play was complete, the top three teams from the conference preseason coaches’ polls found themselves at the bottom of the league standings. As the sun made its way from the east to the west, the teams fell in order with Texas State leading a procession that would include McNeese State and Northwestern State.
In perhaps the most stunning of outcomes, the team picked first by league coaches fell to the one picked to finish last.
For the first time in the 13-game series between Southeastern Louisiana and TXST, the Pelican State team emerged victorious. Leading 44-20, the Bobcats looked to be in cruise control and it showed as the Lions rallied for a 51-50 overtime victory.
The next team to fall was the one picked second in the league - McNeese.
The victor this time, not as surprising based on results entering the contest but based on preseason prognostications, Stephen F. Austin, was not to be favored coming in.
A firework display was expected in Nacogdoches, but it didn’t materialize.
For a McNeese team picked behind TXST, the night did not go according to plan either, as it bowed to SFA 16-13. Unexpectedly, the two nationally ranked offenses did not put on the firework show as thought.
In the first victory by the Lumberjacks over a ranked squad since 2005, the home team jumped out to a 14-point advantage in the first half.
Ultimately, miscues and sloppy play cost a Cowboys team that is not accustomed to such mistakes. McNeese racked up 10 penalties for 120 yards with several of the flags costing the Pokes from sustaining potential drives into the end zone.
In the final game featuring a team picked in the top three, it was No. 3 NWST that put up a zero on the scoreboard against a Central Arkansas team picked fourth.
While not a surprise for anyone who has followed the league in terms of the winning side, it was the first time the Demons had been blanked in 85 games on their homefield dating to 1994.
Like their counterparts from McNeese, penalties played a huge factor in keeping the score low for the Demons. Within reach of UCA as the third quarter began, NWST was held to just 4:33 of possession in the quarter as the Bears sustained double-digit play drives as yellow flags continued to fall for a Demons’ team that was called out 12 times by the officiating crew.
With the top three teams in the eyes of league coaches falling, several SLC teams have made their potential path to the playoffs a little bit more difficult.
A LOOK AT THIS PAST WEEK’S HIGHLIGHTS AND STORY LINES
Sam Stops Nicholls. As he did the year before against Nicholls, Sam Houston State runningback James Aston put on a show, this year scoring three touchdowns to help the Bearkats to a 44-21 victory on Homecoming against the Colonels.
Nicholls pulled ahead 21-17 shortly after the teams returned to start the second half. SHSU responded with 27 straight points to close out the contest. In the key statistics, the Bearkats had 27 first downs to just 12 by the Colonels, while capitalizing on third down 10 of 15 times to just 3 of 12 for Nicholls.
UCA, Little Rock Bid for Div I Title Game. Multiple sources have indicated the UCA and the city of Little Rock have applied to host the NCAA Division I championship game. Thus far, little details have been confirmed outside of the home stadium being War Memorial Stadium. Other cities that have expressed interest in hosting the game are current host Chattanooga, Tenn., and Missoula, Mont.
GPI. The Gridiron Power Index posted by College Sporting News lists three SLC teams among the top 22. UCA leads the group at No. 14, followed by SFA at No. 15. McNeese rounds out the trio with a No. 22 ranking.
The GPI will play a role in the selection process as the Div. I Football Championship Committee has again extended an invitation to CSN to have the GPI used as a tool for the selection of the 2009 participants in the playoffs. This will be a critical ranking to follow as the league attempts to put two teams into the postseason for the first time since 2005.
“Ducks on a pond” is a common phrase used in baseball when the bases are loaded, but for SLU last weekend, there were “Ducks” all over the field as runningback Jasper Duckworth and defensive back Michael Ducksworth made critical plays to propel the squad to victory.
Though not related, TXST must have seen double as the runningback version of the Duckworth duo ran for 143 yards and three touchdowns. While Jasper notched career-highs, the two most important touches on the ball came when his team needed most.
The Mount Olive, Miss., native plunged in from one yard out with 34 seconds left to give the Lions a chance to tie the score, before putting the go-ahead score on the Bobcat Stadium scoreboard in overtime with a two-yard gain.
On the defensive side, it was Michael who posted 16 tackles. With just eight tackles (five solo, three assisted) entering the contest, the native of Collins, Miss., had 10 solo tackles to go along with six assisted tackles.
The biggest play the defensive back made might have come in one that floated under the radar. With TXST looking to prevent overtime, Michael broke up a fourth-and-10 pass from the SLU 48 intended for Da’Marcus Griggs to force the extra period.
THIS WEEK’S SLATE
What happens when the nation’s top scoring defense meets the nation’s top scoring offense? Your guess is as good as mine, but at least we will get a chance to learn whether defense truly wins championships as a pair of 1-0 conference teams meet when UCA hosts SFA on Saturday.
Though the battle of the Bears’ defense and the Lumberjack’s offense might steal the show, at the end of the day, it could be the SFA defense that alters the outcome.
The Lumberjacks and UCA will contest one of two matchups of SLC undefeateds as SHSU hopes that Blake Joseph is 100 percent as they make the trek to Hammond, La., to play a SLU team coached by former Bearkat assistant Mike Lucas.
A team picked low in the SLC preseason polls, SHSU benefitted this year from not facing McNeese and UCA early in conference for the first time since the Bears joined the league slate.
Rivalry games complete the slate with the “Battle for the Paddle” series resuming in Thibodaux, La., with Brad Wright’s TXST squad looking to rebound against a Nicholls team with just one victory to its name.
McNeese will host in-state foe NWST in the final matchup with the Pokes looking to even their conference record at .500 with a triumph against a Demons team looking to register their first victory.
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LAGNIAPPE – A BIT EXTRA TO WRITE HOME ABOUT
* Southland co-Special Teams Player of the Week Eddie Carmona might have looked a bit funny on the field when booting kickoffs for UCA against NWST last weekend. Fans were curious why Carmona was kicking off with a holder instead of the tee. According to an interview with head coach Clint Conque, the tee had mysteriously disappeared after pregame warmups and as luck had it, Carmona was kicking well without the tee. When not kicking off, Carmona was 4-of-4 on PATs and connected on two field goals of more than 30 yards.
* Lamar football continues to gear up as the Cards went through a second simulated game last week for fans and others interested in the program. Head coach Ray Woodard said that the timing offense was better and that the defense was starting to gel. Woodard and his staff will contest a third simulated game on Nov. 7.