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Permalink 11/05/09 , CSN Columns, Dowd's Den

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CSN Dowd's Den: Week Nine – The Stretch Run Begins!

floated rightBy Bruce Dowd, CSN Dowd’s Den Columnist

Well a lot has happens since we last “talked.” The past few weeks have not been without some surprises, but we also have some preseason elite teams resurfacing and positioning themselves for a playoff run just as originally expected. This is a good time for us to regroup and examine what has happened so far this year as we head into the stretch run.

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Quick Note: Before we get into this week’s coverage I want to take a minute and thank everyone who emailed me and for all their well wishes. It was very heartwarming. Trust me when I say I think I missed you more than you missed me.

Here is a cute sample of one the emails I received from Dan Hirning out of Missoula that made me smile; “Bruce, just a quick note to let you know that I miss your CAA homer and anti Big Sky rhetoric article each week . . .” He went on to wish me and my family the best and said he was looking forward to the return of my column. I wonder if he will feel the same way when he sees that I have dropped Montana out of my Top Ten! Only kidding, just wanted to give him a mini heart attack before he read the rest.

DOWD’S DEN RANT

If you know me well enough you had to guess I couldn’t be away for a few weeks and not have a rant ready to go. I feel so strongly about this one that I decided to lead the article with it, so here goes . . .

Eric Ward and the Payton Award Watch! Before I begin, I want you all to know that this Rant may cost me. Currently I get to vote on the Payton Award but after this rant I am half expecting to lose that privilege. So this may not be the smartest rant I have ever embarked on, but as many of you who have emailed me before have been so kind to point out, I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box.

Without question and I mean WITHOUT QUESTION, Eric should be on the Payton Watch List!

From many different sources, who in order to protect the innocent and perhaps the not so innocent will remain anonymous; I have heard several arguments why Eric shouldn’t be on the list. I will list a few of them here and then add my two cents.

“He will never win it anyway.” Do I think he will win it? No, I don’t. But then again lets be honest, Armanti is nearly a lock so there are already many players currently on the list that don’t have a shot. So that is not a valid argument and may be the dumbest one of all.

“If you put some other quarterbacks on Richmond instead of Eric then Richmond would be so much better and just be totally unbeatable.” Why wasn’t that argument used for every player who was ever nominated, and up to this point in the season, they have already proven to be unbeatable with Eric Ward.

To further disprove this theory, let’s reverse this argument; What if you put Eric on a team with a poor quarterback and turned him loose in a wide open spread offense. How much would he improve that team and then how would his stats look? Again, I want to mention that I find both of these first two reasons dumb arguments at best.

“Compared to other quarterbacks both on and off the list, his statistics don’t support his nomination.” This seems to be the one biggest argument coming out of “experts” that they want to hang their hat on. If you have followed my columns in the past then you already know how I feel about statistics, but now it seems necessary to cover it again.

Coach Matthews of James Madison turned me onto to something a few years back when he was lobbying for Rodney Landers to be on the list. His gripe was that the system that JMU uses is not conducive to high numbers for quarterbacks. While in the wide open spread offenses the statistics mount and perhaps make a quarterback look better on paper than he really is. It is easy to chalk up three and four touchdowns a game and throw for 300 and 400 yards each game when you throw it 40 times compared to maybe 15 times a game in a more conservative offense.

If statistics are the main factor to determine the winner, then why do we even have a voting process? Just let the computer pick it and save us all the trouble. The reason we don’t do that is because we are supposed to evaluate the talent of the player and make our judgment based on that and be able to see past the statistics.

So, assuming we haven’t changed the voting process to a computer generated selection off of the statistics only, then let us look at the player, the individual, let us examine Eric Ward up close.

In his career, Eric has started 48 games and this Saturday against Villanova he will mark his 40th consecutive start for the currently undefeated No. 1 ranked team, defending National Champions, who are riding a 17 game win streak. Looks like that is at least worthy of consideration and oh by the way, those numbers above look like statistics to me. What other quarterback can even come close to matching those numbers?

Now let’s examine the intangibles. Eric Ward is a leader. He is capable at any time to put the team on his shoulders and carry them. Last year’s game clinching drive at Northern Iowa is a perfect example. The fact that he hasn’t needed to do that too often because he has great players around him should NOT be something that holds him back from the nomination. It almost seems like he is getting penalized for being on a great team, instead of recognized for being the winner and true champion that he is.

Now we will examine the team he plays on and their normal game plan. One of Richmond’s strengths over the past few years has been that “Stonewall Defense.” Another great strength is their offensive line which I believe to be the best in the country this year. So, lighting it up and throwing the ball all over the ballpark with a spread offense does not play into their strengths.

The point of the game is to win, not to build statistics. In my opinion what coach London has them doing is to play off of those strengths and not lose the game on offense. Don’t turn it over. Use ball control behind that offensive line. Play a field position game and let your GREAT quarterback MANAGE the game for you. I looked hard and wide, but I can’t seem to find a statistic for “managing a game”, or “being a leader.”

It is not like Eric’s statistics are bad either. His efficiency rating is 143.71. He has completed 121 passes in 191 attempts for 181.4 yards per game. He has 12 touchdown passes and if those “experts” want a statistic they can hang their hat on, how about only four interceptions for the entire year. This proves the point I made above about what he needs to do for his team to keep winning. Just manage the game, execute the game plan, don’t make any mistakes and be a leader. There are no statistics for that and that is why we vote instead of having a computer pick the winner. We are supposed to see past the statistics.

My sources have told me that there are even some pro scouts looking at Eric. But don’t take my word for it as there is a superb piece by John O’Connor from the Richmond Times-Dispatch on this very topic. I think you will find it very interesting. In this week’s CAA Today column by Terrance, he also talks about Eric and had predicted that Eric would be the CAA Offensive Player Of The Year.

Summary: So to sum it up and here may go my voting privileges for the Payton Award; to The Sports Network, do the right thing, stop being so stubborn and add him to the list! He deserves it! Stop being so married to the statistics and see past that. See the man. See the athlete. See the leader. See the talent. Listen to the fans. There is a reason why you have gotten so much flack about this.

While we the sports writers, etc. vote on this award it should be an award that you the fans have some say in also, so please let me hear from you on what you think about this topic. I know I will get a ton of emails from Richmond and CAA fans, but I am also very interested in what the rest of the nation thinks about this topic as they would be less prejudice. I promise to sort through the emails and forward most of the “clean” ones onto The Sports Network in an effort to get this wrong righted and I could use your help.

DOWD’S DEN TOP TEN

It has been several weeks since the last Den Top Ten was presented so there are obviously a few changes, but basically I find myself agreeing with most of the polls with just a few differences.

(1) Richmond (8-0): Still the team to beat and even received a vote for the top 25 in the major college polls this week. This week may be their toughest test of the year as they host Villanova, but then after a laugher next week against Georgetown they close the season at home with another big time game against William and Mary. So to stay unbeaten and grab that top playoff seed they are going to have to earn it in these next three weeks.

(2) Villanova (7-1): Nova’s only blemish was a tough loss at New Hampshire but they followed that up with an impressive 27-0 shellacking of JMU in Harrisonburg. This still might be the best team in the country but we should find out more about that on Saturday.

(3) Montana (8-0): Just like last year, as the season goes on they seem to get better. I know I will get a few emails from the Griz Nation for not having them in the number two slot, but I honestly believe both Richmond and Villanova are better. Montana should have clear sailing the rest of the way with one exception, the season ending game at Montana State. The Bobcats are good enough to upset Montana and throw a monkey wrench into the seedings right at the end of the season.

(4) Southern Illinois (7-1): Impressive win at Northern Iowa recently has this team ranked in my top four. I have seen this team play on TV and they are for real and will definitely be a force in the playoffs, but they have a big time challenge this week against the Jackrabbits from South Dakota State. We will find out on Saturday if they deserve this high ranking.

(5) William and Mary (7-1): Only loss was on the road at Villanova, otherwise they have looked very impressive. However, after a home game this week against Towson, their real test of how good they are and how high they will finish comes in the last two weeks of the season as they host New Hampshire and then finish up at Richmond.

(6) (Tie) Elon (7-1): I wasn’t too sure about Elon for a while but they have answered any questions I have had with their play of late. They have proven to be one of the elite teams this year and a real challenge for perennial SoCon power App State. Whether the Phoenix finish 9-2 or 10-1 is all going to depend on the game next week when they host App State and I will be there to see that one.

(6) (Tie) Appalachian State (6-2): As usual, the Mountaineers have struggled early this year but seem to be hitting their stride now. Armanti is again looking like the ultimate weapon and while the App State defense has been suspect at times, they may not need them because that is how good they are on the offensive side of the ball. Let’s face it; the race is all but over in the SoCon. Only Elon and App State are headed to the playoffs and next week will determine which one enters the playoffs as the SoCon Champion.

(8) New Hampshire (7-1): There are still those who are not totally sold on UNH as their schedule has been arguably a little weaker than some other CAA teams up to this point. I am starting to believe that this team is for real. After what should be a win at home against Rhode Island this Saturday, the Wildcats real test comes in the final two weeks as they visit William and Mary and then close at home against an always dangerous Maine team.

(9) South Dakota State (7-1): I need to spend a little time talking about these guys as they were not even on my radar the last time I presented my Top Ten. I want you to read an email that I received from “Rabid Rabbit” and remember this email was sent on October 2nd and to be honest, I kind of dismissed it as just an “homer” type email;

“Just a FYI, SDSU is a team that deserves mention in your column. SDSU is leading the FCS in defense, and is a top 10 offense. Jacks returned 17 starters from last year’s team, including the TOP 8 tacklers on defense. . . The team that you described [that] is needed to win vs UNI is exactly the type of team the Jacks have. Both UNI and SIU play at Brookings [home game] this year. So basically, the MoValley title is likely to be set in Brookings, more so than in Cedar Falls.”

Well it sounds like Rabid Rabbit really knows his stuff as the Jackrabbits (by the way I love that nickname one of the best in all of FCS) took it to Northern Iowa and the Missouri Valley Championship has to go through Brookings this year. The fact that he pointed out that I was right about what type of team was needed to beat UNI had no bearing on my decision to print his email, Honest!

So here is a shout out to all you Jackrabbit fans out there; I screwed up early by not recognizing how good a team you had, but you are on my radar in a big way now! Best of luck to you guys I will continue to keep an eye on you.

(10) South Carolina State (7-1): It has taken me a while to recognize the Bulldogs too. I have always been a little suspect of teams coming out of the MEAC, as they have not perfomed too well in the playoffs once they get there, although this year’s South Carolina State team may be the exception. I have seen them play on TV and even though it is always hard to evaluate a team when the competition they are playing is also suspect, I sense the Bulldogs are for real and depending on match-ups, could very well surprise in the first couple of rounds in the playoffs this year.

(Just Missed) McNeese State (6-2) and Northern Iowa (5-3): McNeese is still kind of a question mark for me. Other than that big win at Boone, I haven’t seen too much to impress me. I also suspect they may lose another game or two before the season is over which will put them out on the bubble as I don’t think the Southland is going to get an at-large bid.

UNI is really in trouble now after two straight in-conference losses. Other than Weber State, the Panthers are one of the biggest surprises of the season for me. I was convinced they were headed to a top playoff seed and maybe even a top ranking. Now they will at best be on the bubble for the playoffs. They need to win out and look real good doing it.

OTHER DEN TIDBITS

(Tidbit): I don’t remember a year when the potential winners of the Walter Payton and Buck Buchanan Awards have been so obvious to me. Armanti should have no trouble grabbing his second straight Payton and after what I witnessed in prior games and especially at Delaware last week, Arthur Moats should grab the Buchanan.

There are times in sports when a special athlete comes along and he stands out so much over the rest of the players that it is so obvious he is in a class of his own. As a young man I remember hearing this expression first as an announcer was describing the play of Hershel Walker; “He is a man among boys.” That expression clearly applies to these two outstanding athletes. The opposing teams have no answer for either of these guys. We will see plenty of them after this year on Sundays. You can book it.

(Tidbit): Here is an interesting question; If Nova beats Richmond this week and then they both run the table and end up at 10-1 could they both get a top four seed in the playoffs?

(Tidbit): Here is an interest email that we received at CSN this week from Justin:

“Really enjoy your site. Although it is probably way too early, I can no longer avoid asking the question. Both Richmond and Montana appear to be rolling right now and both have accumulated some very impressive victories. If they end up being the #1 and #2 seeds, a rematch in the championship game is likely. Richmond spanked foes last year on the road in the playoffs. Imagine what they will do with home field this year. The Grizzlies are usually money in Missoula come playoff time when they have a team of this caliber. Opponents end up leaving that crazy place beaten AND frostbitten.

Do you guys have a sense at this point in the season how these two compare to last year’s talent? Not so much vs. each other (although I’m interested in that too) but Richmond ‘08 vs. Richmond ‘09, and the same for Montana?”

Great question Justin! It is probably dangerous to answer this question right now with the big game pending on Saturday between Richmond and Nova, but I’ll give it my best shot. I would also like to hear from our readers on their opinion on this topic

To be real fair, I haven’t seen Montana play that much this year, but I have seen Richmond several times and this weekend will make three times in person, so my analysis will probably be far more accurate on Richmond than it will be on Montana.

Richmond has three areas that I think they are weaker in then they were last year. One is the kicking game as injuries have hurt them. Another area is the power running game as they miss that big back that can power through people for a yard or two when they need it. The last area is on the defensive front as replacing those two defensive ends from last year is almost impossible, however, they have done a much better job of that than I thought they would. Now on the positive side, Eric Ward has really matured as a quarterback and Richmond’s offensive line is absolutely the best in the country. The intangible is also that as the reigning champions they are confident and know how to focus on the task at hand. So, as far as Richmond is concerned I think that they may be slightly better than the team that played in the championship game.

I don’t feel too comfortable commenting on Montana so I need some help on this one but from what I have heard from some of our readers as they emailed me over the years I think Montana is also better and if they stay undefeated they will be at home for the entire playoff which is a huge advantage. I believe that a rematch may produce a much closer game than it did last year.

And Justin, don’t worry as I have a sneaky suspicion that we may be reviewing this exact topic for real before the season is over.

(Tidbit): I thought it might be fun to compare my Den Top Ten after the first week of the season to where they are now so here goes:

(1) Richmond: Now (1) - Exactly the same!
(2) Villanova : Now (2) - Exactly the same!
(3) Appalachian State: Now (6) - McNeese derailed this but getting hot now!
(4) Northern Iowa: Gone for now but could creep back into the Top Ten!
(5) William and Mary: Now (5) - Exactly the same!
(6) Montana: Now (3) – Again I underestimated them. Better than I thought!
(7) James Madison: Gone done and buried!
(7) Weber State: Gone done and buried!
(7) Southern Illinois: Now (4) – Took N. Iowa spot with win over Panthers
(7) Elon: Now (6) – Pretty close on this one!

New Hampshire, South Dakota State, and South Carolina State: All represent new entries into the Den Top Ten from the start of the year. It is interesting though that these three new teams occupy the bottom three spots of my Den Top Ten while the current top seven teams were all in my original top ten.

GAMES I AM KEEPING A CLOSE EYE ON THIS WEEK

Southern Illinois (7-1) at South Dakota State (7-1): This game will determine the Missouri Valley Championship and most likely the losing team will finish second. Both teams are 6-0 in the conference with wins over N. Iowa. I would love to be able to see this game but I don’t think it is on my DirecTV Dish, so if anyone knows how to get a video of the game I would love to get a copy to view next week.

Villanova (7-1) at Richmond (8-0): Not much more needs to be said here. I will be at this game and just can’t wait to see it. They are currently the top two teams for me and also in the GPI. I have had them both that way most of the entire season. I have followed these teams closely over the past few years and I almost hate to see either one of them lose. This may be one of, if not the best FCS game of the year and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this is not the last time these two teams meet this year.

Colgate (8-1) at Lafayette (7-1): At 3-1 in the conference, Colgate is behind in a three way battle for the Patriot Title with Lafayette (7-1) (3-0) and Holy Cross (7-1) (3-0) and cannot afford a loss here. It is starting to look like the Patriot might get an at-large bid but I doubt that all three are going to go. So this game is another game with huge conference and playoff implications.

UPCOMING WEEKENDS FOR THE DEN

I have spent the last few weeks taping and watching so many FCS games that I actually lost count. While watching them on TV is much better than just reading about them, it still isn’t the same as seeing the teams in person and I have really missed that. So, the Den Mobile is gassed up and ready to go for the stretch run.

This week I can’t resist seeing the match-up between the GPI and the Dowd’s Den Top Ten, No. 1 Richmond and No. 2 Villanova. Fire up those tailgates and keep an eye out for me as I am headed to Richmond this weekend to visit with some tailgate buddies from games past. Email me your location and phone numbers and I will try and find you.

Next week I am headed into SoCon territory to watch two teams that I have tied for No. 6, App State and Elon, who are playing a big time game with all sorts of playoff and conference championship implications. I have made many friends from games past with the Mountaineer fans, but I have never been to Elon or ever seen them play in person so I am real excited about this trip. I may be arriving Friday night so any help from you Elon fans out there as to the place to be on Friday night would be greatly appreciated. And if any of you are feeling generous enough to invite me to a tailgate just email me. By the way Elon fans, thanks to the generosity of Scott Kadlub, I now have an App State hat to wear, so unless you want me roaming the sidelines only promoting App State, someone needs to step up to the plate and bring me or send me an Elon hat.

I am sorry I couldn’t make the Weber State at Montana game last weekend but I suspect Montana is headed for a top seed and perhaps even multiple home playoff games. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a team from the East head out there and I am hoping I can hitch a ride and go out to Missoula and catch a playoff game this year.

DOWD’S DEN SIGNING OFF

That’s it for this week and again, sorry for the unexpected sabbatical. I hope you enjoyed the return of Dowd’s Den and I am back to share the run to Chattanooga with you. Please don’t forget to email me your thoughts and comments as I really value your opinions.