FCS action will carry on this weekend and now we’re at the juncture of the year where fates can, and likely will, really be decided. Some teams are already out of the running for the postseason while others are clinging to very slim hopes. This week’s slate of games, however, is full of matchups between the top dogs. Whether it be the Big Sky or the SoCon, there’s some heavyweight showdowns in Week 8.
NC Central Goes for 11th Straight FCS Win on Thursday Night
You’d have to go all the way back to October 22 of last year to find the last time that #16 North Carolina Central (5-1, 0-0 MEAC) lost a game to an FCS foe. Outside of an expected loss to UCLA, the Eagles have been unblemished so far this year. They’ll open up MEAC action on Thursday evening when they hit the road to take on Morgan State (1-4, 0-0 MEAC). The Bears, who had last week’s game canceled, will be playing their first contest since the tragic shooting that took place on Morgan State’s campus just two weeks ago.
NCCU quarterback Davius Richard often looks like a man among boys with the way he plays. He’s ran wild on opposing defenses for 10 touchdowns and has thrown for five more. The dynamic senior was an integral part of the team that took home the Celebration Bowl title in 2022 and he’s got just as big of a role this year. The Bears defense will need to find answers for him or it could be a long night.
Morgan State will have their own offensive playmaker in receiver Treveyon Pratt. Pratt has team highs in receptions (16), yards (207) and touchdowns (two) and will look to be a spark for an offense that has struggled for much of the year. The Bears average well under 100 yards per game on the ground and haven’t fared much better throwing.
That means that the Eagles defense, which holds its opponents to under 200 passing yards per contest could be in for a big night. Jason Chambers is one of the best secondary players in the conference as he has posted two interceptions and three PBUs this year. He will try and bottle up Pratt on the outside.
Right now North Carolina Central seems like the lock for the MEAC but they haven’t played a conference game yet so the standings haven’t truly taken shape. Morgan State enters as a heavy underdog but if the Bears can find a way to slow down Richard and keep it close, then anything can happen. This MSU team gave the likes of Richmond, FBS Akron playoff hopeful Albany trouble. If the expected takes place, though, and the Eagles come out on top, the idea that the conference is a one-team race becomes legitimized even further.
ESPNU will air the Thursday night game at 7:30 PM (ET).
Furman, Western Carolina Battle for SoCon’s Top Spot
When #8 Western Carolina (5-1, 3-0 SoCon) hosts #4 Furman (5-1, 3-0 SoCon) on Saturday afternoon, it may very well be for a conference championship. Right now it’s the Paladins and Catamounts that are sitting atop the SoCon standings and it certainly seems as though the winner here should be a heavy favorite to take the league’s crown. WCU will look to keep riding a red-hot offense while Furman will try and smother out their toughest opponent yet.
The Catamounts have risen this year thanks to the play of quarterback Cole Gonzalez and running back Desmond Reid. Reid is currently second in the nation 847 rushing yards in six games while Gonzalez has a whopping 1,532 passing yards under his belt. The WCU offense is good for 531.8 yards per game this year (best in the FCS) thanks to these two. Reid, though, left the win over Chattanooga two weeks back with an injury and his status for Saturday is in question.
Furman will try to counter the lethal Western Carolina offense with a defense that is great at stopping the run. The Paladins give up just 100 yards per outing on the ground and that’s because guys like Evan DiMaggio are great at getting through the offensive line. DiMaggio has 4.5 tackles for loss this year along with two sacks.
Also look for Furman DBs Hugh Ryan and Travis Blackshear to play a big role on the back end. The duo has combined for 57 total tackles, two picks and nine defended passes. They are all over opposing receivers and have the speed and athleticism to slow down most any QB, even Gonzalez.
Whoever wins this game is on the fast track for the SoCon’s auto bid and right now it’s shaping up to arguably the best game of the entire weekend. Furman has won games in a gritty, grind-’em-out fashion this year while Western Carolina has been a fireworks show up and down the field. Which style will win out? We’ll find out on Saturday.
ESPN+ will carry the game at 2:30 PM (ET).
SIU Hosts #1 South Dakota State
The Salukis (5-1, 2-1 MVFC) have had an excellent showing so far in 2023 but they will be lining up against a whole different monster on Saturday afternoon when they welcome in the top team in the country South Dakota State (6-0, 3-0 MVFC). No one has beaten the mighty Jackrabbits since FBS Iowa did at the beginning of last year but #12 Southern Illinois is no slouch in their own right. Two great quarterbacks and two stifling defenses will come head to head.
Slowing down the Jackrabbits offense has been an all but impossible task this year and yet that’s what Southern Illinois has to find a way to do. The Salukis defense allows under 20 points per contest will be boosted greatly by senior safety PJ Jules. Jules has yet to grab an interception this year but does have seven pass breakups and 8.5 tackles for loss this fall. He and corner D.J. Johnson (seven PBUs as well) will need to have their best game of the season as they will line up against one of the toughest QBs they’ve seen.
Mark Gronowski has been as steady as can be leading the SDSU offense which is putting up 43 points per game. Gronowski, who has thrown for 15 touchdowns this year, is helped greatly by receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke. The twin brothers are responisble for 480 yards and six scores while freshman sensation Griffin Wilde is right there too averaging nearly 19 yards per reception. Gronowski has options when throwing.
Fortunately for SIU, they have a pretty solid quarterback as well in senior Nic Baker. Outside of one rough game this year, Baker has been excellent, completing 121 passes for over 1,300 yards. He’s been clutch for the Salukis, leading several game-winning drives this year with help of receivers like Izaiah Hartrup. Hartrup leads the squad with three touchdown catches and 340 receiving yards.
The South Dakota State defense has been without one of its best players for most of the season in All-American linebacker Adam Bock. Saiveon Williamson has stepped up big in Bock’s absence and has posted a team-leading 43 stops and has forced two fumbles.
Handing SDSU its first loss this year is not going to come easy but it certainly seems like Southern Illinois will be one of the tougher opponents the Jacks will see in 2023. SIU has taken down an FBS opponent and a playoff team from last year (Southeast Missouri State) so far and has only lost one game. Whether or not they have enough in the tank to challenge the likes of the #1 team has yet to be seen but the Salukis could really upend things if they pull one out at home this weekend.
The game will kick off on Saturday afternoon at 3:00 PM (ET) on ESPN+.
Montana State Meets Sac State in Top 3 Showdown on Saturday Night
They haven’t met on the field since 2019, which sounds odd for a pair of conference foes. Montana State (5-1, 3-0 Big Sky) and Sacramento State (5-1, 2-1 Big Sky) each took a share of the conference title last year because they didn’t get to see each other. This year the #2 Bobcats and #3 Hornets will get together and the stakes will be extremely high when they do. MSU trying to remain the only unbeaten team in league play while Sac State has their eyes set on a huge upset at home. With the ESPN cameras coming to town for the heavyweight matchup, all eyes will be on the Big Sky for the second straight week.
Sacramento State will field a strong offense that is led by dual threat quarterback Kaiden Bennett. Bennett leads the Hornets in rushing this season with 339 yards and four touchdowns while he’s also thrown for 1,350 yards 10 scores. He likes to spread the ball around to a talented bunch of pass catchers including Jared Gipson and all-conference tight end Marshel Martin.
On the other side, Montana State brings in the nation’s best rushing attack, a unit that puts up 324.5 yards per game. That ground game is led by senior quarterback Sean Chambers who has already ran for 11 TDs in 2023. Behind Chambers is a myriad of bruising backs including Jared White, Wisconsin-transfer Julius Davis and Elijah Elliot, all of which average over six yards per carry.
The Bobcats will also have the skills of their other quarterback, junior Tommy Mellott, back on display. Mellott, who has missed much of the year with a n injury he suffered in Week 2, returned for MSU last Saturday and threw for two touchdowns in the team’s 59-19 win over Cal Poly.
The Hornets defense will have its hands full and that means linebacker Armon Bailey is going to need a big night. Bailey has a team-best 51 tackles for Sac State along iwth three QB hits and a sack. Getting to Mellott and Chambers will be the name of the game and defensive linemen Jett Stanley and DeShawn Lynch (4.5 sacks each) will be tasked with that job.
This one is going to decide a lot. If Montana State wins, the Bobcats will not only tighten their stranglehold on that Big Sky lead but will stay firm in their hopes of nabbing a Top 2 seed in the playoffs. A Hornets win, though, makes things very interesting and would likely move them to the #2 spot in the polls.
It will all go down at 10:30 PM (ET) on Saturday night on ESPN2.
Other Week 8 FCS Games
THURSDAY - Southeastern Louisiana @ Northwestern State
SATURDAY - Penn @ Yale, Norfolk State @ Howard, South Carolina State @ Delaware State, Central Connecticut State @ Wagner, Merrimack @ LIU, Lafayette @ Holy Cross, Butler @ Dayton, Maris @ Presbyterian, St. Francis @ Duquesne, Brown @ Cornell, St. Thomas @ Stetson, Valparaiso @ Dayton, Harvard @ Princeton, East Tennessee State @ Chattanooga, South Dakota @ Indiana State, Richmond @ North Carolina A&T, Lehigh @ Bucknell, Sacred Heart @ Stonehill, Samford @ VMI, Columbia @ Dartmouth, Delaware @ Hampton, Illinois State @ Youngstown State, Monmouth @ Elon, Southeast Missouri State @ Tennessee Tech, Lincoln (CA) @ Tennessee State, Jackson State @ Mississippi Valley State, Alcorn State @ Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Charleston Southern @ UT Martin, Murray State @ Missouri State, Bryant @ Eastern Illinois, Colgate @ Georgetown, New Hampshire @ Stony Brook, Rhode Island @ Albany, Towson @ William & Mary, Western Illinois @ North Dakota State, Southern @ Bethune-Cookman, Idaho State @ Portland State, Maine @ Campbell, Wofford @ Mercer, Nicholls @ Texas A&M-Commerce, Abilene Christian @ Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota @ Northern Iowa, Drake @ San Diego, Eastern Kentucky @ Gardner-Webb, Utah Tech @ North Alabama, Weber State @ Eastern Washington, Morehead State @ Tarleton State, Austin Peay @ Southern Utah, Northern Colorado @ Cal Poly, Incarnate Word @ McNeese, Florida A&M @ Texas Southern