The Call: Winona State at USF; Augie at MSU-Mankato

At 3-2, USF has perhaps slightly exceeded my expectations for this season.
Of their first five games, I was reasonably sure they would lose to Duluth and positive they would beat Crookston. Mary, Northern and SMSU figured to be toss-ups, and the Cougars won two of the three.
So while they’re a couple plays away from being 4-1, they’re also a couple plays the other way from being 1-4.
Obviously, the dominance of their running game has been a big story, with true freshman QB Luke Papilion and running back Nephi Garcia giving them a 1-2 punch that has helped USF to an average of 306 rushing yards per game (380 in their last four).
How long can they keep it up?
Jed Stugart admitted this week that ‘eventually teams are going to figure something out to slow us down’, which means the passing game needs to continue to improve (which it has so far, at a fairly modest pace).
This week’s opponent, Winona State, has been fairly stingy against the run, holding opponents to 113 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry, although those numbers are boosted by their league-high 20 sacks.
And while the 20 sacks may suggest a strong pass defense, the Warriors have surrendered 285 passing yards per game.
So it’s kind of hard to draw any hard conclusions about what may happen between the USF offense and the Winona defense.
On the flip side, Winona’s offense is scoring a league-high 43 points per game, and they’re going up against a USF defense that allowed an NSIC-record 828 yards last week at SMSU.
After falling 34-27 in OT in an injury-plagued season opener against Bemidji, then losing 29-26 at St. Cloud State, the Warriors have won three in a row, scoring 65, 49 and 49 points. Granted, Moorhead, Minot and Upper Iowa aren’t exactly presenting huge defensive challenges, but, well, again, 828 yards.
Stugart didn’t try to pretend that the defensive performance in Marshall was lacking, but he did point out that literally 300 of the SMSU yards came on five plays where USF flat out missed a tackle or assignment.

The Warriors, like USF, are playing a true freshman at QB, and so far, Jack Nelson has been pretty impressive, throwing for 275 yards per game with 11 TDs and 4 INT in place of concussed seniro John Teigland. Josh Mikes is a deep threat who averages 22 yards per catch, and after USF gave up over 500 passing yards last week, I imagine they’ll take some shots.
Chichi Ojika is not Rayon Simmons, but with an average of 105 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry, he’s close.

This one’s tough to call. Winona’s on a hot streak, but they lost to Bemidji, who lost to Crookston, and of their three wins, a 49-32 decision over Upper Iowa qualifies as their most impressive. And that was at home.
Now they go to Bob Young Field, where USF has lost only once in six-plus seasons.
As I often do with these picks, I’ll give the edge to the home team, and if the Cougars do pull this one off, it’ll be a sign that they can be taken seriously when they insist this is not a rebuilding season.

Prediction: Cougars 34, Warriors 30

Last week’s loss to Wayne State hurt for Augustana, not so much because of the whole Mike Aldrich thing, but because it was the first game in what figures to be a very difficult stretch. It was winnable, and the Vikings didn’t come away with the win.
Now they travel to Mankato to take on No. 2 Minnesota State.

I really don’t see how Augie wins this game, short of some catastrophic turnovers, etc., but I’m definitely interested to see how well they compete. There have been some very good Viking teams over the years that went up to Mankato and got routed, and now an Augie team that’s 2-3 and (to some degree at least) in rebuild mode gets to take on arguably the best team MSU has ever had.
The Viking offense made strides in the fourth quarter against Wayne, and there’s reason to believe that will give them momentum going into this one.
And the Viking defense has been very good so far, doing an admirable job of stopping the run as well as rushing the passer.

Still, Mankato is No. 2 in the NSIC in scoring offense and scoring defense, fifth in total offense, second in total defense and second in run defense. Whatever progress Augie made with their running game last week will definitely be tested by the Mavericks.

What’s most intriguing to me is whether or not the Vikings defense can keep playing at the level they have been. I won’t be surprised (and I wouldn’t be that worried, as a Vikings fan) if the offense has a tough day, but if the defense does, too, this could get ugly.

Prediction: Mavericks 27, Vikings 10