The major storyline behind last year’s USF at Augie football game was the fact that it was the teams’ first meeting in 26 years.
For all intents and purposes, it was essentially their first ever meeting. The first meeting, anyway, since USF had become what they are today, the first since fans from the two schools started wanting to see a rivalry.
We all know what happened, and it obviously has us all that much more excited for the rematch at the Bob.
But what are the storylines this time?
Here are five.
1. Strength vs. Strength
Augie’s defense has been outstanding. They rank 1st in the NSIC in scoring defense and fifth in total defense, but I actually feel like they’ve been even better than their stats would indicate. They’ve played a fairly tough schedule and they haven’t been roughed up by anyone. They held Mankato to 20 points. They held St. Cloud to 24 (seven were scored by SCSU’s defense). They gave up a bunch of second-half points in their opener against Moorhead, but some of that felt like fluky, garbage-time stuff.
They rank third in the league with 20 sacks. Ben Skelly is 5th in the league with 62 tackles, Nate Kirby is 5th in sacks with 4.5, and Jake Lee is fifth in tackles for loss with nine.
USF’s offense ranks second in the NSIC with 503 yards per game. They’re second in rush offense with 296 yards per game, and moved up to 9th in passing offense with Carrington Hanna’s 400-yard day last week.
The Cougars lead the league with a 50% conversion rate on 3rd down.
Nephi Garcia is 4th in the NSIC with 829 yards rushing.
Freshman QB Luke Papilion is third in the league in rushing yards per game, but he will not play Saturday.
2. Weakness vs. Weakness
With a 35-point outburst Saturday against Upper Iowa, the Augie offense upped its season average for points per game to 20.0, which is 12th in the league.
With 299 yards of offense, they extended their streak of consecutive games under 300 to six, and with Dajon Newell and CJ Ham combining for a mere 8 yards, the Augie run game, the expected strength of the team going into the season, is now at 106 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry. The Vikings rank 14th in total offense with 267 yards per game, or just barely more than half of what the Cougars gain per game.
Opponents have been stacking the box against the Vikings, and, tired of beating their heads against the wall, Augie more or less committed to the air against Upper Iowa and finally came up with some explosive plays in the second half.
Newell, Ham and receiver Grant Gebhardt are all big time playmakers, and all three are having nightmarish seasons, statistically.
QB Trey Heid has had some ups and downs as a freshman, but I’ve been mostly impressed. He’s a great athlete and he’s getting visibly better.
USF’s defense had a pair of embarrassing performances in the two weeks prior to Saturday’s 47-7 win over Concordia, allowing 1,417 yards and 93 points in a two-game stretch.
But they bounced back very nicely against the Bears, holding Concordia to 295 yards and a single score.
Still, The Cougars are just 12th in the NSIC in rushing defense (213.7), which might mean this is the week for Newell and Ham to break out.
Pass defense has been only marginally better, and USF has just 11 sacks, third-fewest in the league.
3. Carrington Hanna
Transferred to USF before his sophomore year and won the starting QB job. Lost it halfway through that season to Taylor Perkins, then moved to WR full-time last year, where he quickly proved himself as the best athlete and playmaker on the roster. Hanna caught 69 passes for 898 yards and 10 TD.
This year, with a true freshman at QB, his receiving numbers are down (32 catches for 355 yards and 2 TD), but with Luke Papilion down with an injury, USF moved Hanna back to QB last week and saw him throw for 407 yards and 4 TD. I wasn’t surprised he played well, but it was almost impossible to see a performance like that coming.
Hanna is an NFL-caliber talent as a WR/TE, and at QB he brings athleticism and veteran swagger. His weakness in his first go-round at QB was turnovers, and there’s no doubt Augie will hope to pressure him into some bad throws.
In fact, that might be the single biggest factor in the game: Whether or not the Vikings can get Hanna to turn the ball over.
4. Augie’s revenge
Last year’s 32-31 loss to the Vikings was frustrating on several levels, not the least of which was that Augie was actually the better team for most of the game. They outgained USF 470-347. They never turned the ball over. Went 12-for-21 on 3rd down, had just 37 yards in penalties and held a 9-minute advantage in T.O.P.
If the Vikings could’ve converted a place kick, they would’ve won.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that it was the first ever meeting. Plenty of Augie folks over the years insisted that none of USF’s NAIA accomplishments were worthy of acknowledgement, and though the Cougars had clearly debunked those suggestions by routing North Dakota in 2009, there was still an expectation from many Augie fans that the Vikings would crush the Cougars and put them in their place.
Instead, USF made a symbolically definitive statement by beating Augie the first time they got a shot at them, in their building.
It had already been a disappointing season for the Vikings to that point, losing to USF basically just twisted the knife.
5. Super Bowl
That’s what this is for both of these teams. Both coaches will cringe at hearing that, and they’ll both mock me for writing it. But it’s true.
Neither team is going to the playoffs. Both have relatively young rosters that have an eye toward the future.
Think how depressing the rest of the season would be if the most interesting game left on either team’s schedule was Winona State or Upper Iowa.
Let’s say USF wins this game. What will the highlight of the year be for Augie? Routing Moorhead in their opener? Only losing to Mankato by 10? Beating Augie would give them a legitimately big moment, one they’ll remember forever.
And if Augie wins, what becomes USF’s signature win for the season? The day Carrington Hanna switched positions to lead a rout of Concordia in front of 800 fans in St. Paul? The night they won despite their defense giving up an NSIC record 828 yards in Marshall?
If the Cougars can improve to 2-0 in this series, it’ll be more than enough to make this supposed rebuilding season a successful one.
If you haven’t yet, check out my Rivalry Week column in today’s paper.
Plenty more coverage the rest of the week.
Live chat today at 2, and tomorrow on SportsWeb Live, former USF QB Taylor Perkins and former Augie WR Tyler Schulte will join Stu Whitney and I to break down the rivalry.