GAME: No. 21 Texas A&M-Commerce (10-2) at No. 4 Minnesota State-Mankato (12-0)
WHEN: Saturday at noon at Blakeslee Stadium in Mankato, Minn. NCAA Division II Quarterfinals.
WHY IT MATTERS: During the Lions run to the national title in 2017, they played their first three games on the road defeating three teams in the top 12 of the country.
This season is similar for the Lions as they are playing their first three games on the road and this week marks their third opponent ranked in the top seven in the final AFCA regular-season poll.
This week’s opponent is familiar with TAMUC as the two teams met in Mankato, Minn. in the 2017 quarterfinals. The Lions defeated then No. 1 MSU-Mankato 31-21.
If any team can pull off three straight road wins including two wins in cold and snowy environments, it is the Lions. Last week, the Lions defeated Colorado School of Mines 23-3 forcing four turnovers.
TAMUC will need its defense to have another outstanding game this week against MSU-Mankato.
The Mavericks had a bye in the first round and defeated No. 9 Colorado State-Pueblo 35-7 at home last week. The Lions were defeated by CSU-Pueblo in a controversial game earlier this season.
MSU-Mankato is led by running back Nate Gunn who has gained 1,409 yards rushing this season and is averaging 6.8 yards per carry while scoring 23 touchdowns.
The Mavericks also use a two-quarterback system effectively as Ryan Schlichte and JD Ekowa have combined for 2,479 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The favorite target for Schlichte and Ekowa has been Shane Zylstra who has gained 1,379 yards receiving with 15 touchdowns and is averaging 20.9 yards per reception.
The Lions offense will once again rely on sophomore quarterback Miklo Smalls. Smalls has been responsible for 627 of the Lions 843 total yards gained in their two playoff games for a whopping 74.4 percent of the offense.
TAMUC typically has an advantage on special teams which is one area that MSU-Mankato has worked to improve as they are averaging 9.7 yards per punt return this season while only allowing 2.7 yards per punt return and 14.7 yards per kick return.
INSIDE THE STATS: TAMUC has played against two outstanding defenses in the first two rounds. The Mavericks may be the best defense in the country this year.
MSU-Mankato is only allowing 2.2 yards per rush, 5.8 yards per pass, 0.207 points per play and 3.9 yards per play this season.
The Lions have also been stout on defense this year as they have allowed 2.9 yards per rush, 6.4 yards per pass, 0.265 points per play and 4.5 yards per play.
With both teams having outstanding defensive numbers, the team that wins the turnover battle will most likely advance to the national semifinals.
COMPUTER PREDICTION: Minnesota State-Mankato 34, Texas A&M-Commerce 21
GAME: No. 10 Wisconsin-Whitewater (11-1) at No. 1 Mary Hardin-Baylor (12-0)
WHEN: Saturday at noon at Crusader Stadium in Belton, Texas. NCAA Division III Quarterfinals.
WHY IT MATTERS: This is a rematch of last year’s national semifinals where the Cru defeated UWW 31-14. The win was significant for UMHB as that is its only win against the Warhawks in six meetings.
“We’ve had a great history with them and unfortunately we’ve been on the short end of it most of the time,” UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg said. “We know you have to play really hard, make some plays and create some turnovers.”
Both teams enter this game having similar seasons. Both teams have struggled at times on offense while relying on an outstanding defense to advance to the national quarterfinals.
The Warhawks will need leading rusher Alex Peete to have an outstanding game. Peete has gained 911 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry this season.
He’s a special back,” Fredenburg said. “He runs hard and he’s strong, so we know we have our hands full.”
Zach Oles and Max Meylor have split time at quarterback for UWW this season. They have combined to pass for 2,190 yards with 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
The high interception total is something the Cru hopes to take advantage of this week. Free safety Jefferson Fritz was moved to a linebacker position last week and the move paid off as he had a huge interception in the Cru win last week.
“All year long I’ve been thinking about moving Fritz closer to the ball,” Fredenburg said. “I think he’s an incredible player and an incredible athlete so to get him closer to the ball would be pretty smart in my opinion.”
“I feel like I’m pretty comfortable especially for the first week there,” Fritz said after last week’s win. “It’s nothing like free safety. It’s a little closer to the ball and I like being closer to the ball.”
UMHB is still seeking a consistent rushing attack this year. Freshman Jo’Vel McDaniel has been the leading rusher with 566 rushing yards and eight touchdowns for the Cru. Junior Marquis Duncan has also seen time in recent weeks.
The Cru will need quarterback Jase Hammack to find his rhythm this week. The senior from Andrews, Texas has thrown for 1,543 yards with 20 touchdowns and two interceptions in nine games.
INSIDE THE STATS: This week is shaping up to be an old-fashioned defensive battle with turnovers and special teams being the key to a win.
The Warhawks defense has allowed 4.2 yards per play and 0.234 points per play this season. The Cru defense has also been elite as they have allowed 3.5 yards per play and 0.122 points per play.
One player to watch for UMHB is All-American defensive tackle Joey Longoria. The senior from Pearland High School has 58 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks this season while continually facing double and triple teams.
“He’s really a great player and a great young man,” Fredenburg said. “He’s all about work and what he can do to help this team – he’s all about being a good teammate.”
COMPUTER PREDICTION: Mary Hardin-Baylor 36, Wisconsin-Whitewater 18
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