Photo: Eastern Washington Athletics

Behind The Numbers: Week 3 FCS Football Review

The 2023 FCS football season is in full swing as most of the country will begin conference play next weekend. Each week we will go behind the numbers on some of the biggest games across the FCS landscape.

We take a look behind the numbers from this weekend’s biggest Week 3 FCS football action below.

No. 15 Southern Illinois 25, No. 13 Southeast Missouri State 25

How Did Southern Illinois win?

Southern Illinois won Saturday night’s road game through incredible resilience. The Salukis took their first lead of the game with only 11 seconds remaining in the game. The Salukis either threw an interception, fumbled, or turned it over on downs five times in SEMO territory on Saturday night. This includes two consecutive drives late in the third quarter where the Salukis fumbled the ball on SEMO’s 12-yard line. Southern Illinois also had seven penalties compared to only one for the Redhawks and the Salukis battled back down the stretch.

Quarterback Nic Baker was the embodiment of that resilience and toughness. He led Southern Illinois back into this game time and again with his arm. Baker ended the game with 462 passing yards (9.1 YPA) on 51 attempts. He spread the ball around as six receivers caught at least three passes, led by Vinson Davis with 126 receiving yards. SEMO’s defensive front was stout throughout the game and kept running back Ro Elliot in check, but Baker shredded the zone coverage all night. The offensive line deserves a lot of credit after keeping Baker upright all game and allowing him plenty of time in the pocket. This all came together when the Saluki defense stripped SEMO running back Geno Hess with under two minutes left in the game. Nic Baker was able to find wide receiver Izaiah Hartrup for his second touchdown catch of the fourth quarter to seal the huge road win for the Salukis.

The Saluki defense was fantastic on Saturday night, giving the offense multiple opportunities to win the game. SEMO’s offensive line had a difficult time blocking the aggressive, blitzing 3-3 stack front of the Salukis. The defense produced eight tackles for loss including 2.5 TFLs from linebacker Dune Smith. The Southern Illinois defense showed a ton of speed and made the SEMO offense look uncomfortable. FCS All-American Geno Hess was held to 4.3 yards per carry and star quarterback Paxton DeLaurent never got into a rhythm averaging only 5.3 yards per attempt.

Despite all the issues the Salukis faced, they averaged 7.2 yards per play compared to the 4.3 yards per play for SEMO. On a down-to-down basis, it was a fairly dominant performance by the Salukis, especially in the second half.

What’s next for SEMO?

SEMO travels to Eastern Kentucky next Saturday in a huge out-of-conference matchup after both teams suffered heartbreaking losses this week. Both teams also enter the contest with losing records and will be desperate to get a win to stay in the FCS playoff picture. SEMO needs to get quarterback Paxton DeLaurent back on track, with All-American wide receiver Ryan Flournoy still out with a broken hand, the Redhawks need to find answers quickly. Wide receiver Damoriea Vick had a great game Saturday with eight catches for 74 yards. Other weapons will need to step up to help DeLaurent get this offense ready to battle an explosive Eastern Kentucky offensive attack.

What’s next for Southern Illinois? 

Southern Illinois gets to enjoy a bye week before opening conference play against Missouri State. Not many FCS teams will have a better out-of-conference resume than Southern Illinois. The Salukis handled Austin Peay, won an FBS matchup against Northern Illinois, and picked up an important road win over SEMO. The Salukis will see how that success translates to conference play. If this program competes at the top of the conference, the Salukis have a chance to play for a seed in the FCS playoffs. Establishing more consistency in the rushing attack will be the key to competing with the elite teams in the MVFC. Through the impressive three-game stretch, the best rushing output was only 3.8 yards per carry. This will not be enough against the Jackrabbits or Bison. However, if Nic Baker continues to put up the numbers he has shown, the Salukis will be able to compete in any game on the schedule.

Western Carolina 27, Eastern Kentucky 24

How did Western Carolina win?

The Catamounts were again effective and efficient on offense but showed the ability to deliver in pressurized situations. Most of this game was a battle between two stars: Eastern Kentucky quarterback Parker McKinney and Western Carolina running back Desmond Reid. McKinney totaled 366 passing yards and 61 rushing yards with two touchdowns. Desmond Reid is starting to build his case for the Walter Payton Award after another huge night with 177 yards rushing and 63 receiving yards with one touchdown. The Colonels regained control of the game late in the fourth quarter after an impressive drive that ended in a field goal, giving the Colonels a 24-21 lead with four minutes remaining.

Quarterback Cole Gonzales had had a tough night before the final drive, completing less than 50%, including an interception late in the fourth quarter. We may have seen Gonzales grow up before our eyes, facing a 2nd and 20 at their own 28-yard line with just over a minute to go. The sophomore completed three consecutive passes and found running back Branson Adams for an eight-yard game-winning touchdown. 

Western Carolina’s efficient rushing attack was the difference in this matchup. Eastern Kentucky could not run the ball in crucial moments. Eastern Kentucky running backs combined for only 69 rushing yards, which led to field goals in their red zone opportunities. Western Carolina showed more explosiveness as the Catamounts averaged over 8.0 yards per play compared to Eastern Kentucky’s 6.8 yards per play average. The overall offensive consistency and tough run defense for the Catamounts were keys to escaping with a major road victory.

What’s next for Eastern Kentucky?

Eastern Kentucky will look to rebound against SEMO next weekend. The Colonels have had a brutal schedule, including two FBS games, but a 0-3 start is below expectations for this program. The schedule does not get easier with a matchup against SEMO, who will also be looking to bounce back after a tough loss last weekend. This weekend may be a must-win if Eastern Kentucky has any chance of putting themselves in a position to get an at-large bid. Parker McKinney and wide receiver Jaden Smith have been fantastic on offense. The Colonels must establish a more successful rushing attack if this team wants to beat SEMO or win a UAC championship this season. The defense has done an excellent job at limiting explosive plays, but Colonels must generate more of a pass rush as the defense has only totaled three sacks this season.

What’s next for Western Carolina?

Western Carolina faces Charleston Southern next Saturday in another out-of-conference matchup. Kerwin Bell’s young squad continues to grow before our eyes. It is one thing to get a comfortable win at home (against Samford), but it is another challenge to get a come-from-behind win on the road in the final moments of the game. The Catamounts are maturing into a team the nation will need to take seriously. If Western Carolina can continue to win, this team can set itself up with a great opportunity when they face Chattanooga, Furman, and Mercer in three straight games. This will be a brutal stretch but one that comes with an opportunity to compete for the SoCon championship.

Eastern Washington 40, No. 19 Southeastern Louisiana 29

How did Eastern Washington win?

Eastern Washington won Saturday’s game by making clutch plays in the biggest moments of the game. The Eagles and Lions averaged almost the same amount of yards per play, 5.8 and 5.0 respectively. Both offenses ran for about four yards a carry and had the same number of explosive plays. Eastern Washington converted 47% of their third and fourth down attempts, while Southeastern Louisiana only converted 35% of their attempts. The Eagles had a down-to-down offensive success rate of 53.3% compared to the Lions success rate of 41.4%. Eastern Washington was able to establish more consistent offensive possessions, which led to the Eagles running 92 plays compared to the 59 total plays for the Lions. Quarterback Kekoa Visperas continues to blossom into an excellent young player and is on a trajectory to become one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. The receiving trio of Efton Chism, Nolan Ulm, and Anthony Stell gave the secondary for Southeastern Louisiana problems throughout the game. The game was sealed on a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown by Marlon Jones.

What’s next for Southeastern Louisiana? 

Southeastern Louisiana hosts Houston Christian next Saturday to open conference play. The Lions will be in desperate need of a win after starting the season 0-3. The Southland conference has struggled in out-of-conference play, which means the Lions may not be able to count on getting an at-large bid. While the Lions have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, this offense is lacking explosive playmakers. Whether the Lions play Zachary Clement or Eli Sawyer they have struggled to find any big difference-makers to threaten defenses at wide receiver. If the Lions are going to compete with Incarnate Word, the offense has to be explosive. 

What’s next for Eastern Washington?

The Eagles open conference play next Saturday when they travel to UC Davis. Eastern Washington navigated a difficult out-of-conference schedule but matchups against four ranked teams in conference play are still ahead. The Eagles have a chance to compete for a top-five finish in the Big Sky after some other contenders have struggled over the first three weeks of the season. Visperas has shown flashes of being the next great QB for the Eagles, but it was also encouraging to see the performance of running back Justice Jackson who averaged 7.6 yards per carry. The defensive front has been stout the first three weeks of the season, particularly against the run. If Eastern Washington can find a way to split the four games against ranked Big Sky teams, they put themselves in a great spot to earn an at-large bid. The Eagles will be underdogs against the Aggies, but fans should feel like they have a chance as this team continues to improve.

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