FCS Showcase Week 2: Eastern Washington Visits North Dakota State

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FCS juggernaut North Dakota State has five national championships since the 2011 season, and all of one loss to competition outside of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. That loss came last season to Montana out of the Big Sky, a conference also home to Playoffs regular Eastern Washington.

Eastern Washington invades the Fargodome Saturday for what might be the best game on the entire college football docket, fresh off a Week 1 win over the Pac-12’s Washington State Cougars.

The Eagles’ second win over a Pac-12 opponent since 2013 continued to spread the legend of reigning Walter Payton Award winner Cooper Kupp beyond FCS circles. Kupp caught for three touchdowns and more than 200 yards, while newcomer quarterback Gabe Gubrud showed off a dual-threat skill set reminiscent of former Eagle Vernon Adams.

The physically imposing North Dakota State defense may not see a more dynamic offense all season long. It’s a different look than Charleston Southern brought in the FCS Kickoff, which used the pass only as a big-play call to mix in with straight-forward runs and quarterback option.

Conversely, Eastern Washington’s defense will have its hands full containing an offense that’s more physical than any the Eagles will see in the Big Sky. North Dakota State garnering the unofficial nickname “Alabama of the FCS” is no accident; Fargo seems to have an unending supply of star running backs: Pat Paschall, D.J. McNorton, Sam Ojuri, John Crockett and now, Nebraska transfer King Frazier.

It’s a tremendous styles clash that will play a huge part in determining home-field advantage come FCS Playoffs. There may not be a better game anywhere on the Week 2 slate, so you have no excuse for not tuning into either via ESPN Extra, or streaming here.

No. 19 NORTHERN ARIZONA AT No. 18 WESTERN ILLINOIS

4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT; Stream

Despite losing Week 1 at Arizona State, 2015 Jerry Rice Award winner Case Cookus began his sophomore campaign strong with 369 yards passing. A solid start that he’ll need to build on against a passing defense that allowed just 203.5 yards per game in 2015.

Much like the Eastern Washington-North Dakota State matchup, this pairing highlights the contrast between the Big Sky and Missouri Valley Football Conferences. Northern Arizona’s a fast-tempo, offensive team with a gunslinging quarterback; Western Illinois plays a physical style built around its defense.

Add a dangerous running game, powered by Steve McShane — whose 207 yards and two yards led WIU over Eastern Illinois — and the Leathernecks have the template to pull Northern Arizona into the trenches.

No. 14 MONTANA AT No. 3 NORTHERN IOWA

5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT; Stream

The Big Sky-MVFC crossover series once again pits Big Sky offensive innovation against the old-school football of the Missouri Valley.

Montana survived an unlikely scare in the opener against Saint Francis (more on that in a bit), preserving the meaning of this marquee FCS showdown between two of the subdivision’s stalwart programs.

For the better part of two decades, Montana’s endured player and coach turnover to remain a fixture in the FCS championship landscape. Northern Iowa’s roster changes, but the Panthers have stability from head coach Mark Farley, whose roots at UNI go back to 1983 when he played there. He became a Panther assistant in 1986, the head coach in 2001, and only left Cedar Rapids for a few years as an assistant at Kansas.

Farley’s continued Northern Iowa’s winning tradition, and his 2016 team could be poised for an FCS championship push.

Boasting the typically stout Northern Iowa defense, Montana can expect a more physical contest than in its 41-31 win over Saint Francis, wherein quarterback Brady Gustafson went off for 353 yards passing and three touchdowns. #StittHappens for the Griz, but turnovers similar to those that set up easy Red Flash scores last week will send Montana up a creek quickly against the Panther defense.

Northern Iowa used a pair of interceptions last week to sink Iowa State. The Panthers also brought consistent pressure, manifesting in a pair of sacks and three tackles for loss from Karter Schult. I’ve written it before on this site, and I will continue to hammer the point home: Kart Schult is a name you NFL draftniks will want to commit to memory.

SAINT FRANCIS AT TOWSON

6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT; Stream

To be completely honest, this one would not have been on my radar seven days ago. The Northeastern Conference lacks the FCS cachet of the Colonial Athletic Association. Moreover, Saint Francis was tabbed for third in the NEC.

But after taking the fight to longtime FCS powerhouse Montana in Week 1, leading at halftime in Missoula and rolling up 31 points, the Red Flashes have my attention.

Not that preseason All-NEC running back Marcus Bagley shouldn’t already have my attention, given he can do this.

Bagley ran for 95 yards against the Griz, but wide receiver Junior Ajayi stole the show for the Red Flashes with four receptions totaling 83 yards and a touchdown.

Towson finished just outside the FCS STATS Top 25 this week, and have been a consistent presence in the CAA under Rob Ambrose. Oregon quarterback transfer Morgan Mahalak had a rough debut, but too much cannot be gleaned from a Week 1 matchup with a USF team likely to compete for the American Athletic East division title.

Towson’s role in a deep CAA might be more realistically assessed after Week 2. If Saint Francis hangs tough with another prominent FCS program, the Red Flashes might be the team to compete with Duquesne for the NEC’s Playoffs berth.

FURMAN AT THE CITADEL

6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT; Stream

After going up two touchdowns in the opening minutes Week 1, one of the preseason favorites in the Southern Conference, The Citadel, survived against a game challenger in Mercer.

The Bulldogs get another league date early on the docket, with Furman visiting, fresh off a hard-fought loss at Michigan State.

The Paladins had to work for everything, mustering just over 220 total yards of offense against one of college football’s most celebrated defenses. However, the FCS representatives accrued nearly as many first downs (18) as Michigan State (19), and trailed by eight in the late third quarter.

Defensive back Trey Robinson is an under-the-radar NFL prospect for Furman, and a possible key to the Paladins combating The Citadel’s option attack. Tyler Renew rolled off 146 yards on Mercer Week 1, setting the tone for the Bulldogs early with a 70-yard score on the first possession.