Unique rivalries headline games to watch in DII football's final weekend
There is just one week remaining in the DII football regular season. As the saying goes, they saved the best for last.
The Turnpike Tussle: Washburn at Emporia State
According to Emporia State Athletics, "The Turnpike Tussle between Emporia State and Washburn is the second most played active rivalry in NCAA Division II history now that Black Hills State and South Dakota Mines have joined DII." This is the 114th meeting between the Hornets and Ichabods, and it's about as even as it gets. The Hornets have won 55 times, with Washburn claiming 52 victories. The other six times, both teams left tied.
Emporia State came into this season with lofty expectations, ranked No. 4 in the preseason. It hasn't turned out the way the Hornets expected, as they enter the finale 5-5. Quarterback Braxton Marstall, however, has lived up to expectations, throwing for 2,703 yards, 22 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Defensively, Gabe Cleveland has been one of the best linebackers all season, averaging 11.6 tackles a game.
Washburn started out strong this season. The Ichabods looked like a surprise team of 2016, getting off to a 5-1 start, their lone loss a near-upset of then No. 1 Northwest Missouri State. Washburn has gone 1-3 down the stretch and now sit at 6-4. Junior linebacker Derrick McGreevey has led the defense with 111 tackles this season and will need to lead the charge against Marstall.
Battle of the Ravine: Henderson State at Ouachita Baptist
Saturday marks the 91st meeting of the Battle of the Ravine. What makes it so special is the proximity. Henderson State can literally walk to Cliff Harris Stadium from its locker room. It is certainly the shortest distance traveled by any rivalry in the history of college football.
The Reddies enter the game amid an unthinkable 31-game road winning streak. They have not lost a road game in the Great American Conference era. Standing in their way of another perfect road slate is the Tigers. Ouachita Baptist hasn't had a losing season in 10 years, and are currently tied atop the GAC looking for its third conference title.
If the Reddies want to continue their road dominance, they will have to stop Ouachita's ground game. The Tigers have the No. 11 rushing offense in DII football, averaging 249.6 yards a game. Four Tigers have rushed for more than 400 or more yards this season, including quarterback Austin Warford who has also thrown for 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions. It probably behooves the Reddies to figure out a way to stop Drew Harris as well. The wide receiver has rushed for 16 touchdowns, caught three more and even thrown for one.
Henderson State is trending in the right direction. The Reddies picked up their first (and lone) home victory over a surging Southern Arkansas team, and are winners of two straight. They can crush their rivals hopes of a conference title, all while keeping one of the more phenomenal streaks in college football alive.
Other rivalries of interest Saturday:
Northwest Missouri State vs. Missouri Western: This rivalry started in 1981 features two teams separated by less than 50 miles. Can Missouri Western hand the Bearcats their third straight loss?
Catawba vs. Lenoir-Rhyne: A South Atlantic Conference rivalry that dates back to 1907.
Findlay at Ohio Dominican, Great Midwest Athletic Conference
The No. 21 Findlay Oilers are a perfect 6-0 in the GMAC this season. Their only problem is so is Ohio Dominican.
The Oilers travel to Columbus is the finale. The winner walks away with the GMAC title.
Overall, Ohio Dominican is 6-3, leaving them a bit off the radar this season. That's what makes Grant Russell one of the most unheralded quarterbacks in DII football. Russell is averaging 315.9 yards per game and his 2,843 yards are tenth best in DII. He's thrown 24 touchdowns and punched in six more on the ground, all while throwing a mere two interceptions. Thanks to Cory Contini (1006 yards, 11 touchdowns) and David Turner (861 yards, six touchdowns), Russell has a reliable wide receiving duo that helps him sling the Panthers to victory.
Findlay is the polar opposite. The Oilers 286.8 rushing yards per game is fourth-best in DII. Running backs Dauoda Sylla and Michael Campell have combined for 1,881 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground. Should that duo find room on Saturday, Findlay will capture its first conference title in 20 years.
Central Washington at Humboldt State, Great Northwest Athletic Conference
One of three Top 25 showdowns this weekend, No. 7 Central Washington enters the game a perfect 10-0 atop the GNAC. Not only have the Wildcats swept through their conference, they've gone on the road to win non-conference games in Texas, Utah and Alabama. No. 16 Humboldt State is 8-1, their lone loss an October 7, 55-27 defeat in Ellensburg, Washington. Simply put, a win gives the Jacks a share of the GNAC title.
The Wildcats are as balanced as they come, dropping 40 points a game of offense while limiting opponents to 14 point a game. Reilly Hennessey has been the star of offense, throwing for 24 touchdowns and rushing for three more. Lineback Kevin Haynes and defensive back Jackson Huerta have been two of the best at their positions all season, and will need to be one more time against a lethal offense.
Humboldt State can hang with the best of them offensively, scoring 47 points a game. Quarterback Robert Webber has plenty of weapons to choose from, but receiver Chase Krivashei has been red-hot, scoring four touchdowns in his last two games, seven in his last five. Ja'Quan Gardner will end his career as arguably the greatest GNAC running back of all-time, and he hopes to add to his 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns this weekend.
Win or lose, Central Washington has a postseason spot all but locked up. Despite an impressive 8-1 record, the Jacks sit at tenth in the current Super Region 4 rankings. This isn't only a must-win for the GNAC, but the DII playoffs as well.
Eastern New Mexico at Midwestern State, Lone Star Conference
There's a logjam atop the LSC, as three teams vie for the conference title heading into the final weekend. No. 4 Midwestern State controls its own destiny, as a win against No. 20 Eastern New Mexico locks up the outright title. The magnitude of this game bumped it to the DII football showcase on ESPN 3.
Midwestern State has fought through challenges all season on and off the field. This weekend, they will don No . 24 decals on their helmets to honor Robert Grays, a teammate they lost earlier this season. Through all the adversity the Mustangs have remained a rock, and undefeated. Quarterback Layton Rabb leads this offense, and he has a trio of receivers in Tyrique Edwards, DeAndre Black and D.J. Myers at his disposal.
Eastern New Mexico has surprised many, and sitting at 8-1, a victory gives them a share of the LSC title. The Greyhounds have done it behind the second-best rushing attack in DII football, racking up an astounding 343.8 yards a game. Kamal Cass is one of this season's breakout stars, rushing for 1,172 yards and 11 touchdowns. Quarterback Wyatt Strand has been more effective on the ground, rushing for 518 yards in this potent ground game, while scoring six times.
The Mustangs already defeated Texas A&M-Commerce (tied at No. 8 in the rankings) earlier this season, the same team that handed the Greyhounds their lone loss. If the Lions and Greyhounds handle business this Saturday, there will be three one-loss teams in the LSC, making Sunday's Selection Show that much more difficult.
Minnesota State at Sioux Falls, Northern Sun Conference
No. 1 Minnesota State hits the road for the third Top 25 matchup of the day. No. 13 Sioux Falls awaits, hoping to claim a share of the NSIC South Division title.
This one will be the typical chess match, seeing which coach can make the right move. Minnesota State has the best offense in the NSIC, ranking in the Top 10 in DII in both scoring and yards. Running back Justin Taormina has come on strong in Nate Gunn's stead. He has seven touchdowns in his last four games, rushing for over 115 yards in three of them. He's coming off of a 203-yard performance this past weekend.
On the other side of the ball will be Sioux Falls and its NSIC top-ranked defense. Not only is the defensive unit kings of the NSIC, they are ranked third in points (9.9 allowed per game) and second in yards (230.5) in DII football. Linebacker Dennis Gardeck has been a beast as the leader of this defense. His 13 solo sacks are tied for first in DII, while his 1.9 tackles for loss per game is sixth-best in the division.
Both of these teams should have no problem playing next weekend, no matter the outcome. This is certainly a good test to end the regular season for what lurks in the DII playoffs.