Greetings, Lion fans, and I know in the past the cliche “biggest game of the year” has been thrown around quite a bit, especially by yours truly, but in this case, it’s true. This Saturday is a battle for Southland Conference supremacy. Win, and the Lions could control their own destiny in search of a conference title their first season in Division 1. Lose, and they could still wind up as co-champions. So, it appears that Head Coach David Bailiff and his crew, are, as is said around the casino, “playing with house money.” That will all come in due time. For now, the focus is on #9 FCS ranked Incarnate Word.
The Lions, 31-3 winners against Houston Christian last week, were anything but dominant. It was, according to Coach Bailiff, a sloppy, mistake filled game with far too many penalties on both sides of the football. While he was glad to have a Homecoming win, it was very apparent that he was not happy with his team’s effort. There were good things from the defense and special teams, but the overall effort was very sloppy and mistake prone, and that will not do against a very good Incarnate Word team. So, let’s dive right in and take a look.
Head Coach: G.J. Kinne (1st season). Kinne comes to Incarnate Word when Eric Morris departed for FBS level Washington State. Kinne was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Central Florida. If the name sounds familiar, Kinne was a Texas high school legend at Gilmer and Canton before going on to start three seasons at Tulsa University. The Cardinal offense is currently #1 in all of FCS.
Points: 37.0 ppg
Rush: 155.4 ypg
Pass: 251.4 ypg
Total: 406.9 ypg
Points: 22.0 ppg
Rush: 153.4 ypg
Pass: 189.1 ypg
Total: 342.5 ypg
The Lions appear to match up very well with the Cardinal defense. A mobile, running quarterback causes the Cardinal defense some issues, and the Lions Eric Rodriguez is certainly mobile, and a very good runner. A key to the Lion success offensively could rely on their ability to spread the Cardinals out and make their massive interior defensive linemen chase from sideline to sideline. Offensive Coordinator Billy Riebock will certainly be delving deep into the playbook this week.
UP FRONT/TALE OF THE TAPE:
Lion Offensive Line: 6’3″ 293 lbs.
Cardinal Front Six: 6’2″ 273 lbs.
The Cardinal defense is led in tackles by graduate student Kelechi Anyalebechi (6’0″ 240 lbs.) with 63 (40 solo). Defensive end Chris Whittaker (6’3″ 230 lbs., Gr.) has 21 tackles (14 solo), and leads the Cardinals with seven quarterback sacks. Senior defensive lineman Steven Parker (6’4″ 237 lbs.) has 20 tackles 914 solo) and 4..5 quarterback sacks., and fellow defensive lineman Cameron Preston (6’1″ 304 lbs., Gr.) has 20 tackles (11 solo) and also 4.5 quarterback sacks. The Cardinals like to run a lot of stunts ant twists up front to create a mismatch and pressure the quarterback. Whittaker is a very good speed rusher off the edge, but at times will run himself out of plays. The Lion offensive line will have their hands full this week.
The Lion offensive line continues to be led by a pair of seniors, Solomon Ndukwe (6’3″ 318 lbs.) and Rheoboth Chibesa (6’3″ 309 lbs.), along with sophomore Jadin Jones (6’4″ 278 lbs.) and freshmen Chandler Donaway (6’1″ 268 lbs.) and McKenzie Agnello (6’5″ 293 lbs.) have had their issues in the run game at times this season, but overall been very good in pass protection. The quality of the protection will have to do a great deal with picking up the stunts and pressure packages the Cardinals are sure to throw at them, as well as knowing where Whittaker is and blunting the speed rush.
MOVERS AND SHAKERS/THE BACK LINE:
Lion Movers and Shakers: 5’11” 194 lbs.
Cardinal Back Line: 5’11” 180 lbs.
The Cardinal back line is led in tackles by defensive back Kaleb Culp (5’10” 186 lbs., Jr.) with 45 tackles (32 solo), and senior Brandon Richard (5’11” 183 lbs.) who has 40 tackles (23 solo.) They are joined by junior Donte Thompson (5’11” 175 lbs.), UCF graduate transfer Zamari Maxwell (6’1″ 174 lbs.), and junior Elliot Davison (6’0″ 179 lbs.) They have a good blend of youth and experience that profits well off the pressure applied by the front 6 of the Cardinal defense.
The Lions continue to be led in rushing and passing by sophomore Eric Rodriguez (5’10 195 lbs.) who has 53 rushes for 274 yards, and a long of 27 yards, and is 93-141 for 1, 289 yards, 15 touchdowns, a long of 96 yards, and three interceptions.
Running back by committee seems to have paid off well for the Lions, with time being split between senior speedster J.T. Smith (6’0″ 178 lbs.) who has 18-179 yards 3 touchdowns, and a long of 55 yards. junior do it all Spencer Long (5’11” 196 lbs.) has 172 yards on 35 carries 3 touchdowns, and a long of 69 yards. Freshman Reggie Branch has come on and has gotten more touches lately. He has 24 carries for 168 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and a long of 33 yards.
Sophomore Andrew Armstong (6’6″ 189 lbs.) continues to be one of the best, if not the best receiver in all of FCS. He has 48 catches for 820 yards and 12 touchdowns, two short of the all-time Lion record with several games to play. Double teams, press coverage, and different kinds of man coverage, Armstrong still finds ways to get open, and uses his 6’6″ frame to catch the ball at its highest point with a pair of very soft hands. Billy Riebock has found some inventive and creative ways of getting the ball in his hands.
By no means, though, is Armstong a one man show. Sophomore Jaden Proctor (5’8″ 155 lbs.) has 25 catches for 254 yards, a pair of touchdowns, and a long of 27 yards. Senior B.J. Busbee (5’7″ 149 lbs.) has done a masterful job of working the underneath and intermediate routes with 14 catches for 164 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a long of 23 yards.
If the Lion offensive line can keep Rodriguez in a clean pocket, Armstong and company will have their opportunities.
VERY SPECIAL, INDEED:
The Cardinals have an explosive return game, led by wide receiver Kole Wilson, (5’9′ 167 lbs., Fr.) who has 7 punt returns for a 25.5-yard average, a long of 48 yards, and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Ce’Cori Taylor (5’10” 160 lbs.) has 10 kickoff returns for a 18.7 yard average, with a long of 35 yards.
The Lions special teams had their best game of the year last week. Taking adavantage of a stiff south wind, junior Emmanuel Adagbon connected on his longest field goal of the year, 49 yards, that would have been good from 60. Not to be outdone, sophomore Mitchell McGarry had a 63-yard punt which improved his season average to 35.6, and most importantly, a punt that went out of bounds inside the Houston Christian two-yard line, the Blue Gang kept the Huskies pinned, and with a shanked punt, the offense had a short field for a much-needed touchdown.
THE LIONS WIN THIS MATCHUP IF: They clean up the penalties and the silly, unforced errors, and as Brian would say, “make the routine play.” Incarnate Word’s defensive front uses a great deal of twists and stunts designed to create pressure, and they will have to know where #6 for the Cardinals is and prevent the speed rush to the quarterback.
Lion fans, this is a very winnable game. David Bailiff has proven time and again that he knows how to get a team ready for a game that counts. And this one does.
Fans, it is time to PACK THE HAWK. This will be the biggest game this venerable old stadium has seen since the 2017 national semifinal against Harding. The Hawk was certainly packed that day. It was loud, boisterous, and created a vibe and energy all its own. We can do it again. Players feed off that crowd noise.
So, let’s do this. Fill The Hawk and make that place shake, rattle, and roll.
I’ll end this with a quote from 16-time heavyweight pro wrestling champion Ric “Nature Boy” Flair:
“TO BE THE MAN, YOU GOTTA BEAT THE MAN!”
And the Texas A&M Commerce Lions can do that.
See You at The Hawk.