SUU plays their first home contest against Stephen F. Austin on Saturday, Sept. 14. Kickoff is set for 6:05 p.m. at Eccles Coliseum.
Both teams are after their first win of the season after starting out 0-2. SUU were overwhelmed by UNLV and No. 11/12 Northern Iowa in their first two weeks. SFA fell to Baylor and Division II Tarleton.
Neither team is strong on defense. The Thunderbirds come into the contest ranking 75th in the nation in total defense. The Lumberjacks rank 109 out of 116 teams in total defense and gave up 673 yards to a D-II team .
This should prove to be an open, high-scoring game. SUU’s offense has struggled so far this season (284 yards per game), but played two stingy defenses in their first two conferences. Last season the T-Bird finished fifth in the Big Sky in total offense with 435 YPG.
Chris Helbig faces a softer secondary than what he faced in Northern Iowa. Helbig has shown flashes against UNI and UNLV, but has yet to find a rhythm. The redshirt sophomore has completed 30 passes for 264 yards since missing the bulk of 2018 with injury.
James Felila leads the team in rushing with 67 yards. The rushing attack has struggled, but should have an easier time against the 103rd ranked rushing defense.
Lance Lawson has caught 15 passes for 120 yards in the early going. Lawson is SUU’s most dangerous open field option and should be targeted often.
The offensive line has struggled to protect Helbig in the early going. Stephen F. Austin are yet to sack an opposing quarterback this season. The line should be able to keep Helbig on his feet.
Nela Otukolo (13 tackles) and Alan Holsten (11) lead the T-Bird defense. They’ll be charged with slowing down the Lumberjacks strong rushing attack.
The Lumberjacks rank 50th in rushing offense with 160 yards per game. SUU’s run defense has given eight rushing touchdowns so far this season.
Da’Leon Ward leads the team in rushing with 159 yards this season. Josh McGowen has punched in two touchdowns on the ground for the Lumberjacks. The offense prefers to run first and pass with Trae Self (353 yards, 1 TD) second.
In a way, these 0-2 teams are mirror reflections of each other. Both have high upside offenses that have been hampered by struggling defenses in the early going.
Keys to the game:
1. SUU cannot start slow against SFA.
The Thunderbirds were outscored 120-45 by their opponents in opening quarters last season. The offense didn’t score a first quarter touchdown until Week 6. They’ve been outscored 14-0 in first quarters in 2019.
Spotting the opponent seven points at the start of each game handcuffs the entire team. Last season the T-Birds were constantly playing from behind. If they can slow down Ward and Self early on and jump out to a 10-0 lead they could rout the Lumberjacks.
2. The battle of rushing attacks.
SUU’s ground game has been virtually nonexistent thus far. They rank 100th in the FCS in YPG on the ground. SFA’s rush defense is even more deplorable, so Felila should find more space to maneuver.
The scary part is that SFA’s ground game is really good, but SUU has struggled to slow down quick running backs. Ward may have a field day and burst into the secondary with regularity.
The defensive game plan should focus on stopping the run. Handcuffing Ward and getting Felila going will be critical for the T-Birds.
3. Generating defensive pressure.
These teams have combined for one sack so far this season. SFA’s rush couldn’t break through Tarleton’s o-line, which bodes well for Helbig’s pocket passes.
SUU have played against solid offenses in 2019, but the lack of pass rush proved costly in 2018. Bishop Jones and Watson Asi need to get after Self and send the offense backwards.
The team that has more sacks will likely win this game. Both teams’ secondary will benefit hugely from more pressure and both teams have unproven offensive lines.
The game begins at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at Eccles Coliseum. The game will be broadcast on PlutoTV and WatchBigSky.com.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo Courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication