Members of UTC's football team hoist "The Rail" after beating ETSU in the "Rail Rivalry" 21-16 in 2021
Source: UTC Athletics - Dale Rutemeyer
FCS

SoCon Week 5 Preview

UTC looks to keep their streak alive in the rail rivalry, while Wofford hopes to stop their losing streak, and The Citadel looks to take down an FBS opponent.

John Hooper
John Hooper

Earlier this week, we broke down what could be the SoCon game of the week with No. 17 Samford visiting Furman. Now we take a look at the rest of the SoCon games happening this weekend.

No. 10 Chattanooga (3-1, 1-0 SoCon) at East Tennessee State (2-2, 0-2 SoCon)

The game will be hosted at William B. Greene stadium which holds 7,694 fans at 3 p.m. EST. Chattanooga heads into this game leading the series overall with 24 wins, 19 losses and 1 tie.

Game Preview

While the cone of uncertainty makes its ultimate decision as to just how it will affect the football around the college football landscape Saturday, and in particular the Southern Conference, the Bucs and Mocs made the decision to move their kickoff up from 7 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

The Rail Rivalry game has become one of the more fun rivalries in the Southern Conference, however, the Mocs have owned the series since the Bucs returned to the gridiron back in 2016.

The Mocs handed ETSU its lone Southern Conference loss last season, as the Mocs posted a 21-16 win over ETSU in the Scenic City, in what was a game between the preseason favorite to claim the league title, and the team that would eventually win the league crown.

In what was no doubt Chattanooga’s biggest win of the 2021 season, the Mocs got a banner day from their ground attack, as the running back duo of Ailym Ford and Tyrell Price combining to rush for 193 yards, as Chattanooga rushed for 235 of its 317 total yards in the contest.

Price scored the only points of the opening half of play, scampering eight yards for a touchdown to give the Mocs a 7-0 halftime lead. After a career long 51-yard field goal by ETSU’s Tyler Keltner got the Bucs to within four wiith nine-and-a-half minutes remaining in the third quarter, Ford would answer with one of two scoring runs for the Mocs on the sun-splashed fall Saturday in the Scenic City, sprinting 49 yards for a score to bring the Finley Stadium crowd to its feet and give the Mocs a 14-3 lead with 4:42 left in the third quarter.

ETSU’s Jacob Saylors answered with a big play in the Bucs ground attack, racing 58 yards for a score to get the Bucs back within four, offering an answer by the eventual league champions just sixty-five seconds after Ford’s long run.

Chattanooga’s Tyrell Price would continue the theme of big plays on the ground just past the midway point of the final quarter, as his 54-yard scamper with 6:43 remaining in the contest gave the Mocs a seemingly comfortable 21-10 lead.

The Bucs would answer late, as quarterback Tyler Riddell, who ran for his life most of the afternoon, having been chased and hit by Mocs defensive linemen, found Will Huzzie for a 22-yard scoring strike with just 35 seconds remaining, getting the Bucs within five (21-16) after the failed two-point conversion. The Mocs recovered the ensuing onside kick, however, to close out the win.

A big part of the Mocs’ third-straight win in the ‘Rail Rivalry’ was defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell, who broke his own single-game sacks record set earlier in the season in a win over North Alabama, as he finished the contest against the Bucs with 4.5 sacks, which was one more sack than he had in the road win over the Lions.

The 4.5 sacks were a school record, and the Mocs’ win over top 10 opposition marked their first since defeating No. 8 Samford, 23-21, on Oct. 28, 2017.

Saturday’s clash between the Bucs and Mocs will mark the 45th all-time meeting between the Mocs and Bucs, with Chattanooga holding a 24-19-1 all-time series edge.

The Mocs will be looking to rebound from their first loss of the 2022 campaign, as Chattanooga fell, 31-0, last Thursday night at Illinois, which was a game that saw the Mocs limited to just 49 passing yards.

ETSU, meanwhile, ended what was a two-game losing streak, dropping Robert Morris, 45-3, in Moon Township, PA. George Quarles has lost his first two Southern Conference games as the head coach of the Bucs, and to avoid a third-straight setback, he’ll have to beat the prohibitive league favorite.

The Bucs have shown some signs of explosiveness on offense that they didn’t necessarily have under predecessor Randy Sanders. With losses at The Citadel (L, 17-20) and at home to Furman (L, 14-27), snapping what was previously a nine-game home winning streak for the Bucs. That makes Saturday’s game against the nemesis Mocs a “must have” for Quarles and the Bucs.

That said, ETSU has all the talent on both sides of the ball to pull off such a win, which wouldn’t necessarily be a major upset or anything, but it would be a minor one and would raise at least a few eyebrows around the league.

On offense, the Bucs will have to find a way to neutralize the UTC defensive front, and in particular, Devonnsha Maxwell (12 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks1 QBH) and Ben Brewton (8 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 QBHs), who have already terrorized the FCS competition the duo have faced this season.

The Bucs must protect quarterback Tyler Riddell (56-of-95 passing, 751 yds, 7 TDs, 5 INTs/64 rush yds), who will once again be facing off against the league’s top defensive line. It was a unit that the Bucs had trouble blocking last season in what ended up being a five-point loss.

In Riddell’s backfield resides Jacob Saylors (73 rush att, 467 yds, 6 TDs, 6.4 YPC), who has lived up to the title of the league’s top offensive player—at least until this point in the season. Saylors was solid in the five-point setback to the Mocs last season, leading the ETSU ground game by rushing for 121 yards and a touchdown on just 13 carries.

Saylors, as you might imagine, is also a threat catching the football out of the backfield, as he has hauled in eight passes for 91 yards and a touchdown so far this season. Riddell’s top two options when going to the air are Savannah State transfer Einaj Carter (10 rec, 199 yds, 3 TDs, 19.9 YPR) and All-SoCon wideout Will Huzzie (15 rec, 18 yds, 3 TDs, 12.5 YPR).

The Bucs come into the contest ranking 53rd nationally in total offense (365.2 YPG) and are averaging 30.0 PPG, which ranks the Bucs 41st nationally in scoring offense.

ETSU welcomed four veteran starters back along its offensive line for the 2022 season, and the play has been spotty along the offensive front at times this season, and that was especially true in back-to-back losses to both The Citadel and Furman to open Southern Conference play. The unit is anchored by center Joe Schreiber and preseason All-SoCon selection Tavon Matthews at right guard.

If having to contain Maxwell and Brewton wasn’t enough of an assignment to begin with for the ETSU offensive front, they also have to do with arguably the league’s top linebacking corps as well, led by Ty Boeck (31 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR, 1 PBU, 1 TD) and Jay Person (11 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 QBH). The two primary playmakers in the Mocs secondary include ‘rover’ Reuben Lowery III (22 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 QBU, 1 TD) and experienced cornerback CaMiron Smith (15 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 PBU).

The Mocs defense had surrendered just 34 points through the first three games of the season until facing off against Illinois last Thursday night. Chattanooga currently ranks 27th nationally in total defense (325.5 YPG) and 12th in scoring defense (16.2 PPG).

All told, the Mocs defensive unit managed to sack ETSU quarterback Tyler Riddell five times in the contest, with all five coming from Maxwell. Prior to the loss to the Mocs last season, the Bucs offensive line had allowed only four sacks total in the six games prior to facing UTC last season.

Mocs head coach Rusty Wright (18-14, 4th yr) knew following the 6-5 finish a year ago, a change needed to be made under center, although he was willing to allow an open competition during fall camp between incumbent Cole Copeland and newcomer Preston Hutchinson (56-of-94 passing, 801 yds, 5 TDs, 4 INTs).

Until last Thursday night’s 31-0 loss at Illinois, the Mocs had been among the most explosive and balanced offensive units in the country, with the Eastern Michigan transfer Hutchinson leading the way.

Hutchinson had been the SoCon Offensive Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks until he and the Mocs were humbled by the Illini defense nine days ago.

Like ETSU, the Mocs have one of the premier running backs in all of Division I college football—FBS or FCS—as Ailym Ford (78 rush att, 423 yds, 4 TDs, 5.4 YPC) is off to another outstanding start to a season as Chattanooga’s leading ground-gainer. In two games against the ETSU defense prior to today, Ford has rushed for 295 yards and three scores on 45 rush attempts against the ETSU defense.

Ford is the sixth Mocs running back in program history to rush for 2,500 yards in a career, as he has rushed for 2,.667 yards, which currently ranks as the sixth-highest career rushing total. With 331 more rushing yards this season, Ford will move past 2016 UTC graduate Derrick Craine into the top five on the Mocs all-time career rushing ledger.

Perhaps the most surprising unit for the Mocs offense this season has been its talented group of big-play threats at wide receiver. with 11 different players having caught at least one pass for the Mocs this season.

The top options in a passing attack that has several deep threats are Jamoi Mayes (9 rec, 99 yds. 1 TD, 11.0 YPR) and Sam Phillips (8 rec, 146 yds, 18.2 YPR). Javin Whatley (7 rec, 112 yds, 1 TD, 16.0 YPR). Whatley is a redshirt freshman and has been one of the top newcomers on either side of the football in the SoCon this season.

The native of Rockmart, GA, actually played quarterback as a prep, finishing his senior season at Rockmart HS in 2019 with 1,533 passing yards and 1,150 rushing yards and had 36 combined touchdowns as a quarterback and rushing threat in his final season as a prep.

The Mocs, which have been known for their veteran offensive line each of the past couple of seasons, had to replace three starters along the offensive front coming into the 2022 season, which of course was no easy feat.

The reality is that many of those growing pains weren’t going to show up against weaker FCS competition in the first three games of the season, however, issues and some inexperience would show glaringly against a pretty stout Illini defensive unit. UTC surrendered four of its five sacks this season in last week’s 31-0 loss in Champaign. The offensive line, however, is anchored by two of the league’s best, in both right guard McClendon Curtis and right tackle Colin Truett.

While much has been made of UTC’s defense coming into Saturday’s contest, it should be noted that esteemed defensive coordinator Billy Taylor has his ETSU performing at an extremely high level once again this season. The Bucs, who utilize a 3-4 front, come in ranked 14th nationally in total defense (296.8 YPG) and ninth in scoring defense (14.2 PPG) through the first four games of the season. ETSU’s defense has played like a defending league champion through the first four weeks.

Leading the Bucs defensive in the trenches are defensive end Max Evans (11 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 PBU) and defensive tackle Timmy Dorsey (16 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FR, 1 QBH), while Chandler Martin (47 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) has been a tackle machine among the talented ETSU linebacking unit.

Martin’s speed and athleticism reminds me of former Appalachian State linebacker and two-time Buck Buchanan Award winner Dexter Coakley. In Johnson City, they might refer to that same player as being Mario Hankerson-esque. Hankerson was a beast for four years in the middle of the Bucs defense from 1994-97, finishing his outstanding ETSU career as the program’s all-time leading tackler with a total of 452 stops.

While the front seven is strong, the Bucs strength on defense could be its secondary, which features all-conference performers, in cornerback Alijah Huzzie and strong safety and App State transfer Mike Price (15 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBUs).

Final Prediction: Chattanooga 21, ETSU 20

The Citadel (1-2, 1-1 SoCon) at Appalachian State (2-2, 1-1 SBC)

The Citadel heads to Boone, North Carolina to face App State who leads the series with 29 wins and 13 losses.

Game Preview

An old Southern Conference rivalry will be renewed in the lone non-conference game of the weekend, as The Citadel travels to Watauga County for the first time since 2012, when the Bulldogs delivered a 52-28 beat down of the Mountaineers at The Rock.

The Bulldogs and Mountaineers will be battling on the gridiron for the 43rd time in the series on Saturday, with App State holding a 29-13 all-time series advantage. App State and The Citadel will be meeting for the first time with the two at different classifications of Division I football, however.

The Mountaineers will still be smarting from somehow surrendering a 28-3 lead to Sun Belt newcomer James Madison last Saturday at The Rock. The shocking loss to the Dukes left the Mountaineers at .500 overall and in Sun Belt Conference play.

The meeting between the Mountaineers and Bulldogs will mark the sixth time in program history that App State has faced both James Madison and The Citadel in back-to-back weeks, however, only the second time in its rich football history will the Mountaineers face the Bulldogs following a game against the Dukes.

The Mountaineers have faced the Bulldogs and Dukes in back-to-back weeks on the gridiron slate in 1980, ‘88, ‘89, ‘92, and ‘95, however, only the 1980 schedule saw the James Madison game occur before the clash with the Bulldogs.

App State probably entered that ‘80 clash with the Bulldogs in much better spirits than they will enter Saturday’s 3:30 showdown at The Rock, as the meeting some 42 years ago saw the Black and Gold post a 34-6 on the road in Harrisonburg to open the season against the Dukes before capturing what was a hard-fought 17-14 win over the Bulldogs in the home opener.

Not only is the opponent familiar to the Mountaineer fans, but also to its head coach—Shawn Clark—now in his third full year since taking over prior to the 2019 R+l Carriers New Orleans Bowl against UAB—faced off against a Bulldogs team, which was still a particularly bitter Southern Conference rival during Clark’s time as a player at Appalachian State from 1994-98.

The bitterness can be gleaned from the fact that both the Mountaineers and Bulldogs were at a point in their respective football histories in which the two were highly successful as both SoCon title contenders, as well as being Division I-AA playoff contenders.

The Citadel handed App State one of its worst whippings in Kidd Brewer Stadium history, as the ‘92 Bulldogs, which was arguably the best team in The Citadel football’s rich history, blanked the Mountaineers 25-0 at The Rock.

Led by quarterback Jack Douglas and running back Everette Sands, a good App State defense had no answers to solve that riddle on that particular afternoon.

The series between App State and The Citadel also features one of the lowest scoring games between conference foes in league history, as the Mountaineers claimed an 8-6 win in Charleston back in 2001. The Mountaineers went 4-0 against the Bulldogs during Shawn Clark’s time suiting up at offensive tackle for the Black and Gold, as Appalachian State is 17-4 all-time against the Bulldogs in Boone.

One of the major reasons for App State’s sterling record during at least part of Clark’s career as a player was two-time Buck Buchanan Award winner Dexter Coakley (1993-96) at linebacker.

Coakley, who is a native of the LowCountry, hailing from Mount Pleasant, S.C., actually had a military background and wanted to go to The Citadel upon his graduation from Wando High School in Charleston. However, after then-Bulldogs head coach Charlie Taafe forgot about Coakley, who spent a year in prep school at Fork Union Military Academy prior to deciding where he wanted to play college football, and so, Appalachian State and Jerry Moore came calling. The rest, as they say, is history, as Coakley went on to become a one of the greatest defensive players in the history of Division I-AA football, finishing his Mountaineer career with an astounding 616 stops, which included school records for solo stops (350) and assisted tackles (266). Coakley suited up in 37 games during his Hall-of-Fame career for the Mountaineers.

To give you an idea of how athletic and fast Coakley was as a linebacker during his career with the Black and Gold, he returned both kickoffs and punts during his freshman campaign of 1993. He was a phenomenon in the SoCon at that particular time.

As for Saturday’s clash in Boone, it shouldn’t be that close. Appalachian, which is led by quarterback Chase Brice (79-of-128 passing, 1,008 yds, 11 TDs, 2 INTs) and running back Cam Peoples (53 rush att, 264 yds, 2 TDs, 5.0 YPC) has been able to maintain a pretty good balance offensively this season, averaging 256.3 YPG through the air and 171.8 YPG on the ground for an impressive total output of 428.0 YPG to go along with a solid 35.4 PPG average this season. If The Citadel is going to stay in the game, it might have to do it in an area that it has struggled all season—on offense. It’s why this game will likely get out of hand early. The Bulldogs were shutout 17-0 two weeks ago at Mercer, and head into Saturday’s clash averaging just 232.0 YPG, which ranks 117th in FCS football.

The most intriguing side-bar might be the story of The Citadel quarterback Peyton Derrick (17-of-34 passing, 176 yds, 2 TDs, 2 INTs/44 rush att, 96 yds, 2.2 YPC), who like App State’s Brice, has ties to both the Palmetto State and App State.

Derrick grew up in Conway, S.C., watching his brother (Dakota Derrick) play quarterback at Furman against the three schools he would eventually play for—App State, Wofford and The Citadel. Derrick’s father, Dirk Derrick, also has ties to a SoCon school, as he played football at Wofford. The Conway, S.C. product ended up in Boone, N.C., seeing significant action as a freshman in 2018 after App State starter Zac Thomas went down with an injury in a driving, cold rain at Georgia Southern. He ended up logging action in six games for App State during that season before transferring to Wofford in the spring.

So when Derrick showed up in Charleston at head coach Brent Thompson’s house to be a graduate assistant on The Citadel’s staff, he ended up playing quarterback following the sudden departure of Jaylan Adams on the third day of spring practice at The Citadel. Derrick’s story at least has one bright moment in his bonus season as a college quarterback, as he helped lead the Mountaineers to a 20-1 7 win over East Tennessee State. While Derrick has a unique story, the story written about this game will be more cut-and-dry.

Final Prediction: Appalachian State 45, The Citadel 10

Mercer (3-1, 1-0 SoCon) at Wofford (0-4, 0-1 SoCon)

Wofford is set to host Mercer this Saturday in a game that will have either team coming out as the series leader as the series is tied 7-7.

Game Preview

For Wofford, it’s a return to the scene of the Terriers’ last Southern Conference win, which was a 31-14 win over Mercer on Feb. 20, 2021 in what was the season-opener of the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. No one could have foreseen that the Terriers would literally win just one of their next 19 games leading up to Saturday’s clash with the Bears.

You read that right, as Wofford, which was the three-time defending SoCon champion prior to the 2019 campaign, has gone just 1-18 since opening the rare spring season back in 2021 as defending SoCon champions.

Wofford’s 0-4 start is it’s worst since that dreadful 1-10 campaign of 1987, which ultimately led to the end of the Rick Gilstrap era, which gave way to the Mike Ayers era and the most successful three decades the Terrier football program has ever enjoyed in its rich history of existence.

Since defeating Elon, 24-22, last season in Burlington, the Terriers have lost 14-straight games overall, and have dropped their last 13 games in league play, getting blanked, 31-0, by league favorite Chattanooga to open SoCon play. Only Wagner’s 23-game losing streak has lasted longer than that of the Terriers. Last week’s performance in a 24-22 loss at Kennesaw State was at least promising for the Terriers.

In fact, the past two weeks Wofford has shown signs that it might be able to break through and win a game for what will likely end up being embattled head coach Josh Conklin’s (14-19) last season at the helm of the Terrier football program.

Quarterback Jimmy Weirick (59-of-96 passing, 706 yds, 1 TD, 4 INTs) had a record-setting Saturday for the Wofford offense last week, throwing for a school record 358 yards and a TD in the setback to the Owls.

The Terrier defense has been at least respectable this season, despite spending plenty of time on the field against the opposition. The Terriers have ranked 61st nationally in total defense (382.5 YPG), despite a Terrier offense, which currently ranks 116th overall (237.8 YPG) in FCS football. I can’t remember a time ever in my lifetime that Wofford has ranked as low as it is now in rushing offense, as the Terriers rank 121st nationally in ground output (59.8 YPG).

While Wofford is looking to put an end to an eight-game losing streak at Gibbs Stadium, the Bears, who joined the SoCon as an official member in 2014, will be looking to win their first-ever win in the same venue. Mercer is 0-4 all-time against the Terriers at Gibbs Stadium, and just 1-7 against the Terriers since joining the SoCon.

In fact, last season’s 45-14 win was the Bears first win in the series since joining the SoCon, and also marked the first win by Mercer in the series since 1941, and the Bears will be in search of their first win in Spartanburg since 1939. Saturday’s clash between the two marks the 15th all-time clash between the two, with the series tied, 7-7.

Mercer head coach Drew Cronic (62-16/6th year as a college football coach) has quietly assembled an explosive offense this season to match its elite defense. The offense has big-play ability all over, with quarterback Fred Payton (63-of-100 passing, 856 yds, 11 TDs, 0 INTs ) and his two top receiving weapons Devron Harper (19 rec, 228 yds, TDs, 12.0 YPR) and Ty James (15 rec, 372 yds, 5 TDs, 24.8 YPR).

On defense, a unit that ranks 17th nationally in scoring defense (17.2 PPG) and 21st nationally in total defense (312.8 YPG), is led by linebacker Isaac Dowling (34 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF) and defensive back Lance Wise.

I don’t think this game will be close, but Wofford’s effort each of the past two weeks has been commendable, so if they can survive an early potential onslaught by the Bears, and can find a way to frustrate Mercer, things could get interesting in Spartanburg. Anything is possible on any given Saturday, however, my prediction won’t reflect that below.

Final Prediction: Mercer 40, Wofford 17

VMI (1-2, 0-0 SoCon) at Western Carolina (2-2, 0-1 SoCon)

VMI heads down to Cullowhee, NC after a bye week in their first Southern Conference mathup. Western Carolina currently leads the series with 24 wins and 4 losses.

Game Preview

Maybe the most undervalued matchup of Saturday’s Southern Conference action is the one between Western Carolina and VMI. The Catamounts, however, have enjoyed one of the most dominant advantages in any conference series in the league, owning a 24-4 all-time edge in the series between the two.

It was in the spring season of 2021 in which VMI was able to snap a long losing skid to the Catamounts, with the Keydets 30-7 win in Cullowhee snapping what had been a 17-game losing streak by VMI in the all-time series. However, the Catamounts seized back momentum in the series last season when they went on the road to face the defending Southern Conference champions, who were clinging to hopes of garnering an at-large FCS playoff bid. The Catamounts simply didn’t care, as head coach Kerwin Bell’s (99-49/14th yr as a college football head coach) club was starting to hit its stride and were able to come away from Lexington, VA., with a resounding 51-24 win over the Keydets. It all but ended any hopes of the Keydets returning to the postseason for a second-straight season.

Head coach Scott Wachenheim (17-40), was the FCS Coach of the Year in the spring of 2021 after leading the Keydets to their first Southern Conference football crown for the first time since 1977. VMI is the last team to open Southern Conference play, with all eight of the other programs having already played at least one league contest.

Reviews haven't been all that great thus far for the normally explosive VMI offense. The Keydets enter the contest against the Catamounts looking to find its rhythm on that side of the football for the first time this season, as the Keydets rank 91st in the FCS in total offense (301.3 YPG) and tied for 84th in scoring offense (18.7 PPG).

Retaining playmakers for the Keydet offense in recent history has been tough for Wachenheim, losing the school’s all-time leading receiver Jakob Herres to Richmond and the transfer portal, with Reece Udinski, who started the 2021 spring season as the All-American under center during the spring of 2021 before an injury ended his season abruptly, eventually joining Herres at Richmond after spending a season at Maryland. The turnover on offense has been most drastically felt along the offensive line, having lost four starters to the portal.

Heading into the season the Keydets had 10 all-conference selections in the preseason, which was the second-most in the SoCon behind only East Tennessee State’s 11 preseason all-league picks. Despite that, and the fact that 17 starters returned, which included seven on the offensive side of the ball, that's the area that has surprisingly encountered most of the issues through the first three games.

Wachenheim will hope a week off is enough to help the Keydets to recover and re-group from what was a surprising 28-22 loss to Cornell in a game that the Keydets trailed 28-2 at one point before making a furious rally late.

With the struggles came an unsurprising change under center, with Colin Ironside (24-of-33 passing, 345 yds, 2 TDs, 1 INT) replacing Seth Morgan (34-of-64 passing, 300 yds, 1 TD, 2 INTs) under center as the starting quarterback. Ironside was one of the bright spots for the offense in the loss to the Big Red, as he connected on an impressive 16-of-18 passes for a career-high 275 yards and a touchdown toss. Ironside also had a 6-yard scoring run late in the game. He leads an offense looking to produce some big plays through the air, as both Chance Knox (18 rec, 159 yds, 1 TD, 8.8 YPR) and Leroy Thomas (14 rec, 109 yds, 7.8 YPR) have yet to hit their stride in the big play department this season. Preseason All-SoCon pick Aidan Twombly (3 rec, 47 yds, 15.7 YPR) is at tight end, where he provides another option for Ironside should he need a safety valve in the air raid Keydet passing attack.

A trio of capable running threats highlight the VMI backfield, with Hunter Rice (33 rush att, 139 yds, 2 TDs, 4.2 YPC), Rashad Raymond (25 rush att, 110 yds, 1 TD, 4.4 YPC) and Korey Bridy (6 rush att, 28 yds, 4.7 YPC) all providing viable threats in the ground game.

The Keydet defense has been a surprise package this season, and its turnaround on defense is similar to the remarkable turnaround made by Samford from last season to this season.

At the heart of that defensive improvement are veterans Eric Weaver (8 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 TFL, 1 SAF), who is in his final season lining up along the defensive front for the Keydets, while Stone Snyder 36 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 FF), is once again doing Stone Snyder things at linebacker for VMI this season.

‘SPUR’ linebacker and preseason All-SoCon selection Aljareek Malry (16 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 2 QBHs) has been especially effective after moving from the defensive backfield to linebacker.

The defensive backfield is another strength for VMI, and it's a unit that features maybe as much depth as it ever has in Wachenheim’s seven seasons at the helm. Safety Josh Knapp (15 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 PBU) has picked off two of the three passes VMI has intercepted this season. Cornerback Alex Oliver (25 tackles, 0.5 TFL) ranks third on the team in tackles heading into the SoCon opener.

All told, through the first three games, the Keydets currently rank 24th in the FCS in total defense (318.3 YPG) and 56 nationally in scoring defense (28.7 PPG).

VMI’s defense will have its hands full Saturday. The Catamounts were good when they dropped 51 points in Lexington against VMI last season, and the Carlos Davis (75-of-107 passing, 967 yds, 8 TDs, 6 INTs/30 rush att, 62 yds, 2.1 YPC)-led version of the Catamount offense might even be better than the one led by Rogan Wells last season.

Currently the Catamounts rank second in the FCS in total offense (557.0 YPG), while ranking fourth in passing offense (349.0 YPG). The last time the Catamounts took the E.J. Whitmire Stadium turf, they torched Presbyterian for a school-record tying 77 points to go with a school-record 766 yards of total offense. The Catamounts come in ranking 12th nationally in scoring offense (39.5 PPG).

Western’s trip to No.21 Samford last week would see a stark contrast, as Davis and the Catamounts couldn’t find the end zone all day, having to settle for four Richard McCollum field goals, coming away with just 12 points, despite executing 90 plays, for a total of 456 yards and 32 first downs, yet couldn’t cross the goal line.

The Catamounts turned the ball over three times in to thwart potential scoring drives, with Davis getting picked off twice in the end zone, while getting stopped on another play on a fourth-and-goal play.

Like the Keydet offense, there are more than capable options at both wide receiver and in the backfield. The Catamounts have had a total of 17 different players catch a pass this season. That’s almost unbelievable.

Raphael Williams (19 rec, 240 yds, 1 TD, 12.6 YPR) is the best of the bunch, and he the preseason all-conference pick might be the best all-around receiver in the SoCon. The speed of a guy like Terrance Horne Jr. (8 rec, 173yds, 3 TDs, 21.6 YPR) is something the Keydets will have to be wary of defensively. He’s averaging an astounding 21.6 yards-per-catch through the first four games this season.

Ajay Belanger (14 rec, 119 yds, 1 TD, 8.5 YPR) has established himself as one of the top receiving tight ends in the SoCon in a league that features some of the very best in FCS football.

Running back TJ Jones (25 rush att, 97 yds, 3.9 YPC) is the third-leading wideout for the Catamounts, showing his offensive versatility this season. Jones has hauled in 11 passes for 98 yards this season, and he teams with leading rusher Desmond Reid (46 rush att, 349 yds, 3 TDs, 7.6 YPC) to give the Catamounts a nice one-two punch at running back.

Reid’s average of 7.6 yards-per-game through the first four games is evidence of the giant strides made by the Catamount offensive line, who is under the direction of Jeremy Darveau, who is in his first season with the Catamount coaching staff. The crux of that improvement has been development of technique and footwork, and that has enabled the Catamount offense to elevate its on-field proficiency to an even higher level in Bell’s second season as the head. In keeping with the theme of improvement, the Catamount defense is another unit that ranked among the nation’s worst last season, but has seen some incremental improvements with each passing week.

That could be seen last week by taking a look at the final totals in last week’s contest at Samford, as the Catamounts held the explosive Bulldog offense to less than 400 yards of total offense, allowing WCU to out-gain the Bulldogs, 456-393, in the contest.

The tackles distribution statistically is also evidence of improvement this season. The Catamount defense is relatively young within its two-deep listed for Saturday’s clash with VMI in Cullowhee, with a total of nine players that are either juniors or seniors in the pre-game depth chart.

Final Prediction: Western Carolina 48, VMI 34