The Jacksonville Dolphins head on the road for the first time in a month this week facing a crucial contest against Pioneer League foe Morehead State. After winning its PFL opener, JU has had an interesting last three weeks at home, losing to scholarship Duquesne, having the Campbell game canceled due to Hurricane Matthew, and then dropping its first league game to Dayton.
At 2-3 overall and 1-1 in PFL play, the Dolphins, under first-year head coach Ian Shields, could see the season defined by this weekend’s game. A win could fuel momentum into winnable games to close the season. A loss could have the team trend in the opposite direction. Let’s look at the matchup.
Rylan Wells is coming off of his toughest outing of the season (7-16, 127 yards, TD, 3 INT) and never looked comfortable against Dayton. Wells, who threw the ball around well at the end of last season, needs to find a bit of a rhythm again to help the running game open up.
Senior Austin Gahafer was the Preseason Offensive Player of the Year in the PFL. He has not disappointed thus far, with 2014 yards and 16 TDs with a 54% completion rate. He slung it it 57 times for 325 yards and three TDs in an OT loss to Marist. No reason to expect him not to be good against the sixth ranked pass defense in the PFL.
Edge: Morehead State. Gahafer is the brightest spot on this disappointing MSU squad.
JU ran for a mere 115 yards last week against the Flyers, and desperately need a big ground game again. Star Ulysses Bryant was nicked up, but did manage a season high 87 yards on 14 carries, but got little help. Freshman star Jared Morris was a non-factor and Pernell Rattray averaged 7.8 yards a tote, but had just four rushes.
The Eagles feature a one-two punch of Lawrence Jones and Ryan Watkins who, while not the focal point of the offense, and both productive runners that lead the league’s sixth-ranked rushing offense. Eleven of Morehead State’s 18 touchdowns in the red zone have been on the ground this year.
Edge: Jacksonville. The backs are still the best part of this offense, and last week feels like more of an aberration than a trend.
Prince Gray and Brian Burnett struggled to get open last week, but are still efficient with the ball in their hands. Ability to seal blocks on the edge to help the run game is crucial for this offense.
Six receivers have double digit catches and four have receptions of 49 or more yards this season. A wide range of guys can hurt you, but two redshirt-seniors, Jake Raymond out of the slot and Darius Pritchett on the outside, do most of the damage.
Edge: Morehead State. So many weapons for the league’s best passing attack.
The young line, which started the year better than expected, finds themselves struggling a bit as the season wears on. The Dolphins desperately need more consistency here to get the offense in gear. Facing a non-scholarship , non-league leading defensive front this week should help.
The left side is made up of big upperclassman, the right side, smaller underclassman. Are only surrendering 0.86 sacks a game, a big part of why the passing game has been so potent.
Edge: Morehead State. They pass the ball a lot, and pass block well. That is a good recipe for success.
Justin Horton is coming off of a career high two sacks against Dayton and the front had the Flyers quarterback Alex Jeske scrambling all over the place last week. Run defense does need to hunker down better in late game situations.
Undersized except for end Colt Briggs, who is second on the team in tackles and leads the team in tackles for loss with 12. Whichever tackle has him will have their hands full. In total the line has combined for 22.5 tackles for loss.
Edge: Even. Morehead State has flashier numbers, Jacksonville coming off of a good game. Whoever does win this matchup will go along way towards winning.
Grady Redding racked up another 13 tackles with two for a loss. Three of the top four tacklers reside in the linebacking corps. They will need to make sure tackles in space against the talented Eagles receivers.
Leading tackler Ryan Bennett is a senior and can do it all on the outside. Kordell Brown is a freshman in the middle, but has held his own. Matthew Brewer is employed as a rover.
Edge: Jacksonville. The best part of the Dolphin defense will be tested a lot in pass coverage this week.
This is the unit that will face the toughest test Saturday. JU picked off Eagle QB’s three times the last time the Dolphins visited Morehead, but have managed just three all season. Facing a team that can hit big pass plays but also has a -6 turnover margin, this would be the week for the secondary to get its mojo back.
High tackle numbers in the secondary is never good, though this unit has combined to break up 26 passes and intercept four more. Only one starter tops 5 foot 9.
Edge: Morehead State. By a hair. More havoc plays gives them the edge, but will they be able to get off blocks and tackle in space?
Last week was a Jekyll and Hyde performance for JU special teams. Torre Parker had a kick return of 37 yards and Prince Gray had a punt return of 65. They blocked a Dayton extra point. Ryan Giaratano averaged 42 yards a punt and downed another in the 20. But there were two fumbles on kickoff returns, and an extra point blocked by Dayton too. This week needs to feature more of the former and less of the latter.
A handful of good returners and one punt return touchdown already this year. The punter Pat DiSalvio has a good leg (long of 59) and is averaging 40 yards a boot. Redshirt-senior kicker Matt Ward is a question mark (2-3 FG, long of 34).
Edge: Jacksonville. This feels like a “put it all together” kind of week for Jacksonville in this department. Came close to pay dirt on both kick and punt returns last week and kickers are finding grooves.
This is a huge game for both teams, with winnable stretches for Jacksonville and Morehead State following this tilt and the need to end losing streaks. Will home field advantage help the Eagles, or are they reeling after last week’s overtime loss on Homecoming? Look for it to go down to the wire, regardless of the outcome.
Jacksonville at Morehead State kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast locally on 92.5 FM and mixlr.com/judolphins.