The Jacksonville Dolphins, in year one under new coach Ian Shields, are hitting a stride heading in to the final month of the season. A two game road winning streak sees the Dolphins return home with a 4-3 record, and an even more impressive 3-1 Pioneer League mark. This week’s opponent is the Drake Bulldogs, the team that spoiled the season for JU last year in Des Moines. Jacksonville prevailed at home in 2014, but Drake is the only team in the PFL with a winning record against the boys in green, 12-3 all time.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Rylan Wells continues to pick his game up each week. Becoming the first quarterback in JU history to rush for over 100 yards in a game on his way to accounting for 321 yards of total offense and three touchdowns last week, Wells was somehow slighted for conference player of the week on offense. Despite that, he is as dialed in as anyone in the league right now. Which is scary for the PFL.
Grant Kreamer is a junior who, despite a lack of playing time in the system prior to this season, has shown a propensity to sling it around well. He went for over 300 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Campbell last week, but does have a propensity to turn it over, tossing two of his four picks last week too.
Edge: Jacksonville. Rylan is great right now, and his coaches think he can get even better.
Next man up is becoming a literal translation. JU turned to freshman Will Montgomery and Irving Riley to help spell Jake Brito and Pernell Rattray after the Dolphins found themselves down four of its top backs Saturday. Jared Morris is expected back this week, which will be a boon to the running game.
Senior Conley Wilkins leads the way, averaging 84 yards per carry this year, but he is by and away the most used back. He has scored at least once in seven of his last 10 games. Brock Reichardt has chipped in as of late, averaging an efficient 11.8 yards per carry on 16 totes this year.
Edge: Jacksonville. The strength of the offense, with a QB that just ran for over 100 yards and maybe the best back of the bunch returning this week.
Brian Burnett added five more catches for 101 yards and another touchdown last week. Jacksonville continues to be efficient throwing the football, though did have a few drops against Davidson. Will need to make the most of chances this week.
Depth is good at this spot, but the clear favorite target is the tight end Eric Saubert. He owned Jacksonville last year to the tune of 118 yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions. He has the most grabs on the team this year with 46 and could prove to be a game changer again.
Edge: Drake. Depth and Saubert tip the scales in the Bulldogs favor.
The freshman trio that makes up the left side of the line and center has outperformed expectations to this point. The upperclassman are not shabby themselves and JU has rushed for 773 the last two weeks while the line has surrendered zero sacks.
Four of the starting five are upperclassman, and while they are second to last in the PFL in sacks allowed per game, that is partially due to the amount that they throw the football. This line is bigger and more physical that the lines JU has seen the last few weeks.
Edge: Even. Both of these groups are playing at a high level right now.
Jareeq Crenshaw had arguably his best game of the season against Davidson, and he and Justin Horton, who finished as the team’s leading tackler, lived in the backfield all day. They will need to set the tone up front against Drake’s physical line.
Senior end Tanner Evans is the star of the bunch here, but gaudy tackle for loss numbers have been exposed by the Dolphin option offense the last few weeks. Can Drake maintain gab integrity, or will JU run all over another opponent?
Edge: Jacksonville. With Crenshaw and Horton embracing their senior leadership roles, this unit is elevating down the stretch.
Grady Redding and Harrison Rodormor were as consistent as always last week. Can they create game changing plays like against Morehead State two weeks ago to slow down the Drake passing attack?
Senior weakside backer Taylor Coleman has gaudy tackle numbers, 68 on the year, and this bunch tackle well, if nothing else. Not a lot of playemakers here.
Edge: Jacksonville. Redding is on another level, and Rodormer and company are great supporting players.
The defensive backfield got its first interception since week two when Armani Sampson, who lead the team in picks last year with four, came down with a wounded duck in the end zone in the first half against Davidson. It feels like the secondary is ready for its first multi-interception game of 2016, and Kreamer has shown he will give it away.
A lot of talented veterans in this group, led by senior free safety Caz Zyks, who has recorded 40 stops on the year. Five other secondary members have 20 or more tackles this season, and sure tackling will be crucial against the JU running attack. Corner Terry Wallen leads the team with three picks, and picked up two of them last week.
Edge: Drake. Bulldogs are good on the back end, despite surrendering big passing numbers.
The kicking game was nearly flawless, with Javier Arce-Ramirez’s kickoff out of bounds the only blemish. The return game was non-existent though, due mostly to the punting and kicking style of Davidson. Will JU get a chance to flash the dominant return game again this week?
Senior kicker Josh Lee is perfect on extra points and has only missed one of his seven field goal attempts, though his long on the year is just 29 yards. He also punts, and averages nearly 40 a boot. Terry Wallen has taken a punt to the house this season.
Edge: Even. Both teams have good return games, but will either team get a chance to return one?
Drake has been a thorn in the side for Jacksonville since the league rivals started playing back in 1999. If Jacksonville continues to play well in the first half, and dominant to start the second, the Dolphins could be looking at a three game winning streak and guarantee a non-losing season in Shields first year.