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FCS Playoffs Quarterfinals Recap
I said last week that I thought the three best teams remaining in the tournament were in the bottom of the bracket. I think the results of this weekend were evidence of that. North Dakota State and James Madison held serve at home, winning big to set up a monster semifinal on Friday. On the top half of the bracket, both higher seeds lost at home, with SDSU beating Villanova and top-seeded Sam Houston getting trounced by Montana State. That sets up the 8th seeded Bobcats to host the Saturday semifinal against SDSU. They Valley continues to show its strength as two of the final four teams hail from our league, including the only unseeded team to pull off a win against a seeded team (which they have now done twice) in South Dakota State. Look below to see how it happened.
#2 North Dakota State 27, #7 East Tennessee State 3
It wasn’t quite the full-on wire-to-wire blowout that I was expecting, but ultimately NDSU had little issue putting away East Tennessee State to advance to the semifinals. The Bucs defense played tough and kept their team in it for two thirds of the contest. But the ETSU offense was just unable to get anything going against the stifling Bison defense as they were only able to put up a total of 165 yards of total offense. NDSU continued to pound their opponents on the ground with 278 yards on 49 carries. The win sets up an exciting semifinal on Friday between the two top FCS powerhouses of the last decade in NDSU and JMU. Things started off slow for both teams as they traded punts in the early going. ETSU was able to run the ball effectively for a spell early in the second quarter as they converted a fake punt into a 55-yard drive that ended in a missed 55-yard field goal. The score remained 0-0 until midway through the second quarter when NDSU finally broke through with an 8-play, 62-yard drive that culminated in a TaMerik Williams three-yard TD. After another ETSU punt, the Bison went on another scoring drive before the half. They went 76 yards in nine plays, capped by another run by TaMerik Williams (this time from 7 yards out) to take a 13-0 lead into halftime. ETSU was able to stop NDSU on downs early in the third quarter to open up an opportunity but threw an interception on the ensuing play. The Bison then went 46 yards on 4 plays and scored a TD on a three-yard run by Cam Miller to make the score 20-0. After the Bucs punted for the 6th time in 7 drives (the other drive included a fake punt), the Bison fumbled which gave ETSU the ball in NDSU territory. They were only able to move the ball eight yards, though, and were forced to kick a 40-yard field goal. NDSU added another late TD on a 12-play, 82-yard drive that ended in an 11-yard TD run by Hunter Luepke for the 27-3 final. North Dakota State outgained the Bucs 401-165 overall, and 278-66 on the ground. ETSU QB Tyler Riddell was 16-32 for 92 yards and a pick, while Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors combined for 69 nice yards on 21 carries. Cam Miller was 10-17 for 123 yards for the Bison (adding a TD run), while Temerik Williams led the rushing attack with 91 yards and two TDs on 15 carries. Seven Bison combined for their 278 rushing yard total. North Dakota State will host James Madison next week with a spot in Frisco on the line.
South Dakota State 35, #5 Villanova 21
The Valley has overcome! Yes, the Missouri State loss to UT Martin was a setback, but here we are in the national semifinals with two teams still alive yet again. There have been only two victories by unseeded teams over seeded squads this entire tournament and both are by South Dakota State. After beating UC Davis in round one, the Jackrabbits travelled to the west coast for a win over Sacramento State in round two. They then travelled the opposite direction to handle Villanova in the quarterfinals. The loss had to sting for the Wildcats, especially after SHSU later fell to Montana State. ‘Nova would have been playing at home for a spot in the title game. Instead, they’re done for the year and the Jackrabbits will hit the road to face the eighth seeded Bobcats. This was a back-and-forth game for most of the contest. After exchanging punts to start the game, South Dakota State scored first on a six-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in an Isaiah Davis score from 24 yards out to put the Jackrabbits up 7-0. Villanova answered on their next possession with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 36-yard TD pass from Daniel Smith to Rayjoun Pringle to tie it at 7. SDSU then put together an epic 15-play, 77-yard drive that started in the first quarter and didn’t end until midway through the second quarter nine game minutes later. The drive included three third down conversions and put SDSU up 14-7 after Chris Oladokun found Jaxon Janke for a 10-yard TD. Villanova answered again with 6-play, 75-yard drive that was assisted by two Jackrabbit penalties. Smith ran it in for the game-tying TD. After an SDSU punt, Villanova took the lead on a 55-yard pass from Smith to Jaaron Hayek just before the break. The Wildcats held a 21-14 edge at halftime, but their offense was done for the day. SDSU held the Wildcats to a three-and-out to start the half and then went 71 yards on 9 plays for the game tying TD. Isaiah Davis ran it in from 2 yards out to knot it at 21. After another Villanova punt, SDSU took the lead on a 5-play, 49-yard drive. Oladokun found Jaxon Janke for a 38-yard TD to give SDSU the 28-21 lead. The Wildcats drove into Jackrabbit territory on their next drive but were stopped on fourth down. South Dakota State responded with their third consecutive TD, and fifth in six drives, going 67 yards on 7 plays to take a 35-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Isaiah Davis scored from two yards out. Villanova moved the ball a bit on their final two possessions, but both ended in turnovers as the Jackrabbits held on for the victory. SDSU outgained Villanova 418-378 overall. Dan Smith was 17-26 for 271 yards, 2 TDs and a pick for Villanova. He also led the Wildcat rushing attack with 44 yards and a TD on 9 carries. Chris Oladokun was 11-19 for 152 yards and 2 TDs with a pick. Isaiah Davis had a monster day with 174 yards and 3 TDs on 25 carries. The Jackrabbits will now take their talents to Bozeman for a date with Montana State with a spot in the National Championship game on the line.
AROUND THE FCS
There were two other quarterfinal games that did not involve Valley teams. Here is how those panned out.
#3 James Madison 28, #6 Montana 6
For the second consecutive week, James Madison turned what I was hoping to be an exciting game into a blowout. The Dukes look like a squad that intends to win a title, and their defense is leading the way. In round two, JMU shut down one of the championship subdivision’s most dynamic players in a rout of Cole Kelley and Southeastern Louisiana. This week, they kept a Montana team (that scored 57 points last week) out of the end zone in a one-sided victory over the FCS powerhouse program. The offense had another good day as well, falling just short of 500 total yards against a stellar Montana defense. James Madison is playing excellent football at an excellent time and their game in Fargo should be an absolute doozy next week. JMU broke this open early with an 82-yard TD pass from Cole Johnson to Devin Ravenel midway through the first quarter. The Griz responded with a field goal to make it 7-3, and it stayed that way for a while. The Dukes were stopped on a 4th down attempt in JMU territory, then their defense returned the favor to Montana on their next drive. A few punts later, JMU got their second big play. They went 96 yards on just four plays, getting the yardage in chunks and scoring on a 50-yard run by Latrele Palmer to make it 14-3. James Madison broke it open early in the third with another TD drive to make it 21-3, and it was all over but the yelling after that. Montana converted a turnover into a field goal late, and JMU added a TD for the 28-6 final. The purple and gold outgained Montana 487-302, and the Dukes’ Latrele Palmer ran for 167 yards and a TD. If you’re an FCS fan and you aren’t tuned in to the JMU-NDSU semifinal on ESPN2 this Friday, you better have a note from your doctor.
#8 Montana State 42, #1 Sam Houston State 19
A wise FCS prognosticator had this to say in his preview of this game. “I haven’t picked many upsets in this playoffs, so I am due. I am going to pick the BOBCATS…..”. That man was me. And yes, after that ellipses I predicted a final score of 24-23. But I am still going to give myself a pat on the back for predicting this upset, picking all four quarterfinal games correctly, and for taking the time to thoroughly clean my kitchen today. That last one is unrelated to the topic of this piece, but I am proud of myself, nonetheless. I know I am beating a dead horse here, but as a Valley blogger I can’t help but think of what might have been had Missouri State not choked against UT Martin. Could there have been a 75% MVFC semifinals? The world will never know. We do know that we have a very entertaining set of semifinal games with four bona fide stellar FCS programs. JMU and NDSU are the gold standard this decade, and Montana State and SDSU aren’t too far behind. Montana State set the tone for this one early by scoring a TD on their first drive, showing none of the rust that they had in their second-round win over UT Martin in which they only scored one touchdown the first three quarters. They scored again on their second and fourth drives while their defense shut down the high-powered Sam Houston offense. By the time the Bearkats finally got into the end zone with less than two minutes to go in the first half, Montana State had scored four times and had a 28-6 lead. Despite outgaining the Bobcats overall, SHSU was never really in it. The closest they came was when they scored to open the second half and then forced a Bobcat punt giving them the ball down just 28-12 and with momentum. But the MSU defense stopped them cold, and the offense responded with another TD to go up 35-12 and that was basically that. They cut it to 16 midway through the fourth quarter but got no closer as Montana State added a late TD for a 42-19 win that surprised the FCS world. Depending on how quickly the C-USA moves, that might be Sam Houston State’s last FCS playoff game. RIP.
And the semifinals are set. We’ll have NDSU-James Madison on Friday and SDSU-Montana State on Saturday. Best of luck to both Valley teams and as always, GO VALLEY!