FCS Playoffs: Round 1 Recap, Round 2 Preview
I correctly predicted seven of the eight first round games and much like my original playoff field predictions, my one miss was the Southern Illinois Salukis. I really need to be more of a homer with my MVFC teams. The Valley proved it was deserving of all the at-large bids it received by going 3-0 in games against other leagues, with North Dakota also winning an intraconference game against Missouri State. Elsewhere all the seeds held serve, and there were not any real surprises in round one. While Cinderella’s glass slipper has been broken, we do have an exciting group of games this weekend. In this write-up, I am going to recap last week’s games and preview next week’s. We’ll get started at the top of the bracket with the top seeded SDSU Jackrabbits. These previews will be shorter and focus on the matchups themselves. If you want a more detailed look at each of the teams, I took a deep dive into each team’s story and key players in my week 1 playoff preview.
RECAP: #1 South Dakota State 31, Holy Cross 3
In my original prediction, I called Matt Sluka the game’s wildcard, while ultimately picking the Jackrabbits to win “relatively easy (but not a total rout)”. I got the winner right, and they won easily, but I think the game could be considered a rout. Holy Cross did keep it close for a while, missing a chance to take the lead early on with a missed field goal and then kicking a field goal just before the half to make the score a not-embarrassing 17-3. The Holy Cross defense had some success slowing down the Jackrabbit offense, forcing five punt. But they just could not get anything going on offense themselves. Sluka was just 10-21 for 76 yards and could only muster 22 yards on 13 carries on the ground. South Dakota State controlled the game and outgained Holy Cross 439-198 overall while averaging 8.3 yards per carry. It was not the Payton Award finalist Pierre Strong who led the team in rushing (although he did get 76 yards on 13 carries). It was the freshman Isaiah Davis who put up 156 yards and a TD on just 10 carries as SDSU put up 281 yards total on the ground. The freshman QB Mark Goronowski was also typically solid with 153 yards and 3 TDs on 12-21 passing. So yeah, I’m going to go ahead and say it was a rout.
RECAP: Southern Illinois 34, Weber State 31 The most entertaining game of the day was this one between the MVFC’s Salukis and the Big Sky Champion Wildcats in Ogden, Utah. It was an exciting, back-and-forth affair and when the dust settled SIU rationalized their controversial inclusion in the field with a clutch victory. This was the only game in which I missed my prediction. When making my call I said, “My mind says that the homefield advantage will be the difference for Weber to get the win. If SIU’s defense comes to play, though, the Salukis can win.” I also spoke about how I thought SIU’s inconsistent defense might be sucking air late, playing at altitude. Instead, it was the Wildcats’ defense that was unable to come up with the big stop at the end of the game. Early on it seemed like Weber might run away with this one, as they scored TDs on three of their first four possessions and drove into the SIU red zone with the other before being picked off. In fact, Weber never punted in the first half and moved the ball on each possession. They scored three TDs and threw two picks in Saluki territory. SIU took advantage of the mistakes for two late scores of their own to get within 21-17 at the half. Weber missed a short field goal early in the second half and SIU responded with a 13-play, 80-yard TD drive to take their first lead of the game, 24-21 in the third quarter. The SIU defense then forced its first Weber punt, but immediately fumbled the ball away on the ensuing drive. Weber had the ball at the 3-yard line to start their drive after the fumble, but the SIU D came up big in holding the Wildcats to a field goal. SIU then drove down the field and nailed a 44-yard field goal to take the lead, but Weber responded and quickly scored to retake the lead at 31-27. SIU had one more chance late in the 4th quarter. They drove down to the Weber 12 yard line in seven plays, but lost two yards and then committed a 15-yard penalty to get pushed all the way back to the 29 yard line where they had it first and 27. On 2nd and 25 they completed a 19 yard pass, and on 4th and 6 they scored on what looked like a desperation lob from QB Labanowitz to Branson Combs. The SIU defense then held for the final minute to win the game. Labanowitz had a good day, completing 21 of 34 passes for 264 yards and 2 TDs (with a pick). Bronson Barron was 16-29 for 224 yards and a TD and pick for Weber. Justin Strong paced SIUs 155-yard rushing effort with 68 yards on 14 carries. Daniel Wright Junior had 91 yards and a TD on 11 carries to lead a bevy of Wildcats in accumulating 210 rushing yards. Weber outpaced SIU in total offense 443-422, but it was the Weber defense that appeared to tire as the game went on, not the Salukis as I predicted. Although they did give up the late TD, SIU came up with some BIG stops late in the game. The win finished off a good week for the MVFC as the league will have four of the eight quarterfinal teams.
PREVIEW: Southern Illinois (5-3) @ #1 South Dakota State (6-1) It seems silly in a season that each team played like three games, but this game is a rematch. On March 20, South Dakota State blew out the Salukis 44-3. That game is the third more recent game SDSU has played as it was followed by three cancellations before they finished the regular season against NDSU. It was also such a beatdown that this author thought it put SIU’s playoff chances on life support. But the regular season and postseason are different animals. SDSU knows this well as they faced a very similar situation in 2019 when a seeded SDSU team hosted UNI in the second round. The Jackrabbits beat the Panthers 38-7 in the regular season just three weeks earlier, before UNI came back for a 13-10 win in the playoffs. That experience will be fresh in the minds of many SDSU players who won’t be keen to see it happen again. One guy who was not involved in that game was SDSU QB Mark Gornowski who was named the MVFC Freshman of the Year. He brings a new dynamic to the SDSU offense that they have lacked off late. The Jackrabbits had no trouble with Holy Cross in round one while SIU won a thriller at Weber. I think the game will be much more competitive than it was in March, but I think SDSU will win again. I’m picking the top seed to advance to the quarterfinals.
RECAP: #4 Jacksonville State 49, Davidson 14 In my prediction, I said this game was “probably going to be the most lopsided game of the first round”. Nailed it! Non-scholarship Davidson was certainly overmatched. But the Wildcats’ early play kept it interesting into the second quarter. Jacksonville State scored quickly on their first drive. But Davidson answered with a very impressive drive of their own to tie the game. It was a 15 play, 76-yard drive that took over eight minutes and tied this game up early in the second quarter. After JSU threw an interception on their second play of the ensuing drive, Davidson looked like they might have something cooking. However, that was the high point for the Pioneer League champions. They punted and JSU scored, then they turned it over on downs and JSU scored again. Then JSU went for an onside kick just to be jerks, got it and scored again. At halftime, the score was 28-7 and it was all over but the yelling. JSU scored three more touchdowns in the second half, punting just once overall in the game. Davidson did come back and score a late TD to make the final score 49-14. Jacksonville State outgained Davidson 461-261 with a 239-59 advantage through the air. JSU only ran 49 plays which means they scored every seventh play. This was simply one team that outgunned the other. Kudos to Davidson, though, for a great season.
RECAP: Delaware 19, Sacred Heart 10 In my preview for this one I said, “McCray and Chestnut will get some things done for Sacred Heart, but I think Delaware will pull away late in the second quarter and win this one easily”. I got my pick right, but Sacred Heart put up much more of a fight than I thought they would. I was also wrong about McCray who only threw for 87 yards and 2 picks while doing nothing on the ground. Chestnut, however, ran for 138 yards and a TD on 31 carries and nearly carried Sacred Heart to an upset. The star of the day was the Pioneer defense, though, as they held the Blue Hens to 202 yards of total offense. Had it not been for an early turnover, this game might have gone differently. Sacred Heart threw a pick on their first possession, allowing UD to score on a short 7-yard drive. Later in the first quarter, Sacred Heart executed on a 12 play 80-yard scoring drive that tied the game up. In the second quarter, another Sacred Heart interception gave UD the ball at midfield but the defense held. Delaware only took the lead into the break because a botched punt in the final seconds of the half resulted in a safety giving the Blue Hens a 9-7 lead. The teams combined for a total of 12 yards on the first four offensive possessions of the second half before UD executed their first real scoring drive of the game with a field goal to take a 12-7 lead. On the ensuing drive, Sacred Heart drove into the Blue Hen red zone but could only muster a field goal to make it 12-10. Delaware finally executed its first legit TD drive of the game to make the game 19-10. Sacred Heart’s next drive sputtered out and UD ran out the clock for the win. Sacred Heart outgained UD 243-202 and held the Blue Hens to 3.1 yards per carry on the ground, but Delaware capitalized on mistakes to survive and advance.
PREVIEW: Delaware (6-0) @ #4 Jacksonville State (7-1) Both of these teams were expected to win their first-round games relatively easily as both were facing teams from leagues with limited (or no) scholarships. The Gamecocks delivered on the promise, but the Blue Hens did not. The Delaware defense has been very good this year, and they were leaned on heavily to pull out their win over Sacred Heart. Jacksonville State’s defense was good but did not completely shut down Davidson, however their offense had no problems whatsoever in moving the ball against the non-scholarship Wildcats. I said UD was a dark horse national title contender in my first-round preview. I based that on their impressive performances against CAA competition, but they are going to have to get A LOT more from their offense if they hope to win the big trophy. Jacksonville State features the most dynamic offense the Blue Hens will have seen this year, and it looked strong in the first round. I don’t know if the Hens can slow down JSU like they did Sacred Heart. If they can’t, can the UD offense keep up? The Gamecock defense hasn’t been bad, allowing about two TDs a game this season. Delaware’s offense has typically been better than it was on Saturday, never scoring fewer than 27 points against CAA competition. I think that UD will rebound and have a better performance at Jacksonville State. I think it will be a good game. But I think JSU will win at home.
RECAP: #2 Sam Houston State 21, Monmouth 15 There weren’t any significant upsets in the first round, but this one might have been the closest. In my prediction I said, “this one feels like one of those 50-30 type games, and I am going with the Bearkats”. That wasn’t exactly how it went down. Monmouth has established themselves as a solid FCS football program with three playoff bids in the last four years, culminating in their first FCS playoff win of all-time last season when they beat Holy Cross in round one. They’re solid but still have a tendency to get blown away against the subdivision’s top tier teams. I expected this to happen again this weekend against Sam, but it did not. Monmouth dominated statistically and could have, and probably should have won the game. The Hawks outgained the Bearkats 412-267. They had 27 first downs to Sam Houston’s 9, and ran 90 plays to Sam Houston’s 46. But still the Bearkats found a way to come out with a 21-15 win. The difference, as it often is in these cases, was turnovers. Monmouth had an ill-advised turnover on downs in the first quarter that gave Sam a short field for a TD. They got inside the Sam Houston 10 but threw a pick on their next drive. Two drives later they turned it over on downs at midfield again. A 55-yard run by the Bearkats’ Ramon Jefferson before the half made it 14-0 at the break. Another Sam Houston TD made it 21-0 after three quarters and it looked like SHSU was going to run away with it. Monmouth finally put it all together for a 17-play 90-yard TD drive to make it 21-8. After forcing Sam Houston into a 3-and-out, Monmouth drove the field again for a 15-play, 86-yard drive to make it 21-15. After the Bearkats punted again on their next possession, Monmouth took over with just over four minutes to go. They drove 66 yards in 12 plays down to the Sam Houston 9-yard line, but the drive stalled there and the Bearkats hung on for dear life, 21-15. Credit the Hawks for not backing down, but credit Sam Houston too for playing mistake free football. That was the difference in this one. Kudos to Monmouth, as this was the most competitive they’ve ever been against an elite opponent. But Sam Houston moves on.
RECAP: North Dakota State 42, Eastern Washington 20 A lot of people (me ) said NDSU looked vulnerable and were ripe for the picking. Even though I picked NDSU to win this game, I said it with the caveats of, “I think on a neutral field EWU is probably the better team, but the Fargodome is a factor”, and, “EWU certainly has a great chance to win though, and this game is probably a coin flip. If EWU can move the ball consistently against the NDSU defense, I don’t know if the Bison will be able to keep up”. Those were incorrect opinions. Things looked pretty good for the Eagles early. They scored on their first three possessions and led 20-7 with TD drives of 85, 53 and 79 yards. Little did the Eagles know that after taking the 20-7 lead, they would be outscored 35-0 from then on. EWU did not punt the ball in the first half, nor did they turn it over. Yet they still found themselves trailing 21-20 at halftime. NDSU, in turn, did not punt in the second half. They turned the ball over on downs on their first possession, but their defense intercepted a pass on the very next play. The Bison scored TDs on each of their next three possessions before running out the clock on their final go. They punted on their first possession and then scored TDs on six of their next seven before finishing the game in victory formation. For the first time this year, their offense looked dynamic. They picked up 27 first downs and gained 472 yards to EWU’s 310. Cam Miller was just 6-11 for 50 yards (although he did throw 2 TDs and no picks). But the Bison had no need for a dynamic passing game as they gained 422 yards on the ground on 57 carries. Dominic Gonnella gained 163 yards on 20 carries while Jalen Bussey had 143 yards on 13 carries. Meanwhile the NDSU defense contained Eric Barriere to 17-28 passing for 246 yards a TD and pick and neutralized his legs. This is probably the best the Bison have looked all year.
PREVIEW: North Dakota State (6-2) @ #2 Sam Houston State (7-0) This week’s results make picking this game even more difficult than it already was. Based on regular season results, Sam Houston is the clear favorite here. But if you judge on round one performance, NDSU was clearly much more impressive. Sam Houston’s dynamic offense was contained by Monmouth. QB Eric Schmid, who threw for over 2,000 GD yards in six games, was held to 133 yards on just 12-24 passing. The Southland is an offensive-centric league and perhaps those numbers were inflated by their opponents’ inefficiencies? Or maybe it was just a one game sample size. NDSU’s offense has struggled at times this year, but they had absolutely no issues against EWU. They continued to get inconsistent play from the QB position but dominated on the ground. Perhaps their numbers are artificially low playing in the tough nosed MVFC? Or maybe it was just a one game sample size. NDSU is not used to playing on the road in the playoffs as they typically are a top seed. You can bet they’ll be riled up and ready to go in Texas for this one. The key is going to be whether Sam Houston’s defense can contain the NDSU run game. If they can force the Bison to throw the ball, they can have success. The Bearkat offense will have to look like its old self as well, and move the ball well against a tough Bison D. Last week I said the NDSU game was a coin toss, and it turned out to really be a blowout. This one really feels like a coin toss as well. I have no idea what to expect. I am going to go with NDSU because they pretty much always win in these situations, right? But really, does anyone have any clue what is going to happen?
RECAP: #3 James Madison 31, VMI 24 In my original prediction for this one I said, “I’ll take JMU in a game that will be closer than many people might expect.” Gotta say I nailed it here, although the game didn’t feel as close as the final score made it look. JMU outgained the Keydets 513-403 and led by double-digits for much of the contest. They controlled the ground game, running it 51 times for 309 yards. Neither team scored on their first two possessions before Jawon Hamilton took it 99 yards on one play (set up perfectly by the announcer) to break open the scoring. VMI responded with their first scoring drive that culminated in a 44-yard field goal and got the ball back on an interception on the next play. The Keydets couldn’t take advantage and punted. JMU responded with an 83-yard TD drive. The Dukes then took control of the game after getting an interception of their own and converting it into another TD, taking a 21-3 lead into halftime. After both teams punted, VMI scored on a 9 play 70-yard drive to make it 21-10, and then converted an onside kick that was controversially disallowed due to a player blocking downfield. JMU scored again to make it 28-10, but VMI responded with another TD drive to cut it back to 28-17. The VMI defense held, but that would be the high point of the game for them. The Keydets threw a pick, and although they recovered the ball with an interception of their own, they couldn’t do anything with it. JMU kicked a field goal with just over two minutes to go and VMI added another score in the final seconds, but it was too late at that point. The final tally was 31-24 Dukes. Jawon Hamilton ran for 171 yards on ten carries, aided by that 99-yard TD scamper. Percy Agyei-Obese ran for a harder-fought 110 yards on 25 carries (both backs scored). VMI freshman QB Seth Morgan was a respectable 30-50 for 286 yards and two TDS (but three picks), while Jakob Herres caught 13 balls for 171 yards and a score. VMI should enter next season as one of the favorites in the SoCon, but the time is now for JMU.
RECAP: North Dakota 44, Missouri State 10 I am not going to lie, I felt confident about this one. In my prediction, I said that “this should be a good game on paper, but I am going with the Fighting Hawks”. MSU had one of those magical seasons where everything just goes right for you. Your schedule pans out, you win a few close ones and get a few breaks, and you find yourself in the playoffs. You are a good story and are fun to watch, but the results might not be indicative of your talent level. Typically, those types of seasons end with a thud, and that is what happened here to Missouri State. That isn’t intended as an insult to them either. They had a great year and deserved to be here. But with one exception, North Dakota has handled its business this year. They beat playoff teams SIU and SDSU with relative ease, and they won this one going away as well. The UND defense shut MSU down, and North Dakota outgained the Bears 369-190. UND scored on their first four drives of the game and led 24-3 at the break. And while the MSU defense finally started to get its bearings in the second half, the Bears continued to pour it on with a special-teams and a defensive TD in the third quarter to make it 37-3. MSU finally scored in the 4th, but it was way too late and UND won by a final tally of 44-10. UND QB Tommy Schuster was a solid 13-18 for 223 yards and two TDs, but it was the North Dakota defense that won the day. MSU QBs Johnson and Struck combined to go just 12-31 for 97 yards and a pick, while the Bears’ run game could only muster 93 yards on 31 carries. A total of 75 of their 190 yards came in the fourth quarter when the outcome was not in doubt. It was a great season for MSU, their first playoff campaign since 1990, but the Fighting Hawks will storm into round two.
PREVIEW: North Dakota (5-1) @ #3 James Madison (6-0) Both of these teams had pretty good tests in the first round, and both passed them with relative ease. The Fighting Hawks blew out an MVFC co-champ, and James Madison handled the SoCon champs. With NDSU theoretically down this year, this is an opportunity for both of these teams who have lived in the Bison’s shadow over the last decade. JMU, as probably the second-best program over the period of Bison dominance, has a chance to get over the hump for the second time and cement themselves as the other top FCS program. North Dakota has had to exist in the same state as the Bison and it is kind of remarkable that they have been able to have the success they’ve had in that monstrous shadow. North Dakota has now played four playoff teams, including last week against MSU, and has a 3-1 record including a win over top seeded SDSU. The Dukes will be favored, but this will not be an easy game for JMU. I was worried about the Fighting Hawks being rusty after a month off, but they took it right to the MSU Bears and I think they are one of the better teams in FCS. JMU obviously is too, but I think this is the Fighting Hawks’ time. Give me three Dakota schools in the semifinals as I am rolling with UND as my upset special. Fighting Hawks in a barnburner.
And that is it for this go-round. Yes, I am aware I went full homer picking three Valley teams to make it to the semifinals. However, I have avoided going homer my last two rounds of predictions and my lack of MVFC confidence ended up leading to my lone blemish in both instances. Based on first round performance I feel justified. Honestly, there should be no surprises in any of these games. All four quarterfinals feature two solid teams and each one is deserving of their place in the final eight. It should be four great football games for FCS fans on Sunday. I’ll see you next week on the other side.