FCS Playoffs: Round 2 Recap, Semifinals Preview
I did real bad. After holding back on the MVFC in my picks for the last two weeks and getting burned, I finally went all in on the Valley last week……….and also got burned. I really should have known better. The league is good, but this is the quarterfinals. You’re getting the best the other leagues have to offer at this point. After last week’s results it is no longer the MVFC with the plurality of representation, but the CAA. The Association has two of the four remaining teams and a legitimate shot at an all-CAA National Title Game. I’ll recap the quarterfinals and preview the semifinals in this article although based on what I did in the last round, my predictions leave a bit to be desired.
Recap: #1 South Dakota State 31, Southern Illinois 26 The one game I picked correctly, this game was a game of momentum. SDSU scored early and then watched SIU score 20 straight points. South Dakota State then answered with 24 consecutive points of their own before the Salukis rallied and had a chance to win it late. In the end, the top seed advanced to host Delaware in the semifinals. It was almost déjà vu for the Jackrabbits, as they lost at home in the 2019 playoffs to a team they handled easily during the regular season (Northern Iowa). In this case they avoided the upset on the back (or really the legs) of their freshman QB Mark Gronowski. If this suburban Chicago native ends up staying in Brookings for five years it could be a golden era for SDSU. He only completed 9 passes on 16 attempts, but he made them count for 183 yards and 2 TDs. Gronowski also ran for 142 yards, including a 67-yard TD run. He led the team in rushing by a wide margin as Pierre Strong only accounted for 48 yards on nine carries. Stone Labanowitz had a decent day for SIU, connecting on 25-36 passes for 247 yards, a TD and two picks. He also led his team in rushing with 38 yards on seven carries. The overall stats don’t really tell the story here, but SIU did outgain SDSU 443-415, while they also turned the ball over three times to the Jackrabbits’ zero. SDSU opened the game with a quick touchdown drive, scoring on five plays in less than three minutes. The Salukis dominated the rest of the first frame. They scored on four of their five first half possessions (two TDs and two field goals), while SDSU could not get on the board again until they kicked a field goal on the final play of the half to make it 20-10 Salukis. The script flipped in the second half. Southern Illinois threw an interception, got stopped at the goal line on fourth down, and fumbled on their first three second half possessions while the Jackrabbits hit paydirt on each of their first three drives to make it 31-20 SDSU. The goal line stand was probably the key point in the game as SIU had driven 74 yards on 17 plays, taking the ball down to the SDSU one and failing to move the ball the one yard needed on four tries. SDSU responded with a 99-yard TD drive, and that was the turning point of the game. SIU did recover to score again to make the score 31-26 and had the ball with two minutes to go and a chance to win the game. They drove into SDSU territory, but the drive stalled there and SDSU was able to kneel out the win to advance to the semifinals.
Recap: Delaware 20, #4 Jacksonville State 14 Before I get into it, I must address something. I noticed I got a lot of flak on Facebook for calling Jacksonville State “jerks” for kicking an onside kick against Davidson. Firstly, it was pointed out that it wasn’t really an onside kick attempt, just a poorly covered kick. Fair. I didn’t actually watch that game in its entirety (I don’t make a dime off this blog and it isn’t my day job….so apologies there). Secondly, I was entirely joking anyway. I do not think JSU are jerks. It was just a throw in comment, and it was probably ill advised. The game was only 21-7 at the time, certainly not a blowout yet, and if JSU thought they had a shot at an onside kick they should have absolutely gone for it. In my opinion if they had held back because of Davidson’s non-scholarship status, they would have been disrespecting the Wildcats. I know that isn’t how it went down, but even if it had gone down that way I think JSU would have been totally justified to go for an onside kick at that point in the game. My apologies to Gamecock fans, though. I did not mean to cause a ruckus, and I have absolutely no beef at all with your team. All that said, in my quarterfinal preview I said, “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.” Well, I wasn’t ENTIRELY wrong. My big takeaway from this one is that the Delaware defense is legit. All they did was hold JSU to 200 total yards and eight first downs. They held the Gamecocks to 3.2 yards per carry and allowed them to complete just nine passes total on the game. They forced JSU to punt nine times (including on all five of their first half possessions) while forcing two turnovers to boot. Now, it should be noted that Jax State starting QB Zion Webb went down with an injury in the first quarter. That’ll fluster any offense, and his replacement AC Graham struggled in completing just 4-14 passes for 54 yards, a TD and two picks. He was able to make some plays with his feet. For their part, the Blue Hens put up 374 yards with 24 first downs. Nolan Henderson was 18-28 for 239 yards and a pick while leading UD with 30 yards on the ground. Delaware opened the game with an impressive 8-play 75-yard TD drive, and put up another TD drive (89-yards) on their next attempt to go up 14-0 early. From that point on, Jacksonville State’s defense did their part containing the Blue Hens to keep their team in the game. JSU opened the second half with a quick TD after AC Graham scampered for 74 yards on the first play of the half. Delaware went 70 yards for a field goal to respond and make it 17-7. After both teams turned it over on their next drive, the crowd was treated to six consecutive punts before Jax State turned it over again which set up another UD field goal to make it 20-7. The Gamecocks scored a TD in the final minute, but a desperation onside kick attempt failed, and UD escaped with a 20-14 win.
PREVIEW: Delaware (7-0) @ #1 South Dakota State (7-1) At this point I can honestly say I haven’t the slightest inkling what will happen (and I can back that up with my poor quarterfinal predictions). Weirdly, SDSU is the top seed but is the only squad in this semifinal with a loss on their resume. This is a squad that has been one of the top FCS programs in the nation since moving up a decade and a half ago but has been overshadowed by their neighbors to the north. I know they must be pumped about the opportunity in front of them. They have to feel it is their time. And this is a decent matchup for them. Delaware plays more of an MVFC style game (or as the bowl people call it, “Big Ten style”). They have a strong defense and play a ball control offense. SDSU fell behind against Southern Illinois but their freshman QB did not get rattled. The Jackrabbits rallied for the win by playing a stellar second half. The Blue Hens have made it this far by relying on their defense. Jacksonville State was crippled by the loss of their QB early in the last round, but after scoring two early TDs the Blue Hen offense was unable to put the game away until late. The JSU defense kept them in check for most of the game. I get the feeling that SDSU will be able to put up some points against UD, and the Delaware offense is going to have to do more to win this game than they had to in the first two rounds. Its not like they haven’t been able to move the ball offensively all season, but they have struggled in the postseason. To me it will come down to how well the SDSU offense can move the ball against the stingy UD defense, and whether the Blue Hen offense can contribute more than they have the last two weeks. All that said, I think the Jackrabbits are going to win this one at home. I think they’ll score enough points that the Delaware offense won’t be able to keep up. But as I said earlier, I am wrong a lot.
Recap: #2 Sam Houston State 24, North Dakota State 20 In a game that had to be cathartic for Bearkats (and to be honest, just general FCS fans) everywhere, NDSU was finally knocked off its pedestal in the quarterfinals by Sam Houston State, 24-20. In my prediction last week, I said the game was basically a coin toss and added “I have no idea what to expect. I am going to go with NDSU because they pretty much always win in these situations, right?” Playing a postseason game away from the comfort of the Fargodome for the first time in a decade, and presumably without the services of an NFL caliber QB for the first time in nearly as long the Bison were still dangerously close to pulling it out yet again. But the Bearkats came through with a clutch drive and clutch stop in the final five minutes to pull out the win, keeping NDSU out of the semifinals for the first time in a looooong time. The win was deserved as well, as Sam Houston outgained the Bison 313-229 and forced three NDSU turnovers. Sam Houston QB Eric Schmid rebounded from a so-so performance against Monmouth in the first round by completing 25 of 37 passes for 227 yards and a score. Noah Smith was the recipient of ten of those completions for 103 yards and a score. Sam Houston wasn’t able to do much on the ground (Schmid was their leading rusher with 36 yards), but their defense stepped up for the second week in a row. NDSU’s QB woes continued as freshman Cam Miller was only able to complete 7 of 18 passes for 90 yards and two interceptions. Hunter Luepke was the Bison’s leading rusher with 56 yards but NDSU only managed 3.2 yards per carry on 43 carries and no Bison runner was able to get in the end zone. After the Bison fumbled on their opening drive, SHSU responded with a drive that went inside the NDSU ten but only resulted in 3 points. After both teams punted, the Sam Houston defense forced another NDSU turnover with an interception. The Bearkats were able to turn that opportunity into seven points to take a 10-0 lead. The two teams then traded punts, but NDSU got on the board late with a blocked punt that resulted in a safety. After another NDSU turnover and a missed Bison field goal, a first half that was dominated by defense ended with a 10-2 Bearkat advantage. Sam Houston started the second half with a 12-play 75-yard drive that was capped up by a 23-yard TD pass from Eric Schmid to Noah Smith to take a 17-2 lead. NDSU responded by returning the ensuing kickoff for a TD. After holding the Bearkats to a punt on their next drive, North Dakota State returned the kick for another TD and added a two point conversion to tie the game at 17. After two more Sam Houston punts and a Bison interception, NDSU drove 60 yards in 20 plays for a field goal that accounted for the entirety of the points put up by the NDSU offense in the game. It was starting to look like NDSU would find a way to win a playoff game without an offensive TD, before Eric Schmid uncorked a beautiful 47-yard throw on third and ten to get Sam Houston down to the Bison five. They scored to take the lead two plays later. NDSU was able to drive into the red zone on their next drive, but the Bearkat defense held and Sam Houston got the win. The Bearkat offense got all the headlines during the year, but it has been the defense that has carried them into a home semifinal this weekend.
Recap: #3 James Madison 34, North Dakota 21 My faith in the state of North Dakota was clearly misguided. In my preview last week I said that I thought North Dakota was one of the best teams in FCS and added, “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.” That didn’t work out. But I can’t really blame UND. I said I thought they were one of the FCS’s best teams and I still believe that. What I did wrong was underestimate JMU. Maybe next time I will estimate them. They are the single best FCS program of the last decade…..you know….besides the other one that wins all the championships. There was really no good reason to believe they would be down this year, and they clearly are not. The Dukes outgained the Hawks 468-344, and forced two UND turnovers to their one. They took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and never really looked back. The Dukes forced Fighting Hawk turnovers on their first two drives before UND took advantage of a long run by Otis Weah to get on the board in the second quarter. But James Madison responded with a TD of their own on the next drive to make it 17-7. The Hawks went on an impressive 91-yard TD drive before the half to cut the lead to 17-14, and JMU kicked a field goal as the half expired to make it 20-14 at the break. The Dukes pulled away in the second half scoring TDs on two of their first three drives and burning a lot of clock in the process. They were able to salt away the final 6+ minutes on their last drive to clinch the win. The game wasn’t a blowout until late, but it always felt like the Dukes were in control, especially in the second half. JMU QB Cole Johnson was an efficient 14-17 for 251 yards and 2 TDs. Percy Agyei-Obese added 128 yards and 2 TDs on 27 carries. Antwane Wells caught 7 passes for 143 yards and 2 TDs. Freshman Tommy Schuster struggled under center for UND. He completed 16 of 26 passes for 213 yards but threw two picks and no TDs. Otis Weah carried for 96 yards but nearly half came on one carry. JMU has a good QB, good backs and receivers and a good defense. They also have experience. They are probably now the team to beat in the semifinals.
PREVIEW: #3 James Madison (7-0) @ #2 Sam Houston State (8-0) This is a big-time matchup. Outside of NDSU, these are two of the most successful programs in FCS in the last decade. Sam Houston comes in having knocked off the Bison, and JMU comes in as the most dominant overall program left in the field. For the Bearkats, the calling card all year was the offense. But it has been the defense that has stepped up and gotten SHSU this far. If you were looking closely at the numbers, though, the Bearkat defense’s performance shouldn’t be hugely surprising as they haven’t allowed more than 17 points since their opening game in February while playing in a league known for big-time offensive numbers. Sam Houston State has made a living off turnovers. They’ve forced five and committed none so far this postseason. James Madison is a talented, experienced, blue chip FCS program. But they have committed quite a few turnovers this season. What they have not done is lose. And losing is not something they do very often. There isn’t a specific area of JMU’s squad that stands out. That isn’t because they aren’t talented but because they just don’t have a weakness. They have a talented and experienced QB, a talented and experienced back, and a talented and experienced defense. This should be an outstanding FCS game played at a very high level. I hope the country tunes in to watch. As for a prediction? Well, it has been the kiss of death lately and this game is a total coin toss. That said, I’ll go with the Dukes and their experience on the road. Their propensity to turn the ball over worries me, as Sam Houston thrives when forcing takeaways. But I’ll stick with the Dukes in a barnburner.
Alright FCS fans. Spring football may not be how we want it to be long term, but we do have the spotlight of the football world on us this weekend. It should be fun. Everyone tune in to boost those ratings and show the world that there is interest in our level of football. Let’s hope our teams showcase the quality of the FCS game on the national stage. We have one game on ESPN and another on goddam ABC. This is an opportunity for our subdivision. Good luck to your teams, and I’ll see you next week on the eve of the championship.