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FCS Playoffs Semifinals Recap

So close. The Valley went 1-1 in the semifinals with NDSU holding off James Madison and SDSU falling behind late to lose at Montana State. The dream of the first all-Valley FCS Championship since 2014 fell just short of being realized, but there will be at least one Valley representative in the title game for the 11th consecutive time. The MVFC had a five-year title game appearance drought from 2006-2010 following UNI’s loss to App State in 2005. The league hadn’t won a title since Western Kentucky did it in 2002. Since then, the title game has been dominated by the Bison. However, Illinois State, Youngstown State and SDSU have also made appearances in the game. My recaps of the semifinals are below. Both games were entertaining.

This battle of heavyweights came down to the wire, but NDSU pulled away and likely put an end to James Madison’s run in the FCS. The Bison were able to run the ball well by the standards of most teams, but not by their standards. However, they made plays through the air and forced a pair of interceptions (which doubled JMU QB Cole Johnson’s total for the year). After the teams exchanged punts to start the game, NDSU scored on three of their next four possessions to close out the half. First, a five-play, 60-yard drive found paydirt giving NDSU a 7-0 first quarter advantage. Cam Williams found Hunter Luepke for a 32-yard TD. James Madison quickly punted on their next possession and the Bison responded with an eight-play, 47-yard field goal drive. Jake Reinholz connected from 43 yards out for a 10-0 second quarter Bison advantage. On their next drive, James Madison got something going for the first time in the game but were intercepted in Bison territory. North Dakota State closed the half with a 6-minute drive that went 74 yards on 15 plays. The Bison had the ball first and goal at the JMU 2-yard line with 30 seconds left, but were held to a chip shot field goal for a 13-0 lead at the break. James Madison came out gunning in the second half, opening the frame with a 13-play, 80-yard TD drive that took over 6 minutes off the clock. The Dukes moved methodically down the field and finished the drive with a 13-yard TD pass from Cole Johnson to Antwane Wells to cut the Bison lead to 13-7. The teams exchanged punts for three drives, and the third was blocked by James Madison setting them up inside Bison territory. They took advantage, going 41 yards in 5 plays for a TD. Cole Johnson found Devin Ravenel for a score from 4 yards out, and JMU took a 14-13 lead into the 4th quarter. The Bison responded immediately. They went 73 yards on six plays in their ensuing drive. The big play came when Miller found Luepke for a 36-yard gain. Two plays later, Miller found Luepke again for a 22-yard score and the Bison took a 20-14 lead. The Dukes drove into North Dakota State territory on their next drive, but were forced to punt after a sack pushed them back to the 36-yard line. After forcing a Bison punt, James Madison drove the ball inside the NDSU ten. On third down, Cole Johnson threw his second interception of the game (and 4th of the season), which nearly sealed the deal for the green and gold. The JMU defense held NDSU to a three-and-out, though, and gave their offense one more chance with a minute to go. They drove to midfield, but Cole Johnson was hit as he threw his final Hail Mary attempt and the ball fell harmlessly to the turf. For the ninth time in eleven years, the Bison will be in the title game. Cam Miller was 10-19 for 165 yards and two TDs, which is a very productive game by the Bison’s pass game standards. Hunter Luepke led North Dakota State on the ground with 110 yards (he also produced 89 receiving yards and two TDs). Cole Johnson was 25-34 for 21 yards and 2 TDs, but his two picks were his undoing. Latrele Palmer was held to 89 yards on 18 carries. Overall, the Bison outgained the Dukes 339-305. If this is indeed JMU’s last FCS playoff game (and it is looking like it will be), I’ll just say it has been fun. Best of luck in the future. (But I’ll now be rooting against you every time you play an FCS team.)

For the first time in my lifetime, Montana State is going to the title game. MSU will make its first title game appearance since they won the championship in 1984. For SDSU, their impressive run of road playoff victories fell one short of booking them a trip to Frisco. SDSU traveled to the west coast, then the east coast, then to the great plains of Bozeman, Montana to get to this point. While they came up short, it was an impressive run, nonetheless. Both teams have been considered one of the top teams in the nation at different points during the year. SDSU lost a couple heartbreakers and Montana State fell from a possible #1 seed to #8 after losing their final game at Montana. But they both still ended up in the Final Four which is probably where they belonged. Statistically this game was very even, and two SDSU turnovers were probably the difference. The Jackrabbits left points on the board early as they took their first drive inside the Montana State ten but were stopped on fourth and one. MSU turned that momentum into a TD, going 91 yards on six plays capped by a 64-yard TD pass from Tommy Mellott to Nate Stewart to take a 7-0 lead. SDSU responded immediately with a TD of their own. Jadon Janke returned the kickoff 44 yards and Pierre Strong scored on a 44-yard run four plays later. That tied the game up at 7 after one quarter. The Bobcats went 74 yards in 12 plays on their next drive, driving to the SDSU ten but ultimately settling for a 27-yard field goal to take a 10-7 second quarter lead. South Dakota State responded right back with a 7-play, 75-yard TD drive. The drive took just 3 minutes and was capped by a 13-yard pass from Chris Oladokun to Jadon Janke to put SDSU back in front, 14-10. MSU continued to trade punches, this time going 75 yards in five plays for a score. Tommy Mellott ran it in from four yards out to put MSU back ahead 17-14. The Jackrabbits then took the ball 51 yards on 12 plays to end the half, setting up a Cole Frahm 51-yard field goal. That made the score 17-17 at the break. After the teams exchanged punts to start the second half, Montana State took the lead on the final play of the third quarter. The 3-yard TD run by QB Tommy Mellott capped a 12-play, 68-yard drive and put Montana State ahead 24-17 with a quarter to go. Things started to unravel for SDSU from there. On the fourth play of their next drive, the Jacks’ Chris Oladokun was intercepted. Four plays after that, Montana State increased its lead to 31-17. They went 40 yards on the drive and scored on a 17-yard pass from Tommy Mellott to Lance McCutcheon with 10 minutes to go. SDSU drove to the Montana State 27 on their next drive but turned it over on downs, then did the same on the following drive after moving the ball inside the Bobcat ten-yard line. Their final drive ended in a fumble, and that was all she wrote. Overall, SDSU outgained the Bobcats 439-409. Chris Oladokun was 23-35 for 315 yards, a TD and a pick. Pierre Strong led the Jackrabbit rushing attack, which MSU kept in check, with 94 yards on 14 carries (a majority of which came on one play). Tommy Mellott was 10-15 for 233 yards and two TDs, while also leading the Bobcats in rushing with 155 yards and two TDs on 34 carries. With the win, Montana State will move onto the National Championship game against North Dakota State.

And that is it. The title game won’t be for a few weeks, so I won’t have a ton of football content until the game gets closer. I’ll take this opportunity to say thanks to all the football fans who have read my stuff all year. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback and my viewership on my blog has grown in a big way relative to last year. I still do it for the love of the game and don’t make a penny for my efforts, but it is nice to see that people are reading. I’m still deciding whether I will come back next year, as it takes up a lot of time and I do have a wife, child, job and life outside of this. But I have enjoyed doing it, nonetheless.

With that said, until next time, GO VALLEY!

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