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FCS Playoffs: Semifinals Recap, Championship Preview

For the better part of the last several years, the FCS championship game has been decided by a contest between North Dakota State and another team. This year has seen a dramatic shift, as the Bison have been eliminated and South Dakota State will take the field against Sam Houston State. The Jackrabbits will be making their first appearance in the FCS title game after handling Delaware with ease, while Sam Houston will be making its third appearance in the last decade after winning a thriller against James Madison. Both semifinals were nationally televised, and the Sam Houston/James Madison game was on network TV. It was an instant classic that hopefully got some more eyes on FCS football. I’ll recap the semis and preview the title game below.

Recap: #1 South Dakota State 33, Delaware 3 For the second time this postseason, the Jackrabbits kept their opponents out of the end zone and rolled to an easy victory, dominating Delaware by a score of 33-3. The Blue Hens’ offensive struggles in the postseason finally caught up to them in this one as they were only able to muster 216 total yards while averaging 1.5 yards per carry on the ground. Their defense, which was stellar to this point, gave way to the Jackrabbit attack as well. After both teams punted to begin the game, Delaware actually took a brief 3-0 lead after kicking a field goal on their next drive. That was the high point for UD, as the rest of the game was completely dominated by SDSU. They ended the half with four consecutive TD drives, while the Blue Hens could only muster two punts and a missed field goal. With the score 27-3 at the midpoint, the second half was uneventful as both teams seemed accept the outcome and were happy to cruise to the finish. SDSU added two field goals while Delaware’s fate was sealed for good after a nine minute, 18-play drive ended on downs deep in SDSU territory. Delaware ran the ball a staggering 45 times but could only put up 68 rushing yards. Nolan Henderson was pretty good under center for UD, completing 18 of 21 passes for 142 yards. But it wasn’t enough to get the Hens into the end zone. SDSU’s top two rushers (Pierre Strong Jr and Isaiah Davis) combined for 143 yards on 23 carries while Mark Gronowski was 10-16 for 162 yards and two scores. The blowout win is SDSU’s second in three playoff games and sends them to their first FCS title game. South Dakota State has now won seven consecutive games since a loss to UND in week two, and they have wins over five playoff teams.

Recap: #2 Sam Houston State 38, #3 James Madison 35 This game was played in front of a network TV audience and it did not disappoint. If you’re reading this, you probably already know what happened but I am going to recap it anyway. The Bearkats had an aggressively poor first half. After blocking a JMU punt following their first drive, SHSU was unable to move the ball even two yards in four tries and came away with nothing from a drive that started on the Dukes two. They did hold JMU to another punt before kicking a field goal on the next drive to make it 3-0. From there, it was pretty slow going for awhile as the teams exchanged punts. A Schmid interception set up the Dukes for a field goal to make it 3-3. The last three possessions for Sam Houston resulted in two punts and an interception. For James Madison, the half ended with three touchdowns. The first was a 71-yard drive that ended with the Dukes reaching paydirt on fourth-and-goal from the one. The next was a 6 play, 89-yard drive. The third took four plays in 58 seconds just before the half. The last of these felt like a possible death knell for Sam Houston and gave JMU a 24-3 lead at the half. The third quarter was a very different story for Sam. After the teams traded punts on their initial possessions, the Bearkat offense got going. A 7-play 80-yard TD drive got SHSU to within 24-10. JMU answered with a field goal before Eric Schmid threw a nice 69-yard TD pass to cut the Dukes lead to 27-17. After holding JMU to a three-and-out, the Bearkats returned the ensuing punt to the house to make it 27-24 and light the home crowd on fire. Sam Houston got another gigantic special teams play on the ensuing kickoff by forcing a James Madison fumble. They took possession and three plays later took their first lead, 31-27. JMU threw a pick on their very next play, which the Bearkats parlayed into yet another TD to take a 38-27 lead. The Dukes did respond with a quick TD on their next drive, and then forced Sam Houston to go three-and-out. They got as close as the Bearkat 27 yardline on their final possession, but a sack and a missed a field goal kept the Bearkats in front. SHSU was able to run out the final 2 minutes on their next possession to seal the W, 38-35. Sam Houston was outgained 430-336 in total yards while converting on just 2-11 third downs. Cole Johnson was 16-26 for JMU for 271 yards, three TDs and a pick. Eric Schmid was just 13-27 for 218 yards a TD and two picks but he added two TDs with his feet. Percy Agyei-Obese had 98 yards on 24 carries for the Dukes. In the end, special teams was the differentiator in this one. A couple big special teams plays late flipped this game, and the Bearkats are headed to Frisco while JMU will head back to Virginia.

PREVIEW: #2 Sam Houston State (9-0) vs. #1 South Dakota State (8-1) With all the posturing and weirdness of this season, the lack of data, the incomplete results and everything else….in the end the top two seeds are playing in Frisco. South Dakota State will take North Dakota State’s place as the Dakota representative in the title game. Sam Houston State finds itself back in the title game after a nine-year hiatus. The term “team of destiny” seems a bit cliché, especially when referring to the #2 seed in the tournament. But Sam Houston feels like a team of destiny. Their playoff run includes escaping with their lives against Monmouth, a comeback win against the perennial champs, and a huge comeback against the other top program in the country. Their three playoff wins have come by a total of 12 points. And they’ve done it despite inconsistent contributions from their offense which was their calling card during the regular season. It has been a bit more straightforward for SDSU. They did have to mount a pretty big rally to beat Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals, but have otherwise handled their business with ease. SDSU has had an easier time in getting here, but it is likely that they’ve had an easier road as well. No disrespect to UD and SIU, but Sam Houston had to beat both NDSU and James Madison who have dominated FCS football for the past 5-10 years. Mark Gronowski doesn’t look like a freshman running the offense, and they have veteran talent at the other skill positions as well. SHSU has their own talented QB in Eric Schmid and while he has been a bit inconsistent during the playoffs, he has shown an ability to light up the scoreboard when he is on. All in all, I think it is going to be an outstanding game. But if I have to predict a winner, I will go with SDSU who I think has just looked a little better in this postseason than the Bearkats.

Alright everyone, many people probably didn’t think we’d get here but we have. This unique spring season has come down to one final game between South Dakota State and Sam Houston State. I said before that I do not have any interest in FCS football moving permanently to the spring, but I do have to say that there have been some fun and unique aspects to the season. Everyone tune in on Sunday for the title game on ABC. Let’s get those ratings up and see if we can’t make FCS football a little bit more relevant. I hope the fans headed to Frisco have a great time, and let’s have an awesome title game!

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