It’s been a good year for first-time matchups in the FCS playoffs, but the most-anticipated quarterfinal has a familiar look
Unfamiliarity likely breeds as much contempt as familiarity.
Certainly when it’s win or go home.
This has been a good year for first-time matchups between teams in the FCS playoffs. Including this weekend’s national quarterfinals, 10 of the first 20 games are matching teams that hadn’t played each other previously.
The Sam Houston State-James Madison and Richmond-Eastern Washington quarterfinals are first-time matchups. Wofford-Youngstown State isn’t, but those two teams have played each other only once.
The other quarterfinal – South Dakota State at North Dakota State – is a longtime rivalry. It’s also the most-anticipated game of quarterfinal weekend.
2016 FCS Playoffs — Quarterfinals
(Note: All times ET)
Friday, Dec. 9
No. 5 seed Sam Houston State (12-0) at No. 4 seed James Madison (11-1), 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
These two conference champs have compiled some of the biggest offensive numbers in the FCS. Sam Houston, from the Southland Conference, ranks No. 1 nationally in total offense (570.4 ypg) and scoring offense (53.1 ppg), while James Madison, from CAA Football, is No. 3 in total offense (525.8 ypg) and No. 2 in scoring offense (48.3 ppg). Yet the most important number in their first-ever meeting may be the game-time temperature, possible in the upper 20s, which should then fall as the matchup progresses. It won’t be favorable to the visitors from Huntsville, Texas – just north of Houston. Sam Houston quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe holds the FCS single-season record with 57 touchdown passes and needs one to tie former Hawaii star Colt Brennan for the Division I mark (58 in 2006). Fortunately for the Beakats, they also have a strong running backs with Remus Bulmer and Corey Avery (a combined 1,553 yards and 17 TDs). To combat Briscoe, JMU’s secondary boasts two of the Dukes’ All-CAA first-team picks in cornerback Taylor Reynolds and safety Raven Greene. Plus, their offense has a triple threat of its own in quarterback Bryan Schor, running back Khalid Abdullah and wide receiver Brandon Ravenel, who is coming off his best game of the season. The winner will advance to play No. 8 seed South Dakota State or No. 1 seed North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: James Madison
Saturday, Dec. 10
No. 8 seed South Dakota State (9-3) at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (11-1), noon (ESPN)
The visiting Jackrabbits surely deserved a better scenario considering they handed five-time defending FCS championship North Dakota State its only loss back on Oct. 15 at the Fargodome, but now have to do it again in a place where the Bison have been invincible during their FCS playoff history (17-0). This will be the 106th all-time meeting between the two co-champs from the Missouri Valley Football Conference (NDSU has a 59-41-5 lead in the series). NDSU’s vaunted defense struggled to defend SDSU sophomore quarterback Taryn Christion in the first meeting, as he threw for 303 yards and, more importantly, rushed for 141. Tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke have come back to earth in the Jackrabbits’ last three games, but the Bison have to prove they can stop the duo, because they didn’t in the first game. No, Bison sophomore quarterback Easton Stick is not Carson Wentz, but he’s also 19-1 as a starter in his career. He makes good decisions working behind perhaps the best offensive line in the FCS. So head coach Chris Klieman’s team will try to let the defense create good field position and give the ball to the power run game with Lance Dunn and King Frazier. The winner will advance to play No. 5 seed Sam Houston State or No. 4 seed James Madison in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: North Dakota State
Wofford (10-3) at Youngstown State (10-3), 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Stambaugh Stadium wasn’t expected to be hosting another playoff game after the first round, but in the second round Youngstown State won at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State and Wofford avenged an earlier loss to No. 6 seed The Citadel, providing the pleasant surprise to the Penguins. Back in the 1990s, when they captured four FCS national titles, they won the first meeting against Wofford, 28-0 at Stambaugh in 1996. Wofford is always a tough matchup outside the Southern Conference because it runs the triple-option offense. Starting quarterback Brandon Goodson suffered a high ankle injury against The Citadel and true freshman Joe Newman played much of the second half. Regardless who the trigger man is this week, fullback Lorenzo Long (1,382 yards, 16 TDs) is the Terriers’ most dangerous offensive player. Their defense is stout and cornerback Devin Watson has helped lead the way in the playoffs with three fourth-quarter interceptions, including a pick-six. While Wofford’s 278.3 rushing yards per game rank fifth in the FCS, the Penguins aren’t far behind with a 258.5 average, and they’ll throw the ball as well. Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb have combined for 7,206 rushing yards and 71 touchdowns in their careers, but just as important for head coach Bo Pelini’s offense, junior Hunter Wells has settled the quarterback position recently. Defensive end Derek Rivers, their all-time sacks leader, is an NFL prospect. The winner advances to play Richmond or No. 2 seed Eastern Washington in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: Youngstown State
Richmond (10-3) at No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (11-1), 4 p.m. (ESPN3)
There’s an extra dynamic with this quarterfinal: Richmond head coach Danny Rocco is rumored to be coveted by another CAA Football member, Delaware, and Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin interviewed for the open position at Nevada this week. Both teams are battle-tested, with Richmond having beaten five ranked opponents plus Virginia. Eastern Washington also has an FBS win against Washington State and the Eagles pushed North Dakota State to overtime in their only loss. The visiting Spiders are making their second long trip of the playoffs after winning at North Dakota, the other Big Sky Conference co-champion, last Saturday. They’re getting it done in the offensive backfield with sophomore quarterback Kevin Johnson, whose redshirt was lifted at the start of the playoffs, and redshirt freshman running back Deontez Thompson, who was third string to start the season. But their best offensive player is a senior, wide receiver Brian Brown, who actually has more receiving yards this season (1,441) than Eastern Washington’s incomparable Cooper Kupp (1,392). The Spiders’ No. 2 passing defense (156.3 ypg) should stack up pretty well against EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud, who leads the FCS in passing yards (4,520) and total offense (5,501). Gubrud’s receiving corps boasts three 1,000-yard receivers with Kupp, Shaq Hill (1,077) and Kendrick Bourne (1,051). Defense has long been a shortcoming with the Eagles, but their opponents’ six-lowest point totals have come in the last six games. The winner advances to play Wofford or Youngstown State in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: Eastern Washington
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by South Dakota State Athletics)