All the four semifinalists in the FCS playoffs want for Christmas is an ice bath. Their outstanding, havoc-creating defenses bring the pain, and everybody feels it.
Last weekend, their four quarterfinal-round games produced only 90 points combined. The offenses barely stood a chance.
No matter the physical play, the two semifinal-round winners will be feeling good come Saturday night because they'll have punched their ticket to the FCS championship game Jan. 11 in Frisco, Texas.
Here are the semifinal-round games:
Saturday, Dec. 21
No. 5 seed Montana State (11-3, 6-2 Big Sky) at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (14-0, 8-0 Missouri Valley)
Kickoff: 2 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Series: Montana State leads, 21-14 (last meeting: North Dakota State won 52-10 in the 2018 second round)
Notable: North Dakota State, which boasts a 26-1 home record in the playoffs this decade, seeks an eighth trip to Fargo South, er, Frisco. Included was the blowout of Montana State in last year's playoffs, but that experience will serve the Big Sky visitor well inside the Fargodome. Oh yes, it doesn't hurt to be using the Bison's blueprint as well — a physical run game and swarming defense. Running backs Logan Jones and Isaiah Ifanse help the Bobcats average 265.9 rushing yards per game, which ranks seventh in the FCS. NFL prospect Bryce Sterk (15 sacks) will put a ton of pressure on NDSU quarterback Trey Lance, who's yet to throw an interception in 257 career attempts (256 this season). Of course, the Bison may have patented the winning game plan. Behind four rushers with more than 600 yards — twice as many as any other FCS team — they’re fourth in rushing (285.9), and their defense features defensive end Derrek Tuszka (16.5 sacks) and future NFL linebacker Jabril Cox. The nine-time reigning Missouri Valley champ is on an FCS-record 35-game winning streak.
Pick: North Dakota State
No. 3 seed Weber State (11-3, 7-1 Big Sky) at No. 2 seed James Madison (13-1, 8-0 CAA)
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU
Series: James Madison won the only meeting (31-28 in a 2017 playoff quarterfinal)
Notable: It's a matchup of the purple people eaters. James Madison, a two-time FCS champion, is coming off its first playoff shutout (17-0 over Northern Iowa) and features defensive ends Ron'Dell Carter and John Daka, who have a combined 51.5 tackles for a loss and 28 sacks (yeah, ouch). Weber State has its own dynamic senior duo in defensive ends Jonah Williams and Adam Rodriguez, the latter who slammed Montana for four sacks in the quarterfinals. The Big Sky co-champ has struggled to run the ball recently and JMU, the CAA champ, basically doesn't allow a run game (60.4 yards per outing), so the Dukes' more potent offense, led by efficient quarterback Ben DiNucci, stands out between the two squads. If you want terrific special teams, these squads have some of the nation's best. Ethan Ratke kicked a walk-off field goal against Weber in the 2017 playoff matchup, and both he and counterpart Trey Tuttle have a combined 114 career field goals as juniors. The Wildcats are the only semifinalist yet to win an FCS title (this is their first appearance in the semis).
Pick: James Madison
Last Week’s Record: 3-1 (.750)
Season Record: 103-47 (.687)
— 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.
(Photo courtesy of James Madison Athletics)