FCS semifinals preview: North Dakota State-James Madison, Eastern Washington-Youngstown State
What was once a 24-team FCS playoff field has now been whittled down to four after three blowouts and a double-overtime thriller closed out last weekend’s quarterfinals.
Now the four remaining teams face the final roadblock standing between them and a trip to Frisco, Texas for the national championship game on Jan. 7.
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Here’s what to expect from the two FCS semifinal matchups, starting Friday night:
James Madison at North Dakota State
Friday at 7 p.m. ET | ESPN2
All of Fargo, North Dakota breathed a sigh of relief last Saturday when its Bison got by South Dakota State to reach the semifinals for the seventh straight season.
With the memories of October’s SDSU upset fresh in their minds, the Bison rallied from its first double-digit deficit in more than a calendar year to rout their rivals to the south 36-10.
The Jackrabbits struck first with two scores on their first two possessions to open up a 10-0 lead. But NDSU found its footing late in the opening frame thanks to a 49-yard touchdown rush by Lance Dunn that sparked a 36-0 unanswered run.
While the Bison showed its playoff fortitude as a five-time defending champion in last Saturday’s second half of play, their next task will be outdueling a program that’s making only its third-ever trip to the semifinal round.
No. 4 seed James Madison demolished the highest-scoring team in the FCS in all phases of play last Friday in a 65-7 thrashing over Sam Houston State.
That matchup was touted to be a shootout – SHSU ranked first entering the game with more than 50 points scored per game while JMU ranked second – but in the end, it was a one-sided offensive exhibition.
The Dukes set a new program record for most points scored in a playoff game—which marked the sixth-highest across FCS playoff history – and its margin of victory ranks second behind only Montana’s 70-7 win over Troy in 1996.
Meanwhile, JMU’s often-overlooked defense forced three turnovers and held the Bearkats’ dynamic offense to just 270 total yards.
JMU will have to head to the dreaded Fargodome next, a site where NDSU is 18-0 all-time in playoff games. The Bison have a current 22-game overall winning streak in postseason play.
But JMU coach Mike Houston is confident in the Dukes’ ability to put together strong performances in hostile environments, just as they showed multiple times throughout the regular season.
“We had probably the most challenging road schedule in the conference this year,” Houston said in the CAA’s weekly teleconference on Monday. “That coupled with the strength of the CAA does give us good preparation and good confidence going into what will be a very tough road game.”
Houston added that JMU is trying to replicate the noise and other challenges that go with playing indoors during this week’s practices. Ultimately, Houston said the matchup will come down to physicality in the trenches.
“In essence, we built this team to try to go in there and win this game. Our style of play, it’s something that I hope we’re able to go in there and challenge them,” Houston said. “Because they’re certainly the standard at the FCS level.”
North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman made a similar assertion in his Monday press conference. The third-year coach Bison coach pointed at his program’s experienced offensive line and improved rush offense as a key factor in Friday night’s contest.
“You have to keep a high-powered offense on the sideline,” Klieman said. “The way you do that is being able to run the ball and win on third downs so you can stay on the field. If those guys have that play count up, then we’re in trouble.”
NDSU rushed for 302 yards and ran 34 more plays than SDSU in the quarterfinals. A repeat performance would keep CAA player of the year Bryan Schor and his myriad of weapons off the field and would slow down the Dukes’ fast-paced system.
But when JMU’s offense is on the field, Klieman said NDSU’s defense must be cognizant of Schor’s ability to extend plays. Schor missed the Dukes’ season finale with an injured shoulder but returned for the playoff push and has accounted for seven touchdowns in two games.
“(Schor) keeps plays alive, and I think that’s where he’s been so impressive. He’s able to keep plays alive and keep his eyes downfield,” Klieman said in his press conference. “He can scramble but he (also) does a great job at finding receivers downfield late.”
If last week was any indication, however, the Bison have a blueprint to stopping playmaking quarterbacks with its strong front seven. SDSU’s star freshman Taryn Christion was held to just 155 yards and zero touchdowns last Saturday.
Youngstown State at Eastern Washington
Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET | ESPNU
Eastern Washington ended the CAA’s hopes at a second bid into the semifinals by cruising by Richmond 38-0 last Saturday.
The Eagles are known for scoring in bunches with the unstoppable duo of quarterback Gage Gubrud and wide receiver Cooper Kupp leading the ship.
That connection was good for 128 yards and a touchdown against the Spiders, while Gubrud found two others in the end zone in the blowout. Kupp also surpassed the all-division NCAA record for receiving yards to add another benchmark to his stellar career.
But the real story to EWU’s return to the top ranks this season stems from its much-improved defense. Saturday’s clean slate marked the first EWU shutout in 101 games and followed a second round defensive performance that limited Central Arkansas to just 14 points.
The Eagles are no longer a one-trick pony – EWU allowed more than 39 points per game last season compared to 25.5 this year – and have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. They’ll need that balance against a gritty Youngstown State team, the lone survivor from outside the top four.
YSU rallied back from an early hole and clinched a trip to the semifinals in double overtime in a 30-23 victory over Wofford last weekend. Tevin McCaster provided the game-winning two-yard touchdown and do-it-all running back Jody Webb racked up a program-record 331 all-purpose yards to lead the way.
It’s been an impressive journey for the Penguins thus far, as they opened with a win over Samford and then upset No. 3 seed Jacksonville State en route to their meeting with the Terriers.
While the offense, led by Webb and quarterback Hunter Wells, has been the main catalyst so far this postseason, YSU played tough on defense against one of the nation’s top rushing offenses in Wofford.
The Terriers ran for 297 yards on 61 carries and was just 0-for-2 through the air. Now the Penguins must prepare for the opposite end of the spectrum in EWU’s pass-heavy spread offense.
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“They’re built on throwing the football,” YSU coach Bo Pelini said in his Tuesday press conference. “It’s about as night and day from last week as you can get.”
While Saturday’s night game will be played at EWU on its famous red playing turf dubbed “The Inferno,” the teams are ironically expected to play in freezing temperatures come game time. The low temperature listed for Saturday night in Cheney, Washington comes in at negative degrees.
But the wintery conditions didn’t slow down EWU’s attack last week on a snowy field against Richmond and Pelini said he’s confident that YSU will also be ready for the adverse temperatures.
“You just have to go into it with the notion that they’ll be able to execute their offense the way they’re used to doing it and have a plan in case the elements do have an effect,” he said in the press conference.
Eastern Washington’s last appearance in the FCS national championship game came in a 2010 victory over Delaware the year before NDSU commenced its five-peat. For YSU, it’s been a 17-year wait since its loss to Georgia Southern in 1999.