FCS quarterfinals preview: Dakota Marker rematch, Sam Houston State-James Madison has ton of intrigue
What a second round it was for the FCS playoffs. Last Saturday saw three upsets, a trio of one-score games and some big-time individual performances.
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Now, the action will only get better as we approach a quarterfinals filled with intriguing rematches and clashing styles of play. Here’s everything you need to know about the four games that determine which teams moves one step closer to a trip to Frisco:
Sam Houston State vs. James Madison
Friday at 7 p.m. ET
The adage “defense wins championships” may prove true in the end, but there’s no question that offense has gotten both these top five seeds this far up to this point.
Sam Houston State leads the nation in scoring as the only FCS program averaging more than 50 points per game (53.1). James Madison is right behind at No. 2 with 48.3.
It doesn’t take too much thought to come to the conclusion that Friday night’s quarterfinals matchup will feature plenty of playmakers and scoring at will on both sides.
The quarterback matchup between SHSU’s Jeremiah Briscoe (five touchdowns last week against Chattanooga) and JMU’s Bryan Schor (five touchdowns against New Hampshire) may be the best one we see in the playoffs. Both will likely be asked to drop back well over 30 times in this upcoming shootout and both have proven in the past to be very efficient in crucial situations.
While the Bearkats have the slight edge in scoring, the Dukes boast a bit more of balance on the offensive side, getting key contributions from Khalid Abdullah and Trai Sharp in the running game. The running back duo combined for 164 yards last time out against the Wildcats.
There’s another category favoring the Dukes as well: JMU ranks eighth in the nation in turnover margin with 18 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. The Bearkats boast a pass-happy offense and are prone to turnovers at times – which may open the door for JMU’s hungry secondary.
Getting on the positive end of the turnover margin and winning the time of possession battle will be a point of emphasis on both sides. The less offensive drives for the other team the better, because both will put up points mercilessly.
North Dakota State vs. South Dakota State
Saturday at noon ET
When the 2016 playoff bracket was released two and a half weeks ago, this was probably one possible matchup most fans were eyeing.
North Dakota State has of course won five straight FCS championships and showed why it was placed as this year’s No. 1 overall seed with a 45-7 thrashing over San Diego in the second round last weekend.
With the lingering question of which team – if any – can dethrone the Bison this year still looming large, look no further for a possible answer than at the one program that handed NDSU its only loss this season.
South Dakota State stunned its neighbors to the north in a 19-17 upset on Oct. 15. In that game, the Jackrabbits held NDSU to just 304 yards of total offense in its lowest scoring output of the season.
SDSU will look to turn this quarterfinals rematch into a similar defensive bout. While Jackrabbits quarterback Taryn Christion can burn teams with both his arm and his legs, expect SDSU to lean on the run to slow the game down and keep NDSU’s offense off the field.
That strategy worked the first time around against the Bison, as well as last week in SDSU’s narrow 10-7 victory to knock out Villanova last weekend.
The challenge will be far greater this time around going against an experienced Bison team in a playoff environment where they often thrive.
In October, NDSU quarterback Easton Stick was marred in a slump where he wasn’t throwing many touchdown passes and recording far too many turnovers. But the sophomore signal caller has since heated up and threw for three touchdowns and zero interceptions against San Diego last week.
If October’s meeting was any indication, this week’s battle for the Dakota Marker part two should be wildly entertaining.
Youngstown State vs. Wofford
Saturday at 2 p.m. ET
If you’re looking for the FCS equivalent of a March Madness Cinderella story, here’s the go-to quarterfinals matchup.
Both teams had their share of quality wins but also some uninspiring defeats over the course of the regular season. The result was that they were both left out of the top eight teams who received first round byes and had to face some tough competition in the second round.
The Penguins simply overmatched No. 3 seed Jacksonville State in a 40-24 victory that was basically controlled by YSU from the start.
The Penguins got out to a 17-7 lead at the end of one frame, and after JSU crawled back in it in the second quarter, YSU then embarked on a 20-7 run the rest of the way to clinch the upset. The steady arm of Hunter Wells threw for 290 yards and a touchdown while Jody Webb, usually second fiddle to Martin Ruiz in the running game, exploded for 140 yards and a pair of scores.
Meanwhile, Wofford squashed No.6-seeded The Citadel’s title dreams by outlasting a run-heavy, defense-focused Bulldogs style similar to its own in a 17-3 victory. Eleven different Terriers received a carry in the win while their defense picked up a pair of interceptions and kept The Citadel’s dangerous ground game out of the end zone.
As seen from their second round games, these teams play two drastically different styles. But the result is the same: an unexpected but well-deserved ticket to the quarterfinals.
Eastern Washington vs. Richmond
Saturday at 4 p.m. ET
YSU and Wofford weren’t the only teams to make a splash in a pool of upsets last weekend. The third of the day came courtesy of Richmond.
Once considered a preseason title contender, the Spiders largely flew under the radar heading into the playoffs after a pair of losses in their final three games down the regular season stretch.
But it appears the Spiders are peaking at the right time after dismantling North Carolina A&T 39-10 in the first round and squeaking by No. 7 seed North Dakota 27-24 last Saturday. Now standing in Richmond’s way toward a surprising semifinals appearance is its toughest task in No. 2 Eastern Washington.
The Eagles boast two of the three finalists for this season’s Walter Payton Award, given annually to the top player across the FCS. Sophomore quarterback Gage Gubrud leads the nation with 4,520 passing yards to go along with 42 touchdowns while his top target, and 2015 Payton Award recipient, Cooper Kupp has been on the receiving end of 14 of those touchdowns.
The dynamic duo of Gubrud and Kupp are just the tip of the iceberg for the No. 1 passing offense, while the scariest part of facing EWU may stem from its vastly improved defense – the Eagles held Central Arkansas’ formidable attack to just 14 points in last weekend’s battle.
It’s easy to assume that Richmond’s inconsistent defense, which allowed 34 points to a William & Mary team ranked in the lower third in the nation in scoring offense in that aforementioned loss, will be a minor road block in the way of Gubrud and Co. But it’s not that simple.
Richmond is a hot team at the right time, and that proves dangerous in any sport come playoff time. The Eagles must be cognizant of this.