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Andy Wittry | | April 28, 2021

7 essential numbers to know for the quarterfinals of the 2020-21 FCS playoffs

No. 2 Sam Houston holds off Monmouth in first round of FCS playoffs

The quarterfinals of the 2020-21 FCS playoff bracket begin with two games at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday — No. 2 seed Sam Houston versus North Dakota State and No. 4 seed  Jacksonville State versus Delaware. No. 3 seed James Madison takes on North Dakota at 6 p.m. and No. 1 seed South Dakota State faces Southern Illinois in the nightcap at 9 p.m.

The first round of the FCS playoffs provided three one-possession games and now four berths to the semifinals are on the line. Here are seven essential numbers to know for the quarterfinals.

1) 41:26

That's how long Southern Illinois possessed the ball in its 38-14 win over No. 1 North Dakota State on Feb. 27. The Salukis have already beaten a No.1-ranked team this season, so can they now defeat a No. 1-seeded team?

Southern Illinois' offense averaged 6.1 yards per play to North Dakota State's 6.0 yards per play, but when the Salukis had possession of the ball, they were unlikely to give it up. They ran 73 plays on offense to the Bison's 45, as Southern Illinois converted on 11-of-16 third-down conversion attempts, plus on the team's only fourth-down conversion try.

North Dakota State was 4-for-10 on third down, for comparison. Southern Illinois  won the turnover battle 2-0 and punted just three times — two of which pinned North Dakota State inside its own 20-yard line. The Salukis scored on all five of their trips inside the red zone.

If Southern Illinois is to upset No. 1 seed South Dakota State, it will likely take another dominant performance in all three phases, such that the Salukis control the clock with timely and frequent first downs, a couple of turnovers and advantageous special teams play.

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2) .958

That's South Dakota State's red zone scoring percentage, which is why Southern Illinois will need to control the clock as much as possible and keep the Jackrabbits' offense on the sideline. South Dakota State has scored 23 times in 24 trips to the red zone this season, including 15 touchdowns and eight field goals, with only one missed opportunity. The Jackrabbits are almost automatic to score.

3) 486.4

That's No. 2 seed Sam Houston's average yards of total offense per game, which ranks ninth nationally and the highest among the teams in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. Despite being the No. 2 seed in the playoff bracket, Sam Houston's second opponent in the playoffs is a little program by the name of North Dakota State, which has won the last three FCS national championships and eight of the last nine.

Wins over North Dakota State are rare. Wins over North Dakota State in the playoffs in the last decade are especially so.

The undefeated Bearkats average nearly seven yards per play, but they're coming off of their lowest point total of the season — a 21-15 win over Monmouth, which was ranked No. 10. In Sam Houston's first three games of the season, it scored 43, 71 and 62 points, so points aren't typically hard to come by for a team that averages 44.8 per game.

Quarterback Eric Schmid averages 337 passing yards and 46 more on the ground, while running back Ramon Jefferson averages a team-high 79 rushing yards per game. Big-play threat Jequez Ezzard averages one touchdown per game in which he's appeared this season and 30 yards per catch and 101 yards per game.

North Dakota State's opponents average 2.3 touchdowns per game this season, so something might have to give, and Sam Houston's offense is more than comfortable playing in a high-scoring affair if required.

4) 13

That's how many FCS playoff games North Dakota State has won in a row, including three national championships. The Bison's last defeat in the playoffs came on Dec. 16, 2016, against James Madison in the FCS semifinals, when the Dukes won 27-17. In those 13 games, North Dakota State outscored its opponents 479-164, or an average of a 36.8 points scored to 12.6 points allowed.

5) 213.5

That's how many yards the leader in total defense, No. 3 seed James Madison, allows per game, which is more than 50 yards fewer than No. 1 seed South Dakota State. James Madison was the last non-North Dakota State national champion, as the Dukes won it all in 2016, something no other program not nicknamed the Bison has accomplished since Villanova in 2009.

If James Madison defeats North Dakota, then in the semifinals it would either face No. 2 seed Sam Houston State (the leaders in total offense among the teams that remain in the FCS playoffs, as detailed above) or the juggernaut of North Dakota State. Either would be a compelling matchup; or, North Dakota, which already beat No. 1 seed South Dakota State by 11 and Southern Illinois, which ironically faces South Dakota State in the quarterfinals, by 23, so North Dakota possesses upset potential, too.

Only North Dakota State has held North Dakota to fewer than 21 points this season.

6) +7

That's North Dakota's turnover margin in six games this season. That ranks eighth nationally and is the second-best of any teams left in the FCS playoffs. No. 3 seed James Madison, which is North Dakota's opponent in the quarterfinals, is even in turnover margin this season, with nine forced and nine lost. North Dakota ranks second in turnover margin among the remaining teams in the FCS playoffs because of...

7) +1.83

Delaware has posted a ridiculous plus-11 turnover margin through six games this season, which is the best in the country. That translates to a plus-1.83 turnover margin advantage per game. Playing No. 4 seed Jacksonville State, Delaware will need to find an advantage somewhere and if the Blue Hens can play up to their season average in turnover advantage, that's a good place to start. 

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