What if someone told you that you didn’t have to wait until New Years for more quality college football? No, this is not a dream because that someone would be right: The eight best FCS teams remaining square off this weekend for a chance at the FCS crown. Kicking it off is James Madison University vs. Sam Houston State tonight, while Saturday will bring the thunder with Richmond squaring up with Eastern Washington, Youngstown State playing Wofford, and juggernauts North Dakota State playing Missouri Valley Rivals South Dakota State.
And yeah, VAVEL USA has everything you need to know, from game times to previews to predictions, right here.
*all times are in Eastern Time
(5) Sam Houston State at (4) James Madison (Dec. 9, 7:00 PM, ESPN 2)
It’s a classic Friday night lights game as the Bearkats travel to Harrisonburg, Virginia for the first game of the FCS Quarterfinals and to put it plainly, they have a lot to be excited about. For starters, Sam Houston State is undefeated across all competition this year, while boasting one of the nation’s leading passers (1st FCS in pass TD’s, 2nd in pass yards) in Jeremiah Briscoe. Briscoe has proven extremely adept at spreading the wealth: three of his receivers (Yedidiah Lewis, Nathan Stewart, Davion Davis) recorded 900+ receiving yards and 10+ touchdowns thus far into the season.
Despite the high powered Bearkat air attack, a porous defense often allows opponents to stay in games they deserve to be blown out in. Nine times this year, they’ve allowed 21 or more place, while four times they allowed 30 or more. If SHSU wants any chance of keeping their air raid offense from going to waste, defensive leaders PJ Hall (11 sacks), Mouf Adebo (7 sacks), and Darion Flowers (3 INT, 10 passes defended) will have to step up and win the turnover battle, something they have not had to rely on all season due to the explosive nature of the offense.
On the flip side, James Madison’s offense isn’t quite the juggernaut that SHSU’s is, but they are talented enough to take advantage of a spotty Bearkat defensive squad. Junior Bryan Schor took care of the ball this season, throwing 4 pics to his 23 TDs for a 182 QB rating while adding 500+ yards and 9 TDs on the ground. The ground game was led by the one-two punch of Khalid Abdullah and Cardon Johnson who combined for more than 2,000 yards and 25 TDs.
Raven Green’s 5 pics for 110 yards aside, JMU’s defense leaves much to be desired however their special teams are proven game changers. Led by Rashard Davis, the Dukes totaled 5 return TDs this season and 1,152 return yards. If Sam Houston runs up the score, James Madison may have to hope they can get a momentum swing in special teams.
Prediction: Scoring, lots of it. JMU will keep it close by winning the turnover battle and getting great field position via the return game, but it’s hard to bet against Briscoe and that Bearkat attack. KC Keeler’s boys take this one, 45-35 Sam Houston State.
Wofford at Youngstown State (Dec. 10, 2:00 PM, ESPN 3)
The only quarterfinal to feature two unseeded teams promises to be a better game than the lack of a ranking suggests. For starters, Youngstown is fresh off playing the upset card after preventing #3 ranked Jacksonville State from making a second straight FCS Finals appearance. The Penguins are perhaps the best unseeded team to make the postseason this year (evidenced by the fact that, well, they’re still in the postseason) and are currently riding a 4 game win streak. On top of that, they’ve been an impressive 7-0 at home this season.
YSU’s success has come largely on the back of a steady defense and deadly run game. On the yeah, Penguin backs have accounted for 3,360 total yards on the ground while holding opponents to a sliver above 1,500. In total, they’ve averaged 27 points per game while only getting an average of 17 points scored on them in return. The penguins double (or come close to doubling) opponents in rush first downs per game, yards per carry, yards per game, forced fumbles, and have scored 30 ground td’s while holding opponents to a measly six.
Standout performers include defenders Derek Rivers and Avery Moss (22 sacks) as well as halfback tandem Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb (2,136 combined yards). The Youngstown passing game, however, could be their undoing as they’ve had a revolving door of QBs this season who have totaled 11 total TDs to 12 INTs. Junior Hunter Wells (4 TD, 3 INT), will likely get the start on Saturday and will try to get the flightless Penguin pass game off the ground.
Meanwhile Wofford is riding wins off of division rival The Citadel and reigning Big South champion Charleston Southern. The Terriers’ style of play is almost identical to that of YSU: a smash mouth, run-first team that has utilized the triple-option to perfection this year and seems to double opponents in basically every rushing category. Defensively, Wofford may be even tougher than YSU, only allowing more than 28 points once this season vs. Ole Miss of the SEC. They held The Citadel to just 3 points last week, and Southern to 14 the week before.
A Terrier defense that has a whopping 17 INTs on the year (3 returned for scores) as well as forced 6 fumbles and 2 safeties. Oh, and add 2 Special Teams TDs to the list as well. Lorenzo Long (1,382 yd, 16 TD) and Jaleel Green/Devin Watson (8 total INTs, 2 total FFs) are the respective leaders on each side of the ball and will need to make up for a Terrier pass game that is, frankly, more grounded than YSU’s and did not even break 1,000 yards on the season.
Prediction: A battle of mirror images, Saturday’s game promises to be one of defense and ground game. Wofford perhaps has the better defense, but Youngstown’s run game is nearly unstoppable. A healthy Hunter Wells may be the tiebreaker, but only if he can avoid Wofford’s ball-hawking defensive backs. 17-10, Youngstown State.
Richmond at (2) Eastern Washington (Dec. 10, 4:00 PM, ESPN3)
While a mismatch on paper, this game has some promise. Richmond historically does very well against better opponents, evidenced by their knocking off of 7th ranked North Dakota. The Spiders are a solid team front to back and if Kyle Lauletta can connect with Brian Brown (11 TD, 1441 yd) the way he has all season, do not be surprised to see a week where Richmond plays the spoiler.
Deontez Thompson has had big shoes to fill after the departure of Jacobi Green, but has performed admirably on the ground with 1,138 yards from scrimmage to pair with 11 total touchdowns. Defensively, the Spiders have 16 interceptions on the year, 6 more than the offense has given up. More importantly, the interceptions have come from 11 different players, indicating that everybody on the Spider defense is just about as dangerous as the other ten starters: In other words, there is not one standout player that offenses can pinpoint and avoid, a playmaker can come from anyone on the Spider D.
Eastern Washinton, on the other hand, is something to be marveled at. Finishing the season 11-1 and 8-0 in-conference, the Eagles are perhaps the best team in the FCS not named North Dakota State. WR Cooper Kupp has garnered attention from the media and scouts alike, being heralded as the best FCS receiver since Randy Moss. He’s 3rd in FCS in both receiving yards and TDs (1,392/14) and has been widely regarded as a favorite for the Walter Payton Award (the FCS equivalent to the Heisman if the Heisman only featured offensive players which, let’s face it, it practically does), an award he won last year.
Perhaps more impressibly is that Kupp isn’t the only Eagle who’s a threat in the air. Shaq Hill and Kendrick Bourne both netted 1,000 receiving yards and 21 combined TD’s. Gage Gubrud and SHSU counterpart Briscoe are flip flopped atop the FCS passing charts as well, with Gubrud 2nd in the FCS with 42 TDs and 1st in pass yards (4,535). In addition to a high-powered offense, Eastern has also accumulated 16 INTs on the year much like their Richmond counterparts while also returning 2 touchdowns on Special Teams.
Prediction: Richmond’s talented defense could keep the Spiders in the game and make it interesting, but ultimately there is simply too much talent on that Eagle offense for them to not get the win. 30-20, Eastern Washington.
(8) South Dakota State at (1) North Dakota State (Dec. 10, Noon, ESPN)
(Announcer voice) AND NOW, THE MOMENT YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR…
A bit too dramatic? Perhaps, but only a bit. Fact is, this game is dripping in drama. First off, any game featuring NDSU (or the Alabama of the FCS as they’re known to those writing this article)is worth watching. Secondly, the Bison and Jackrabbits are interstate rivals and finished #1 and #2 in the MVFC, respectively. Third, both finished 7-1 in conference. Who in the Missouri Valley beat the Bison, you ask? That’s right, South Dakota State is the only red “x” on NDSU’s otherwise untarnished record that even featured a win over Iowa. Are you not entertained?
Easton Stick has performed admirably in his first full year as replacement to the current Philadelphia Eagle starting QB and former #2 overall pick in 2016, Carson Wentz. Big shoes much? Yeah, a bit. The Bison offense in absence of Wentz is nothing flashy, but gets the job done. They have three rushers over 600 yards (Stick, as well as backfield duo King Frazier and Lance Dunn), and score enough in the first half so that the game is out of reach by halftime (they outscored opponents 87-16 and 123-67 in the first two quarters). They can afford to settle for a safety-first offense when their defense holds opponents to under 17 points per game. Not only that, but three different defenders recorded 4-plus INTs while three more recorded at least 70 tackles led by senior linebacker MJ Stumpf (75 tackles, 12 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 INT, Recovered Fumble).
Meanwhile the Jackrabbits are led by Sophomore standout Taryn Christion who threw 30 touchdowns to only 8 pics and 6 additional rushing touchdowns in his second season. He’s had help from his receiving corps, specifically Dallas Goedert and Jake Weineke who both posted 1,000 yard and 11-plus touchdown seasons. The Jackrabbits resemble Eastern Washington many ways in that their pass offense is exceptional while the run game is an afterthought, however their defense leaves much to be desired. Christian Rozenboom and Jesse Bobbit recorded career years, but the buck stops there for the Jackrabbits who are extremely thin at key positions.
Prediction: The Jackrabbits were impressive in their first meeting with the Bison, however if that can be repeated remains to be seen. They won in Fargo as well, something not typically easy to do. If the Jackrabbits can limit the bleeding in the first half, then Christion may be able to make some magic happen in the 2nd half. Bold upset call: South Dakota knocks off the Bison, 17-14.