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In the FCS Huddle: FCS Quarterfinal Playoff Preview

2:13 PM, Dec 5, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When teams reach the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs, chances are they're going to play an opponent who presents a unique challange and might have a lot more in common with that team than one would think.

Two games this weekend in the FCS quarterfinals feature just that.

Then again, maybe not so much.

Sam Houston State and Montana State? The Bearkats play in Texas, where it's warm and everything is big, while the Bobcats play in Big Sky country, where it's cold and the mountains are big.

The other contest, between Georgia Southern and Old Dominion, features two programs which could not be more different.

The Eagles have a well-established history of FCS success and an ability to run to perfection the triple option offense. The Monarchs are in their fourth year as a football program, moving to the FBS next year, and have the FCS' No. 1-ranked offense and passing leader.

But when one looks past the obvious differences, the matchups on Saturday become even more interesting because both are a rematch of 2011 FCS playoff games. It's also a flip-flop of home teams, as Sam Houston travels to Montana State and Georgia Southern travels to Old Dominion, both opposites of last year.

"I think it's way blown out of proportion," Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said when talking about the impact of a rematch. "It's two different football teams entirely. They've had players that graduated and we've had players that graduated, it's different teams. Certainly our team is. Different personality, a lot of guys in different positions, new players in positions, and we're a different football team. This is the 2012 Georgia Southern team, the 2011 Georgia Southern team doesn't have anything to do with the game this Saturday."

Is it possible, however, that GSU's No. 1-ranked FCS rushing offense (393 yards per game) versus Old Dominion's first-ranked FCS passing offense (391 yards per game) could produce an even better offensive showcase than last year's 55-48 shootout in Statesboro?

The teams combined for 1,167 yards, and the Eagles, who came out on top, totaled 607 yards of offense compared to ODU's 560.

Monken noted that the development of ODU's playmakers could be a real difference maker.

"He (ODU quarterback Taylor Heinicke) appears to be a lot more developed then he was as a true freshman last year," Monken said. "Just in terms of his physical size and strength. I'm sure that's the case ... he just does a terrific job and they've obviously been terribly difficult for most of the teams they've played to defend, just slow 'em down.

"We don't have anybody that can become Taylor Heinike in a week. All those receivers he's got, I mean you just go right on down the line. I don't know how many guys they've got that have multiple catches ... we don't have that many guys that are going to be like them, so how you simulate it? I don't know. We just try to get prepared the best we can."

Like his opponent, Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder knows his team won't be able to fully stop the triple option Eagles.

"One of the key things that you have to get your defense to understand is that you're not going to stop this offense," Wilder said. "This offense averages (almost) 400 yards rushing per game, so there is no stopping it. What you need to do is you need to get some turnovers and you need to be able to slow it down. You've got to make this offense work for everything they get."

Wilder's team has handled the rematch factor of this game much like its approach as a football program leaving the FCS - having one last shot at glory before moving to the FBS in 2013.

"The number one thing we've talked about with this year's team is that we are really on a mission," Wilder said. "The motto is, 'one team, one year, with one shot at the national championship.' Because of our move once the season ends from the FCS to the FBS, the focus has been on Old Dominion all this year and how can we improve.

"We haven't talked about it being a rematch or a revenge game. Certainly, our players who played in that game last year remember what happened. Our defensive players who are back have familiarity with the offense, which could help us in this game, but this one's all about Old Dominion and trying to hold serve at home."

Sam Houston State also finds itself as the away team this year. Plus the squad has a little less time prepare for the Bobcats because the game is Friday night in Bozeman. It will be the eighth true road game this season, but coach Willie Fritz isn't worried about traveling.

"We've played eight games on the road this season already, so we're pretty used to playing on the road," Fritz said. "But I think each year is different. This is the 2012 Bobcats versus the 2012 Bearkats. I really think it's a different year. A lot of the same guys are playing, but they're (MSU) doing things slightly different. So are we."

Montana State seeks revenge, perhaps a little more than ODU because the 'Cats suffered a 49-13 trouncing in Huntsville last season in front of a national audience on ESPN. It's almost the exact same scenario this season, except MSU is the home team, with a chance to end Sam Houston's season, on national television Friday night. Expect the Bobcat faithful to one-up last week's playoff attendance record of 15,257.

"I think it's going to be a great matchup," Fritz said. "For us at Sam Houston, and I'm sure it's the same for Coach (Rob) Ash at Montana State, our goal is to be an FCS contender year in, year out. Both teams have fought through a tough schedule and won their first-round game against two quality opponents."

The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the five FCS games this week:

FCS Quarterfinals

No. 5 Sam Houston State (9-3) at No. 2 Montana State (11-1)

Date & Time: Friday, Dec. 7, 8 p.m. ET

Facts & Stats: Site: Bobcat Stadium (17,777) - Bozeman, Montana. Surface: FieldTurf. Television: ESPN2. Announcers: Tom Hart, John Congemi, Allison Williams. Home Record: Sam Houston State 4-0; Montana State 6-1. Away Record: Sam Houston State 4-3; Montana State 5-0. Neutral Record: Sam Houston State 1-0; Montana State 0-0. Conference: Sam Houston State - Southland; Montana State - Big Sky. Nicknames: Sam Houston State Bearkats; Montana State Bobcats. Series Record: Sam Houston State (3-2). Last Meeting: Dec. 10, 2011 (Sam Houston State, 49-13 at Sam Houston State). Series Streak: Sam Houston State has won the last two meetings. Sports Network FCS Ranking: Sam Houston State (5); Montana State (2). NCAA Playoff Seeding: Sam Houston State (NS); Montana State (3). Head Coaches: Sam Houston State - Willie Fritz (3rd season, 29-9 at Sam Houston; 19th season, 165-61-1 overall); Montana State - Rob Ash (6th season, 50-21 at Montana State; 33rd season, 226-120-5 overall). FCS Playoff Records: Sam Houston State 7-5; Montana State 6-5. Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Sam Houston State 5 (1986, 91, 2001, 04, 11); Montana State 6 (1984, 2002-03, 06, 10-11, National Champion in 1984). Current Playoff Streak: Sam Houston State has won three of its last four playoffs games; Montana State has lost three of its last five playoff games.

Game Notes: Revenge can either be good or bad depending on the situation. Montana State is hoping that it's a good thing because for the second straight season, the Bobcats meet Sam Houston State in the FCS quarterfinals.

The Bearkats took down MSU, 49-13, in Huntsville, Texas, last season, rushing for 428 yards on the way to the national title game. Plenty of Montana State players remember that contest and will be using it as motivation this week.

Montana State has the advantage of playing at home this time around and it could be a tough shorter week of travel and preparation for Sam Houston because the game is on Friday night. Plus, it's the first time since 1984 the Bobcats have hosted two playoffs games in the same season, so Bobcat Stadium should be rocking.

Both teams struggled offensively last week but made just enough plays to come away with victories. Sam Houston needed a team safety and three Miguel Antonio field goals to defeat Cal Poly, 18-16, and Montana State shut down Stony Brook's run game and utilized three Rory Perez field goals to win, 16-10.

Sam Houston ranks seventh in the FCS with 273 rushing yards per game this season. Timothy Flanders, Richard Sincere and Keshawn Hill split the carries, but each player brings something different to the table, making things even more difficult.

Montana State, on the other hand, ranks seventh in the FCS in rushing defense, allowing 98 yards per game. The key all season for the Bobcats defense has been consistency up front and depth. Jody Owens, Na'a Moeakiola, Caleb Schreibeis, Brad Daly and other players can impact a game individually or take it over as a unit.

Sam Houston only passes for 186 yards per game, so expect coach Willie Fritz to game plan for big plays with play action to receivers Trey Diller and Chance Nelson. Quarterback Brian Bell has the experience and ability to lead the offense and needs to make smart decisions, whether it be running or throwing the ball.

The Bearkats are even better against the run, allowing 88 yards per game (third in the FCS), so MSU will need players like Orenzo Davis, Tray Robinson and quarterback DeNarius McGhee to step up their play.

The last Southland Conference team to win a playoff game on the road versus a Big Sky Conference team was Sam Houston State in 2004. Big Sky schools are 21-3 all-time at home in the playoffs versus Southland foes and 6-1 all-time in the quarterfinals.

Prediction: Montana State 28, Sam Houston State 25

No. 6 Georgia Southern (9-3) at No. 3 Old Dominion (11-1)

Date & Time: Saturday, Dec. 8, noon ET

Facts and Stats: Site: Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium (20,068) -- Norfolk, Va. Surface: Astroturf GameDay Grass 3D. Television: ESPN. Announcers: Clay Matvick, Matt Stinchcomb. Home Record: Georgia Southern 6-1; Old Dominion 6-1. Away Record: Georgia Southern 3-2; Old Dominion 5-0. Series Record: Georgia Southern (1-0). Last Meeting: Dec. 3, 2011 (Georgia Southern, 55-48 at Georgia Southern). Conference: Georgia Southern - Southern; Old Dominion - Colonial Athletic Association. Nicknames: Georgia Southern Eagles; Old Dominion Monarchs. Sports Network FCS Ranking: Georgia Southern (6); Old Dominion (3). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Georgia Southern (5); Old Dominion (4). Head Coaches: Georgia Southern - Jeff Monken (3rd season, 30-11 at Georgia Southern and overall); Old Dominion - Bobby Wilder (4th season, 38-9 at Old Dominion and overall). Playoff Records: Georgia Southern (6 National Championships - 1985-86, 89-90, 99-2000 - 44-12); Old Dominion (2-1). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Georgia Southern 18 (1985-90, 1993, 1995, 1997-2002, 2004-05, 10-11); Old Dominion 1 (2011). Current Playoffs Streak: Georgia Southern has won six of its last eight playoff games; Old Dominion has won two of its last three playoff games.

Game Notes: Last season in the second round of the FCS playoffs, Georgia Southern hosted Old Dominion, a program which was making its first-ever playoff appearance. The Monarchs gave GSU all it could handle in an offensive shootout, before the Eagles managed to escape with a 55-48 victory.

Now, the tides have turned, as Old Dominion gets to play host at S.B. Ballard Stadium, with a trip to the FCS semifinals on the line.

There's no denying that both teams find success through their identities. ODU ranks No. 1 in the FCS in passing offense with 391 yards per game and Georgia Southern ranks first in rushing, averaging 393 yards per game.

The question is not who will stop, but who will slow down the other team, and/or create more turnovers.

As if the offenses weren't impressive enough - averaging 46 and 34 points per game, respectively - both quarterbacks are no stranger to the spotlight.

Georgia Southern signal-caller Jerick McKinnon rushed for 316 yards and accounted for three touchdowns against Central Arkansas last week. He fell just 17 yards short of Adrian Peterson's school-record 333-yard rushing performance against Massachusetts in the 1999 playoffs. In 12 games this season, McKinnon is averaging 123 rushing yards per contest and 7.1 yards per carry, and has scored 15 touchdowns on the ground.

ODU gunslinger Taylor Heinicke added to his own hoopla last week versus Coastal Carolina, throwing for six touchdowns and 497 yards, and rushing for 45 yards and two touchdowns. He set an FCS playoff single-game record for total offense with 542 yards. He needs 208 passing yards to tie Steve McNair's 1994 single-season FCS record of 4,863 yards. In 12 games, the sophomore has thrown for 41 touchdowns and completed 68 percent of his throws.

The Monarchs have some concerns defensively and give up 163 rushing yards per game, which ranks 66th in the FCS. Opponents are scoring 28 points per game for an average of 4.1 yards per carry and have scored 21 rushing touchdowns this season.

Georgia Southern's biggest concern has to be the Monarchs' quick-strike ability. Coach Jeff Monken's triple option offense will need to take care of the ball and produce long, effective scoring drives. If Heinicke and his talented group of receivers can keep the pressure on the Eagles' secondary, the Monarchs will get their shot at redemption.

Prediction: Old Dominion 38, Georgia Southern 35

No. 9 Wofford (9-3) at No. 1 North Dakota State (11-1)

Date & Time: Saturday, Dec. 8, 3 p.m.

Facts & Stats: Site: Gate City Bank Field / Fargodome (18,600) -- Fargo, N.D. Surface: AstroTurf's GameDay Grass. Television: ESPN GamePlan and ESPN3.com. Announcers: Johnathan Yardley and Ben Leber. Home Record: Wofford 6-0; North Dakota State 6-1. Away Record: Wofford 3-3; North Dakota State 4-0. Neutral Record: Wofford 0-0; North Dakota State 1-0. Series Record: First meeting. Nicknames: Wofford Terriers; North Dakota State Bison. Conferences: Wofford - Southern; North Dakota State - Missouri Valley. Sports Network Ranking: Wofford (9); North Dakota State (1). NCAA FCS Playoffs Seedings: Wofford (NS); North Dakota State (1). Coaches: Wofford - Mike Ayers (25th year 171-114-1 at Wofford, 28th year 182-135-2 overall); North Dakota State - Craig Bohl (10th season, 86-32 at North Dakota State at overall). FCS Playoff Records: Wofford 5-5; North Dakota State 7-1. Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Wofford 5 (2003, 2007-08, 10-11); North Dakota State 2 (2010-11). Current Playoff Streak: Wofford has won two of its last five playoff games; North Dakota State has won its last five playoff games.

Game Notes: With just eight teams remaining in the FCS playoffs, it really doesn't matter what team one plays because to be the best it has to beat the best.

This week in particular, things get interesting as Wofford and its No. 2- ranked rushing offense (357 yards per game) heads to Fargo to play No. 1 seed North Dakota State and its top-ranked rushing defense, or you could say defense in general.

Wofford enters the game feeling better about its defense, after the Terriers held New Hampshire to 238 yards of offense, forced three turnovers, 10 tackles for loss and sacked the quarterback five times in a 23-7 win last week.

Offensively, Wofford is undoubtedly led by its senior fullback Eric Breitenstein. He plays a crucial role in the team's triple option offense and must be accounted for every time he's in the game. In 12 contests, the senior has rushed for 1,900 yards and 19 touchdowns, and leads the FCS with 158 rushing yards per game.

The Terriers will use James Lawson under center, who is technically the third- string quarterback. However, he's been managing the team well in six games this season. He's only completed 15 passes for 178 yards, but this week the team's rarely used passing game needs to strike for some big plays against the best defense in the FCS.

NDSU's defense leads the FCS in a cornucopia of statistics. However, the ones to keep an eye on this week include: scoring (11 points per game) total defense (197 yards per game), defensive third down efficiency (25 percent) and first downs allowed (11 per game) - especially versus a run-heavy opponent because keeping the clock moving and gaining first downs are vital.

The Bison have stepped up to almost every challenge this season and have held 11 of its last 13 opponents to under 250 yards of offense, dating back to the 2011 national championship. In 12 games this year, only two teams have crossed the 100-yard rushing mark.

Breitenstein crushed New Hampshire last week for 247 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came primarily in the middle of the field. Don't expect the same results versus NDSU. But you can expect veteran coach Mike Ayers to look to Donovan Johnson, Brad Nocek and Lawson to pick up some slack and keep the defense guessing with misdirection and motion.

Don't forget, the last time the Bison faced a triple option team from the Southern Conference, they beat Georgia Southern, 35-7, in the 2011 FCS semifinals.

Prediction: North Dakota State 25, Wofford 18

No. 16 Illinois State (9-3) at No. 4 Eastern Washington (10-2)

Date & Time: Saturday, Dec. 8, 6 p.m. ET

Facts & Stats: Site: Roos Field (8,600) - Cheney, Wash. Surface: SprinTurf (red). Television: ESPN3.com. Announcers: Trey Bender and Jay Taylor. Home Record: Illinois State 3-3; Eastern Washington 6-0. Road Record: Illinois State 6-0; Eastern Washington 4-2. Conference: Illinois State - Missouri Valley; Eastern Washington - Big Sky. Nicknames: Illinois State Redbirds; Eastern Washington Eagles. Sports Network FCS Rankings: Illinois State (16); Eastern Washington (4). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Illinois State (NS); Eastern Washington (2). Series Record: Illinois State (1-0). Last Meeting: Oct. 17, 1987 (Illinois State 31-14 at Eastern Washington). Head Coaches: Illinois State - Brock Spack (4th season, 28-17 at Illinois State and overall); Eastern Washington - Beau Baldwin (6th season, 43-18 at Eastern Washington, 53-21 overall). Playoff Records: Illinois State (4-3); Eastern Washington (10-7). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Illinois State 3 (1998-99, 2006); Eastern Washington 8 (1985, 92, 97, 2004-05, 07, 2009-10, National Champion in 2010). Current Playoff Streak: Illinois State has lost two of its last three playoff games; Eastern Washington has won its last five playoff games.

Game Notes: In a quarterfinal matchup between two teams which mirror each other in many ways, the Illinois State Redbirds head to Eastern Washington to play the Eagles on their red turf field.

Illinois State won in dramatic fashion last week at Appalachian State, 38-37, thanks to a blocked extra point to end overtime. The Redbirds improved to 6-0 on the road this season and are led by senior quarterback Matt Brown and a very underrated defense.

Brown threw for five touchdowns in the win last week, and in 12 games he's completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,998 yards and 25 touchdowns, one shy of a new ISU single-season record. His favorite receiver, Tyrone Walker, has totaled 81 catches for 1,171 yards and eight touchdowns, and running back Darrelynn Dunn averages 83 yards per game on the ground and scored 12 touchdowns in 11 games.

Eastern Washington has the FCS' ninth-ranked passing offense with 301 yards per game and quarterback Kyle Padron made just his second start of the season last week. He has plenty of experience and in the last two games, he's thrown for three touchdowns for 708 yards and completed 71 percent of his passes. Padron is expected to be the starter this week, but don't be surprised if redshirt freshman Vernon Adams sees playing time as well.

Illinois State's passing defense ranks ninth in the FCS in passing efficiency with a 105.73 rating. The Redbirds have 16 interceptions in 12 games and defensive back Ben Ericksen leads the FCS with seven interceptions.

Colton Underwood, Mike Zimmer and Shelby Harris headline an athletic defensive group which averages 3.2 sacks per game, good for fifth in the FCS. The trio has accounted for 20 sacks in 12 games this season.

Eastern Washington is 6-0 at home this season and the team is 16-2 all-time playing at Roos Field since its famous red turf was installed in 2010.

Receiver Brandon Kaufman is a game-changer. He's hauled in 75 receptions for 1,444 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and is just 81 yards shy of setting a new Big Sky single-season record. Watch out for EWU's talented receiving corps versus the ISU stingy secondary.

The Eagles' air attack will certainly be tested this week, so expect running backs Demitrius Bronson and Quincy Forte to try provide some stability on the ground. Each back has 115 carries and averages 45 and 38 rushing yards per game, respectively, but once in the red zone, coach Beau Baldwin expects more from his backfield.

Prediction: Eastern Washington 34, Illinois State 30

SWAC Championship Game

Jackson State (7-4) vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff (9-2)

Date & Time: Saturday, Dec. 8, 2 p.m. ET

Facts and Stats: Event: SWAC Championship. Annual: 14th. Site: Legion Field (72,000) -- Birmingham, Ala. Surface: Artificial Turf. Television: ESPNU. Announcers: Joe Davis, Jay Walker. Home Record: Jackson State 3-1; Arkansas- Pine Bluff 3-1. Away Record: Jackson State 4-2; Arkansas-Pine Bluff 5-1. Neutral Record: Jackson State 0-1; Arkansas-Pine Bluff 1-0. Current Win/Loss Streak: Jackson State 5W; Arkansas-Pine Bluff 6W. Series Record: Jackson State (21-12). Last Meeting: Oct. 6, 2012 (Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 34-24 at Arkansas- Pine Bluff). Series Streak: The teams have split the last 10 meetings. Nicknames: Jackson State Tigers; Arkansas Pine Bluff Golden Lions. Sheridan Broadcasting Network Poll Rankings: Jackson State (6); Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2). Heritage Sports Radio Network Poll Rankings: Jackson State (9); Arkansas-Pine Bluff (2). Sports Network Rankings: Jackson State (NR); Arkansas- Pine Bluff (32). All-Time Records: Jackson State (421-252-16, since 1946); Arkansas-Pine Bluff (357-406-42). Head Coaches: Jackson State - Rick Comegy (6th year, 48-30 at Jackson State, 21st year, 156-81 Overall); Arkansas-Pine Bluff - Monte Coleman (5th year, 28-27 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Overall). Previous SWAC Championship Appearances: Jackson State 3 (1999, 2007-08); Arkansas Pine Bluff 1 (2006). SWAC Championship Record: Jackson State (1-2); Arkansas-Pine Bluff (0-1). All-Time SWAC Football Championships: Jackson State 16 (1961-62, 72-73, 75, 80-82, 85-88, 90, 95-96, 2007); Arkansas-Pine Bluff 1 (1966). SWAC Championship Division Record: Western Division owns a 10-3 record over the Eastern Division and has won the last four years. 2011 SWAC Championship Result: Grambling State def. Alabama A&M, 16-15.

Game Notes: Although the FCS playoffs take center stage this weekend, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Jackson State still have a lot to play for, with the SWAC title up for grabs in Birmingham, Ala.

UAPB is making its first appearance in the championship game since 2006 and the Golden Lions have arguably been the most consistent SWAC team this season. Offensively, Arkansas-Pine Bluff is fairly balanced, averaging 204 rushing yards per game and 196 passing yards per game. Justin Billings (768 yards, five touchdowns) and Dennis Jenkins (539 yards, four touchdowns) offer a nice one-two combo for quarterback Ben Anderson, who leads the team and ranks second in the SWAC in total offense with 236 yards per game.

Jackson State's last SWAC title came in 2007 - the 16th in program history - and the Tigers earned a berth in the contest this season despite having a 2-4 record after a 34-24 loss versus Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Oct. 6.

JSU ranks second in the SWAC in total offense with 406 yards per game and sets the tone on the ground with running backs Rakeem Sims and Tommy Gooden, who have combined for 1,262 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.

Wide receiver Rico Richardson was named the SWAC's offensive player of the year and has 56 receptions for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games.

Jackson State and UAPB are led on defense by two outstanding pass rushers in Joseph LeBeau and Brandon Thurmond, respectively. Both have put up ridiculous numbers, while Thurmond has recorded 63 tackles, an FCS-high 15.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, and LeBeau has registered 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.

There should be a great crowd for this game in Birmingham, especially because both schools unexpectedly reached the title game this season. Expect a defensive battle, and for each team to try to establish the run game early on.

Prediction: Arkansas-Pine Bluff 30, Jackson State 22

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