By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The 2013 Division I college football season started a little after 6:00 PM on Thursday, August 29th in Kent, Ohio.
It was a matchup between an FCS team, Liberty, and an FBS team, Kent State.
Kent State struggled with Liberty, with their all-world tailback Dre Archer suffering an early injury and his Golden Flashes falling behind 10-7 in the 3rd quarter.
They would only finally escape Dix Stadium with a 17-10 victory after quarterback Colin Reardon finally solved the Flames defense, finding wideout Chris Humphery for the game-breaking 42 yard touchdown.
Kent’s struggle against Liberty didn’t seem at the time like the canary in the coal mine for a wide variety of FBS teams. But it was. Oh boy, it was.
The time between the first and last FCS vs. FBS matchup of the inaugural 2013 football season was 2 days, 5 hours, and approximately 42 minutes. Over the course of three evenings, covering almost all of that timeframe, an FCS team somewhere had an FBS team somewhere terrified they were going to go down in humiliating defeat. In short, it was nearly 54 hours of living hell for a FBS teams across the country.
“It wasn’t pretty, but a win’s a win,” Paul Haynes, a former Kent State defensive back and assistant coach, told the Akron Beacon-Journal. “It was a lot of getting first-game mistakes out of the way. We killed ourselves with penalties. Those are things we’ve got to get cleaned up, but the guys stepped up when they had to and we got the win.”
An hour into Kent State’s stalemate, Illinois State, who had knocked off Eastern Michigan last season 31-14, was leading Ball State 21-9 in the second quarter.
Quarterback Jared Barnett, in his first start for Illinois State, led the Redbirds to three early scores and had his team up 21-16 at halftime before the Cardinals would reassert themselves in the second half and pull away.
“It’s frustrating. We felt like we let one get away,” Illinois State coach Brock Spack said after the game. “But they can throw the ball very well. I was happy how we played the first half. There is enough blame to go around for everybody the second half.”
While Illinois State was heading into the locker room with a 5 point lead on an FBS school, Towson was pulling ahead 13-7 in front of a team only two years removed from a Fiesta Bowl appearance – and not looking back.
Running back Terrance West would pile up 161 yards and 2 touchdowns against UConn en route to a dominating 33-18 victory that got the media starting to whisper about FCS upsets.
“This is important to us because we have played well against FBS teams in the past but we haven’t been able to get a victory,” head coach Rob Ambrose said. “We do have team goals and in order to reach those goals, we had to win tonight. It doesn’t matter who we played. We were committed to winning this game.”
As West was putting the finishing touches on the Tigers’ victory, punching the second score past a gassed and demoralized UConn defense for the win, Southern Utah was rallying from a deficit to defeat a program that had only been in FBS for five years South Alabama.
After leading 10-7 at half, South Alabama pulled their starting quarterback and brought in Brandon Briggs, who then rallied his team to a 21-13 lead before Thunderbird quarterback Aaron Cantu would lead his team on two huge drives, hitting tight end Anthony Norris with a 2 yard strike to cut the deficit to 2 and then led his offense to a place where placekicker Colton Cook could boot the game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock.
“I was really proud of the way our guys fought,” Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb said. “We had the game early … but South Alabama wrestled it away from us there in the third quarter, but our guys didn’t start bickering, they didn’t start fighting with each other, they stayed with the plan, they made some plays down the stretch, just enough plays to win.”
Friday would also not be a day of rest for the teams of FBS.
After falling behind 14-7 at half, a 33 yard interception return for touchdown by cornerback Jaquiski Tartt would spark the Bulldogs to 24 unanswered points as they ruined the FBS debut of Georgia State 31-21.
“All wins are big,” Samford acting head coach Bill D’Ottavio said, since regular head coach Pat Sullivan was still recovering from offseason surgery. “You can’t overestimate a win, and going on the road for the opener, this is a great win for us. And I think this is a good football team we played. I know they are new and up and coming, but they have a lot of good football players.”
Then on Fox Sports 1, the defending national champs and the defending Big XII champs put on a football clinic that thrilled red-blooded college football fans from coast to coast.
The Bison trailed 21-7 in the 3rd quarter before engaging in a stirring comeback, scoring the last 17 points of the game, including a quarterback sneak by Brock Jensen with 28 seconds left to propel North Dakota State to the top of the sports headlines Friday evening.
“I would like to congratulate all of our players,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “It was a great effort on their part showing determination and resolve when we were down. Many, many teams have come in and Kansas State has jumped up and those teams have folded; our guys did not do that. I thought our assistant coaches made some really excellent adjustments there when we needed to – certainly the fourth down play was huge in the game for us to get that and it was a great win for our program. For me personally, I have a great deal of respect for Kansas State and coach Snyder for all those years in Nebraska. They are a tremendous program, so for us it is a great win.”
Then came Saturday, where nationally, the world was able to see plenty of scared FBS fans in the stands.
On ESPN News, Villanova resurrected the old fumblerooski play on a fake punt to grab a quick lead on Boston College, terrifying Eagles fans taking a 14-7 lead into the locker room before falling late in the second half, 24-14.
The fake punt was so good that it fooled the ESPN News camerapeople and made SportsCenter’s Top 10 list of the day and was as much a part of the college football fabric as anything Alabama or Texas A&M did on the same day.
“I went into the game feeling like we were probably not going to be down there a lot and we needed about a yard and a half. And when you are playing up, you have to take a couple of chances,” longtime Villanova head football coach Andy Talley said. “It was a chance, just like the fake punt was.”
On the Big 10 Network, Southern Illinois would fall behind Illinois 25-7 at halftime before making a furious late rally behind quarterback Kory Faulkner to cut the deficit to 8. The Salukis would have the ball first and goal at the Illini 9 yard line, but couldn’t get the ball in the end zone, allowing Illinois to escape with a 42-34 victory.
“Kory Faulkner played a gutsy game,” SUI head coach Lennon said. “He kept pulling himself off the turf. He was playing hurt and didn’t want to come out. That’s what you want from your quarterback, a guy that the team can rally around.”
“We never even thought about giving up the whole time we were out there,” Faulkner added. “Maybe the Illinois fans thought it was over when they returned that kick, but we knew we just had to go out there and put points on the board, and that’s what we did.”
In front of a national audience again on Fox Sports 1, William and Mary and West Virginia were deadlocked at 17 until finally, late in the 4th quarter, Mountaineer running back Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood would finally crack the Tribe defense, allowing West Virginia to escape with a 24-17 victory.
“I honestly don’t think that there’s anything to be happy about,” star William & Mary wide receiver Tre McBride said in the post-game press conference. “Obviously, we played well; there were some highlights in the game where we came out and worked hard. We don’t want a pity party, but what we are going to do is we’re going to throw this game behind us and we’re going to work to smash everybody else on our schedule. So no, there are no moral victories, none of that.”
While this pandemomium was happening across the country, Howard University’s performance against Eastern Michigan largeley went unnoticed, as the Bison went up 24-13 thanks to the power running of Greg McGhee.
“I have great respect for Howard because they played extremely well in this game.” Eastern Michigan head coach Ron English said. “They played a wonderful game and kept it close. It was just a very respectable game from them.”
While five FCS teams would put the Fear of Above in their FBS hosts, it would take 2010 FCS national champion Eastern Washington, playing on the Pac 12 Network, to be the first FCS team to actually figure out how to knock off one of these teams on Saturday.
Behind first-time starting quarterback Vernon Adams, the Eagles would keep up with the 25th ranked Beavers stride for stride in the shootout of the weekend, with Adams himself racking up an eye-popping 518 yards of total offense.
In a final drive which had a little of everything, including a huge 4th down conversion, with 18 seconds left, Adams’ quarterback sneak with 18 seconds left to play capped the second day in a row that a dramatic final drive resulted in a last-minute quarterback sneak to upset a highly-regarded FBS school in a BCS conference.
Oregon State’s final field goal attempt to tie the game barely missed.
“This is a huge win, Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin said. “We aren’t talking about an average team, we are talking about a bowl team and a big-time opponent that is well-coached. It took every ounce of every minute in this sucker to get it done. We just know how to fight and we know how to not let any environment get to us. That’s the biggest thing. Even the young guys weren’t all wide-eyed, so I learned a lot. But you’re going to learn a lot, having to come back off this, and play next week. You will learn a lot, and I’m going to be harder on guys about it. We need to treat next week almost like we lost this game, in a strange way. You have to take that focus, good or bad, and go into week two.”
As the sparks were flying in Corvallis, McNeese State was putting on one of the epic hurts on another BCS squad.
Though South Florida is technically in a BCS conference this season, the way they came apart in the second quarter in a 53-21 loss at home is the stuff of legend.
After giving up a touchdown on the first offensive play from scrimmage against McNeese, the Cowboys proceeded to rattle off the next 40 points in the epic beatdown. Tight end Nic Jacobs, in his first appearance in a Cowboy uniform, contributed 122 yards receiving and two of the humiliating death blows after being left wide open both times.
“I didn’t see this coming because they have good players,” McNeese State head coach Matt Viator said after the game. “We got a couple of breaks in the first half and made the most of them. But I was really proud with the way our kids played in the second half. We actually gained points in the second half from the first half. And that’s a testament to our kids coming out with good focus in the second half and good conditioning. This is a bigtime win against a BCS team in a terrific venue. This is a big win for us.”
With the national media caught up in FCS upset mania, two more games would end up in the victory column for FCS teams to close out an extraordinary weekend.
A second Big XII team would fall, as Northern Iowa outlasted in-state rival Iowa State 28-20, and doing what Missouri Valley conferencemate Southern Illinois came close to achieving but could not. Linebacker Sam Tim, helped the Panther defense limit the Cyclones to a mere 6 points as Northern Iowa rallied and notched the second Big XII scalp for a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. Tim would notch 9 tackles, 2 sacks, and forced a fumble.
“I think anytime you win it’s a good win, UNI head coach Mark Farley told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. When you’re playing the opener, it creates momentum for your season. I think it sets a tone at least for the early part of your season and it answers a lot of questions — maybe — that you have going into that football game and what your team is going to be about.”
And finally, at about 11:42 Eastern time, Eastern Illinois would put the final touches on their 40-19 dismantling of San Diego State.
Top quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a 62 yard strike in the second quarter to Keiondre Gober. After they took the lead against San DIego State with that pass, they would never trail again.
“Obviously I’m really happy for the players,” head coach Dino Babers said. “Eastern Illinois came here in 2001 with (Dallas Cowboys quarterback) Tony Romo and lost. So for us to get a win like this over a really good San Diego State team is big. The Aztecs did a great job. They really, really played us tough. We were losing guys left and right early in the game, and San Diego State was smacking us around. We just found a way to hang in there. The ball kind of bounced our way.”
Eastern Illinois’ win over the Aztecs would have set a record for the most lopsided FCS over FBS win in history – had McNeese State not won by 32 points over South Florida only a few hours earlier.
It was that sort of week.
One FBS upset might have been a fluke. Four FBS upsets might have been interesting, but nothing out of the ordinary in any given season. Eight FBS upsets are unusual, but still, nothing all that unusual when you consider an entire season.
But what struck me about this weekend that was in the FCS were two particular things.
One, to a person, not a single member of these FCS teams surprised that their team was in the game against a supposedly superior opponent. Head coaches are supposed to coach every game to win, of course, but there’s a difference between being happy to be there and expecting to win.
Particularly in the losses, Southern Illinois quarterback Kory Faulkner and William & Mary’s receiver Tre McBride knew how tantalizingly close they were to the big upsets. Clearly it was no moral victory for either one; they knew the gameplan was there to win. It could have happened. Easily.
Two, this was no fluke.
Seen in isolation, you could think of the eight FBS upsets as hugely unlikely events, a once-in-a-lifetime event that we’ll never see again, especially as collegiate realignment makes such games impossible in the future.
But there’s more to this story. It’s not just one team, or one conference, or one set of golden programs that can challenge the top teams. Howard of the MEAC wasn’t even considered in the Top 40 programs of FCS and had last won a MEAC title in 1993, yet they took Eastern Michigan deep into the second half. Many people didn’t have McNeese State in their Top 25, but the Cowboys arguably gave the most shocking FCS over FBS upset in a generation in its completeness. Eastern Illinois was rankied in many FCS Top 25’s, but few would have put money in Vegas that they would beat San DIego State by 21 points.
Fourteen college football games went to the wire against FCS teams. Two of them helped christen Fox Sports One as a national college football channel, while ESPN News, the Big 10 Network, and the Pac 12 Network carried FCS upsets into countless homes and sports bars across the country.
We’re in a world where college football on TV is big business, and FCS provided a huge number of thrills and chills in the first weekend. It was like the first round of the NCAA Tournament, filled with Florida-Gulf Coast’s, only in football.
There were very few moments in a 54 hour span that an FBS team was not being threatened to be toppled somewhere.
54 hours of heaven for FCS teams, but 54 hours of hell for their opponents.