A Day In I-AA, 2002

 

Shrman and PeabodyBy David CoulsonWilliam and Mary WR Rich Musinski

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal

 

Editor’s Note: It is time to get back into the Wayback Machine with Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman (anybody remember the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show?) for a ride back to 2002 in what was then called I-AA. It is the final day of the regular season and our author takes us through a day of football as it happened.

 

BOONE, N.C. — It’s D Day for many I-AA football teams around the country and I have decided on a rare Saturday off day to spend it in front of the television , with computer nearby to track those I can’t see on the Internet.

 

I’ve had to get past numerous challenges to make this work.

 

My television had a power supply blow up in it on Thursday night, forcing me to scramble for another set. Instead of my usual 27-inch Sony, I’m feeling blessed to have a borrowed, but functioning, 13-inch Toshiba to watch everything unfold.

 

I feel like a kid in a candy store as I wait for the games to begin.

 

It’s high noon and I wrestle the remote from my two daughters. Cartoon super hero Space Ghost is replaced by the Atlantic 10 Game of the Week.

 

But instead of finding Villanova at Delaware, New Hampshire at Maine, or Northeastern at James Madison, there is a meaningless matchup between Richmond and William & Mary.

 

Now I realize it’s not meaningless in Northern Virginia, but come on? Does the rest of the country. or even the rest of the A-10 want to see this game?

 

William & Mary has played itself out of a playoff berth in the past few weeks with a pair of losses and all the Tribe is playing for now is a win over its arch-rival and the quirky possibility of sharing the A-10 title.

 

But things start to go very bad very quickly for Bill & Mar. The Tribe, which has only made 13 turnovers in 10 games, makes three — two on interceptions — in the first quarter to fall behind 14-0 to the Spiders.

 

On ABC, a member of the I-AA alumni club is playing for a shot at a BCS championship.

 

Jim Tressel won several real national titles at Youngstown State and now he is working his magic at Ohio State. Near the end of the first half, before more than 105,000 fans at Columbus, Tressel and the Buckeyes fall behind 9-6, but Ohio State comes back to win late 14-9, intercepting a pass at the goal line in the final seconds.

 

Another coach with his roots in I-AA is leading his team to a victory in Colorado Springs, Colo. Fisher DeBerry learned the art of the wishbone from the late Jim Brakefield as an assistant at Appalachian State.

 

Brakefield also taught Wofford’s Mike Ayers and his coaching blood lines now extend through DeBerry in Cal McCombs at VMI and Paul Hamilton at East Tennessee State. DeBerry shows he learned his lessons well as the Falcons are well on their way to beating San Diego State.

 

Meanwhile, back in the A-10, things continue to get worse for the Tribe. Rich Musinski makes a great catch of a David Corley pass for a W&M touchdown (nothing surprising there), but Richmond comes right back to score again and another Tribe fumble inside the 10 leads to still another Spider score and it’s 28-7.

 

While keeping my eyes on the A-10 game, I keep checking the I-AA scoreboard ticker at I-AA.org, where Maine and Northeastern are taking care of business and moving closer to an A-10 co-championship.

 

Musinski and Corley strike again in the final two minutes of the half to cut the lead to 28-13. But then one of the officials gives Musinski a 15-yard celebration penalty when the All-American receiver casually high fives a young fan in the stands. The Tribe then misses the extra point from the 35.

 

I guess those A-10 officials don’t want to encourage youngsters to come to the games?

 

Dumb rule, even dumber interpretation. W&M coach Jimmy Laycock unleashes phasers, photon torpedoes and every other weapon at his disposal at the officials — rightfully so.

 

As the first half in Williamsburg winds down, I find my trusty remote and discover a broadcast of Toledo and Northern Illinois from Mid-American Conference territory. The MAC is a I-AA league disguising itself as I-A.

 

If memory serves me, didn’t Western Illinois beat Northern Illinois earlier this season?

 

Toledo went to a bowl game last year (if you can call a trip to Detroit a reward), but the Rockets are struggling to hold off the Huskies 23-17 in the first half on this day.

 

Still another I-A pretender that would struggle even as a I-AA team is getting some rare national TV exposure on NBC. Rutgers vs Notre Dame.

 

On a day loaded with great rivalries, we have a game on TV between Rutgers and Notre Dame? I think I’d rather see Charleston Southern against Tennessee-Martin.

 

Surprisingly though, the Scarlet Knights are holding the Fighting Irish scoreless through the first period.

 

Did some people actually think Notre Dame was going to play in the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS championship?

 

Suggestion for Tyrone Willingham — schedule some real teams next season. Notre Dame eventually wins a ho-hum game 42-0.

 

Checking the ticker again, I see that Fordham is closing in on an automatic bid with a 20-0 lead over Bucknell.

 

Colgate and Lehigh are doing little to impress the NCAA selection committee. Colgate finally holds off Holy Cross 25-20, but Lehigh puts an end to a perplexing season with a 14-7 loss to Lafayette in college football most-played rivalry, Game 138 in the series.

 

Another team to see its dreams turn to nightmares is Duquesne.

 

The Dukes came into the ECAC Bowl with Albany with an 11-0 record, but Albany dumps them 24-0, ending Duquesne fledgling playoff hopes and its chance to win the I-AA Mid-Major national poll.

 

The clock strikes 2 p.m., which means the tailgating is coming to end in Lake Charles, La. and its time for the kickoff between No. 1 ranked McNeese State and No. 17 Nicholls State.

 

In Indianapolis, you can be sure that the selection committee has their satellite TV tuned into this game.

 

One committee member told me this week that the committee was ecstatic that this contest was switched from an 8 p.m. starting time to 2 p.m. because of Fox Sports. Maybe the committee will get back to their rooms before midnight.

 

I am surprised when McNeese State and Nicholls State sprint up and down the field like track teams, on the way to a 23-21 Cowboy lead at the half. I thought this was suppose to be a defensive battle, like most Southland Conference contests.

 

My remote is getting a good workout as I flip to the frozen and snowy tundra of Washington-Grizzly Stadium for Montana State-Montana. How appropriate for the “Brawl of the Wild” to be played in a blizzard.

 

The gritty Bobcats, behind freshman quarterback Travis Lulay and a defense that keeps pounding Montana QB John Edwards to the cold, hard turf, are holding their own, going to the locker room with a 3-0 lead.

 

Time to check scores again and the Atlantic 10 finals come rolling in.

 

Northeastern and Maine wrap up their shares of the title with the Black Bears beating New Hampshire 31-14 and the Huskies storming past James Madison 41-10.

 

UMass keeps its faint playoff pulse with a 48-21 win over Rhode Island, but results around the country don’t look good for the Minutemen

 

Lulay caused hearts to palpitate both in Missoula, MT. and at Southern Utah, where Idaho State is scoreboard watching while it plays the Thunderbirds.

 

The Bengals can’t like the news that Lulay’s 53-yard TD toss to Charles Adams has given the Bobcats a 10-0 lead. Even with a 28-3 halftime lead over Southern Utah, Idaho State has to be nervous about its playoff chances.

 

Another team watching its postseason hopes slowly evaporate is Villanova.

 

Facing one of the toughest tasks of the day, going into Delaware — a place that had already claimed Georgia Southern this year — the Wildcats lead early, but can’t hold off the Blue Hens in the second half.

 

Villanova falls behind 34-31 early in the fourth quarter.

 

Normalcy returns to Lake Charles as McNeese State and Nicholls State play a scoreless third quarter.

 

Perhaps it was because Colonials’ starting quarterback Chris Son came out from the locker room on crutches in the second half.

 

With Son and his team-leading 60 yards rushing on the bench, Nicholls State can’t get untracked with its double-wing, triple-option offense.

 

For the second time of the day, Montana sees a field goal attempt go awry. Chris Snyder had a kick blocked in the first half.

 

This time, he never gets to swing his leg as the snap is fumbled away late in the third quarter. A desperate pass falls barely incomplete at the Bobcat 10.

 

In Southern Conference territory, both Furman and Wofford take care of matters and make things tougher for a committee that must decide if four SoCon teams belong in the 16-team tournament field.

 

Wofford out-options Elon 34-9, while Furman struggles early before putting away Tennessee-Chattanooga 35-7.

 

Back in the A-10, Villanova pulls off a miracle.

 

Quarterback Brett Gordon leads the Wildcats on an 11-play, 74 yard drive in the final minutes and tosses a seven-yard TD pass to Brian White with 15 seconds to play to lift Villanova to a 38-34 win.

 

Gordon, the FCS version of Doug Flutie, finishes the game with three touchdown passes, completing 39-of-62 attempts for a career-high 460 yards.

 

It appears Gordon and the Wildcats have lived to play again. Bad news for bubble teams around the country.

 

At 4 p.m., I start searching the Dish for the MEAC championship matchup between Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M in the Florida Classic.

 

I find all sort of football games on the air, including Concordia-St. Paul vs Southwest State (I’m sure its a Division III thriller), but nothing between the Wildcats and Rattlers.

 

With 70,000 people watching at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, you would think someone at home might want to view this game.

 

I’m stuck keeping up with this on the Internet.

 

The Wildcats answer plenty of questions early by jumping ahead 10-0 after a quarter and are on their way to an easy 37-10 victory. Bethune-Cookman captures the MEAC title and the automatic bid.

 

An hour later, Northwestern State is just getting ready to kickoff its game at Stephen F. Austin when the Demons get good news from Lake Charles. McNeese State defensive back Rod Gulley picks off a pass and returns it 40 yards for a game-clinching score with 1:11 remaining.

 

The Cowboys, who had stopped Nicholls State near the 20 on fourth and short with under four to play, win 32-21.

 

John Edwards of Montana is called “Johnny Montana”, a take-off on both Joe Montana-like comebacks and the college he plays for.

 

But against Montana State, Edwards has played more like cartoon character Johnny Bravo. But Edwards finally gets the Grizzlies on the board with a touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to make it 10-7.

 

But MSU’s defense stiffens the rest of the way, overcomes a pair of turnovers by the offense, and hangs on for the upset win.

 

On fourth and inches, with one minute remaining at the MSU 43, Lulay’s second effort on the quarterback sneak clinches the game.

 

The Bobcats, who hadn’t beaten Montana since 1985 and hadn’t won in Missoula since 1984 (MSU’s national championship season, ironically), shock the I-AA world by capturing a share of the Big Sky championship and earning the automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs.

 

Idaho State hearts sink as their playoff hopes pretty much go out the window, even with a win.

 

Montana, which had won a I-AA-record-tying 24 straight games (matching Penn’s mark of a decade earlier, with QB Mark DeRosa at the helm), lost its second consecutive game for the first time since 1994.

 

The loss probably drops the Griz out of a top-four seed and will likely force Montana on the road for some of its playoff games.

 

As the committee sits down to its first meeting of the day in Indianapolis, the playoff picture is beginning to focus.

 

The biggest decision will be what to do with three teams from the Southern Conference, Appalachian State, Furman and Wofford, who all beat up on each other and finished tied for second place in I-AA’s toughest league.

 

ASU and Furman are 8-3 and should be ranked firmly in the middle of the top-10 of most polls come Monday. Wofford is 9-3 and holds victories over two top-10 teams, ASU and Georgia Southern.

 

As mad as it might make the folks from some other conferences, it seems inevitable that the SoCon will be the first league ever to get four bids in one year.

 

Things look bleaker and bleaker for those bubble teams. Perhaps some Don Ho music might be appropriate, as in “Tiny Bubbles.”

 

Montana State has already broken some hearts and now so has Murray State. The Racers dominate most of the way against No. 2 ranked Eastern Illinois until Andre Raymond scores from two-yards out for the Panthers with 23 seconds left, giving EIU a 35-34 lead.

 

But 23 seconds is just enough for Murray State to move into field-goal range and Shane Andrus drills a 52-yard kick on the final play to give the Racers a 37-35 victory and the automatic bid that goes with their share of the Ohio Valley Conference championship.

 

Tony Romo throws for 302 yards and a pair of touchdowns and J.R. Taylor rushes for 174 yards and another score, but Eastern Illinois is undone by its defense.

 

The Panthers will make the playoffs, but they have blown a probable top-four seed and will probably be on the road next weekend.

 

With no more I-AA games on the TV, I flip around through some of the traditional I-A rivalries. USC-UCLA, Auburn-Alabama, Marshall-Ohio University (is that a rivalry?), Maryland-Virginia, North Carolina State-Florida State, Penn State-Michigan State. Dull games all.

 

On the Internet ticker, Northwestern State jumps to a 21-0 lead in the first half, but in a rivalry game like no other with Stephen F. Austin (who else battles for a 7-foot-6, 320-pound wooden Indian named Chief Caddo), the Lumberjacks starting cutting the Demon defense down to size.

 

SFA scores 28 straight points to take the lead and goes into the final 2:39 ahead 35-28.

 

But the Demon not only retain Chief Caddo they stay alive for the playoffs with a 42-35 win.

 

Kevin Magee hits Fredd Harrison with a 25-yard TD strike with just over a minutes left and Brian McMillian’s 25-yard interception return with 53 seconds remaining lifts Northwestern State to the victory.

 

All of the I-AA games on the schedule have come to an end. It’s time for the committee to get to work.

 

In my mind, at least 15 of the 16 teams in the field are clear, though there are plenty of other questions, like who will be the top four seeds. McNeese State, Georgia Southern and Western Illinois are obvious, but a number of other schools will be considered for that fourth spot.

 

Joining those three schools with automatic bids are Northeastern, Fordham, Montana State, Murray State and Bethune-Cookman.

 

Obvious at-large bids should go out to Montana, Eastern Illinois, Maine, Appalachian State, Furman, Wofford and Villanova.

 

It seems to me that the final spot comes down to Northwestern State, the runner-up in the Southland, or Western Kentucky, co-champion with Western Illinois in the Gateway Conference.

 

Northwestern State finishes 9-3, losing games to Georgia and McNeese State, but also falling to Jacksonville State.

 

It took a miraculous comeback for NWSU to avoid a three-game losing streak to close out the season.

 

Two wins over Division II schools do the Demons no favors, but they do have one important trump card. Their athletic director Greg Burke is one of the eight committee members.

 

Western Kentucky has a championship of its league and three quality losses to Kansas State, Western Illinois and McNeese State.

 

Comparing WKU and NWSU losses to McNeese State doesn’t help much.

 

The Hilltoppers lost 38-13 at Lake Charles, while the Demons fell 27-3 at home. But then the Hilltoppers have played just once in the past month and ended the season at 8-3, with one Division II win.

 

Flip a coin and you have your field.

 

Sorry to teams like Idaho State, Colgate, UMass, Duquesne and 9-1 Gardner-Webb, the champion of the Big South — a first-year league without an automatic bid. It’s wait till next year.

 

I finish my day, searching through my video collection for a pair of tapes featuring Maine. I have hunch that Appalachian State will be playing the Black Bears come Saturday in Boone.

 

Editor’s postscript:

 

The decisions of the 2002 NCAA Division I Football Committee proved to be some of the most controversial in history.

 

The committee stunned Wofford the next day by keeping the 9-3 Terriers, with a pair of top-10 wins, out of the playoffs. I wrote a column that day, saying that Wofford had been “Woofed,” a term still used to describe teams that unjustly miss the playoffs.

 

In Spartanburg, S.C., fans make a model of Appalachian State athletic director Roachel Laney and hang it in effigy on the Wofford campus.

 

The anger towards this committee member, who represented the Southern Conference, proves misguided when it is learned that Laney voted for Wofford to be in the 16-team field.

 

Missing out on an at-large berth motivates the Terriers in the off-season and they win their first SoCon championship in any sport the following year and advance to the I-AA semifinals before losing on a snowy field to eventual national champion Delaware.

 

Northwestern State athletic director Greg Burke also gets some heat. Though he is not in the room when the vote is taken, Burke’s team is selected ahead of Wofford for the last spot in the tournament, but the Demons are hammered the next week at Montana.

 

The team that Laney tried to vote out turned out to be Villanova. But Villanova continued to roll behind Gordon’s heroics, beating Furman and Fordham.

 

Gordon broke the thumb on his right, throwing hand in the Fordham game — against former Villanova offensive coordinator-turned Rams coach Dave Clawson, but played brilliantly throughout the playoffs.

 

The Wildcats’ magical run came to an end at McNeese State in the semifinals, when the Cowboys benefitted greatly from two horrific calls by the Big Sky officiating crew.

 

This writer was sitting next to the Southland Conference director of officials, who was monitoring that crew, in the press box that afternoon. Let’s just say he thought it was one of the worst officiated games he had ever seen.

 

Western Kentucky ended up as a No. 15 seed and then proceeded to beat everybody it faced in the tournament.

 

In the quarterfinals, the Hilltoppers earned some revenge over a talent-ladden Western Illinois team that had beaten it during the Gateway Conference season with a 31-28 victory.

 

Afterwards, a WKU player started swinging a sledgehammer at members of the WIU team and an ugly brawl broke out.

 

A total of 13 players, five from WKU, were suspended. Cris Riviere, the Hilltopper player accused of starting the incident was permanently banished from playing in another NCAA championship event and 13 other players were publically reprimanded.

 

After winning that game on a late field goal, the Hilltoppers survived at Georgia Southern when a field goal at the end sailed inches wide of the uprights.

 

Playing the McNeese State team that had pummeled it during the regular season, Western Kentucky turned the tide against the Cowboys in the championship game at Chattanooga, TN., winning the national title as the lowest-ranked team ever, 34-14.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *