College Sports Journal
Editor’s note: CSJ Publisher/Managing Editor Chuck Burton contributed to the capsules for this column.
BOONE, N.C. — Sam Houston State should beware.
When you are the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Division I Football Championships, people are watching you and teams like Stony Brook are poised to make you a piece of playoff history.
As we consider Sam Houston State’s role as this year’s top seed, on the eve of its second-round playoff game with Stony Brook, it’s time for a history lesson.
There is one game in Football Championship Subdivision playoff history that serves as a warning to all top-seeded teams.
In 1999, the NCAA Division I football committee made the mistake of choosing undefeated Tennessee State as the top seed for the national championship tournament.
The 11-0 Tigers of coach L.C. Cole, despite playing an unimpressive regular-season schedule, drew the No. 1 seed and — with the committee still seeding the tournament from one through 16 — were placed against No. 16 North Carolina A&T in the first round.
NCAT had scored an upset of Florida A&M — a team that would crush a highly-touted Appalachian State 44-29 in the first round of the playoffs on the way to a semifinal run — near the end of the regular season to earn the automatic bid from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with an unassuming 7-4 record.
So there was little question that the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust Aggies, coached by Bill Hayes, were going to be the bottom seed.
But the seeding of Tennessee State — with a non-conference schedule that consisted of Alabama State, Jackson State, Florida A&M and Alabama A&M — at No. 1 was a huge shock to many.
Jackson State won a SWAC title and Florida A&M took a share of the MEAC, but there were not a whole lot of challenges on TSU’s slate as it rolled to the Ohio Valley Conference crown.
It wasn’t like there were not other alternatives.
Paul Johnson’s Georgia Southern program was becoming a power, having lost to Massachusetts in the previous year’s national title game, and had only stumbled to Appalachian State by one point, 17-16, at Kidd Brewer Stadium and was driving towards a tying, or winning score at Oregon State when time ran out in a 48-41 defeat.
Youngstown State, with Jim Tressel still calling the shots, had one FCS loss to Illinois State to go with an FBS defeat at the hands of Western Michigan.
Illinois State only had a pair of FBS losses to Minnesota and South Florida on its schedule.
Troy State had one loss to McNeese State in Southland Conference play, but was otherwise perfect.
Appalachian State, which had hammered Tennessee State, 45-31, in the first round of the previous year’s playoffs, had taken Auburn to the final minute before losing 22-15, had beaten Georgia Southern when the Eagles were top-ranked in the polls and had only one other loss — a 35-21 setback at arch-rival and Southern Conference tri-champion Furman.
But there has always been something magical to the NCAA Division I football committee about undefeated regular-season teams and this committee couldn’t resist the urge to give Tennessee State the top seed, even after starting quarterback Leon Murray suffered a knee injury at the end of the season.
So North Carolina A&T came into Nashville with its slew of 300-pound offensive linemen and big running backs and stuffed the ball down TSU’s throat, winning 24-10.
Eventually, Georgia Southern and Youngstown State met in the national championship game in Chattanooga, TN. and the Eagles rolled to a 59-24 title win.
And if it were not for that loss to a No. 16 seed, no one would remember that Tennessee State was the top-seeded team in the 1999 playoffs.
There were similar questions about the strength of Sam Houston State’s schedule this season, with the Southland Conference experiencing a down year and only one team on that slate, Central Arkansas, having more than six wins.
Even a victory over an FBS opponent was viewed as suspect, with the Bearkats needing overtime to defeat New Mexico — one of the worst squads in that upper subdivision — by a slim 48-45 score.
So all FCS eyes will be on Sam Houston State as it takes on Stony Brook on Saturday, wondering if the Bearkats are contenders for a title, or pretenders clothed as a No. 1 seed.
Here is a breakdown of six of the eight second-round games. For expanded coverage of the Lehigh-Towson and Maine-Appalachian State second-round games look at the College Sports Journal home page at www.college-sports-journal.com.
All games are available on ESPN3 Internet television and for pay-per-view on ESPN Gameplan. All times listed below are for the eastern time zone.
Stony Brook (9-3) at No. 1 Sam Houston State (11-0)
Bowers Stadium, Huntsville, TX., 3 p.m.
Stony Brook has won a pair of pressure-packed games in the past two weeks, beating Liberty, 41-31, in its final regular season game to win the Big South Conference championship and stopping Northeast Conference champion Albany, 31-28, last week in the first-round of the 20-team tournament.
The Seawolves trailed Albany 28-10, but rallied in the second half to take a three-point lead. Albany responded by driving to the SBU three with 54 seconds left before Donald Porter tipped a Dan Di Lella pass and Dominick Reyes intercepted it to clinch the game.
That kind of tension may help the Seawolves as they take on the top-ranked team in FCS, but both of those wins were on the road.
Stony Brook, however, brings with it the best one-two running punch in FCS, running backs Miguel Maysonet and Brock Jackolski.
Maysonet has rushed for 1,560 yards and has a total of 16 touchdowns to tie for sixth nationally in rushing, while Jackolski is 17th in rushing and third in all-purpose yardage (2,286 yards) and is fifth in scoring with 19 TDs).
Quarterback Kyle Essington has had his ups and downs since taking over for injured starter Michael Coulter, but Essington was 12-of-24 for 258 yards and two TDs last week.
SBU has the nation’s fourth-best rushing offense (277 yards), the 92nd-best passing attack (170 yards) and the seventh-ranked total offense unit (447 yards). The Seawolves are also No. 2 in scoring (38.9).
Porter gave the SBU defense a big lift last week with a key interception to go along with that game-deciding breakup for a unit that is more of a group of smooth-working parts instead of stars.
Stony Brook ranks 31st in total defense (336 yards), 34th in scoring defense (22.4) and 103rd in pass defense (241 yards), but the Seawolves are ninth in rushing defense (94 yards).
Sam Houston State so dominated the Southland Conference on the way to a title that the Bearkats haven’t really faced any challenges since the overtime win over New Mexico.
The Bearkats faced only one playoff team, Southland runner-up Central Arkansas, and beat the Bears 31-10 at home in the second game of the season.
SHSU’s offense has revolved around the rushing of Tim Flanders, who has 1,133 yards on the ground and 20 touchdowns. That has helped the Bearkats rank seventh in rushing offense (250 yards).
Quarterback Brian Bell is second nationally in passing efficiency, but has thrown for just 1,697 yards. Bell has 14 TD passes and just three interceptions, though all three have come in the past three games.
Sam Houston State is 96th in passing offense (165 yards), 25th in total offense (415 yards) and first in scoring (39.5).
The biggest improvement has been in defense, however. Ranked 69th nationally a year ago after finishing with a 6-5 record, the Bearkats have soared to second this season (260 yards).
SHSU rates first in defense against the rush (59 yards), 48th in passing defense (201 yards) and first in scoring defense (12.6).
The Bearkats are not a team of stars on defense, either.
Junior Daxton Swanson is third nationally in interceptions with seven and Darnell Taylor is tied for 91st in tackles with 99 to give SHSU strength at the back line, but this is a group that has plenty of other players capable of pressuring opponents.
With the stat lines of these two teams, something will have to give on Saturday.
New Hampshire (8-3) at Montana State (9-2)
Bobcat Stadium, Bozeman, MT., 3 p.m.
A contrast of styles will be on display as two teams from different regions meet in a unique matchup. UNH, making a national-best eighth straight playoff appearance likes to wing it, while Montana State likes to beat you with the run.
New Hampshire quarterback Kevin Decker enters the game averaging 279 yards passing and has 20 TD passes, including seven to R.J. Harris. Decker has rushed for another nine scores and Dontra Peters has seven TDs.
But Decker has tossed 14 interceptions and lost three fumbles.
Montana State will look to make things tough for Decker and the high-powered Wildcat offense.
The Bobcats are seventh in the nation with 38 sacks this season, including 10 by Brad Daly and seven by Zach Minter. Jody Owens leads the team with 87 tackles.
The Wildcats faced a tough schedule, winning five games against ranked FCS teams while losing to two ranked teams (Towson and William & Mary) and Toledo of the FBS.
Defensively, Matt Evans leads New Hampshire with 154 total tackles, including 82 solo stops, while Chris Houston has five interceptions and Brian McNally has 7.5 sacks.
Montana State (9-2) had its nine-game winning streak snapped in a 36-10 loss to rival Montana two weeks ago.
The Bobcats are led by quarterback DeNarius McGhee who averages 215 yards passing per game and has 22 touchdown throws, half of them to Elvis Akpla. Cody Kirk averages 112 yards rushing and has 14 touchdown runs.
Wofford (8-3) at No. 5 Northern Iowa (9-2)
UNI Dome, Cedar Falls, IA., 5 p.m.
Speaking of contrasts of style, almost everyone is a contrast of Wofford, a team few schools want to face, including Saturday’s opponent, Northern Iowa.
UNI coach Mark Farley faced a similar team during his playing days as a linebacker when the Panthers dropped a wild, semifinal game to quarterback Tracy Ham and the Georgia Southern Eagles, with what was then called the Hambone.
The Panthers dropped a heartbreaking 40-33 decision in 1985 to the eventual national champions in one of the greatest semifinals in FCS history.
Now 26 years later, Farley faces the wishbone again, this time as a coach.
There are differences in what Wofford coach Mike Ayers calls the wingbone, with more emphasis on misdirection and Delaware Wing-T concepts. But the triple option still gives teams fits, particularly when they seldom see it anymore.
Despite a tiny enrollment of 1,550, the Terriers are making their fifth playoff appearance since 2007 under Ayers.
UNI has never beaten a SoCon school in the playoffs, standing 0-4. The first of those four losses was against Georgia Southern in 1985.
Wofford finishing second in the Southern Conference. The Terriers have advanced to the postseason in four of the last five seasons.
SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Eric Breitenstein — the top fullback in FCS— leads the Terriers with 1,343 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns. His backfield teammates Donovan Johnson added 897 yards and nine touchdowns.
Quarterback Mitch Allen directs the offense. He rushed for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns, while completing 37 of 80 passes for 707 yards and four scores.
On defense, Wofford can get after teams with a pass rush led by end Ameet Pall, Alvin Scioneaux, Alex Gotry and Eric Eberhadrt. Wofford is ninth nationally in total offense (first in rushing) and 19th in total defense.
The Terriers nearly beat Clemson earlier in the year and also lost to Georgia Southern and Furman in the tough SoCon.
UNI also likes to run the ball behind athletic quarterback Terrell Rennie, who has rushed for 739 yards and nine TDs, while throwing for 1,642 yards and 11 TDs. Rennie has thrown only two interceptions.
Complementing Rennie is running back David Johnson, who has rushed for 730 yards and eight TDs as a freshman.
But where the Panthers really shine is on defense, where they are ranked fourth against scoring, allowing only 16.2 points per game and just 120 yards on the ground (ranked 20th nationally).
Ben Boothby keys the defense from the middle of the line, while linebacker L.J. Fort is averaging 13.7 tackles per game, second-best in FCS.
UNI, the co-champion of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, is fifth nationally in turnover margin and has only lost by one point to Iowa State and to No. 2-seeded North Dakota State, which shared the MVFC title.
Central Arkansas (9-3) at No. 4 Montana (9-2)
Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Missoula, MT., 2 p.m.
If there is one refrain that is common to road teams in the FCS playoffs, it is the line about games being “business trips.”
So it was with Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque this week as his team, coming off an impressive 34-14 road win over Ohio Valley Conference champion Tennessee Tech last Saturday, looks to tackle FCS icon Montana.
We’re not going up there sightseeing, we’re not going to play checkers; we’re going up there to win a football game,” Central Arkansas head coach Clint Conque said this week. “We have a chance to put our program firmly in the national spotlight and maybe shock the nation.”
Conque has no illusions on the large task he has at hand – beating the University of Montana at Washington-Grizzly stadium in December.
That’s because no Southland football team have ever beating the Griz in their open-air home in Missoula. Every one has lost by more by an average of more than twenty points in the eight games contested at Montana’s home in the last fifteen years.
Conque – who pointedly did not make any of his players available to the Montana media – fielded a host of questions from home and away media this week, and stressed basics.
“The key is how we handle ourselves physically and mentally,” he said. “I met with the team last night. I told them the weather forecast is supposed to be the low to mid-30s. But we’ve never traveled that our university didn’t give us everything we needed to be successful.”
Conque said this Saturday’s game will be no different.
“We need a place to stay, they are going to put us up in a nice hotel. If we need to eat, they are going to feed us. If we need to fly, they will fly us. If we need to bus, we’ll bus. The university has always given our young men and women the resources we need.”
Conque is not concerned about the weather, either.
“I looked at our team and said it’s gonna be 30 or 32 degrees, no snow. But it’s gonna be cold. We’ll make sure you stay in a nice hotel, we’ll feed you right. We’ll have parkas on the sideline. You’re gonna have sleeves, leggings, hand-warmers. I don’t want to hear about the weather the rest of the week.”
It’s not clear that anything can adequately get quarterback Nathan Dick (3,010 yards passing, 32 TDs), and wideouts Dominique Croom (518 yards receiving, 7 TDs) and Jesse Grandy (731 yards receiving, 8 TDs) totally ready for the notoriously loud crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium — but the Central Arkansas staff would still try, by pumping loud noise through the Estes Stadium speakers this week at practice.
“I don’t want to hear about the crowd noise; we’re gonna get good at our communication,” Conque said. “They are knowledgeable people. But they are pretty rabid. They are gonna get on you. That’s fine. So, it gets down to blocking and tackling and our physical execution. And that’s the challenge.”
Central Arkansas’ hurry-up offense won’t just have the cold and the crowd to contend with, either.
There’s also the matter of the Griz’ top-rated pass defense, with defensive backs like Matt Hermanson (38 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Houston Roots (42 tackles, 3 interceptions) to deal with as well.
The Bears will also have to deal with defensive end Bryan Waldhauser (54 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks).
On offense, the emergence of a couple of Griz junior running backs, Peter Nguyen (899 all-purpose yards, 4 TDs) and Dan Moore (116 yards rushing against Montana State), will have an interesting go against one of the most athletic defensive lines in all of FCS, anchored by Jermayne Lett (40 tackles, 17 1/2 tackles for loss).
Old Dominion (10-2) at No. 3 Georgia Southern (9-2)
Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, GA., 1 p.m.
The team with the richest tradition in FCS plays the team with arguably the least as six-time national champ Georgia Southern meets Old Dominion, which is making its first playoff appearance just three years after restarting football.
Georgia Southern runs its triple option well enough to rank second in the country behind Wofford in rushing. Senior quarterback Jaybo Shaw, a transfer from ex-GSU coach Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech program, runs the attack and has 1,410 yards of total offense to go with 10 rushing and eight passing touchdowns.
Robert Brown and Dominique Swoope give the Eagles two threats from the fullback position and Georgia Southern has plenty of speed from its wingbacks, including Jerrick McKinnon.
The Eagles have built their defense around one of the top players in FCS, defensive tackle Brent Russell, with help from John Douglas.
Cornerback Laron Scott is a threat if he gets his hands on the ball, particularly as a returnman.
ODU had its season transformed by the emergence of freshman quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who replaced injured senior Thomas DeMarco, and is a threat running and passing. Heinicke passed for 2,044 yards and 20 TDs in just eight games, while rushing for 288 yards and three more scores.
The Monarchs, who beat Norfolk State in round one, are 10th in scoring offense, averaging 35 points per game, but will need a strong defensive effort to keep up with Georgia Southern.
ODU is 16th in rushing defense, but 108th in passing defense for a mediocre total of 69th overall. But the Monarchs do have CAA defensive player of the year Ronnie Cameron to build with on the defensive line.
Maine (8-3) at Appalachian State (8-3)
Kidd Brewer Stadium, Boone, N.C., 2 p.m.
See the following link for a more comprehensive look at this matchup:
Lehigh (10-1) at Towson (9-2)
Johnny Unitas Stadium, Towson, MD. 3:30 p.m.
See the following link for a more comprehensive look at this matchup:
James Madison (8-4) at No. 2 North Dakota State (10-1)
Fargodome, Fargo, N.D., 4 p.m.
The big question in Fargo, North Dakota this weekend isn’t the snowy weather, hydrofracking, or even the play of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.
It’s all about Brock Jensen’s toe.
North Dakota State head coach Craig Bohl, whose roaming starting quarterback (1,994 yards passing, 13 TDs) has been nursing a “turf toe” injury, has been “moving around better than he has in previous weeks,” Jeff Kolpack of InForum said.
The Greenfield (IN) Daily Reporter noted that Jensen said that the week off — and Thanksgiving at a teammate’s house — made a big difference.
“It helps, it helps a lot,” Jensen said. “Not only me, but all the guys who are banged up on the team. Rest and recovery are very important at this time of year. We’re really deep into the season. Guys have injuries, guys have a lot of aches and pains, so it was good to have that time to recover.”
Jensen’s not the only banged-up Bison.
Starting safety Colton Heagle (62 tackles, 2 interceptions) had surgery on his thumb and is a “game-time decision,” Bohl said.
Starting running back D.J. McNorton (861 all-purpose yards, 13 TDs) sat out the last game of the year with a bruised heel, while no fewer than three linemen practiced this week after suffering various injuries.
Two all-league starters on the offensive line, Austin Richard and Tyler Gimmelstadt, are questionable going into the game this weekend.
But the Bison defense, ranked No. 2 in the nation, will undoubtedly still be at their fearsome best, even with the injuries.
Defensive back Marcus Williams, with three interception returns for touchdowns and a kickoff return for touchdown as well, has seen the end zone more than most offensive players this season.
Linebacker Chad Wilson (75 tackles) and defensive end Coulter Boyer (36 tackles, 7 sacks) are as healthy as ever, and will do thier best to punish the Dukes as well.
James Madison also have some dinged players as well, but crucial in the Dukes’ resurgence in their thrilling 20-17 win over Eastern Kentucky has been quarterback Justin Thorpe (690 yards passing, 390 yards rushing, 5 TDs).
Thorpe was suspended five games for violation of team rules during the course of the regular season — a stretch where the Dukes went 2-3, with the three losses coming against playoff-bound Maine, Old Dominion, and New Hampshire.
With every game being a must-win, Thorpe has delivered — especially last weekend, when he delivered some key third-down conversions on several do-or-die offensive drives to keep the Dukes alive.
Converting a huge fourth down was running back Dae’Quan Scott (1,241 yards, 12 TDs) as well, who will also be a key part of James Madison’s attack.
“To be down two scores against somebody playing very well and to drive three times against a 40 mph wind to win the game … the kids showed a lot of class to handle it on the road the way they did,” James Madison head coach Mickey Matthews said this week. “The way the game went, it didn’t look good for the Dukes.”
Like the Bison, however, James Madison’s bread-and-butter is their defense, led by a fearsome pass defense that is ranked ninth in the nation in sacks.
Defensive ends D.J. Bryant (6 1/2 sacks) and Lamar Middleton (6 sacks) are the focal points of the Dukes pass rush.