Saturday December 4, 2:00 pm, ESPN+, William B Greene, Jr. Stadium, Johnson City, Tennessee
Kennesaw State Owls 11-1
Big South Conference Champion
Kennesaw State easily outpaced Davidson in their opening round win at home. The Owls got five total touchdowns from Xavier Shepherd (1 passing, 4 rushing) and led 41-14 at halftime on the way to a 48-21 final margin of victory. Shepherd only gained 15 yards on 12 carries, but he made the most of them, scoring from 6, 1, 1 and 2 yards out. The Owls held Davidson to just 276 yards of total offense while gaining 407, including 305 on the ground.
On offense, you know what you are getting from Kennesaw State, you just don’t know where its coming from. The Owls run the triple option to near perfection. They average 277 yards per game on the ground. The engine of the entire offense is Xavier Shepherd. He leads the Owls with 856 yards rushing and leads the entire FCS with 23 rushing touchdowns. The Owls have 35 total rushing touchdowns on the season. But opposing defenses cant get too enamored with just stopping the run. Shepherd has the ability to throw the ball as well. He only attempted 188 passes, but he completed 73 of them for 1296 yards and 15 touchdowns. His main target has been Caleb Hill who has 18 receptions for 314 yards and five touchdowns. The Owls have lost 14 fumbles on the season.
Kennesaw State has a strong defense as well. They rank 18th in the FCS in total yards allowed at 312 per game and 16th in points per game allowed with 18.4. The defense is led by linebacker Evan Thompson. He leads the Owls with 106 total tackles, a number that is 66 better than anyone else on the team. Thompson has 10 tackles for loss. Kennesaw averages just under two sacks per game led by Travis Bell with four. The Owls allow just 108 yards per game on the ground.
East Tennessee State Buccaneers 10-1
Southern Conference Champion
Johnson City, Tennessee
After East Tennessee State beat Mercer in the regular season finale to win the Southern Conference, they nervously awaited their fate on Selection Sunday. Would they earn a seed, or would they be playing the first weekend of the playoffs? The screen flashed to highlights of the Buccaneers as the seven seed in the playoffs. The Buccaneers easily beat Vanderbilt on the opening weekend of college football and rolled through most of the Southern Conference from there. They suffered their lone loss of the season to in state rival Chattanooga. In that game they were being at their own game. They will look to avoid a similar fate this weekend.
The offense for East Tennessee State runs through two players, running backs Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors. Holmes has run for 1431 yards and 16 touchdowns while Saylors has run for 968 and 10 touchdowns. They have been the best duo in the FCS this season. The duo’s best game came in their victory over Western Carolina when both backs went over 200 yards, and each scored three touchdowns. Saylors also averages just under 30 yards per kick return. Quarterback Tyler Riddell is not leaned on hard in the pass game with just 194 yards per game, but he protects the ball with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The Buccaneers will try to get rolling on the ground and book their quarterfinal ticket.
Defensively, the Buccaneers allow 21.5 points per game which ranks 26th in the FCS. They bend but don’t break. Their average yardage ranks just 63rd. However, the Buccaneers are second in the country in turnover margin with 23 forced turnovers and only 10 offensive turnovers. If the Buccaneers cant force a couple turnovers, they may find themselves in trouble. But that hasn’t been a problem this season so far. Opponents only convert 73% of their red zone opportunities against the ETSU defense which is 19th in the FCS.
This looks to be one of the closest games of the weekend. Both teams want to establish the run. The game will probably be decided by whoever makes a big play defensively late in the game. The winner most likely will travel to Fargo next weekend to take on North Dakota State. I trust the two headed monster of Holmes and Saylors a little more than Shepherd.
Fearless Prediction: East Tennessee 28, Kennesaw State 27
Jamie is a proud 2002 graduate of James Madison University. He’s witnessed the growth of the program from no one in the stands in 1998, to the hiring of Mickey Matthews, to the 2004 National Championship, to the 2008 team, to the struggles in the early 2010s, and finally the rebuild under Mike Houston. He also allegedly really enjoys Washington, DC-based Stanley Cup winners.
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