The first round of the spring FCS playoffs gave us the tension we crave in tournament settings — four games were decided by single digits, and we had a genuinely perfect playoff game in Southern Illinois’ narrow win over Weber State — but it also gave us mostly chalk. The top four seeds all advanced, as did three-time defending national champion North Dakota State, ensuring us of some dynamite quarterfinal matchups.
With the NFL draft still going on for much of Saturday, this weekend’s action takes place mostly on Sunday. It will be worth the wait, though: Four of the weekend’s five games, including the SWAC Championship, will air on either ESPN or ESPN2. And only one of the five games has a spread higher than 3.5 points. Prepare for lots of down-to-the-wire action.
Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2
The only Saturday game of the weekend pits two upstarts on a neutral field in Jackson, Mississippi: Connell Maynor’s prolific Alabama A&M Bulldogs and Doc Gamble’s surprising UAPB Golden Lions. Maynor took over in 2018 after winning 65 games in eight years at Winston-Salem State and Hampton, and it hasn’t taken long for the former Arena League offensive coordinator to make his mark.
AAMU games have featured Arena League point totals for a while now
The Bulldogs were wonderfully entertaining but inconsistent in 2019 — they averaged 34.1 points per game but allowed 33.2 and finished 7-5. While sophomore quarterback Aqeel Glass has taken a nice step forward this spring, they were expected to score. Defensive improvement — they gave up just seven points to SC State and 14 to Alabama State — allowed them to take their first division title since 2011. End Marcus Cushnie recorded five sacks in just three games, and even in a 52-43 track meet with Jackson State, the Bulldogs forced punts on four of JSU’s first five second-half drives, driving a game-deciding 24-7 run.
Glass, a Walter Payton Award finalist, is still the star. He has thrown for 1,084 yards and 13 touchdowns — again, in just three games! — and has taken full advantage of a deep receiving corps. Abdul-Fatai Ibrahim, Zabrian Moore and Odieu Hilaire have each gained at least 215 yards through the air and have averaged 19.1 yards per catch between them. UAPB has allowed just a 55% completion rate and picked off seven passes in four games, but this is easily the best offense the Lions have faced.
The Lions will likely take the fight to AAMU
The defense is super aggressive, averaging more than 10 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed (INTs plus breakups) and two forced fumbles per game; while their run game hasn’t really taken off, they are averaging 35.3 points per game because of their own high-upside passer (Skyler Perry) and his own trio of receivers (Josh Wilkes, Tyrin Ralph and Harry Ballard III, who have 57 catches between them for 821 yards and nine TDs).
Along with the obvious effects of the coronavirus, UAPB had to deal with a massive February water main break in Pine Bluff and played just one of four games at home. The Lions were projected as an also-ran in the West division, but despite the massive adversity, blew out Grambling and outlasted Southern, MVSU and Prairie View A&M by a combined 15 points to score their first division title since 2012. They beat Jackson State that year to win their only SWAC and Black College national titles; it wouldn’t take that much of an upset to score title number two on Saturday.
Projected score (via Caesars line): AAMU 32, UAPB 29 (AAMU -3, over/under 61)
Sunday, 3 p.m., ESPN
Following a manhandling by South Dakota State to end the regular season, NDSU found itself down 20-7 to Eastern Washington early in the second quarter. EWU star Eric Barriere was 8-for-9 passing for 133 yards and a touchdown, and the Eagles had scored TDs on their first three drives.
Backs against the wall, the Bison leaned on what they know: bullyball
Backs Dominic Gonnella, Jalen Bussey and Hunter Luepke combined for 42 carries and 352 yards, NDSU sacked Barriere five times in his final 24 pass attempts, and NDSU outscored EWU 35-0 over the game’s last 40 minutes. It was the Bison’s 13th straight FCS playoff win.
Even in a vulnerable state, NDSU still defines the game; if you can’t stop the run or protect the QB, the Bison will roll.
If you can do those things — as fellow quarterfinalists Southern Illinois and South Dakota State did in beating NDSU by a combined 65-31 — then Plan B isn’t very effective. NDSU quarterbacks Cam Miller and Zeb Noland have completed only 52% of their passes with seven INTs to seven TDs, and the Bison defense has been glitchier than usual in the open field. But the champs still dictate the terms.
Can Sam Houston State resist Big, Burly Manball? Who knows? But the Bearkats’ fundamental stats are good. SHSU allowed just 3.0 yards per carry (not including sacks) in the regular season and rendered Monmouth one-dimensional in last week’s 21-15 win. Offensively, running back Ramon Jefferson (475 yards, 6.5 per carry) has offered a level of balance that has helped to keep pressure off of quarterback Eric Schmid.
There were warning signs for SHSU last week
While Monmouth indeed only scored 15 points, the Hawks moved into SHSU territory six times and controlled the ball throughout, snapping the ball 92 times to the Kats’ 49. They sacked Schmid three times in 27 pass attempts and, outside of a 56-yard run from Jefferson, mostly hemmed in the run game.
Monmouth’s ball-control weapon of choice was a nibbling passing game, which isn’t NDSU’s thing, but SHSU almost stumbled its way into an upset loss and didn’t necessarily knock away a problematic playoff aura. SHSU’s last four postseason losses — two to NDSU, one each to JMU and Jacksonville State — have come by an average score of 54-8.
This is K.C. Keeler’s best team since at least 2016, but the Kats still have far more to prove than the Bison. Home-field advantage can’t hurt, though; for all of NDSU’s success, this is the Bison’s first road playoff game since a 2010 loss to EWU.
Projected score: NDSU 25.3, SHSU 22.3 (NDSU -3, over/under 47.5)
Sunday, 3 p.m., ESPN3
It had been a few years since either Delaware or Jacksonville State last hit fifth gear. JSU made the FCS finals in 2015 under John Grass but had bowed out in the second round three straight years — including twice as the No. 3 seed (2016-17) — before missing the playoffs altogether in 2019. And since winning the national title in 2003, Delaware had experienced a couple of bursts (finals appearances in 2007 and 2010) and otherwise averaged about six wins per year.
The all-or-nothing Blue Hens have been in “all” mode this spring
Danny Rocco’s squad is 6-0, having allowed just 11.3 points per game and 3.9 yards per play. The Hens gave up just 10 and 3.6, respectively, in a first-round win over Sacred Heart. SHU’s brilliant Julius Chestnut gained 138 yards in 31 carries against UD, but the Hens allowed just 98 yards in the 34 plays that didn’t involve Chestnut.
JSU has a solid run game led by Josh Samuel and Uriah West, but the key to the Gamecock attack is quarterback Zion Webb. Since a miserable performance in JSU’s lone spring loss — he was 9-for-26 for 111 yards with two sacks and four INTs in a 13-10 defeat to Austin Peay — he has completed 62% of his passes for 242 yards per game and rushed for 72 more yards per game (not including two sacks).
JSU actually squeezed in a full season
The Gamecocks played four games in October (including a win over FIU and a loss to Florida State in which they led midway through the third quarter) and avoided a run of postponements or cancellations this spring to head into the weekend with a 10-2 record.
The offense hasn’t always been in fifth gear, but the defense wants to take opponents’ heads off. Four Gamecocks — defensive ends Jaylen Swain and DJ Coleman, tackle Chris Hardie and linebacker Marshall Clark — have each made at least 8.5 TFLs, and safety Nicario Harper is a master mess-cleaner, good enough at it to become a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award.
They held a tricky Davidson offense in check last week, allowing only one score before garbage time in a 49-14 win. They will test a Delaware offense that is more than happy to run; Dejoun Lee and Khory Spruill are averaging 140 rushing yards per game (5.3 per carry), and quarterback Nolan Henderson plays mostly risk-free ball, completing 70% of his passes at only 11.1 yards per completion. They aren’t amazing at catching up when behind schedule, but they’ll probably make sure JSU isn’t either. This game could come down to who best avoids disasters.
Projected score: JSU 22.8, Delaware 19.3 (JSU -3.5, over/under 42)
Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPN2
JMU flirted with allowing the spring’s Cinderella story to continue but fended off VMI, 31-24, thanks to an early red zone interception and a pair of big plays (a 99-yard touchdown run by Jawon Hamilton and a 62-yard touchdown pass from Cole Johnson to Antwane Wells Jr.). Now the Dukes face a North Dakota team that pummeled Missouri State, 44-10, after more than a month off.
The Dukes showed all their upside and downside against the Keydets
Hamilton and Percy Agyei-Obese combined for 44 carries and 281 yards, Wells had four catches for 132 yards and the defense picked off VMI’s Seth Morgan three times. Their quarterback play was unconvincing, however: Cole Johnson went just 11-for-22 with two sacks and two interceptions in VMI territory.
That has to provide North Dakota with some hope. The Fighting Hawks don’t have the best defense left in the field, but they make life hell for quarterbacks. They average 3.7 sacks per game — outside linebackers Jaxson Turner and Josh Navratil have combined for 9.5 of them — and they go after the ball. They’ve picked off eight passes and forced seven fumbles so far, and they obliterated Missouri State’s offense a week ago, sacking Bear quarterbacks eight times in 39 attempts and allowing 185 total yards. NDSU was able to bully the Hawks and establish the run back in March, handing them their lone loss, 34-13. There’s a chance JMU can do the same, but if they’re falling behind schedule, the advantage shifts dramatically.
UND will still have to score, though
VMI’s quick-passing offense presented unique challenges for JMU, but the North Dakota attack is more straightforward: Give the ball to Otis Weah and go from there. Weah and backup Luke Skokna are averaging 26 carries per game and 6.2 yards per carry, which is great, but JMU simply erases opposing run games. Star end Mike Greene, perhaps the best FCS defender, was quieted by VMI but still has eight tackles for loss in six games, and even removing JMU’s 17 sacks, opponents are averaging only 2.9 yards per carry this spring.
If Weah can’t get going, the pressure shifts to quarterback Tommy Schuster. The redshirt freshman from Macomb, Michigan, is as battle-tested as a youngster can be — he has played six games, and four were against playoff teams (three against quarterfinalists). He has played within himself, completing 66% of his passes with a 10-3 TD-to-INT ratio, but he pulled that off with Weah mostly running wild. If he’s dropping to pass against Greene and Co. and there are too many second-and-9s or third-and-8s involved, that will probably spell trouble.
Projected score: JMU 27.8, UND 25.3 (JMU -2.5, over/under 53)
Sunday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
Three games into the spring season, SDSU was 3-1 but vulnerable, having suffered a frustrating loss to North Dakota and barely scuffled by a mediocre Youngstown State.
The Jackrabbits have hit their stride since, to say the least
In their last three games, they’ve beaten SIU, NDSU and Holy Cross by an average score of 34-8. They earned the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and they landed in the much easier top half of the bracket.
In this dominant run against these three playoff teams, two of which are still alive, SDSU has averaged 7.1 yards per play and allowed 3.8. Freshman quarterback Mark Gronowski has completed 63% of his passes in this span while rushing 27 times (not including four sacks) for 264 yards, and he has been able to lean heavily on the star RB duo of Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis (86 combined rushes and receptions for 730 yards).
Now we get to see how the Jackrabbits handle a revenge attempt
Their first victim in this run, SIU, heads to Brookings after beating Weber State at the last second last weekend. We’ll see what ideas they’ve got for reversing a lopsided March 20 result.
Step 1: Don’t implode this time. SIU led SDSU 3-0 late in the second quarter, but after the Jackrabbits scored to go ahead, the Salukis lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and threw interceptions on three of their next four possessions (with a turnover on downs sprinkled in between). SDSU scored 34 points in an eight-minute span. That can’t happen again, for obvious reasons.
After a bit of a QB shuffle, Stone Labanowitz has taken over full-time for SIU, and he has looked great. In their last two games — what amounted to a play-in game against Southeastern Louisiana and the win over Weber State — he has gone 41-for-58 for 592 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Labanowitz has formed one hell of a partnership with wide receiver Avante Cox; the Wyoming transfer has caught 14 balls for 247 yards and two scores in the last two weeks. He was huge in SIU’s win over NDSU, too (seven catches, 138 yards) before hitting a bit of a mid-spring rut.
WSU did sack Labanowitz four times, but (a) SDSU’s pass rush isn’t amazing and (b) Labanowitz still led SIU for scores on six of their last eight possessions to pull off the win. There are plenty of reasons to believe this game won’t be the blowout the first game was, but SDSU will likely still find plenty of offensive advantages against an SIU defense that has allowed 30+ points in four straight games. If the Salukis can make Gronowski look like the freshman he is in key moments, they’ll have a chance, but the top seed is still the obvious favorite.
Projected score: SDSU 35.0, SIU 19.5 (SDSU -15.5, over/under 54.5)