(STATS) – Coaches and players in CAA Football and the Missouri Valley Football Conference are never shy about laying claim to being the best conference in the FCS.
On Saturday, Missouri Valley powers North Dakota State and South Dakota State put their best foot forward to that distinction with dominating wins in the FCS playoff quarterfinals. And their arms, and legs, and …
But the CAA still holds the national title with James Madison, now on a 25-game winning streak which is the second-longest in FCS history. To repeat in the next month, the Dukes will have to go through SDSU and, quite possibly, NDSU.
Which brings the story to Sam Houston State, the other national semifinalist that some will say is playing a supporting role to the CAA/MVFC stars. Maybe, maybe not, but the underdog Bearkats definitely relish the challenge of going through Fargo, North Dakota, on the Road to Frisco (Texas) and the FCS championship game on Jan. 6.
Here’s a quick review of the quarterfinal-round games:
No. 1 seed James Madison (12-0) 31, Weber State (11-2) 28
Story Line: James Madison overcame its first two fourth-quarter deficits of the season to win on redshirt freshman Ethan Ratke’s career-long 46-yard field goal to end the game. He kicked three field goals.
Game Ball: What a night for James Madison redshirt sophomore Riley Stapleton to have the best game of his career – eight receptions for a career-high 189 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown catch to pull the Dukes within 28-26 with 2:09 left to play.
Key Stat: The Dukes pushed the ball downfield for scores on each of their four possessions of the fourth quarter, finishing with a 549-329 advantage in offensive yards.
The Takeaway: Either the Dukes are vulnerable or they survived their biggest scare of the playoffs en route to claiming back-to-back national championships. But while they weren’t their usual dominant selves, they made the clutch plays to overcome adversity.
Up Next – James Madison will host No. 5 seed South Dakota State (10-2) in the semifinals Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET).
No. 2 seed North Dakota State (12-1) 42, No. 7 Wofford (10-3) 10
Story Line: The Bison rolled into the national semifinals for a record seventh consecutive year, scoring touchdowns on five of their final six possessions of the first half and limiting Wofford’s triple-option offense to 134 rushing yards – 120 below its season average.
Game Ball: While improving to 32-3 as a starter in his career, junior quarterback Easton Stick accounted for 233 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in three quarters of action. He threw scores to three different receivers in the first half and scrambled into the Wofford end zone from 7 yards out in the third quarter.
Key Stat: The Bison converted an absurd 10 of 13 third downs compared to Wofford’s 1 of 12.
The Takeaway: In supporting how they believe they’re the team to beat in the playoffs, the Bison unveiled another superb game plan to send yet another opponent packing from the Fargodome, where they’re 20-1 in the playoffs this decade. Particularly telling was the way NDSU runners and receivers consistently found open space and Wofford’s didn’t.
Up Next: North Dakota State will host No. 6 seed Sam Houston State (12-1) in the semifinals Friday (8 p.m. ET).
No. 5 seed South Dakota State (11-2) 56, New Hampshire (9-5) 14
Story Line: The Jackrabbits scored on all three of their first-quarter possessions and followed the lead of senior wide receiver Jake Wieneke en route to the blowout victory. All-America tight end Dallas Goedert suffered a lower leg injury on the game’s opening drive and sat out the remainder of the game.
Game Ball: Wieneke was spectacular, setting season highs with nine receptions and 140 receiving yards while catching two touchdowns and scoring the first rushing TD of his career. He surpassed 5,000 receiving yards in his career, set the MVFC record for career receptions (281) and tied for second all-time in the FCS with 58 TD receptions.
Key Stat: With their second big rushing performance of the playoffs, the Jackrabbits had 265 yards and five touchdowns on 40 carries.
The Takeaway: A healthy return of Goedert is important as the Jackrabbits next try to upend 2016 national champ James Madison, but they were incredibly impressive even without him in recording their season’s second-highest point total. But the defense also stepped up its game, allowing only 14 points for the first time in over two months. Add in Cade Johnson’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the Jackrabbits excelled in all three phases of the game.
Up Next: SDSU will play in the FCS semifinals for the first time at No. 1 seed James Madison (12-0) Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET).
No. 6 seed Sam Houston State (12-1) 34, Kennesaw State (12-2) 27
Story Line: For the second straight week, Sam Houston built a sizable lead in the first-half lead only to need to hang on in the second while it played bend-but-don’t-break against Kennesaw’s triple-option offense. Jeremiah Briscoe’s 316 yards and three touchdowns through the air were just enough.
Game Ball: Defensive linemen Chris Stewart and P.J. Hall tossed away blockers to get to ball carriers. Stewart, a defensive end, had a game-high 15 tackles and two sacks. Hall, an end-turned-nose tackle, collected 11 tackles and two tackles for loss.
Key Stat: The Bearkats committed only one turnover and Kennesaw didn’t cash in on it in the closing minutes. That was huge considering the Owls entered the game having scored 124 points off an FCS-leading 34 takeaways.
The Takeaway: Who’s also remaining in the playoffs are teams that are stronger than the ones Sam Houston has beaten this season. Although the Bearkats have reached the semifinals for the fifth time in seven years, their defense is vulnerable to allowing big gains, and that’s a big concern the rest of the way. They’ll need wide receiver Davion Davis back from an ankle injury, but Briscoe and Co. have been the nation’s most productive offense.
Up Next: Sam Houston travel to No. 2 seed North Dakota State (12-1) in the semifinals Friday (8 p.m. ET).