By Sam Partridge
The CAA Today Columnist
College Sporting News
For the MVFC, it was the reigning champs and the fact that they had only gotten two teams in despite being largely recognized as the best conference. For the Big Sky, it was about getting four teams in and a discussion over whether Montana or Northern Arizona should have been seeded. And for the much-maligned Ohio Valley, it was the surprise of getting two at-larges and seeing if the conference could finally make some noise in the playoffs.
It wasn't a huge surprise that the CAA was somewhat overlooked this year as its champ, Maine, is not flashy, UNH was thought to be out of the playoffs by the beginning of October and Towson managed to be under the radar ever since a loss to Delaware. Then, last weekend, the conference threw a monkey-wrench into the playoffs with a couple of emphatic road wins over the champs from the Southland and Ohio Valley conferences.
As a result, the only league with more than one team in the semifinals is the CAA. Even better, it's two schools that have never been there before, meaning that the last decade has seen 7 different current CAA schools reach at least that far. It's a testament to the depth of the league and a reminder to the rest of FCS that it continues to be the most competitive conference in the country.
Towson at Eastern Illinois
Although the Sports Network's Payton Award was handed out on Monday night, it was effectively won last Friday on the field at Eastern Illinois. In a battle between finalists for the coveted prize, Terrance West put the hammer down in a performance for the ages. 39 carries for 359 yards and 4 touchdowns put a stamp on Towson's impressive 49-39 quarterfinal win on the road in Charleston, IL.
Despite falling behind 14-0, the Towson running game was simply an unstoppable force, rolling up 491 yards on 59 carries, for a remarkable 8.0 yard average. The Panthers defense had no answer for a ground game that was so efficient that Towson scored seven touchdowns despite only averaging five plays per possession. West and his backfield sidekick Darius Victor gashed the EIU defense for huge gains and kept the offense in great situations throughout the game. The best evidence of this was that quarterback Peter Athens only threw one third-down pass the entire game.
Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led his team to the early cushion but was unable to generate enough points to keep up with the Tigers rgound assault. The man who took home the Payton Award led an offense that ran an astounding 99 plays to Towson's 73, but was unable to find enough big plays in the mix to keep up with an offense that was scoring with such ease.
Still, Eastern Illinois hung around with the help of a handful of Towson mistakes. None were bigger than when the Tigers fumbled the 2nd half kickoff, allowing Garoppolo to quickly tie the score at 21. West and Co. quickly took the lead back but couldn't gain separation and the Panthers found themselves with the ball at their own 20 in the 4th quarter trailing just 35-32.
Unfortunately, this was not the time for critical errors and the Panthers fell prey to a couple with back-to-back penalties for a false start and illegal formation. Pushed into a 1st-and-20 situation from his own 10, Garoppolo couldn't pick up the first down and a short punt left Towson with the ball in Panther territory. It didn't take long, just three plays to cover the 42 yards and the game was slipping away at 42-32.
The contest served as a case study both for why West is the most dangerous player in FCS and why the Tigers are probably the toughest potential matchup for North Dakota State. Only a team that can matchup physically with the Bison while also having the ability to control the clock with a consistent running game can take down the two-time defending champions. Hopefuly, we'll get that matchup in Frisco, but Cinderella wants to have a say in that.
New Hampshire at Southeastern Louisiana
King Midas may have turned what he touched into gold, but Sean Goldrich turns what he touches into wins. As a result, after all these years, there's another program from Durham playing in a Final Four.
While the Duke basketball team had made its way there countless time over the last several decades, the New Hampshire football team had failed in six previous attempts to get over their final hurdle. However, they finally got a break this year with a matchup against a playoff newcomer, Southeastern Louisiana, a team that had never been to the postseason, let alone the semifinals.
In a tight, mistake-filled game befitting two squads trying to scale new heights, Goldrich led the Wildcats to a late touchdown for a 20-17 win and coach Sean McDonnell's first trip to the D-I semifinals.
It was shaping up to be a bitter defeat late in the fourth quarter for the CAA Cinderella as the Wildcats trailed 17-14 despite outplaying SELA for much of the game. However, two blocked field goal attempts and a Goldrich interception in the end zone just a few minutes earlier had allowed SELA to hang around. When UNH's Brian Bennett threw a scoring pass on 4th and goal with 5:17 to play, the Wildcats surprising playoff run was on the hopes.
Goldrich moved the team down the field, however, starting with a pass to Nico Steriti and three more to RJ Harris while rushing three times himself or a total of 22 yards. The last carry took the Wildcats to the Tiger 15 and brought up a 4th-and-1 call that fans in the Granite State will long remember. With the blocked kicks fresh in his mind, McDonnell stayed aggressive and chose to go for it rather than tie the game on a makeable 32-yard field goal. Goldrich called his own number again and picked up 6 yards to move the chains and finished the job himself from 2 yards out a couple of plays later.
The touchdown gave New Hampshire a 20-17 lead with 47 seconds to play, but when the extra point was blocked, Southeastern Louisiana needed just a field goal to tie and send the game to overtime. The Lions did themselves no favors with some questionable clock management, but still managed to bring the ball to the UNH 43 with 2 seconds left. No chance for a field goal and the UNH defense snuffed out any chance of a miracle.
The 20-17 final was a surprise given that the game was shaping up to be a shootout from the start with the teams trading touchdowns drive for a 7-7 tie. From there, however, the game was alternatively thrilling and strange as New Hampshire picked off Bennett at the 8 to stop the next drive. The Tigers next drive ended with the missed field goal and the Wildcats took advantage, marching 80 yards in 8 plays for a 14-7 with 13:46 left in the 2nd quarter. After forcing a quick punt, New Hampshire looked ready to take control, running 6:32 off the clock on a 15 play drive that stalled at the SELA 10. But when, Mike MacArthur's 27 yard try was blocked, it was still a one-score game at 14-7. After trading punts, the Lions took over at their 27 with 1:24 left in the half and moved into UNH territory, but a 4th down pass from the Wildcat 31 fell incomplete and the half ended with the score still 14-7.
New Hampshire came out for the 3rd quarter determined to add to its lead, again embarking on a lengthy drive into SELA territory. Another 15 plays and 6:47 came off the clock, but unfortunately the result was the same, as MacArthur was blocked again, this time from 28 yards, and the score held at 14-7. The Tigers went on their own march, taking 18 plays to move 75 yards while eating up much of the rest of the 3rd quarter before finally settling for a 22-yard field goal to cut the edge to four. The big play on the drive came from the New Hampshire defense which dropped Harrell for a three-yard loss on 3rd and goal from the two, thereby probably keeping the Tigers from going for a tying score on 4th down.
New Hampshire's next drive ended on down at the SELA 29 and when Goldrich threw his ill-advised interception in the end zone on the next possession it appeared that the Wildcats were going to long remember an unfortunate day of missed opportunities. Thankfully, though, Goldrich would get another touch and a day game in Hammond, LA meant the clock couldn't strike midnight on Cinderella.
New Hampshire had the ball just four times in the second half, but ran 43 plays and gained 248 yards but had nothing to show for it until the final minute of the game. While it showed a tremendous resilience, especially on behalf of the New Hampshire defense, it will take a much cleaner effort to take down the two-time defending champs this week out in Fargo.
THIS WEEK'S GAMES
New Hampshire at North Dakota State
At first glance, this game appears to be a little bit of a mismatch. The Bison are 13-0, two-time defending champs and pretty much unbeatable at home in the FargoDome. They also play a physical, ground oriented style of play, led by two running backs that will both have gained over 1,000 yards by the end of the day.
One thing we can certainly expect is a clean game, with each team averaging less than 5 penalties a contest, putting them both in the top 20 of FCS.
Maybe the most interesting discovery about the North Dakota State defense is that they don't get a lot of tackles for loss (81st in the country) and they don't cause a lot of turnovers (just 18, 82nd in the country). Now, part of that is undoubtedly because usually they have the ball, averaging over 34 minutes of possession per game, but it also is a by-product of a team that simply plays sound, ruthlessly efficient defense. This is not a team trying to make highlight reel plays, just do their job and get off the field and let Jensen and the offense do their thing.
New Hampshire does things a little differently, coming up with enough big plays on defense to slow the other teams down. Between 7 tackles for loss and 3 sacks a game plus forcing a couple of turnovers, the Wildcats are able to come in 14th in the country in scoring defense despite being 74th in total defense in terms of yards allowed. And their run defense has improved remarkably, averaging just 115 yards a game over their winning streak. This unit will be tested all day long by a Bison rushing attack that is among the best in the country and will be relentless.
In the end, it's hard to imagine that New Hampshire is the team to end this North Dakota State playoff run. While they have shown an ability to control playoff games with the run, it's not clear whether they can do that against an opponent an physical as the Bison. In order to pull off the upset, the Wildcats will most likely need a handful of big plays, including either a return touchdown or a big interception that changes momentum. Unfortunately, it's pretty uncharacteristic of the Bison to allow these and, if anything, the New Hampshire team we saw last week is the one expected to make mistakes. It has been an amazing run for Sean McDonnell and this group and they will be remembered by Granite Staters long after this ends, but the 13th straight week of games is when the run finally ends. An 8:00 Eastern time start means midnight will be fast approaching as the game nears its end and the Bison send Cinderella home.
North Dakota State 31 New Hampshire 20
Towson at Eastern Washington
Simply put, something has to give on the red turf at the Inferno in Cheney, WA on Saturday afternoon. Either the Eagles will stay undefeated at home or the Tigers will remain unbeaten on the road. That, and the fact the Payton Award finalists Terrance West and Vernon Adams will both be expected to carry the loads for their respective offenses. As was the case last week at Eastern Illinois, it shapes up to be another shootout, but this is another game with a marked difference in styles. Eastern Washington brings another wide-open passing offense while the Tigers will try to control the game on the ground yet again.
If last week's game against Jacksonville State was any indication, this Eagles team is ripe for the taking. The Gamecocks from the OVC gave their Big Sky foe everything they had and if not for an injury to their starting quarterback, they may very well have came away with the victory. Even still, they had a chance to win until the back threw a crushing interception in Eastern territory that was returned for a touchdown that clinched the win.
While I expect both teams to be able to move the ball consistently, I believe that the Towson defense will find a way to make more plays. It's difficult to prepare for the physical play that the Tigers bring and they just wear teams down on both sides of the ball over the course of the game. West and Victor should be able to have their way again on offense and will control the pace of the game yet again. It will be a vindication of sorts for West to take down both of his Payton Award co-finalists to set up a tremendous championship battle in Frisco, TX between the two toughest teams in FCS.
Tigers 47 Eagles 34
Enjoy the games this week. What can be better than having a conference team in both semifinals?