Fun While It Lasted
The first round of the playoffs provided a nice start to the NCAA Division I Football Championships, but now the more serious part of the tournament begins with this Saturday's games
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
STATESBORO, Ga. — When the NCAA decided to expand the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs from 16 to 20 teams this season it was all about equal access.
Maybe not for the Pioneer Football League, which was denied an automatic bid and then failed to get either of its two 10-1 champions, Jacksonville or Dayton, into the field.
But even with losses on Saturday by Coastal Carolina and Robert Morris, equal access proved to be fun for the Big South and Northeast conference teams who earned auto qualifiers into the expanded field.
It was also an exhilarating experience for teams from Georgia Southern, Lehigh, Western Illinois and North Dakota State, who all won first-round games.
Even teams like Northern Iowa and South Carolina State could bask in the fact that their seasons ended with at least shares of league championship – or a Missouri Valley Football Conference outright title in UNI's case — and a playoff appearance.
But as Georgia Southern, Lehigh, Western Illinois and North Dakota State prepare for the second round, the chances are that these four schools will be joining Coastal Carolina, Robert Morris, Northern Iowa and South Carolina State on the sidelines in another week.
The reward for winning first-round games was to earn a weekend pass to play the four top seeds in this year's tournament. And with Appalachian State, William & Mary, Delaware and Montana State in the role of favorites, the chances of Cinderella stories emerging from the first-round winners is highly unlikely.
The four first round games were like watching warm-up acts before the headliner acts take the stage in this football festival.
Unfortunately, teams that win on the first weekend had to endure an extra week of playoff pounding, while the other 12 squads with byes rested up last week to get prepared for their second-round games.
Lehigh 14, Northern Iowa 7
No game in the first round proved to be more surprising than the Mountain Hawk upset of a playoff-experienced Panther team at the UNI Dome in a battle of the Patriot League and Missouri Valley Football Conference champions.
Tirrell Rennie scrambled 17 yards for a first-quarter TD to give UNI (7-5) a 7-0 lead, but the Panthers were unable to score again.
It took some time for Lehigh (10-2) to get its offense in gear before Chris Lum fired a pair of game-changing touchdown passes of 62 yards to Jake Drwel and 28 yards to Ryan Spadola in the third quarter.
The Mountain Hawks defense and special teams made a seven-point lead stand up with three interceptions and a blocked kick against UNI's Billy Hallgren. The usually dependable Hallgren was 0-of-3 on field goal attempts.
John Kennedy, Casey Eldemire and John Veneiro picked off passes for Lehigh, which negated two interceptions and a lost fumble for the Mountain Hawks, who now meet No. 3 seed Delaware at Tubby Raymond Field.
Western Illinois 17, Coastal Carolina 10
Turnovers also played a big role as Western Illinois (8-4) held off a strong challenge from Coastal Carolina (6-6) for a one-touchdown win on the road in Conway, S.C.
CCU, which was nicked for five turnovers, managed to tie the game at 10-all in the second half on the strength of a 17-yard interception return for a touchdown by Dominique Davenport and a 34-yard Justin Dunham field goal.
Western Illinois quarterback Matt Barr has been spectacular this season, but he slipped back into his previous-seasons' form of coming up shaky in big games. Barr was 13-of-29 for 233 yards passing with two interceptions, but he rushed eight times for 45 yards and both Leathernecks touchdowns.
Barr's second TD run from five yards out gave WIU the lead with 1:50 remaining. The key play of the drive was a 38-yard connection between Barr and Bryce Flowers that moved the ball to the CCU seven.
But a pair of major penalties fueled CCU's march to the Leatherneck four in the waning seconds, giving the Chanticleers one last chance to get back into the game. Kieron James ended that threat with an interception of Zach MacDowell at the goal line — MacDowell's fourth interception of the contest.
That boosted Western Illinois into a second-round meeting at Kidd Brewer Stadium against top-seeded Appalachian State.
Georgia Southern 41, South Carolina State 16
There was a time when playoff wins were expected at Georgia Southern's Paulson Stadium, where the Eagles won 27 consecutive games from 1985-2001 and were 29-3 all time.
And with GSU returning to the postseason for the first time in five years, the Eagles (8-4) got another streak started against MEAC tri-champion South Carolina State (9-3), breaking a three-game playoff losing streak.
Despite losing starting quarterback, Jaybo Shaw, to a possible concussion eight minutes into the contest against the top-ranked statistical defense in FCS, Georgia Southern found ways to pull away from the struggling Bulldogs behind freshman backup Jerick McKinnon.
Ahead 19-10 at halftime, GSU played great defense of its own, led by tackle Brent Russell (forced fumble) and end Josh Gebhardt (34-yard fumble recovery for a TD and one interception) to turn the game into a blowout.
South Carolina State was limited to seven first downs, committed four turnovers, allowed two safeties on kickoff returns and picked up 146 yards of its 223 yards of total offense on just three plays. The Bulldogs lost the time of possession battle by an almost 42-18 advantage.
Georgia Southern got a big lift on Sunday with the news that Shaw, who has endured an injury-plagued year, has been cleared to play this weekend against No. 2 seed William & Mary.
North Dakota State 43, Robert Morris 17
Offense has been a challenge for North Dakota State throughout the season. The Bison started the year with a 6-3 win at Kansas and finished the regular season with a 3-0 loss at Missouri State.
On Saturday at home at the Fargodome, NDSU spun its wheels in the first half and left trailing Robert Morris 7-6 in a battle between first-time FCS playoff participants.
Brock Jensen tossed a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes of 32 yards to Warren Holloway and 49 yards to D.J. McNorton to provide the Bison with a 20-7 advantage, but RMU struck back behind the second TD run of the day from Myles Russ (25 carries, 117 yards) and a 46-yard Greg Langer field goal to pull the Colonels (8-3) to within 20-17 with 12 minutes remaining.
But North Dakota State (8-4) closed with a flourish, scoring 23 points in just four and a half minutes.
After Jensen smashed in for a touchdown from the five, Robert Morris quarterback Jeff Sinclair was sacked for a safety to set up D.J. McNoughton (27 carries, 110 yards) for a 12-yard scoring scamper. A Sinclair interception was followed by Mike Sigers' 28-yard TD romp to clinch it with 5:31 on the clock.
The Bison will need to be much sharper when they travel to Bozeman, Mt. to face No. 4 seed Montana State.
Grambling 38, Southern 17
A few years ago, Grambling coaches were on the hot seat because of their lack of success against arch-rival Southern in the Bayou Classic, but coach Rod Broadway has changed all of that.
The Tigers (9-1) used a 106-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance from Frank Warren to knock off the Jaguars (2-9) for the third straight year at the Louisiana Superdome.
Grambling dominated play to build a 24-10 halftime lead and extended that edge to 31-10 on the first possession of the second half on a 16-yard scoring burst from Warren. The 21-point victory was the largest for the Tigers in the series since 1986.
Anthony Carrothers completed an efficient 13-of-15 for 167 yards and one TD passing to lead Grambling's attack.
Tuskegee 17, Alabama State 10
Quarterback Joshua Harris threw for 196 yards and a fourth-qaurter touchdown to give Tuskegee a 17-3 lead and the Golden Tigers (9-2) held on for another win over Alabama State in the Turkey Day Classic at the Crampton Bowl in Montgomery, Al.
Alabama State (7-4) was plagued by four turnovers and didn't get its offense in gear until quarterback Devin Dominguez scored on a five-yard run with eight minutes left to make it a seven-point game, but the Hornets could get any closer as they lost again to their Division II rival.
Dominguez passed for 218 yards, but he was picked off three times.
The Hornets will finish their season playing Texas Southern for the Southwest Conference championship on Dec. 11 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Al.
The game is the oldest classic among the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).