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In the FCS Huddle: FCS Semifinal Playoff Preview

3:58 PM, Dec 12, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Most of the time, preseason polls are used to set up a new season or preview which teams could have success that year.

Nothing is ever concrete because it's a prediction, but it's also important to get some type of picture for the season.

Well, way back on Aug. 13, when The Sports Network released its preseason Top 25 poll, it seems as if the voters knew who would still be playing in mid- December.

Three of the four teams remaining in the FCS playoffs were the top three teams in that poll. In order, the teams were Sam Houston State, North Dakota State and Georgia Southern. Eastern Washington, the 2010 FCS champion, came into the season ranked No. 12.

Call it what you want - playoff "mojo," survival of the fittest or just a will to win big games - certain teams understand how to turn things up a notch once the playoffs begin.

North Dakota State, the 2011 FCS national champion, hosts Georgia Southern in the FCS semifinals for the second straight year and it's the third straight trip in the "final four" for the Eagles. A remarkable run, although GSU hasn't been able to cash in and take the next step during that run, at least not yet.

For the Bison, playing at home in the Fargodome has become a playoff tradition. They have yet to lose an FCS playoff home game and are 21-3 over the last three seasons on Gate City Bank Field. In the last six playoff contests dating back to last year, NDSU has give up a total of 37 points.

On the other side of the bracket, Sam Houston State, the 2011 national runner-up, is making its second consecutive trip to the semifinals and, like last season, the Bearkats are having no problems with Big Sky Conference opponents. Coach Willie Fritz's squad has now beaten Montana State twice - including last week's 34-16 victory in Bozeman - and in 2010. They also defeated Montana in last year's semifinals and Cal Poly in the second round this season.

"I know it's going to be a good ballgame," Sam Houston State senior safety Mike Littleton said. "The two teams we played (from the Big Sky in the playoffs) were good teams. We just had a few bigger plays than those guys. We know we've got to do the same this week."

Sam Houston's trip to EWU this week will be the team's ninth road game this season and the second on a playing surface that isn't colored green. The 'Kats fell in Week 4 at Central Arkansas on its gray-and-purple striped turf.

All-America junior running back Timothy Flanders understands the patience needed for teams to go on a deep playoff run.

"As soon as we (Sam Houston State) knew that we made it to the playoffs, that was one of the first things that we talked about as a team," Flanders said. "We can't lose again. I mean, it's one game and you're done. You've got to think of this as a one-game season. You have to take it week-by-week.

"It comes down to what type of ball team we are. We've been here before, so it helps to have a lot of guys from last year's team. We have a lot of maturity and a lot of great seniors that help us keep our heads straight. ... Our focus has to be straight, especially playing against a team on the road. We've been doing it all season."

Eastern Washington rarely loses at home on "The Inferno," its red turf field. In fact, the team is 17-2 all-time on the playing surface since it was installed in 2010 and the Eagles are 7-0 at home this season.

With a win, Eastern could become the fourth Big Sky team in the last five years to reach the FCS national title game. Montana advanced in 2008-09 and the Eagles won the title in 2010. If Sam Houston can steal a win on the road, the Bearkats would be the ultimate enemy of the conference, with three straight victories over the Big Sky's three co-champions of 2012.

"I know a lot of people say that their conference is a lot tougher than our conference," Littleton said. "It's a big challenge to go and beat all three top teams like that, knowing that they say their conference is one of the best conferences. That would be a big accomplishment."

Eastern Washington stud defensive end Jerry Ceja, who leads his team with 14 tackles for loss and 12 sacks, knows firsthand what it means to move on or go home when it comes to the postseason. The Eagles were 6-5 last year and missed the playoffs after a title run the previous season.

"Going into the playoffs, it's almost like a win-or-die mentality," Ceja said. "Every week we step on that field, we know it could be our last game and that's the last thing we want. We always want one more game."

In terms of playing against a Sam Houston team that has dominated Big Sky opponents, Ceja's answer was simple.

"I think the Big Sky Conference is a very competitive conference," he said. "We're are very, I wouldn't say prestigious, but we have a lot of teams in here that are very solid teams. They have knocked off a couple of teams from the Big Sky, but at the end of the day, they haven't played us yet. So I think the difference is, when they step on the field in the Inferno, I think it's going to be a different type of ballgame than they've seen before."

The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the two FCS games this week:

FCS Semifinals

Date and Time: Friday, Dec. 14, 8:05 p.m. ET

Facts & Stats: Site: Gate City Bank Field/Fargodome (18,700) -- Fargo, N.D. Surface: AstroTurf's GameDay Grass. Television: ESPN2. Announcers: Dave Neal, Andre Ware and Cara Capuano. Home Record: Georgia Southern 6-1; North Dakota State 7-1. Away Record: Georgia Southern 4-2; North Dakota State 4-0. Neutral Record: Georgia Southern 0-0; North Dakota State 1-0. Series Record: North Dakota State (2-0). Last Meeting: Dec. 17, 2011 (North Dakota State won, 35-7, at North Dakota State). Series Streak: North Dakota State has won both meetings. Nicknames: Georgia Southern Eagles; North Dakota State Bison. Conferences: Georgia Southern - Southern; North Dakota State - Missouri Valley. Sports Network Ranking: Georgia Southern (6); North Dakota State (1). NCAA FCS Playoffs Seedings: Georgia Southern (5); North Dakota State (1). Coaches: Jeff Monken (3rd season, 31-11 at Georgia Southern and overall); North Dakota State - Craig Bohl (10th season, 87-32 at North Dakota State at overall). FCS Playoff Records: Georgia Southern (6 National Championships - 1985-86, 89-90, 99-2000 - 45-12; North Dakota State 8-1. Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Georgia Southern 18 (1985-90, 1993, 1995, 1997-2002, 2004-05, 10-11); North Dakota State 2 (2010-11). Current Playoff Streak: Georgia Southern has won seven of its last nine playoff games; North Dakota State has won its last six playoff games.

Game Notes: For the second straight season, Georgia Southern travels to North Dakota State for a matchup in the FCS semifinals. It's also the team's third straight trip to the semifinals under third-year coach Jeff Monken.

There's no question, the Eagles' faithful in Statesboro, Ga., have to be excited with the direction of the program in the last couple years. After all, GSU has won six FCS national titles with an all-time playoff record of 45-12. But let's face it, another season coming up just short of a title would be disappointing.

Of course, this year's team is entirely different than the last two playoff squads, but in the last two trips to the semifinals, the offense has struggled. In 2010, versus Delaware, Georgia Southern managed just 10 points and 310 total yards and turned the ball over five times. Last year versus NDSU, the Eagles scored just one touchdown, fumbled the ball three times and only rushed for 186 yards.

This season, the offense has improved under its new leader, quarterback Jerick McKinnon. He's rushed for 1,649 yards and 19 touchdowns in 13 games. The junior scored four rushing touchdowns last Saturday in an impressive quarterfinal-round win over Old Dominion and makes other players around him more dangerous because opponents have to account for multiple threats.

B-Back Dominique Swope is the second-hand man, rushing for 1,169 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. There's even more depth with Jonathan Brown (500 yards, two touchdowns, 9.4 yards per carry) and Darreion Robinson (483 yards, four touchdowns). The Eagles rank first in the FCS in rushing with 409 yards per game.

For North Dakota State, the key will be trying to slow down, not shut down, the triple option offense, like it did versus fellow Southern Conference member Wofford last Saturday.

The Bison escaped with a 14-7 victory, although they allowed 362 yards of offense and 262 rushing yards - unheard of for a defense which gives up 78 rushing yards per game. However, two enormous second-half defensive red zone stops, and a ridiculous performance by linebacker Grant Olson - in which he set a school record with 29 tackles - helped the Bison advance to the semifinals for the second straight year.

NDSU's top-ranked defense certainly has its work cut for it this week. The unit still leads the FCS in scoring (10.8 points per game), total defense (207 yards per game), defensive third down efficiency (26.1 percent) and first downs allowed (11.3 per game). In 13 games, teams have scored just three rushing touchdowns, and in two playoff games, no opponent has scored an offensive touchdown.

NDSU leads the FCS in time of possession (35 minutes, 14 seconds) and GSU ranks sixth (33:30).

Georgia Southern's defense is much improved and plays well against the run, allowing 130 yards per game. That's important because the Bison look to quarterback Brock Jensen to control the offense, not make a lot of throws with his arm. In the last two games, Jensen has thrown for only 205 yards.

Considering both teams run the ball with success, the receivers don't get much attention. NDSU's Zach Vraa and Ryan Smith only average 50.5 and 49 yards per game, but when called upon, they can make the most of an opportunity.

Watch out for GSU's Zach Walker and Kentrellis Showers as well. Both are phenomenal blocking receivers who only have eight receptions each this season, but can sneak past the secondary for big plays.

First and foremost, Monken's squad needs to forget about what happened in the past and hold onto the football. Expect North Dakota State to use the combination of running backs John Crockett (896 yards, eight touchdowns) and Sam Oujuri (884 yards, nine touchdowns) to wear down the Eagles with long, sustained drives.

The storyline heading into this Friday night prime time matchup is all about Georgia Southern's offense versus the Bison defense. It might end up being the other way around because the Eagles defense could give NDSU plenty of problems.

Prediction: North Dakota State 31, Georgia Southern 26.

No. 5 Sam Houston State (10-3) at No. 4 Eastern Washington Eagles (11-2)

Date and Time: Saturday, Dec. 15, 4 p.m. ET

Facts and State: Site: Roos Field (8,600) - Cheney, Wash. Surface: SprinTurf (red). Television: ESPNU. Announcers: Joe Davis, Jay Walker, Jill Montgomery. Home Record: Sam Houston State 4-0; Eastern Washington 7-0. Road Record: Sam Houston State 5-3; Eastern Washington 4-2; Neutral Record: Sam Houston State 1-0; Eastern Washington 0-0. Conference: Sam Houston State - Southland; Eastern Washington - Big Sky. Nicknames: Sam Houston State Bearkats; Eastern Washington Eagles. Sports Network FCS Rankings: Sam Houston State (5); Eastern Washington (4). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Sam Houston State (NS); Eastern Washington (2). Series Record: Sam Houston State (1-0). Last Meeting: Dec. 4, 2004 (Sam Houston State won, 35-34, at Eastern Washington). Head Coaches: Sam Houston State - Willie Fritz (3rd season, 30-9 at Sam Houston State; 19th season, 166-61-1 overall); Eastern Washington - Beau Baldwin (6th season, 44-18 at Eastern Washington, 54-21 overall). Playoff Records: Sam Houston State (8-5); Eastern Washington (11-7). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Sam Houston State 5 (1986, 91, 2001, 04, 11); Eastern Washington 8 (1985, 92, 97, 2004-05, 07, 2009-10, National Champion in 2010). Current Playoff Streak: Sam Houston State has won four of its last five playoff games; Eastern Washington has won its last six playoff games.

Game Notes: Big Sky Conference slayer Sam Houston State heads north once again, this time to take on the offensive juggernaut that is Eastern Washington.

After convincingly defeating Montana State on the road last week, 34-16, the Bearkats have now won four straight playoff contests versus Big Sky opponents over the last two seasons.

The good news for EWU, however, is that Big Sky members have an all-time home playoff record of 21-4 versus Southland foes. Plus, it seems as if the Eagles are hitting all cylinders at the right time of the season.

Quarterback Kyle Padron set a school record last Saturday with six touchdown passes - three went to stud receiver Brandon Kaufman - in a 51-35 victory over Illinois State. He's been very accurate in the last two games, completing 65 percent of his throws for 658 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Eagles have the ability to hurt teams with big plays. Kaufman has 19 receptions for 385 yards in the last two games. This season, the junior has totaled 1,635 receiving yards which is a new Big Sky and school single-season record.

Sam Houston State's defense should not be taken for granted. The Bearkats are stout against the run, allowing a mere 87 yards per game and just seven rushing touchdowns all season. The secondary is extremely talented and headlined by the hard-hitting Taylor twins, linebacker Darius and safety Darnell. Eastern Washington only averages 129 rushing yards per game, so don't expect much success on the ground. SHSU does give up 223 passing yards per game, however, ranking No. 75 in the FCS.

This is actually the second meeting between the two schools, the last came in the 2004 FCS playoffs. Sam Houston came all the way back from a 34-14 fourth- quarter deficit to steal a 35-34 victory. EWU coach Beau Baldwin was the Eagles' offensive coordinator in that game.

Offensively for Sam Houston State, running back Timothy Flanders (1,358 yards, 17 touchdowns) garners all the attention, and deservedly so. He averages 104 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry in 13 games this season. Richard Sincere is utilized as a dangerous pass catcher and in the team's "Wild Bearkat" formation. He averages 5.9 yards per carry and rushed for 505 yards this season.

Signal-caller Brian Bell directs all the traffic for coach Willie Fritz. The junior has thrown for 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions and his favorite targets are Trey Diller and Chance Nelson, who have accounted for a combined 14 receiving touchdowns this season.

EWU's defense gave up 520 yards of offense in the quarterfinals and teams have constantly undervalued the unit in general this year. Defensive end Jerry Ceja (12.5 sacks), linebacker Ronnie Hamlin (127 total tackles) and cornerback T.J. Lee (11 pass breakups) should prove to be great matchups for SHSU's speedy playmakers.

This is the second game this season for the Bearkats on a football field that is not traditionally colored green. The team's only FCS loss this season came against Central Arkansas - on gray-and-purple striped turf - on Sept. 22. EWU is 17-2 all-time on "The Inferno," its red turf playing field, and, amazingly, since 2010, the Eagles are 13-0 in games from Nov. 1 and beyond.

Keep an eye on special teams, as both schools have exceptional place-kickers in EWU's Jimmy Pavel and SHSU's Miguel Antonio. The two are tied for 18th in the FCS with 1.3 field goals per game and each has made 17 field goals this season.

Prediction: Sam Houston State 40, Eastern Washington 37.

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