Road teams confident for FCS semifinals
(STATS) - Richmond coach Danny Rocco tried to be brief when he discussed North Dakota State's many postseason achievements with his players this week.
He summarized so as not to overwhelm with the many facts, and then he used the opportunity to flow into how he thinks his Spiders will end the Bison's record run of four straight FCS national titles.
In recent seasons, road teams have done pretty well in the postseason with one glaring exception - those making the trip to the Fargodome, as seventh-seeded Richmond (10-3) will do Friday night to face third-seeded North Dakota State (11-2) in a national semifinal.
Top-seeded Jacksonville State (12-1) is glad to be playing at home in the other semifinal Saturday, but Sam Houston State (11-3) proved it could win there in last year's playoffs.
Road teams have won a game in every round of the playoffs since 2012, which includes each of the last three semifinals - the final step before the championship game is held in Frisco, Texas. Since the format went to 24 teams in 2013, road teams are a respectable 23-41, and 23-33 in venues other than the Fargodome where NDSU's dynasty is 15-0 all-time in the FCS playoffs.
"Everybody can be beaten, I think that's just a reality," Rocco said, "and you just have to find a way to do it from week to week. And it changes from week to week, the formula to get that done. Utmost respect for their staff, their coaches, their players and their program.
"But I can only spend so much time there, I've got to be focusing in on what we need to do to give ourselves the best chance to win the football game. I do think that our game last week at Illinois State builds our confidence."
As Rocco also pointed out earlier this week, Richmond only has to beat NDSU once, not in a lengthy series. It may feel like the Bison are unbeatable in their loud, raucous dome, but they aren't. In fact, they lost at home in October to a 5-6 South Dakota squad that's not as strong as Richmond.
The Spiders, 4-3 in road games, will seek a fast start to play with a lead and limit the energy of the home crowd - much like they did in stopping Illinois State's 19-game home winning streak in the quarterfinals.
"The teams that can't quite get over the top are those teams that kind of continue to find themselves in bad spots because of penalties and miscues," Rocco said. "I think the teams that find a way to win play a clean game and they have balance and they attempt to control the ball, they don't turn it over."
Richmond's quarterfinal-round win played into the hand of the Bison, who would have traveled to Illinois State had the Redbirds beaten the Spiders. NDSU players have been wrapping up finals this week and nine seniors will participate in graduation Friday morning, so coach Chris Klieman is thrilled his team is still at home. The Bison are 7-1 there this season, 47-4 this decade.
"I know our guys are really excited from the routine standpoint that we're playing at home in the Fargodome as well as these seniors saying, 'OK, I'm going to play my last possible game that I can at home,' he said.
"We're not where we want to be yet. We're continuing to improve, and that's one thing I will say is, each week somebody gets a little better. And that has to continue for us."
Jacksonville State is 7-0 at home and Sam Houston State is 3-2 on the road, including a second-round win at Southland Conference rival McNeese State, which was unbeaten at the time.
Sam Houston beat Jacksonville State 37-26 in Alabama in the second round last year, holding the Gamecocks scoreless in the second half. While the Ohio Valley Conference champion Gamecocks are appearing in their first FCS semifinal, Sam Houston has been to this round in four of the past five seasons.
"This is another step along the way that we need to get through - it's the next game for us," Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. "We've approached the whole year that way, and this is our next game that we have to play to get to where we want to. It's a do-or-die situation. We've got to play well.
"We try to play our best ever week, but this is an opponent that we're very familiar with because we did play them last year."
Said Sam Houston coach K.C. Keeler: "I think just the little familiarity that you have, it does help. I think there has to be a little confidence because you happen to beat the No. 3 (seeded) team in the country at their place (last year). But every year is different. But we'll take any psychological advantage we can get."
LAST WEEK'S RECORD: 3-1 (.750)
OVERALL RECORD: 571-151 (.791)
FCS PLAYOFF SEMIFINALS
FRIDAY, DEC. 11
No. 7 seed Richmond (10-3) at No. 3 seed North Dakota State (11-2)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2) at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.
Series: First meeting.
Quick Slants: CAA Football co-champ Richmond would love a repeat of last Friday's venture into the Missouri Valley Football Conference's backyard as it eliminated No. 2 seed Illinois State. North Dakota State, the four-time defending national champion, has won 18 straight FCS playoff games.
For Richmond to end the Bison's title reign, it must hold up well on the offensive and defensive lines, and quarterback Kyle Lauletta needs to work the perimeter with wide receiver Brian Brown and Reggie Diggs. The Spiders' offensive line has been terrific, which is why running back Jacobi Green (1,563 yards, 21 TDs), who has gone over 100 rushing yards in seven straight games, often finishes off scoring drives. Richmond is plus-9 on turnovers and it's a statistic it wants to win again because the Bison lead the FCS in average time of possession at 36 minutes, 19 seconds. With defensive end Andrew Clyde and defensive tackle Winston Craig active up front, opponents have had to earn their yards against the Spiders. Linebacker Omar Howard is a playmaker and free safety David Jones has nine interceptions, although Bison QBs have only thrown four this season.
NDSU didn't allow big plays to Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals and will try to do the same against surging Richmond. The Bison routinely flatten opponents with their ground attack (237.5 ypg) and get after QBs with a fierce pass rush. Redshirt freshman quarterback Easton Stick is 7-0 as a starter, but Carson Wentz has been nearing a return from a broken wrist. Running back King Frazier (984 yards) is the first option in a deep running game and Bruce Anderson and Chase Morlock are the all-purpose threats. Senior cornerbacks C.J. Smith (53 career passes defended) and Jordan Champion will try to slow Richmond's big receiving duo. While kicker Cam Pederson has slumped recently, Richmond has attempted only four field goals beyond 35 yards, so the Bison may still have the advantage there. The punting game is even better with All-America punter Ben LeCompte coming off his best performance.
Prediction: It's hard to pick a first-time visitor to the Fargodome. North Dakota State, 27-17.
SATURDAY, DEC. 12
Sam Houston State (11-3) at No. 1 Jacksonville State (12-1)
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET (ESPNU) at Burgess-Snow Field at JSU Stadium.
Series: Sam Houston State leads 5-4 (last meeting: Sam Houston won 37-26 at Jacksonville in the second round of the playoffs Dec. 6, 2014).
Quick Slants: Two former conference mates in the Southland who met each season from 1994-2002 get together again for the second straight year in the playoffs. Offensive fireworks are expected between the nation's No. 1 (Sam Houston) and 3 (Jacksonville State) units in total offense.
Sam Houston is trying to beat an outright conference champ for the fourth straight week. Quarterback Jared Johnson is expected to return after missing the quarterfinal-round win over Colgate, but the Bearkats have relied more on passing-QB Jeremiah Briscoe in the postseason. The offense is equally devastating with the rushing of Corey Avery (1,402 yards and 18 touchdowns on 7.8 yards per carry) and Jalen Overstreet and the wide receiver triumvirate of Yedidiah Louis, LaDarius Brown and Gerald Thomas, who have combined for 165 receptions for 2,622 yards and 22 TDs. The 4-2-5 defense, led by end P.J. Hall (21 tackles for loss, 11 sacks), is coming off one of its stronger performances.
While Sam Houston is 72nd nationally in total defense, Jacksonville State is 11th at 297.5 yards per game - its defensive front especially big and active. The top-seeded Gamecocks have the most STATS FCS All-Americans with first-teamer Eli Jenkins (quarterback), second-teamer Casey Dunn (center) and third-teamers Tryomaine Pope (running back), Chris Landrum (defensive lineman) and Jermaine Hough (cornerback), but there's talent across the lineup. Pope is averaging nearly 8.4 yards per carry - best in the FCS - and has rushed for 484 yards in two playoff games. Jenkins has helped the Gamecocks set a school record in total offense (6,770) for the third straight season. In last year's loss to Sam Houston, he was sacked four times and threw two interceptions.
Prediction: In a terrific, even matchup, the noticeable differences are Sam Houston with its passing advantage and Jacksonville State with its defensive advantage. Jacksonville State, 35-31.
Alcorn State (9-3) vs. North Carolina A&T (9-2)
Kickoff: Noon (ABC) at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
Series: Alcorn State leads 1-0 (The Braves won 16-13 on Sept. 11, 2004).
Quick Slants: The inaugural Celebration Bowl begins a six-year agreement between the Mid-Eastern Athletic and Southwestern Athletic conference champions. The advantage for two-time reigning SWAC champion Alcorn State is it has played two games since MEAC co-champ North Carolina A&T last hit the field Nov. 21. A&T ranks second in the FCS in total defense (268.2 ypg) while Alcorn is third (273.9).
Alcorn's defense boasts four All-SWAC first-team selections in ends Stacy Garner and Darien Moody, linebacker Damon Watkins and cornerback Warren Gatewood. The Braves have made many opponents one-dimensional, limiting teams to an FCS-low 116.5 passing yards per game. Quarterback Lenorris Footman has done well in replacing an injured John Gibbs Jr. and combines with running back Darryan Ragsdale for nearly 200 rushing yards per game. However, the senior Gibbs (leg injury) hasn't been ruled out for this game. One player who is ready to go is Marquis Warford, who has enjoyed a banner season as an all-purpose standout.
A&T coach Rod Broadway coached in the SWAC at Grambling State from 2007-10. With an offense that is under 50 percent in completion percentage, the Aggies will struggle with downfield passes. So they hope for a big game from MEAC offensive player of the year Tarik Cohen, who has rushed for 1,248 yards and 12 touchdowns - much of it behind Brandon Parker, the conference's offensive lineman of the year. On defense, the Aggies are active at end with all-MEAC first-teamer Marquis Ragland and Angelo Keyes. All-America punt returner Khris Gardin and kick returner Tony McRae both have a pair of returns for touchdowns.
Prediction: Alcorn State opened its season in Atlanta, losing to Georgia Tech. The Braves return to cap their season with a tight win. Alcorn State, 24-22.