FCS Playoffs Preview Part 2: Late Games Feature Contrasting Styles

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The later slate of Championship Subdivision Playoff match-ups feature the nation’s most prolific quarterback, a Juggernaut-like ball carrier, a tackle machine and the team that made college football’s biggest turnaround from 2010 to 2011. Indeed, punctuating the pairings kicking off after 3:30 p.m. ET are some interesting stories and people that will shape the national championship chase.

New Hampshire makes the single longest trek of any team in the Second Round, traveling over 2500 miles from its Durham, New Hampshire campus to Bozeman, Montana. Montana State would have likely been the No. 1 overall seed had it not lost its regular season finale against bitter rival Montana. The Bobcats’ sole losses were regular season bookends to UM, and in Week 1 at Pac-12 member Utah. Two of the most exciting players in the FCS will line up on opposite sides: MSU sophomore quarterback Denarius McGhee, and explosive UNH linebacker Matt Evans.

Evans is the nation’s leading tackler with an absurd 154. He’s a Buck Buchanan Award finalist, and my favorite to win the award. Meanwhile McGhee’s numbers are slightly down from his electric debut campaign, but he still has 25 total touchdowns and over 2500 total yards. For a complete breakdown of the Bobcat-Wildcat showdown, check out Seth Saunders’ game preview.

Read on for the rest of the late Playoff previews.

WOFFORD at NORTHERN IOWA

Both of these are running teams, yet through very different means. Wofford employs an option, but its version is more akin to Army’s than Air Force’s. Meanwhile, UNI’s resembles AFA more than Army. Get all that?

It’s easier to comprehend when one considers that Wofford’s top weapon is bruising back Eric Breitenstein, a fullback who gets halfback-total carries. He’s an absolute workhorse, carrying 245 times this season and averaging over 120 yards per game. His 16 rushing touchdowns rank near the top of the subdivision. The Terriers thrive on a style of pounding opposing defenses down the field on long drives (32:21 time of possession), and Breitenstein using his Juggernaut-style rushes to finish the job.

Northern Iowa’s leader is Tirrell Rennie. The quarterback has rushed for 739 yards out of the option, a team high. He and David Johnson captain a very methodical rushing attack, always in sync on pitches and reads. But Rennie also has a dangerous ability to unleash effective passing strikes when the situations arise. Rennie has 11 aerial touchdowns and been intercepted just twice — head coach Mark Farley keeps the passing schemes within the constraints of the offense, and Rennie has improved in his ability to recognize coverages from a season ago.

Backing up the precise Panther offense is a defense arguably tops in the FCS. UNI smothers opponents to the tune of just 16 points per game. L.J. Fort is among the nation’s best linebackers, right behind UNH’s Matt Evans for the overall tackle lead with 151. Fort and Co. sniff out opposing rushes and pounce like lions on gazelles.

How Wofford Wins: Chip at the Defense

While UNI has been effective snuffing out rushes, Indiana State’s Shakir Bell exposed kinks in the armor. The nation’s leading rusher was averaging over 10 yards per carry against the Panthers before he was knocked out with an injury. The Wofford offense isn’t predicated on the kind of speed Bell provides. However, if Breitenstein can work the middle and tire out the guys on the line like Ben Boothby, and the rushes to the outside of the option escape Fort and the rest of the pursuers, the Terriers can dominate the ball.

How UNI Wins: Stay One Step Ahead

Something UNI’s defense has done effectively for the most part is predict what offenses will do. Limiting the Terriers’ option reads to short gains, thus keeping the defense off the field as long as possible to avoid tiring squashes Wofford’s game plan.

LEHIGH at TOWSON

Lehigh is in its second consecutive FCS Playoffs. Last season, the Mountain Hawks won a road game over Northern Iowa in the First Round and this year is playing much closer to home, with many of the same players. Among them is Chris Lum, who started the season a house of fire but cooled somewhat down the stretch. Nevertheless, Lehigh was good for 34.7 points per game. This team can score.

While Lehigh was winning the Patriot League in 2010, Towson was suffering through a brutal 1-10 campaign. Just three seasons removed from a postseason appearance, the Tigers had fallen into a slump that left them in the Colonial Athletic Association’s basement. Something had to change for Towson to right the ship. That change was the addition of freshman running back Terrence West.

OK, so it was more than just the addition of West that helped the Tigers improve from worst to first, but his presence didn’t hurt the cause. His 1242 yards and 27 (27!) touchdowns lead a multiple-look rushing attack.

How Towson Wins: Force Turnovers

Lehigh’s been able to post big points on mostly lower echelon competition. But in scoring a lot of points, the Mountain Hawks have been susceptible to turnovers. Lum completes the majority of his passes — better than 67 percent — but when he’s not finding his targets, he throws picks. He’s given up 15 on the season. Should the Tigers pressure him effectively with four-man rushes, and perhaps double cover top target Ryan Spadola (83 receptions on the year) a few giveaways will give the momentum to Towson.

How Lehigh Wins: Keep Tiger Rushes Short

The Mountain Hawk defense has gone somewhat unheralded, what with Lum throwing to Spadola and company for dozens of touchdowns. But Lehigh has allowed just 90 rushing yards per game, one of the best averages in the subdivision. Conversely, Towson is putting up nearly 240 yards on the ground. The Tigers will get yards — such is the reality of the option offense. However, if the Mountain Hawks can hold the Tigers to gains of three and four yards while avoiding the 7-to-10 yarders, the game will be played at Lehigh’s pace.

JAMES MADISON at NORTH DAKOTA STATE

A prototypical pairing of immovable object and irresistable force, Mickey Matthews-coached teams have been commendable for their defensive powerhouse. It’s been pointed out on this blog in the past, but bears reiterating the JMU procuded Arthur Moats, a.k.a. the man who rid the NFL of Brett Favre.

This year’s version is no different from past Matthews’ teams. The Dukes have allowed just 19.1 points per game, ranking No. 14 in the FCS. JMU succeeds with an 8-man front, vis a vis a 4-4 formation. Essentially, the Dukes ask offenses to bring on the pass. That would have been a great philosophy to stuff North Dakota State a season ago when it reached the national quarterfinals. But this year’s Bison team has found a healthy balance with the emergence of quarterback Brock Jensen. Jensen is completing nearly 70 percent of his pass attempts, has thrown just two interceptions to 11 touchdowns, and added 2000 yards to the typically rush-heavy offense.

That’s a tremendous supplement to the multifaceted run game of Sam Ojuri and D.J. McNorton, the Bison tailbacks who have a combined 19 touchdowns and over 1450 yards. The balanced attack results in a 33.5 point per game average.

How JMU Wins: Make NDSU One-Dimensional

Jensen’s emergence is a critical aspect of NDSU’s offensive success, but the Bison remain a rushing team. The eight-man front is designed to stop the rush, something the Dukes did effectively both in the CAA, and last week in their first round defeat of Eastern Kentucky (and last September against Virginia Tech, to a certain extent). JMU may invite Jensen to pass while focusing on the rush, but Jensen is capable of throwing passes for big gains. Stunting and blitzing as opposed to a rigid front will be crucial for the Dukes’ success against this potent offense.

How North Dakota State Wins: Force The Tempo

As good as James Madison is defensively, it’s equally vanilla on offense. The Dukes want to force opponents into grinders, because they don’t score often. Should Jensen work those open seams with say, four receivers out on patterns of 12-15 yards, the Bison can establish the pace early. A few first half scores will pull JMU out of its comfort zone.