In the FCS Huddle: FCS Quarterfinals Playoff Preview
By Brandon Lawrence, FCS Associate
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Football is a position-driven sport, and in order to be a successful program a team needs to have players capable of handling each position's responsibilities.
That includes arguably the most important one on the field - the quarterback position.
In what is quickly becoming a pass-heavy sport, each offensive play runs through the quarterback, making it a necessity to have an effective passer in order to build a winning program.
All eight teams remaining in the FCS postseason have received stellar play from their quarterbacks and look to them to make it past this weekend's round of quarterfinal games.
When you think of big-name players at the position on FCS teams still in the playoff race, Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams, North Dakota State's Brock Jensen and Southeastern Louisiana's Bryan Bennett come to mind.
They're all proven athletes and big game-tested passers. Jensen is the field general of a two-time national championship-winning program, while both Garoppolo and Adams have played in monumental games in their careers with wins over FBS programs this season. Even Bennett saw time in the 2012 Fiesta Bowl with the University of Oregon.
For younger passers, it's tough to get attention right away, and it usually takes time to transition to the college game. But with two playoff wins each this year, New Hampshire's Sean Goldrich, Jacksonville State's Eli Jenkins and Coastal Carolina's Alex Ross have already made names for themselves and look to continue their team's playoff success.
Goldrich, a sophomore at UNH, spent a sizeable portion of the 2013 season splitting time with junior passer Andy Vailas. But, according to coach Sean McDonnell, Goldrich took over the primary duties when injuries began to plague Vailas' season right around the first weekend in October.
Goldrich has played in 12 games, throwing for 1,683 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also has rushed for 298 yards and three scores. He led the Wildcats past fifth-seeded Maine in Orono on Saturday with 291 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-27 passing.
"We settled on Sean right after the Towson game because of a couple of things," McDonnell said. "One, injury. Andy got hurt. Two, we just kept taking a look at (how Goldrich) kept putting us in great situations all the time, and understood what we needed him to understand. Not that Andy didn't, but just felt (Goldrich) was doing that consistently as he always has."
McDonnell said both of his quarterbacks give the team a chance to win, and the coaching staff and the team is very comfortable with either guy under center.
In the playoffs, go with the guy who's playing the best and leading the team to wins. Goldrich will square off with Bennett Saturday at Southeastern Louisiana.
Jacksonville State underwent multiple quarterback changes this season as well. Jenkins started the season under center, but was replaced by junior Max Shortell after Jenkins suffered a hand injury a few weeks in. Shortell played well until his injury sidelined him against Eastern Illinois. Jenkins took over in the regular-season finale against Southeast Missouri State and has led the Gamecocks in the playoffs.
Jenkins, a redshirt freshman at Jacksonville State, played well beyond his years in the Gamecocks' two playoff games. Considering he saw a lot of time at safety and was more of an "athlete" than a pure passer in high school, Jacksonville State coach Bill Clark said he's turned into the team's best quarterback.
Jenkins led Jacksonville State to victories over Samford (55-14 in the first round) and McNeese State (31-10 Saturday). In those two games combined, Jenkins has completed 18 of his 34 pass attempts for 235 yards and two touchdowns. He's also added 212 rushing yards and a score.
"He's a cerebral kid; he can run, he can throw and has the best arm out of all our quarterbacks," Clark said. "He'd never really been in a progression offense in high school, and there's so many high school quarterbacks now coming out that are so well-schooled, and they understand all of the progressions. That wasn't really his role with his high school."
Jenkins will get the start Saturday at Eastern Washington and take on Adams.
"When he got his opportunity these last three weeks, he's played with confidence and not turned the ball over," Clark said. "... Early in the year he looked like a freshman, and now he's looking like a veteran."
Coastal Carolina's Ross was in a bit of a different situation. Ross went into the season as the undisputed starter for the Chanticleers after seeing occasional time last year behind regular starter Aramis Hillary.
As a sophomore this year, Ross led the Chants to a 10-2 regular season record, and played every game except for one, a 66-27 Chanticleers victory over VMI he missed because of an ankle injury.
Coastal Carolina has beaten Bethune-Cookman and Montana in the postseason, and faces the top overall seed in North Dakota State on Saturday.
Ross and running back Lorenzo Taliaferro are the center points of a high- powered offense. In two games this postseason, Ross has thrown for 458 yards and seven touchdowns on 29-of-39 passing. He's also rushed for 155 yards, including 123 in last weekend's upset win at Montana.
He'll get a chance to really prove himself against the kingpins of the league Saturday in front of a national audience on ESPN.
We'll find out how much longer the younger quarterbacks of the remaining playoff teams can keep up the production. Who knows, maybe it's all the way to the finals.
Either way, with a strong showing this postseason, these young signal callers are paving their own way and their teams' way for years to come.
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the FCS playoff quarterfinal round (all times ET):
Friday, Dec. 13
No. 5 Towson (11-2) at No. 2 Eastern Illinois (12-1)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
What to know: Like Towson's matchup with Fordham a week ago, this battle between the Tigers and the Ohio Valley Conference champion Panthers will likely set off a fireworks display of offense.
It's also an opportunity to see two Walter Payton Award finalists meet head- to-head prior to the announcement of the outstanding FCS player winner Monday night.
Towson running back Terrance West finished his day against Fordham with 76 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. Not West's usual production in terms of yards gained, but the Tigers offense managed to total 189 yards on the ground thanks to 105 yards from freshman back Darius Victor.
West is currently second in the FCS in rushing yards behind South Dakota State's Zach Zenner, who totaled 2,015 yards this season. However, Zenner's season is over after his Jackrabbits lost to Eastern Washington. So West can overtake the SDSU junior with 64 rushing yards Friday. West is also the nation leader's with 34 touchdowns, including 33 on the ground.
It will be a mountainous task for West alone to match the production of the Eastern Illinois offense - something West has been able to do by himself with some opponents this season. But with Jimmy Garoppolo, who has now thrown for an FCS-high 51 touchdown passes this season, and the slew of weapons he has on the Eastern Illinois offense, West will have his work cut out for him.
Garoppolo is currently third on the single-season passing yardage list with 4,729 yards and chasing Taylor Heinicke of Old Dominion, who set the record last season with 5,076. Steve McNair is second in single-season passing yards with 4,863.
Eastern Illinois' defense is ranked 44th in the FCS in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up an average of 146.8. Towson's offense is 17th in the nation in averaging 232.4 rush yards per game.
Going up against the nation's best scoring offense (48.9 points per game) is like sitting at the top of a tall roller coaster. It's inevitable the decent is coming, and you know you'll survive one way or the other. But, boy, is it scary looking down. Towson's defense is talented with playmakers like Telvion Clark and Jordan Love constantly stepping up each week, but is it enough to handle the Panthers' best-in-the-nation offense?
The Tigers rank 21st in the country and third in the Colonial Athletic Association this season in total defense, allowing 341.3 yards per game to opponents.
Despite the talented defense Towson boasts, EIU skill position players like Garoppolo, receivers Erik Lora, Adam Drake, Keiondre Gober, tight end Jeff LePak and running backs Shepard Little and Taylor Duncan are just too talented and too numerous to contain.
Prediction: Eastern Illinois 43, Towson 33
Saturday, Dec. 14
Coastal Carolina (12-2) at No. 1 North Dakota State (12-0)
Kickoff: noon ET (ESPN)
What to know: Some people say it's the slow knife that cuts the deepest.
In the second round of the FCS playoffs, two teams were at polar opposites when it comes to belief of that saying. North Dakota State and Furman were scoreless after one quarter of play, and the Bison held a 10-7 lead when the teams headed to the locker room at halftime.
Then the Bison came out firing, and dominated the second 30 minutes of football against the Paladins, scoring four unanswered touchdowns and winning handedly, 38-7, in their first playoff contest of 2013.
Then there's Montana. The Grizzlies allowed Coastal Carolina to enter Washington-Grizzly Stadium in single-digit temperatures and take a three- touchdown lead twice, including a 42-21 advantage at the end of the third quarter.
Any last-ditch efforts at a comeback, although valiantly attempted by quarterback Jordan Johnson and the Grizzlies offense in the final period, came up short, and the Chanticleers advanced past Montana, 42-35. Perhaps the Grizzlies waited too long to strike.
North Dakota State must operate the remainder of the playoffs knowing coach Craig Bohl and a sizeable chunk of his coaching staff won't be around next season. Bohl accepted the University of Wyoming coaching position late last week, but will remain on the sidelines for the Bison until their playoff run is over.
Although Coastal Carolina is unseeded this postseason and comes from the Big South Conference - not one considered to be a "power conference" in the FCS - the Chanticleers have done everything right in proving they belong in the quarterfinals.
The Chants are among the FCS leaders in scoring offense (42.9 points per game), led by sophomore quarterback Alex Ross and senior running back Lorenzo Taliaferro. Both were on point against Montana, as Ross threw for 202 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 123 yards, and Taliaferro gained 104 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries.
Not many teams this season have been able to slow the dynamic offensive duo. But the Bison are a different story when it comes to defense.
North Dakota State leads the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 11.2 points per game. In 12 games this season, the Bison have allowed just 15 opponents touchdowns - just over one per game on average. In a Missouri Valley Football Conference with some tough teams and explosive players, that's certainly a strong testament.
It's a unique matchup for North Dakota State, which is a team that has faced only one opponent this season averaging more than 30 points per game in Youngstown State. Coastal Carolina is a team built on outscoring its opposition.
Whether the Bison rally around the fact that this is Bohl's last postseason with the team or feel saddened by it, this team has too much talent for Coastal Carolina.
Prediction: North Dakota State 35, Coastal Carolina 24
Jacksonville State (11-3) at No. 3 Eastern Washington (11-2)
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m. ET (ESPN3.com)
What to know: There's some disparity between Eastern Washington and Jacksonville State in terms of regular-season accomplishments.
The Eagles won an outright Big Sky Conference title and were ranked in the Top 3 for a better portion of the season. As the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, the Eagles are (and were) guaranteed home playoff games at least until the semifinals.
Jacksonville State finished third in the Ohio Valley Conference and needed wins at home against Samford and on the road at McNeese State to get to the quarters. But now that the Gamecocks are here, it's anyone's game.
Both teams are built to score points, but have defenses that don't get as much attention as they deserve. Jacksonville State is ranked 28th in the FCS and third in the OVC in scoring defense, holding opponents to 22.8 points per game.
The Gamecocks dominated McNeese State from the start last Saturday in Lake Charles, La., forcing Cowboys senior quarterback Cody Stroud to throw two interceptions and go 18-for-40 (45 percent).
Meanwhile, senior running back DaMarcus James was busy on the offensive side against McNeese, scoring two 1-yard touchdown runs in the second quarter and icing a Gamecocks victory with a 3-yard burst for a score in the fourth. After last week, James is now second in the nation behind Terrance West with 28 rushing touchdowns.
But, of course, Jacksonville State has Vernon Adams and the high-flying Eagles offense to contend with. Adams electrified South Dakota State last weekend with a 217-yard, five-touchdown performance complemented by running back Quincy Forte's 202 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Adams is second in the nation in points responsible for per game with a 25.7 average. As an offense, the Eagles average 40.5 points per game. So even if Adams is shut down by Jacksonville State, the Gamecocks still have plenty of other pieces that they need to account for on the offense.
With players like linebacker Ronnie Hamlin (114 total tackles, two interceptions, a forced and recovered fumble) and cornerback T.J. Lee III (93 total tackles, an interception, 10 pass breakups and four forced and recovered fumbles), the Eagles will try to account for James and freshman dual-threat quarterback Eli Jenkins.
In two postseason games as the starting quarterback, Jenkins has thrown for 235 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 212 yards and a score.
Eastern Washington and South Dakota State were tied 14-14 heading into the second half in the second round last Saturday, but the Jackrabbits managed only one field goal in the second half against the Eagles defense. That includes a game total of 71 rushing yards from junior back Zach Zenner - the nation's (current) leading rusher with over 2,000 yards this season.
The Eagles are 6-0 at home on the red turf this season. Although Jacksonville State has a powerful offensive game of its own, especially on the ground, Eastern Washington's attack should be able to thwart an upset attempt by the Gamecocks.
Prediction: Eastern Washington 36, Jacksonville State 28
New Hampshire (9-4) at No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana (11-2)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (ESPN3.com)
What to know: With their back against the wall ever since an Oct. 5 loss to Towson that set them back to a 1-3 record, the New Hampshire Wildcats have been on fire in must-win situations.
The Wildcats have won eight of their last nine games, including five in a row, and, for the first time in program history, two consecutive playoff games.
New Hampshire defeated Lafayette, 45-7, in the first round at home, then traveled to Maine and beat the fifth-seeded Black Bears, 41-27. Only Coastal Carolina (90) has scored more points in two games this postseason than New Hampshire (86). Jacksonville State also has scored 86 through two games.
Now New Hampshire must contend with the No. 4 seed and Southland Conference champion Southeastern Louisiana. Since we're mentioning teams that are hot at the right time, the Lions should be and are right at the top of that list.
Southeastern Louisiana has won 10 consecutive games, including the last three at home, twice over Sam Houston State, a team that had been to back-to-back national championships. One of the Lions' two losses this season was to TCU in Week 2.
The Lions are led by junior quarterback and Oregon transfer Bryan Bennett. Last weekend, Bennett led all passers and rushers in the game with 286 passing yards (two touchdowns) and 83 rushing yards (one touchdown). His season scoring totals are now 20 passing and 15 rushing.
Overall, the Lions average 40.1 points per game, good for seventh in the FCS and second in the Southland Conference. Bennett accounts for 16.2 points per game and has a passing efficiency of 155.6 - seventh in the nation.
Bennett's 1-yard touchdown pass with 36 seconds remaining gave Southeastern a 30-29 win over the Bearkats last weekend.
The Wildcats have never won a quarterfinal game in program history, but this could be the postseason of first for New Hampshire. It's already the first Wildcats team to win two playoff games in the same postseason, but prior to last weekend, New Hampshire had never beaten a CAA opponent in the playoffs.
New Hampshire will have to force Bennett and the Lions to turn the ball over in order to win. Southeastern Louisiana's last defeat - a loss to South Dakota State Sept. 14 - was made so by Bennett's four interceptions and a team total of six turnovers. The Wildcats will need Manny Asam, Casey DeAndrade and the rest of the backfield to be sharp. New Hampshire has a plus-five turnover margin.
The Lions will need to feed off the home crowd as these two streaking teams battle it out Saturday night. Bennett's experience and collectiveness could finally sink the Wildcats.
Prediction: Southeastern Louisiana 32, New Hampshire 30
Last Week's Record: 7-2 (.778)
Season Record: 229-88 (.722)
12/10 13:54:25 ET