Four teams remain in the hunt for the 2016 FCS National Championship. Three of the top four seeds, #1 North Dakota State, #2 Eastern Washington, and #4 James Madison, are alive along with unseeded Youngstown State. All four are worthy of reaching the National Championship for the right to play for the title.
The two semifinal games will be played over two days. The first game featuring the five-time defending National Champions, North Dakota State, will be played on Friday, December 16. The second game featuring the #2 seed Eastern Washington will be played on Saturday, December 17. Through three rounds, our predictions have gone 18-2. Below are the links to our predictions for the previous rounds along with the record for that round.
Below are the predictions for the FCS Semifinal games. We will begin with the Friday game of James Madison at North Dakota State.
#4 James Madison (12-1) at #1 North Dakota State (12-1)
Game Time: Friday, December 16 at 7 PM Eastern (ESPN2)
James Madison has played in two playoff games and they have both been blowouts. They dismantled New Hampshire in the second round 55-22 after a slow first quarter. Bryan Schor threw for 371 yards on 30 of 37 passing for 5 touchdowns and an interception.
Their Quarterfinal game against Sam Houston State was even more impressive. They held one of the best offenses in FCS to just 7 points in a 65-7 thrashing of Sam Houston State. SHSU’s Jeremiah Briscoe went a horrid 13 of 44 for 143 yards passing and 2 picks. The running game got going for the Dukes with 144 yards and 2 touchdowns from Trai Sharp and 141 yards and 3 touchdowns from Khalid Abdullah. The special teams also had a punt return for a touchdown and blocked another punt that they then returned for a touchdown.
North Dakota State opened with San Diego in the second round and they had little trouble with them in a 45-7 win. Easton Stick threw for 208 yards and 3 touchdowns while rushing for another 99 yards. The team averaged 9.6 yards per carry with 299 yards total on the ground.
The Bison’s Quarterfinal matchup was against a familiar foe in South Dakota State. The Bison lost to them 19-17 in the regular season and they had a slow start to the Quarterfinal. SDSU took a 10-0 lead thanks to the hidden ball trick play.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 11, 2016
After that, the Bison were in total control. They got a 49-yard touchdown run from Lance Dunn (after a 71-yard touchdown pass to Dimitri Williams was taken off the board). Their next drive was a soul-crushing 20 play possession that took off 12:09 on the clock. Stick kept the ball for a 3-yard touchdown run and the Bison took a 14-10 lead they never relinquished. The Bison won 36-10 with Stick throwing for 188 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and rushing for another 83 yards and 2 scores. King Frazier had 101 yards rushing while Dunn finished with 91 yards and a score on the ground.
James Madison is full of playmakers on offense with Bryan Schor at quarterback and Khalid Abdullah running the ball. The emergence of Trai Sharp over the last three weeks has really helped Dukes on offense. Sharp has 301 yards the last three games, which is more than half of his entire season total (593 yards). The Bison allow 99.2 yards rushing per game.
North Dakota State’s offense will probably be the key to this game. The Bison are averaging 290.6 rushing yards per game over their previous five contests. They want to use that run game to wear down the defense, salt the clock, and score touchdowns. They did that very well against South Dakota State and their key was going 10 for 13 on third down. If James Madison wants to have any chance, they need to stop the run, prevent long drives, and, most importantly, get off the field on third down. Easier said than done.
This game features two physical teams that prefer to run the ball but can use the passing attack to beat their opponent if needed. James Madison has the better offense here, but the Bison have the better defense. Who will win that battle?
We like James Madison to win this game 31-28. To pick against the Bison, at home, as 5-time defending National Championships, and with a stellar run game, is very hard to do. They could easily make this pick look terrible, but we like the Dukes here.
Youngstown State (11-3) at #2 Eastern Washington (12-1)
Game Time: Saturday, December 17 at 6:30 PM Eastern (ESPNU)
Youngstown State is the only team remaining to have played in the first round. They faced Samford in a game they controlled throughout and won 38-24. Their second-round game was against Jacksonville State and they did exactly what they needed to do. They forced Eli Jenkins to throw the ball and he went 6 of 26 passing with 140 yards, a touchdown, and 2 interceptions. The defense gave up 317 yards rushing, but they forced a run-first team into a deficit and forced them to pass. Jody Webb finished with 140 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns while Hunter Wells threw for 290 yards and a touchdown on 10 of 18 passing for Youngstown State.
The Penguins had a stiff test in the Quarterfinals as well with Wofford coming to town. Wofford took a 9-0 lead after the first quarter, but YSU responded with two touchdowns to make it a 13-9 lead. After that, the teams exchanged scores until late in the game when Youngstown State hit a 32-yard field goal to tie the game at 23. Wofford attempted a 53-yard field goal at the end of regulation, but it came up short and the game went to overtime.
Overtime was full of twists and turns. Wofford decided to go for it on fourth and one from the YSU 3, but the pitch hit off Lorenzo Long’s hands and went out of bounds. The Penguins had a chance to win it in the first overtime, but Zak Kennedy’s 37-yard field goal was wide right. YSU started the second overtime with a 2-yard touchdown run by Tevin McCaster and then forced an incompletion on fourth down against Wofford’s offense to seal the 30-23 win in double overtime.
Eastern Washington had a bye in the first round and then faced Central Arkansas in the second round. After giving up the first 14 points, the Eagles scored the final 31 points and held the Central Arkansas offense to 75 yards in the second half. Gage Gubrud went 47 of 64 passing with 449 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 31-14 win. He also rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown in a complete performance from him.
Eastern Washington used that strong second-half defensive performance against Central Arkansas and parlayed that into a full game against Richmond. In their 38-0 shutout, they held Richmond to 205 yards of total offense including 48 yards on the ground and only 1.3 yards per carry. Gage Gubrud had a more pedestrian game going 21 of 32 for 287 yards with 3 touchdowns and a pick. Cooper Kupp caught 6 passes for 128 yards and a score despite worries over his shoulder.
The weather for this game is expected to be bitterly cold in Cheney, Washington. That would seem to favor the running attacks, in which Youngstown State has a distinct advantage. The Penguins average 257.1 yards per game on the ground and their playoff average are at 244.7 yards per game. Jody Webb (1,200 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Martin Ruiz (1,153 and 12 touchdowns) are the leading rushers, but Ruiz may not play against an EWU defense that allows 188.4 yards rushing per game. Ruiz played little in the Wofford game after being arrested on firearm charges.
Eastern Washington only averages 131.3 yards per game on the ground. Will the weather completely shut down their pass attack? That is difficult to envision because the Eagles will still throw the ball around plenty. However, we saw cold weather shut down Sam Houston State’s offense at James Madison when the weather was cold. The difference here is that Eastern Washington is used to this weather, even if it is not ideal to play in. They know what to expect and should be prepared.
One thing to keep in my about this game is that Youngstown State may be without four or five players including Martin Ruiz. If that is the case, their work is going to be even more difficult.
Youngstown State has a good offense to play in the cold weather. That is to run the ball, but this Eastern Washington defense has been completely different in the last 90 minutes of game time. Gage Gubrud will be able to complete enough passes to the trio of Kupp, Shaq Hill, and Kendrick Bourne. If needed, Gubrud can use his legs to run the ball as he is the leading rusher for the Eagles with 558 yards and 5 touchdowns. We will pick Eastern Washington to win this game 28-17.
Check back the first week of the new year for a preview of the FCS National Championship game.