Sunday, December 14, 2008

FCS Playoffs 2008: Results, Final Prediction, and FBS comment

Semifinals Results

Montana 35 James Madison 27

Forget the injury to Rodney Landers. Forget the imbroglio surrounding the video reviews in the last minutes of the game. They did not matter, nor did the fact that Montana was out-gained by more than 100 yards. What did? It was a simple matter of execution by the Grizzlies on both sides of the ball in crucial moments in the game. On the offensive side, Montana went 8-12 on third down conversions, and scored all four times they entered the red zone. On the defensive side, Montana forced four turnovers, including two in the red zone. The Dukes will be kicking themselves for this one for quite some time. Here is a recap:

Montana (14-1) won its 10th straight, forcing four turnovers and twice turning James Madison’s fumbles on kickoffs into demoralizingly short, easy touchdown drives.

“This is the first time in my 32 years in coaching that I’ve been in a game where we never punted and we lost,” Dukes coach Mickey Matthews said. “I’ve never heard of that.”

The Dukes (12-2), who rose to No. 1 in the nation after beating three-time defending champion Appalachian State in September, lost Walter Payton Award finalist Landers to a right ankle sprain late in the second quarter while already trailing 14-10. James Madison never recovered, in part because it was as inept immediately after halftime as before.

“That’s something that we haven’t done all year,” said Landers, who fumbled once.

The Dukes did make it interesting, having the ball in the final 2 minutes needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion, but their drive ended on a fourth-and-20 incompletion.

Montana drove 56 yards in seven plays after the opening kickoff of the second half, Bergquist rolling left and throwing across the field to Reynolds at the goal line on the right, a 27-yard touchdown that made it 21-10. It was Reynolds’ third touchdown of the game and school-record 22nd of the season, and the first for the sophomore on a reception.

On the ensuing kickoff, Patrick Ward fumbled for James Madison and Ryan Fetherston recovered for Montana at the JMU 34, the second lost fumble on a kickoff for the Dukes. Five plays later, Bergquist hit Steven Pfahler from 16 yards, Pfahler’s first career TD catch.

Richmond 21 Northern Iowa 20

A 62 yard winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes is precisely what we have come to expect in the Dome. What was not expected was that it would come from the Spiders. And with that, the Curse of the Dome is lifted. It is clear that magic can happen there for teams other than the Panthers, and Richmond does one better than last year, and advances to the finals.
Eric Ward and the Richmond Spiders never doubted, never wavered.

Down 20-7 going into the fourth quarter? Well, get some stops on defense and start moving on offense.

Which is just what they did.

Eric Ward threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Joe Stewart with 14 seconds left and Andrew Howard kicked the extra point, giving Richmond a 21-20 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday and sending the Spiders to the Football Championship Subdivision title game. . . .

The unseeded Spiders beat second-seeded Appalachian State in the quarterfinals before knocking off third-seeded Northern Iowa (12-3), which was seeking its second trip to the championship game in four years.

“A lot of people said you guys don’t belong here,” first-year Richmond coach Mike London said. “I think we belong. In the first three rounds we played conference champions. This is a significant accomplishment for these players.”

Richmond started the winning drive at its own 38 with 1:44 remaining and no timeouts left. Ward completed six passes in the march, including a 4-yarder to Shawn White on fourth-and-2 at the UNI 26—White’s only catch of the game.

Prediction success this week: 1/2 (Once again, as good as a monkey with a dartboard.)

Final Prediction

So how many of you who are not homers would have predicted these two teams to advance to the finals? I am certainly not one of them. Montana has put all the East Coast muttering about their being overrated to rest, and they find themselves in a familiar position, playing for the National Championship. Richmond, should they win, will have taken the most difficult path possible through the playoffs. They have already knocked off the #2 and #3 seeds, and now faced the #4 seed in the finals. So who to choose?

The teams had one common opponent, James Madison. Montana beat them by a touchdown on the road, while Richmond lost to the Dukes by a touchdown at home. Advantage Montana? Richmond, however, overcame a turnover, and it still required a last second score by James Madison to take the win. Richmond, as well, slightly out-gained the Dukes, unlike Montana, who won on the scoreboard, but lagged James Madison in yards gained. Furthermore, Richmond will travel with a large number of players who were last years national semifinal, so I am picking the Spiders to take home the National Championship.

FBS Comment

Lets try a thought experiment. What if the FCS worked like the FBS? Who would have been in the championship game? Who would have been in the bowls? Who would have been left out? Here, as far as I can tell, is how things would have panned out:

National Championship: Appalachian State vs. James Madison
Rose Bowl: Southern Illinois vs. Weber State
Orange Bowl: Colgate vs. Villanova
Sugar Bowl: Cal Poly vs. Wofford
Fiesta Bowl: Montana vs. Texas State

Note what would have happened here. Teams that bowed out in the quarterfinals and semifinals would have played for the championship. And note that not only is Northern Iowa missing from the mix, but so is Richmond. Sorry, no third school from the CAA is welcome!

This underlines the value of actually letting things be determined where it SHOULD count. On the playing field. Its high time for the NCAA to set up an alternative to the bowl system. Give all conference winners an automatic berth to a fully seeded 16-team playoff, and allow for five at-large bids with no conference restrictions. Would the bowls survive? The important ones. It should be noted that the best attended FCS game this year, as always, will not be the championship game. Back on November 29 there was the small matter of the Bayou Classic. . .

FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #1
FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #2
FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #3
FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #4
FCS Afternoon: Countdown to the 2008 Playoffs
FCS Playoffs 2008: Bracket Projection
FCS Bracket Announced: Comment and Predictions
FCS Playoffs 2008: Results and Quarterfinals Predictions
FCS Playoffs 2008: Results and Semifinals Predictions
FCS Playoffs 2008: Results, Final Prediction, and FBS comment

Sunday, December 7, 2008

FCS Playoffs 2008: Results and Semifinals Predictions

Quarterfinals Results

Richmond 33 Appalachian State 13

WOW. Who would have thunk it? Not many beyond the Richmond locker room certainly! This more or less sums things up:
The Mountaineers (11-3) finished with seven turnovers, as standout quarterback Armanti Edwards threw five interceptions in a game after never throwing more than two in one day before. . . .

The Spiders' defense had been shutting down running games for weeks. Six straight opponents had been held under 100 yards. ASU was No.7, gaining 39 yards on 23 carries.

On the other hand, Richmond used 6-foot, 232-pound running back Josh Vaughan to batter the Appalachian defense. The Spiders rushed for 238 yards, with Vaughan crashing forward for 133.

It was really rather straightforward. The visitors stopped the run, ran effectively themselves and didn't make mistakes (no turnovers) while the home team did.

Weber State 13 Montana 24

Meanwhile, Montana was making members of its own fan base look foolish:
MISSOULA — Perhaps you heard this remark from a University of Montana football fan last week:

"There's no way Montana can beat Weber State unless the Grizzlies get their heads out of their dens and score 35 points."

Or maybe this one:

"There's no way Montana can hold Weber State's offense to less than three touchdowns."

Oops! Twenty-four points looked pretty imposing on the UM side of the scoreboard Saturday afternoon.

Oops! Thirteen points on the Weber side of the scoreboard wasn't a typographical error, was it?

No, it wasn't. The only error made by Griz fans was in underestimating the strength and resiliency of the UM defense, which held the Wildcats 24 points under their season average.

And more importantly, the Griz held the Wildcats to 32 fewer points than they scored Oct. 4 in a victory against Montana.

Should we be surprised? No.

Villanova 27 James Madison 31

The Dukes and Wildcats did it again. Same plot. Not quite as dramatic. Bigger stakes. One helluva football game. And more grudges for Villanova to chew on:
Landers threw for 157 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 143 yards and the game-winning 1-yard score. On that clinching drive, JMU chewed up 5 minutes and 16 seconds on 11 plays, leaving Villanova with only 1:38 to mount a comeback.

That hope ended when Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney was intercepted at midfield by safety Marcus Haywood with 40 seconds remaining, allowing James Madison to run out the clock.

Villanova finished 10-3, with two of those losses coming against JMU (12-1). The Dukes won the previous game, 23-19, on a Hail Mary pass. JMU will play Montana on Saturday in one of the Division I-AA semifinals.

Villanova got the short end of two controversial calls. Wildcats defensive back Ross Vetrone appeared to intercept a jump-ball pass from Landers to tight end Mike Caussin in the end zone, but officials ruled that Caussin had possession. Receiver Phil Atkinson fumbled to set up JMU's second touchdown, but replays appeared to show that Atkinson was down before he fumbled, and that a Dukes player pulled his face mask in the process.

It should be quite a game next fall!

New Hampshire 34 Northern Iowa 36

The game was not decided until the final seconds, but the Curse of the Dome lives on, helped by sloppy play from the Wildcats:
The Panthers (12-2) needed a stop on New Hampshire's final possession as the Wildcats (10-3) moved into position for a possible game-winning field goal. There wasn't a comfortable stomach in the house, except possibly for James Ruffin's.

Ruffin, the Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year, sacked New Hampshire quarterback R.J. Toman for a 7-yard loss, giving the Wildcats a fourth-and-9 predicament at their own 38 with 73 seconds left.

Toman had an open receiver on the next play, but he threw the ball too high for T.J. Wright, and the celebration began. . . .

Northern Iowa's defense forced six turnovers, including four interceptions, but the Panthers had problems of their own. Grace lost a fumble at the New Hampshire 6-yard line late in the first half, then threw an interception on UNI's next possession that was returned 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the half by John Clements that gave the Wildcats a 27-26 lead with the PAT.

"It was a careless interception," Grace said. "Thank goodness the defense played awesome all day."

Grace responded by leading UNI on a 39-yard drive on the first possession of the third quarter, leading to a 35-yard field goal by Billy Hallgren that gave the Panthers a 29-27 lead. They held on to the end, but just barely.

Terrell McMoore made a huge play for the Panthers when he intercepted a pass by Toman and raced 36 yards for a touchdown that gave UNI a 36-27 lead with 2:26 left in the third period.
Prediction success this week: 2/4 (In other words, as good as a monkey with a dartboard.)

Semifinals Predictions

#4 Montana at #1 James Madison

This is a fairly easy call, despite the two close escapes by the Dukes in the playoffs this year. Why? No other FCS team has played so well against top opposition this year. They beat the defending national champion, Appalachian State, and the other SOCON standout this year, Wofford. They shut down Maine on the road. They beat fellow CAA semifinalist Richmond by a touchdown on the road. The two wins against Villanova establish that they play cool even when requiring scoring drives in the final minutes. No disrespect to the Grizzlies, but James Madison is way too good this year.

Richmond at #3 Northern Iowa

This is a tougher call. Both teams won on Saturday in large part as a consequence of errors by their opponents. Richmond, however, posted a resounding victory, on the road at the defending national champions. Northern Iowa squeaked it out, at home, against a very fine New Hampshire team which, realistically, is not on the same level as Appalachian State. Just as the Spiders ended the playoff streak of the Mountaineers, they should go on to exorcise the Curse of the Dome, and set up an all-CAA final.

FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #1
FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #2
FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #3
FCS Playoff Watch 2008 #4
FCS Afternoon: Countdown to the 2008 Playoffs
FCS Playoffs 2008: Bracket Projection
FCS Bracket Announced: Comment and Predictions
FCS Playoffs 2008: Results and Quarterfinals Predictions
FCS Playoffs 2008: Results and Semifinals Predictions
FCS Playoffs 2008: Results, Final Prediction, and FBS comment