The quarterfinals of the 2021 FCS playoffs are set for Friday and Saturday.
All year, Senior FCS Analyst Sam Herder has given his thoughts and score predictions. Now it’s playoff time, and the final four teams will be determined after this week’s games.
Let’s predict some scores.
Spring 2021: 53-25
RELATED: Quarterfinal Betting Odds
Place FCS Wagers at BetMGM
New Customer Offer: Risk-Free First Bet up to $1,000
No. 6 Montana at No. 3 JMU
What a treat the FCS community gets here. The storyline is great as JMU is on One Last Ride to an FCS national championship while Montana is trying to Return To Dominance and be a national contender again. On the field, how can JMU’s young offensive line (starting three redshirt freshmen and a redshirt sophomore) handle a disruptive Montana defense that sends blitzes from all over the place? How well will Montana’s secondary handle an explosive passing attack? Is Montana’s offense good enough to have success against a stout JMU defense? And which offense can finish promising drives with TDs?
The Griz have been incredible on special teams lately, which was a big difference-maker in their last two wins against Montana State and EWU. The special teams battle may be a wash on Friday, though, as the Dukes have NCAA record-breaker kicker Ethan Ratke and own the No. 6 kick return defense, No. 4 punt return defense, and are No. 1 in kickoff returns.
Montana will try, but it’s going to be hard to rattle JMU QB Cole Johnson, who is in his sixth season and has thrown 37 TDs to two interceptions. The Dukes make up for an inexperienced o-line by moving the pocket, rolling Johnson out, or having an extra blocker stay in to help out. Antwane Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton are elite enough targets where a two- or three-WR route concept is still tough to stop, allowing a tight end to block or a running back to chip. Patrick O’Connell, Jace Lewis, Robby Hauck will get their licks in, whether it be sacks, TFLs, or big hits. But the Dukes should be able to get into the lower-30s in points with big plays.
The main question in this matchup is what can Montana do against JMU’s defense? The Griz have been operating at a high level lately, but this will be the toughest FCS defense they have faced. JMU has the No. 9 scoring defense, allowing 15.8 PPG.
Both defenses will shine throughout this game. The special teams are about even. The offenses will be the difference, and the Dukes have the advantage there with the home crowd behind them.
Prediction: JMU 34-27
No. 7 ETSU at No. 2 NDSU
Can ETSU hold up in the trenches for four quarters? Not two quarters. Not three quarters. But for four quarters?
The Bucs owned the line of scrimmage in their 23-3 season-opening win against Vanderbilt, outrushing the Commodores 179-85. Regardless of Vandy’s struggles, that type of performance is rare in FCS over P5 victories. But doing it against the Bison is a different animal.
NDSU has mauled its last three opponents, rushing for 1,146 yards while allowing 217 yards on the ground. SMU transfer RB TaMerik Williams (6-foot-1 and 225 pounds) has stepped up down the stretch, scoring six rushing TDs in the last three games.
Quay Holmes (1,518 yards rushing and 17 TDs) and Jacob Saylors (985 yards rushing and 10 TDs) are special RBs for ETSU. They go up against the No. 6 FCS rushing defense (83.1 YPG). The interior of ETSU’s offensive line is 265, 285, and 300 pounds while the tackles are over 330 pounds. Getting a consistent push run blocking will be tough. Redshirt freshman QB Tyler Riddell has been solid in a balanced offense, completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 2,372 yards, 19 TDs, and four interceptions. But ETSU is slightly above-average in pass protection, ranking 46th with 1.75 sacks per game. The Bison rank No. 4 in team sacks, getting home 3.58 times per game.
ETSU’s three defensive linemen in its 3-4 defense go 275, 245, and 260 pounds. The Bison starting OL is 301, 328, 298, 302, and 313 pounds. NDSU has the No. 2 rushing offense in the FCS (281.6 YPG). ETSU has the No. 49 rushing defense (143.5). In last week’s comeback win against Kennesaw State, ETSU ran for only 70 yards while allowing 287.
NDSU is going to lean on the Bucs in the first quarter. And then in the second quarter. And then keep doing it in the second half. It may not happen right away, but sooner than later the Bison rushing attack is going to gash ETSU’s defense, and NDSU’s d-line will overwhelm the Bucs.
Prediction: NDSU 35-10
SDSU at No. 5 Villanova
Two teams that can be very good, but also very average.
At its peak, Nova is the team that can beat No. 3 JMU 28-27 and No. 18 Rhode Island 44-0. It can also fall behind 31-3 before losing 31-18 to William & Mary, or squeak out a 21-16 second-round win versus Holy Cross.
At its peak, SDSU is the team that can beat FBS Colorado State 42-23, lead No. 7 SIU 20-0 in the second quarter, lead No. 2 NDSU 24-7 at halftime, beat UC Davis 56-24 in the first round, and lead No. 4 seed Sac State 24-3 at halftime in the second round. It can also end up losing 42-41 to SIU, allowing NDSU and Sac State back into the games for one-possession wins, lose to UNI, and lose to South Dakota.
So who knows what’s in store for 60 minutes on Saturday?
My guess is we’ll see a pretty good defensive battle. I don’t envision Nova having a good day offensively against SDSU’s stingy defense. The Wildcats are also physical on defense and rank No. 10 in stopping the run (99.3 YPG). Having a lockdown cornerback Christian Benford allows the defense to hone in on the run and not have to worry about safety help over the top, which will be needed to stop RB duo of Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis. Expect Villanova to sell out to stop the run.
SDSU is equally as good stuffing the run, ranking No. 12 (105.0 YPG). With Strong and Davis along with Villanova’s Justin Covington, there is a lot of star power at running back. To me, it’ll come down to quarterbacks. SDSU’s Chris Oladokun has been more consistent than Daniel Smith, and he has two solid WRs in the Janke twins and an All-American-level talent at TE in Tucker Kraft.
Despite traveling to the West Coast last week and now heading to East Coast, I think the Jacks have enough left in the tank to get another road playoff W.
Prediction: SDSU 21-17
No. 8 Montana State at No. 1 SHSU
The rushing attack battle is going to be a blast to watch in this one. Yes, you read that correctly.
While Sam Houston still has incredible talent for pass-catchers and still does give up some big yardage through the air, the Bearkats have one of the better running games and rushing defenses in the FCS. They have rebuilt their identity compared to the mid-2010s, which helped them to a spring national title.
SHSU is No. 4 against the run (75.7 YPG). Joseph Wallace, Trace Mascorro, Jahari Kay, and Jevon Leo are all elite players on the d-line. They go up against the No. 7 rushing offense (232.6 YPG). Montana State is led by RB Isaiah Ifanse, who is No. 3 in the FCS with 1,434 rushing yards (238 carries, nine TDs). QB Tommy Mellott started his first career game last weekend after seeing reps as a running QB throughout the season. He rushed 23 times for 180 yards and two TDs in the second-round win against UT Martin.
SHSU is the No. 6 rushing offense (241.7 YPG). Ramon Jefferson is another All-American-level RB in this game. He is seventh in the FCS with 1,138 rushing yards on 162 carries while scoring 13 TDs on the ground. Montana State is 16th against the run (109.0 YPG). Troy Andersen is one of the best defensive players in the FCS at linebacker, Chase Benson is as good as it gets on the interior of the DL, and Daniel Hardy has 18.5 TFLs and 12 sacks from his defensive end position.
The difference will be offensive balance. SHSU is still great throwing the ball, ranking 26th with 254.4 YPG. Eric Schmid is a clutch QB and his WR trio of Jequez Ezzard, Ife Adeyi, and Cody Chrest is a handful to defend while respecting Jefferson in the backfield. The Bobcats are strong against the pass, though, ranking No. 6 (163.1 YPG).
SHSU’s pass defense struggles, ranking 115th (269.4 YPG). But it won’t be stressed nearly as much Saturday compared to UIW in the second round. MSU has regressed throwing the ball in the second half of this season, which led to the benching of starting QB Matthew McKay, who then entered the transfer portal two days before the UT Martin game. Mellott went just 8-of-20 for 51 yards in his starting debut, although the wind was a major factor and the ground game was working just fine. Regardless, the freshman will have to show something with his arm for the offense to have success.
SHSU is 17-0 all-time in FCS postseason games at Bowers Stadium. Thanks to its strong running defense and balanced offense, the Bearkats improve to 18-0 all-time.
Prediction: SHSU 28-24
Check out the latest episode of the FCS Football Talk podcast, which is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart, Stitcher, and Spreaker.
SUBSCRIBE: FCS Football Talk