The semifinals 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. Just three games remain to decide a national champion. Let’s predict some scores.
Spring 2021: 53-25
RELATED: Semifinal Betting Odds
No. 3 JMU at No. 2 NDSU
A heavyweight bout. A slobberknocker. A donnybrook.
However you want to describe it, JMU playing at NDSU on a Friday night in front of a national TV audience with a chance to make it back to Frisco is as good as it gets at the FCS level.
The Bison are the kings of the FCS and want to show the spring was a one-off fluke season by them. NDSU has faced more doubts this calendar year than it has in nearly a decade, which is typically when the Bison play their best. JMU has been the second-best FCS program since the mid-2010s and would love nothing more than to beat the Bison and then say, “Well, there’s always next year when we’re no longer in your way.”
A lot of things offset in this matchup for me.
NDSU’s defensive line has the edge on JMU’s offensive line. But JMU’s receivers have the edge on NDSU’s cornerbacks. I don’t trust NDSU’s pass game to keep the defense honest. But I also don’t know if JMU can stop the QB run between Cam Miller and Quincy Patterson. The Dukes have the type of quick-strike offense that can blast cold water early on a fired-up crowd. They also can get conservative and make questionable coaching decisions late in big games.
The Dukes are going to have opportunities for explosive plays with the trio of QB Cole Johnson and WRs Antwane Wells Jr. and Kris Thornton. NDSU gave up a lot of yards to the top MVFC receivers, and Wells and Thornton are as good as it gets in the FCS. The Bison defensive line may overmatch JMU’s o-line, but the Dukes can move the pocket or take a page out of SDSU’s playbook and hit some WR screens to get their speedy receivers in space.
NDSU’s rushing offense has been on another level this year. The Bison will get their yards on the ground. I don’t think JMU completely shuts them down, but don’t expect NDSU to get near the level of push at the line of scrimmage compared to the first two postseason games. A choppy NDSU passing attack coupled with a physical JMU defense has me thinking the Bison will have a tough time moving the ball consistently. A lot of NDSU’s yardage in the title game two years ago vs. JMU came on Trey Lance runs, a handful of them were not even designed runs as the pocket collapsed and he just took off and out-athleted JMU. The Bison don’t have that game-breaker this year. Without All-Amerian TE and reliable red-zone threat Noah Gindorff and a questionable All-American WR Christian Watson, JMU’s secondary won’t feel threatened by NDSU’s pass-catchers, allowing the Dukes to stack the box.
Besides some key early-season injuries, the Dukes are as healthy as they’ve been in weeks. For NDSU, Gindorff is out and Watson is hampered by a hamstring injury. Starting center Jalen Sundell had his knee in a brace in the second half last week and change-of-pace RB Jalen Bussey was on crutches. Standout LB James Kaczor, veteran OL Nash Jensen, All-MVFC TE Josh Babicz, and CB Destin Talbert left last week’s games with injuries, although some were said to be more precautionary than serious. Regardless, now isn’t the ideal time for banged-up starters that go beyond nicks and bruises.
Ultimately, I think JMU is the more balanced team, the more talented team, and the healthier team. The Dukes strike early for a quick two-score lead, and they slow down NDSU’s running backs enough throughout the game to hold on for a close win.
Prediction: JMU 24-21
SDSU at No. 8 Montana State
These two teams are strikingly similar. A big, mean offensive line plowing the way for elite backfield talent. A QB that has stepped into a starting role and playing at a high level. Skilled pass-catchers that would put up monster numbers in an air raid offense. A hard-nosed defensive line that is disruptive. Athletic linebackers that fly to the football. And aggressive DBs not afraid to stick their nose into the chest of whoever has the ball.
After traveling to Sac State, then to Villanova, and now to Montana State in what may be the best semifinal environment in years, how much does SDSU have left in the tank? Will the top rusher in the FCS Pierre Strong Jr. play?
Is Montana State’s defensive line that elite? How much better is it, with the same names, that got run off the field two years ago against the last MVFC opponent it played in the playoffs? How healthy are All-American DT Chase Benson, All-American LB Troy Andersen, and All-Big Sky safety Ty Okada?
We’ll get answers to those key questions as the game plays out. But let’s project.
The rushing offenses vs. the rushing defenses are a stalemate to me. I don’t see many 15-play, 80-yard drives with 14 runs happening in this game. Both defenses are too good and too stout. But one defensive breakdown or missed fit can result in a quick score. SDSU is capable of breaking off a long run, whether it’s Strong (if he plays) finding a crease and making one defender miss or Isaiah Davis busting out one of his highlight-reel runs. MSU’s Isaiah Ifanse is a great talent who runs with physicality but also has the explosiveness for a big play. QB Tommy Mellott has already developed the reputation as a playmaker two starts into his career, and you feel he can make something special happen every time he carries the ball. Mellott has had 40 runs in the last two games.
The freshman showed his passing ability (and catching ability) as well against No. 1 Sam Houston last weekend. But he wasn’t asked to do it a lot, completing six passes on 11 attempts. Most of the big plays were on routes outside of the hashes. The jury is still out on if Mellott is developed enough as a collegiate passer to read a defense, go through his progressions, or drop a pass in between the linebacker and safety to move the chains on third-and-8. If he’s a one-two-route concept passer and then tuck the ball and run if nothing is open, a veteran SDSU defense can take away what Mellott is comfortable doing. SDSU’s strong d-line first has to stop the run and contain Mellott’s dynamic running ability, and then the Jacks could bait the young QB into bad decisions or turnovers.
SDSU’s offensive line is playing like the best in the FCS. MSU’s defensive line is playing like the best in the FCS. What’s going to give? Maybe nothing. The edge in this game is that the Jacks are just as good throwing the ball than running it, averaging 222.8 passing yards a game vs. 218.6 rushing yards per game. Chris Oladokun has a good arm and is taking care of the ball (2,849 yards, 24 TDs, six interceptions). The Jacks are creative offensively (a reason why OC Jason Eck is a top candidate for the Idaho HC opening) and find ways to attack a defense down the field, whether it be play-action looks, WR screens, or getting 6-foot-5 All-American TE Tucker Kraft into favorable matchups.
This game looks like it will be a slugfest. Both teams are built to win late in the playoffs with the perfect blend of athleticism and physicality. I do think big plays are going to happen throughout the game, resulting in a little higher scoring game than some may expect. SDSU and MSU will go punch-for-punch, but I like SDSU’s ability to deliver more big blows with its array of weapons in the backfield and at WR/TE. The veteran squad is able to weather an electric crowd and not let it rattle them.
Prediction: SDSU 28-27
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