The 2019 FCS semifinals are here, folks. The quarterfinal round was as exciting as the quarterfinals really should be, but in shocking fashion.
On Saturday, North Dakota State really had to fight and claw its way past a defiant Illinois State team. It was a field goal fest, with the Bison edging the Redbirds 9-3. James Madison had to do things in the same fashion to get past Northern Iowa on Friday night. Which begs the biggest question following the quarterfinal round (wait for it) …
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[divider]While the Bison and the Dukes are still the clear cut No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the FCS, was the gap narrowed sharply in the quarterfinals or what? I'd say yes. Wouldn't you?
I'm going to stop short of using the powerful word "vulnerable" because winning quarterfinal games by shutting down tough opponents and siphoning minutes off the clock is a game plan, not a desperate act. I think we've heard the saying "the postseason isn't about style points, it's about winning" a few times this weekend, and that's true. It's just that NDSU's and JMU's opponents in the quarters — Illinois State and Northern Iowa — were both playing with an offensive hand tied behind their backs. They both went on the road and attacked these fierce opponents in similar fashion … tough-nosed defense first, hope for opposition mistakes, and scrap their way through the offensive snaps they receive.
Is it the most entertaining version of football you've ever seen? Nope. If you want entertaining, go to a Broadway Musical and sip a cocktail (protruding pinky finger optional). The version of play we saw in the quarterfinals is what wins in the postseason. NDSU has set the standard in that regard, James Madison has been No. 2 in that department since 2016, Weber State has joined the party by doing this for three straight years, clearly establishing itself as a Top Four FCS power in the past three seasons (SDSU being the other) … and now, Montana State has joined the club by doing the exact same things the other three we just mentioned do. First priority is defense and run game, then mix it up with a competent and maybe even sometimes conservative style under center.
In other words … make the other team punch you in the mouth if they want to win, don't punch yourself in the mouth unprovoked. That message was so, so, so clear this weekend.
We all knew what JMU coach Curt Cignetti and NDSU coach Matt Entz were doing when they went conservative this weekend. It was out of respect … for the opponent, and also for their own defenses. They decided they weren't going to risk turning the ball over easily because their opponents could win. They also handed the game to their defenses because they respected that side of the ball so much, they didn't think it could be touched. Both those games were chess matches … with two veteran MVFC head coaches staring at them across the field in Illinois State's Brock Spack and Northern Iowa's Mark Farley. Wounded or not, these two coaches had a scheme for the postseason and it worked to the 'T'. They maxed out, thanks to key offensive injuries, but still hit the double-digit win mark and won two playoff games apiece.
In the meantime, however, it also showed that these two monster FCS programs can be battled with. It showed the two FCS Titans may be more human, actually. They're still the frontrunners, but there's hope for Montana State and Weber State that if they go into Fargo and Harrisonburg with the same mentality that Illinois State and UNI did, this could be really interesting. And really, for those of us who love FCS parity, is this really a bad thing that several FCS programs "get it"?
Fasten your popcorn and grab the safety belts, FCS fans.
On a side note, I think once again we have a well-defined "Power Three" conferences within the FCS. I know fans outside of these three conferences are sick of hearing it, but this isn't to push buttons folks, it is stating the facts. This year's national championship game will have a Power Three winner, and both semifinals will have them too. Seven of the eight quarterfinalists were from the FCS "P3". Last year, it was exactly the same for the final and semis, and 6-of-8 quarterfinalists were P3. In 2017? The final was all P3, the semis were 3-of-4, quarters were 5-of-8. And 2016? All P3 final, semis and 6-of-8 in the quarters.
This is why we call them the P3 — because from 2016 to 2019, every team has or will be from a P3 conference, 15 of 16 semifinalists will have been and 26 of 34 quarterfinalists have been. It's not a bias, it's a fact — for now.
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