In the FCS Huddle: FCS Quarterfinal Playoff Preview

Philadelphia, PA ( - Familiarity breeds friendship even more than contempt.

When the University of Delaware fired highly successful head coach K.C. Keeler after the 2012 season, he says one of the first people to reach out to him and offer assistance was Villanova's Andy Talley, whom for 11 seasons he would go head-to-head against regularly in CAA Football.

While Keeler spent last year out of coaching, Talley invited Keeler to visit with Talley and his coaching staff at Villanova, watch film, even attend practice.

"I unnerved their players a little bit and Andy tried to explain, 'He's not the enemy anymore.'" Keeler looks back on it today.

"But Andy's been a friend for a long time. When I was a Division III coach (at Rowan), I spent a lot of time over there watching what his teams did."

Saturday, the two veteran coaches will be friendly rivals again, and this time the stakes are high. Keeler is bringing his Sam Houston State squad east from Texas to take on Villanova in the FCS national quarterfinals. The two programs are meeting for the first time.

There is not a lot of familiarity between the competing programs within a quarterfinal round that is quite intersectional this year. Chattanooga and New Hampshire also are squaring off for the first time, while Coastal Carolina and North Dakota State met for the first time in last year's playoffs. Illinois State and Eastern Washington fill the role of old "rivals," meeting for the third time.

Contempt? OK, maybe there will be some of that, too, during the action this weekend.


Last Week's Record (Including SWAC): 7-2 (.778)

This Season's Record: 640-191 (.770)

X-Predicted Winner

FCS Playoff Quarterfinals

All Times ET

Friday, Dec. 12

No. 8 seed Chattanooga (10-3) at No. 1 seed New Hampshire (11-1)

Kickoff: 8 p.m. (ESPN2)

What to Know: The Friday night spotlight belongs to two red-hot teams who have never met before. Chattanooga has won seven straight games - its longest streak since 1968 - and New Hampshire has captured a school-record 11 consecutive wins. Between the two, they have only one loss against an FCS opponent (Chattanooga to Jacksonville State).

Top-seeded New Hampshire is attempting to reach the national semifinals for the second consecutive year. The Wildcats were the No. 1 seed in 2005 when they lost in the quarterfinals to Northern Iowa.

The Wildcats have won 13 straight games at Cowell Stadium, affectionately known as "The Dungeon," and this season, they have won in dominant fashion there.

The CAA Football champions have kept seven of their last nine opponents to under 20 points. That's not the traditional method of winning in Durham, but the 4-2-5 defense has been strong against the pass and is balanced overall, with six players above 50 tackles but none higher than linebacker Akil Anderson's 70 stops. The Wildcats have terrific size on their defensive line (the four starters average 6-foot-2, 275 pounds) and their defense had six sacks in the first nine minutes and nine overall in their 44-19 second-round victory over high-scoring Fordham.

With running back Nico Steriti (four touchdowns against Fordham) healthy again, the UNH spread offense can achieve exceptional balance. Fellow back Jimmy Owens suffered a season-ending knee injury last Saturday, but sophomore Dalton Crossan could see some time and take pressure off quarterback Sean Goldrich, who would get to concentrate on delivering passes to All-American wide receiver R.J. Harris (87 receptions for 1,311 yards and 13 touchdowns) and athletic tight end Harold Spears.

Chattanooga, the Southern Conference champion, is coming off a 35-14 second- round win over Indiana State that was their first ever in the playoffs, and, like New Hampshire, they wear down opponents. The Mocs smothered the Sycamores by controlling the clock for nearly 43 minutes. Their average time of possession of 33 minutes, 21 seconds ranks fourth in the FCS.

Junior quarterback Jacob Huesman is soaring at a high level of play as he leads a multiple offense. He's accounted for 3,312 yards and 34 total touchdowns, and is a two-time SoCon offensive player of the year.

That's one fewer time than defensive end Davis Tull has earned SoCon defensive player of the year honors. Indiana State did everything to avoid the senior All-American, who has 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks this season. That meant the Sycamores went the way of freshman cornerback Lucas Webb, who gained his team-high seventh takeway with an interception. The Mocs, who also feature All-SoCon defensive tackle Derrick Lott, rank fifth in the FCS in allowing just 273.8 yards per game.

The winner will advance to face either Illinois State or Eastern Washington.

Prediction: This is a game between two evenly matched teams. New Hampshire has the better offense; Chattanooga has the stronger defense. New Hampshire, 28-27.

Saturday, Dec. 13

No. 7 seed Coastal Carolina (12-1) at No. 2 seed North Dakota State (12-1)

Kickoff: Noon (ESPN)

What to Know: Many of the visiting Chanticleers have the important experience of playing at the Fargodome in last year's national quarterfinals, albeit in a 48-14 defeat. The worst news for them might be the fact North Dakota State is coming off a second-round scare. After needing to rally past South Dakota State, 27-24, with a last-minute touchdown last Saturday, the Bison figure to play with additional focus.

The Bison, who are eyeing an unprecedented fourth straight FCS championship, have won 21 straight home games since 2012 - the second year of their title run. The Missouri Valley power piled up 623 yards of offense in last year's win over Coastal Carolina, although this year's offense isn't nearly as strong.

The passing game has been up and down, so opposing defenses key themselves on stopping three-time 1,000-yard running back John Crockett, who has 1,527 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. Crockett's backups, King Frazier and Chase Morlock, and quarterback Carson Wentz, who is terrific on running the draw, make it a multi-faceted run game that averages 231 yards an outing.

The Bison defense that surrenders only 12.5 points per game remains the strength of the team. When defensive end Kyle Emanuel (28 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks) is blowing past offensive linemen, it makes the Bison better in every way. The unit has now played a playoff game without injured linebacker Travis Beck, so it figures to improve off a performance against South Dakota State that wasn't bad yet was average by Bison standards.

Linebacker Carlton Littlejohn, their tackle leader each of the last two seasons, played his best in the postseason a year ago. Behind ball-hawking safeties Colten Heagle and Christian Dudzik (58 career starts), 14 different Bison have combined on 25 takeaways.

Coastal has scored at least 30 points in all but one game this season. The Chanticleers ran a school-record 95 plays in their 36-15 second-round win over Richmond last Saturday. Dual-threat quarterback Alex Ross, already the school's all-time passing leader as a junior, is even more effective when running back De'Angelo Henderson (1,391 yards and 19 touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry) stretches a defense with his speed. They have an offensive line, led by All- American left tackle Chad Hamilton and center Kevin Hart, in which all five starters have made all 13 starts this season.

Much of Richmond's offensive production came after Coastal had the game in hand, so the Chants' athletic defense is primed for a big effort. Senior linebacker Quinn Backus, who will be all over the field, is a three-time Big South defensive player of the year with 433 career tackles to rank 16th in FCS history. Their defensive line will have to rely on speed to compensate for a lack of size against the Bison offensive linemen.

NDSU's special teams are among the nation's best, but Coastal's are quite strong, too, behind kickoff returner Devin Brown, place-kicker Alex Catron and holder/punter Austin Cain, who is 7-for-7 on two-point tries in his career.

The winner will face either Sam Houston State or Villanova in the national semifinals.

Prediction: The Chanticleers are an impressive 3-3 all-time against Top 5 opponents, but they are playing NDSU in the wrong week. North Dakota State, 31-17.

Sam Houston State (10-4) at No. 6 seed Villanova (11-2)

Kickoff: 1:04 p.m. (ESPN3)

What to Know: The first meeting between these two programs is also Sam Houston's first game against a CAA team. The national runner-up in 2011 and '12 has rallied from a 1-3 start to the season - including a blowout loss to Colorado State-Pueblo to end a 23-game home winning streak - with wins in 10 of its last 11 games. The Bearkats are the only non-seeded team remaining in the playoffs after they defeated both fellow Southland Conference co-champion Southeastern Louisiana and then Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State, the No. 3 seed.

Villanova has only two losses by one point each, but the Wildcats were stretched far by Liberty, facing their biggest deficit of the season (13 points) and trailing by eight in the fourth quarter before they won, 29-22. Coach Andy Talley is in the minority of coaches who have a winning record against Sam Houston's K.C. Keeler, his old rival from the University of Delaware.

Sam Houston has come on to play relatively "clean," as Keeler puts it - without mental miscues and penalties. Instead, the Bearkats utilize their team speed to force opponents into mistakes.

Although leading rusher Keshawn Hill (1,049 yards, 18 TDs) has been slowed by injury in the postseason, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jared Johnson will spread the ball to key transfers, running backs Jalen Overstreet (Texas) and Donavan Williams (ASA College), and wide receiver LaDarius Brown (TCU). Johnson still needs to be a more accurate passer, but his ability to leave the pocket and get to the open field for large chunks of yards will keep Villanova's defense honest.

The Bearkats defense has grown up considerably in the postseason, shutting out Jacksonville State in the second half last Saturday. Senior safety Michael Wade (111 tackles) is the veteran leader and joins tackle Sione Latu as the unit's only returning starters. Cornerback Trenier Orr, a transfer from Cincinnati with five takeaways, and freshman defensive end P.J. Hall have developed into terrific players.

The Bearkats will have their eyes focused on Villanova quarterback John Robertson. The junior has provided terrific balance to the offense. He's rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons and this year he's combined it with 218.9 passing yards per game and 35 touchdowns versus only three interceptions for 301.8 total yards per outing.

The Wildcats will try to deal with Sam Houston's speed by grinding out drives with running back Kevin Monangai (team-high 14 touchdowns) mixed in with Robertson's exploits. Poppy Livers has been the team's leading receiver all season, but the big-play ability of Kevin Gulyas (26 receptions, 664 yards, nine TDs) makes a big difference, as it did against Liberty.

By playing a 3-3-5 defense which Keeler describes as "chaos," Villanova has a secondary that is fortified by the likes of safety Joe Sarnese (four interceptions) and cornerback Jason Ceneus (seven takeaways). But Sam Houston thinks run first, so linebacker Don Cherry needs to get back to his early season dominance. Opposing teams average only 103.3 rushing yards per game against the Wildcats, and Liberty managed just 64 yards on 37 carries.

The advantage in special teams goes to Sam Houston. A deficiency in the kicking game haunted 'Nova in its two losses.

The winner will advance to play either Coastal Carolina or North Dakota State in the national semifinals.

Prediction: Asserting control through the offensive line is huge here. Villanova wears Sam Houston down. Villanova, 28-21.

No. 5 seed Illinois State (11-1) at No. 4 seed Eastern Washington (11-2)

Kickoff: 4:05 p.m. (ESPN3)

What to Know: Illinois State's last trip to the playoffs in 2012 ended with a 51-35 loss at Eastern Washington. The host Eagles are seeking their fourth trip to the national semifinals in the last five seasons, beginning with their 2010 national championship team.

With quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich starring together nearly every game, Illinois State is accustomed to starting strong. The Redbirds have scored on their first series seven times and outscored opponents 117-20 in the first quarter.

Working behind a physical offensive line pays dividends. Roberson's 274.2 total yards per game, 157.0 passing efficiency, 25 touchdown passes and 200 points responsible for all rank No. 1 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Coprich, the conference's offensive player of the year, is averaging 152.6 rushing yards per game and has yet to be held under 100 yards through 12 games. He figures to produce first downs against Eastern Washington's inconsistent defense.

The Redbirds allowed only 127 yards in the first three quarters of their 41-21 win over Northern Iowa in the second round. But after starting the season strong, the Redbirds haven't been at quite the same level since then (12.9- point average in the first seven games; 27.8-point average in the last five). That's a big concern against an Eastern Washington offense that scores at will (44 points per game).

It was actually Eastern Washington quarterback Kyle Padron (six touchdown passes) and not then-redshirt freshman Vernon Adams Jr. who fueled the playoff win over Illinois State in 2012. But current Eagles' standouts Quincy Forte (116 yards on seven carries) and Ronnie Hamlin (10 tackles, one interception) both played big parts in the win.

For Illinois State, it's all about containing Adams because there's little hope of shutting him down. He's thrown for 3,058 yards and 32 touchdowns in only nine games this season and leads an offense that is 20 points shy of the school and Big Sky single-season records of 592 points. The Eagles have allowed 41 sacks, so Adams might find it difficult to get out of the pocket with Redbirds pass rushers Teddy Corwin and David Perkins flying at him from the edge of the 4-3 front. But Adams has plenty of passing targets and his comfort zone is sophomore wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who is nearing his second straight 100- catch season.

The Eagles defense is coming off a strong performance against Montana in the second round - a 37-20 win when it forced three turnovers. Roberson likes to look deep to his receivers, so safety Tevin McDonald will play a big part in double coverage of the Redbirds' various targets.

The winner will advance to face either Chattanooga or Villanova in the national semifinals.

Prediction: Illinois State's MO is playing ahead. The Redbirds need that against Eastern Washington and Adams may not let them do that. Eastern Washington, 38-35.