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Road sweet road

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - As the host conference for the FCS championship game, Southland Conference officials would have loved to have seen Stephen F. Austin make it all the way to Frisco, Texas.

The problem with that wish is it would have felt like a home game for the Lumberjacks.

And in this year's playoffs, home is where the heartache is.

Road teams are an impressive 7-5 through the first two rounds, including a 5-3 record in the second round on Saturday. Among the victims were No. 2-seeded William & Mary, which had won 11 straight home games and would have owned home-field advantage all the way up to the championship game, and No. 4-seeded Montana State, which had been 6-0 at home this season.

Good teams win wherever they're playing. On the road, they know how to dictate a game.

All eight second-round winners outrushed their opponent and held the ball longer. For the five winning road teams, that meant running the ball enough to sap energy from both the opposing defense and the home crowd:

Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken's squad follows up a road win at William & Mary with a visit to Wofford in the FCS quarterfinals.
* Georgia Southern, which stunned William & Mary, 31-15, rushed for a whopping 423 yards;

* North Dakota State, like Georgia Southern, a winner in both the first and second rounds, gobbled up 376 rushing yards in its 42-17 win at Montana State;

* Wofford went for 269 rushing yards in a 17-14 win at Jacksonville State;

* Villanova rushed for 234 yards and held the ball for 39 minutes, 16 seconds in a 54-24 dispatching of Stephen F. Austin;

* New Hampshire rushed for only 131 yards in a 45-20 triumph at Bethune- Cookman, but that total was a notch above its season average;

The home team is supposed to have a decided advantage in the playoffs, but this year's run of road victories goes hand-in-hand with the unpredictability of the regular season, when the 14 conference favorites won only one outright title (five others shared titles) and the No. 1-ranked teams went a combined 6-6 when they were in the top spot.

CHAMPIONSHIP BOUT COMES EARLY

All I want for Christmas is for next weekend's Villanova-Appalachian State showdown to live up to expectations. On paper, it is among the best quarterfinal-round matchups ever, if not the best.

It pits the defending FCS champion (Villanova) against the playoffs' top seed (Appalachian State), also a winner of three straight national titles from 2005-07.

The matchup of star players and high-powered offenses seems more worthy of the championship game.

Adding to the excitement is Villanova wide receiver Matt Szczur is back at full strength after he missed much of the regular season with two ankle sprains. He played a little in Villanova's win at Delaware on Nov. 20. Against Stephen F. Austin, he rushed for 68 yards and hauled in a career-high 11 receptions for 128 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown, while changing the dynamic of the Wildcats' offense.

This first meeting between the two programs also is a battle of this year's top conferences. Four CAA qualifiers are a combined 3-1 in the playoffs and three SoCon teams are a combined 4-0.

LOW ATTENDANCE

Crowd sizes for playoff games usually drop. In fact, all 12 home teams in the first two rounds drew below their season average.

Higher-priced tickets, short buildups to the games and the holidays contribute to what is an annual problem for the FCS. On Saturday, cold temperatures hurt the walk-on sales even more.

The second-round crowd sizes:

North Dakota State at Montana State - 14,277 (average before game: 14,302)

Lehigh at Delaware - 13,649 (20,684)

Western Illinois at Appalachian State - 13,322 (29,449)

Wofford at Jacksonville State - 11,817 (18,432)

Georgia Southern at William & Mary - 8,243 (11,290)

New Hampshire at Bethune-Cookman - 5,738 (7,319)

Villanova at Stephen F. Austin - 4,938 (10,155)

Southeast Missouri State at Eastern Washington Eagles - 3,665 (7,492)

TOP PERFORMANCES

There were plenty of big-time rushing performances on Saturday. The biggest one occurred on a snow-covered field.

Offensive Player of the Week: Appalachian State junior quarterback DeAndre Presley did everything but build a snowman in the Mountaineers' 42-14 romp over Western Illinois. He rushed for a career-high 264 yards on 16 carries, including 89- and 1-yard touchdowns, and threw for a touchdown. He became the fourth player in FCS history to go over 2,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season (his predecessor, Armanti Edwards, did it as a freshman in 2006).

Defensive Player of the Week: Southeast Missouri State senior linebacker Joshua Jackson stood tall in a 37-17 loss at Eastern Washington. He collected 15 tackles, including 12 solos, returned an interception for a touchdown and forced a fumble.

Special Teams Player of the Week: In only his third career start, Villanova sophomore place-kicker Mark Hamilton was 4-for-4 on field-goal attempts in a 54-24 rout at Stephen F. Austin. Add in six extra points and Hamilton scored 18 points.

ONE VOTER'S BALLOT

Voting has concluded for the Walter Payton, Buck Buchanan and Eddie Robinson awards (all sponsored by Fathead.com), and the winners will be announced at the national awards presentation on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.

In a year with so many outstanding candidates, here was one writer's ballot after the regular season:

Walter Payton Award

1. Elon QB Scott Riddle - the Southern Conference's all-time leading passer was outstanding without WR Terrell Hudgins, last year's Payton runner-up; 2. Villanova LT Ben Ijalana; 3. Eastern Washington RB Taiwan Jones; 4. Stephen F. Austin QB Jeremy Moses; 5. Arkansas-Pine Bluff WR Raymond Webber

Buck Buchanan Award

1. Richmond DT Martin Parker - dominant force whose second home was in an opponent's backfield; 2. Massachusetts LB Tyler Holmes; 3. Eastern Washington LB J.C. Sherritt, Eastern Washington; 4. Hampton DT Kenrick Ellis; 5. Western Illinois LB Kyle Glazier

Eddie Robinson Award

1. Southeast Missouri State's Tony Samuel - led the Redhawks to the Ohio Valley Conference title, a seven-win improvement to 9-2 and into the FCS playoffs for the first time; 2. Western Illinois' Mark Hendrickson; 3. Bethune-Cookman's Brian Jenkins; 4. Indiana State's Trent Miles; 5. Lehigh's Andy Coen

JUST THE PICKS

This Weekend's Record: 5-3 (.625)

Season Record: 586-182 (.763)

Next Weekend's Games

All Times ET

X-projected winner

FCS Playoff Quarterfinals

Villanova (8-4) at X-Appalachian State

North Dakota State (9-4) at X-Eastern Washington (10-2)

New Hampshire (8-4) at X-Delaware (10-2)

Georgia Southern (9-4) at X-Wofford (10-2)

SWAC Championship

Alabama State (7-4) vs. X-Texas Southern (8-3) in Birmingham, Ala., 2 p.m. Saturday

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.