Here are the top storylines and players to watch in each of the four games on deck.
No. 2 overall seed Sam Houston needed a last-minute interception in the end zone to ice its first round game against Monmouth. SHSU took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter before holding on 21-15. North Dakota State, winner of eight of the last nine national titles, advanced to the FCS quarterfinals for the 11th straight year after a 42-20 win over Eastern Washington. NDSU is 4-0 all-time against SHSU in the FCS playoffs, including consecutive championship game wins in 2011 and 2012.
Key storyline: North Dakota State QB Cam Miller made his first career start in the first round, and wasn’t asked to do too much against EWU. The freshman attempted just 11 passes (completing six) for 50 yards and two touchdowns. He added another score on the ground. The Bison don’t need to rely on Miller’s arm, as it boasts the eighth best rushing offense in FCS play (226.8 yards per game). The Bearkats’ defense (58.9 rush yards allowed per game; 3rd in FCS) will try to slow down NDSU’s ground game and force Miller into pressure situations.
Sam Houston’s player to watch: Quarterback Eric Schmid was named Southland Conference Player of the Year after throwing for 300 yards in five of six regular-season games. In SHSU’s first playoff game against Monmouth, Schmid was 12-of-24 for 133 yards and a touchdown. The redshirt junior is second in passing yards per completion, fifth in passing yards and sixth in passing touchdowns among the FCS ranks.
North Dakota State’s player to watch: Freshman running back Dominic Gonnella led a balanced rushing attack against Eastern Washington that put up 422 total yards on the ground. Gonnella accounted for 163 yards and two touchdowns, on a team-high 20 carries.
No. 4 Jacksonville State ran past Davidson 49-14 in the first round, with four different Gamecocks scoring rushing touchdowns. JSU returns to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since finishing national runner-up in 2015. The Gamecocks’ opponent will be Delaware, who defeated Sacred Heart 19-10 in a defensive battle.
Key storyline: Jacksonville State’s offense was humming against first-time FCS playoff participant Davidson. Its 49 points marked a season high, and the scoring barrage included a three-touchdown run in just 56 seconds of game time. But Delaware enters this matchup allowing only an average of 11.33 points per game. The Blue Hens limited Sacred Heart to 236 yards of offense and forced two interceptions.
Jacksonville State’s player to watch: Redshirt junior quarterback Zion Webb accounted for 307 total yards and three touchdowns in JSU’s rout of Davidson. His electric day included a 55-yard TD pass to Pat Jackson and a career-long 67-yard run. Webb now has four straight games with at least 230 passing yards and 60 rushing yards.
Delaware’s player to watch: Redshirt senior Dejoun Lee leads the Blue Hens in rushing (533 yards, five TDs) and is third in receptions (12 for 81 yards). Add in his impact in the kick return game (26.9 return average, one TD) and Lee is among the most versatile players in these playoffs.
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No. 3 James Madison will play in its fourth FCS quarterfinal since 2016 after holding off VMI 31-24 in the opening round. Juwon Hamilton started the scoring with a 99-yard touchdown run as part of a career-high 171-yard day for the redshirt senior. North Dakota routed conference rival Missouri State 44-10 as the defense racked up eight sacks and gave up just 185 yards of total offense.
Key storyline: North Dakota had four straight games postponed or canceled entering the playoffs. There was little sign of rust, however, in its dominating win over Missouri State. But now it faces James Madison, who is ranked first in the coaches’ poll and owns the top defense in FCS. Both teams will try to establish themselves on the ground and control possession time.
James Madison’s player to watch: Senior defensive lineman Mike Greene is one of the standouts on JMU’s strong defensive front. The Buck Buchanan Award finalist has 17 tackles, 8 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in six games this year.
North Dakota’s player to watch: Redshirt sophomore running back Otis Weah had a season-low 64 rushing yards last time out against Southern Illinois, but is still UND’s main threat on offense. Weah is averaging 105.7 rush yards per game with eight touchdowns — including three 40+-yard rushing scores.
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Top seed South Dakota State cruised past Holy Cross 31-3 in the first round. The Jackrabbits have now appeared in four quarterfinals since 2016, including consecutive semifinals in 2017-18. Southern Illinois needed a go-ahead touchdown with 51 seconds left to take down Weber State 34-31 in its first game. In their regular-season meeting, SDSU scored 44 unanswered points against SIU in a 44-3 win.
Key storyline: In that lopsided regular-season matchup on March 20, South Dakota State outrushed SIU 392-121. Isaiah Davis had 150 yards and scored thrice while quarterback Mark Gronowski added 105 yards and two touchdowns. The Salukis could have the offensive efficiency to stick with SDSU, but its defense will have to find a way to slow down a dangerous backfield to have a real shot at the upset.
South Dakota State’s player to watch: Gronowski is a finalist for the Jerry Rice Award, given to the top freshman in the FCS. Supported by that strong running game, the freshman is completing 57 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. In his FCS playoff debut, Gronowski threw three touchdowns against Holy Cross.
Southern Illinois’ player to watch: Junior wide receiver Avante Cox had six catches for 120 yards and a touchdown in SIU’s comeback win at Weber State in the first down. That was Cox’s second straight 100-yard receiving game, and his fourth in nine games. He’s reached the end zone in four of his last five games.