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FCS Playoffs: First Round Recap

The opening round of the FCS playoffs is in the books and eight teams kept their season alive on Saturday. Here’s how it all went down.

Syndication: The News-Leader Andrew Jansen/News-Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

Sluka, Coker Win it for Holy Cross in Final Minute

Holy Cross won their first ever FCS playoff game on Saturday but it didn’t come easy. The Crusaders may have had a stellar run defense going in but neither that nor the crisp weather at Fitton Field fazed the visiting Pioneers early on. Sacred Heart’s offense chewed over five minutes off the clock on their opening drive and punched it in on a beautiful fake hand off to go up 7-0. Later in the first quarter, the Pioneers defense tightened up on fourth down deep in their own territory to keep the Crusaders off the board.

Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka sparked his offense in the second quarter and, thanks to some wild improvisation, helped drive the Crusaders into the red zone where they tacked on their first points of the day. Nonetheless, SHU held a slim 7-3 lead heading into halftime.

Even when it seemed that Holy Cross had caught a break early in the third quarter with a muffed punt, SHU safety Shamere Collins intercepted a pass from Marco Siderman in the end zone just one play later. Both defenses kept responding and neither team would score in the third frame.

Crusaders linebacker Jacob Dobbs registered a big sack early in the fourth and forced the Pioneers to settle for a 33-yard field goal that kept it a one-possession game. Holy Cross kicker Derek Ng connected on a 38-yard kick to cut the deficit back to four at 10-6 with 8:27 to go.

Despite remaining ineffective for much of the day, the Crusaders offense woke up when they needed it most. With just 14 seconds to play, Sluka completed his deepest pass of the day, a 35-yard bomb to receiver Jalen Coker for Holy Cross’ only touchdown and sealed the game in stunning fashion.

Holy Cross (10-2) will advance to play Villanova on Friday night. Sluka finished the game with 171 pass yards. Meanwhile Sacred Heart (8-4), despite leading for the majority of the game, will see its season come to an end. NEC Offensive Player of the Year Malik Grant was held to 59 rushing yards.

KSU’s Option Attack Too Much for Davidson

Kennesaw State emphatically punched their ticket into the second round over Davidson. On the second snap of the game, quarterback Louis Colosimo failed to execute a handoff and coughed the ball up to KSU’s defense. Shortly after, Xavier Shepherd scampered in for a six-yard score to put the Owls up 7-0. It was a harbinger of the kind of afternoon it would be for both teams.

KSU would blow out to a lopsided 41-14 lead by halftime thanks in large part to their option offense that put up 166 rushing yards in the first 30 minutes. Shepherd ran for three scores and threw for another before the break.

Davidson got a sliver of hope coming out halftime when Jalen Jefferson scooped up a loose fumble and ran 45 yards untouched to the house. KSU still led by 20, though, and Shepherd got his fourth touchdown run shortly after the turnover to extend the lead once more.

From there the Owls put things on cruise control. In total Kennesaw State (11-1) ran for 305 yards and finished with 48 points. Shepherd was responsible for five touchdowns. Their dominant performance earns them a date with East Tennessee State in the second round next weekend. KSU head coach Brian Bohannon is now tied for the Big South record for most wins in conference history.

Jackrabbits Outpace Aggies

The South Dakota State Jackrabbits are mainstays in the playoffs and they won’t be going anywhere just yet. Their decisive 56-24 victory over UC Davis on Saturday is their ninth all time at home in the postseason.

The Aggies scored first off a Isaiah Gomez 32-yard field goal in the first and actually held a slim 10-7 advantage in the second quarter after Miles Hastings connected with CJ Hutton for a four-yard touchdown. From there, though, it was all Jacks as SDSU went on to score three straight touchdowns before halftime. Davis did cut the lead to 11 before the break with a two-yard scoring run by running back Ulonzo Gilliam Jr.

In the second half, however, the Jacks went on to score four more consecutive touchdowns to put the game out of reach. Two of said touchdowns were interception returns courtesy of Adam Bock and Dalys Beanum.

It was clicking on all cylinders for SDSU (9-3) who ran for 433 yards on the ground against the Aggies. Star running back Pierre Strong Jr. ran for 185 yards and even threw a touchdown in the win. UC Davis (8-4) turned the ball over six times while the Jacks only did so once. South Dakota State will head to Sacramento next Saturday to take on the Big Sky champion Sac State Hornets.

Incarnate Word tops SFA in Overtime

It was a back-and-forth affair all afternoon in San Antonio and ultimately four quarters was not enough to decide it between Stephen F. Austin and Incarnate Word. In overtime, UIW did what it needed to do to earn its first ever FCS playoff victory.

Sophomore signal-caller Cameron Ward got the scoring going for the Cardinals by hitting Taylor Grimes for a four-yard touchdown in the first quarter. It was the start of a big day for both passer and catcher as Ward would finish with four touchdown throws and Grimes led the team with 118 receiving yards.

As they would all afternoon, though, SFA would have an answer. It took until the second quarter but Trae Self connected with QuenTyvian Borders to tie the game up at 7-7. The Cardinals and Lumberjacks would trade touchdowns twice more throughout the course of the next two quarters and the game was knotted at 21 all late in the fourth.

SFA thought they had their game-winner when defensive lineman Rayshad Nichols ripped the ball out of Kevin Brown’s hands and rumbled 32 yards into the end zone to break the tie. UIW, however, put together its longest drive of the day and marched 75 yards in 15 plays to draw it even yet again, this time at 28-28.

With a chance at a potential game-winning field goal, Trea Self made an errant pass over the middle that was intercepted by Elliot Davison in the waning seconds to ensure that the game would go to overtime.

Just two plays into OT Ward found Robert Ferrel for a six-yard score. The UIW defense held and the Cardinals (10-2) rejoiced knowing they will now get their shot at the #1-seed Sam Houston State Bearkats next weekend.

Turnovers propel UT-Martin over Missouri State

Playing without OVC Offensive Player of the Year Keon Howard, UT-Martin didn’t flinch. Their defense forced six takeaways and the Skyhawks escaped with a one-point win. The UT-Martin defense kept the Bears off the board for much of the first quarter and allowed their offense to give them an early 3-0 lead. It’s hard to keep dual-threat quarterback Jason Shelley down, though, and it didn’t take long for the Bears offense to wake up. After a 54-yard run, Shelley connected with tight end Ron Tiavaasue for a six-yard touchdown.

A muffed punt at the end of the first, however, allowed the Skyhawks to reclaim the lead early in the second frame. Receiver Zoe Roberts made an athletic touchdown grab from backup quarterback Dresser Winn but the PAT was blocked ensuring the UT-Martin lead remained just 9-7. After both offenses traded touchdowns, Missouri State had to overcome a flurry of turnovers before halftime. A fumbled kick return and interception by Shelley only cost the Bears three points and kicker Jose Pizano drilled a 47-yard field goal to keep it within two at the half.

The Bears and Skyhawks traded leads again in the third but Missouri State jumped back out on top thanks to another Shelley touchdown pass, this one to Xavier Lane. From there, though, the two teams would exchange punts. The Bears, who had already turned the ball over four times to this point, added a fifth when Shelley was picked again. The Skyhawks capitalized with just one play. Winn hit Donnell Williams for a 37-yard strike but the two-point try failed. The score was 32-31 but Missouri Stat had their chance. With 1:03 left, though, Shelley threw his third interception of the night and UT-Martin sealed their first playoff victory.

The Skyhawks (10-2) looked good in spite of Keon Howard not playing. Winn completed 23 of his 43 passes for 272 yards and two scores. The defense was great when it needed to be and now UT-Martin is headed to Bozeman to face the 8-seed Montana State Bobcats next Saturday.

EWU Defense handles Northern Iowa

The elements certainly played a role in Cheney at the start of the contest. As the rain fell, Eastern Washington kicker Jackson Cleaver pulled a 28-yard field goal to the left midway through the first quarter. Northern Iowa, though, quickly learned why EWU quarterback Eric Barriere is a Walter Peyton Award finalist. Barriere threaded a 26-yard pass between two defenders to receiver Nolan Ulm for the first points of the day.

Trailing 9-0 late in the half, the Panthers finally found some offensive tractions when quarterback Theo Day found Sam Schnee on a 14-yard touchdown. UNI was only behind by two heading into halftime.

The little momentum the Panthers found, however, would be squashed in the second half. Barriere scored another touchdown, this time with his legs as he danced around and scampered around the edge for an 18-yard score. Eastern’s defense stepped up and forced three interceptions in the final 30 minutes and rendered Mark Farley’s UNI offense scoreless for the remainder of the game. The only Northern Iowa points in the second half came off a a safety. EWU stopped the Panthers offense three times on fourth down.

The Panthers (6-6), despite taking 81 offensive snaps, only had one touchdown to show for it on the day and, on an afternoon where EWU’s normally high-flying offense was relatively quiet, the defense did its job. Barriere finished with 283 pass yards and the Eagles (10-2) have earned themselves a rematch with a Montana team they beat earlier this season. They will play on Friday night in Missoula.

Salukis take down Coyotes 22-10

On the third play from scrimmage, South Dakota quarterback Carson Camp was intercepted by Qua Brown. Fortunately for the Coyotes, that interception only turned into three points. Unfortunately for them, it was only the first of three that Camp would toss on the evening, and the first of two to Brown.

Receiver Avante Cox hauled in a four-yard touchdown pass from Nic Baker midway through the second quarter before a pair of Nico Gualdoni field goals to gave the Salukis a 13-0 halftime advantage.

South Dakota kicker Mason Lober got the Coyotes on the board in the third quarter with a 21-yard field goal of his own but SIU responded quickly to up the lead back to 13. In the fourth quarter, both teams traded touchdowns but the Saluki defense held at the end. Clayton Bush picked off Camp with under six minutes to play and Southern Illinois punched their ticket to the next round.

SIU put up over 400 yards of total offense and held the ball for over 35 minutes. The Coyotes (7-5) season comes to an end while SIU (8-4) now turns their attention to Fargo and a familiar Missouri Valley foe. The Salukis and Bison did not play during the regular season.

Southeastern Louisiana blows out Florida A&M

Everything went Southeastern Louisiana’s way on Saturday night and the Lions steamrolled their way to the second round with a resounding 38-14 win over Florida A&M. The Rattlers, making their first appearance in the playoffs since 2001, were the first team to represent the SWAC in the postseason since 1997.

After forcing a punt on the first series, SLU wasted no time taking the lead. Receiver Nick Kovacs ran in for a 21-yard touchdown on a fake field goal attempt to give the Lions the lead they would not relinquish all game. Shortly after Kovacs’ score, quarterback Cole Kelley threw the first of his four touchdowns to Nolan Givan.

On the night Kelley would come away with 345 passing yards and just one interception as SLU poured on 503 yards of total offense. Rattlers quarterback Rasean McKay did toss a pair of touchdowns of his own late in the game to receivers Xavier Smith and David Manigo respectively but it was well out of reach by that point.

Kelley has now thrown two or more touchdowns in each of his last 19 games and SLU (9-3) is on their way to Harrisonburg to face James Madison. FAMU (9-3) ends what has been one of the most successful seasons in recent memory despite the lopsided defeat.