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FCS Playoffs: Quarterfinals Recap

The eight surviving teams have been trimmed to just four and now a trip to Frisco is one win away.

Syndication: Argus Leader Erin Woodiel / Argus Leader / USA TODAY NETWORK

As December trudges on so does the FCS playoffs. The quarterfinals are now in the books and these four games were as thrilling as any so far in the tournament. From Montana State drubbing William & Mary to Incarnate Word’s epic upset win over Sac State, this round was full of exciting moments. Here’s how it all played out...

North Dakota State Smothers Samford 27-9

The Bison winning in December is becoming more than just commonplace at this point; it's clockwork. When Samford stepped foot on the Fargodome turf on Friday evening they became the latest in a long, long line of victims to succumb to the horrors NDSU delivers this time of year. Despite putting up a mighty effort, the Bulldogs just weren't ready for North Dakota State and now, yet again, the Bison find themselves on the doorstep of Texas.

After a week of worry surrounding Samford quarterback Michael Hiers and whether or not he could play with a wrist injury he suffered last week, Hiers did suit up and go although Quincey Crittendon got the start. With the Bulldogs offense going quiet early, though, it was their defense that made the first big play of the game. Isaiah Richardson knocked the ball loose from NDSU’s Kobe Johnson. After an 11-play drive, though, Samford walked away empty when kicker Zach Williams’ 34-yard field goal try was blocked.

The Bulldogs defense rose to the occasion once more and bottled up Bison quarterback Cam Miller on fourth down but again the offense couldn’t produce. Empty trips against North Dakota State will end up killing teams and that’s exactly what happened to Samford. Late in the first half the Bison finally got on the board with a touchdown pass from Miller to Joe Stoffel. After forcing a quick punt, NDSU tacked on three more to make it 10-0 at halftime.

Things started unraveling for Samford coming out of the break. After North Dakota State marched down and scored another touchdown courtesy of TK Marshall, Hiers was intercepted by Dawson Weber. NDSU capitalized on the mistake and marched 63 yards while chewing up over seven minutes of clock. They capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run from Miller.

From there the Bison put it in cruise control. The Bulldogs were able to score late but it was ultimately a fruitless endeavor. North Dakota State’s victory marks their 33rd all time at home in the playoffs and sends them to their 11th semifinal appearance in program history. NDSU’s defense held Samford to just 57 rushing yards while Miller and the offense held the ball for nearly 40 minutes. Now the Bison will host Incarnate Word next weekend.

Montana State Routs William & Mary 55-7

Some questions have been swirling around whether or not Montana State was seeded correctly going into these playoffs and on Friday night those questions only grew. The #4 seed Bobcats ripped through #5 William & Mary like it was non-conference game in September, not a battle between two 11-win playoff teams. For the third time since 2019, MSU is in the semifinals and no one this weekend went in more emphatically than the 'Cats.

After trading punts early, Montana State began their scoring barrage when Blake Glessner chipped in a 30-yard field goal. Shortly after that, quarterback Tommy Mellott barreled in for a 22-yard score to put the Bobcats up 10-0. Going in William & Mary knew stopping MSU’s vaunted rushing attack would be key and yet they couldn’t find an answer for anything the ‘Cats were doing on the ground, especially when Isaiah Ifanse got the ball.

Ifanse, who missed most of this season while recovering from an injury, got his first action last week but on Friday night he busted the game wide open when he went 68 yards untouched up the middle to give Montana State a 17-0 advantage. The run also gave Ifanse the all-time rushing mark in program history. By the time halftime hit, the Bobcats had tacked on 10 more and were in total control.

MSU opened the second half with a bang when return specialist Marqui Johnson bolted free on the opening kickoff and went 87 yards to the W&M nine-yard line. From there it only took Ifanse one play to find the end zone again. Mellott would run and pass for two more scores and the ‘Cats even got one from freshman Taco Dowler on a punt return. The Tribe did score a late touchdown but when the dust settled, Mike London’s team was on the wrong side of a 55-7 thrashing.

The Bobcats ran for 328 yards and held William & Mary to a mere 62 yards through the air. Ifanse came out with 162 yards on 11 carries to lead all rushers while Mellott passed for 106 yards and a touchdown with three more on the ground. MSU is back in the semifinals for the third time since 2019 and second time in as many years. Montana State will travel to Brookings next weekend to face South Dakota State in a rematch of last year’s semifinal bout.

Incarnate Word Advances to First-Ever Semis with Shootout against Sac State

When Lindsey Scott Jr. threaded his fourth touchdown pass of the evening on Friday night, it came when Incarnate Word needed it most. Taylor Grimes secured the throw and touched his foot (albeit barely) to the end zone turf in Hornet Stadium with 27 seconds to play. That play, which came on the heels of a back-and-forth seesaw battle, will be remembered by Cardinals fans for a long time because it was the one that sent their beloved UIW team to semifinals for the first time ever.

For a game that saw so much offensive production, the first three drives all ended empty. After forcing UIW to punt on their opening possession, Sac State lost the ball when Jake Dunniway tossed an interception to Brandon Richard. Again, though, Incarnate Word would have to punt.

The scoring started when Hornets running back Cameron Skattebo pushed his way into the end zone from a yard out. The Cardinals answered promptly with a touchdown drive of their own. Scott connected with Marcus Cooper to knot things up at seven.

After trading touchdowns again, Sac State kicker Kyle Sentkowski broke the gridlock with 30-yard field goal. Another stand by the Hornets defense was giving them momentum but Dunniway’s second interception, this time to Elliot Davidson, killed said momentum. Scott hit Roger McCuller for a two-yard score to put UIW back on top 21-17.

The call-and-response from the two high-powered offenses went well into the third quarter. Late in that period, though, Incarnate Word jumped out to its biggest lead of the night at 45-34 when Scott called his own number and ran it in for a long 64-yard score. It seemed as though Sac State would not be able to overcome that big blow as the fourth began.

The Hornets, though, clawed their way back in with another Skattebo touchdown scamper. Then, with just over ten minutes to play, Dunniway connected with tight end Marshel Martin for a 14-yard score to put them up again 48-45. As they did all night, though, the Cardinals responded. Cooper broke free on a 67-yard scoring run.

With the game entering its waning stages, Sac State scored what they hoped would be the game-winner. Martin rumbled into the end zone for a four-yard score with under two minutes remaining. Scott and company, however, would not be denied as he moved the offense 75 yards in just over a minute. His pass to Grimes sealed it for Incarnate Word and sent the previously-unbeaten Hornets packing.

The game set an FCS postseason record for total points scored (129) and total yards (1,315). UIW was responsible for 66 of those points and 579 of those yards. The fourth quarter alone saw 57 total points between the two teams and witnessed four lead changes. It was an all-around gutsy performance by UIW and their renowned offense had just enough in the tank to outshoot Sac State. Now the Cardinals will have a date with North Dakota State next weekend for the right to play in Frisco next month.

SDSU Staves Off Holy Cross 42-21

It was a little closer than most Jacks fans would have liked for a while on Saturday afternoon in Brookings but in the end South Dakota State got it done against Holy Cross. While the Crusaders, and more specifically Matthew Sluka, were able to make the Jackrabbits uncomfortable for a good chunk of the game, it was SDSU’s experience that eventually shined through. Mark Gronowski and Isaiah Davis willed their team to victory and into the penultimate round of these playoffs.

Holy Cross stunned the SDSU crowd early when they jumped out to a 14-6 lead in the second quarter. Sluka, who did it all for the Crusaders offense, ran for a big 56-yard touchdown early before Tyler Purdy used some trickery to throw a TD pass to Sean Morris.

Davis, though, got the Jacks right back in it with a three-yard touchdown push late in the first half. Davis also picked up the two-point try that tied things up at 14 all. It was the Jackrabbits defense, though, that gave them their first lead right before the break. Sluka was picked off by Jason Freeman who ran it all the way back. For all they had done right in the opening 30 minutes, Bob Chesney’s Crusaders trailed 21-14 midway through.

Coming out of halftime, Sluka rebounded from his interception well and led an 11-play, 83-yard drive to draw the score even again. Running back Peter Oliver’s one-yard TD run made it 21-21 midway through the third frame.

Holy Cross kicker Derek Ng could not find his footing, though, and missed a go-ahead field goal as the fourth quarter began. SDSU got the lead back shortly after when Gronowski connected with Jaxon Janke on an 18-yard strike. Then it was Gronowski himself that put the game away shortly after with an 18-yard touchdown run.

The Crusaders showed a lot of grit, especially in their ability to run all over a Jacks defense that only allowed 70 rush yards per contest going in. Sluka alone ran for 213 while throwing for another 125. South Dakota State was just too much down the stretch, though, as they put up 393 total yards and scored 21 points in the final 15 minutes. The Jacks will get an opportunity to avenge last year’s season-ending loss to Montana State when they host the Bobcats in the semis next weekend.