The opening round of the FCS playoffs are in the books and the field has been narrowed down to 16. While most of the first set of games went how many thought they might, there were a few upsets and a handful of scares for the home teams. Eight teams move on and eight more teams see their 2023 season come to a close.
Sac State Beats North Dakota in 42-35 Shootout
The Hornets started fast in Grand Forks, scoring touchdowns on their first four drives but North Dakota didn’t go away without a fight. Kaiden Bennett diced the UND defense, accounting for 333 of Sac State’s 456 total offensive yards. Bennett threw a touchdown and ran for two more while the Sac State defense held Tommy Schuster and the Hawks to 137 passing yards.
Despite trailing 28-14 at the half, North Dakota fought back and drew it even at 28 all late in the third quarter. Running back Gaven Ziebarth racked up 96 yards on 18 carries and found the end zone twice for the Hawks, helping in their second-half rally. With the game tied at 35 apiece late, though, Bennett gave Sacramento State the winning score with a four-yard TD run.
The win punches the Hornets ticket to the second round and another road trip to a Missouri Valley opponent, this time to Vermillion to face 3-seed South Dakota. UND will finish the year with a 7-5 overall record. It is the second consecutive year the Hawks have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
NC Central Falls to Richmond
For a while it seemed like the Eagles had Richmond’s number but in the end the Spiders ran out to a comfortable 49-27 victory. The NC Central defense made a surge in the first half, forcing a big fumble and helping the Eagles take a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter. Richmond QB Kyle Wickersham, however, sparked the comeback bid right before halftime with a 10-yard touchdown throw to receiver Nick DeGennaro. It would be the second TD DeGennaro would haul in and the second of three Wickersham would throw on the day.
NC Central quarterback Davius Richard got hobbled with an injury but it didn't make a difference as the Spiders scored 35 points in the final 30 minutes. Wickersham threw for 291 yards and ran for another 69. Savon Smith caught two touchdown passes as well. Eagles wideout Devin Smith did go off for 202 receiving yards on six catches but it wasn't enough to keep pace with the Richmond offense that put up 506 total yards.
The Spiders will move on to see CAA foe Albany next weekend. Richmond did not play the Great Danes during the regular season. NC Central finishes the year with a 9-3 record.
Delaware Rallies to Defeat Lafayette
Despite being the favorite at home, Delaware had to come from behind to get by Lafayette on Saturday afternoon. Trailing 28-7 late in the second quarter, the Blue Hens scored three second-half touchdowns and a late field goal to escape with the 36-34 win. Quarterback Ryan O’Connor did not play but Nick Minicucci threw for 198 yards and three touchdowns in his absence.
The Leopards got three touchdowns from their workhorse running back Jamar Curtis, who picked up 127 yards on 29 carries. Dean DeNobile completed 10-of-15 passes but had to leave with an injury. Delaware kicker Alex Schmoke connected on a 23-yard field goal in the final two minutes and the Hens defense recovered a fumble from Curtis with 44 seconds remaining to seal the come-from-behind victory.
Delaware will travel to face 2-seed Montana this Saturday and look to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since the spring 2021 season. Lafayette still has not won a playoff game in its history and sees its season end at 9-3.
SIU Shuts Out Nicholls 35-0
Southern Illinois manhandled Southland champion Nicholls to advance to the second round. The Salukis scored three first quarter touchdowns and held the Colonels off the board all day long in what was a wire-to-wire victory. Nic Baker threw a pair of scores while running back Ro Elliot ran for two more. The defense forced three takeaways and held Nicholls to just 75 rushing yards. Colonels QB Pat McQuaide tossed two interceptions.
After cooling off in the second quarter, the SIU offense picked back up in the second half when Elliot broke free for a 60-yard touchdown run. That play galvanized the Salukis and all but buried the Colonels.
Southern Illinois moves on and has earned a date with Idaho this weekend in the Kibbie Dome. Nicholls will end its year with a 6-5 record.
North Dakota State Dominates Drake 66-3
As many expected might be the case, North Dakota State decimated Pioneer League champ Drake in the Fargodome. After the Bulldogs recovered a fumble on the game's opening play and scored a field goal, the Bison dropped 66 unanswered to roll to a first round win.
Quarterback Cam Miller had more touchdown passes (two) than he did incompletions (one, 10-of-11) and Cole Payton ran for 104 yards along with two scores. In total the NDSU offense picked up 27 first downs and racked up 547 yards while the defense forced five turnovers. The Bison did not punt during the game. Drake's Luke Bailey threw two interceptions.
The Bulldogs finish their 2023 season with an 8-4 mark. North Dakota State advances to face 6-seed Montana State, a team it will have now seen five times in postseason action. The Bison have never lost to the Bobcats in the playoffs but have also only ever won one road playoff game (against MSU in 2010).
Crile Field Goal Lifts Mocs over Govs
Chattanooga furrowed some brows when it was named to the playoff field last week but on Saturday the Mocs proved they belonged by knocking off UAC champion Austin Peay 24-21. Kicker Clayton Crile drilled a 35-yard field goal as time expired to give Chattanooga its first playoff road win in school history.
The Mocs jumped out to a 21-7 lead thanks to a wild series of events late in the half. Leading by a touchdown, Chattanooga QB Chase Artopoeus threw an interception to Govs DB Kory Chapman. Chapman, however, had the ball ripped away by Mocs widout Jamoi Mayes who scampered in for the touchdown. Austin Peay scored 14 unanswered points in the second half but ultimately fell thanks to Criles' field goal.
Chattanooga will get a rematch against SoCon enemy Furman this Saturday. The Paladins narrowly beat the Mocs earlier this month in a game in Chattanooga. Austin Peay's season and second ever playoff trip ends early. The Governors finish at 9-3.
Mercer Gets First Playoff Win over Gardner-Webb
Mercer picked up its first ever playoff victory with a 17-7 triumph over Gardner-Webb. In a game that remained scoreless until the second quarter, Bears quarterback Carter Peevy ran for two touchdowns to carry his team over the Runnin' Bulldogs. Gardner-Webb QB Jaylen King threw three interceptions and one touchdown. The lone score went to Karim Page.
Mercer's defense was excellent, forcing four turnovers and thwarting the Runnin' Bulldogs ground game at nearly every turn. Freshman cornerback Myles Weston came down with two picks, including the game-sealing one with just 24 seconds left. Lance Wise also had an interception while Caden Camese recovered a fumble.
The Bears will get a crack at top seed South Dakota State in Brookings this weekend and will be looking to pull off a big upset. The Jackrabbits have not lost since September of 2022. Gardner-Webb, meanwhile, sees its season end at 7-5.
Youngstown State Crusies by Duquesne
The Penguins made light work of NEC champion Duquesne to cap the opening round action. Mitch Davidson threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns while Bryce Oliver hauled in eight catches for 181 yards and a score in the 40-7 win. In all the Youngstown State offense averaged 7.1 yards per play.
After taking a 10-0 lead, YSU allowed the Dukes their only score at the end of the first quarter; a 24-yard Edward Robinson touchdown run. From there, Penguins kicker Andrew Lastovka made three field goals and and the offense found the end zone three more times. The defense held Duquesne to just eight first downs and allowed only one third down conversion.
YSU will face 8-seed Villanova for a chance to play in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2016. The Dukes season wraps up with a 8-4 overall record.