This year’s FCS postseason has already been one to remember and there’s still three very big games to be played. The final four in this year’s bracket have all taken their own unique paths to the semifinals but, while their roads may be different, they all share a common thread. The biggest playoff plays for these teams have all come when neither the offense nor the defense was on the field.
Special teams have come to make some noise... be it good or bad... and they have been loud.
Bergen Carries Montana
Year in and year out Montana prides itself on the play of its specialists. Any Bobby Hauck-coached squad will be disciplined on special teams and Griz fans have come to expect it. This playoff run, though, has been made possible on the back of UM’s return game and, more specifically, ace Junior Bergen.
For some time now it’s been known how valuable Bergen is when fielding kicks and punts but he showed everyone, especially Furman, truly how important he can be in last weekend’s quarterfinal bout. Bergen ran back not one, but two Paladin kicks (one punt, one kickoff) to the house including a 99-yard sprint on the first play of the game. Not only did Bergen’s big returns provide Montana with a much-needed lift, they flat out won the game for the Grizzlies.
In a contest that wasn’t decided until overtime, the Griz would have been in a world of hurt if their special teams didn’t bail them out. Bergen alone directly accounted for 14 points and was clearly the deciding factor.
“Bozeman Block” Sparks NDSU Run
Montana’s semifinal partner in North Dakota State has made it this far thanks in large part to its special teams unit as well. In what has been the game of the playoffs thus far, the Bison edged Montana State in the second round by a single point in OT. Both offenses and defenses were matching each other blow for blow and so it only seemed fitting that the contest ended on a special teams masterpiece (or disaster depending on the side).
Montana State, who has missed two field goals prior in the game, scored what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown on their first play of overtime to match what NDSU had done moments prior. Kicker Casey Kautzmen lined up for what should have been a run-of-the-mill PAT. The ball, however, flew off his foot low and North Dakota State senior Hunter Poncius got his hand up to blocked it to stun the Bobcats.
That play single-handedly (quite literally) punched NDSU’s ticket to Vermillion where they trounced South Dakota 45-17. Here they are back on the doorstep of Frisco.
Chavez Lifts then Costs Idaho
For all that special teams has done to impact the likes of Montana and NDSU, no team has ridden its highs and lows more than Idaho over the last two weeks. In the second round, the Vandals were able to squeak by a tough Southern Illinois squad at home thanks in part to a missed kick as time expired by SIU then by a made one from their own kicker Ricardo Chavez. Chavez’s 29-yard overtime field goal sent Idaho into the quarterfinals much to the elation of the Kibbie Dome crowd.
That same crowd, however, would be quieted a week later when the Great Danes of Albany rolled in and sent the Vandals packing. Albany’s 30-22 win was made possible because the normally-accurate Chavez had a rough night. He missed three field goal tries and left nine points out there, opening the door for a late surge from the Danes.
Chavez also had an extra point blocked in the loss.
Durrance Spurs Jackrabbits
Points were at a premium last Saturday on a windy, cold afternoon in Brookings between South Dakota State and Villanova. Outside of a couple big plays on offense, things were pretty stagnant for the Jacks for a good while. They did, however, get a much-needed boost thanks to their defensive specialists.
After Villanova had taken a 6-3 lead midway through the second, the momentum was swaying in favor of Wildcats. On a punt from near midfield, though, SDSU stole that momentum and the lead back in a big way. Sophomore Matthew Durrance punctured the ‘Nova front on a punt and got in for the block. Durrance scooped the ball up and sprinted 45 yards for a touchdown.
Durrance’s big play was one of only two TDs the Jacks were able to muster against the Wildcats but it was still enough to get the win and move on.
FCS Playoff Quarterfinal— FCS Football (@FCS_STATS) December 9, 2023
4:23, 2nd Qt.
No. 1 seed South Dakota State 10, No. 8 seed Villanova 6
Matthew Durrance blocked punt and 45-yard TD return pic.twitter.com/CVLNMvyIpb
So, when you watch the semifinals this weekend, keep in mind that the biggest factors of the games may not be the receivers, running backs, quarterbacks or linebackers. Keep an extra close eye on the kickers, punters and return men. They might just be the reason someone gets to Texas.