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(Stats Perform) – The heavyweight division is on full display in the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs this weekend.

Six of the eight programs have won FCS championships, and a seventh, South Dakota State, finished as the 2020 runner-up in a playoff that was contested last spring. ETSU is the exception in a group that has combined for 15 titles and 25 championship game appearances.

Following are capsule previews of the playoff quarterfinals:


No. 6 seed Montana (10-2) at No. 3 seed James Madison (11-1)

Kickoff – 7 p.m. ET Friday at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, Virginia (ESPN2)

Series – Tied 1-1

Coaches – Montana: Bobby Hauck (108-28, 11 seasons; 123-77 overall); James Madison: Curt Cignetti (32-4, three seasons; 99-30 overall)

5 Players to Watch – Montana: QB Cam Humphrey (135 of 221, 1,701 yards, 16 TDs, 7 INTs), RB Xavier Harris (133 carries, 601 yards, 2 TDs), LB Patrick O’Connell (99 tackles, 21 TFL, 13 sacks, 4 forced fumbles), LB Jace Lewis (93 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks), CB Justin Ford (37 tackles, 9 INTs, 10 pass breakups, 2 fumble recoveries); James Madison: QB Cole Johnson (245 of 364, 3,274 yards, 37 TDs, 2 INTs; 228 rushing yards, 6 TDs), WR Antwane Wells Jr. (73 receptions, 1,117 yards, 14 TDs), DE Bryce Carter (43 tackles, 16.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 3 forced fumbles), LB Diamonte Tucker-Dorsey (94 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 INTs, 1 fumble recovery), PK Ethan Ratke (29 of 32 FGs with 47 long, 144 points)

5 Key Factors – 1. Both offenses must move the ball with the pass. UM is allowing under 2.2 yards per carry and 73 rushing yards per game, and JMU’s rushing attack has been set back by running back Percy Agyei-Obese’s season-ending injury. The host Dukes’ 162.6 rushing yards per game is their lowest average since 2001, yet it’s higher than the Grizzlies’ 137.9-yard average. The Dukes defense is allowing only 80.1 rushing yards per game, with eight opponents held under 100 yards. 2. In an equal number of games, JMU has been much better with ball protection, tying for the FCS low with eight turnovers compared to UM’s 19. 3. The Grizzlies’ 36 percent third-down conversion rate is average and JMU is second-best in the FCS defending third downs, allowing under 25 percent of opponents’ attempts to turn into first downs. 4. A second-round win over Eastern Washington highlighted UM’s ability to gain points from its defense and special teams. The Grizzlies have an FCS-high six defensive touchdowns as well as three on kickoff/punt returns. 5. JMU has won 12 consecutive home playoff games, all but two by 13 or more points.

Up Next – The winner will face either No. 2 seed North Dakota State (11-1) or No. 7 seed ETSU (11-1) in a national semifinal on Dec. 17 or 18.

Prediction – James Madison 27, Montana 20


No. 7 seed ETSU (11-1) at No. 2 seed North Dakota State (11-1)

Kickoff – Noon ET Saturday at the Fargodome in Fargo, North Dakota (ESPN)

Series – First meeting

Coaches – ETSU: Randy Sanders (26-16, four seasons); North Dakota State: Matt Entz (35-4, three seasons)

5 Players to Watch – ETSU: RB Quay Holmes (251 carries, 1,518 yards, 17 TDs; 27 receptions, 299 yards, 3 TDs), RB/KR Jacob Saylors (136 carries, 985 yards, 10 TDs), LT Tre’mond Shorts (two-time All-Southern Conference first team), LB Donovan Manuel (116 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery), LB Jared Folks (89 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 7 QB hurries); North Dakota State: QB Cam Miller (74 of 103, 1,030 yards, 11 TDs, 3 INTs; 210 rushing yards, 3 TDs), RB TaMerik Williams (91 carries, 605 yards, 10 TDs), RT Cordell Volson (three-time All-MVFC first team), DE Brayden Thomas (23 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 8 sacks), LB Jackson Hankey (80 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries)

5 Key Factors – 1. ETSU is making its third all-time FCS playoff appearance and has an 0-2 record in previous road games. NDSU has reached the national quarterfinals in 12 straight seasons with eight championships and is 29-1 all-time in FCS home playoff games. 2. ETSU’s 3-4 defensive front has to handle the surge of NDSU’s offensive line, which in a second-round win over Southern Illinois powered the Bison to almost 38 minutes of possession and 389 rushing yards. Williams has averaged 103 rushing yards and two TDs during the Bison’s three-game winning streak. 3. No set of FCS players combine for as many all-purpose yards as ETSU’s Holmes (151.4 per game, fourth in FCS) and Saylors (147.8, sixth). 4. With Hankey the team’s tackle leader for a third straight season, the Bison defense is allowing just 83.1 rushing yards per game – second-best in the program’s Division I era (since 2004). 5. NDSU quickly smothers teams with a plus-85 scoring differential in the first quarter (best in the FCS) and a 154-point advantage in the first half. The visiting Bucs have been resilient, posting an FCS-high five wins in games when they’ve trailed in the fourth quarter. It includes a 32-31 second-round comeback against Kennesaw State with 15 points in the final minute and a half.

Up Next – The winner will face either No. 3 seed James Madison (11-1) or No. 6 seed Montana (10-2) in a national semifinal on Dec. 17 or 18.

Prediction – North Dakota State 38, ETSU 10


South Dakota State (10-3) at No. 5 seed Villanova (10-2)

Kickoff – 2 p.m. ET Saturday at Villanova Stadium in Villanova, Pennsylvania (ESPN+)

Series – South Dakota State leads 1-0

Coaches – South Dakota State: John Stiegelmeier (1823-110, 25 seasons); Villanova: Mark Ferrante (31-20, five seasons)

5 Players to Watch – South Dakota State: QB Chris Oladokun (204 of 328, 2,697 yards, 22 TDs, 5 INTs), RB Pierre Strong Jr. (223 carries, 1,575 yards, 17 TDs; 21 receptions, 144 yards), RB Isaiah Davis (61 carries, 514 yards, 4 TDs), LB Adam Bock (112 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 TDs, 6 pass breakups), LB Isaiah Stalbird (66 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble); Villanova: QB Daniel Smith (167 of 306, 2,296 yards, 22 TDs, 9 INTs; 226 rushing yards, 7 TDs), RB Justin Covington (119 carries, 717 yards, 6 TDs), DE Malik Fisher (49 tackles, 9 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), LB Forrest Rhyne (131 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 5 QB hurries), CB Christian Benford (36 tackles, 7 INTs, 18 pass breakups)

5 Key Factors – 1. SDSU not only boasts the FCS leader in rushing yards with Strong, but also Davis, whose body appears fresher since his return from an injury that limited him to 27 carries in the regular season. He’s rushed for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the Jackrabbits’ two playoff wins. 2. Villanova’s 3-3-5 aligned defense ranks first in the FCS in passing efficiency defense and seeks to combat an SDSU receivers group with excellent size, including 6-foot-3 wide receivers Jadon and Jaxon Janke, 6-7 tight end Zach Heins and 6-5 tight end Tucker Kraft. 3. The visiting Jackrabbits’ plus-16 turnover margin ranks second in the FCS. They’ve committed only four turnovers in 10 wins, but six in three losses. 4. That ‘Nova establishes the run is a difference maker. In Ferrante’s five seasons, the Wildcats have lost 14 of the 15 games with the lowest rushing totals. They’re 30-6 in all other games, each with 124 or more rushing yards. 5. Travel fatigue could be in the mix with SDSU coming off a 3,400-mile round trip to Sacramento State followed by the nearly 1,400-mile trek to Villanova.

Up Next – The winner will face either No. 1 seed Sam Houston (11-0) or No. 8 seed Montana State (10-2) in a national semifinal on Dec. 17 or 18.

Prediction – South Dakota State 23, Villanova 19


No. 8 seed Montana State (10-2) at No. 1 seed Sam Houston (11-0)

Kickoff – 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Bowers Stadium in Huntsville, Texas (ESPN+)

Series – Sam Houston leads 4-2

Coaches – Montana State: Brent Vigen (10-2, one season); Sam Houston: K.C. Keeler (80-22, eight seasons; 254-95-1 overall)

5 Players to Watch – Montana State: QB Tommy Mellott (59 carries, 474 yards, 6 TDs; 10 of 24, 63 yards), RB Isaiah Ifanse (238 carries, 1,434 yards, 9 TDs; 12 receptions, 100 yards, 1 TD). LB Troy Andersen (116 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 7 pass breakups), DE Daniel Hardy (58 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 12 sacks), DT Chase Benson (41 tackles, 8 TFL, 3.5 scks, 3 pass breakups); Sam Houston: QB Eric Schmid (178 of 328, 2,464 yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTS; 338 rushing yards, 5 TDs), RB Ramon Jefferson (162 carries, 1,138 yards, 13 TDs), WR/PR Jequez Ezzard (36 receptions, 538 yards, 6 TDs; 11.1-yard punt return average), DE Jahari Kay (31 tackles, 12 TFL, 6 sacks, 11 QB hurries), LB Markel Perry (39 tackles, 15 TFL, 5 sacks)

5 Key Factors – 1. Sam Houston is 17-0 all-time in FCS home playoff games, and the reigning national champion has displayed a knack for winning close postseason games this year, winning all five times by seven or fewer points. 2. SHSU has a balanced offense and a 43-point average, which ranks third in the FCS. Montana State, though, is second in the FCS in allowing just 12.7 points per game. 3. Still developing as a passer, Mellott was spectacular on the ground in his first career start, combining with Ifanse for 356 of Montana State’s 387 rushing yards against UT Martin in the second round. SHSU has yet to allow more than 123 rushing yards to an opponent, and just 75.7 on average. 4. MSU (35 sacks) figures to pressure Schmid, but SHSU can spread out the Bobcats with multiple receivers, including wide receivers Cody Chrest (46 receptions), Ife Adeyi (45) and the gamebreaker Ezzard, and running back Noah Smith (21). 5. MSU is making its third straight playoff appearance since 2018. Nine of its 11 losses in that time are on the road.

Up Next – The winner will face either No. 5 seed Villanova (10-2) or South Dakota State (10-3) in a national semifinal on Dec. 17 or 18.

Prediction – Sam Houston 23, Montana State 22