By David Coulson, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In the world of the Football Championship Subdivision, you don't take classic matchups for granted. You never know when you will get a chance to see a powerhouse program like an Appalachian State, or a Montana, meet in the playoffs.
And you know that coaches of the caliber of Villanova's Andy Talley, or Jimmye Laycock of William & Mary have been around too long to take a trip to the FCS semifinals lightly either.
If you want to boil down this year's FCS Final Four to a couple of thoughts, it would be great teams and great coaches.
You have three head coaches, Laycock, Talley and ASU's Jerry Moore, who have all put up Hall of Fame type of numbers in careers that have spanned 88 years (76 in the FCS ranks) and a total of 621 wins.
Both Talley (205 wins) and Laycock (200 wins) joined Moore (216 wins) in the 200-victory club this fall, with each of them longing to add two more wins to their totals before the season strikes midnight.
Bobby Hauck of Montana has yet to reach the longevity of those other three coaches, but he has been the winningest coach in FCS, percentage-wise (.832) since taking over the high-pressured controls of the Montana program in 2003.
Hauck has a 79-16 record during those seven years, but like Laycock and Talley is still looking for his first national championship ring. It took him awhile to earn them, but Moore now has three of those title rings from 2005-07 and would like to add another to his collection.
"You never know when you are going to get an opportunity like this," said Talley, who will take Villanova to the national semifinals for just the second time in his 25 years on the Main Line. "When you have an opportunity like this, you have got to grab it."
I sat with Talley and several other press members over a fine Italian lunch near the Villanova campus before the start of the 2008 season. We listened as Talley described heartbreaking losses to Jim Tressel and Youngstown State in the 1991, 1992 and 1997 quarterfinals.
Future NFL star Jeff Wilkins nailed a 33-yard field goal with six seconds remaining to beat the Wildcats 17-16 at Stambaugh Stadium in 1991, just a couple of weeks before the Penguins won their first of four national championships.
A year later, on a cold, rainy Ohio afternoon, Villanova and YSU battled to a 13-all tie for the better part of three quarters before Wilkins gave the Penguins a 16-13 edge with a 23-yard field goal near the end of the period. Villanova and Youngstown State traded fourth-quarter touchdowns and the Penguins won again, 23-20.
In 1997, Talley put together probably his best team, with a pair of future Payton Award winners, Brian Finneran and Brian Westbrook, in the lineup. The Wildcats won 12 consecutive games and were ranked No. 1 in The Sports Network poll, as well as being the top seed in the playoffs.
This time, the Wildcats had earned the right to host Youngstown State at Villanova Stadium, but the result ended up the same. The Penguins won 37-34, rallying from a 21-0 deficit and turning the game around on a blocked punt and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
"That was the most tearful locker room I've ever been in," said Talley.
The Wildcats made a surprise run behind the arm of Payton Award runner-up Brett Gordon to the semifinals in 2002 and playing a memorable game I attended at McNeese State in the Final Four.
That game also featured two of the worst officiating calls I have seen in over 30 years of writing about college football and together they turned the tide of a great game and led to McNeese State's 39-28 victory.
In the first half, Gordon led the Wildcats to a 21-7 lead, despite playing with a broken thumb on his right throwing) hand. But things began to sour for Villanova when a second pain injection at halftime caused Gordon's hand to go numb.
Still, the officials took away one third-quarter touchdown from the Wildcats when one of the Villanova defenders stole the ball away from a McNeese runner and ran over 80 yards for an apparent touchdown. But the Big Sky crew, claiming an inadvertent whistle, blew the play dead and on top of that gave the ball back to McNeese State.
A few plays later, McNeese State turned the mistake into a 14-point swing by scoring a touchdown, part of a 23-point explosion by the Cowboys.
Later on, Villanova appeared to get into scoring position on a play where the Wildcats crossed receivers in the middle of the field at a shallow depth before one of them circled out to the sideline and was hit by Gordon for a long gain.
The play was a staple of offensive coordinator Dave Clawson and was meant to create confusion in the opponent's secondary. It had worked to set up one of Villanova's first-half touchdowns and it clicked again here to give the Wildcats a key first down.
But the officials instead called a controversial pass interference penalty, claiming one of the receivers had illegally picked a defender. That flag backed the Wildcats up deep in their own territory and set up another McNeese State score that took the air out of what had been an exciting game.
Villanova nearly reached the semifinals against last year, taking top-seeded James Madison to the limit before losing 31-27 on the road. A 13-yard scoring pass from Matt Szczur out of the wildcat formation to little-used tight end Stephen Pimm (10 career catches) gave Villanova a 27-24 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
But Payton Award runner-up Rodney Landers led the Dukes back down the field and scored on a one-yard burst with 1:38 to lift JMU to the win.
TOUGH TIMES AT WILLIAM & MARY
Like Talley, Laycock has suffered through some painful losses at William & Mary, but few as tough as the 48-34 loss to James Madison in the 2004 semifinals.
Coming off a remarkable comeback over Delaware to win 44-38 in double overtime in the quarterfinals, the Tribe hosted the first Friday night semifinal game before an enthusiastic Zable Stadium crowd and a national television audience.
Though William & Mary had beaten then-No. 4-ranked JMU 27-21 on the road in the middle of the season, the Tribe stumbled early and fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter of the rematch.
But the Tribe rallied for 20 second-quarter points as Payton Award winner Lang Campbell completed 17 straight passes and finally took a 26-21 lead early in the third period.
That was the high point for William & Mary as JMU's Maurice Fenner blasted 29 yards on the next play from scrimmage and D.D. Boxley made a diving catch in the end zone on a pass from Justin Rascati as the Dukes regained the lead for good.
On William & Mary's next play, the Tribe fumbled and Demetrius Shambley recovered the ball to set up Rascati's 13-yard TD toss to Antoinne Bolton.
The Tribe had hardly ever turned the ball over during a regular season where they were tri-champions of the Atlantic 10 with JMU and Delaware, but they gave up 28 points off of turnovers in this game.
The teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but William & Mary was left wondering what might have been.
CLOSE CALLS FOR MONTANA
A week after the win against William & Mary, James Madison took on Montana and Hauck in the 2004 championship game. It became a contest remembered more for an NCAA blunder than the action on the field.
I had been in Chattanooga, TN. for the second-to-last regular-season game at Finley Stadium on Oct. 30, a wild, 59-56 win by Chattanooga over Appalachian State. A couple of weeks later, UTC dropped a 43-40 decision to Liberty.
When I was in town, the Finley Stadium grass surface was in good shape, though worn and sandy in a few places towards the end zones. It wasn't aesthetically pleasing, but was functional.
Still, the NCAA forced the local organizing committee to pull up the old surface and resod Finley Stadium just a month before the title game. Unfortunately, the choice of sod used was primarily bermuda grass, a variety that goes dormant in cold weather.
The new grass didn't take root and when JMU and Montana took the field for the title game, this unsteady surface began to tear out in huge, embarrassing clumps.
By the time the game had finished, the field looked like a battleground. By the next summer, the grass had been replaced by an excellent field turf artificial surface, but it left folks in Montana wishing they could have played JMU on the synthetic grass.
The Grizzlies led 21-17 in the third period when James Madison began to grind out the game behind a huge offensive line and bruising ground game. The Dukes piled up 257 yards rushing in the second half to control the clock and keep quarterback Craig Ochs and the Montana offense off the battered and bleeding field.
In 2006, Montana returned back to the semifinals and hosted Massachusetts in the first-ever night game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium before a sellout crowd of 23,454 fans, with the winner to play Appalachian State for the national championship.
Montana scored 17 second-quarter points to take a 17-14 lead to the locker room, but the Minutemen's tough, blitz-oriented defense held the Grizzlies scoreless in the second half.
On the key play of the game, UMass unleashed heavy pressure behind linebacker Brad Anderson and linemen Brandon Freeman and Domenique Milton on Montana quarterback Josh Swogger, forcing Swogger to fumble the ball out of the end zone for a safety.
Trailing by one point, the Minutemen moved the ball back into scoring position behind tailback Steve Baylark (245 all-purpose yards) and took the lead with 13:25 left on Chris Koepplin's 43-yard field goal.
The UMass made that slim lead hold up to earn its ticket to the title game.
Montana had to go on the road for the 2008 semifinals and few expected the Grizzlies to win against No. 1 ranked JMU in a rematch of the 2004 title game on a crisp Friday night. But the Grizzlies forced four turnovers to win 35-27.
Chase Reynolds pounded out 123 yards rushing and scored two touchdowns on the ground and one more on a pass reception to fuel the Grizzly attack. After falling behind 3-0 early, Reynolds banged into the end zone on two first- quarter possessions to give Montana a 14-3 lead.
It was 14-10 at the start of the second half when Montana scored on a pair of Cole Bergquist passes to Reynolds for 23 yards and tight end Steve Pfahler from 16.
With Landers sidelined by a badly sprained ankle, JMU battled back from the 28-10 deficit, but another Bergquist TD strike to Mike Ferriter made it 35-17 after three quarters.
A week later, Montana met a Richmond team that had lost to CAA foes Villanova and JMU in the regular season, but had won on the road at Appalachian State and Northern Iowa in the playoffs to reach the title game.
Richmond jumped on Montana early in this game, scoring on a 23-yard pass from fullback John Crone to quarterback Eric Ward on its first drive and building a 21-0 lead by halftime.
With Bergquist getting pummeled by the defensive end duo of Lawrence Sidbury and Sherman Logan, as well as the rest of the hard-hitting Spider defense, Hauck found himself coming up short again of a national title.
FINALLY FINDING SUCCESS
People remember Moore for leading Appalachian State to three consecutive FCS crowns, but for many, the frustrations for the Mountaineers before then have faded from memory.
Two seasons stand out among the years where ASU came up short. In 1995, the Mountaineers cruised the season with 12 consecutive wins before meeting up with Stephen F. Austin.
In a ragged game of momentum swings, the Mountaineers led 17-13 in the fourth quarter, facing a third and short, with another first down all but clinching a berth against Montana and quarterback Dave Dickenson in the semifinals.
Appalachian State ran the Nebraska I-Formation option in those days and quarterback Scott Satterfield faked a pitch and kept the ball in his attempt to maneuver for a first down. Instead he came up inches short and ASU decided to play conservative near midfield and shanked a punt to give SFA the ball at their own 30.
On the next play from scrimmage, SFA quarterback James Ritchey read a full blitz coming from the ASU defense. He could all but feel the warm breath of soon-to-be Buchanan Award winner Dexter Coakley breathing down on him from his outside linebacker spot.
Ritchey had been instructed not to audible in these situations, but he ignored his caches and checked off to a pass play anyway, got the ball off just before getting buried and lofted a pass barely over the fingertips of ASU cornerback Elando Johnson and into the hands of Chris Jefferson for a 49-yard gain.
Johnson was playing only because one of the greatest cornerbacks in FCS history, Matt Stevens, had suffered a devastating knee injury earlier in the season. Stevens eventually carved out an eight-year NFL career and won a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots, but his dreams of being a first-round draft went down the drain and damaged the Mountaineers' hopes of a championship.
Middle linebacker Joe DiBernardo, who was trying to play with a badly damaged toe, had his mobility limited in the SFA game and was a split-second late in his hit on Ritchey on the play.
The Lumberjacks scored on a Leonard Harris run to go ahead 20-17 and Harris added another touchdown a short time later after Satterfield was sacked on a fourth down by Curtis James.
Stephen F. Austin wilted a week later against Montana in the extreme cold of Washington-Grizzly Stadium as Dickenson dissected the Lumberjacks 70-14. The Grizzlies went on to win their first national championship with a 22-20 victory over Marshall in the title game.
Moore finally got his Mountaineers to the semifinals in 2000 as the No. 13 seed. ASU went on the road to throttle No. 4 Troy State 33-30 and then bounced No. 5 Western Kentucky 17-14 to set up a trip to Montana and my first visit to Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
The top-seeded Grizzlies dominated play for much of this cold, snowy afternoon behind the running of Yohance Humphery, who scored from two yards out with 10:49 remaining to give Montana a 13-3 lead.
But then the Troy Albea show burst into full action. Albea, who caught 11 passes for 177 yards, hauled in a 40-yard pass from Joe Burchette for a touchdown with 8:28 left to cut the lead to 13-10 and give the Mountaineers a heartbeat.
With the Mountaineers facing a fourth and long on their final fourth-quarter drive, Albea struck again on a tunnel screen. He slashed across the grain, picked up a devastating block from Larry Brock and sprinted to the sideline.
At the last possible moment, as Albea seemed poised to complete a game-winning touchdown burst, he was knocked out of bounds at the Montana eight-yard line after a stunning, 38-yard gain.
But with the game on the line, Montana stuffed two plays, the second another tunnel screen to Albea that forced the Mountaineers to have to spike the ball on third down to set up a game-tying field goal by Mark Wright.
It was on to overtime and Burchette had a TD pass to Albea in his sights when at the last possible moment, a stumbling Vince Huntsberger lunged back and got one finger on the pass to tip it over Rashad Slade's outstretched hands.
Appalachian State went ahead 16-13 on another Wright field goal, but that gave Montana a chance for the win. On a first and 10 from the 15, quarterback Drew Miller dropped back to throw the fade towards All-American receiver Jimmy Farris.
Defending Farris was another All-American and his future Atlanta Falcons teammate Corey Hall. Hall pushed his lanky frame into a full leap, but the perfectly thrown pass sailed over his hands and gently settled into those of Farris for the winning score.
A moment later, Washington-Grizzly Stadium went absolutely nuts, with the Montana students mobbing Farris in the end zone.
Six days later, Montana came from a 20-3 deficit to take a 23-20 lead against Georgia Southern on a Humphery scoring run in the fourth quarter. But Payton Award winner Adrian Peterson broke free for a 57-yard touchdown scamper that lives in Eagle lore as the son of the run.
That gave Georgia Southern a 27-25 victory. Both Appalachian State and Montana were left short of their championship dreams.
APPALACHIAN STATE (11-2) AT NO. 1 MONTANA (13-0)
Montana and Appalachian State will meet for the first time since that epic 2000 semifinal on Saturday at Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
Montana is the top seed and has outscored South Dakota State and Stephen F. Austin by a combined 85 points in the past five quarters. But the Grizzlies are likely to face more resistance from a battle-tested Mountaineer squad.
Appalachian State is also less likely to be bothered by playoff jitters, crowd noise and weather than most other FCS opponents. The Mountaineers also have the greatest equalizer in the country with quarterback Armanti Edwards.
Edwards led ASU on three scoring drives in the fourth quarter against one of the top defenses in FCS to beat defending national champion Richmond 35-31. His four-yard scoring strike to Matt Cline with 10 seconds left completed the win.
The Mountaineers will be one of the more balanced teams the Grizzlies have played this year, with Devon Moore (175 yards last week) joining Edwards as a running threat from the spread and Brian Quick among the athletic ASU receiving corps.
Montana ranks 104th nationally in pass defense and must put heavy pressure on Edwards to slow down the Appalachian State passing attack.
The Grizzlies will also need to force turnovers to slow down the Mountaineer attack.
Montana has watched quarterback Andrew Selle settle in as an effective passer as the season has worn on and will need another big day from him to keep things close.
But the Grizzlies will also need to take a page from teams like Richmond and James Madison in recent years and control the ball with their running game to keep Edwards and company on the sidelines.
Reynolds has been a clutch performer in the past two seasons in the Grizzly backfield, but he has been limited to 63, 34 and 52 yards in the past three games. If Reynolds can't get thing going, Thomas Brooks-Fletcher will be waiting in the wings.
The biggest problem Appalachian State might have on defense is controlling Marc Mariani as a kick returner and receiver. But the Mountaineers are vastly improved on special teams and All-American cornerback Cortez Gilbert will make for a good challenge against Mariani.
WILLIAM & MARY (11-2) AT NO. 2 VILLANOVA (12-1)
One thing for sure about Friday's matchup between Talley's Villanova squad and Laycock's William & Mary unit is that one of these two great coaches is going to reach the title game for the first time.
Villanova played its stereotypical game in beating William & Mary 28-17 on Oct. 3 at home. The Wildcats jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the first play from scrimmage and built a 21-3 lead in the second quarter to thwart the Tribe.
The Wildcats took a bend, but not break approach on defense, allowing William & Mary 472 yards of offense, but didn't permit the Tribe to reach the end zone until quarterback R.J. Archer (35-of-55, 354 yards passing) hit Chase Hill with a three-yard TD pass with 4:18 remaining.
The Tribe committed an uncharacteristic two turnovers and Archer was pressured all day long, with an interception and four sacks resulting. Jonathan Grimes added 95 yards rushing on 17 carries, but the Wildcats took some steam from William & Mary's running game with that early lead.
D.J. McAulay has his share of success getting open for Archer, but wasn't able to score in the game against the Wildcats.
Villanova managed a balanced approach on offense, with 114 rushing yards and 169 through the air.
William & Mary got off to a slow first-quarter start against No. 3 Southern Illinois last week on the road, but the Salukis didn't take advantage of early opportunities and didn't get many from the second period on.
The Tribe defense, led by Buchanan Award candidate Adrian Tracy and Sean Lissemore up front, has held Weber State and SIU to a combined three points in two games.
But William & Mary will be facing a Villanova squad that has many more weapons than Southern Illinois and one that makes fewer mistakes than Weber State.
The Wildcats have two great quarterbacks in Chris Whitney and Antwon Young, with multi-talented Matt Szczur, Aaron Ball and Angelo Babbaro (career-high 148 yards rushing last week) adding to the running game. Brandyn Harvey joins Szczur to create matchup problems for defenses in the passing attack.
Villanova has continued its usual pressure-oriented philosophy on defense. Safety John Dempsey turned a New Hampshire fumble in the snow last Saturday into a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage as the Wildcats rolled to a 48-7 victory.
New Hampshire finished with minus-66 yards rushing, the lowest total ever allowed by a Villanova defense, and also lost two fumbles.
This contest is likely to come down to which team can run better on these two strong defenses, who avoids turnovers and which squad is able to get momentum early to dictate the flow of the game.
However these two games turn out on Friday and Saturday, there is sure to be both happiness and disappointment as four outstanding teams and four great coaches battle for a chance to go to Chattanooga.
12/10 21:57:46 ET