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Lessons learned pay off in playoffs

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Had the chicken crossed the road...

Well, he did.

In the Football Championship Subdivision, we get to the other side because there's this neat little thing called the playoffs. It provides the answer - a national champion - that the GoDaddy.com Bowl, the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, heck, even the Insight Bowl, don't give us.

Next weekend's national semifinal-round matchups - Villanova at Eastern Washington and Georgia Southern at Delaware - indicate why a regular season and a playoff system should go hand-in-hand. Sorry, Mr. BCS.

Villanova (9-4)

Had the defending FCS champion Wildcats given in to the thought that injuries can be a built-in excuse, then their season would have been derailed by the time the playoffs began last month.

Instead they went to then-No. 1 Delaware on the last day of the regular season and earned their way into the playoffs with an overtime victory, made the long trip to Stephen F. Austin for an impressive win in the second round, made the trip to Appalachian State for an even more impressive win against the playoffs' top-seeded team and now, healthy again, appear to be the team to beat, with a national semifinal all the way out at Eastern Washington.

There's no truth to the rumor the Wildcats will stop in Siberia to take on the Russian Federation All-Stars on the way to their semifinal in Cheney, Wash. They don't need any more frequent flier miles.

Eastern Washington (11-2)

Had the Eagles failed to learn how to win in the fourth quarter of games - sometimes in the final minutes or seconds - then they might not have passed their biggest test of the season.

LB J.C. Sherritt helped rescue Eastern Washington in the FCS quarterfinals.
After returning only 10 starters from a year ago, the Eagles believed they could become one of the nation's top teams. Tight wins over Central Washington, Montana, Weber State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, Sacramento State and Southern Utah took the Eagles to No. 1 by the end of the season and had coach Beau Baldwin's squad ready for the ultimate assignment in Saturday's quarterfinals against North Dakota State.

The Eagles had to go an exhausting 90 yards in the final 2:37 against the physical Bison to score a tying touchdown, and did so when quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell connected with Nicholas Edwards in the end zone on the 13th play of the drive.

Mitchell opened overtime with a 25-yard TD pass to Tyler Hart. And just when it looked like the Bison would score a tying touchdown, the Eagles' biggest defensive star, 2009 Buchanan Award runner-up J.C. Sherritt, stripped quarterback Brock Jensen of the football at the 1-yard line and fellow linebacker Zach Johnson recovered it in the end zone, preserving the 38-31 thriller.

Georgia Southern (10-4)

Had Eagles first-year head coach Jeff Monken made plans to be at a football game on Dec. 11 a month ago, he probably could have envisioned himself at the Army-Navy Game. When he took his squad to the Naval Academy for an FCS-versus-FBS game in September, he joined the brigade afterward to sing the "Blue & Gold" alma mater and shout "Beat Army!"

Monken's love for Annapolis is still strong - he was an assistant coach with the Midshipmen under Paul Johnson.

But Monken also learned a thing or two about winning at Georgia Southern under Johnson. He has restored the program (which was picked seventh in the Southern Conference's preseason poll) way ahead of schedule. He was an assistant coach on the two most recent national titles of the six the Eagles won from 1985 to 2000, and now they're back in the semifinals for the first time since 2002.

Monken has accomplished his goals of raising his players' confidence and getting them to believe they're supposed to win every time they take the field. The offense has re-learned the triple option and the defense punishes opponents with a physical style.

Army-Navy might have to wait for Monken in the coming years, too.

Delaware (11-2)

Had the Blue Hens given in to even the hint of mediocrity, then they, too, might be candidates for something as meaningless as the Little Caesars Bowl.

Coach K.C. Keeler's program, which finished 6-5 or worse in four of the last five seasons, were picked only fifth in the CAA Football preseason poll. Not once did they believe it.

All the Blue Hens have done is probably been the FCS' best team all season, having already faced eight nationally ranked teams. They have an all-business approach and a senior class that leads by example.

Nothing mediocre about that.

TOP PERFORMANCES

Players on this weekend's road teams shined again, which is not surprising considering the road teams split the four quarterfinals and brought their record to 9-7 in this year's playoffs.

Offensive Player of the Week: Villanova's all-purpose standout Matt Szczur makes this pick as easy as the way he ripped through Appalachian State for five touchdowns - three on rushes, one on a reception and one on a pass - in Saturday's 42-24 win. The senior rushed for 104 yards on 16 carries, completed both of his pass attempts for 58 yards and caught five passes for 45 yards.

Defensive Players of the Week: It's a tie between Georgia Southern junior defensive tackle Roderick Tinsley, who had 3 1/2 tackles for loss and a sack among his nine tackles and forced two fumbles, in the Eagles' 23-20 win over Wofford, and Eastern Washington senior linebacker J.C. Sherritt, who totaled 15 tackles, including 1 1/2 for loss, had half a sack, broke up a pass and forced the all-important fumble in overtime to cement the Eagles' 38-31 win over North Dakota State.

Special Teams Player of the Week: North Dakota State's heartbreaking loss at Eastern Washington was not Mike Sigers' fault. He opened the second half by returning a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown and blocked a pair of field-goal attempts.

JUST THE PICKS

This Weekend's Record: 3-2 (.600)

Season Record: 589-184 (.762)

Next Weekend

FCS Playoff Semifinals

X-projected winner

X-Villanova (9-4) at Eastern Washington (11-2)

Georgia Southern (10-4) at X-Delaware (11-2)

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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