The decisiveness of Montana State’s 42-19 win over defending FCS national champion Sam Houston was stunning Saturday night, but the Bobcats’ upset still didn’t change an intriguing dynamic of the national playoffs.

Some of the more successful FCS programs in recent years are back in the semifinals after posting quarterfinal-round wins this weekend.

North Dakota State is in the semis for the 10th time in the last 11 seasons. With James Madison, it’s five of the last six seasons, and South Dakota State is there for the fourth time in five seasons. Montana State also is in the final four in its second consecutive season, although with two years in between due to the Bobcats opting out of the pandemic-delayed 2020 season.    

Here’s a review of a quarterfinal round that boasted power programs:


No. 2 seed North Dakota State (12-1) 27, No. 7 seed ETSU (11-2) 3

How The Game Was Won – TaMerik Williams rushed for two first-half touchdowns and 91 yards, and the NDSU defense smothered ETSU’s run game. The Bison’s 10 all-time semifinal-round appearances are the third-most in FCS playoff history.

Game Ball – Take your pick with the Bison big men, the Cordell Volson-anchored offensive line or the Costner Ching-fueled defensive line.

Key Stat – The Bison’s No. 2-ranked rushing attack in the FCS posted a decisive 278-66 advantage in yards over ETSU’s No. 8 unit, which boasted two 1,000-yard rushers this season with Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors. The average yards per carry: NDSU 5.7 and ETSU 2.6

Up Next – NDSU has a 30-1 all-time record in FCS playoff games at the Fargodome, but the lone loss was against the Bison’s next opponent Friday night, No. 3 seed James Madison (27-17 in the 2016 semifinals). Since then, the Bison have beaten the Dukes in the 2017 and ‘19 national championship games.


South Dakota State (11-3) 35, No. 5 seed Villanova (10-3) 21

How The Game Was Won – Running back Isaiah Davis and wide receiver Jaxon Janke combined for all five South Dakota State touchdowns, and the Jackrabbits posted a second-half shutout while overcoming a 21-14 halftime deficit.

Game Ball – Davis continued his outstanding postseason with a career-high 25 carries for 174 yards and three TDs. His clutch play helped the Jackrabbits overcome the loss of running back Pierre Strong Jr., who entered as the FCS leader in rushing yards per game, to an early game head injury. Davis has rushed for 499 yards and six TDs in SDSU’s three playoff wins.

Key Stat – Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith played well in defeat, but wasn’t on the field enough. SDSU’s time of possession was 33 minutes, 51 seconds while it ran 64 plays to the Wildcats’ 52.

Up Next – SDSU, the first unseeded team to reach the national semifinals in a 24-team FCS playoff since 2016 national runner-up Youngstown State, will travel to No. 8 seed Montana State (11-2) next Saturday.

No. 8 seed Montana State (11-2) 42, No. 1 seed Sam Houston (11-1) 19

How The Game Was Won – Montana State jumped to a 28-0 lead in the first half and quarterback Tommy Mellott wound up with a hand in five touchdowns while the Bobcats ended Sam Houston’s 22-game winning streak. The Bearkats also had been 17-0 all-time in home FCS playoff games.

Game Ball – Mellott, making his second career start, set the tone for the Bobcats by catching a touchdown from wide receiver Willie Patterson to cap the game’s opening drive. Mellott, affectionally called “Touchdown Tommy,” threw one of his two touchdown passes to Patterson and rushed for two other scores. He had 241 yards of total offense.

Key Stats – The Bearkats entered the game ranked third in the FCS in total offense and fourth in scoring offense, but their inefficiency in the first half added up in a negative way: only six points and 166 yards, two Eric Schmid interceptions and 1 of 8 on third-down conversions.

Up Next – Montana State, under first-year coach Brent Vigen, will host South Dakota State (11-3) in a semifinal next weekend. While Bobcats own a 10-5 all-time series lead, they’ve lost the last three meetings (2014, ’17 and ’18).


Friday Night

No. 3 seed James Madison (12-1) 28, No. 6 seed Montana (10-3) 6

How The Game Was Won – James Madison’s physicality proved to be too much for Montana. The Dukes never trailed after Devin Ravenel’s 82-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown midway through the first quarter, and their defense tightened at the right times against a Grizzlies offense that lost starting quarterback Cam Humphrey and wide receiver Samuel Akem to injuries in the first half.

Game Ball – JMU’s Latrele Palmer surpassed his career high for rushing yards in the first half and went on to finish with 167 on 19 carries. It included a 50-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, which pushed the Dukes’ lead to 14-3.

Key Stat – Montana’s offense reached JMU territory on more possessions (seven) than it had points (six on two field goals). Four JMU players had at least nine tackles, led by linebacker Kelvin Azanama with 13.

Up Next – James Madison will make its seventh all-time appearance in the FCS semifinals at No. 2 seed North Dakota State (12-1) Friday night. The Dukes trail 3-1 in the all-time series (all playoff meetings last decade).