It will be hard to top the opening week of the 2009 NCAA Football playoffs, but Abilene Christian and Tarleton State will give it their best shots.
Last weekend, ACU returned the opening kickoff for a TD, turned two Midwestern State turnovers into 10 points and held off the Mustangs 24-21. The offense gained just 252 yards on the day, but put most of it together on 3 consecutive scoring drives, which was just enough to overcome the Mustangs. The defense harassed Zack Eskridge all day long, sacking him 8 times.
Meanwhile, Tarleton State outscored Texas A&M-Kingsville 57-56 in double overtime to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Garrett Lindholm hit a 64 yard field goal as time expired to tie the game at 46 all. After the teams traded field goals in the first OT, the Texans found themselves down 7 when Fred Winborn scored his 4th TD of the day. On fourth down, needing to pick up 5 yards, Scott Grantham instead took it all the way in, breaking several tackles along the way. The Texans then went for two, and once again it was Grantham, barely squeaking in.
#16 Abilene Christian at #2 Northwest Missouri
A rematch of this season's season opener and last year's Super Region 4 final. The Wildcats won the season opener 19-14 with a strong defensive effort. ACU's first 9 points came by way of a safety and a 42 yard fumble recovery and the defense held NWMSU to just 230 yards and one offensive TD. The Wildcat offense was not able to must much either, just 164 total yards and one TD, which was set up by an ACU interception. ACU was able to sustain just one drive of more than 35 yards.
Since then, Northwest Missouri has reeled off 10 straight wins in dominating fashion. Washburn was the only other team to hold NWMSU to under 30 points, and the only team to keep the Bearcat's margin of victory to single digits. Since facing ACU, NWMSU is averaging 47.6 points and 520 of total offense. Junior QB Blake Bolles has completed 68% of his passes for 3,204 yards, 35 TDs and just 7 Ints. Jake Soy is his favorite receiver, hauling in 61 passes for 1,116 yards and 22 TDs. Should ACU focus too hard on Soy, six other Bearcats have at least 20 catches. LaRon Council is once again the leading rusher, picking up 1,202 yards and 16 TDs in 2009. Up front, juniors Jason Wiseman and Brett Grozinger both garnered first team all-MIAA honors, joining Bolles, Council and Soy.
The defense is always stout in Maryville, as evidenced by 17.8 points and 301 yards allowed per game. Teams have only been able to average 87 yards rushing, but have picked up 214 yards through the air. The team had 22 interceptions, and sacked opposing QBs 35 times during the season. The Bearcats were honored with 4 first team, 2 second team and 4 honorable mention selections to the all-MIAA team on defense.
Abilene Christian has had a tougher time of it since Week One. The Wildcats won their next six games and ascended to the #1 spot in the national polls, but dropped three of the next four games, limping into the playoffs with the #6 seed. The defense has been solid all year, giving up just 18.4 points and 283 yards per game. The running defense has been especially stellar, holding the opposition to just 46 yards per game and 1.7 per carry. Similar to NWMSU, the ACU pass defense has given up yards (236 per game) because teams have not been able to run the ball. Led by Aston Whiteside and Fred Thompson, ACU totalled 41 sacks on the season, while picking off 15 passes.
The offense has sputtered of late, averaging just 22 points per game over the last five weeks. Of course, playing Midwestern State twice, as well as Tarleton State and a rejuvenate West Texas A&M team will slow down almost any offense. Darryl Richardson and Reggie Brown have been a productive duo this year, combining for 1,829 yards and 22 TDs and another 313 receiving yards and 2 more TDs. Redshirt freshman Mithcell Gale continues to be the starter at QB, and has thrown for more than 1,500 yards and 10 TDs while completing 60% of his passes. Edmund Gates is the leading receiver with 41 receptions for 600 yards and 5 TDs.
A lot of people expected these teams to square off in the playoffs this year, but most probably thought it would be in the regional final next week. Both sport top-notch defenses, but ACU's offense is struggling at the wrong time of the year. The Bearcats offense is hitting on all cylinders right now, and they seem to save their best for the playoffs. NWMSU 38-21.
#12 Tarleton State at #1 Central Washington
Central Washington is the number one team in the nation and the only undefeated D2 remaining. They started the season at #14, but survived a tough five week opening stretch that saw them defeat the defending national champion, Minnesota-Duluth, on the road as well as Mesa State and IAA Idaho State and West Texas A&M at home. The defense has been very stingy, allowing just 11.6 points and 243 yards per game. Ony three teams have scored more than 10 points in a game, with the season high 27 against Humboldt State. The run defense is one of the nation's best holding teams to 61 yards per game. Teams have had to take to the air, and have averaged 181 yards passing. The Wildcats defense has only picked up 23 sacks and 13 interceptions.
The offense has not put up spectacular numbers - 28 points and 354 yards per game. Senior Cole Morgan took over the starting QB spot in week 9 and has passed for 1,000 yards and a 7-2 TD-Int ratio. Freshman Ryan Robertson started the first 8 games, and has thrown for 1,275 yards and 13 TDs. All-American Johnny Spevak is the top receiver with 66 catches for 893 yards and 11 TDs. Randall Eldrige and Bryson Kelly combined for 1,265 yards and 9 TDs rushing.
Despite playing in the LSC South, the Texans are giving up just 20.4 points and 316 yards per game. Teams are passing for 210 yards and rushing for 106 yards per game. Only one team other than TAMK scored more than 28 points against the Texans. Marcus Phillips and Matt Knicky each have 95 tackles to lead the team. Phillips also leads the team in tackles for loss (10.5) and his 3 interceptions is just one behind Brandon Johnson.
Despite being overshadowed by the defense, the offense is averaging 33.3 points and 404 yards per game. Evan Robertson and Roderick Smith have combined for 1,649 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. Last week's hero, Scott Grantham has quietly passed for 2,793 yards and 19 TDs. Devin Guinn and Jahmeel Hobson are easily the top targets - they have 123 of the team's 199 receptions, 1,961 of the team's 2,966 yards, and 15 of the 20 passing TDs.
Central Washington proved themselves to be a top team with the tough schedule early in the season. But since then they have faced the conference counterparts Humboldt State, Dixie State and Western Oregon two times each, so it is unclear on just how battle-tested they will be coming into the game. There is no question that Tarleton has been tested recently, with battles against Abilene Christian, Angelo State, West Texas A&M and Texas A&M-Kingsville in the past four weeks alone. That has left them a bit banged up and there may be a hangover from last week's emotional win in Kingsville. We look for the Texans to overcome a slow start and shock the nation with another close win, TSU 31-28.