I don’t know if it was Zach Zenner and David Johnson breaking long touchdown runs the first time they touched the ball last week, or the combined 560 all-purpose yards for the Missouri Valley Football Conference first-teamers, but in the first round of the FCS playoffs, the nation got its second introduction to what MVFC teams are up against week-in and week-out.
Three Valley teams won last week, joining NDSU and Illinois State in the second round of the playoffs, lining up a crash course for four of the teams in the conference ready to square off against one another.
The Redbirds will get its second crack at Northern Iowa Saturday after the Panthers dethroned an undefeated Redbirds team during the regular season, 42-28.
It’s a tough draw in the second round for ISU, who shared the Valley Championship with NDSU this season. The Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the FCS, nursing a six-game winning streak.
Since losing to South Dakota State Oct. 18, the Panthers are outscoring opponents 214-99. Johnson has been on fire, making a strong case for the Walter Payton Award with 2,343 all-purpose yards and 19 touchdowns.
The Redbirds were able to bottle up Johnson in the first half during their first meeting of the season. But Johnson took over in the second half on his way to 129 rushing yards with three scores, one of them coming on a 98-yard kick return touchdown.
ISU will have the advantage of not playing at the UNI-Dome during its second meeting with UNI this Saturday. It also has the advantage of having the most dynamic quarterback in the Valley in Tre Roberson.
The first-year transfer from Indiana was named first team all-Missouri Valley this week, but played like anything but the best quarterback in the MVFC during his first meeting with UNI. Roberson threw two interceptions and was sacked five times against a stout defensive front for the Panthers.
SDSU also received a tough draw in the second round. After pounding Montana State in blizzard-like conditions in Bozeman, the Jacks will arrive once again in the hostile confines of the Fargodome.
I see the Jackrabbits needing to do three things against the Bison this week if they want to get their first win against NDSU since 2009.
We saw UNI play a near-perfect game against the Bison and executed the formula for beating the three-time defending champs.
The Jacks will have to reciprocate that approach by getting things going offensively on the ground — something they started to do in their first meeting of the season when Zenner ran for a career-high 96 yards against the Bison.
UNI was also effective with its pass rush against the Bison, sacking Carson Wentz three times and creating long third-down situations.
The Jacks only got to Wentz once in their first meeting, but it was their inability to stop the Bison running game that ultimately downed the Jacks.
The Bison were four yards short of 300 during the Dakota Marker game.
The Jacks come into Saturday’s matchup ranked 75th in the FCS against the run, giving up over 181 yards per game.
SDSU won’t be able to stop the Bison rushing attack, but they’ll need to at least contain it if they want to pull the upset.
At least two teams will represent the Valley in the quarterfinals, and it will be a ferocious battle — like it has been all season — to see who will represent the Valley during the home stretch of the FCS playoffs.