The best games, players and moments from an unforgettable FCS spring season

Sports

The longest football season in the history of the world began and ended at the FCS level, from Central Arkansas’ 24-17 win over Austin Peay on Aug. 29 to Sam Houston’s thrilling 23-21 victory over South Dakota State in Sunday’s national title game. With a majority of the FCS action taking place in an unprecedented spring campaign, let’s commemorate this odd spring by looking back at the best games, most fun players and some final takeaways.

Note: The next two sections are specifically focused on spring action. Apologies to players such as Houston Baptist’s Bailey Zappe and games such as HBU-Texas Tech, which would have made these lists if the fall schedule had been included.

The 20 best games of spring

20. Delaware 27, Villanova 20 (April 17). Delaware won this intense playoff elimination game by surging ahead by 14 and holding on for dear life. Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith, meanwhile, managed this outright absurdity in a losing effort:

19. Sam Houston 24, North Dakota State 20 (May 2). SHSU’s road to the title was lined with fourth-quarter thrillers, one of which came against the storied Bison. NDSU scored on a blocked punt for a safety and on kick and punt returns to lead 20-17 deep into the fourth quarter. But Bearkats quarterback Eric Schmid and title game hero Ife Adeyi connected on a 47-yard bomb to set up the go-ahead points, and a red zone stop sealed the deal.

18. McNeese State 40, Tarleton State 37 (Feb. 13). The first game of the spring, and the first game of Tarleton State’s FCS existence, went to double overtime. McNeese scored twice in the final three minutes of regulation and clinched the win on a 19-yard Cody Orgeron run.

17. Alabama State 35, Jackson State 28 (March 20). The first loss of Deion Sanders’ JSU tenure was a doozy that featured four lead changes, along with two touchdowns in the last two minutes. Ezra Gray‘s third TD of the fourth quarter ended up being the difference.

16. Eastern Washington 46, Idaho State 42 (March 13). Honestly, you could have filled a top 20 solely with Big Sky games. This one featured seven touchdown passes and five interceptions as EWU lost one double-digit lead and overcame two others, scoring the game-winning TD, a 6-yarder from Eric Barriere to Andrew Boston, with 25 seconds left.

15. Austin Peay 49, SEMO 42 (March 14). Sundays were Ohio Valley days and included plenty of thrillers, but this one might have been the peak. It featured four fourth-quarter scores and back-to-back Draylen Ellis-to-Baniko Harley TDs in overtime to seal an APSU win over Southeast Missouri State.

14. Furman 44, Samford 37 (March 6). Samford was snakebit, losing three one-score games this spring, two in OT. In this one, Furman overcame 24-7 and 37-23 disadvantages, scored twice in the last 6:12 of regulation and recovered a fumble at its 2 in OT to steal the win.

13. Jackson State 33, Grambling State 28 (March 6). Coach Prime’s first SWAC win featured five lead changes and 184 rushing yards from JSU’s Tyson Alexander. The Tigers went ahead 33-28 with 12:35 remaining, then they forced and recovered a fumble at their 1-yard line with a minute left.

12. Sacred Heart 34, Duquesne 27 (April 11). SHU avenged a tight regular-season loss the hard way. The Pioneers returned to DU’s Rooney Field, raced to a 27-13 lead, gave it all away in the fourth quarter and then moved backward in overtime. But a stunning 29-yard TD pass from Marquez McCray to Naseim Brantley on fourth-and-14 gave the Pioneers the lead, and a Frank Alfano fumble recovery in the end zone gave them an outrageous win.

11. Tennessee State 21, Eastern Illinois 20 (March 14). Two words: Antonio. Zita.

The junior place-kicker from Fayetteville, Tennessee, nailed a 62-yard field goal with four minutes left, then knocked in a 35-yarder at the buzzer to give the Tigers the win.

10. Southern Illinois 55, Southeastern Louisiana 48 (April 17). The BYU-Coastal Carolina of FCS. These teams agreed to an almost impromptu playoff play-in game, and it turned into a track meet. SIU led most of the way and gained over 800 yards, but the Salukis needed a late third-and-11 conversion to run out the clock and avoid giving SELA one last chance.

9. Alabama A&M 40, UAPB 33 (May 1). Arkansas-Pine Bluff took an eight-point halftime lead in the SWAC Championship thanks to a kick return for a touchdown and a scoop and score. But AAMU star QB Aqeel Glass prompted a 22-0 run with two touchdown passes. UAPB drove to the Bulldogs’ 22 in the final seconds, but Trenton McGhee picked off a pass to clinch AAMU’s first SWAC title in 14 years.

8. Northwestern State 49, Incarnate Word 47 (April 10). Nobody did track meets like the Southland, but this one topped them all. It featured seven scores and three lead changes in the final 12 minutes as NSU erased an 11-point deficit, took the lead, gave it back and then won at the horn with a 32-yard Eddie Godina field goal.

7. South Dakota State 31, Southern Illinois 26 (May 2). For three quarters of this quarterfinal matchup, it looked like SIU would avenge a blowout defeat to SDSU in the regular season. The Salukis raced to a 20-7 second-quarter lead, but SDSU opened the fourth quarter with a fourth-and-goal stuff, and Mark Gronowski exploded for a 67-yard score to give the Jackrabbits their first lead with 11:41 left. Michael Griffin intercepted Stone Labanowitz at the SDSU 9 with 13 seconds left to ice the comeback win.

6. Northern Arizona 34, Southern Utah 33 (Feb. 27). NAU got a safety, a pick-six and a 55-yard TD bomb, but the Lumberjacks still trailed 33-28 in the final minute. Given one last chance after a fourth-down stuff, Northern Arizona drove 81 yards in 53 seconds, and Keondre Wudtee found Coleman Owen for a 2-yard score as time expired.

5. Southern Illinois 34, Weber State 31 (April 24). After a run of close wins earned Weber State the Big Sky title, it looked as if the Wildcats would pull off another one in the first round of the playoffs. But after WSU took a 31-27 lead with 5:25 left, SIU drove 75 yards in 11 plays and scored on a Labanowitz-to-Branson Combs pass on fourth down. The Salukis then snuffed out a Hail Mary attempt with a sack as time expired.

4. Sam Houston 38, James Madison 35 (May 8). Act I: JMU goes on a 24-0 run to take total control of this semifinal matchup. Act II: SHSU responds with a 35-3 run, scoring a dizzying four times in five minutes to take the lead. Act III: JMU responds with a TD, then works into field goal range in the closing minutes before missing a 51-yarder. SHSU advances.

3. VMI 38, Samford 37 (March 20). In his final game in a VMI uniform — he had already announced he was transferring to Maryland in the fall — quarterback Reece Udinski clinched the Keydets’ first 4-0 start in ages by throwing two fourth-quarter TD passes then delivering the game-winning TD pass and two-point conversion in OT … on a torn ACL. The Keydets went on to win a stunning Southern Conference title.

2. Weber State 28, Northern Arizona 23 (March 27). A month after winning a last-second thriller, NAU scored on a 1-yard Wudtee touchdown to take an unlikely lead on WSU with 18 seconds left. Turns out, that was 18 seconds too many.

1. Sam Houston 23, South Dakota State 21 (May 16). It didn’t start out so hot. The game kicked off in a massive downpour, and SDSU’s Gronowski was lost for the game to injury on the Jackrabbits’ first drive. The score was 7-7 when the game was stopped early in the second quarter due to an hour-plus lightning delay.

After the break, SHSU took a 17-7 lead into the fourth quarter, with star Jequez Ezzard scoring twice. But Isaiah Davis‘ sideline-tiptoeing 28-yard touchdown gave the Jacks hope. After a holding penalty wiped out what might have been the game-clinching SHSU touchdown, SDSU got the ball back, and Davis rumbled, stiff-armed and tiptoed his way to an 85-yard touchdown down the left sideline. Somehow, the Jacks led.

As he did throughout the playoffs, however, SHSU’s Schmid came up huge when he had to. He converted a fourth-and-1 with his legs then a fourth-and-3 with a pass to Ezzard. And after getting knocked around all day by the fearsome SDSU front, Schmid threw an outright dart up the middle to Adeyi for the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds left.

The injuries and field conditions were a mess, and we still got a perfect title game finish.

My 10 favorite players of the spring

10. LB Isaac Peppers, UAPB. In just five games, the linebacker/missile recorded nine tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks; he had four and 3.5 of those, respectively, in a dramatic, division-clinching win over Prairie View A&M.

9. QB Seth Morgan, VMI. Udinski’s heroics were incredible, but Morgan took the reins and continued to steer the Keydets to the SoCon crown. He finished the year with a 71% completion rate too.

8. DE Jordan Lewis, Southern. The junior from Ocala, Florida, won the Buck Buchanan Award by being really, really good at one specific thing: rushing the passer. He had 10.5 sacks, among 15 TFLs — in only five games!

7. S Nicario Harper, Jacksonville State. The Southern Miss transfer was both an old-school safety valve and an outright playmaker, picking off three passes, breaking up three more, logging 2.5 TFLs and returning a fumble for a game-clinching TD against Mercer.

6. QB Eric Barriere, EWU. Few packed more of a season’s worth of stats into an abbreviated spring like EWU’s signal-caller, who finished second in the Walter Payton Award voting* after throwing for 2,439 yards and 19 TDs in seven games in the Eagles’ always wide-open offense.

* Southeastern Louisiana’s Cole Kelley narrowly won the Walter Payton Award after throwing for 2,662 yards and 27 scores in seven games. Maybe we should have gone with 6a and 6b here.

5. RB Otis Weah, North Dakota. FCS has loads of awesome running backs, but Weah might be the most fascinating. The sophomore is listed at 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds but runs like he’s 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, and his 730 rushing yards were the driving force behind UND’s quarterfinal run.

4. DE Mike Greene, JMU. If Weah is a 195-pounder who moves like a 245-pounder, Green is a 285-pounder who does the same. His production trailed off a bit late, but he was maybe FCS’ best defender for the first two-thirds of the spring, and he finished with 10.5 TFLs and three sacks in eight games.

3. RB Isaiah Davis, South Dakota State. Recency bias? Absolutely. Davis wasn’t even SDSU’s leading rusher heading into the final game of the season; Pierre Strong Jr. was. But what a final game Davis had. With the Jacks clinging to hope in the national championship game, the true freshman (!!) showed just about the best combination of balance and strength you’ll ever see with his 28- and 85-yard scores, and he finished with 178 yards on just 14 carries.

2. QB Aqeel Glass, Alabama A&M. After a shaky debut against South Carolina State, the Bulldogs senior put together three of the most impressive performances you’ll see. Against Jackson State, Alabama State and UAPB in games that first won the SWAC East, then the SWAC, Glass threw for 1,083 yards and 12 touchdowns. SWAC football was must-see TV this spring — constant fireworks, frequent plot twists, unending personality — and Glass was its MVP.

1. WR Jequez Ezzard, Sam Houston. Running backs Ramon Jefferson and Noah Smith and quarterback Eric Schmid all had more touches — rushes or receptions — than Ezzard, and wide receivers Ife Adeyi and Cody Chrest had nearly as many.

Ezzard, however, was a cheat code. Distribute the ball all you want, but Jequez was reliable when the Bearkats needed a score. In 42 combined rushes and receptions, he gained 896 yards and scored 10 times, nearly once every four touches. He also scored on two of his 18 punt returns, and that doesn’t include the title game TD that was called back via penalty. You hold your breath when the ball is in Ezzard’s hands. He is incredible.

Spring football: Surprisingly great

Honestly, I wasn’t sure how invested I would be in a spring FCS season. Recent minor league forays — the AAF in 2019, the XFL in 2020 — didn’t really rope me in. I evidently need team histories and backstories to get fully immersed; FCS has those things in droves, however, and I found myself truly committed in these recent weeks. As with others, it made me wish we always had a spring FCS season to look forward to.

Now the logistics of a spring season were nightmarish for many schools. The spring is already loaded with Olympic sports, and now you’re going to dump the biggest sport of them all right in the middle? While significantly lightening the sports load in the fall? From what I could glean, FCS coaches mostly hated it too; it made recruiting and roster management — including keeping guys engaged and keeping their eyes from wandering toward the transfer portal — much more difficult. (In that regard, we have yet to see the full effects of giving FBS coaches an uninterrupted opportunity to fully scout FCS stars.) Plus, the season coincided with the NFL draft, which meant that players who played in the spring didn’t get the opportunity to do any sort of pro prep or interviewing with teams. Maybe they all return to school this fall then get their chance next spring; we’ll see. But you can’t ignore how tricky the logistics were here.

I’m going to guess, then, that the idea of a permanent FCS season — or one that includes all small divisions — is a no go, no matter how welcome a diversion it was in 2021. Maybe I’m wrong: Maybe the TV numbers and the potential for more revenue in this regard make it something work thinking about, and maybe all the recruiting, transfer and NFL issues could be alleviated over time. If we think it would work out long term for everyone involved, so be it. Let’s dive in.

Even if it’s too unrealistic to execute, however, that doesn’t mean we should ditch the shot of competitive spring ball altogether.

I’ve espoused this idea before, but in the absence of a full-on spring season, what if we moved the annual FBS vs. FCS money games to the spring, replacing the boring, stolid spring scrimmages we’ve come to know with something a little bit more engaging and competitive? Hell, what if we gave everyone two of them to make sure the money works for everyone? LSU playing Southern and SELA (Ed Orgeron vs. Cody Orgeron) in mid-April on the SEC Network? Rutgers vs. Princeton and Monmouth? Washington State vs. EWU and Idaho? Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa and Eastern Illinois? FCS schools that didn’t want to participate could even schedule Division II teams if they preferred.

Obviously, FBS teams probably wouldn’t play their prospective starters a ton in these games. It would likely take shape similarly to what we saw from New Mexico State this spring. The Aggies scheduled two spring games after opting out of fall football, and coach Doug Martin warned ahead of time he would be spreading the playing time around and fielding experimental lineups. The effects were, at best, mixed. (That’s a nice way of saying the Aggies got pounded by Tarleton State and barely beat Dixie State.) The energy level wouldn’t be the same as what we see in the fall, but it would be higher than what we get out of spring games now, and these games would serve as televised showcases for star players and for every program involved.

We now know there’s an appetite for real college football in the spring. That’s something that could be capitalized on, one way or another.

Smaller-school football: Always great

It was such a blast getting the chance to focus on these teams for an extended period of time. The spread of talent in lower divisions isn’t quite as large, and the frequency of one-score finishes is damn near 50-50. I shared my 20 favorite games above, but there were about 40 more that could have easily slotted into this list.

Even if we never get permanent spring showcases for FCS-and-lower teams, promise me this: If you enjoyed what you saw in recent weeks, if you found yourself more invested and involved than you expected to be, make a point to watch more small-school football this coming fall too. It’s always like this.

Sure, as with FBS, there are dominant programs atop most levels of the sport: North Dakota State and James Madison in FCS; Mount Union, Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mary Hardin-Baylor in Division III; etc. But even when the destination is predictable — and it isn’t always (Division II is particularly unpredictable) — the journey is glorious. There are tons of tight finishes and nip-and-tuck conference races, which then spill into wild, wacky and expansive playoffs. The further you dive into the small-school universe, the more histories and rivalries you learn about, the more wild endings you witness and the more you’re hooked.

To put that another way, the more small-school football you watch, the healthier and more enjoyable your football fandom becomes. If you didn’t know that before the 2021 spring season, hopefully you do now.

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