The I-AA Way: The Final Four

Dec. 9, 2005

By David Coulson, Senior Columnist
Special to from

The weather outside was a brisk mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain as Appalachian State took the field for football practice on Thursday evening.

But Jermane Little flashed a smile as wide as his face as he raced onto the Kidd Brewer Stadium Field Turf.

"I'm doing great," said the senior wide receiver, who less than four weeks ago was carted off the field at LSU with a fractured fibula.

Like players at Furman, Northern Iowa and Texas State, Little and the other Mountaineers are just glad to have a game on their schedule this weekend.

There is something extra special about football in December and two of these teams will extend their fun for another week with wins on Friday night, or Saturday afternoon.

It is also exciting to see some unfamiliar teams in the mix for a I-AA national championship. The Texas State Bobcats had been the dregs of the Southland Conference, without a league championship, or a playoff berth in 22 years.

Appalachian State and Northern Iowa, while solidly identified as being in a small group of I-AA's elite teams, had both missed the playoffs the past two seasons and are trying to break new ground with their first-ever championship-game appearances next week in Chattanooga, Tenn.

For Furman, the Final Four and championship game is like a pair of comfortable house shoes. From the head coach Bobby Lamb, on down, the Paladins know what it is like to play on this stage. We have two compelling semifinal games and four intriguing teams.

When Northern Iowa travels to Texas State for the first semifinal on Friday at 8 p.m., it will be the ultimate survivor, Northern Iowa, going against the physically gifted Bobcats.

Appalachian State then hosts Furman at noon on Saturday in a matchup that would be interesting as just a regular-season game. But this continuation of a classic I-AA rivalry is the first-ever meeting in a playoff setting.


With all that in mind, let's look more closely at the Final Four:

Appalachian State--The Mountaineers have made 13 playoff berths, more than any other school without a national title to show for it. But ASU has also been one of I-AA's unluckiest teams in postseason play.

The Mountaineers could have won as many as three previous titles, but in 1987, 1995 and 2000, bad luck got in the way of talent.

In 1987, ASU was the No. 1 seed and did something that no other school managed to accomplish something that no other team had done in three years -- beat Georgia Southern in the playoffs. Taking advantage of a snowy and frozen Kidd Brewer Stadium field, the Mountaineers not only beat the two-time defending national champs, they shut them out 19-0 in the quarterfinals.

But a week later, Appalachian ran into a Marshall club that it had already beaten once for the Southern Conference championship. This time, the Thundering Herd did the unconventional, completely changing their defense to upset the top-seeded Mountaineers 24-10 in the semifinals. A week later, Marshall lost 43-42 to Northeast Louisiana.

In 1995, Appalachian State won 12 consecutive games to advance to the quarterfinals and was a first down away from securing a 17-13 victory over Stephen F. Austin. But then injuries to All-American cornerback Matt Stevens and linebackers Joe DiBernardo and Adam Neuheisal caught up to the Mountaineers suddenly. A third and long pass from Kevin Goodwin to Chris Jefferson over the out-stretched fingers of Stevens' replacement Elando Johnson turned the tide and the Lumberjacks scored 14 points behind the running of Leonard Harris in the final 2:33.

In 2000, the Mountaineers were true road warriors, beating No. 4 seed Troy State 33-30 and No. 5 seed Western Kentucky 17-13. On the ropes in the final seconds against No. 1 Montana, Troy Albea turned a fourth and eight tunnel screen into a 38-yard explosion.

The Grizzlies made a game-saving tackle, knocking Albea out of bounds at the seven and then tipping away a Joe Burchette pass for a wide open Rashad Slade by a finger tip in the back of the end zone. A Drew Miller to Jimmy Farris fade route gave Montana a 19-16 victory in overtime and kept ASU out of the final again.

But this might be the No. 2 seeded Mountaineers' best chance ever to reach the championship game. Appalachian fought back in the second half against a well-coached Lafayette team to win 34-23 in the first round of the playoffs and dominated Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals. The 38-24 score doesn't accurately describe ASU's overwhelming effort.

Quarterback Richie Williams is a supreme decision-maker and has sacrificed individual statistics for team success as a senior. He is tremendous on the option, quarterback draws and scrambling, but if teams put too much emphasis on stopping his running ability, Williams will kill you with his passing. Just ask Furman, who watched Williams complete an NCAA-record 28-consecutive passes and 40-of-45 (NCAA single-game record 88.9 percent) for the game in a 30-29 victory last year over the Paladins.

Kevin Richardson has helped give the Mountaineers a balanced attack from their no-huddle, spread offense. Richardson has gained an ASU-sophomore-record 1,277 yards rushing, the seventh-best total in Appalachian history. He also leads the team with 46 receptions and 17 touchdowns.

Williams has a bevy of dangerous receivers in Dexter Jackson, William Mayfield, Hans Batichon, Zach Johnson, Brandon Turner, T.J. Courman and tight end Daniel Bettis. And the return of his favorite target, Jermane Little, from a broken leg makes the passing game even more potent.

ASU's offensive line has been a force all season, allowing just nine sacks. Tackle Matt Isehour won the prestigious Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best offensive lineman in the Southern Conference, while other tackle Grant Oliver and center Scott Suttle have also been steady.

The return this season of defensive end Jason Hunter and safety Corey Lynch has turned a porous unit into one of I-AA's most consistent defenses. Marques Murrell teams with Hunter to give the Mountaineers the best defensive end duo in I-AA.

ASU has been shaky at times on special teams, but kicker Julian Rauch seems to have regained the form in the playoffs that earned him Jewish All-American team honors last season.

Furman--Twenty years ago, an experienced and talented quarterback led the Paladins to within one play of a national championship. Sounds a lot like current QB Ingle Martin, but this signal caller was Bobby Lamb, the current Furman coach.

Lamb was upstaged by a final-second TD toss by Georgia Southern superstar Tracy Ham in a heartbreaking 44-42 Paladin loss. But three years later, Lamb was on the sidelines as an assistant coach when Furman avenged that loss with a 17-12 victory over the Eagles in the final.

And he was the offensive coordinator in 2001 when the Paladins marched to the championship game before losing 13-6 to Montana. As a matter of fact, Lamb has been a part of every Furman postseason game, as either a player, or a coach.

Consistency and execution have been the keys to the Furman program, from coach Art Baker, through Dick Sheridan, Jimmy Satterfield and Bobby Johnson and now with Lamb as the leader of the program.

Ingle Martin, Steve Spurrier's hand-picked quarterback at Florida, is the best passer in school history. He is versatile as a thrower, runner and punter and has shown a knack for last-minute comebacks this season in wins against Jacksonville State, Hofstra and Appalachian State.

Wide receiver Justin Stepp has developed into a consistent threat as the season has progressed and John Rust is one of the top tight ends in the country when he is healthy.

Jerome Felton is a throw-back at fullback. The 250-pound sophomore is devastating as a blocker and is an outstanding runner, particularly in short-yardage situations. The trio of Daric Carter, Cedric Gipson and Brandon Mays at tailback has rushed for more than 1,800 yards.

Furman has one of the best offensive lines in I-AA, led by All-American center Corey Stewart, guard Patrick Covington and tackle Brian Laggis.

On defense, the Paladins were horrendous for much of the season, even with the presence of Buchanan award finalist William Freeman at outside linebacker. But Andrew Jones has developed into a fine middle linebacker and Furman has begun to plug holes in the middle of the defensive line and the secondary in recent weeks.

The wins against Nicholls State and Richmond in the playoffs were as much a tribute to an improving Paladin defense as anything else.

One area of concern could be special teams.

Strong-legged kicker Scott Beckler, who recently switched from a three-step to a two-step approach, has been extremely erratic. Beckler cost the Paladins two games last year against I-A Pittsburgh and eventual national champion James Madison in the quarterfinals of the playoffs and missed three field goals last week against Richmond.

The Paladins are also very vulnerable on kickoff returns. After Martin directed Furman to a 34-31 lead with 31 seconds left against Appalachian State, the kickoff return team was spared the embarrassment of a game-winning TD by the Mountaineers' Little when officials incorrectly ruled that Little had stepped out of bounds.

Northern Iowa--In six of the Panthers' 12 playoff appearances, UNI has advanced to the semifinals. And five times, the Panthers have been beaten by the eventual national champion.

Outside of Appalachian State, no team is as hungry for a trip to Chattanooga as Northern Iowa. Coach Mark Farley was a hard-hitting linebacker on the 1985 semifinal team that dropped a memorable 40-33 decision to Ham and Georgia Southern and would like nothing better than to lead his team to a destination he couldn't reach as a player.

The Panthers have made nitroglycerin tablets a staple in Cedar Falls, Iowa this season, winning games against Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Eastern Washington and New Hampshire in dramatic fashion down the stretch.

The return of efficient sophomore quarterback Eric Sanders from a high ankle sprain coincided with a six-game Panther winning streak that has vaulted them into the semifinals.

Veteran tailback and team leader Terrance Freeney -- a two-time 1,000-yard rusher -- has struggled with injuries, but the emergence of Nebraska transfer David Horne has given the Panthers a solid running attack to go with Sanders' passing.

Horne had a 40-yard touchdown running and a 32-yard score receiving as the Panthers jumped to a 21-0 lead. He finished with 28 carries for 144 yards rushing, added three receptions for 36 yards and tied a school record with 17 touchdowns this season.

On defense, UNI is a bend, but not break unit, never illustrated better than in last Saturday's 24-21 win over New Hampshire. The Panthers were out-gained 631-351 by the WIldcats, but found a way to win by recovering three fumbles and blocking a field goal. Linebackers Darin Heideman and Brett Koebcke, defensive end John Herrmann and coverman Dre Dokes are the key performers for UNI.

Brian Wingert, a preseason All-American as a place kicker, has been tough as nails in the clutch in recent weeks.

Texas State--Once upon a time, there was a school called Southwest Texas State and a coach named Jim Wacker that made mincemeat of Division II. Under Wacker, the Bobcats won back-to-back D-II titles in 1981-82, going 27-1 in those two years and beating North Dakota State and UC Davis for those crowns.

A lot has changed since the dynamic Wacker patrolled the sidelines in San Marcos, Tex. The Bobcats changed their name in 2003 and hired a new coach in 2004, the dynamic David Bailiff.

Known as Southland Conference underachievers for years, Texas State has changed its image under Bailiff, winning a share of its first league title and drawing the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.

Bobcat fans have responded by selling out Jim Wacker Field during the playoffs. And who can blame them, with the exciting team that Texas State has fielded this season.

At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Barrick Nealy is probably the best physical specimen at quarterback in the college game. Though still rough around the edges as a passer, the senior can destroy defenses with his ability to run and that opens up the Bobcat passing game. Nealy had 525 yards of total offense as he led TSU back from a 35-16 deficit to a 50-35 in the final 19 minutes of a first-round playoff win over Georgia Southern. He was also a force against Cal Poly in the quarterfinals.

Tailback Douglas Sherman has a career-performance with 125 yards on 18 carries in the 14-7 quarterfinal win over Cal Poly.

Markee White creates severe matchup problems for secondaries with his speed and 6-7 size. Just how good an athlete is White? He also starts on the Texas State basketball team.

The Bobcats are tough to run on with defensive tackles Fred Evans and Travis Upshaw clogging up the middle. Jeremy Castillo is a big-play linebacker on a team that feeds off turnovers.

Texas State can play field position with the best of teams. Cory Eloff is one of I-AA's top punters.

Predictions--I-AA fans should be thrilled with two terrific games this weekend, with the likelihood of an outstanding championship game next week in Chattanooga.

In Friday night's game, I like the tenacity of Northern Iowa to negate a strong Texas State home field advantage. The Panthers have been finding ways to win tight games and I think they'll do it one more time behind the steady hand of Sanders and the running of Horne.

On Saturday, it's hard to pick against an Appalachian State club that is firing on all cylinders, particularly when it is playing at home. The Mountaineers have won 17 consecutive games over the past three years at the Rock.

Furman needed a near-perfect game at home to edge ASU by three points at home. Look for Williams to have another huge game against the Paladins and for the Mountaineers to pull away in the fourth quarter. No one-point wins in the final seconds needed this time.

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