CAA 2023 FCS Playoffs 2nd Round Previews & Predictions
CAA 2023 FCS Playoffs 2nd Round Previews & Predictions
Two of the 2023 CAA co-champions, UAlbany and Richmond, square off while Delaware and Villanova also are in action in the FCS Playoffs.
UAlbany and Richmond capped the 2023 regular season in the same spot, both earning a share of the Coastal Athletic Association championship.
The Great Danes and Spiders find themselves meeting in the same place on Dec. 2, at UAlbany's Casey Stadium in the 2nd Round of the FCS Playoffs. Appropriately enough, their converging paths have been paved with similar styles.
Coming into their postseason showdown, UAlbany and Richmond rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the CAA — and No. 1 and No. 7 in the nation — in sacks. Each has a linebacker with UAlbany's Dylan Kelly and Tristan Wheeler boasting more than 100 tackles on the season, setting the tone for their respective defenses.
Both welcome the opportunity to pop an opponent in the mouth.
"I do think there's some similarity," Great Danes coach Greg Gattuso said. "We base out of a four front. We're different in some regards, but the big thing to me is the physicality. I'm not sure that we've played anybody that I would say is more physical than Richmond."
Richmond's long been a program with a reputation for sound, physical football. The 2023 Spiders built on that reputation through leaders like Wheeler, the heat-seeking linebacker who's made 109 tackles on the campaign.
Marlem Louis is one of the most intimidating pass-rushers in FCS with seven sacks and five quarterback hurries. With his four forced fumbles, Louis' hard-hitting presence up front plays a big part in the Spiders' 24 takeaways, both with the fumbles created and pressuring opposing quarterbacks into misguided decisions.
Spiders in pass coverage have been more than happy to capitalize on ill-timed throws, with Aaron Banks boasting three picks in 2023 at defensive back, and linebacker Wayne Galloway with two.
Richmond is tied for third nationally in turnovers gained. One of the teams knotted with the Spiders? UAlbany.
Like the Spiders, the Great Danes' penchant for takeaways starts with the tenacious and physical line.
"They've got two of the best defensive linemen not only in the CAA, but in the country," Richmond coach Russ Huesman said of Anton Juncaj and A.J. Simon.
Juncaj and Simon producing eye-catching numbers certain jumps out, but Huesman noted the all-around depth of the UAlbany defense.
"They had five all-conference 1st Team players defensively. That's almost half the team, right there," Huesman said. "Well-deserved. I voted for every one of those guys."
Juncaj and Simon are part of that quintet. Kelly garnered CAA Defensive Player of the Year with his 145 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions, two quarterback hurries and forced fumble.
Then in the secondary, Larry Walker earned 1st Team All-CAA along with Aamir Hall. Adding to the similarities, Hall was a transfer to UAlbany from Richmond.
"He's been really good. Noticed him a lot [while studying UAlbany film]," Huesman. "We love Aamir and he was a good player for us...He just felt like he needed something different, and he's played really, really well. I voted him all-conference."
Hall has been lockdown all season, breaking up 13 passes and intercepting another four. His presence on the opposite side from the Spiders promises to play a key role in the playoff matchup, with Richmond coming in rolling offensively during its seven-game winning streak.
Quarterback Kyle Wickersham has been excellent on the back-half of the season, both as a passer and ball-carrier. He out-dueled Walter Payton Award contender Davius Richard of North Carolina Central in the 1st Round, throwing for 291 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Richmond QB, Kyle WickersHIM, continues to impress😮— FloFootball (@FloFootball) November 29, 2023
Wickersham had a career-high of 291 yards and 3 passing touchdowns in Richmond’s win against N.C. Central👊@Spiders_FB | @CAAFootball pic.twitter.com/Qt4qslpyvl
Wickersham's production is comparable to that of UAlbany quarterback Reese Poffenbarger, continuing with the theme. Poffenbarger's terrific 2023 has seen him throw for an FCS-best 31 touchdowns.
Both Wickersham and Poffenbarger can expect to be tested not only by outstanding defenses, but cold weather. Conditions suggest a game tailored for smash-mouth football, potentially putting the onus on each offense's ability to run against two of the best run defenses in the playoff field.
Practicing in the snow? Must be a play off game on Saturday!!!!— Greg Gattuso (@CoachGGattuso) November 28, 2023
Go Danes! pic.twitter.com/gCFVhL4B8c
UAlbany welcomes Richmond into those wintry conditions having never beaten in seven previous matchups between the programs. The last meeting came in 2019 when the Spiders edged the last Great Danes playoff team, 23-20.
In a season of firsts for the Great Danes, including their first-ever CAA championship, an unprecedented win over the Spiders would send UAlbany the furthest it's ever been in the FCS Playoffs and set a new Div. I wins record for the program.
"To get a national reputation, you've got to play well and you've got to win championships," Gattuso said. "We're starting to make those strides."
The Great Danes have enough to make another stride against a tough Richmond team.
PREDICTION: UAlbany 27, Richmond 24
Villanova vs. Youngstown State
No. 8 national seed Villanova had a chance to rest up in preparation for a 2nd Round meeting with Youngstown State. The traditional FCS powerhouse program bullied Northeast Conference champion Duquesne in the 1st Round, 40-7.
The Penguins employ an effective rushing offense good for more than 171 yards per game, but quarterback Mitch Davidson's 317 yards and two touchdowns against the Dukes showed off Youngstown State's balance.
Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said he noticed similarities between the Penguins and his Wildcats.
"They try to control the ball with the run game, then hit some big, explosive pass plays," he said.
It's a strategy very much akin to what the Wildcats have done well, peppering defenses with the jabs from Jalen Jackson, TD Ayo-Durojaiye and DeeWil Barlee before unloading haymakers from Connor Watkins to Rayjuon Pringle, Jaylan Sanchez and Jaaron Hayek.
Watkins' command of the Villanova offense this season has made the Wildcats one of the most dangerous, big-play attacks in all of college football.
Youngstown State features a similar, multifaceted rushing look with Tyshon King carrying for just a hair less than 1,000 yards ahead of the 2nd Round matchup. King and Dra Rushton, who has carried for more than 600 yards, each have nine touchdowns on the season.
Bryce Oliver is the Penguins' primary target in the passing game with more than 900 yards on the season. He went for a season-high 181 yards against Duquesne, his third game surpassing the century mark.
YSU has consistently put up 30-plus points against FCS competition all season, the exceptions coming in a shutout loss to reigning national champion South Dakota State and a rock-fight win over Indiana State. On the flipside, the Penguins defense gave up 28-plus points to six FCS opponents.
Villanova's offense should be able to put points on the board. Generating enough stops, and potentially getting some turnovers, will determine the Wildcats' playoff fate.
Look for a contest similar to Villanova's shootout road win over New Hampshire when Brendan Bell's forced fumble and interception and Shane Hartzell's pick made the difference.
PREDICTION: Villanova 35, Youngstown State 27
Delaware at Montana
With the University of Delaware announcing its move to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2025, this year marks the Blue Hens' last chance to add another Div. I national championship to go with the program's 2003 crown.
A furious comeback against Lafayette nearly derailed Delaware's final FCS Playoffs run before it could really get going, but quarterback Nick Minicucci settled in and the Blue Hens took control.
Bend don’t break 🤫 pic.twitter.com/NoCHApBeBe— Delaware Football (@Delaware_FB) November 27, 2023
Delaware cannot afford a repeat slow start with the bevy of turnovers that led to last week's 28-7 hole. That means Minicucci will have to come out slinging effectively and avoid some of the unfortunate bounces that led to interceptions against Lafayette.
Montana's defense has overwhelmed opposing rushing attack, holding teams to just 3.3 yards per carry and fewer than 100 yards per game. Linebacker Braxton Hill sets the tone for the hard-nosed Griz defense, coming into the FCS Playoffs with 91 tackles, five quarterback hurries and two interceptions.
Riley Wilson, Hill's tag-team partner in the linebacker corps, has been a terror bringing pressure off the edge. Containing the linebackers is crucial if Delaware is to mount an offensive attack.
Montana complements its defensive prowess with a rotation of capable ball-carriers. Eli Gillman is the front-runner for the Jerry Rice Award, and his 857 yards and 10 touchdowns set the pace for the Griz. However, Clifton McDowell and Nick Ostmo both have more than 500 yards on the season and seven touchdowns.
Montana is a tough team hitting its stride at the right time. Pulling off the upset in Missoula will take some breaks if the Blue Hens are to extend their last dance for another week.
PREDICTION: Montana 31, Delaware 17
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