Just four teams remain in the DII Football Championship. After another week of thrilling — and snowy — football, Minnesota State, Valdosta State, Ferris State and Notre Dame (OH) advanced to the semifinals.
Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned in three weeks of playoff football.
There will be an undefeated champion
All four teams remaining in the mix are undefeated. That means there won’t be any question of who the best of the best is come Dec. 15. The winner will be the lone undefeated team standing.
Ferris State has a chance to become the first team to go 16-0 in a single season in DII history. The Bulldogs have had an impressive run in 2018, defeating five teams that appeared in the top 25 at one point this season. They grinded out two victories against Harding and Northwest Missouri State in the first two rounds before ending Ouachita Baptist’s undefeated season in the quarterfinals in a commanding 37-14 victory.
Up next is undefeated Minnesota State, whose 13 wins in 2018 give them 97 this decade, ranking them third in most wins in DII football since 2010. Both of these programs are enjoying a lot of success recently, as Ferris State reached the quarterfinals for the third-straight season while Minnesota State is looking to return to its second title game since 2014.
On the other side of the bracket, Notre Dame (OH) continues its historic season, now 13-0 and in the semifinals on the heels of its first two victories in NCAA postseason play. They'll face the top offense in the nation in Valdosta State, who continues to pummel teams, dropping at least 60 points in each of the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Falcons have played in two tightly-contested games thus far and will have to control the clock and keep the Blazers off the field if they want to go to Texas.
Jaleel McLaughlin’s unbelievable freshman campaign continues
If the Falcons want to control the clock, it rests on the legs of freshman Jaleel McLaughlin. McLaughlin piled up 172 yards and a touchdown in the quarterfinals against a Slippery Rock team that had one of the best rushing defenses in DII. He now has 2,246 yards on the season crushing Wayne State’s Joique Bell’s previous record of 2,065 in 2006. Bell did it with 348 carries while McLaughlin is at 346 and counting. That has earned McLaughlin a Harlon Hill finalist nod, one of three still playing in the postseason, joining Valdosta State’s Rogan Wells and Ferris State’s Jayru Campbell as the other two.
The freshman’s game log is even more impressive. He has two 300-yard games this season, going for 302 yards and two touchdowns in his debut and then a 340-yard, three-touchdown day against West Liberty in October. Right when it appeared that McLaughlin may have hit the freshman wall in mid-October with two straight games with less than 100 yards, he exploded once again, rushing for more than 120 yards the past five weeks in a row.
The Blazers allow almost 120 yards per game and 11 touchdowns in 12 games this season, so McLaughlin has an opportunity to shine in his biggest game yet.
Valdosta State’s offense is must-see TV
The Blazers' offense has piled up 649 points in 2018, an average of 54.08 points per game. They have outscored their opponents 127-37 in the first two rounds of the 2018 postseason, winning 66-16 against Bowie State and 61-21 this past Saturday against Lenoir-Rhyne.
Rogan Wells runs the offense and he does it well, but what makes it so dangerous is that there are no DII superstars on this offense. They all simply shine and share the ball. Wells, for example, has thrown for 2,592 yards and 32 touchdowns, but he has no 1,000-yard receivers, nor does he have many amongst the top of the DII leaderboard. Instead, he had 12 receivers catch a pass last week with each of his three touchdowns going to a different receiver. His top five receivers all had multiple receptions, so if you take out the Blazers best receiver, it simply seems like someone else is ready to step up.
The same can be said with the rushing attack. Jamar Thompkins is having a fine season, rushing for 1,112 yards and eight touchdowns so far. But he doesn’t have to do it alone. This past weekend, he didn’t lead the team in rushing as that honor went to Quahlin Patterson, who had his season-best game with 96 yards. The Blazers punched in five touchdowns on the ground, and Thompkins didn’t lead the Blazers in that category either as freshman Seth McGill punched in a team-high two scores, one from 15 yards out and the other from 26.
The Blazers face the toughest rush defense they have all season in the semifinals, as Notre Dame (OH) allows just 74.2 yards per game, fifth-best in DII. That means Wells arm may be on full display if Valdosta State wants to reach its fifth title games of the 2000s.
DII superstars set to collide in Mankato, Minnesota
The Ferris State and Minnesota State matchup is a good one on so many levels. Perhaps the biggest one is the two offensive superstars that will be on display.
The Mavericks' Nate Gunn showed that last year was no fluke. Once again, Gunn has rushed for more than 1,500 yards and his 21 touchdowns crush his previous career-high of 12. He’s come alive when it’s mattered most. Gunn ran for 114 yards and a touchdown against Colorado State-Pueblo’s No. 7-ranked rushing defense in the second round while amassing 261 yards and the game-winning touchdown in the quarterfinals against Tarleton State’s No. 6 rushing defense, granted, it was in conditions the Texans had never seen.
Running the Bulldogs' offense is Jayru Campbell. Campbell is much deadlier on the ground, leading all DII quarterbacks with 20 rushing scores, but he is not much easier to maintain in the passing game. Campbell has 2,581 yards passing this season and 24 touchdowns, all to just five interceptions and a 60.3 completion rate. He’s dynamic, keeping opposing defenses on their toes and that allows the Bulldogs to pull away from teams quickly as they did in the quarterfinal win against Ouachita Baptist, pulling out to a 27-0 lead before the Tigers could strike.
Which two teams will head to Texas?
Prior to the tournament, we filled out our predictions. Three of our four semifinal picks remain standing, including both teams we projected to play in McKinney, Texas for the championship.
Valdosta State’s steamroller of an offense seems like an easy choice, but you simply can’t rule out Notre Dame (OH). The Falcons continue to win, with a not-so-pretty victory against Hillsdale and holding off another big offense in Slippery Rock last week. McLaughlin is a lot to handle and this defense continues to come up big at the right time. But the Blazers are simply too balanced. While we rave about that scoring offense, they also haven’t played any close games this season. If we go back to Valdosta’s last three games played, all of which have been against top 25 teams, it has won those three games by a 35.3 point per game margin.
Minnesota State needed a fourth quarter comeback to advance in blizzard-like terrain. Trailing 10-0 after three, the Mavericks' star players, Shane Zylstra and Nate Gunn, both scored to put the Mavericks in the semis. Gunn will need to be at his best to help control the clock from that Ferris State offense. The biggest takeaway about the Bulldogs offense is how it found a way to win in the opening round with Campbell out hurt. The crafty veteran Travis Russell came in and was able to hold off a very tough Northwest Missouri State defense. The way this team continues to put up points under any conditions may give them the edge.
We predicted a Valdosta State and Ferris State final back on Nov. 15 and we’re sticking to it.