National Semifinals Preview

December 7th, 2023 4:00pm

National Semifinals Preview

Welcome back to the print edition of the D2Football national column. I hope everyone enjoyed the series of regional shows that our crew did over the previous three weeks to promote the playoff action within the four super regions. It was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve done in my fourteen years with D2Football and I had a lot of fun partnering with Cary Moyer for the SR1 show. We’re back to print for the semis, as our team has a ton of work to do in preparation for the championship game in McKinney, Texas next weekend. But we still have a lot to cover between now and then. This weekend brings two battles west of the Mississippi to determine who will play for the big prize. 

There is only one thing we know heading into the national semifinals, but that one piece of knowledge is an important and exciting fact: We will have a first time national champion. Three of our semifinalists have been here before and two of them have advanced to the final, but none have walked away with the national champion’s trophy. Before we dive into the matchups, here is a brief semifinals history for each of our regional champs.  

No. 1 seed Colorado Mines is playing for a trip to the championship game for the third consecutive season and third time overall. The Orediggers lost a nail-biter in the semis two years ago at Valdosta State but thumped Shepherd at home last year to advance to the finals. They faced defending champ Ferris State for the title, falling 41-14 to the Bulldogs. 

No. 2 seed Harding has made one prior appearance in the semifinals. The Bisons defeated Ferris State for the 2017 SR3 title, then traveled to SR4 champ Texas A&M Commerce for the semifinal. Commerce won that meeting 31-17 and went on to win the national title over West Florida. 

No. 3 seed Lenoir-Rhyne is in the semifinal round for the second time in school history. The Bears defeated West Chester 42-14 at home in the 2013 semis to advance to the championship bout. Heavy rain saturated the natural grass field at Moretz Stadium, creating one of the muddiest collegiate games in recent memory. LR lost to Northwest Missouri State 43-28 in the last championship game played in Florence, Alabama. Before moving to Division II, LR did win a national championship. The Bears played for the NAIA title three times between 1959 and 1962, winning the 1960 crown. 

No. 4 seed Kutztown is making their first appearance in the semifinals. The regional championship win a week ago was the first in program history. 

No. 3 Lenoir-Rhyne (13-1) at No. 2 Harding (13-0)

Kickoff: 12:00pm eastern 

Watch: ESPN+ 

Live Stats | Lenoir-Rhyne Audio | Harding Audio

I have to be honest, I wish this was the second of the two semifinal matchups this weekend. I expect it to be the better game but also the more intriguing matchup. Lenoir-Rhyne is arguably the hottest team in the country. Not just because of the playoff run, but how they’ve been winning games over the past month. The Bears ran Tusculum off the field in the SAC championship prior to the post season. Once the playoffs began, they annihilated defending SR1 champ Shepherd, ran through SR2 no. 1 seed Benedict and bullied GSC heavyweight Valdosta State. Their impressive run now takes them to Arkansas, where undefeated Harding awaits. The Bisons have bowled over the competition this year. In the regular season, only one team (Henderson State) was able to get within two scores of Harding. In the remaining 10 games, the closest margin of victory was 31 points. The powerful flexbone offense leads the NCAA in rushing and it can be an intimidating unit to face. 

For D2 fans that have been around a while, it’s funny to think that Lenoir-Rhyne hasn’t seen an offense like Harding’s. For years, several SAC teams ran a similar variation of it, and until 2015, Lenoir-Rhyne was one of them. In fact, the last time the Bears were in the semifinals (2013) they beat West Chester 42-14 without attempting a forward pass. They had 451 yards that day and every yard of it was on the ground. In more recent years, the Bears saw a veer offense from Carson-Newman on an annual basis, but the Eagles, the last SAC team committed to a triple-option-like approach, moved on from it in 2020. 

That doesn’t mean the Bears won’t have some thoughts on how to deal with it. They have one of the top defenses in the country and we saw that again last week. On a rain soaked track in Valdosta, The Bears took away the Blazers’ rush and tee’d off on the quarterback. It will be a very different challenge this week but I think LR will have some success. The key is to remain disciplined and play assignment football against Blake Delacruz, Cole Keylan, Jhalen Spicer and the rest of the Harding ground attack. While Harding is a unique challenge, I think the Bears have the skillsets to play with them. Grand Valley was successful because they could match Harding’s physicality, have speed at the linebacker positions and tackled well in open space. LR is not quite at the same talent level as Grand Valley, but they do have some similar assets. Linebacker Jon Ross Maye and lineman Andre Jefferson are two of the best in the country at their positions and hybrid S/LB Percy King will be esstential in playing an agressive run defense. 

I also don’t think they have to hold Harding to seven points like Grand Valley did. The Lakers were very limited offensively for a couple of reasons and LR should bring more to the table this week. LR has a diverse approach that can move the ball rushing and throwing. QB Sean White has been hot over the past month and he has three receivers with more than 40 catches. Each also has at least five TD grabs. Dwayne McGee has topped 1500 rushing yards for the season and he’ll be a player the Harding coaches wish they had. The only other offense Harding has seen that brought as much to the fight as LR was Central Missouri. The Mules scored 34 which was a full two touchdowns more than any other opponent managed on the Harding defense.

While LR has had success against good defensive fronts this year, I think Harding is a level up from anyone else they’ve played. This will be a very difficult assignment. That said, LR will have some success, as UCM did, but I think Harding’s defense will be up for the challenge and the home field will be a big help too. The Bisons’ crowd has turned out in the postseason and this is likely to be the biggest game they’ve ever played at home. Expect a standing room only crowd for what should be a thrilling game. 

My pick: Harding

No. 4 Kutztown (12-2) at No. 1 Colorado Mines (13-0) 

Kickoff: 3:30 eastern

Watch: ESPN+ 

Live Stats | Mines Audio 

It is very easy to dismiss this matchup entirely. I get it. We all know the history of super region one in the semifinals over the last 20 years. More recently, we saw Mines face an SR 1 champ from the same division of the same conference (PSAC) just last year. The 2022 Shepherd team that won SR1 was expected to give Mines a good game. It didn’t turn out that way all. The Orediggers were never challenged and forced the Rams’ Tyson Bagent into the worst game of his career. It’s a very distressing comparison to make because this year’s Mines team is better than last year’s and Kutztown is not as dynamic as last year’s Shepherd team. But…

That isn’t the matchup. Mines has to play Kutztown and while the Bears may be the least impressive offensive team remaining in the tournament, that hasn’t held them back. Every week,the Golden Bears are well coached, well prepared and make good in-game adjustments. They establish the run, avoid turnovers and make stops on third and fourth down. A team can win a lot of games with those assets and that is exactly what they have been able to do. And while they may not be explosive offensively, they are capable. They have a solid run game that always seems to come up big in critical situations. Darryl Davis-McNeil is a tough inside runner that gets yards after contact. His partner Jordan Davis is out with injury but the Bears are deep at the position. Expect to see more of sophomore Jaedyn Stewart this week. Freshman QB Judd Novak plays with calmness well beyond his years and in recent weeks, has been a huge weapon converting third downs by running the ball. He’s also got some playmakers at the receiver positions in Mekhi Gibson and  Kurtis Ravenel. 

Any of those players can be the featured weapon on any given day, but I don’t think the Bears have a total package that can truly threaten the Mines defense, which is one of the best in Division II. The numbers back that up but so does the performance on tape. They take the run game away, force teams into unfavorable down and distance and then bring heavy pressure in passing situations. It's a unit that doesn't get talked about enough because the offensive side of the ball is so impressive, but the Orediggers' defense is among the best, especially at home. 

When they swap possession, it’s going to be too much for Kutztown to hold back for 60 minutes. They’ll probably try to do what they did with Slippery Rock and take away the number one receiving threat. With Rock it was Kyle Sheets, with Mines it will be Max McLeod. The Bears may have success with that, as they did against Slippery Rock, but Mines has so many other things they do well. Slippery Rock figured it out last week and had success running the ball. Mines will figure out what Kutztown is committed to stopping and have an answer for it. Kutztown has seen their share of top-shelf quarterbacks over the last few years but John Matocha is set to wrap up his career as one of college football’s all time greats. It’s really hard to foresee a bad outcome in what will be the final home game of his collegiate career. The way Mines is playing this year, there are only two or three teams in the country that might be able to win a playoff game on their home field in December. 

My pick: Colorado Mines 

That's a look at the semifinals. Remember to watch Inside D2Football for the weekend recap Sunday night at 8pm, eastern and visit the website all week long for content leading up to the national championship. Several of our crew members will be in McKinney for the big game and we'll have lots of intel and insights to share leading up to kickoff.

Questions, suggestions, comments, complaints? Email me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @D2Chuck