FCS First Round: Illinois State-Central Arkansas
FCS Playoffs First Round
The Matchup – Illinois State (6-5) at Central Arkansas (9-2)
Kickoff – 3 p.m. ET Saturday at Estes Stadium in Conway, Arkansas
Coverage – ESPN3
Series – Illinois State leads 1-0
Players to Watch – Illinois State: QB Jake Kolbe (212 of 336, 2,495, 20 TDs, 7 INTs), WR Anthony Warrum (57 receptions, 956 yards, 9 TDs), DE B.J. Bello (67 tackles, 6 sacks); Central Arkansas: QB Hayden Hildebrand (203 of 328, 2,668 yards, 17 TDs, 8 INTs), WR Desmond Smith (61 receptions, 808 yards, 6 TDs), S/LB George Odum (74 tackles, 8 TFL)
The Skinny – The only previous meeting occurred in Central Arkansas' first year on the Division I level, when Illinois State won 18-3 at home. This is the first time UCA has hosted an FCS playoff game and they hope to go from winning on their purple and gray stripes to playing on Eastern Washington's red turf in the second round. The Bears had some of the nation's better defensive numbers until top-ranked Sam Houston State routed them for the Southland Conference title this past Saturday. They surrender an FCS-low 67.9 rushing yards per game on only 2.2 yards per carry, and have 26 takeaways. The offense will turn to different ball carriers, but underrated QB Hildebrand fuels the unit. Illinois State enters the playoffs as only the second team to earn an at-large bid with a 6-5 record (fellow Missouri Valley Football Conference Western Illinois was the first last year). Coach Brock Spack's Redbirds forged their way in with three straight impressive wins to end the regular season. They're not nearly as dangerous as their playoff teams the last two seasons (including the 2014 national runner-up), but strong-armed QB Kolbe is developing into a standout and the defense has talent and balance, with nine defenders totaling at least 50 tackles. It doesn't hurt to have a clutch place-kicker, and Sean Slattery beat Northwestern at the buzzer in September after kicking two winning kicks in overtime last year.
Up Next – The winner plays at No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (10-1) in the second round Dec. 3.
Prediction – This matchup between teams that beat FBS opponents will be physical and punishing. Illinois State 23-21.