Red-hot Cardinals picked for NCAA playoffs

Published 9:38 am Monday, November 19, 2018

Nine seasons into the reboot of its football program, Lamar has received its first-ever berth into the NCAA Division I playoffs.

The Cardinals (7-4, 6-3 Southland), coming off a dramatic 21-17 win at No. 22 McNeese State on Saturday, will take on Northern Iowa at 4 p.m. Saturday in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in the first round. Northern Iowa is 6-5 and 5-3 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, where the Panthers finished tied for third with Indiana State.

“I’m just so excited for our players,” second-year Lamar coach Mike Schultz said in a news release. “They have worked their tails off to get in this position. I’m excited for them and the staff. After the 1-4 start, we still felt like we had the ability to make a run but we had to have something fall our way. Even in our conference losses we were drawing confidence and then a few things went our way against Incarnate Word and it just continued.

“In situations like these, I don’t think you can ever be so specific and say that it is any one thing. I believe it was a gradual process going back to the summer workouts. I’ve said throughout the year that we had to trust the process and stay the course and that is what this team did.”

The winner will play California-Davis (9-2), the Big Sky Conference co-champion seeded sixth. The eight national seeds received first-round byes.

Lamar is one of three first-time participants in the playoff field, and earned its way having won six straight games, the most in program history within a season since 1967 and longest overall since the 1971 and 1972 seasons. Three of the wins came against ranked teams at the time (No. 14 Sam Houston State, No. 19 Central Arkansas and McNeese). The first came in dramatic fashion as Lane Taylor blocked a potential game-winning field goal by now-No. 24 Incarnate Word and Caleb Abrom returned it 66 yards as time expired for a 27-21 win in Beaumont.

Incarnate Word went on to win a share of the Southland championship and is a first-time NCAA playoff participant, along with UC Davis.

Nicholls State, the other Southland co-champ, is returning to the playoffs for the second year in a row and will take on the University of San Diego, the Pioneer Football League champion. Incarnate Word will face Montana State for the right to take on defending national champion North Dakota State.

This is the second straight season three Southland teams have made the NCAA playoffs. Sam Houston State reached the semifinal round last year.

This year, things went well against predictions for Lamar and UIW in the Southland. Lamar’s Cardinals were picked to finish 10th in the 11-team conference and UIW’s Cardinals were predicted to come in ninth.

“After we won last night, I think we all felt confident that we had put together a strong résumé but there is a selection process in place and we knew we had to trust that process,” senior linebacker Chaston Brooks said in the release. “Northern Iowa is a great team, and we definitely have our work cut out for us. We have to treat this like a regular week and go about our business of getting ready to play like we have all season.”

For Lamar, this marks only the third postseason appearance in program history. The Cardinals lost 21-14 to Middle Tennessee State in the 1961 Tangerine Bowl (now Citrus Bowl) in Orlando and Northern Iowa 19-17 in the 1964 Pecan Bowl in Abilene. Saturday’s game between UNI and Lamar will be their first meeting since then, when they were known as State College of Iowa and Lamar State College of Technology.