BOZEMAN — JaVaughn Craig has vivid memories of attending NCAA Division I title games as a kid growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
For 13 years, from 1997 to 2009, the championship was battled for in Craig’s hometown, and was the site of some great moments in FCS history — from Youngstown State and Georgia Southern putting a stamp on their years-long dominance to Appalachian State’s (at the time) unprecedented three-peat.
Now the starting quarterback at Austin Peay, Craig is on what he hopes is his own championship journey. With Craig leading them, the Governors blew out Furman in the first-round of this year’s playoffs and forged a surprising blowout at fourth-seeded Sacramento State last week.
The road will next bring Craig and the Govs (11-3) to Bobcat Stadium, where they’ll face fifth-seeded Montana State (10-3) on Friday night for a coveted trip to the semifinals.
The game is scheduled to kick off at 6 p.m. Mountain time, and can be viewed via online streaming on ESPN3.
Craig isn’t looking past the test that exists this week, but he’s well aware of the connection that exists between the run he and Austin Peay, out of Clarksville, Tennessee, are making now to his days as a young man with big football dreams.
“It’s surreal,” Craig said Tuesday during a phone interview with 406mtsports.com. “Being a kid growing up in Chattanooga, being able to go to those games and being able to see those teams win championships and to see what that looked like, I was so fortunate.
“Now you look at it, it means a lot to me and it’s very special. Not many people get the chance to play in these games and have the opportunity to play on a national stage. We’re trying to take full advantage of that and enjoy it while it’s here.”
Truth is, not many people thought the Govs would make it this far. Sure, they won the Ohio Valley Conference title under first-year coach Mark Hudspeth — their first league crown since 1977 — and had little trouble against Furman at home in their first postseason game.
But beating Sacramento State was going to be a different animal altogether, right?
Wrong. Craig, a load at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, was virtually unstoppable while passing for 204 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 164 yards and another score. Craig threw two-first quarter TDs as Austin Peay took a sizable lead, and his 18-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter put the Govs ahead by 28 points.
In the end, Austin Peay prevailed 42-28. Sacramento State’s dream season, which included winning a share of its first-ever Big Sky Conference title, ended abruptly.
Craig appeared to injure his ankle early in the game but he toughed it out. He said Tuesday that he is feeling 100% and should have no lingering effects going forward against Montana State.
“Just got rolled up on,” he explained. “A minor scare.”
At the outset of this season, Craig, a senior, was expected to be the backup quarterback to touted junior Jeremiah Oatsvall. But Oatsvall was lost to injury in Week 2, giving Craig the opportunity to take the reins of the Govs' diverse offense.
All Craig has done is produce 3,035 passing yards, 731 rushing yards and 36 total touchdowns, and help the team to the most wins in school history. Craig was named first-team all-conference in the OVC.
“When (Oatsvall) went down, obviously that’s not something you want to see,” Craig said. “For me, it was knocking off the rust and getting used to the game speed again. As a team, we all have each other’s back, and they had mine.
“Very early, with me coming back and playing, they let me know they were with me and that we were going to go as far as I could take them. But I’d say I go as far as they take me.”
During preparations this week, fourth-year Montana State coach Jeff Choate called Craig “a big-time player” and “the guy that makes the whole thing go,” and expressed concern about Austin Peay’s offense, which, not unlike MSU, utilizes a variety of formations and personnel to attack defenses.
Craig is the triggerman, but he sees himself as just one player within the entire unit.
“We have many different ways to get the ball in many different hands. There’s tons of formations and tons of motions and things to give defenses problems,” he said. “We try to give defenses things to look at and prepare for, and then once they prepare for those things just come out with something new that they’ll have to adjust to throughout the game. I think that can give us a great advantage.”
But Craig said Montana State’s defense is one of the best the Governors will see this season.
“The guys up front are extremely talented and they do a great job of playing sound and being disciplined,” he said. “They have a great complement of linebackers and defensive backs on the back end. I think they do a great job of playing together as a whole.”
In 2010, the national championship game was moved from Chattanooga to Frisco, Texas, where it’s been played ever since. Austin Peay and Montana State are two of eight teams trying to get there this year.
Whether the Governors can continue to defy the odds and ride this wave that far remains to be seen. If they do, Craig will be at the center of that success.
“I think when we’re locked in and ready to go we’re one of the best teams in the country, and I think the guys believe that,” Craig said. “We’re having fun, and that’s the big thing for us right now. We’re having fun and enjoying playing with each other, and we don’t want the season to end.”