By Matthew Postins
Defending FCS champion North Dakota State faces Sam Houston State in the FCS National Championship Game on Saturday. Here is our preview. Stay with RattleandHumSports.com for game coverage and check out RattleAndHum’s Twitter feed for live updates during the game.
Game information: Noon, Saturday (CST), FC Dallas Stadium, Frisco. TV: ESPN2.
North Dakota State
History: North Dakota State is making its third straight NCAA Division I FCS playoff appearance and 26th postseason appearance overall including 17 in the Division II playoffs. The Bison are making the program’s ninth appearance in a championship game (7 coming in Division II). NDSU is 6-2 in previous championship games. The Bison won the last year’s FCS championship over Sam Houston State, 17-6.
This year: The Bison went 13-1 overall, 7-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference, with their only loss coming to Indiana State. The Bison ended the regular season as the nation’s No. 1 team in FCS.
Playoff results: def. South Dakota State, 28-3; def. Wofford, 14-7; def. Georgia Southern, 23-20.
On offense: Quarterback Brock Jensen doesn’t have gaudy numbers, but they are efficient. He completed 61.5 percent of his passes, threw for more than 2,200 yards and threw 17 touchdowns against 8 interceptions. But what the Bison love to do is run the ball. Jensen (313 yards) is a part of that, but John Crockett (956 yards) and Sam Ojuri (955 yards) set the pace. Between the three of them they’ve scored 28 rushing touchdowns this year. So any defensive game plan starts with stopping the run. The Bison use the run to set up the pass, and they’ve got some nice targets in Ryan Smith (47 catches) and Zach Vraa (43 catches). The Bison’s top three receivers are averaging better than 10 yards per catch. Senior Joe Lund, a 303-pound center, and All-America left tackle Billy Turner, anchor an offensive line that averages close to 300 pounds. The Bison are No. 23 in the nation in scoring offense, but are No. 1 in FCS in time of possession.
On defense: Any conversation about the Bison defense has to start with cornerback Marcus Williams, who is a Buck Buchanan Award finalist, given to FCS’s best defensive player. Williams was the MVC Defensive Player of the Year and has earned selection on several All-America teams this year. This year Williams has 5 interceptions and 4 pass-breakups. But his career is filled with game-changing plays, as he has seven career returns for touchdowns. He’s also a threat on special teams. The other big-time defender is Grant Olson, a linebacker who had 146 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries in 2012. Olson earned All-MVC First Team honors. Keep an eye on Travis Beck as well, as he’s forced four fumbles this season from his linebacker position. This Bison defense is hard to score on. They’ve given up 11.4 points per game this season. Plus, opponents are averaging just 223.3 yards per game this season. North Dakota State is No. 1 in FCS in scoring defense, total defense and pass defense.
Sam Houston State
History: Sam Houston is in the finals for the second year in a row, the eighth time a member of the Southland Conference member has reached the NCAA Division I Football championship game. Sam Houston has made six FCS appearances all-time.
This year: The Bearkats went 11-3, 6-1 in the Southland Conference. The Bearkats lost to Baylor, Texas A&M and SLC champion Central Arkansas. The Bearkats finished No. 5 in the last regular season poll.
Playoff results: def. Cal Poly, 18-16; def. Montana State, 34-16; def. Eastern Washington, 45-42.
On offense: Two words – Tim Flanders. The junior running back and two-time SLC Player of the Year put the Bearkats on his back against Eastern Washington, rushing for 231 yards in that national semifinal victory. He is already Sam Houston’s all-time leading rusher and, should he return for his senior year, he could leave as the Southland’s rushing leader in yards and touchdowns. This year Flanders has gained 1,589 yards and scored 17 times. Quarterback Brian Bell, who shared time last year, is the full-time starter and has similar numbers to his Bison counterpart, Jensen. Bell has thrown for 2,460 yards and 24 touchdowns against 7 interceptions. Trey Diller is the leading receiver with 58 receptions, 881 yards and 4 touchdowns. Chance Nelson is the deep threat, as he averages more than 20 yards per catch and has nine scores this year. The offensive line is filled with veterans from last year’s team, including tackles Riley Smith and Kaleb Hopson, and center Chris Rogers. The Bearkat offense is in the nation’s Top 10 in scoring, rushing offense and total offense.
On defense: SLC Defensive Player of the Year Darnell Taylor is the leader of this unit. The safety is a two-time SLC DPOY pick, an All-American and one of four Bearkats all-time to have at least 200 career solo tackles. Taylor doesn’t need a lot of help to bring people down. For interceptions, the Bearkats turn to Dax Swanson, who is Sam Houston’s all-time leader in interceptions with 14. His interception in the fourth quarter saved Sam Houston’s victory over Eastern Washington. He also has the distinction of picking off Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The pair lead an exceptional group of pass defenders, as Robert Shaw and Bookie Sneed have four interceptions each, along with Swanson. Defensive tackle J.T. Cleveland and linebacker Darius Taylor earned All-SLC First Team mention. Darius Taylor led the Bearkats with 8 sacks, while Cleveland had 9.5 tackles for loss. Jess Beauchamp, a linebacker, is underrated, finishing the season with 92 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss. Defensively the Bearkats are in the Top 12 nationally in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense.
Prediction: If you saw last year’s FCS title game you knew there was a good chance that both the Bison and Bearkats could make it back to Frisco for Saturday’s game. Neither disappointed. Both teams returned most of their stars from last year’s playoff run and that sets up to make this another defensive-minded ballgame. Neither team managed more than 250 total yards on offense, and Sam Houston actually ran 20 more plays than North Dakota State on offense. The Bison kept Flanders bottled up and took advantage of a huge interception return by Beck that set up the Bison at the Bearkats 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. This game should be more of the same. Sam Houston, though, has a bit more incentive after last year’s disappointment and should find a way to even the championship series between these two teams. If you want to go, only standing room only tickets remain. But watching FCS’s two best teams the past two years is worth standing for three hours.