FCS Football Championship Preview
It’s safe to assume that Sam Houston State has viewed and reviewed last year’s championship game, trying to find a crack in the fortress otherwise known as North Dakota State’s defense. The Bearkats know if they’re to beat the Bison in Round II — the FCS championship — they’ll have to score more than last year’s total of six points to do it.
Last season North Dakota State prevailed 17-6 in the title game, now the top-seeded Bison (13-1) and Sam Houston State (11-3) will meet again at 1 p.m. (ET) January 5th at Frisco, Texas for this year’s title. The contest will be televised on ESPN2.
The last time teams played each other in consecutive FCS championships was in 1995 and 1996 when Montana and Marshall tangled. Montana won in ’95 and the Thundering Herd triumphed in ’96. The last time a school won back-to-back titles was during Appalachian State’s three-year run from 2005-07.
Sam Houston State managed just 95 rushing yards and 115 passing yards against the Bison last year. Their six points came on two field goals. “North Dakota State had a heck of a game plan and really attacked us a little different than we had seen anybody attack us all season,” Bearkat coach Willie Fritz said after his team’s wild 45-42 semifinal victory over No. 2 seed Eastern Washington on Saturday. “Defensively, we played lights out. The game boiled down to seven or eight plays. We had some short-yardage situations that we just didn’t convert that really could have helped us out.”
Fritz was right. North Dakota State was just 1-for-13 on third-down conversions. But Sam Houston State, which was held 33 points below its season-scoring average, was a paltry 4-of-18 on third downs. Plus, the Bison had a secret weapon. Punter Matt Voigtlander was key in helping his team control field possession. He dropped four punts inside the 20-yard line, including a third-quarter kick that was downed on the Sam Houston State one-yard-line. In all he had 10 punts for a 44.2 yard average.
So what can we expect on January 5th? “Last year we had some seniors who were major contributors with a great deal of leadership, and this senior class is very small,” North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl explained at Wednesday’s media briefing in Frisco. “There are certainly some similarities. Our quarterback (Brock Jensen) has another year of experience. Defensively, we may not be as seasoned this year, but we are a little bit faster and a little more explosive. And we have two new kickers.” Jensen tallied the game-winning touchdown in North Dakota State’s 23-20 semifinal victory over Georgia Southern when he scored on a fourth-down quarterback draw from the Eagles’ 3-yard-line.
Meanwhile, Fritz might have hinted at what the Bearkats are planning. “The difference between our squad from this season to last is that we are throwing the ball more effectively than we have in the past,” Fritz said at the news conference. “That was a big goal of ours in the offseason.”
The Bearkats, with all-American Timothy Flanders, love to run. Against Eastern Washington, they rushed for 418 yards, with Flanders contributing 231, and are the 6th ranked rushing team in the nation. But they had just 85 passing yards. And they likely must have a balanced attach to knock off the Bison who are first in total defense and third in rushing defense. Quarterback Brian Bell has thrown for 2,460 yards and 24 touchdowns this season. “When we were 1-2 at the beginning of the season, I don't think there were very many people that thought we were going to get back,” a relieved Sam Houston State coach Willie Fritz said after Saturday’s semifinal victory.
North Dakota State enters the championship with a gaudy 27-2 mark over the last two years. The Bison aren’t flashy, but they find a way to win as witnessed by their victory over Georgia Southern where they were outgained 430-277 in total yardage. “North Dakota State did a great job of capitalizing ... making the big plays when they needed to,” Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon said. That’s what they do.
Prediction: It’s tough to go against the Bison. They are proven winners, but the feeling is the Bearkats learned a lot from last year’s loss. Sam Houston State 20, North Dakota State 17.