North Dakota State vs. Georgia Southern FCS Playoffs Semifinal Breakdown
If the axiom is correct that “defense wins championships,” North Dakota State is Exhibit A.
In two playoff games, the Bison have allowed 10 points and seven of those came on an interception return in their 14-7 triumph over Wofford on Saturday.
The defending national champions (12-1) and top seed in this year’s tournament will put their defense on display for a national television audience Friday night when they host No. 5 seed Georgia Southern (10-3), a 49-35 winner over Old Dominion, in a FCS semifinal at 8 p.m. (ET) on ESPN2. The winner plays the winner of Saturday’s matchup between Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State for the national title January 5 in Frisco, Texas.
The North Dakota State-Georgia Southern contest is a rematch of last year’s semifinal when North Dakota State prevailed 35-7. How dominant has the Bison defense been this season? Consider these numbers:
* North Dakota State is No. 1 nationally in total defense (207.38 yards per game), passing defense (128.85 ypg), scoring defense (10.77 points) and No. 2 in rushing defense (78.54 ypg).
* The Bison held FBS Colorado State to seven points in a 22-7 victory this year.
* Before Wofford’s Eric Breitenstein rushed for 135 yards on 24 carries, North Dakota State had not allowed a 100-yard rushing performance this season.
* And, if you want individual numbers, all Bison linebacker Grant Olson did in Saturday’s victory over Wofford was record a school-record 29 tackles – six solo and 23 assists.
“We take a lot of pride in that (not allowing a TD),” Olson said. “Any time you can do that, it is such an accomplishment at this level.”
Meanwhile, Georgia Southern, which defeated Wofford 17-9 in October, knows it has to avoid the turnovers that sealed its fate in last year’s semifinal loss. The Bison led just 14-7 at halftime, but they forced three turnovers (both first-half scores were the result of turnovers) and turned them all into touchdowns. North Dakota State had a 451-333 edge in total offensive yardage. The Eagles had the edge in time of possession (30:49 to 29:11), but they were a dismal 4-of-15 on third-down conversions.
Still, the Eagles have the experience of playing in the Fargodome, and they have to be optimistic after their come-from-behind victory over Old Dominion. Georgia Southern scored 28 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to stun the No. 4-seed Monarchs.
“There’s a mentality here, a culture, you can’t explain it, and these kids have bought in,” Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken told the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News. “We got down 14 and battled and fought and believed in each other. We carry that black flag as a symbol that we will never surrender, and we did not surrender today and haven’t surrendered all season.”
While Wofford’s triple-option attack is centered around Breitenstein, Georgia Southern’s attack is more balanced. It had 602 rushing yards against ODU. The Eagles’ fullbacks Dominique Swope and William Banks combined for 222 yards. Four slotbacks combined to run for 209 yards and quarterback Jerick McKinnon added 171 yards.
ODU coach Bobby Wilder came away impressed, and he thought this year’s Georgia Southern squad was better than the 2011 version that also beat Old Dominion in the playoffs. “I think it is because of the quarterback,” Wilder said. “McKinnon is really difficult (to defend) in space. I felt like we had a good answer for him (defensively). But then we had to tackle him.”
Don’t expect a repeat of last year’s blowout provided Georgia Southern can avoid turnovers. North Dakota’s offense simply isn’t geared to put a lot of points on the board like ODU. But can the Eagles go on the road again and pull off an upset in what is a difficult venue to play in? It’s possible, but it’s difficult to go against the champs, plus in a close game the Eagles’ shaky kicking game could haunt them.
Prediction: North Dakota State 17, Georgia Southern 14