#5 Illinois State vs. #2 North Dakota State FCS Football 2014 Playoffs Final Game Breakdown

North Dakota State FCS Football
George Hammond


#5 Illinois State vs. #2 North Dakota State, January 10th at Frisco, Texas, 12:00 (ESPN2)

It’s an all-Missouri Valley Football Conference party for the national championship when three-time defending champion North Dakota State (14-1) meets Illinois State (13-1) in what should be a heavyweight brawl. Although the two schools are in the same conference, they didn’t meet this year, adding more intrigue to this season’s title game. In 2013, North Dakota State prevailed against Illinois State, 28-10, as it jumped out to a quick 14-0 advantage.

For the No. 2-seeded Bison, it’s not a surprise they’re in Frisco, also known as “Fargo South” as it’s been called. The north Texas locale has become the winter home for Bison faithful in recent years. But judging by preseason expectations, No. 5-seed Illinois State has to be considered a surprise. The Redbirds, 5-6 a year ago, were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the MVFC, but wound up sharing the title with North Dakota State with identical 7-1 records. Ironically, both teams lost to Northern Iowa on consecutive weekends this fall.

But the Redbirds convinced skeptics with a cross-country jaunt in the playoffs, knocking off Northern Iowa, Eastern Washington (in Cheney, Washington) and top-seeded New Hampshire (in Durham, New Hampshire) last weekend. Meanwhile, the Bison played all three playoff games at home where they rallied to beat MVFC rival South Dakota State, then knocked off Coastal Carolina and finally, Sam Houston State, last weekend to reach the finals for the fourth consecutive year. North Dakota State and Appalachian State share the distinction of being the only FCS schools to win three titles in a row, but the Bison are trying to become the first school to win four straight. The Bison join Eastern Kentucky (1979-82) and Youngstown State (1991-94) as the only schools to reach four straight title games.

“We still know each other pretty well even though we didn’t play them this year,” said Illinois State defensive end Teddy Corwin on Pantagraph.com, an Illinois-based website. “It should be awesome.”

And it could be much tighter than North Dakota State’s three championship appearances. The Bison, which are a 4 ½-point favorite, defeated Towson 35-7 last year and Sam Houston State, 39-13 (in 2012) and 17-6 (in 2011).

Part of the reason for the Bison being favorite is their familiarity with Frisco. North Dakota State travels well, obviously knows how to win the big game, plays outstanding defense and doesn’t beat itself.  Craig Bohl, who has since moved on to coach at Wyoming, was the head man for the other title games, but the Bison haven’t skipped a beat under first-year coach Chris Klieman (an assistant under Bohl).

“North Dakota State wins by design. They’re very methodical, have great personnel and they’re very well coached,” said Sam Houston State coach K.C. Keeler.


So how does this play out?

For starters, this North Dakota State team doesn’t appear to be as invincible as the past three. It had to rally to beat South Dakota State in the first playoff game and was outplayed in its loss to Northern Iowa, 23-3, in the regular season. In that contest, the Bison had eight first downs and only 43 yards rushing (175 total yards offense).

But the Bison are second nationally in scoring defense, third in total defense and second in time of possession. Plus, they’re fourth in third-down conversions. They do have some injuries. Outstanding middle linebacker Travis Beck ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in the regular-season finale against Youngstown State and their receiving corps is banged up too. But junior quarterback Carson Wentz and senior running back John Crockett are healthy and carry the weight of the Bison offense.

How Wentz, who broke NDSU’s single-season passing mark this season held by Brock Jensen, fares against Illinois State quarterback Tre Roberson could go a long way in determining the outcome. Wentz likely will have to find success through the air while Roberson, a transfer from Indiana, is a dual run-pass threat.

Meanwhile, Marshaun Coprich is the Redbirds’ top running back. He is No. 1 nationally in rushing yards and No. 2 in rushing yards per game. He had gone over 100 yards in each game this season until last week against New Hampshire. That has to be a concern for the Redbirds and their huge offensive line (305, 330, 280, 330 and 315 pounds) because if New Hampshire could limit Coprich, North Dakota State likely can, too.

Both teams have excellent kicking games so there shouldn’t be an advantage there.

This is a matchup that if the teams played 10 times, they each might win five. But here’s a hunch that the new kid on the block, Illinois State, wins the title behind the outstanding play of its quarterback Roberson.

Projected Score: Illinois State 24, North Dakota State 20


See All FCS Playoff Breakdowns