This season’s FCS championship features repeat participants from a year ago, as North Dakota State and Sam Houston State each earned its way back to Frisco, Texas. This marks the first time the FCS/Div. I-AA title game was a mulligan since Marshall and Montana played in both 1994 and 1995.
The Thundering Herd exacted revenge over the Grizzlies in ’95. That’s a bit of history Willie Fritz’s Bearkats would like to repeat. In the first installment of SHSU vs. NDSU, the former had no answer for the stifling defense that powered the latter throughout its championship campaign.
Despite losing offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse, the 2012 Sam Houston State offense retained its potency. In fact, this season’s Kats are scoring an eyelash under 42 points per game, more than five more per than their 2011 season output. Quarterback Brian Bell’s shown off a capable passing ability that doesn’t just back-up the multi-pronged rushing attack — Bell has been a focal point, particularly in the postseason.
He’s thrown 24 touchdowns to just six interceptions, with five of those scores coming in the Playoffs. Bell is also a vital contributor to the aforementioned run game, as well, which ranked No. 6 in the FCS at 279.2 yards per game. The quarterback’s gone for six touchdowns and 354, making him one of four Bearkats with five or more rushing scores. His yardage output is the least among that corps of fours: Richard Sincere has 574 yards and Keshawn Hill 530 to supplement Tim Flanders’ 1589 yards.
Flanders, a 5-foot-9, 210-pound junior is the engine of this high-powered offense. He was originally a recruit of Kansas State, but hit the ground running at SHSU. He has NFL size, speed and an ability to find holes and churn out significant gains. But last season against the Bison defense, he was held to just four yards per carry, accruing 84 via 21 carries.
Head coach Craig Bohl oversees one of the most physical college football teams, regardless of level. NDSU has allowed a total of 223.2 yards and 11.4 points per game — both FCS bests. As far as rushing on the Bison front seven, forget about it — the 84 yards Flanders carried for a season ago looks positively astounding, given teams average just 92 on this year’s group.
The Bison lost stud defensive end Coulter Boyer, but replaced his production with Cole Jirik continuing his progression from a season ago. Linebackers Greg Olson and Kyle Emanuel have blitzed opposing backfields for a combined 22.5 tackles for loss. In fact, an absurd five Bison defenders have at least nine tackles for loss on the year, with Carlton Littlejohn and Travis Beck joining the previous three mentioned.
Sam Houston State obviously knows firsthand this defense’s prowess. The six points the Bearkats scored in last January’s title game were the team’s fewest in the last two years — and that includes SHSU games against Baylor and Texas A&M.
Fritz and SHSU offensive coordinator Doug Ruse can follow Georgia Southern’s semifinal effort against NDSU as a blueprint, to some extent. The Eagles’ triple option offense gained 271 yards, including 168 from quarterback Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon and Ezayi Youyoute also threw for 159 yards, a higher passing yield than the typical Jeff Monken team.
Obviously Bell can and will throw to spread the field and give the many Bearkat ball carriers opportunities to find breathing room. But yards don’t necessarily translate into points — Georgia Southern failed to cash in its big gains into enough points.
To that end, the SHSU defense must limit North Dakota State’s own multifaceted run attack. Quarterback Brock Jensen can capably support Sam Ojuri and John Crockett. The three have combined for over 2200 yards. Jensen is an effective passer, but not a world beater. Forcing him out of his comfort zone is crucial for the Bearkats to limit the length of Bison possessions and keep its offense on the field.
But the most critical impact the Bearkat defense can make is creating turnovers. North Dakota State’s sole loss came to Missouri Valley Football Conference rival Indiana State. The Sycamores didn’t unlock the strategy to beat the Bison defense — in fact, ISU failed to break 200 yards of total offense. However, a pair of scores off interceptions compensated.
Asking a defense to score twice is unreasonable. But making Jensen throw 31 times, as the Sycamores did by holding Ojuri and Crockett below four yards per carry, would give Dax Swanson, Bookie Snead and Robert Shaw opportunities to make plays. The SHSU trio has 12 combined interceptions and three returned for touchdowns.
It’s been three weeks since either team played its national semifinal. The long layoff means two extra weeks for that already stout Bison defense to prepare for the Bearkats’ variation on the spread offense. But in the same right, SHSU has extra time to craft a defensive game plan that will give it hope of keeping last year’s history from repeating itself.