By Kent Schmidt
#2 North Dakota State (13-1) vs. #1 Sam Houston State (14-0), January 7, 2012, 1:05 p.m. Eastern, FC Dallas Stadium, Frisco, Texas
Sam Houston State comes into this game undefeated and actually own the longest winning 16 games in a row. Should SHSU win, they will be the first undefeated champions since 1996 when Marshall won the title.
North Dakota State has just one loss this season coming into this game, to conference mate Youngstown State.
This is the third all-time meeting between NDSU and SHSU and the prior two meetings have been dramatic finishes. The Bison won the first meeting 41-38 at the Fargodome on a last second Steve Walker pass to Kole Heckendorf in 2007 and lost 48-45 on a last minute field goal to the Bearkats in Huntsville in 2009.
The Bison are 7-1 against current members of the Southland (Nicholls State 2-0, Northwestern State 2-0, Stephen F. Austin 2-0 and Sam Houston State 1-1). The Bearkats are 7-6-1 against the current membership of the Missouri Valley Football Conference: 5-4-1 against Western Illinois and 1-1 against Missouri State and North Dakota State.
The two teams have one common opponent in Western Illinois. The Bearkats opened this season with a 20-6 win over the Leathernecks in Huntsville, while the Bison finished the regular season with a 37-21 win at WIU.
The two teams seem to have their strengths on the opposite sides of the ball, the Bearkats offense and the Bison defense, while the two respective other sides have also wreaked some damage.
NDSU has given up just 13.2 points per game with the last two playoff games even better. Lehigh, who boasted one of the nation’s most prolific passing offenses, and Georgia Southern, one of the nation's top rushing teams, were held to a combined seven points in those games and an average of 120.4 yards per game.
Sam Houston State on the offensive side starts with the running game with running back Tim Flanders (111.4 yards per game). He has been the cornerstone for stepped up in the Bearkats' closest games. He rushed for five touchdowns against FBS New Mexico and 287 yards against Montana in the semifinal round to propel the Bearkats to this game.
Wide receiver Richard Sincere has been another offensive weapon especially out of the "Wild Bearkat" formation. He has 14 total touchdowns (nine rushing, four receiving, one passing) this season.
When he isn’t under center in that formation, quarterback Brian Bell has been the signal caller. Bell did a good job of running the multi-read option attack of SHSU while ranking No. 2 in the FCS in passing efficiency. He has completed 131 of 212 passes for 1,954 yards and 20 touchdowns this season and has added 274 yards and six scores on the ground.
On the other side, Sam Houston State has been quite impressive on defense themselves in giving up just 14.8 points per game and have the nation’s top ranked rush defense (69.9 ypg).
The Bison offense should test that rushing defense as they have two running backs in D.J. McNorton (75.5 ypg) and Sam Ojuri (77.0 ypg) plus an offensive line that wears down their opponents as a game goes on.
While the Bison like to run first, they are also capable of the passing game with quarterback Brock Jensen under center. He has 13 touchdown passes with just three interceptions. He has shown he can run the ball too with eight touchdowns on the ground.
His top receiving target is Warren Holloway, who has 75 catches for 988 yards and eight touchdowns.
Weather should not be a concern in this game as of the latest forecast. Frisco should see mostly sunny skies and a high in the low 60s.
The field is a natural grass surface and neither team has played too many games on this—in fact a combined three games. The surface might be a help for the Bison with their physical running game and it may slow down the speed of Sam Houston State. But both teams won all three contests on the natural surface with SHSU defeating FBS New Mexico and rival Stephen F. Austin at Reliant Stadium in Houston. NDSU’s lone contest on grass was a victory at rival South Dakota State.
I think the biggest key to this game will likely be turnovers. NDSU has been a +18 in this category this season, while SHSU has been even better with an astounding +28.
I also believe this game will likely be similar to those of the prior two Bearkat – Bison contests with a field goal being the margin. I believe due to the strong defenses, the scoring will be less, however.
Sam Houston State has proven their doubters wrong with their wins in the postseason. I have come around to believe that with that play and also being in their home state—around 200 miles from home—they will come out on top.
Sam Houston State 20, North Dakota State 17
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