Peaking at the right time is a pretty standard sports cliche, but nothing more accurately sums up the play of the North Dakota State Bison.
“We’re clicking right now,” running back D.J. McNorton said. “Cutting down on turnovers, protecting the ball. All the things we should have been doing [in the regular season], we’ve tightened up.”
At more than 100 yards rushing per game, McNorton was the driving force of the Bison offense throughout 2010, and he continued to play that role in NDSU’s two postseason wins. But the results are a lot different.
NDSU is averaging double its scoring output from the regular season in two playoff wins, a 43-17 rout of Robert Morris and a 42-17 thrashing of fourth-seeded Montana State. In the latter contest, McNorton reached paydirt three times and accrued more than 200 yards – the top rushing performance among all Championship Subdivision ball carriers.
The Bison’s outpouring on that side of the ball complements what NDSU already was doing on the other side. This is a team that earned its 7-4 record and playoff invitation with defense. Opponents scored an average of only 16 points per game. But according to McNorton, the pieces for the offense to thrive were there. Now those pieces are coming to together.
In the quarterfinals, NDSU travles to Eastern Washington for its second trip to a Big Sky Conference opponent’s territory.
The newly explosive Bison offense pairs up with one on the Eagles side that has put up big points for a while now. “Looking at Eastern Washington, they’re a lot like Montana State,” McNorton said.
The similarities are almost uncanny. The two shared the Big Sky title (though MSU held the tie-breaker for playoff purposes). Both ranked in the nation’s upper echelon offensively. Each feature standout athletes.
What makes the high-octane Eagles offense dangerous is its balance. Running back Taiwan Jones was among the show-stoppers in last week’s round, scoring three times in the Eagles’ romp against Southeast Missouri State.
Jones, an NFL draft prospect, has been one of the most consistent rushers in the nation, and — as of this week — a first team All-America selection. Add his talents to a backfield that includes the gunslinging Levi Bo Mitchell and the result is points in bunches.
Perhaps the most intriguing individual performer for EWU, as it pertains to Saturday, is on the defensive side: J.C. Sherritt.
Sherritt also is a first team All-America selection and one of the finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award. He plays a style reminiscent of Brian Urlacher — and that spells trouble for running backs.
The quarterfinal matchups begin Friday with in a nationally televised broadcast pitting two Colonial Athletic Association teams against each other — No. 3 seed Delaware plays host to New Hampshire, which marks the third time in two seasons CAA teams have met in a playoff round. The Blue Hens and Wildcats get top billing at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
UD features a dual-threat backfield with quarterback Pat Devlin and freshman phenom running back Andrew Pierece. “He’s the best quarterback in the country,” UD head coach K.C. Keeler said. “You watch him play, you can see it.”
Devlin has 18 touchdown passes and just two interceptions; his lowest completion percentage since Oct. 9 is 67.
Keeler credited the team’s passing efficiency to an improved run game, and that starts with Pierce. He was not highly recruited coming out of high school, but Pierce has proven to be a gem in the Blue Hens’ offense with 13 rushing touchdowns and three receiving.
UNH brings a defense that should make for an interesting counter to the UD offense. Under head coach Sean McDonnell, the Wildcats have one of the most fierce pass rushes (32 sacks). The Wildcats’ defense stymied Bethune-Cookman, which entered the second-round matchup with the nation’s second-best scoring offense.
Offensively, UNH got an outstanding performance from backup quarterback Kevin Decker in the BCU win. Decker came on in relief of R.J. Toman to throw three touchdowns in the third quarter. McDonnell said Decker would likely get the start Friday.