Why North Dakota State will win
Defending FCS national champion North Dakota State enters the title game as the No. 1 seed, the team to beat, for a reason. NDSU is riding an eight-game win streak. The Bison have outscored opponents 65-30 in three postseason games and look to become the first FCS repeat champions since Appalachian State (2005-07).
Overall, North Dakota State has nine national titles -– eight DII banners plus last year’s FCS crown. No. 10 rides on the success of the Bison backfield -– quarterback Brock Jensen and running backs Sam Ojuri and John Cockrell.
Jensen has completed 198 of 322 pass attempts for 2,216 yards with 17 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. His top targets are Ryan Smith (47 catches, 519 yards, 3 TDs) and Zach Vraa (43/575/4).
Balancing the offensive load is Ojuri and Crockett, who have combined for 1,911 yards rushing and 19 TDs. Jensen also has nine rushing touchdowns.
The Bison also are stinging –- still! -– from a 17-14 loss to Indiana State on Oct. 13, the only blemish on the season. “The loss brought us down,” Crockett said. “You come off whipping the No. 3 team in the country [Youngstown State] and on your high horse and get beat by a team that outworked us.
“That [loss] motivated us. We got content. [Now] we just have to stay hungry.”
North Dakota State’s offense is, if nothing else, adept at finding the end zone. The Bison have scored 54 touchdowns; NDSU is averaging 32.6 points per game.
Ojuri, who is seeking his second consecutive 1,000-yard season, said the lessons learned from playing in last year’s championship game will benefit North Dakota State. “[This year’s offense] is different -– it’s the same, but different. … This year, I’m older, more experienced – we’re all more experienced,” he said. “Last year, I was kind of a young buck but this year I’m noticing more things [on the field].”
That experience (QB Jensen, WR Smith and RB Ojuri all contributed in last year’s title game) will be invaluable on Saturday.
Even with that offensive firepower, North Dakota State ultimately will ride herd with its top-ranked defense, which is allowing only 223.3 yards per game. The Bison are led by All-American cornerback in Marcus Williams and buttressed with linebackers Travis Beck and Grant Olson, who had 29 tackles in NDSU’s playoff victory against Wofford.
North Dakota State has allowed five rushing touchdowns and 10 passing TDs this season. That’s 15 defensive scores (and only 20 total) allowed in 14 games – and only 160 points total. … And if it’s close at halftime, Bison fans can take solace in the fact NDSU has outscored its opponents 206-58 in the second half, including 111-31 in the final stanza.
(Which is more impressive: holding a plus-80 advantage in the fourth quarter or being plus-148 in the second half?)
A balanced offense coupled with a smothering defense is a recipe for success – a perfect “10,” if you will. North Dakota State has both and will ride the combination to another national championship.
– Duane Cross, NCAA.com
Why Sam Houston State will win
When you look at the FCS bracket, you will notice Sam Houston State doesn’t have a number next to its name. The defending national runners-up were not awarded one of the five national seeds when the tournament field was announced back in November.
But the Bearkats still made it back to Frisco, Texas and the national championship game for a second consecutive year. They will face the same team that beat them a year ago for the national championship – top-seeded North Dakota State. Just because they aren’t seeded doesn’t mean the Bearkats don’t have a chance on Saturday.
Take SHSU’s record and toss it out the window. Some may point to the Bearkats’ three losses and think that’s a couple more than a usual championship-game participant has. There’s a reason for that. Two of those defeats came at the hands of FBS teams –- at Baylor and at Texas A&M –- nothing to be ashamed of about either of them. And they only played Johnny Heisman and the Aggies because two teams backed out of scheduled games late, forcing head coach Willie Fritz to scramble.
The lone loss to an FCS team is a distant memory, at Central Arkansas all the way back on Sept. 22 — a gut-wrenching 24-20 loss to the eventual Southland Conference champions. It dropped the Bearkats to 1-2 and put SHSU’s postseason chances in serious trouble even before the end of the season’s opening month.
The Bearkats didn’t quit. They are 10-1 since that loss, including three wins in the postseason against all three co-champions of the Big Sky Conference -– the league considered by many to be the best in the nation. Two of the wins even came on the road at Montana State and Eastern Washington in consecutive weeks.
Fritz thinks his team is still playing well despite a three-week break between its last game at EWU and the national title game.
“We didn’t have a great second half against Eastern Washington, and lay a lot of that blame on me,” Fritz said. “We were conservative and didn’t attack like we needed to, particularly on offense. No one’s fault but my own. But I think we played well. We had a very good game against Montana State and had a four- or five-game run in there during the season [where] we played better than we played since I’ve been here. The trick is doing it on [Saturday].”
One player Fritz will rely heavily on is junior running back Timothy Flanders –- the Southland Conference Player of the Year and the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,181 yards and 52 rushing touchdowns. Flanders notched his second-best rushing total against EWU with 231 yards, which gave this Kansas State transfer 25 performances of 100 yards or more in three seasons. And while North Dakota State boasts the No. 1 defense in the nation, Flanders rushed for 84 yards in last year’s title game against the Bison.
If staying red-hot and having one of the nation’s top players aren’t enough for the Bearkats on Saturday, they also have history on their side. This will mark the fourth rematch in FCS title game history. In the three prior, the team that lost the year before bounced back with a win.
Fritz and his Bearkats are hoping to keep that trend alive.
– Douglas Kroll, NCAA.com
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