Interactive Bracket

Which team has the best chance of winning the FCS Championship Game (1 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2)? Is it North Dakota State? The Bison have the top-ranked scoring defense in the country, allowing just a paltry 13 points per game this year, including only one touchdown in the past eight quarters. Or will it be Sam Houston State? After all, the Bearkats are among the top rushing teams in the country and have explosive players; 18 posted at least one play of 20 or more yards this fall. 

Instead of just looking at the numbers, we went to the experts, the guys who get paid to beat them. Sometimes they get the job done, as was the case of Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford, whose team was the only one to stop NDSU in 2011. Other times, they come up short, like Stony Brook head coach Chuck Priore, whose Seawolves fell by three points in the first round of the playoffs, the closest an FCS team has come to beating the Bearkats this year.

LB Chad Willson
North Dakota State Athletics
WR Richard Sincere
Sam Houston State Athletics

North Dakota State is very good in all phases of the game. They are strong, well-conditioned, well-coached and coach Bohl has done things the right way. They recruit well, have first-class facilities and players can redshirt to get bigger, stronger and faster. They can mix some youth with some veterans. They have 10 sophomore starters this year to go with some experience at key positions.

Second-year  Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford owns a 9-13 record, including a 6-5 mark in 2011. YSU's 27-24 win against NDSU on Nov. 12, 2011, was the first in Penguin program history against a No. 1 team in the regular season.

To have success Sam Houston State will have to play keep away and try to make some big or even medium-sized (15 or so yards) plays. North Dakota State is stout in the red zone having allowed just 18 TDs. Overall, they have allowed 22 total touchdowns in 14 games this season, so only four TDs have been scored from longer than 20 yards out.

If NDSU gets a lead, it wants to force you into throwing the football. They like to hit and pressure the quarterback. They have 39 sacks and a ton of pressures. By having offensive success early, SHSU may slow the Bison front seven just enough. A balanced offense will be important. Sam Houston State has shown it can run the football, but isn’t afraid to pass and that has kept teams on their heels. Keeping with the gameplan if they get down early will be key.

Third-and-long situations need to be avoided. For three quarters, we did a nice job of that; in the fourth we didn’t and their defense stopped us. We didn’t have a first down in the fourth and it was a battle of field position. Fortunately we were able to get their offense into third-and-longs as well and we had some players step up and make plays.

On offense they will run first, pass second. They are very efficient in throwing the football and will use play-action passes a good portion of the time. They will not gamble a lot on the deep ball, but have some play-making receivers. Playing assignment football on defense will be important.

Score points when you can no matter what the situation. We made three field goals all year and two were against the Bison. I don’t like kicking field goals, but we needed all the points we could get.

Also, get some momentum and maintain it. Trailing 21-10, we scored on four consecutive possessions (TD, TD, FG, FG) and caught a huge break on a turnover. After we took the lead, it was a hard-fought game until the end.

When you catch the ball, their secondary loves to come up and hit you. If you catch balls, you are going to get hit, so hang on. Sam Houston will have some opportunities to catch the football. But they will try to ice you with some hard hits and make you think about it the next time.

It helps to have good fortune and these teams have with a combined 27-1 record. NDSU is probably playing its best football in the playoffs, so one break either way could be the difference in the game.

In evaluating their first 11 games, we saw that Sam Houston State relied heavily on creating turnovers and making negative plays. If we could neutralize both of those components, we felt we could be successful, but we did not want to take risks on offense. We needed to control the line of scrimmage. We needed great tackling in the open field, which I thought we were outstanding at throughout the game.

Coach Chuch Priore has led Stony Brook to three consecutive Big South Conference titles while rolling to a 76-40 career record. In 12 seasons as a head coach, he has guided two programs to seven league championships. 

For North Dakota State to stop the Bearkat offense, the No. 1 component is defending the wildcat formation with Richard Sincere behind center. He’s a dynamic player and the catalyst of the offense. We wanted to take the ball out of his hands and force him to make quick decisions so we defended him with pressure and blitzes. Overall, we were going to aggressively defend 100 percent of the run when No. 6 was at QB.

When their regular offense is out there, you have to be very gap sound through the option and handing the ball to Tim Flanders. Through our base defense, we wanted to force QB Brian Bell to keep the ball on the option, and make sure we defended Flanders as best as possible. North Dakota State will need to force them to throw on first down. That way it limits their explosiveness. It worked for us in the first three quarters of our game.

Their offensive line is extremely athletic, so we wanted to get a vertical push and create a north-south movement. Penetration by our defensive line was meant to force them to run east-west.

On the other side of the ball, NDSU needs to eliminate the negative plays they will try to create through blitzes on defense. We utilized shifts, motions and moving the alignments, pretty much doing anything in any way to control their ability to blitz inot our running game.

We stressed the need to get our receivers to get out and run block their safeties, since their secondary are their leading tacklers. North Dakota State needs to get receivers in one-on-one matchups with their corners when they're in max protect plays, as isolating the corners can create big plays.

When looking at the special teams matchup heading into our game with SHSU, we wanted to be field-position oriented. We weren’t going to take any chances. Based on their potent offense, you don't want to take unnecessary risks.

We planned to confine a portion of the field on our punts. On punt returns, we wanted to control their outside snipers to free our returners. We also tried to control their field position on kickoffs by eliminating a part certain of the field, so we directionally kicked.

As a result of their team speed on our kick returns, we reduced the scenarios by running at them instead of away from them. We felt running at them instead of away would eliminate their athletic advantage.