If North Dakota State doesn’t repeat as the FCS champion and capture a record seventh title, there’s probably a better chance the Bison get picked off in the semifinals than in the title game.
Missouri Valley Football Conference rival South Dakota State is the most-equipped team in the FCS to upset the Bison. The Jackrabbits head into Friday night’s 109th meeting between the two programs knowing they gave the FCS dynasty its toughest game this season.
But North Dakota State is 23-1 at the Fargodome in the FCS playoffs and 110-8 overall since the start of the 2011 season, so head coach Chris Klieman’s squad is a clear favorite. This despite the distraction that has hung over the Bison for several weeks — Klieman and the head coaching job at Kansas State, a marriage that became official Monday night.
Friday night’s winner will play CAA champ Maine or Big Sky power Eastern Washington in the national title game on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas.
FCS Semifinal: No. 5 South Dakota State (10-2) at No. 1 North Dakota State (13-0)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 14 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Fargodome (19,000) in Fargo, N.D.
Three Things to Watch
1. Jackrabbits know what to expect
Many of North Dakota State’s playoff opponents don’t know what they’re getting into until they line up across the line of scrimmage. Then it becomes a sense of, "Uh oh." It’s not the case with South Dakota State’s veteran lineup, which is accustomed to facing the Bison and inside the raucous Fargodome. In the last four meetings, the Jackrabbits have two regular-season wins (19-17 in 2016 and 33-21 in '17), a 2016 playoff loss after it led 10-0 (although it ended 36-10) and a 21-17 loss on Sept. 29 after leading into the fourth quarter.
2. NDSU offense is as good as the defense
While the Bison are known for their smothering defense — the best in the FCS this decade — the veteran offense is as potent as ever. Bison quarterback Easton Stick runs the attack with precision, the running backs (Bruce Anderson, an injured Lance Dunn, Ty Brooks and Co.) pick up yards in chunks behind a huge offensive line and No. 1 wide receiver Darrius Shepherd has never failed to record 40 receptions in his four seasons. The Bison rank sixth in the FCS in points per game (41.5), and are averaging 50 in their last four games. Also, their 460 yards per game is the highest average since 2007.
3. Taryn Christion troubles the Bison the most
No player has consistently done as well against North Dakota State, or commanded the Bison’s respect, as South Dakota State's senior quarterback. Christion's scrambling ability keeps the linebackers honest when the defensive line applies pressure. In four career starts against the Bison, he has averaged 292 yards of total offense and accounted for six touchdowns. He’ll need another big effort for the Jackrabbits to pull off the upset, and he is capable of leading a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
North Dakota State eliminated South Dakota State from the playoffs in 2012, '14 and '16, but this is their first meeting in the semifinals.
While all of the pressure is on the Bison, they’re playing their best football at the right time of the year and clearly on a mission to break their tie with Georgia Southern for the most FCS national titles (six). Both offenses are explosive and the special teams are terrific. The Bison’s defense is the biggest difference-maker.
Prediction: North Dakota State 28, South Dakota State 20
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo courtesy of South Dakota State Athletics)