Sam Houston State and North Dakota State have built quite the long-distance rivalry, especially in the FCS playoffs.
North Dakota State holds a 4-1 all-time lead. The series has especially heated up this decade, with their meeting in the national semifinals Friday night their fourth in the final four in the last seven seasons. The Bison beat Sam Houston in the 2011 (17-6) and '12 (39-13) championship games and in a '14 (35-3) semifinal.
The semis are the round that North Dakota State’s run of five straight FCS titles ended in against James Madison last season. Friday night’s winner will play either the defending national champion Dukes or South Dakota State in the title game on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas.
FCS Semifinal: No. 6 Sam Houston State (12-1) at No. 2 North Dakota State (12-1)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Fargodome/Gate City Bank Field (Fargo, N.D.)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. Briscoe’s headed to Frisco — who else is going along?
Sam Houston State senior quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe (above, right) will be in Frisco, Texas, in three weeks for the announcement of the 2017 Walter Payton Award, which he claimed last year as the FCS offensive player of the year. He hopes the other Bearkats will be there as well to prepare for the title game.
The visitors won’t sneak out of the Fargodome with an upset unless Briscoe, who leads the FCS in passing yards (4,714) and touchdown passes (44), has a strong game. He’s thrown for at least 300 yards 11 times this season, but the Bison have allowed that many in only 11 games since 2004. In Davion Davis, Nathan Stewart and Yedidiah Louis, Briscoe has the wide receivers trio to spread out the Bison’s swarming defense.
2. The run of the Bison
North Dakota State’s power run game is one of the best in the FCS, ranking fifth with 267.5 rushing yards per game, behind backs Bruce Anderson and Ty Brooks. Conversely, Sam Houston’s strength is not stopping the run, indicative in the Bearkats surrendering 180.2 yards per game on 4.5 yards per carry.
While Sam Houston survived in the quarterfinals despite Kennesaw State’s triple-option offense gaining 379 rushing yards, the Bearkats need to make a dent against the Bison’s offensive bread and butter. With the likes of rush end Chris Stewart (6-2, 270) and nose tackle P.J. Hall (6-1, 310), the Bearkats have the size up front to avoid getting run over... maybe.
3. Bearkats can’t turn the game over to NDSU’s closers
Sure, Briscoe and the No. 1 passing attack in the FCS would seem to be explosive enough to pass their way back from a deficit, but North Dakota State has long been adept at taking a lead and putting away a victory. This season, the Bison have outscored opponents 156-20 in the third quarter.
If the Bearkats play with a lead, it will put the favored Bison and the Fargodome crowd on edge, and temper the raucous environment that always favors the seven-time reigning Missouri Valley Football Conference champ. At the least, the perennial Southland Conference power has to stay within one score of the lead because with the way Sam Houston has a quick-strike offense and NDSU’s offense relies on ball control, the Bearkats’ defense could tire in the fourth quarter.
Both head coaches — Sam Houston’s K.C. Keeler and North Dakota State’s Chris Klieman — have guided teams in many big playoff games. This one is a matchup of offense versus defense. Sam Houston leads the FCS in yards and (552.4) and points per game (45.6), while North Dakota State has allowed the fewest yards per game (228.3) and the second-fewest points per game (11.4).
In the last two weeks, North Dakota State has decisive playoff wins over San Diego and Wofford, while Sam Houston has built big leads and then held on in the end against South Dakota and Kennesaw State. It’s shown the Bison are the better team.
Prediction: North Dakota State 40, Sam Houston State 24
— 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 NDSU Athletics; Jeremiah Briscoe photo courtesy of Sam Houston State Athletics)