Sam Houston ranks among the most consistent FCS programs of the past decade, and the Bearkats would arguably have multiple national championships in the last 10 years — if not for North Dakota's historic dominance.
Sam Houston reached the national championship game at the conclusion of the 2011 and 2012 seasons before losing to North Dakota State. In 2017, the Bearkats fell to the Bison in the national semifinals.
This year's meeting is the first between the two in Huntsville, Texas, and might be Sam Houston's best chance at finally scoring the win. But as the two come into this quarterfinal matchup on different trajectories — No. 2 seed Sam Houston needed a fourth-quarter defensive stand to hold off a Monmouth rally, while North Dakota State came charging back from down two touchdowns to Eastern Washington then won in a rout — the home team will need a complete performance.
FCS Playoffs Quarterfinal: North Dakota State at Sam Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, May 2 at 3 p.m. ET
Spread: North Dakota State -2.5
When North Dakota State Has the Ball
North Dakota State delivered what was easily its best offensive performance of the season against Eastern Washington, rolling up 42 points and a staggering 472 yards of offense. The Bison followed a familiar formula, pounding the opposing defense into submission with an unrelenting rushing attack, in this case totaling a remarkable 422 yards on the ground.
While it's one thing to play a style that begs a defense to try and stop you, actually being able to implement requires the talent to pull it off. North Dakota State has the talent, starting up front with an offensive line that features standouts Cordell Volson and Cody Mauch. The Bison front will face a significant test against a Sam Houston defense that has been outstanding this season.
The Bearkats' opponents are averaging less than two yards per carry, an incredibly low yield that's a byproduct of their aggressive attack into the backfield. Three Sam Houston defenders have at least 10 tackles for a loss on the campaign: linebackers Markel Perry and Trevor Williams, and defensive end Jahari Kay.
In its regular-season loss to South Dakota State, NDSU gave up an uncharacteristic eight tackles for a loss and averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, 97 in total. Sam Houston's defense will have to find a way to replicate the Jackrabbits' success to force a Bison offense that's struggled throwing the ball consistently into abandoning its grounded approach.
When Sam Houston Has the Ball
Sam Houston's potent passing attack under head coach K.C. Keeler has consistently placed the Bearkats at or near the top of statistical categories in the FCS. With quarterback Eric Schmid piling up more than 307 yards per game through the air, 2021 has been no exception.
However, Sam Houston's at its best when balancing the high-volume passing game with effective rushing. Running back Ramon Jefferson provides that necessary element, ripping off an impressive seven yards per game and more than 81 yards per game. Jefferson scored two touchdowns in the Bearkats' first-round defeat of Monmouth.
While Sam Houston is averaging 41.1 points per game, North Dakota State has typically thrived playing high-octane offenses in the postseason. Last week's romp over Eastern Washington was a good reminder of the defensive style that makes the Bison so dangerous, as they force short possessions the NDSU offense cashes into scoring drives. It becomes a self-defeating cycle, like struggling against quicksand.
The Bearkats need not abandon their quick-strike approach, but must extend drives — even those not resulting in points; especially those not resulting in points — to wear on the Bison defense.
The turnover from autumn to spring revealed some vulnerabilities that North Dakota State has not often shown in the past decade, but the Bison's nearly run-exclusive domination of Eastern Washington looked like the NDSU we've all come to know since 2011. Losing to South Dakota State and finding themselves in the vicinity of the playoff bubble may have been a wake-up call for the Bison.
In that same vein, Sam Houston needs to have been shaken awake from its lackluster second half against Monmouth. The effort that resulted in a narrow escape against the Hawks will not cut it against the reigning national champions.
Prediction: North Dakota State 27, Sam Houston 24
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.