North Dakota State Playing for National Championship Again
Release: January 06, 2012
|North Dakota State Press Conference Quotes (Jan. 6, 2012)|
|Sam Houston State Press Conference Quotes (Jan. 6, 2012)|
FRISCO, Texas (AP) - Championship games were once routine at North Dakota State. The Bison are in a higher division now, but figure it might just about be time for another decade of dominance.
First things first: North Dakota State's debut in the Football Championship Subdivision title game Saturday against Sam Houston State, also a first-time finalist but lacking a trophy case like the one the Bison filled in the 1980s.
Win before an expected sellout crowd of 20,000-plus at FC Dallas Stadium, and North Dakota State (13-1) will have its first title since 1990 and perhaps a few reminders about those Division II championship days.
``That's what we're trying to do,'' said sophomore safety Colten Heagle said. ``It starts with this game, and we've got to focus on that game. But I think we're headed in the right direction.''
The championship 21 years ago was North Dakota State's fifth in seven title game appearances over a span of 10 seasons. The Bison never made it back to the final in Division I, even missing the playoffs more often than not before making the jump to FCS, known then as Division I-AA, in 2004.
It took North Dakota State another six years to qualify for the FCS playoffs, which the Bison finally did in 2010 to end a 10-year postseason drought. An overtime loss to Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals had them thinking it was about time to get back to a title game, too.
``We knew we had a lot of returning starters and a lot of returning guys with experience,'' said quarterback Brock Jensen, who has three rushing touchdowns in the playoffs, including a 55-yarder that broke open a 35-7 semifinal win against Georgia Southern. ``We're finally here. It's a pretty gratifying feeling.''
Mostly, the Bison have done it with defense. North Dakota State has the top scoring defense in FCS and has allowed just three touchdowns in three playoff games. The Bison shut out Lehigh in the quarterfinals, which was third nationally in total offense with one the best FCS quarterbacks in Chris Lum. Then they held Georgia Southern's option offense well under its season rushing average.
``Our identity has changed a little bit, but we're a defensive program,'' Jensen said. ``That's one thing coach (Craig) Bohl emphasizes every year is to have a tough defense.''
And maybe some tough players to go with it. Heagle broke his left thumb midway through the season, had surgery to get two pins inserted and was back in the lineup after missing a start. He said he ended up damaging the thumb worse and had surgery again for three more pins. This time, he missed the first two playoff games.
Heagle returned and had a team-leading 15 tackles in the semifinals, and he will play without pins thanks to the three-week break between the semifinals and championship game. The pins came out last week.
``It's great to have the time to get this off mainly because it was really just annoying,'' Heagle said.
North Dakota State and Sam Houston kick-started their seasons with wins against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in their third games. The boost was probably a little bigger for the Bearkats because they were younger and just a year removed from an 0-2 start under first-year coach Willie Fritz.
Although the victory came against a New Mexico team that won just once each of the past two seasons, it was Sam Houston's first win against an FBS team in 10 years and a breakout game for running back Tim Flanders. The Kansas State transfer had a career-high 194 yards and set a school record with five touchdowns.
The win also helped keep alive a winning streak that's now a school-record 16 games. Sam Houston is 14-0 for the first time and has a chance to be the first undefeated FCS champion since Marshall in 1996.
``It was huge,'' offensive lineman Travis Watson said. ``Usually a lot of times when you go against the bigger schools, a lot of teams just try to pass the ball around. But we got it done on the ground, and it was exciting.''
The Bearkats run an option offense but have had success in the wildcat formation with Richard Sincere, who needs 35 yards to become the team's second 1,000-yard rusher. Quarterback Brian Bell ranks second nationally in quarterback efficiency.
Flanders, Sincere and Bell are all sophomores, and Flanders and Bell were playing big parts in the offense just a few weeks after joining the team last year.
``That's all we had. We didn't have anybody else,'' Fritz said. ``Now, even though we're a really young team, we're a veteran club. We've got a bunch of guys who have played in, heck, now 25 games.''