FRISCO, TEXAS – Two years ago, Huntsville, Texas, witnessed an all-time classic football finish as Sam Houston State beat North Dakota State 48-45 on a field goal with 26 seconds remaining in a regular-season game.
Now, the two meet again with an FCS national championship on the line.
Saturday’s noon CT kickoff at Pizza Hut Park, home of the MLS' FC Dallas, features the playoff-tested No. 1 and 2 seeds. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and streamed live by ESPN3.com.
Sam Houston State enters the title bout with the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation, while North Dakota State holds the FCS' top ranking for scoring defense.
“It's an exciting task,” NDSU middle linebacker Preston Evans said. “We love the challenge of playing against great offenses and whatnot. But also we get the look all year of playing against our offense in practice. There's great running backs in Sam [Ojuri] and D.J. McNorton. Just playing against those guys, practicing against [them] all year long helps us against great running backs.”
Evans and his defense will be challenged to stop Bearkats running back Tim Flanders, who has rushed for 1,560 yards, and receiver Richard Sincere.
Sincere, the Southland Conference’s offensive player of the year, is a threat under center out of the "Wild Bearkat" formation, rushing for 965 yards and nine touchdowns. Sincere also ranks third on his team in receiving with 449 yards on 25 receptions for four touchdowns.
The Bearkats run a hybrid option/play-action pass offense that establishes the run through triple-option sets, but also has the potential for the big play on vertical fade passes. They have 38 passing plays of 20-plus yards and average 15.0 yards per completion.
Halftime adjustments have been SHSU coach Willie Fritz’s forte in 2011. His squad has outscored opponents in the third quarter 180-31, allowing just two teams this season to win the third, both times by 7-3 margins.
It’s that first drive after halftime that NDSU coach Craig Bohl said will be the most important Saturday.
“I've always believed that the most important series of the whole football game is the first series of the second half,” Bohl said. “It’s when the team maintains and establishes momentum or changes momentum. It will be critical for us tomorrow [Saturday] to meet their challenge.”
NDSU's top-ranked defense excels in turnover margin. The Bison average a plus-1.12 turnovers per game.
Cornerback Marcus Williams leads the Bison in interceptions with seven, returning those picks for 274 yards and three touchdowns. The Bison have recovered 10 of the 11 fumbles they've forced.
Turnovers could be key because SHSU ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring margin and scoring defense. Fritz is aware of how important it will be for the Bearkats to protect the ball.
“I use a quote from John Heisman, named the Heisman Trophy after him,” Fritz said. "'Better to die a young boy than fumble the ball.' I tell the guys that all the time. If there's one thing that I emphasize, that's that, and we talk about it every single day. And my career as a head coach, 19 years, we've been plus-one turnover/takeaway margin."
In those 19 years, coaching at several different schools, Fritz has won 93 percent of his games. Simply put to his players, have a plus-one turnover margin and you will win.
Saturday's game is a sellout, but both teams are used to playing in front of big crowds.
North Dakota State ranks 10th among FCS schools in attendance, averaging 18,904 at the Fargodome. The Bison have sold out 10 games over the past six seasons.
Sam Houston State's home crowds have grown each game throughout its unbeaten season, resulting in sellouts through the Bearkats' string of playoff games.
However, when the players take the field Saturday, the noise and the pressure will be taken to another level.
“I just hope I play well and get these jitters out of me because I’ve never played anything national, but I don’t have any doubt playing with this coaching staff and these group of guys,” Bearkats receiver Keith Blanton said.