Sam Houston and North Dakota State took two routes to the FCS title game. SHSU rode transfers, a run-happy offense, and a ferocious 4-2-5 defense, while NDSU was Wisconsin-esque in their burly, homegrown offense and steady D.
There are a few different ways to grow an FCS power, and perhaps the two most notable are on display in tomorrow afternoon's FCS title game in Frisco. (And yes, that's Frisco, Texas, not an abbreviation of San Francsico.)
Method No. 1: The Boise State Way. This is what we'll call the building of a program in a relatively isolated area, relatively barren of top-notch talent but almost completely ignored by FBS programs. The Dakota schools, the Montana schools, Eastern Washington, and other FCS programs, primarily in the North and Northwest, have taken this approach and succeeded to a high degree with it.
North Dakota State built a foundation around a quarterback from Small Town, Wisconsin, a boatload of players from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, and a few overlooked skill position players from Texas, and after knocking on the door in previous seasons (they have made noise by defeating four FBS teams in six years, and they made the FCS quarterfinals last year), the Bison now find themselves one game away from an FCS title in just their eighth season at the FCS level.
Method No. 2: Transfers, Transfers, Transfers. Strangely enough, Terry Bowden became the poster boy for this approach when he was at North Alabama, even though UNA isn't even an FCS team (they are in Division II).
In comparison, coach Willie Fritz and his Sam Houston State Bearkats have been conservative in their utilization of outside talent; but they still employ a star running back from Kansas State (Tim Flanders), a starting tackle from Missouri (Dan Jenkins), a star defensive back from Toledo (Dax Swanson), a defensive end from Oklahoma (Jarrett Brown), a receiver from Iowa State (Keith Blanton) and a punter from Purdue (Matt Foster). Throw in some overlooked Texas talent (quarterback Brian Bell is from China Spring, receiver/"Wild Bearkat" quarterback Richard Sincere is from Galveston, and star receiver Torrance Williams is from Waco), and you've got a recipe for quick improvement.
Sam Houston went just 6-5 in Fritz's first season last year, but they now find themselves 14-0 and on the doorstep of a rather shocking championship. While an occasional playoff participant, the Bearkats were never truly considered an elite FCS program until Fritz came aboard, but he has almost instantly made them a contender.
When Sam Houston State Has The Ball
- Sam Houston State Offense: 64.3 plays per game, 72% Run/28% Pass. 21st in Total Offense (421.6 yards per game), fourth in Rushing Offense (267.4 yards per game, 5.7 per carry), 103rd in Passing Offense (154.2 yards per game, 8.9 per pass)
- North Dakota State Defense: 24th in Total Defense (323.5 yards per game), 19th in Rushing Defense (120.4 yards per game, 3.6 yards per carry), 52nd in Passing Defense (203.1 yards per game, 6.5 yards per pass)
First things first: Sam Houston's offense is quite young. Starting quarterback Bell (1,954 passing yards, 62-percent completion rate, 9.2 yards per pass, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions; 274 rushing yards, six touchdowns), running backs Flanders (1,560 rushing yards, 5.6 per carry, 22 touchdowns; 404 receiving yards, 14.4 per catch, two touchdowns), and receivers Sincere (965 rushing yards, 8.0 per carry, nine touchdowns; 449 receiving yards, 18.0 per catch, four touchdowns), Williams (397 receiving yards, 13.2 per catch, three touchdowns; 269 rushing yards, 14.9 per carry, three touchdowns), Blanton (241 receiving yards, 17.2 per catch, two touchdowns) and Trey Diller (247 receiving yards, 20.6 per catch, three touchdowns) are all sophomores. With only two seniors returning on the offensive line, the components are in place for a long-term run in this rush-heavy offense.
For the most part, Sam Houston offers two looks: a three-receiver look featuring Bell and Flanders in the backfield, and a "Wild Bearkat" alignment with Sincere taking over behind center. They run a lot, and they do it successfully. In wins over Montana State in the quarterfinals and Montana in the semifinals, the Bearkats rushed for a combined 811 yards. And as you see above, about anybody can and will be utilized in any way. Flanders was second on the team with 28 catches, and Williams averages over a carry per game.
With such a unique offense, it is hard to gauge just how well North Dakota State will handle things, but in allowing just 3.6 yards per carry in 2011, they certainly seem to have some nice components. Ends Coulter Boyer and Cole Jirik (combined: 65.5 tackles, 22 for loss) are active, as is sophomore tackle Leevon Perry (24.0 tackles, eight for loss). The front seven is active and successful enough that the safeties spend most of their time roaming in the secondary instead of near the line of scrimmage. If they can handle Sam Houston with seven in the box, that would be fantastic, but we'll see. They certainly have a stellar pair of cornerbacks in Marcus Williams (36.5 tackles, seven interceptions, 13 passes broken up) and Christian Dudzik (56.0 tackles, one interception, nine passes broken up).
When North Dakota State Has The Ball
- North Dakota State Offense: 57.9 plays per game, 59% Run/41% Pass. 62nd in Total Offense (353.9 yards per game), 35th in Rushing Offense (177.4 yards per game, 5.0 per carry), 80th in Passing Offense (176.4 yards per game, 7.8 per pass)
- Sam Houston State Defense: fourth in Total Defense (283.1 yards per game), first in Rushing Defense (69.9 yards per game, 2.6 per carry), 74th in Passing Defense (213.2 yards per game, 5.7 per pass)
Though not as run-centric as the Bearkats, North Dakota State will also keep the ball on the ground as much as you let them. The Bison offense is as blue-collar as you would expect, employing (gasp) a fullback and a line that would even be pretty big at the FBS level -- starting offensive linemen average 6-foot-3, 303 pounds. If you are looking for an FBS equivalent, consider them the Wisconsin of FCS. They employ two 200-pound backs, Sam Ojuri and D.J. McNorton (combined: 2,059 yards, 5.7 per carry, 24 touchdowns), for a combined 26 carries per game, and quarterback Brock Jensen will throw in four or five carries per game as well.
That's not to say the Bison won't pass, however. Jensen (2,404 passing yards, 68-percent completion rate, 7.9 yards per pass, 13 touchdowns, three interceptions) averaged about 22 attempts per game, and he has an interesting go-to weapon in Texan Warren Holloway (75 catches, 988 yards, eight touchdowns). And the Bison may have to take to the air against the No. 1 run defense in the country.
As good as Sam Houston's offense has been, their defense is the primary reason they are still undefeated. If NDSU is the FCS Wisconsin, Sam Houston is the TCU of the FCS world -- they run a 4-2-5 alignment, and they are fast, deep and aggressive at every level of the field. A whopping 15 Bearkats recorded at least five tackles for loss (something TCU couldn't even boast at its best), ten recorded at least two sacks, five picked off at least two passes, and five forced at least two fumbles.
Tackle Gary Lorance (28.5 tackles, 10 for loss) is a play-maker up front, but the job of the line has mostly been to occupy blockers and free up the linebackers and safeties to swarm. Safeties Darnell Taylor, Kenneth Jenkins and Robert Shaw (combined: 220.5 tackles, 23 tackles for loss, 21 passes defended) spend quite a bit of time near the line of scrimmage, and each player on the linebacker two-deep (led by Kash David) has registered at least nine tackles for loss. And when you have to throw, Dax Swanson and Bookie Sneed (combined: 31 passes defended) are probably going to either break it up or pick it off. The Bearkats have allowed a decent number of passing yards, but that is primarily because they have spent most of the season ahead on the scoreboard -- they have trailed, even for a little bit, in only five games.
Close to home, the top-ranked Bearkats likely have the edge, but with two strong identities at play here, whoever better asserts themselves early will be able to define the game and take the edge.