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FCS PREVIEW

December 14, 2011
INDIANA SPORTS PAGE



One way or another, it looks like the NCAA selection committee got it right this year.

The top four seeds are the final four standing and home teams are 12-4 in the playoffs to date, as opposed to 7-9 at this point last season.

Of course, the committee also put those five seeded teams (Northern Iowa lost to Montana last week) in a position to have success.

"I can't speak on behalf of everybody else, but one of the advantages of being a seeded team is you play at home," Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said. "It certainly helps us out and that is probably a factor for others. But, all the teams remaining are outstanding football programs."

After benefiting from playing in Statesboro, Monken will take his show on the road for the semifinals this weekend, as Georgia Southern will be looking to deal a seeded team its first home loss of the playoffs.

That gets even tougher against second-seeded North Dakota State in the Fargodome, which has gotten louder as the Bison have continued their climb in the FCS.

"I'll look up and see people who used to be sitting on their hands who are now on their feet," North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said. "It used to be like going to a conservative Lutheran church, and it since has changed."

Domes are few and far between in college football, and the Fargodome is often loud, measuring as high as 130 decibels - slightly louder than a chainsaw or jackhammer.

"If I was an opposing quarterback, the dome would be an extremely hard place to play," North Dakota State quarterback Brock Jensen said. "It's truly the definition of a home-field advantage, and it's particularly difficult for quarterbacks."

Sam Houston State's Bowers Stadium won't be nearly as loud as the FargoDome, but Montana is entering an environment where the Bearkats haven't lost this season.

While the home teams will have the crowd on their side, history and tradition side heavily with Montana and Georgia Southern.

North Dakota State and Sam Houston State have a combined seven FCS playoff appearances, Georgia Southern and Montana have 39 appearances and eight combined national championships.

"We're really fortunate to have another home game, especially against Georgia Southern," Jensen said. "Everyone knows, they've won several national championships. They're going to be a really good team and are going to play hard, but that's nothing new."

Sam Houston State has similar thoughts about Montana.

"We watched the selection show and we took a look at the teams on each side of the bracket," Sam Houston State center Travis Watson said. "Obviously, it was clear we could potentially be facing Montana and they have a great program."

This weekend, Montana and Georgia Southern could continue to further cement FCS legacies, while Sam Houston State and North Dakota State would reach the biggest game in program history.

The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the two FCS games this week:

No. 4 MONTANA GRIZZLIES (11-2) at No. 1 SAM HOUSTON STATE BEARKATS (13-0)

DATE & TIME: Friday, Dec. 16, 8 p.m. ET

FACTS & STATS: Site: Elliott T. Bowers Stadium (14,000) - Huntsville, TX. Surface: Real Grass Pro artificial. Television: ESPN. Announcers: Dave Neal, Andre Ware and Quint Kessenich. Home Record: Montana 8-0; Sam Houston State 8-0. Away Record: Montana 3-2; Sam Houston State 4-0. Neutral Record: Montana 0-0; Sam Houston State 1-0. Series Record: Montana (3-1). Last Meeting: December 11, 2004 (Montana def. Sam Houston State, 34-13 at Montana). Series Streak: Montana has won three of the four meetings. Conference: Montana - Big Sky; Sam Houston State - Southland. Nicknames: Montana Grizzlies; Sam Houston State Bearkats. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Montana (5); Sam Houston State (1). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Montana (4); Sam Houston State (1). Head Coaches: Montana - Robin Pflugrad (second season, 18-6 at Montana and Overall); Sam Houston State - Willie Fritz (19th year, 19-5 at Sam Houston State, 155-57-1 Overall). All-Time Record: Montana (545-462-23); Sam Houston State (459-443-34). FCS Playoff Records: Montana (2 national championships 1995, 2001, 32-18); Sam Houston State (5-4). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Montana 20 (1982, 1988-89, 1993-2009); Sam Houston State 4 (1986, 1991, 2001, 2004).

GAME NOTES: Last week, Montana and Sam Houston State coasted to blowout victories in the FCS quarterfinals, demolishing Northern Iowa and Montana State, respectively. Quarterfinal-round demolitions are just the most recent successes of two of the hottest teams in the FCS. Montana has won nine straight, while Sam Houston State is the last undefeated team in the FCS and a winner of a school-record 15 straight games dating to last season.

Against Montana State, the Bearkats rushed for 428 yards, despite only getting 38 yards on 10 carries from Southland Player of the Year Tim Flanders (97.9 ypg). The Bearkats offense relies on multiple sets, running a version of the read option out of shotgun with quarterback Brian Bell and the "Wild Bearkat" with Richard Sincere (70.5 ypg).

Richard Sincere directs Sam Houston State in its "Wild Bearkat" offense.

While Bell wasn't relied on heavily to throw the ball against Montana State, - he did rush for a 54-yard touchdown - the sophomore is an efficient passer, completing 61 percent of his passes, and has 18 touchdowns to just four interceptions.

For Montana, quarterback Jordan Johnson was a focal point of the attack against Northern Iowa, accounting for four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing). A sophomore as well, Johnson rushed 10 times for 86 yards, and completed 13-of-20 passes for 196 yards. Johnson spreads the ball around evenly, connecting with Jabin Sambrano (43.1 ypg), Sam Gratton (34.8 ypg) and Antwon Moutra (32.8 ypg) at least twice a game.

With the offensive explosions last week, it's easy to overlook the defense. However, both teams have dominant defensive units that have shut down opponents lately. Montana, which ranks in the top 20 for almost every defensive category, has allowed just 51 combined points in its last five games.

The Bearkats overcame a defensive hiccup against Stony Brook, 27 points, and returned to form, which had them ranked as the top-scoring defense before the start of the playoffs. Against Montana State, Sam Houston State yielded 349 total yards and limited the Bobcats to just 2.3 yards per carry.

On special teams, Sam Houston State's Brandon Closner is a dangerous return man and had an 82-yard kick return for a touchdown that sealed the game against Montana State. Montana's Sambrano didn't return a kick for a touchdown, but he had a pair of long punt returns (24 and 30 yards) that set up Montana touchdown drives.

With Sam Houston State's quick-strike, speedy offense and Montana's more methodical, power-based offense, the team that sets the tone will win this game. While Sam Houston State will be comfortable trading scores, like the second half against Montana State, Montana will likely try and slow the game down a bit.

Prediction: Sam Houston State 31, Montana 27

No. 3 GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES (11-2) at No. 2 NORTH DAKOTA STATE BISON (12-1)

DATE & TIME: Saturday, Dec. 17, 2:35 p.m. ET

FACTS & STATS: Site: Fargodome (18,700) - Fargo, ND. Surface: AstroTurf. Television: ESPNU. Announcers: Mike Gleason and John Congemi. Home Record: Georgia Southern 8-0; North Dakota State 7-1. Away Record: Georgia Southern 3-2; North Dakota State 6-0. Series Record: North Dakota State (1-0). Last Meeting: October 7, 2006 (North Dakota State def. Georgia Southern, 34-14 at Georgia Southern). Conference: Georgia Southern - Southern; North Dakota State - Missouri Valley. Nicknames: Georgia Southern Eagles; North Dakota State Bison. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Georgia Southern (3); North Dakota State (4). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Georgia Southern (3); North Dakota State (2). Head Coaches: Georgia Southern - Jeff Monken (second season, 21-7 at Georgia Southern and Overall); North Dakota State - Craig Bohl (ninth season 73-31 at North Dakota State and Overall). All-Time Record: Georgia Southern (277-106-1); North Dakota State (625-364-34). FCS Playoff Records: Georgia Southern (6 National Championships - 1985-86, 89-90, 99-2000 - 43-11); North Dakota State (4-1). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Georgia Southern 17 (1985-90, 1993, 1995, 1997-2002, 2004-05, 2010); North Dakota State 1 (2010).

GAME NOTES: Both teams spent time as the top-ranked team in the nation, and since the loss that knocked them out of the top spot, neither has lost to FCS competition. Last week, Georgia Southern dominated time of possession in defeating Maine, 35-23. North Dakota State posted its first shutout as an FCS program, knocking out Patriot League champion Lehigh, 24-0.

Georgia Southern and North Dakota State were originally scheduled to play this season, but the Eagles opted out of the game, making this semifinal match-up fitting. The teams have met once before, back in 2006, a 34-14 North Dakota State victory in Statesboro, Ga.; however, that was before Georgia Southern went back to the triple option.

Junior nose tackle Brent Russell anchors Georgia Southern's defense.

Jeff Monken took over the program after the 2009 season, reinstating the triple option and guiding Georgia Southern to back-to-back semifinal appearances. This season, the Eagles attack has baffled opponents all season, rushing for 334.1 yards per game and holding the ball on average for 33 minutes, 49 seconds.

Against Maine, the Eagles held the ball for 42:24, battering the defense and keeping the opposing offense from running its quick-strike offense. Quarterback Jaybo Shaw runs the option with precision, leading the team with 14 touchdowns, while Robert Brown (72.1 ypg), Dominique Swope (77.2 ypg) and J.J. Wilcox (seven TDs) are all dangerous ball carriers.

North Dakota State is also a run-first team, but relies more on a power- running attack with running backs Sam Ojuri (75.2 ypg) and D.J. McNorton (73.9 ypg), who have combined to score 22 touchdowns. Quarterback Brock Jensen manages the offense, and isn't asked to throw often but still completes 68 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdowns to three interceptions.

For North Dakota State's defense, this week is all about preparing for the triple option. However, the Bison are a big, physical team that might be able to slow down the Eagles. The secondary, led by cornerback Marcus Williams, will be relied on heavily to come up in run support, but can't caught cheating since Shaw has a strong arm and can complete long passes.

For Georgia Southern, the defense needs to limit the big plays that it allowed last week against Maine. While the Black Bears weren't on the field long, many of their yards came on big pass plays, something North Dakota State could try and take advantage of using play action.

Like most teams that reach the semifinals, Georgia Southern and North Dakota State both have exceptional special teams. The Eagles have a dangerous returner in Laron Scott (32 yards per return) and consistent kicker in Adrian Mora (12-of-14 FGs). North Dakota State has a consistent kicker as well in Ryan Jastram (15-of-17 FGs). Both should be spot-on inside the FargoDome.

While the dome will provide exceptional conditions for the kickers, it could disrupt the Eagles offense, as Shaw could have trouble communicating audibles and shifts to his teammates.

Prediction: Georgia Southern 26, North Dakota State 24


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