Hidden among a landscape of bowl games, NFL playoff games and the BCS National Championship lies an interesting match-up complete with contrasting styles, fired-up fan bases, gallons full of emotion with a trophy up for grabs. North Dakota State and Sam Houston State will stage a rematch in Frisco, Texas, for the FCS National Championship at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
North Dakota State won last year’s game, 17-6, with an exercise of brute strength defeating Sam Houston State’s speedy running game. The Bison held the Bearkats, who averaged nearly 270 rushing yards per game, to 95 rushing yards and quarterback Brian Bell, then a sophomore, was unable to to push the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, completing just 12-of-31 passes for 115 yards with two interceptions.
Bell has progressed mightily in the 14 games since last year’s championship, entering Saturday’s game ranking 11th in FCS passing efficiency. For the year, he has thrown for 2,252 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions to go with 342 rushing yards and six scores. Bell hasn’t thrown an interception against FCS competition since Oct. 20, connecting on 63-of-98 passes for 920 yards with 10 touchdowns in that span. Bell’s numbers compliment a Bearkats rushing offense that has increased by 12 yards per game over last season.
An improved Sam Houston State offense will try its luck against a North Dakota State defense that hasn’t become any more forgiving in the last 12 months. Led by FCS Coordinator of the Year Chris Klieman, the Bison rank third nationally in rushing defense and first in pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. North Dakota State has held all 14 of its opponents to 21 points or less, and half of its foes to seven points or fewer.
Craig Bohl’s team doesn’t light the world on fire on offense, but a 32.6 scoring average has been more than enough for North Dakota State to arrive in Frisco with a 13-1 record and an eight-game winning streak. If Willie Fritz’s 11-3 Bearkats should have a clear edge, it’s when North Dakota State runs the ball. Sam Houston State ranks second nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 2.89 yards per carry, and will defend a Bison offense that ranks 26th nationally in rushing offense.
If the Bearkats are able to do what North Dakota State did to them last year, clog up the running lanes, they will force North Dakota State into a similarly unfamiliar position, making Bison quarterback Brock Jensen beat them. Jensen has thrown 17 touchdowns, rushed for nine more and thrown only eight interceptions, but with just one outing of more than 20 completions to his credit this season, his passing success has come, much like Bell, as a symptom of a successful running game.