While most – and by most I mean 99.8 percent – of the attention rests on Monday night’s Oregon vs. Ohio State matchup in Arlington on Monday night, the inaugural College Football Playoff championship isn’t the only title game in the Dallas-Fort Worth area over the weekend.
WHAT: FCS National Championship
WHO: North Dakota State vs. Illinois State
WHEN: 1 p.m. ET (ESPN2) Saturday
WHERE: Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas
HOW (THEY GOT HERE): Illinois State shared the Missouri Valley championship with a 10-1 regular-season record, bested Northern Iowa in the second round and then turned into road warriors, winning at No. 4 Eastern Washington 59-46 and then upending No. 1 New Hampshire on the road 21-18.
North Dakota State posted an 11-1 regular season, sharing the Missouri Valley title with their championship counterparts, and secured the selection committee’s No. 2 overall seed, earning the right to stay in their FargoDome fortress throughout their run to a fourth straight championship game. The Bison survived scares from South Dakota State and Coastal Carolina – trailing each in the fourth quarter – and then blasted Sam Houston State 35-3 in the semifinals.
WHY (EACH HAS A SHOT TO WIN): Each team’s lone setback came to the same opponent – Northern Iowa. Panthers head coach Mark Farley told The Sports Network what makes both teams so good. “What I’d say about Illinois State is their quarterback is exceptional. He makes it all work at Illinois State. The running back is great and they’ve got a big offensive line and they’ve got a couple of real tall receivers, but the quarterback is really the trigger. His ability to run, his ability to make a bad play into a great play, he has those capabilities. That’s what makes them as dangerous as they are, it makes them the caliber of team they are right now.”
Marshaun Coprich, a 5’9″, 205-pound human rhinoceros leads FCS with 2,168 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, while Tre Roberson ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency with 27 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. The Redbirds rank ninth in FCS at just over 39 points per game and scored 41 or more in four of their last five games.
If only North Dakota State didn’t have a historically great defense and a roster packed full of big game experience.
“They play very hard – that’s the way I can describe it in my terms,” Farley said. “And that’s why they’re so consistent.” The Bison rank second in scoring defense at 13.2 points per game allowed and third in total defense at 270.8 yards per game.
With North Dakota State’s run-right-at-you offense (Josh Crockett sits two spots behind Coprich at 1,920 yards and 20 touchdowns), the FCS championship offers a duel of contrasting styles that Monday night’s finale can’t match. “North Dakota State, they’re more of a physical football team. When you play them, they wear you down, they’re going to be a team that more or less is going to come directly at you, versus Illinois State, they’re more of a spread-you-out-type of team.”
THE PREDICTION: Each of North Dakota State’s three previous championship wins have followed a familiar script. The Bison play it close in the first half (a combined 34-23 first-half scoring edge) and then shut the door after halftime. They’ve allowed a total of three second half points in their three previous wins, while scoring 57 points of their own. Think about that again: in three championship games, the Bison have not allowed a single second half touchdown.
Illinois State’s offense is too good to be held down over an entire half, but North Dakota State’s big game experience and unwavering physicality will be just enough to pull out a close win, allowing the Bison to become the first Division I team ever to record a four-peat.