Here are some keys to victory for an NDSU win.
RELATED: 5 Keys For An SDSU Victory
As cliche as the “get out to a fast start” statement is, it is key this week.
SDSU will be confident coming into this game, plus the Jacks showed they can erase an early deficit when they won 23-21 in Fargo this season after trailing 21-7 at halftime. But the national title stage is different. A quick NDSU start could snowball things in the Bison’s favor if the moment gets too big for SDSU and early adversity is too overwhelming to overcome.
The veteran makeup and playoff experience of SDSU suggest the Jacks probably won’t have a deer-in-the-headlights look in the first quarter. But we’ve seen senior-laden teams playing in front of a Frisco sold-out crowd for the first time, like Jacksonville State or Montana State, come out tight and by the time they settled in, NDSU had the game in total control with a big lead.
Many signs on paper point to SDSU winning this game. But the Bison can set the tone with a “we still run this subdivision” type of start.
Cam Miller’s Arm
The Bison running attack is already down its top rusher Hunter Luepke. New leading rusher Kobe Johnson has an “or” next to his name as the starting RB with TK Marshall. And No. 2 RB TaMerik Williams is not listed on the depth chart. Johnson hurt his finger late in the semifinals, and Williams had a boot on after getting hurt in the quarterfinals.
That will make it even harder to get going on the ground against the FCS’ No. 1 rushing defense. Cam Miller will need to make plays with his arm, whether it be on play-action to loosen SDSU’s defense, on a key third down, or in the fourth quarter of an expected one-possession game.
NDSU ran for 127 yards against SDSU earlier this season. Miller had one of his better games passing, going 17/22 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. However, when NDSU got the ball down 23-21 with 3:49 to play, Miller missed on third-and-10 and fourth-and-10 after crossing midfield for the Jacks to secure the win. In the 27-19 loss in 2021 against SDSU, the Bison ran for 147 yards while Miller went 15/23 for 218 yards, two TDs, and one interception. In the 27-17 spring loss to SDSU, NDSU ran for 97 yards while Miller was 9/16 for 149 yards and one interception.
With a stout SDSU front seven and a beat-up group of NDSU RBs, Miller will have to make championship-winning plays with his arm while doing damage with his legs as well.
Limit Yards After Contact
NDSU’s tackling has gotten better as this season progressed. The inexperienced d-line and linebackers have improved with more reps. Sure tackling and limiting yards after contact is big against an SDSU offense loaded with weapons.
Mark Gronowski looks more comfortable late in the season using his legs, whether on designed runs or escaping pressure. Isaiah Davis is averaging more than eight yards per carry in the 2022 playoffs, and many of his momentous runs are after shedding tacklers. Jaxon and Jadon are big, physical WRs who are dangerous after the catch, whether it be quick hitches and making the CB miss or catching middle screens and maneuvering through traffic for chunk yardage. And Tucker Kraft can make highlight plays after the catch at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, bouncing off of tacklers and turning a 10-yard catch into a 25-yard catch and run.
Pressure Mark Gronowski
The NDSU twin DTs Eli and Will Mostaert were not listed on this week’s depth chart. Eli has been practicing lately after a serious leg injury in September, and Will left the semifinal game with an injury. Three of the four interior defensive linemen on the current two-deep are freshmen. The interior will need to hold its own to first stop the run. And the ends will need to create havoc on passing situations.
That’s exactly what All-American DE and South Dakota native Spencer Waege did in the first half of the October game. He was consistently beating RT John O’Brian, resulting in false starts and then not allowing enough time on passing downs after SDSU fell behind the chains.
NDSU’s rushing defense isn’t as dynamic as past units, ranking 45th in the FCS (147.9 YPG). SDSU will certainly try to establish the ground game first. But the Jacks are at their best when the play-action complements the running. It may be a blitz-heavy day for NDSU, not only to stop the run but to get in Gronowski’s grill early on passing plays.
Flip The Field/Momentum On Special Teams
Some of the biggest plays for the Bison in Frisco came on special teams, whether it was a fake punt, a blocked field goal return, or a fake field goal. In an expected close game, one big return or fake or block or miscue could be the difference. In the semifinals, special teams helped flip the momentum for NDSU via a muffed UIW return and a long Jayden Price punt return.
If the offensive vs. defensive matchups are a stalemate and the teams are going toe-to-toe, special teams could be the difference-maker.