If you ask some coaches, the three-week gap between the FCS semifinals and the national championship game can get too long. For starters, the momentum your team carries after a semifinal win can go away during that span. Also, all of that time comes with more hours of watching film, which can lead to the want of finding as many exploitable areas as possible and adding new wrinkles, which can ultimately lead to an overcomplicated game plan.
But the few weeks off has its benefits too, with the most obvious one of getting healthy. This year’s participants are utilizing the break to hopefully get star players back and healthy.
Montana State and North Dakota State had a combined three All-Americans miss the semifinal games due to nagging injuries, plus a few more starters and depth players. Head coaches Brent Vigen and Matt Entz are optimistic they will have relatively healthy squads for the Jan. 8 title bout in Frisco, Texas.
“[The three-week break] allows for both teams to put their best team out there possible after playing 14 games over the course of 16 weeks,” Vigen said. “Everyone wants, from a championship perspective, for both teams to have their best product out there.”
The Bobcats beat South Dakota State 31-17 in the semis without three of their better players in action from injuries sustained the previous week. All-American running back Isaiah Ifanse (1,539 yards rushing, 10 TDs) was dealing with knee pain, All-American defensive tackle Chase Benson (41 tackles, eight TFLs, 3.5 sacks) has back issues, and All-Conference Second Team nickleback Ty Okada (72 tackles, six TFLs, two interceptions, six pass breakups) left the quarterfinal game at Sam Houston with an unknown injury. He did hurt his shoulder in the regular-season finale at Montana but played in the first two playoff games.
Vigen said late last week in a Zoom press conference that those three have promising outlooks for the title game.
“I think we’re moving in the direction that, whether it’s Chase, Ty, Isaiah, Lane Sumner, those guys will all be back in uniform. We have a ways to go yet, but things are progressing that way.”
Sumner is a backup RB who rushed for 424 yards and five TDs as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He has appeared in only six games this season from early October to the second-round game against UT Martin, rushing a combined 37 times for 132 yards. With Ifanse sidelined against SDSU, starting QB Tommy Mellott carried the ball 34 times while RB Elijah Elliott recorded six carries.
Starting right tackle T.J. Session suffered a leg injury in mid-November and has missed time since. He dressed against SDSU but did not see action. The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder is in position to play this weekend, according to Vigen. MSU may also get more linebacker depth with the return of Nolan Askelson in Frisco. Askelson started six games in 2019, but he hasn’t been in the lineup since Game 2 this season due to an injury.
The Bison have dealt with several injuries in the playoffs. All-American tight end Noah Gindorff and change-of-pace running back Jalen Bussey suffered season-ending lower-leg injuries. All-American wide receiver Christian Watson has missed every postseason game with a hamstring injury.
Watson, who scored two long touchdowns in quick succession against MSU in the 2019 semifinals, warmed up against James Madison in the semis but was in street clothes by kickoff.
“Right now, we’re kind of in the same dilemma,” Entz said on Watson. “We’re in kind of a holding pattern, which is unfortunate and frustrating at different times. So, we’re taking it day by day … We’re trying to make sure that once he’s able to play he’s able to play, and we don’t want to put the cart before the horse, as far as his health goes.”
“He’s going to have a future in football someway somehow,” Entz added. “We’re excited to see how that works out. I know he has the Shrine Bowl in Vegas at the beginning of February and so it’ll be exciting. We need to take care of just him right now, and hopefully, he can help us on a week from Saturday here.”
Watson (39 catches for 740 yards and seven TDS) is a projected NFL Draft pick and a key presence in keeping defenses from stacking the box to defend the run. NDSU owns the No. 3 FCS rushing offense, averaging 273.6 yards per game. Paving the way is a big offensive line, which is also getting healthier in the time off. Two starters on that unit suffered injuries during the Bison’s postseason run.
Three-year starting guard Nash Jensen exited the quarterfinal game but did play against JMU. Jalen Sundell, a two-year starter at center, also got injured in the quarters and he missed the JMU game. Both are practicing leading up to Frisco.
“We’re working guys back,” Entz said. “Nash Jensen has been taking reps at guard again. Jalen Sundell has been sharing reps with Brandon Westberg right now at offensive center. I feel like our fullbacks are healthy, our other receivers are. On the defensive side, I think we’ve been relatively healthy right now. We hope to maintain that as we move closer.”
To go along with injuries, the COVID concern is still real as sports cancellations are occurring again. The NCAA has decided to cancel in-person media interviews on Thursday in Frisco, instead switching to Friday Zoom press conferences out of precaution.
The testing policy for the championship remains the same as the other NCAA-run FCS playoff games: unvaccinated Tier 1 personnel need to test weekly, and vaccinated individuals do not need to test unless they are showing symptoms. NDSU and MSU are almost fully vaccinated in their Tier 1.
So only a small number of individuals will need to test this week before departing to Texas. The programs will submit an attestation (evidence or proof) of vaccine status or negative test prior to arriving in Frisco on Wednesday. No testing is required once in Frisco unless someone starts to show symptoms, in which testing will be available.
“I think we’re in a position where I can confidently say at this point where we stand, we’re not going to be missing anybody [due to COVID],” Vigen said. “Obviously, we have a ways to go yet before we get on that plane.”
“At this time, right now, we’re just following the protocols that we’ve had all season long,” Entz said. “Our kids have done an outstanding job of maintaining their health and safety throughout. That’s been our No. 1 priority since the start of this process, and I’m referring to probably March of 2020. So I feel like we’re in a good spot right now. I’m more concerned with some of the injuries we have from a football standpoint, and hopefully, we’re getting over the hump with those. Right now being on campus and being the only one here, we’ve created kind of a natural bubble for ourselves, and so I think we’re in a good spot right now but, again, we’ve got to continue to advocate for kids to be mindful of where they are and who they’re around.”
Contingency plan approved for FCS title game
The Division I Football Oversight Committee on Monday approved a contingency plan in case the Division I Football Championship Subdivision title game is impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, the game between North Dakota State and Montana State is scheduled to be played Saturday in Frisco, Texas.
The contingency plan includes setting the minimum participation numbers for each team to 53 eligible players (seven offensive linemen, four defensive linemen and one quarterback) and two countable coaches. If a team falls below these minimums, a school still could choose to play.
Both teams are scheduled to arrive at the championship site on Wednesday.
If one or both teams fall below the minimum numbers for eligible players and choose not to play prior to arriving at the championship site, the Division I Football Committee will look to move the FCS title game to Jan. 14. The game would remain in Frisco.
If both teams arrive at the final site and one or both teams fall below the established minimum participation numbers, the following policy would take effect:
If one team is unable to play in the title game, the Division I Football Committee will declare the game as a no-contest, and the available team will be the 2021 NCAA Division I FCS champion.
If both teams are unable to play after arriving in Frisco, the game will be declared a no-contest, and the 2021 NCAA Division I FCS championship will be vacated.
Sam’s coverage of the FCS began in 2012 as the sports editor and eventual editor-in-chief of NDSU’s The Spectrum. After graduating in 2015, he spent three years in the newspaper and magazine industry while starting his work for HERO Sports in the fall of 2016 as a freelancer. In May 2018, he joined the website full time as the Senior FCS Analyst.