One game remains in the 2022 FCS season. No. 1 seed South Dakota State meets rival and No. 3 seed North Dakota State for the first time in the FCS championship. What’s going to happen in Frisco next Sunday?
Let’s predict one last score.
2022 record: 92-43
2019-2021 record: 244-115
What will be the FCS narrative this offseason?
Will it be that SDSU has overtaken NDSU as the top team in the FCS, winning four straight over the Bison and ending their streak of four consecutive fall national titles? And will it be that the Bison are coming back to the FCS pack after another less-dominant regular season, nearly losing to UIW in the semifinals, and then losing their fourth game in a row to SDSU?
Or will it be another offseason of being reminded that no matter what happens in the regular season, NDSU still runs the FCS? Will it be another offseason of discussing if NDSU’s run is good for the FCS and if the playoffs are getting too stale with the same end result year after year after year after year?
National title results set the tone for the offseason. Last season, most predicted NDSU to beat Montana State. But most expected a close game. The blowout resulted in a more exasperated discussion of the FCS national title scene. Those conversations may have been slightly different if NDSU beat the Bobcats by three.
So … what happens in this season’s national title game?
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Both fan bases should feel some confidence going in. SDSU is healthy compared to the Bison dealing with injuries. And the Jacks are better built as a whole to beat NDSU. But the Bison are 9-0 in Frisco, and the program just seems to play its best in the biggest moments just when the national doubts start to creep in.
NDSU fans will say if not for a Cam Miller celebration penalty in the Oct. 15 matchup, the Bison would have likely gone up 28-7 on SDSU and cruised to a win. SDSU fans will say that was their worst half in a long time. And if they played even remotely decent in the first half, not had multiple false starts early, and finished second-half drives with TDs and not field goals, they would have blown out NDSU instead of winning 23-21.
In my Week 7 predictions article leading up to that game where I picked SDSU to win 28-24, I wrote “To pick NDSU would put more faith in the Bison brand than to point at some edge on the field.”
And that’s how I feel about this championship matchup.
The reason to pick NDSU is that it is NDSU. Whether it’s knowing how to best utilize the three-week break or just being comfortable on this stage and all of the media/social/community events in the days in Frisco before the game, the Bison just always seem to be clicking on a high level at Toyota Stadium. Sure, SDSU played there in the spring, but there was no break in-between the semifinals, there weren’t multiple activities beforehand, and the crowd was 50% capacity.
Plus, doubts may be had about Cam Miller after his performance of 1/12 passing for five yards in the semifinals. But he’s also bounced back from bad performances in his career to have standout performances. He was excellent overall in the October loss to SDSU, including starting 8/8 for 125 yards and two TDs as the Bison jumped out to a 21-7 lead.
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To pick SDSU is to point to the matchups on the field.
The Bison are most comfortable running the ball. They are without their best rusher in Hunter Luepke, who ran for 58 yards and caught a 30-yard TD against the Jacks in the regular-season matchup. NDSU’s recent 1-2 punch at RB is also banged up, as TaMerik Williams got hurt in the quarterfinals and missed the semifinals, and RB Kobe Johnson exited the semifinals late with a finger injury. Even at better health in the October game, NDSU ran for just 127 yards on SDSU, who has the No. 1 FCS rushing defense by allowing 83.0 YPG. SDSU’s elite front seven can limit NDSU’s rushing offense, forcing Miller to win this game with his arm. The full return of SDSU All-American MLB Adam Bock took a dominant run defense to another level in the semifinals, shutting down Montana State’s No. 1 rushing attack.
On offense, SDSU’s o-line is playing at a higher level than earlier in this season. NDSU All-American DE Spencer Waege completely got the Jacks out of rhythm in the first half in October, consistently beating John O’Brian, which also resulted in multiple false starts. That’s a key matchup again. But the Jacks have the edge elsewhere in the trenches. All-American DT Eli Mostaert may be back from a broken fibula suffered in September, but he’d have limited reps coming back from that serious injury. His brother and fellow DT Will got banged up in the semifinals along with DE Loshiaka Roques, resulting in a young DL getting even thinner. The NDSU defensive line isn’t quite at the level as past units, and the Bison rank 45th in FCS rushing defense (147.9 YPG).
The Jacks are playing with a lot of swagger on the o-line, and Isaiah Davis continues to have huge postseason performances, averaging 8.3 yards per carry in the 2022 playoffs. Mark Gronowski is a gamer at QB, completing 65% of his passes for 2,744 yards, 23 TDs, and five interceptions this season, and he has scored 11 TDs on the ground. He hasn’t lost to an FCS team since early in the spring season. Gronowski has too many weapons at TE and WR, including NFL Draft prospect Tucker Kraft who did not play earlier this season vs. NDSU, for defenses to zero in on stopping the run.
On paper, SDSU has the edge in this matchup. The defense is built well to defend the Bison offense. If Davis can pick up yardage after first contact to move the chains and Gronowski can deliver accurate balls in open passing windows off of play-action, SDSU can keep NDSU’s defense off-balanced.
Executing and playing clean with a national title on the line is another key.
The stage won’t be too big for NDSU. If anything, the pressure is on SDSU. If this SDSU team can’t beat this NDSU team, then who can in Frisco? The Jacks will need to come out with the confidence that they are the No. 1 FCS team. A slow start due to nerves/tightness will see NDSU seize all of the momentum, one they may not relinquish this time. We’ve seen the Bison jump all over teams new to a sold-out Toyota Stadium championship atmosphere, like Jacksonville State and Montana State, and by the time those teams snapped out of being caught up in the moment, it was too late and NDSU was up several scores.
The vast playoff experience, veteran leaders, and calm demeanor of Gronowski suggest this won’t be a problem for SDSU.
SDSU didn’t need any trickeration or gadget plays or new looks to beat NDSU earlier this season. With three weeks of prep, you can expect each team to add some wrinkles to try and get an edge. Opening TD drives will probably happen for both. In-game adjustments will then be key. But at the end of the day, both of these teams know each other so well and know what they want to do. As cliche as it is, it will come down to the trenches and QB play.
If SDSU’s d-line can remain as stout as it has recently against NDSU, it can force the Bison to pass more than they are comfortable with and will make the play-action less effective. If SDSU’s o-line can get a decent push off the snap, Davis and Amar Johnson have shown the ability to break off long runs after contact, turning what should be short gains into explosive plays. The Bison have been OK at linebacker this season. Tackling and more impact plays have gotten better from that unit as the year progressed, but four of NDSU’s top six tacklers are secondary players.
Winning the rushing battle is huge, but at some point, a QB will have to make a big play with his arm, whether it’s in the red zone, on a big third down, or late in a one-possession game. Gronowski has that “it” factor about him. And while Miller has played super efficiently at times this season, he hasn’t been as good in big moments. I think both offenses will have success moving the ball, but I trust SDSU a bit more to finish drives. The Jacks have more balance and playmakers.
Finally, injuries are a concern for NDSU at RB and for the front seven. Matt Entz sounded less confident about his team’s health earlier this week compared to optimism last week. I assume the injured players in question (LB Weerts, RB Williams, RB Johnson, WR Nelson, QB Payton, and both DT Mostaerts) will play in some capacity, but the question will be at what percentage strength.
With injuries and portal departures, the Bison may not have the firepower to knock off a loaded SDSU squad. And even if both teams were at 100% health, which SDSU is much closer to than NDSU, this Jacks team just seems to be the best-built roster they’ve had with the most depth/balance/talent to win the program’s first FCS title.
Prediction: SDSU 28-24