No. 3 seed North Dakota State hosts No. 7 seed Incarnate Word for a Friday night FCS semifinal game.
What does NDSU need to do to reach its 10th FCS title game? Here are five keys for a victory.
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Overpower UIW’s Defense
The No. 1 key in this game is if UIW can stop NDSU’s power run game for all four quarters.
UIW allows 155.4 rushing yards per game, which is 55th in the FCS. It gave up 333 yards on the ground last week at Sac State. NDSU rushes for 269.1 yards per game, ranking 3rd in the FCS. Typically, we’ve seen the Bison overwhelm teams that don’t see this level of physicality in their conferences. But last week at this time, Samford had just allowed 348 yards on the ground to Southeastern Louisiana and was ranked 82nd in the FCS with 174.3 rushing yards allowed per game. The Bison ran for just 166 yards against Samford, most in the second half as it wore the Bulldogs down. Can UIW replicate that first-half success?
NDSU is down two of its top rushers in TaMerik Williams and Hunter Luepke, plus have lost two starting offensive linemen. Yet if the Bison are to win Friday, it’s likely going to be because its elite offensive line grinded down UIW and kept Lindsey Scott Jr. off the field.
Cam Miller Efficiency
While the NDSU rushing attack took a while to get going last week, Miller again played with high efficiency, going 15/18 for 194 yards and one TD. Miller is No. 14 in FCS passing efficiency (Scott is No. 1). He has thrown for 1,710 yards on 141/202 passing, 11 TDs, and three interceptions this season.
UIW has some standout players on its run defense, including FIU transfer DE Chris Whittaker (9.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks), Houston transfer DT Olivier Charles-Pierre (6-foot-1, 375 pounds), and stud LB Kelechi Anyalebechi (112 tackles). The Cardinals will sell out to stop the run. Whether they can stop it for all four quarters is to be determined, but Miller is going to have to loosen up the defense with his arm.
RELATED: NDSU vs. UIW Tale of the Tape
Don’t Miss Opportunities For Interceptions
Scott has taken care of the football, throwing 59 TDs to just six interceptions. He did throw two, including a pick-6, in the second round vs. Furman. While his interceptions number is low, he’s a gunslinger and is going to take his chances. It will be key for NDSU defenders to secure interceptions if they can get their hands on the ball, whether it be safeties or corners having opportunities at deep balls, or linebackers or safeties undercutting routes up the middle.
Scott has this ability to face a third-and-long after getting sacked or nearly throwing an interception and it’s looking like the defense will get off the field, but then he completes a dime of a throw to extend the drive and UIW goes on to score. Dropped interceptions can quickly turn into 14-point swings against a team that can score in a hurry but also allows big scoring plays itself.
Contain Lindsey Scott Jr.’s Running Ability
The Bison defense has struggled most when it comes to facing mobile quarterbacks, whether it be that QB slipping pressure and making a throw to extend drives, tucking it and running for chunk yardage, or designed QB runs as the defense is spread out.
On top of his 4,404 yards passing and 59 TDs, Scott has run for 632 yards and nine scores. NDSU will have to stay disciplined in its rush lanes and will likely have a QB spy.
Overwhelm UIW’s OL
Samford had more of a quick passing game vs. NDSU. UIW takes its deep shots, ranking sixth in the FCS with 15.18 yards per completion. UIW’s standout receivers do plenty of go routes or double moves. The o-line needs to give Scott time to deliver those deep shots. UIW is 20th in the FCS in sacks allowed per game (1.31), and NDSU is 15th in defensive sacks per game (2.77).
The best way to slow down a high-flying offense is to get after the o-line. We’ve seen past Southland o-lines like Southeastern and Sam Houston get overwhelmed by the d-lines of top-tier teams.
NDSU lost its starting four defensive linemen from last year to graduation and also lost some bodies this year due to injury, including All-American DT Eli Mostaert, who is close to returning. All-American DE Spencer Waege has gone down a few times these playoffs with minor injuries. The Bison have had to play multiple redshirt freshmen, like DE Kole Menz and DT Jaxon Duttenhefer, who are now starting to make more impact plays and be more disruptive.
NDSU LBs are going to be stressed defending the pass and still keying on a Top 15 rushing offense, the CBs will continually be tested over the top, and the safeties will be covering a lot of ground defending the run and the vertical passing game. But the defensive line is going to have a major say in getting the UIW offense out of rhythm.