North Dakota State charges on into its 13th straight FCS quarterfinal when it entertains Samford on Friday for a 7:00 PM eastern kickoff on ESPN2. It’s a departure from the Bison’s usual Saturday morning slot on ESPN in the quarters, but NDSU seeks its usual result all the same, which is a march into the semifinals.
Standing in its way is Southern Conference champion Samford for a first-time meeting. The Bulldogs, whose 2022 SoCon title is their first outright conference championship since winning the Dixie Conference in 1936, are attempting to serve up NDSU’s first loss to a SoCon team (the Bison are 7-0 against Southern opponents, including three wins over Georgia Southern).
Friday night’s game brings with it some rather unprecedented travel for Chris Hatcher’s Samford squad: It’s the first time since the first round of the 2016 FCS playoffs that Samford is heading to a contest by plane. On their flight’s arrival, the Bulldogs will be met with the din of the Fargodome, though North Dakota State is working on restoring its pre-semifinal postseason attendance, which has dipped.
NDSU’s Offense vs. Samford’s Defense
In its second-round victory over Montana, NDSU was dominant on the ground, blitzing the Grizzlies with Kobe Johnson and TaMerik Williams’ combined 307 rushing yards. NDSU averaged 10.8 YPC, the most yards per carry by an NDSU team in the FCS playoffs — a large sample size, after all. The Bison rolled up 453 total rushing yards on the Griz, the second-best single-game rushing sum in their FCS playoff history. Many of the day’s yards came in chunks, as North Dakota State scored four touchdowns of at least 68 yards, three of which came after Montana trimmed its deficit to 21-20 early in the third quarter.
With NDSU’s home-run-hitting running game and mastery of scoring in a hurry at home, Samford’s rush defense will be put to task. The Bulldogs rank sixth in the nine-team SoCon at 174.3 YPG allowed on the ground.
If it can tighten up in that category, especially by denying NDSU QB Cam Miller his own run game, Samford might like its chances in a close game down the stretch, as it is 4-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season. One such result came in last week’s second round when Samford edged Southeastern Louisiana University 48-42 in overtime.
Samford’s Offense vs. NDSU’s Defense
The ’Dogs’ classic win over SLU was clinched by Quincy Crittendon’s walk-off touchdown. Crittendon relieved SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Michael Hiers at QB when Hiers’ injury to the wrist of his throwing hand, first sustained in the regular-season finale vs. Mercer, kept him out after taking the playoff game’s first several snaps.
Hiers is considered a game-time decision this week as he takes limited reps to manage the injury. His absence would be felt even with the emergence of Crittendon, as Hiers’ .768 completion percentage leads the FCS. That reliability could be missed sorely on the road in particular.
To the credit of Crittendon, he wrote a story for himself in the SLU win, and it is likely not done yet. The redshirt freshman out of Decatur, Alabama, who spent last fall on the Samford scout team, threw for 314 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-40 passing, adding a team-high 94 rushing yards to complete the career day in just his fourth game. The performance spurred the first Bulldog playoff triumph since 1991, a season in which Samford reached the FCS semifinals before finishing 12-2.
Samford, with Hiers or Crittendon calling the shots, looks to be fit for an entertaining time-of-possession battle with run-happy NDSU, as both teams are top-10 nationally in 3rd-down conversion percentage. The Bulldogs (.487) are ninth to the Bison’s (.531) second. The NDSU defense is sure to place Samford in its share of third downs and force it to move the sticks at roughly that season-long rate to keep pace with the host for four quarters.
Samford P Bradley Porcellato is second-team All-SoCon and a weapon for the visitors Friday evening. Behind Porcellato, the Bulldogs are No. 3 in the country in net punting (40.54 net yards), which is also a testament to the unit’s punt-return coverage.
For North Dakota State, LS Hunter Brozio was tabbed as All-MVFC second team. In fall 2021, Brozio made two starts at fullback, those coming in the semifinal against James Madison and the FCS championship versus Montana State.
In the broader category of D/ST, NDSU gets points on the board outside its offensive prowess. The bracket’s third seed has four defensive touchdowns in the 2022 campaign, three of which are fumble recovery returns.