On paper, it may appear the North Dakota State football team should coast through its second round game of the FCS playoffs. After all, a San Diego team that comes from a non-scholarship conference returns to the Fargodome after losing 45-7 last season in the same round. But if the first three quarters last season and last week’s 41-10 throttling the Toreros put on Northern Arizona in the first round is any indication, the Bison are going to have a tougher game on their hands.
“I think they are (a better football team than last year),” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said on Monday. “It goes back to their quarterback because he’s such a confident guy and he’s spreading the ball around. They’ve handled the Pioneer League so well and really didn’t get challenged. And then on defense, they play the game the right way. They play really fast and hard.”
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That quarterback is junior Anthony Lawrence, who has thrown for 3,024 yards, 33 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His team runs an offense that mirrors NDSU’s – under center with several tight ends and huddles in between plays. It’s a system Klieman says is how you win football games. And USD has done a lot of that at 10-2 this season, winning every conference game by 16 points or more.
The Toreros showed they can compete well with the top teams in the third best conference in the FCS, the Big Sky, by knocking off Cal Poly last season and the Lumberjacks this year.
“I think all of us would say they would finish in the top two or three in the Big Sky,” Klieman said. “They’re a really good football team. They are a different level Pioneer team. The teams we’ve spoken to have said, ‘boy, these guys are really good.’ And you can see that. I know it’s a non-scholarship league, but there’s a lot of good football players out there. They have a bunch of them.”
Last year’s second round seemed like a huge mismatch. Those non-scholarship players would be heading to the home of the five-time defending national champs and the No. 1 seed. Yet the Bison only led 7-0 halfway through the second quarter, and that was because of a pick-six. USD made it 21-7 in the third quarter before NDSU responded with a touchdown and then added 17 points in the fourth quarter.
That is the biggest question for the Toreros heading into Saturday. It’s not if they can match NDSU’s physicality, it’s if they can do it for all four quarters.
“Our guys know how physical that game was,” Klieman said. “It was back and forth before we were able to pop a couple runs. That game was a really close game through three quarters and then we were able to make plays.”
Historically, teams returning to the Fargodome in the playoffs for a second consecutive year have fared much better. Georgia Southern lost by 28 in 2011 and by three in 2012. Coastal Carolina lost by 34 in 2013 and seven in 2014. Yes, GSU and CCU were top teams in the FCS during those second years, but it goes to show being more comfortable in the confines of the Fargodome results in a more competitive game.
“We have so many guys who played in that game that know (USD) is a seasoned team and knows what to expect,” Klieman said. “They’re not going to be awestruck by coming into the Fargodome. I don’t think they were last year either. But now they have so many returners and all those guys have been here before.”
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