FCS Championship preview
Can Sam Houston State bring a national title to Texas? Jake Shaw previews today's FCS title game.
2013 DIVISION I FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
> North Dakota State (13-1) vs. Sam Houston State (11-3), Noon Saturday, ESPN2
There wasn't any panic in Huntsville when Sam Houston State lost games to Baylor and Texas A&M. Still no panic even when, a week after giving Baylor a huge scare, SHSU had a letdown game and lost to Central Arkansas.
The goal for the Bearkats this 2012-13 season wasn't necessarily to go undefeated, though that would've been quite nice. It was, as head coach Willie Fritz told me before the season started, to "finish -- finish drills, finish games, finish the season."
Well, all the drills are complete. There's only one game left to finish this season. For the Bearkats to "Finish" (that's their team motto, FYI) this season differently than the year before -- when they lost to this same North Dakota State program, 17-6, in the same Frisco, Texas venue where they meet on Saturday -- I believe they must find a few cracks in the NDSU defense. SHSU didn't last year, and few have this year.
Seven teams scored fewer than 10 points against NDSU -- including one FBS program, Colorado State. NDSU produced an FCS-best defense that allowed just 223 yards per game (consider that the best defense in FBS, Alabama's, gave up 246 per game).
In the title game a year ago, SHSU only put up 210 yards against this NDSU defense. The Bearkats only converted four times on their 18 third-down attempts.
So in a longstanding tradition of a coach, Fritz spent the offseason determining what weaknesses needed to be corrected -- namely the passing game, which in 2011 almost completely relied on the running attack as a crutch -- and working to improve them.
"In the national championship game, we're down 17-6 with six or seven minutes to go in the game," Fritz told me, "and we just didn't have the ability -- we weren't the kind of team offensively to be able to throw the ball and have quick scores in that manner."
Fritz and company used this past season to change that, and the result was nearly 500 more passing yards for QB Brian Bell and four more touchdown passes in two fewer games in 2012 compared to all of 2011. Now, SHSU feels more confident the passing attack can keep up with Tim Flanders (1,589 yards, 17 TDs rushing), arguably FCS's best running back, and the rest of the SHSU running game that produced 279 rushing yards per game.
SHSU still has the defense to keep it in any game, no matter what happened in the round before. SHSU nearly blew a huge lead in an FCS semifinal before holding on to a 45-42 win at Eastern Washington. SHSU still ranks ranks second nationally in rush defense as well as in the top 25 in total defense and scoring defense. NDSU leads the nation in both of the latter two categories.
The one crack is the pass defense, and it's a narrow crack indeed. NDSU ranks 18th in the nation there.
So SHSU will still try to establish the running game on Saturday. That's what the Bearkats do no matter the competition. But at some point, they'll have to put the ball in the hands of Bell and his receivers. SHSU is better prepared for that this year -- the reason I think SHSU finishes this season on a winning note.
The mob says: North Dakota State by 1
So says I: Sam Houston State 20, North Dakota State 18
Jake Shaw is a special contributor to TexasFootball.com