FARGO, N.D. — It might have been a few weeks past Halloween on Friday night at the Fargo Dome, but for the third time in four years, the orange-clad Sam Houston State Bearkats turned into pumpkins in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.
Of course, second-seeded North Dakota State (13-1) might have had something to do with that, rolling to a 41-3 first-half lead on its way to the 55-13 victory that advanced the Bison to the title game for the sixth time in seven years.
Bruce Anderson carved the Bearkats defense up like a Jack-O-Lantern both running and receiving in the first 30 minutes and the Bison forced three first-half turnovers. The NDSU secondary picked off 2016 Walter Payton Award winner Jeremiah Briscoe three times in the first half alone, though one was called back on a penalty.
If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped this brawl midway in the second period for bleeding. It was like Muhammed Ali slicing up the face of former British champion Henry Cooper as the Bison ripped through the Bearkats for a 21-3 advantage in the first stanza.
“We capitalized on some of their mistakes and we made some explosive plays,” NDSU coach Chris Klieman told an ESPN2 television audience after the game. “If you’re going to play in a big-time environment, a big game like this, you have to be able to hit some of those explosives.”
Briscoe actually led No. 6 SHSU (12-2) to a 3-0 lead on the 13-play opening drive of the game, but that early, 28-yard Tre Honshtein field goal almost seemed like momentum deflator for the Bearkats, particularly when NDSU quarterback Easton Stick — now 34-3 as a Bison starter — carefully moved his team back up the field and scored the contest’s initial touchdown on his 10-yard, read-option dash for the pylon.
Anderson, Stick and company dominated to the tune of 41-3 by the time the halftime gun mercifully sounded. For the game, NDSU piled up 642 yards of offense, while limiting the high-powered SHSU attack to 352. The Bison set team playoff standards for points, total yardage and rushing yards.
This was a Bearkat offense that came in averaging nearly 46 points per game. Briscoe couldn’t get his team into the end zone until midway through the third quarter on a tipped TD toss, but by then SHSU was 48-13.
It was truly a forgettable final performance for Briscoe, statistically one of the all-time passers in FCS. He was 29-of-51 passing for 289 yards, but was picked off three times, twice in the red zone. And that doesn’t include the interception that was called back in the second quarter.
A big factor in Briscoe’s poor night was that SHSU managed just 63 rushing yards on 18 carries.
Briscoe will be back in Frisco, Texas in suit and tie as one of the three finalists for the Payton Award, joining quarterback Chris Streveler of South Dakota and wide receiver Keelan Doss of UC Davis.
Briscoe will be heavily favored to become only the second player in FCS history to win the Payton Award twice, something only the incomparable Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards (2008-09) has done. But you can bet, he would trade that bronze-colored bust for a shot at an FCS championship instead.
You make a case for Stick, or Anderson as the top player in FCS, particularly after their semifinal performances.
After playing understudy to Carson Wentz as a freshman on the last NDSU title team, after guiding the Bison to that championship game with three wins, Stick will get the chance to start in the biggest test of his career. He was surgically efficient on Friday, completing 10-of-17 passes for 160 yards and four TDs and one garbage-time interception.
The under-appreciated Stick also added 32 yards and another score on the ground in eight carries.
Anderson, whose individual accolades are limited by his shared-tailback role with Seth Wilson, carried 17 times for 183 yards and three TDs and caught two passes for 54 yards and a pair of scores. Wilson didn’t manage to find the end zone, but he tallied up 194 yards on 24 rushing attempts on a night where the Bison gained 471 yards on the ground.
Anderson started the absolute carnage with his brilliant, 62-yard scoring scamper to make it 14-3 10 minutes into the contest. He then scored on a 23-yard pass from Stick and running romps of 37 and 33 yards as the lead grew to 35-3 in the first half.
For good measure, Anderson managed a fifth touchdown and the final points for NDSU when he hauled in a 31-yard pass from Stick three minutes from the end. He finished with 237 all-purpose yards.
It was the fourth time during North Dakota State’s FCS championship era that the Bison had surgically dissected the Bearkats, in the title clashes following the 2011-12 seasons and in the 2015 and now 2017 semifinals.
The only one of those contests that was remotely competitive was NDSU’s 17-6 win over the Bearkats for their first FCS crown. The Bison beat the Bearkats 39-13 and 35-3 in those other encounters and SHSU has been outscored 217-33 under coach K.C. Keeler in being eliminated from the playoffs in the past four years.
Sam Houston was also blown out 65-7 by James Madison in last year’s quarterfinals. JMU then ended NDSU’s five-year championship run a week later at the Fargo Dome on the way to a title of its own.
Another sweet victory by NDSU on Friday gives the Bison to exact some revenge on Jan. 6 in Frisco. Whoever wins in Saturday’s other national semifinal, North Dakota State has a score to settle.
If top-seeded James Madison takes a triumph at home in the 4:30 p.m. matchup, it will give the Bison a chance to get even with the Dukes for last season’s stunning semifinal loss. Should the confident and high-flying South Dakota State Jackrabbits win their eighth-straight game, NDSU will get a second chance at the squad that handed the Bison their only loss this year — a 33-21 beating in Brookings, S.D. on Nov. 4 at Toyota Stadium.
NDSU didn’t win without paying a price, with running back Ty Brooks and cornerbacks aylaan Wimbush and Jalen Allison all suffering serious injuries.
Either way Saturday’s game tilts, it should set up one of the most compelling title matchups in years.
You can rest assured, the Bison and their caravan of boisterous fans will be motivated for that one.