By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
FRISCO, TX. — The FCS National Championship game between Sam Houston State and North Dakota State could be visualized as a battle between Bearkats and Bison, the respective teams’ mascots.
When it comes to predicting who the national champions will be on Saturday, however, two different sorts of animals might leap to mind: hogs, and dogs.
For Sam Houston State, the Bearkats’ offensive linemen, their “Hogs”, will be facing North Dakota State’s “Big Dogs” of the Bison’s defensive front. It’s the winner of this epic trench battle that will most likely be the next NCAA football national champions.
“It’s just another Thursday practice for us,” understated senior Berakat center Travis Watson said in the run-up to the championship game. “It’s really just a final day of pads and sharpening everything up. We just did what we always do.”
The 290-pound Watson is the anchor of the Bearkat offensive line that has fueled the running punch of Tim Flanders (1,560 yards rushing, 22 TDs) and Richard Sincere (965 yards, 9 TDs) to excel in the playoffs.
“We’re real confident in our game plan and what out coached has drawn up as our scheme for the game on Saturday,” Sincere said. “This is big for the university. This is the furthest the team has ever been.”
Flanders and his teammates come into the contest with the confidence expected of an undefeated team.
“They have to stop [either me or Sincere],” Flanders told the Sam Houston State school newspaper, the Houstonian. “The coaches are always saying we’re something they’ve never seen because we have so many personnel packages and so many options.”
The versatility of the Bearkats has been a key all season.
“You can’t key in on one player because we have so many players that can do different things,” Flanders explained. “They have to either stop the dive read, the option or the passing game. We have so many weapons on the offense, but anybody can score at any given time.”
That “dive read” was used to devastating effect against Montana State, with Flanders and Sincere finding running lanes right behind the blocking of Watson.
The way the Bearkat “hogs” have dominated upfront has not only allowed Sam Houston State to a 14-0 season and the No. 1-rated scoring offense in all of FCS.
They also have allowed Flanders and Sincere to run roughshod over Montana State and Montana in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, and showcased the running and passing talents of quarterback Brian Bell (1,954 yards passing, 274 yards rushing, 26 TDs) as well.
But the Bearkats are also keenly aware that North Dakota State, with its dominating defense, won’t be easy to contain.
“North Dakota State has a really good defense, they’re sound and consistent in what they do and they play hard,” Watson said. “So we’re really focusing on more on what we do offensively to really try to confuse them and go from there.”
Film study of the Bison has left the Bearkat players and coaches impressed.
“They are really good and assignment sound,” Sincere added. “They have a good coach. I am pretty sure they will be ready for us. They have to have something to stop our offense because that is where it all starts with us. The reality is that it is going to be a real good and tough ballgame.”
Bell, Flanders, and Watson will definitely have to play with a lot of focus and toughness against a Bison defense that shut down two of the most prolific FCS offenses in back-to-back weeks.
Pass-happy Lehigh, which averaged more than 30 points per game all season, was shut out 24-0 by the Bison’s “big dogs”, while triple-option Georgia Southern, who gave a scare to FBS Alabama to close the year, only managed a touchdown against North Dakota State in a 35-7 Bison romp.
Add to that their second round game against read-option James Madison, and the Bison defense had to shut down three drastically different offenses in three consecutive weeks.
“It’s been a grind for all of us on defense,” North Dakota State defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton told the newspaper, InForum. “We’re working harder than ever.”
The Bearkats will be Bison defenses’ toughest challenge yet, but you can bet heathly defensive ends Coulter Boyer (50 tackles, 9 sacks) and Cole Jirik (44 tackles, 6 sacks), along with linebacker Preston Evans (79 tackles, 4 1/2 tackles for loss) will be awfully tough to fool.
While the Bison “big dogs” have a few stars in the traditional sense on defense — though cornerback Marcus Williams comes closest with seven interceptions — at times they seem like a no-name defense in that there are no weak links and that any one player can beat you.
One week it’s Evans flattening Lehigh receivers over the middle, another it’s Boyer running roughshod in the backfield of a high-powered offense.
But the heart and soul could be senior linebacker Chad Willson (88 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, one fumble recovery, one interception), whose on-field motor never seems to turn itself off.
“We knew we could make it this far,” Wilson said. “Just being able to work hard all summer and get this far has been amazing. It has been a great experience.”
North Dakota State’s defense has received a reputation for being extremely disciplined and technically sound.
It’s a challenge Willson understands.
“Their offense is very high powered,” Wilson explained. “They have a lot of weapons and a lot of good guys. It’s tough, we just have to be able to play assignment football. We just need to do our part and play one eleventh football. As long as everybody does their job, hopefully we’ll be able to put a stop to them.”