Jacksonville State, North Dakota State Set For Championship Showdown
January 9, 2016
FRISCO, TX. — It is always a weird summary on the passage of time when you reach the end of the college football season.
Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago when we were sitting down to watch North Dakota State and Montana battle on that August afternoon in what was arguably the best television presentation ever of a Football Championship Subdivision game?
But now we have reached the eve of another NCAA Division I Football Championship contest, set for Saturday at noon Eastern Standard Time, as North Dakota State and Jacksonville State battle for the national title at Toyota Stadium.
With deference to to the late, great Allan Malamud of the Los Angles Herald-Examiner and Los Angeles Times, here are some random thoughts on the championship game.
WENTZ SET TO START
The big news on Friday was that North Dakota State senior Carson Wentz — rated as one of the top NFL draft prospects at quarterback by most experts — will start for the Bison on Saturday.
It is a controversial decision for NDSU supporters, who have watched redshirt freshman Easton Stick lead the Bison to eight consecutive wins after Wentz broke his wrist in a loss to South Dakota on Oct. 17.
As a writer who cringes overtime he sees a senior leave to a potential, career-ending injury, I am glad to see one of the best signal-callers in FCS get one last chance to lead his team.
Wentz had the unenviable task of replacing Brock Jensen as the Bison’s starting quarterback last season.
All Jensen had done was win an FCS-record 48 games as a starter and led NDSU to a record-tying, three-consecutive national crowns, matching the mark established by Appalachian State from 2005-07.
Wentz stepped into that huge brink by guiding North Dakota State to another championship a year ago against Illinois State — with a performance that included a dramatic, final-minute drive to pull out the win.
“It’s been a long, frustrating process, to say the least. Lots of doctors’ appointments, things I didn’t want to hear for a long time,” Wentz said during Friday’s press conference. “About two weeks ago, I really started progressing quite a bit, started practicing almost full-go, kind of getting my feet wet with practice.”
While many of the Bison faithful are apprehensive about the quarterback change, Wentz is thrilled to get one last chance to start in that green and gold uniform.
“This week has been a whirlwind realizing I’m going to get a chance to start one more time,” explained Wentz, who passed for 1,454 yards, with 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions before the injury.
Wentz was coming off a junior campaign where he threw for 3,111 yards, with 25 TDs and 10 interceptions.
Stick piled up 1,642 yards of passing yardage and 18 TDs in the nine games he played in Wentz’s absence.
For NDSU coach Chris Klieman, the decision was a no-brainer, because it gives the Bison offense more diversity between run and pass and likely a better chance to win against the high-powered Jacksonville State offense.
“It’s Carson Wentz,” said Klieman. “He will be fine.”
It hasn’t been an easy season for Klieman and the Bison. After losing in the final seconds to Montana and South Dakota, NDSU had its share of adversity, but managed to win out, earning another shared Missouri Valley Conference title with Illinois State and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
But the Bison (12-2) have met all of those challenges to become the first FCS squad ever to earn five consecutive trips to the title game, breaking the standard they shared with Jim Tressel’s Youngstown State teams from 1991-94 and Roy Kidd’s Eastern Kentucky squads from 1979-82.
Can a team with a 12-game winning streak and the top seed in the tournament be considered an underdog?
That is the place Jacksonville State finds itself before Saturday’s finale.
The only loss for the Gamecocks (13-1) was a heartbreaking 27-20 double-overtime defeat at Auburn on the second weekend of the regular season.
It was a game that announced how talented that JSU was and it took a fluky touchdown at the end of regulation for Auburn to even reach overtime.
That evening, after watching chunks of the JSU-Auburn shocker in the Clemson press box, I had an interesting conversion with veteran Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown after Brown’s team had dropped a tough game of its own to Wofford.
“Jacksonville State is a team that could win the national championship,” Brown boasted of his Ohio Valley Conference compatriot.
Turns out that Brown knew something about the Gamecocks.
And one thing that is probably certain — this will be the best championship opponent that North Dakota State has faced in its title run.
There haven’t been many challenges for Jacksonville State the rest of the season. The Gamecocks raced through their OVC schedule and have piled up 161 points (53.7 average) in three playoff wins.
The toughest FCS opponent for JSU proved to be Chattanooga.
The Gamecocks squeaked out a 23-20 victory over the Mocs in the first game of the season and ousted UTC in the second round of the playoffs with a dramatic 41-35 overtime win.
Junior quarterback Eli Jenkins (3,808 total offensive yards) has matured into one of the most dangerous offensive players in FCS, with balance as a runner and passer.
Jenkins is complemented by his fine offensive line and the rushing prowess of Troymaine Pope, who has compiled a school-record 1,757 yards and is only 29 yards away from the all-time OVC mark.
JSU earned four of the five spots on the All-OVC first team, with guards Blake Burks and Adam Wright, center Casey Dunn and tackle Justin Lea being honored.
And while they are often overshadowed by the offense, the Gamecocks’ defense has plenty of playmakers, too.
JSU has gradually been building towards this type of success under retired coach Jack Crowe and Bill Clark in recent years, with John Grass and his staff pushing the Gamecocks even further in the past two years.
While respectful of the historic success of the NDSU program, Grass is more focused on his team’s preparation and performance.
“It’s all about us winning a championship,” said Glass. “It’s about our team, how we play, not really who we play. That’s kind of the way we look at it. We have a lot of respect for what they’ve done.”
Jacksonville State is the first OVC program to reach the title game since the Roy Kidd-dynasty at Eastern Kentucky won the 1982 championship.
It will be interesting to see what a three-week layoff will do to performances on Saturday.
This season’s schedule marks the longest break that FCS teams have ever had since the expanded playoff field forced a new format for the 2010 campaign, with Eastern Washington beating Delaware with a big, fourth-quarter comeback in Jan., 2011.
If the bowl format of FBS is any indication, it might make for sloppy play in the early going on Saturday.
While this is Jacksonville State’s first trip to the FCS title game, the Gamecocks won the 1992 NCAA Division II title before moving up. NDSU captured five D-II crowns before coming into FCS in 2007.
Should JSU win on Saturday, it would join NDSU, Montana State and Delaware as the only schools to win titles at both FCS and D-II.
There will be plenty of interest in Alabama on college football this weekend. Alabama meets Clemson on Monday night for the FBS national crown.
It is just 130 miles between Jacksonville State and the Tuscaloosa-based Alabama campus.
MORE FRISCO NEWS
The NCAA Division I Football Committee announced this week that Frisco will retain its host duties for the FCS championship game through 2020. Saturday will mark the sixth title game in Frisco after the contest was moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee after the 2009 title encounter between Montana and Villanova.
The agreement adds four more years to the current contract.
Toyota Stadium, which is the home of the Dallas franchise in Major League Soccer, will undergo $39 million in improvements that will include new locker rooms before next season.
The facility will also include the new U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame and Museum.