By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota State did something even Alabama couldn’t accomplish Saturday in the NCAA Division I Football Championship semifinals.
The Bison held Georgia Southern’s lethal triple option to just seven points and limited the Eagles to 186 yards rushing on the way to a 35-7 victory that pushed NDSU into the national championship game against Sam Houston State on Jan. 7 in Frisco, TX.
North Dakota State (13-1) has won eight national crowns at the Division II level, but this is the first time that the second-seeded Bison have advanced to the Football Championship Subdivision title game.
It was the fewest points scored for No. 3 seed Georgia Southern since a 13-7 loss to Navy in the second week of the 2010 season.
The Eagles (11-3) had scored 21 in a 45-21 loss to BCS-title-bound Alabama in the final game of the regular season and came into the game averaging 37.3 points and 443 yards per game.
In this game, NDSU rolled up a 451-333 advantage in total offense, with 314 yards coming on the ground.
“To hold them to seven points really was phenomenal,” NDSU coach Craig Bohl said. “I couldn’t be prouder.”
This contest came down to Bison defense, Eagle turnovers and North Dakota State’s ability to grind things out with its running game in the fourth period.
North Dakota State took advantage of a pair of Georgia Southern fumbles from quarterback Jaybo Shaw and wingback J.J. Wilcox and converted both into touchdowns, one in each half.
“We don’t see (the option) very often, so it is a different game plan,” said NDSU safety Colton Heagle, one of the stars of the Bison defensive effort. “We did not do anything that we have done before. The coaches had a great game plan, we executed it well and came out on top.”
The Bison made a defensive statement early, holding the Eagles to just one first down on their first possession of the game, a five-play march that gained just eight yards.
A sack of Shaw for a nine-yard loss by Chad Wilson and Ryan Dreylow ended that possession at the Georgia Southern 18.
The NDSU defense continued to frustrate the Eagles by filling gaps and brushing aside blockers for most of the game.
“Our defensive coaches implemented what we thought was a great game plan,” said Bohl. “We did not know how it was going to match up. It was a collective effort to hold them to seven points.”
The next time GSU received the ball, things went from bad to worse when Shaw was hit on the first play and fumbled. Wilson pounced on the ball to give the Bison possession at the Eagle 17.
And then it was time for an assertion on offense and North Dakota State responded with a quick score.
Having already seen one march killed by an offensive pass interference penalty, Warren Holloway pushed off GSU cornerback Laron Scott to force some separation and then hauled in a 19-yard pass from quarterback Brook Jensen.
Scott asked for another flag, but this time the official ignored the contact and signaled a touchdown.
Georgia Southern seemed poised to even the score early in the second period, moving from its own 25 to a first down at the NDSU 33, but a delay of game penalty bogged the Eagles down.
GSU coach Jeff Monken could have sent Adrian Mora on for a 50-yard field goal attempt, which would have been a career long for one of FCS’s most accurate kickers, but instead, a fourth-and-10 pass from Shaw barely skimmed off the hands of Wilcox to end the threat.
But the Eagles finally broke through thanks in a large part to a fake punt, with Charlie Edwards hitting Johnathan Bryant for what turned out to be a 13-yard gain and a key first down at the GSU 46.
Eventually, fullback Dominique Swope cut off-tackle on a dive play, broke a couple of tackles and raced 23 yards for a game-tying touchdown. It was 7-7 with less than four minutes remaining in the first half.
But North Dakota State showed it resiliency by coming right back to score after an out-of-bounds kickoff gave the Bison the ball back at their own 40.
It took just five plays for NDSU to travel 60 yards, with Holloway catching a pass from Jensen for 29 yards and then rumbling 17 yards for a touchdown on the next play to make it 14-7.
Georgia Southern wasn’t done yet in what was a compelling first half.
The Eagles moved from their own 30 into field goal range on the final play of the half.
Mora came on to try a 40-yard field goal, but after a North Dakota State time out to ice the kicker, GSU went unconventional again and Edwards popped out of his holder position, evaded a rush of Bison defenders and lofted a pass into the end zone to a wide open John Douglas — normally the Eagles’ All-Southern Conference defensive end.
The pass came up just a yard, or two short and NDSU’s Christian Dudzik made the play of the half by tipping the ball away from Douglas at the last moment to save a game-tying touchdown.
Georgia Southern nearly tied it on the first drive of the third quarter, with Shaw drilling a pass to Wilcox for a 31-yard gain on third and six from the NDSU 34.
As Wilcox neared the goal line, however, John Pike stripped him of the ball and Travis Beck recovered for the Bison.
“We got in the red zone a couple of times, but give credit to that North Dakota State defense,” Shaw said. “They made the plays they needed to make and got the stops.
That second fumble turned into a 13-point swing as North Dakota State marched 96 yards for another score. On a third and three from the NDSU 45, Jensen — playing with the flu — broke free and dashed 55 yards for a touchdown.
“I have had a long 18 hours, coming down with the flu,” said Jensen. “I did not think I could go close to 70 percent. It was a gutty performance by everyone. I am extremely blessed to be part of this team, it feels so good right now.”
Jensen completed 10-of-15 passes for 137 yards and one TD and added six rushing attempts for 94 yards and another score.
Ryan Jastrum missed the extra point after Jensen’s touchdown burst to keep the score at 20-7 at the 5:53 mark of the third period.
After the two teams traded punts, Georgia Southern had one more chance to get back into the game and the Eagles moved from their own 34 to a first and goal at the NDSU nine as the third quarter was coming to an end.
But then the Bison toughened up again and forced the Eagles into a fourth and three with 14 minutes remaining.
GSU tried to option the ball to Swope, but he was swarmed by Bison tacklers to end another drive.
“We have faced those same defensive fronts several times this season,” said Monken. “We just did not do a good job of blocking and that has a lot to do with them.”
From there, North Dakota State put the game away behind the play of its big offensive line and the running of Sam Ojuri (15 carries, 100 yards, one TD rushing)and D.J. McNorton (13 carries, 94 yards, one TD rushing).
“Their offensive line was one of the better ones we’ve seen all season,” GSU nose guard Brent Russell said.
Two fourth-quarter TDs by the pair, each from four yards out, turned a tight game into a rout.
Ojuri started the surge with a 39-yard scamper on the play after the goal line stand and McNorton ended it with his almost unnecessary score in the final minute.
“(All playoff losses) are tough,” Monken said. “It hurt last year and it hurts this year. We were in the same position. (North Dakota State) whipped us. They have a great team. They’re physical and tough. Those teams are tough to beat, and they were tough to beat today, for sure.”