In Week 9, then-No. 3 North Dakota ranked Northern Iowa, 27-19, a game the Missouri Valley Conference hopes will prove to be primer for the FCS championship game.
Of course, the MVC co-champions will have to take care of business this weekend in the FCS quarterfinals, never an easy task when it comes to the FCS' elite eight.
Northern Iowa, which defeated James Madison in the second round last weekend, will visit Montana in a Friday night prime time showdown. It's a task made even more difficult by the short week to prepare for Washington-Grizzly Stadium.
"It's a short week for us. Coming off last week's game, it instantly changed the preparation to get ready," Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. "What I see from Montana, they're what I like to call Montana-good."
However, sixth-ranked Lehigh is much better than your typical Patriot League opponent.
"The best indicator we can point to is they beat Northern Iowa (in the playoffs last year)," Bison coach Craig Bohl said. "I think the biggest comparison is how they step up when they came into the Valley. Then, last week they go in and beat the Colonial champion, on the road, in a close game. I think it indicates their resolve and ability to handle adversity."
Like they have all season, Northern Iowa and North Dakota State will both have to handle adversity this weekend. Accustomed to playing in a dome, Northern Iowa not only visits one of the most rabid crowds in the FCS, but also will have to deal with potential harsh weather.
North Dakota State will stay indoors, but will have to face a prolific passing offense - the MVC is a run-heavy league - and go against the 3-4 defense, a scheme that's given the Bison trouble this season.
However, both coaches are hoping their experience of playing against each other, and the rest of the MVC, will help them extend the season, and perhaps set up an all-MVC title on Jan. 7.
"Our strength of schedule has been very good this year. We opened up at Iowa State and then we had the tough conference schedule," Farley said. "Playing a balanced schedule, along with good teams from previous conference championships, gives us a good balance of teams we've seen this year."
Farley compares Montana to a typical MVC team, one that runs the ball well and plays tough defense.
Bohl sees similar similarities in Lehigh, pointing out that they not only have one of the top quarterbacks in the nation in Chris Lum, but also have a solid linebacking corps that can make plays.
"When you're playing a quarterback that's hot, like we're going to, it's like there is a big dam with three holes, and you've only got two plugs," Bohl said.
Even with the challenges facing them, both Bohl and Farley are confident their teams have faced tests that have prepared them for this stage of the playoffs.
"Here we really are more concerned with how we play and how we prepare, than who we play," Farley said. "Playing at a very high level, we try not to get caught up in who we are playing."
The following is a game-by-game breakdown for the five FCS games this week:
No. 2 NORTHERN IOWA PANTHERS (10-2) at No. 5 MONTANA GRIZZLIES (10-2)
DATE & TIME: Friday, Dec. 9, 8:05 p.m. ET
FACTS & STATS: Site: Washington-Grizzly Stadium/John Hoyt Field (25,217) - Missoula, MT. Surface: Sprinturf. Television: ESPN 2. Announcers: Justin Kutcher and Tom Luginbill. Home Record: Northern Iowa 6-0; Montana 7-0. Away Record: Northern Iowa 4-2; Montana 3-2. Series Record: Montana (4-0). Last Meeting: December 15, 2001 (Montana def. Northern Iowa, 38-0 at Montana). Series Streak: Montana has won all four meetings. Conference: Northern Iowa - Missouri Valley; Montana - Big Sky. Nicknames: Northern Iowa Panthers; Montana Grizzlies. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Northern Iowa (2); Montana (5). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Northern Iowa (5); Montana (4). Head Coaches: Northern Iowa - Mark Farley (11th year, 99-39 at Northern Iowa and Overall); Montana - Robin Pflugrad (2nd season 17-6 at Montana and Overall). All-Time Record: Northern Iowa (620-382-47); Montana (544-462-23). FCS Playoff Records: Northern Iowa (19-15); Montana (2 national championships 1995, 2001, 31-18). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Northern Iowa 15 (1985, 1987, 1990-96, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007-08, 2010); Montana 20 (1982, 1988-89, 1993-2009).
GAME NOTES: Montana continued to cruise last week, dismantling Central Arkansas, 41-14, and winning its eighth straight game after a 2-2 start to the season. Northern Iowa, which has now won four straight, got a pair of back-to- back touchdowns, to knock off Wofford, 28-21.
Like most four- vs. five-seed match-ups, the teams come in well matched. Both have a reliable defense and a potent offense, and both have a chip on their shoulder after playoff failures from last season. Last season, Montana missed the playoffs, the first time in 17 seasons, while Northern Iowa was upset at home by Lehigh in the second round.
Northern Iowa didn't have the ball much against Wofford, as the triple option burned up 34 minutes, 29 seconds, and when it did get the ball it didn't do much to put together long drives. Of the Panthers' nine offensive drives, four ended in punts and six ended with 22 yards or less. Montana, on the other hand, thrashed Central Arkansas' defense, holding the ball for 38:43 and compiling 415 total yards.
If the Panthers' offense can run as planned, expect quarterback Tirrell Rennie (231.2 ypg) to make plays with his arm and his legs. Rennie won't be alone in the backfield, running backs David Johnson and Carlos Anderson could both get significant carries against the Grizzlies.
Montana's rush defense has bottled up opponents all season (115.8 ypg), and if it can stall the running game, the linebackers and secondary will have an opportunity to force turnovers like it did against Central Arkansas. However, winning the turnover margin against Northern Iowa is easier said than done.
The Panthers have turned the ball over 13 times this season (10 fumbles, 3 interceptions), but the opportunistic defense has responded with 30 takeaways (12 fumbles, 18 interceptions). With Northern Iowa's takeaway ability, ball security will be a point of emphasis for Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson and his trio of running backs - Peter Nguyen, Jordan Canada and Dan Moore - who combined to run for 229 yards against Central Arkansas.
Northern Iowa lost at North Dakota State earlier this season, 27-19, and the Panthers could use that past experience to prepare for another hostile environment. Washington-Grizzly Stadium has been a safe haven for Montana as the Grizzlies are 30-1 at home over the past four seasons and a perfect 7-0 this season.
Prediction: Montana 28, Northern Iowa 21
No. 7 MONTANA STATE BOBCATS (10-2) at No. 1 SAM HOUSTON STATE BEARKATS (12-0)
DATE & TIME: Saturday, Dec. 10, noon ET
FACTS & STATS: Site: Elliott T. Bowers Stadium (14,000) - Huntsville, TX. Surface: Natural Grass. Television: ESPN. Home Record: Montana State 6-1; Sam Houston State 7-0. Away Record: Montana State 4-1; Sam Houston State 4-0. Neutral Record: Montana State 0-0; Sam Houston State 1-0. Series Record: Tied (2-2). Last Meeting: September 7, 1991 (Sam Houston State def. Montana State, 26-23 at Montana State). Series Streak: Montana State has won two of the last three meetings. Conference: Montana State - Big Sky; Sam Houston State - Southland. Nicknames: Montana State Bobcats; Sam Houston State Bearkats. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Montana State (7); Sam Houston State (1). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Montana State (NS); Sam Houston State (1). Head Coaches: Montana State - Rob Ash (5th year 39-19 at Montana State; 32nd year 215-118-5 Overall); Sam Houston State - Willie Fritz (19th year, 18-5 at Sam Houston State, 154-57-1 Overall). All-Time Record: Montana State (443-448-33); Sam Houston State (458-443-34). FCS Playoff Records: Montana State (5-4); Sam Houston State (4-4). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Montana State 5 (1984, 2002-03, 06, 2010); Sam Houston State 4 (1986, 1991, 2001, 2004).
GAME NOTES: Last week, both teams relied on big plays late to turn away upset bids by Stony Brook and New Hampshire. Sam Houston State, the top seed and heavy favorite against the Big South champion, traded scores before finally getting a game-winning touchdown from Tim Flanders with 1:01 remaining. While the Bearkats won, 34-27, Montana State deflected a potential game-tying extra point with six seconds remaining to hold on for a 26-25 win.
While playing in close games may prepare each team for another close-fought battle, both teams had weaknesses exposed in their first-round victories. Sam Houston State's top-ranked scoring defense (13.8 ppg) wasn't burned by the run, but play action passing proved difficult to stop against Stony Brook. The Bearkats got beat on play action several times, including a wide-open touchdown pass that Stony Brook dropped in the end zone.
If Montana State can develop the run with Cody Kirk (110.8 ypg), the offense could take a page out of Stony Brook's playbook and look for the play action pass from quarterback Denarius McGhee. Of course, McGhee won't be firing on all cylinders if he struggles with turnovers, like he did against New Hampshire. Against the Wildcats, McGhee tossed three interceptions, including a pick-six in the first quarter.
While McGhee will need to improve his decision making from a week ago, Montana State also will have to improve its special teams performance. While safety Steven Bethley did deflect the potential game-tying extra point, the Bobcats struggled on special teams for the before the game-saving play. A poor, 23- yard punt put New Hampshire in a position to tie the game, and earlier a blocked extra point resulted in a two-point runback by the Wildcats.
However, even with last week's mishaps, there is a reason both teams enjoyed time as the top-ranked team in the nation this season. Sam Houston State, the Southland champion, relies heavily on a potent running attack with Flanders (102.9 ypg) and Richard Sincere (63 ypg), a do-it-all wide receiver who operates out of the "Wild Bearkat" formation.
Montana State has fared well against the run this season (125.4 ypg) and linebacker Jody Owens is the leader of a unit that limited New Hampshire to 248 yards of total offense last week. While the passing attack won't be the focal point, the Bobcats will have to prepare for Bearkats quarterback Brian Bell, an efficient passer who has thrown for 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
While the game will be played in Huntsville, Texas, Montana State has played well on the road this season, going 4-0 against FCS competition. By no means can the Bobcats look past the Bearkats, but a win would likely give them a chance for revenge against in-state rival Montana in the semifinals.
Prediction: Montana State 31, Sam Houston State 27
GRAMBLING STATE TIGERS (7-4) vs. ALABAMA A&M BULLDOGS (8-3)
DATE & TIME: Saturday, Dec. 10, 1 p.m. ET.
FACTS & STATS: Event: SWAC Championship. Annual: 13th. Site: Legion Field (72,000) -- Birmingham, AL. Surface: Artificial Turf. Television: ESPN U. Home Record: Grambling State 3-1; Alabama A&M 4-1. Away Record: Grambling State 2-2; Alabama A&M 3-1. Neutral Record: Grambling State 2-1; Alabama A&M 1-1. Current Win/Loss Streak: Grambling State 6W; Alabama A&M 1W. Series Record: Grambling State (16-5). Last Meeting: September 24, 2011 (Alabama A&M, 20-14 at Grambling State). Series Streak: Grambling State has won four of the last five meetings. Nicknames: Grambling State Tigers; Alabama A&M Bulldogs. Sheridan Broadcasting Network Poll Rankings: Grambling State (8); Alabama A&M (6). Heritage Sports Radio Network Poll Rankings: Grambling State (9); Alabama A&M (3). Sports Network/Fathead.com Rankings: Grambling State (47); Alabama A&M (46). All-Time Records: Grambling State (521-213-15); Alabama A&M (387-359-31). Coaches: Grambling State - Doug Williams (8th year, 59-22 at Grambling State, 62-30 Overall); Alabama A&M - Anthony Jones (10th year, 72-44 at Alabama A&M, 90-57 Overall). Preview SWAC Championship appearances: Grambling State 6 (2000-02, 2005, 2007-08); Alabama A&M 5 (2000, 2002, 2005-06, 2009). SWAC Championship Record: Grambling State (5-1); Alabama A&M (1-4). 2010 SWAC Championship Result: Texas Southern 11, Alabama State 6.
GAME NOTES: In the 13-year history of the SWAC championship game, Grambling State-Alabama A&M has been the most played match-up. Meeting for the fourth time for the Eddie Robinson Trophy, Grambling State has won the prior three match-ups for the award named after its legendary coach.
Grambling State has been on a roll after a 1-4 start, winning six straight including a regular-season finale win against Southern in the Bayou Classic, 36-12. During that streak, the Tigers' offense has been clicking, averaging 32 points a game and running a balanced attack. Dawrence Roberts (115.4 ypg) is the focal point of the Tigers' attack, rushing for five touchdowns in the past four games.
Roberts will face a stout Alabama A&M rush defense (111.7 ypg), and the defensive line is anchored by Corey Hart. He leads the nation with 27 tackles for loss and has registered 14 sacks.
While Hart is the centerpiece of Alabama A&M's defense, Grambling State linebacker Cliff Exama recently earned co-SWAC defensive player of the year honors. Exama led the SWAC in tackles this season (122) and added a presence in pass coverage, registering three pass breakups and an interception.
With the advantage leaning towards the defense, Alabama A&M is hoping to improve its struggling offense, which has scored a combined 23 points in its last two games. Needing a win to even qualify for the SWAC title game, the Bulldogs defeated Prairie View A&M, 17-15, in a low-scoring affair.
These two teams met in Week 4, with Alabama A&M picking up its first ever win at Grambling State, 20-14. The Bulldogs jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, and held on thanks to a 178-yard, two-touchdown performance from running back Kaderius Lacey. Lacey (96.1 ypg) rushed for 100-plus yards in five games this season, including four 150-plus yard performances.
Prediction: Grambling 17, Alabama A&M 16
No. 13 MAINE BLACK BEARS (9-3) at No. 3 GEORGIA SOUTHERN EAGLES (10-2)
DATE & TIME: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2 p.m. ET
FACTS & STATS: Site: Allen E. Paulson Stadium (18,000) -- Statesboro, GA. Surface: Natural Grass. Television: ESPN3.com. Home Record: Maine 4-1; Georgia Southern 7-0. Away Record: Maine 5-2; Georgia Southern 3-2. Series Record: Georgia Southern (2-0). Last Meeting: December 7, 2002 (Georgia Southern def. Maine, 31-7 at Georgia Southern). Series Streak: Georgia Southern has won both meetings. Conference: Maine - Colonial Athletic Association; Georgia Southern - Southern. Nicknames: Maine Black Bears; Georgia Southern Eagles. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Maine (13); Georgia Southern (3). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Maine (NS); Georgia Southern (3). Head Coaches: Maine - Jack Cosgrove (19th Season, 105-110 at Maine and Overall); Georgia Southern - Jeff Monken (2nd season, 20-7 at Georgia Southern and Overall). All-Time Record: Maine (494-468-38); Georgia Southern (276-106-1). FCS Playoff Records: Maine (3-5); Georgia Southern (6 National Championships - 1985-86, 89-90, 99-2000 - 42-11). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Maine 5 (1987, 1989, 2001-02, 2008); Georgia Southern 17 (1985-90, 1993, 1995, 1997-2002, 2004-05, 2010).
GAME NOTES: Maine derailed a potential Appalachian State-Georgia Southern rematch last week, defeating the Mountaineers, 34-12, in a blowout. The 22- point victory was the largest margin of victory by a visiting team in Boone, N.C., since before Appalachian State's three consecutive FCS championships. Last week, Georgia Southern outlasted Old Dominion in a 55-48 shootout.
While Georgia Southern defeated Old Dominion, the Eagles were exposed on defense, as the Monarchs compiled 560 yards of total offense, the most of any of their FCS opponents this season. While Maine's Warren Smith (241.1 ypg), may not have the numbers of Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke, the Black Bears quarterback conducts a smash-mouth, wait-for-the-quick-strike offense that can score from anywhere.
Providing support to Smith is running back Pushaun Brown (95.9 ypg), a player who when healthy has put up big numbers, rushing for 100-plus yards in six games, including 111 last week against Appalachian State.
However, Brown's running abilities are only a sideshow to Georgia Southern's triple-option attack, which Old Dominion had no answer for last week. Dominique Swope, who rushed for 255 yards last week, has been marquee runner as of late, but Robert Brown, Nico Hickey and quarterback Jaybo Shaw are threats to score.
Maine hasn't played against the triple option since 2002, a 31-7 loss to - guess who - Georgia Southern. While Maine's defense put on a strong display against Appalachian State, the triple option forces Maine to change its entire defensive scheme. Defensive backs have to pinch in for run support - something All-CAA safety Jerron McMillian has done well - but not get caught ignoring the pass because Shaw has burned teams deep this season.
For Maine, its victim last week, Appalachian State, may have supplied the blueprint to beating Georgia Southern - get turnovers and take the lead early. While the option may churn up yards and clock, the Black Bears hope to take an early lead and force the Eagles to throw the ball, then the opportunistic defense could gamble and make a game-changing turnover.
Both teams have dangerous returners, Maine's Trevor Costen led the CAA in punt returns (9.7 per attempt), while Georgia Southern's Laron Scott (32 yards per attempt) is one of the most dangerous kick returners in the FCS.
In another interesting match-up, Eagles kicker Adrian Mora, the FCS record- holder for extra points, has missed two consecutive attempts and Maine has blocked nine total kicks this season, including two extra point tries that have been run back for two points.
Predition: Maine 34, Georgia Southern 31
No. 6 LEHIGH MOUNTAIN HAWKS (11-1) at No. 4 NORTH DAKOTA STATE BISON (11-1)
DATE & TIME: Saturday, Dec. 10, 4:05 p.m. ET
FACTS & STATS: Site: Fargodome (18,700) - Fargo, ND. Surface: AstroTurf. Television: ESPN3.com. Announcers: Trey Bender and Jay Taylor. Home Record: Lehigh 5-1; North Dakota State 6-1. Away Record: Lehigh 6-0; North Dakota State 6-0. Series Record: First meeting. Conference: Lehigh - Patriot League; North Dakota State - Missouri Valley. Nicknames: Lehigh Mountain Hawks; North Dakota State Bison. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Lehigh (6); North Dakota State (4). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Lehigh (NS); North Dakota State (2). Head Coaches: Lehigh - Andy Coen (6th Season, 41-28 at Lehigh and Overall); North Dakota State - Craig Bohl (9th season 72-31 at North Dakota State and Overall). All- Time Record: Lehigh (650-566-46); North Dakota State (624-364-34). FCS Playoff Records: Lehigh (6-8); North Dakota State (3-1). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Lehigh 8 (1979-80, 98-99, 2000-01, 2004); North Dakota State 1 (2010).
GAME NOTES: In the second round of the FCS playoffs last week, North Dakota State and Lehigh both knocked off CAA Football opponents, outlasting James Madison and Towson, respectively. This week, Lehigh, the Patriot League champion, will look to knock out the Missouri Valley Conference champion for the second straight season (last year, the Mountain Hawks defeated Northern Iowa, 14-7).
After opening the season as a pass-heavy offense, Lehigh has become a more well-rounded unit the past couple weeks, particularly in the red zone. While Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) finalist Chris Lum (340.8 ypg) is still a dangerous passer, he hasn't had to shoulder the scoring responsibility like he did the first eight weeks of the season. In the victory against Towson, the Mountain Hawks scored three rushing touchdowns and running back Matt Fitz tossed a touchdown on a trick play.
North Dakota State got burned on a trick play last week as James Madison capitalized for a 35-yard touchdown pass from the wide receiver to the quarterback. Facing a creative offensive coordinator in Lehigh's Dave Cecchini, who called trick plays in the same series against Towson, North Dakota State's defense has a tough test on Saturday.
However, North Dakota State's defense has been one of the best units in the country (14.8 ppg) and has bottled up opposing offenses all season. Limiting opponents to just 320 yards per game, the Bison are stout against the run (119.3 ypg) and have a lock-down corner in Marcus Williams (7 INTs, 12 PBU), who likely will be matched up with Lehigh receiver Ryan Spadola (134.5 ypg).
When North Dakota State has the ball, running backs D.J. McNorton (75.9 ypg) and Sam Ojuri (70.2 ypg) will both get significant touches against Lehigh's impressive rush defense (92.9 ypg). If the Mountain Hawks can slow the rushing attack, it will put added pressure on quarterback Brock Jensen, a sophomore who hasn't completed 20 passes in a game since October.
On special teams, North Dakota State likely won't have many long returns, but will still have decent field position. Against Towson, Lehigh squibbed each kick, including one that turned into an unplanned onside kick, due to its suspect kick coverage. The Bison rank fifth in the FCS for kick return yardage and Ryan Smith is a skilled punt returner who has one return for a touchdown.
While the loud, likely sold-out crowd at the Fargo Dome could prove to be a factor, Lehigh is a veteran team that won in Northern Iowa's UNI Dome last season. Whichever team can take an early lead and win the turnover battle, will be able to silence, or excite, the crowd.
Prediction: North Dakota State 24, Lehigh 21
Last Week's Record: 6-2 (.750)
Overall: 235-85 (.734)