In the FCS Huddle: Breaking down North Dakota State

Sam Houston State football coach Willie Fritz had just been asked about North Dakota State's pivotal fake punt in last season's NCAA Division I Football Championship Game.

He described the excellence of the third-quarter play, which helped set up the touchdown that gave NDSU the lead for good.

And then another concept dawned on Fritz.

"Shoot, I was trying to forget that," he thought aloud.

Unfortunately for opponents trying to solve North Dakota State, there's a lot to know about the defending national champion Bison.

They are a well-rounded, well-coached team, and they're about much more than their defense which has been the best in the FCS for two years running.

Coach Craig Bohl has his program on the doorstep of back-to-back national titles, which has been accomplished only five times since the playoff system began in 1978, and most recently by Appalachian State with three straight crowns from 2005-07.

North Dakota State will have to go through Sam Houston State for a second straight championship Saturday in Frisco, Texas. The Bison won last season's matchup, 17-6.

Here's a breakdown of North Dakota State (13-1):


The Bison offense isn't flashy, and too often is overshadowed by its defensive counterparts, but the mold is cast at a championship-winning level.

"I think they do a great job of taking care of the football and time of possession," Bohl said. "We have been able to maintain long drives and have a good turnover margin, stay on the field. We have been able to control the football particularly when we get the lead and all those things to leverage our defense, and also it has put our offense in good position."

Consistency and familiarity boost the offense. Offensive coordinator Brent Vigen is the team's longest-tenured coach, now in his 15th season in the program, including his fourth directing the offense.

The Bison's average time of possession of 34 minutes, 39 seconds ranks No. 1 in the 122-team FCS. It stems out of their ability to hold onto the ball - only 14 turnovers in 14 games - a third-down conversion rate of 51.5 percent (102-of-198) and an even better 82.4 rate on fourth downs (14-of-17).

Redshirt junior quarterback Brock Jensen will make his 37th career start on Saturday, including his 11th in the postseason. The good-sized signal-caller (6-foot-3, 224 pounds) sets the tone for the offense because he tends to be efficient in the team's bigger games.

The Bison don't have a high-powered passing attack (168.8 passing yards per game), but Jensen is a threat on quarterbacks draws (nine rushing touchdowns), which keeps opposing linebackers honest when they want to drop into pass coverage.

Although the Bison haven't quite replaced standout wide receiver Warren Holloway from last season's team, 5-7 Ryan Smith, 6-2 Zach Vraa and 6-1 Trevor Gebhart form a reliable trio of possession receivers. They have combined on 123 receptions and eight touchdowns.

Also, blocking tight ends Garrett Bruhn and Kevin Vaadeland have to be respected in goal line situations.

Of course, the Bison are a run-first offense behind the halfback platoon of starter Sam Ojuri (955 yards, 10 touchdowns, 73.5 ypg) and John Crockett (956 yards, nine touchdowns, 68.3 ypg), who are both closing in on 1,000-yard campaigns. Ojuri is the power back going off-tackle.

Up front, the starting offensive linemen average 6-3 1/2, 284 pounds, but they will be tested by Sam Houston State's veteran four-man front (which averages 6-1, 271) and aggressive style. In fact, the Bearkats rank second in the FCS in rushing defense.

Bison senior Joe Lund (6-2, 303) was recently named the FCS center of the year and fellow three-year starter Billy Turner (6-5 1/2, 300), the junior left tackle, is a first-team All-America selection. Right tackle Tyler Gimmestad (6-2, 298) is a veteran starter as well, and left guard Josh Colville (6-1 3/4, 279) and right tackle Joe Haeg (6-5 3/4, 280) are both redshirt freshmen.

The Bison average 32.6 points per game, tops in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.


First-year defensive coordinator Chris Klieman was smart enough not to change the 4-3 system after experiencing its fury as a former longtime assistant at Missouri Valley rival Northern Iowa and then as the Bison defensive backs coach on last season's national championship squad.

This season's unit is leading the FCS in scoring defense (11.4 ppg), total defense (223.3 ypg), pass defense (131 ypg) and first downs allowed (11.9 per game). The Bison also rank second nationally in defense third-down efficiency (28.07) and third in rushing yards (92.3 ypg).

The smothering unit is physical at the point of attack and has sure tacklers in one-on-one situations. The Bison allowed three touchdowns to Georgia Southern in semifinal-round win, but they have surrendered only seven touchdowns in seven postseason games (all wins) over the last two seasons.

Considering Sam Houston State's speed in the skills positions is exceptional, the Bison must avoid being fooled by backfield deception from the read option and "Wild Bearkat" formations.

Much of the Bearkats' success starts with running back Timothy Flanders, so the Bison want to keep him in check and force quarterback Brian Bell into third-and-long situations.

Defensive ends Cole Jirik and Kyle Emanuel will try to contain ball carriers to the inside, where middle linebackers Grant Olson (team-high 146 tackles, including a school-record 29 tackles in quarterfinal-round win over Wofford) and outside 'backers Travis Beck (93 tackles, four forced fumbles) and Carlton Littlejohn (75 tackle, four forced fumbles) clean up as the team's tackle leaders.

The Bison have big size on the defensive front with starting tackle Danny Luecke (6-5 1/4, 280) and nose guard Ryan Drevlow (6-4, 281).

Sam Houston State has surrendered only five sacks - the second fewest in the FCS - so the Bison, including sack leaders Jirik (7 1/2) and Littlejohn (4 1/2), should find it hard to put Bell on the ground. Jirik had one of the Bison's two sacks of Bell in last season's title game.

The pass defense is exceptional. All-America junior cornerback Marcus Williams shuts down his receiver, and has five interceptions and four pass breakups when quarterbacks try to throw his way.

Andre Martin, who played under Klieman at Northern Iowa before taking a post- graduate year at NDSU, starts at the other cornerback position. The safeties are Christian Dudzik and Bobby Ollman, while Brenden Pierre factors in as a nickle back.

The defense has had to overcome season-ending knee injuries to two starters, defensive tackle Leevon Perry and safety Coulton Heagle, so the unit isn't quite as strong as the one on last season's championship team.

Sam Houston State's offense, Bohl said, "is different (from last season). They have a different play-caller, and their quarterback is throwing the ball significantly better. And so they have got a lot more threats.

"Last year, while they threw the ball some, they were not near as effective as what they are this year and so that's going to really stress our defense."


Excellent special teams have been a staple with North Dakota State during the past three seasons (don't forget the 2010 team made a run to the FCS quarterfinals before last season's breakout campaign).

The kicking game could have been a weakness this season because the Bison had to replace their place-kicker and punter after last season. But, oh, have the two new starters responded successfully.

Sophomore Adam Keller has converted 17-of-22 field goal attempts for a 77.3 success rate. The All-Missouri Valley kicker has a long of 49 yards, although he is only 2-of-6 from distances of at least 40 yards.

Redshirt freshman Ben LeCompte is averaging nearly 43.3 yards per punt, ranking No. 2 in the Missouri Valley and No. 10 in the FCS. He's also getting decent hang time as the Bison rank 12th nationally in net punting.

Williams is one of the more feared kickoff returners in the FCS, with a return for a touchdown in each of the past two seasons. He's averaging 27.5 yards on kickoff returns this season, which ranks ninth in the FCS.

Smith is the main punt returner for a third straight season and has scored off one return this season. Smith, Dudzik and Williams each has a punt return of at least 64 yards this season.

The coverage teams allow 20.9 yards on kickoff returns and 6.2 yards on punt returns - both respectable numbers.


Tight game, comfortable lead, playing from behind, North Dakota State doesn't seem fazed by whatever situation is at hand.

Incredibly, the Bison have won their last 14 games against nationally ranked FCS opponents, including Sam Houston State in last season's national title game. In addition, they have beaten an FBS opponent on the road in each of the past three seasons.

Executing plays on Saturday is one thing, but the Bison will be at ease when they step onto the FC Dallas Stadium turf before another sellout crowd. That's invaluable when a team is shooting for back-to-back national championships.

Also, there's no underestimating the in-game coaching ability of Bohl and his assistant coaches. They make good halftime adjustments, having surrendered only 58 points (out of 160) in the second half of 14 games. The Bison have a 27-2 record since the start of the 2011 season.