Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Illinois State finally gets to play the No. 1 team in the country ... and it's not North Dakota State.
The Redbirds had been working to come out of the shadow of North Dakota State, the three-time defending FCS national champion, after they didn't face each other in the regular season while both earned a share of the Missouri Valley Football Conference title.
New Hampshire replaced NDSU as the No. 1-ranked team late in the regular season and then earned the top seed for the 24-team national playoffs. With the field dwindled to four, Illinois State, the fifth seed, will take on the Wildcats in a semifinal Saturday, with the winner advancing to the FCS championship game on Jan. 10 in Frisco, Texas.
Despite playing on the road, Illinois State (12-1) might even be considered the favorite against CAA Football champion New Hampshire (12-1) as the programs meet for the first time. The Redbirds are big, strong and fast, and are coming off a highly impressive, 59-46 win at Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.
"Some of the matchups weren't good for us. They were even better in person," Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin said.
In the other semifinal Friday night, second-seeded North Dakota State (13-1) will try to become the third program to reach the FCS championship game in four straight seasons, joining Eastern Kentucky (1979-82) and Youngstown State (1991-94).
The Bison will host a familiar foe in unseeded Sam Houston State (11-4), whom they defeated in both the 2011 and '12 national championship games.
Last Week's Record: 2-2 (.500)
This Season's Record: 642-193 (.769)
FCS Playoff Semifinals
All Times ET
Friday, Dec. 19
Sam Houston State (11-4) at No. 2 seed North Dakota State (13-1)
Kickoff: 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
What to Know: The national championship finalists from 2011 and '12 are set to square off again, and a lot has changed since North Dakota State dominated with defense in both victories. As far as personnel, Sam Houston is especially different. Both teams even have new coaches, Sam Houston's K.C. Keeler, who won the 2003 national title at Delaware, and North Dakota State's Chris Klieman, an assistant during the Bison's three straight titles.
The Bearkats have won three playoff games over an impressive list of opponents (Southeastern Louisiana, Jacksonville State and Villanova), but this is the Southland Conference power's third straight game on the road and North Dakota State is a stronger team than the earlier opponents. The Bearkats rely a lot on their team speed, but the host Bison also have the speed defensively to match the visitors' athleticism.
Sam Houston's run game averages 250.7 yards per game and recently injured rushing leader Keshawn Hill looked more like himself in last Saturday's quarterfinal-round win at Villanova, which makes dual-threat quarterback Jared Johnson even more dangerous. But Johnson is going to need another big passing game (22-for-27, 303 yards, three touchdowns against Villanova) to keep the Bison from loading up the box with eight defenders.
Freshman defensive end P.J. Hall had two more sacks against Villanova, giving him 11 this season as well as 29 tackles for loss. He figures to be disruptive because North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz likes to move from the pocket and he won't want to go Hall's way.
Sam Houston safety Michael Wade is one of the few veteran holdovers from the championship game appearances against North Dakota State. His savvy play will set the tone on the back end. Plus, the Bison have gotten younger at wide receiver since standout senior Zach Vraa was injured two weeks ago.
The Bearkats have given up too many rushing yards in the playoffs, so North Dakota State's primary objective is to put the ball in the hands of senior running back John Crockett. who smoked Coastal Carolina last Saturday for 227 yards and two touchdowns when the reigning champs were facing the end of a playoff winning streak that now is at 14. Wentz often softens a defense with draws and rollouts, then Crockett (1,754 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground) can break off decisive games.
Still, the bread and butter of Bison football remains the defense, even though the vaunted unit is still seeking a dominating effort in this postseason. Perhaps it reflects how much they miss veteran linebacker Travis Beck, their fiery leader, who was injured in the regular-season finale.
Defensive end Kyle Emanuel, the 2014 Buck Buchanan Award winner, will lead the swarming defense. If the Bison can make the game a bruising affair, the Bearkats might struggle for offensive rhythm. Plus, the Bison defense energizes the Fargodome crowd, and that can't be minimized when a visiting team hasn't experienced it before. The Bison have won 22 straight home games.
This game also matches excellent special teams. Being indoors is always good for North Dakota State kicker Adam Keller, who is 26-for-31 on field goal attempts this season. Luc Swimberghe (17-for-19) is reliable for Sam Houston. The punters - Lachlan Edwards (Sam Houston) and Ben LeCompte (NDSU) - are among the best in the nation.
Prediction: North Dakota State has two scares in the playoffs already. The Bison are usually good at making statements when there is talk of a loss. North Dakota State, 37-23.
Saturday, Dec. 20
No. 5 seed Illinois State at No. 1 seed New Hampshire (12-1)
Kickoff: 2 p.m. (ESPNU)
What to Know: Both teams have one previous national semifinal appearance (Illinois State in 1999 and New Hampshire last year). Whoever wins this first- ever meeting will advance to the national championship game for the first time.
Illinois State's gifted offense was relentless in dispatching Eastern Washington, 59-46, in the quarterfinals. But now the Redbirds are moving to the other side of the country, so it's possible all the travel will have an effect on the Missouri Valley Football Conference co-champions.
Still, star running back Marshaun Coprich doesn't appear to be slowing down, having gone over 100 rushing yards in all 13 games. That includes 258 yards and four touchdowns against Eastern Washington, which gave him a national-high 2,089 yards this season. With New Hampshire playing a 4-2-5 defensive alignment, he should be able to get to the edge of the secondary, as he likes to do.
Of course, Illinois State has had a 1-2 offensive punch all season. Quarterback Tre Roberson, the Indiana transfer, has set the school record for total yards in a season (3,559) and accounted for 36 total touchdowns. He often gets long gains out of his receiving corps after defenses put their focus on Coprich. Illinois State also is big and physical on the offensive line, led by Jermaine Barton, and that gives the Redbirds the chance to match what has been a productive New Hampshire defensive front during the playoffs.
Big defensive end Teddy Corbin is the one opponents must build a game plan against. He is one of the Redbirds' two All-Missouri Valley first-team defensive selections with linebacker Pat Meehan, their leading tackler.
New Hampshire is only 1-4 all-time in the postseason against Missouri Valley teams. The Wildcats have to be error-free on offense, especially quarterback Sean Goldrich, who will mix in the run and pass. Coach Sean McDonnell, the Eddie Robinson Award winner, figures to be creative offensively, and the Wildcats want to let their top playmaker. wide receiver R.J. Harris, work his magic. He is tied atop UNH's all-time receptions list (304, with David Ball) and is six receptions shy of 100 and 17 yards under 1,500 this season.
Running back Nico Steriti doesn't break long runs, but he's built strong and powers through defenses to eat up yards. Had he not been hurt during the regular season, he figured to have been at an All-CAA level. The playoffs are giving the senior a chance to make up for lost time.
The UNH defense can bend but can't break like Eastern Washington's did against Illinois State. Chattanooga had 566 yards against UNH in the quarterfinals, so the Wildcats were fortunate to pull out a 35-30 win.
Defensive tackle Matt Kaplan makes the Wildcats' balanced defense go when he is breaking through the middle with pressure in the backfield. Safety Casey DeAndre is always around the ball on the back end.
The Wildcats, in the playoffs for an 11th straight season (no other program is beyond five) have won 13 straight games at Cowell Stadium, including an 8-0 mark this season.
Prediction: New Hampshire doesn't often play teams with a better offense. This is one of those times, though. Illinois State, 38-28.