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In the FCS Huddle: Championship game chess match

Craig Bohl was meeting and greeting people at the FCS Awards Banquet, ready to receive the Eddie Robinson Award as national coach of the year.

And he called a timeout.

The North Dakota State coach had to make phone calls to a pair of prospective recruits.

To say the last week, if not the year, has been a whirlwind for Bohl is an understatement.

Some R&R? That will wait. A holiday break? What's that?

Friday night, Bohl's Bison squad beat Georgia Southern in Fargo in the FCS semifinals. Sunday, Bohl was on his way to Philadelphia, where Monday night he received the Robinson Award. Tuesday morning, he was on his way to Frisco, Texas, where on Wednesday he joined another pretty taxed coach in Sam Houston State's Willie Fritz for an early news conference and other media appearances leading up to the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game on Jan. 5.

Of course, their gathering at FC Dallas Stadium was all so familiar. Their teams first met in last season's title game, with North Dakota State emerging as a 17-6 winner and national champion.

NDSU enters with a 13-1 record for the second straight season, while Sam Houston State was unbeaten last season but is 11-3 this time around, although the Bearkats have lost to only one FCS opponent.

This is the third meeting of the same championship qualifiers in consecutive years, and the game is basically a chess match. It boils down to how each team has adjusted over the last year and can surprise the other.

NDSU's defense over the last two seasons has stamped itself among the best units in FCS history. It has ranked No. 1 in scoring defense in each season.

Appropriately, a huge defensive play in the fourth quarter of last season's title game helped key North Dakota State's win. Linebacker Travis Beck stepped in front of a pass by Sam Houston State quarterback Brian Bell at the Bison 36-yard line and returned his first career interception 63 yards to set up quarterback Brock Jensen's 1-yard sneak, which extended their lead to 17-6 with 8:48 left.

NDSU will seek another low-scoring defensive style game, its offense perhaps not quite as strong as last season despite the continued development of junior quarterback Brock Jensen. John Crockett and Sam Ojuri give the Bison the chance to have two 1,000-yard rushers for the second straight season, but the passing game is not high-powered.

Still, the Bison have an absolutely smothering-type of defense, led by its junior class, including linebacker and leading tackler Grant Olson and shutdown cornerback Marcus Williams. The Bison surrender only 223.3 yards per game, which leads the FCS along with their 11.4-point average.

"Last year we had some seniors who were major contributors with a great deal of leadership, and this senior class is very small," Bohl said at Wednesday's news conference. "So the dynamics inside the football team, we had to have the maturity come about, which it did.

"As far as the level in field of play, there are certainly some similarities; our quarterback has another year of experience. Defensively as far as last year to this year is that we may not be as seasoned on defense this year, but we are a little bit faster and a little more explosive. And we have two new kickers, so any time you have a new punter and a new place-kicker, you are pleased when you get results."

Sam Houston State, whose campus is only 200 miles from Frisco in Huntsville, had to win on the road in the national quarterfinals and semifinals, but it's back in the title game after sweeping the three Big Sky Conference champions - Cal Poly, Montana State and Eastern Washington.

The Bearkats will try to force NDSU into a more wide-open game. Timothy Flanders (1,589 rushing yards, 18 touchdowns) headlines a rushing attack that averages 279.2 yards per game and Bell has become a more complete quarterback, with 24 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. Plus the Bearkats continue to get more production out Richard Sincere, who's best with running the Wild Bearkat package.

"The difference between our squad from this season to last season is that we are throwing the ball more effectively than we have in the past," Fritz said. "That was a big goal of ours in the offseason."

The winner may result from which team imparts its will early and gets the style of game it prefers over its opponent's.

Chess match, indeed.