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FCS Championship: Sam Houston State 'O' vs. North Dakota State 'D'

The Sports Network

By Sean Shapiro, FCS Assistant

DATE & TIME: Saturday, January 7, 1 p.m. (et).

FACTS & STATS: Site: FC Dallas Stadium (21,193) -- Frisco, Texas. Surface: Grass. Television: ESPN2. Announcers: Dave Neal, Andre Ware and Allison Williams. Home Record: Sam Houston State 9-0; North Dakota State 8-1. Away Record: Sam Houston State 4-0; North Dakota State 5-0. Neutral Record: Sam Houston State 1-0; North Dakota State 0-0. Series Record: Tied (1-1). Last Meeting: Sept. 12, 2009 (Sam Houston State def. North Dakota State, 48-45 at Sam Houston State). Series Streak: Sam Houston won the last meeting. Conference: Sam Houston State - Southland; North Dakota State - Missouri Valley. Nicknames: Sam Houston State Bearkats; North Dakota State Bison. Sports Network/Fathead.com Ranking: Sam Houston State (1); North Dakota State (4). NCAA Playoff Seedings: Sam Houston State (1); North Dakota State (2). Head Coaches: Sam Houston State - Willie Fritz (19th year, 20-5 at Sam HoustonState, 156-57-1 Overall); North Dakota State - Craig Bohl (ninth season,74-31 at North Dakota State and Overall). All-Time Record: Sam Houston State (460-443-34); North Dakota State (626-364-34). FCS Playoff Records: Sam Houston State (6-4); North Dakota State (4-1). Previous FCS Playoff Appearances: Sam Houston State 4 (1986, 1991, 2001, 2004); North Dakota State 1 (2010).

GAME NOTES: For the fourth straight season, the FCS will have a first-time champion. After Appalachian State's run of three straight championships from 2005-07, Richmond (2008), Villanova (2009) and Eastern Washington (2010) have hoisted the first championship trophy in program history. This year, relative FCS newcomer North Dakota State or undefeated Sam Houston State will continue the trend.

Sam Houston State, which is looking to become the first undefeated champion since Marshall did so in 1996, is riding a 16-game winning streak, dating back to last season. A team led by sophomore talent, the Bearkats are one of the quickest teams in the nation, on offense and defense, a fair reflection of their pursuit of perfection.

A much more physical team, North Dakota State wouldn't beat Sam Houston State in a track meet. But, within the confines of the football field, the Bison have a big, physical defense - perhaps the best in the nation - and have stifled opponents in the playoffs.

Of course, the marquee match-up is Sam Houston State's offense vs. North Dakota State's defense. Using a read-option offense, Sam Houston State has a running back so dynamic he drew comparisons to Barry Sanders during the semifinal from ESPN announcer, and former NFL quarterback, Andre Ware. A big time player when it counts, Tim Flanders (111.4 ypg) has stepped up in the Bearkats' closest games - rushing for five touchdowns against FBS opponent New Mexico and 287 yards against Montana in the FCS semifinals.

Often joining in Flanders in the backfield is do-it-all wide receiver Richard Sincere. Sincere has been a difficult weapon for opponents to prepare for operating out of the "Wild Bearkat" formation, the sophomore has rushed for 68.9 yards per game and contributed 14 total touchdowns (nine rushing, four receiving, one passing).

The efficiency of the Bearkats offense will be tested by the Bison defense, a unit that has gotten only better in the playoffs. As impressive as North Dakota State's defense has been this season, limiting opponents to 13.2 points per game, the past two games have been even more impressive. Lehigh, one of the FCS' most prolific passing offenses, and Georgia Southern, one of the nation's top rushing teams, were held to a combined seven points in the quarter and semifinals.

A big defensive line is the catalyst for the Bison, and the unit has bagged 39 sacks, putting constant pressure on quarterbacks that have been victim of 19 North Dakota State interceptions. While the Bearkats won't throw often, the play-action passing game will be put under pressure when called upon. Of course, the Bison also have to stop the run, something they've done all season in limiting opponents to 120.4 yards per game.

North Dakota State's offense isn't a flashy unit, especially compared to the glitz and glamour of Sam Houston State. But, it is an efficient, balanced attack that can wear down opponents. Quarterback Brock Jensen is more a game manager than gunslinger, but with two soon-to-be 1,000-plus yard running backs in D.J. McNorton (75.5 ypg) and Sam Ojuri (77 ypg), that's all the Bison need.

When Jensen is asked to carry the team, he's responded admirably. The sophomore has thrown 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions and has added in eight touchdowns on the ground, three of those coming in the playoffs.

Against Sam Houston State, Jensen could be tested if the Bearkats' top-ranked rush defense (69.9 ypg), can slow down McNorton and Ojuri. One of the quickest sideline-to-sideline defenses in the FCS, the Bearkats also rank in the top five for pass efficiency (fourth), total defense (fourth) and scoring defense (second).

For the Bearkats, it will be important to fix the flaws that slowly crept up on them in the semifinal against Montana. The Bearkats jumped out to big lead in the first half, only to see Montana fight back and make it a close, 31-28 game. In fact, if not for a gutsy fourth down call late in the fourth quarter, which Flanders converted on and intelligently went down inbounds, Montana may have had a chance for a game-winning drive.

North Dakota State never slowed down in its semifinal-round thrashing of Georgia Southern, pulling ahead early and then pulling away for good in a 35-7 victory. However, the Bison will have to prepare for a road trip for the first time since Nov. 19, and while they may be the home team in name and uniform, it'll likely be a pro-Sam Houston State crowd.

Sam Houston State is the second-closest FCS school to Frisco (which is the home base for the Southland Conference), and it's expected many in the already-sold-out crowd will be making the 200-mile drive to the Pizza Hut Park.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Sam Houston State 27, North Dakota State 21.

12/29 09:56:52 ET