By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If there is a flaw in Sam Houston State - and one has to look closely - the FCS' top-ranked team has shown wear and tear defensively during the national playoffs.
It's become more obvious while North Dakota State continues to lock down opposing offenses.
The two FCS finalists may rank 1-2 in the nation in scoring defense - North Dakota State at 13.2 points per game and Sam Houston State at 14.8 - but the gap is growing, with the Bison allowing an average of seven points in three playoff wins compared to the Bearkats' 22.7-point average.
It's that decisive advantage on defense that will lead North Dakota State to its first FCS title on Jan. 7.
Sure, the Bison (13-1) no longer will be in Fargo, eh, in what basically is a a home game for Sam Houston State at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. But their big four-man defensive front and defensive balance can take the crowd out of the game by flexing their muscle in a way the Bearkats haven't seen this season.
It's hard to deny North Dakota State has had the nation's best defense all season, from senior end Coulter Boyer sacking quarterbacks to sophomore cornerback Marcus Williams intercepting passes.
This is a team that allowed only one of its first five opponents to score more than 10 points. And their two most recent opponents - Lehigh, with its high- powered passing attack, and Georgia Southern, with a lethal triple option - didn't even combine to score 10 points. This after James Madison managed just 14 points in the Bison's first playoff win.
Meanwhile, Stony Brook was able to run against Sam Houston State in the second round of the playoffs, Montana State had some success passing the ball and Montana did a little of both.
The Bison, however, boast a disciplined unit that is versatile, able to stop the run - only 120.4 yards per game - or the pass - 39 sacks and 19 interceptions - should the Bearkats work in the play-action.
Sam Houston State will want to run the ball against North Dakota State, but the Bison already have faced the best of a run-first Missouri Valley Conference as well as Georgia Southern. The Bison's physical style will grind on the Bearkats' offensive rhythm.
The four starters across the defensive line - Boyer, fellow end Cole Jirik and tackles Leevon Perry and Ryan Drevlow - average a menacing 6-foot-4. Undersized starting linebackers Chad Willson, Preston Evans and Travis Beck as well as bigger reserves Brandon Jemison and Carlton Littlejohn gobble up the tackles, and the secondary of Williams, fellow cornerback Christian Dudzik and safeties Colten Heagle and John Pike are ball hawks who have helped the Bison to a plus-18 turnover margin.
It all stems from the top, too. Bison head coach Craig Bohl comes from a defensive background and after a decline in 2009 defensive coordinator Scottie Hazleton has restored the unit in each of his two seasons in charge.
There's no disputing these last two teams standing deserve to be in the championship game and have reached it with comparable seasons. Each beat a Bowl Subdivision opponent back in September, possesses a run-first offense with an efficient quarterback and wins the turnover battle.
But only one team has the best defense in the FCS.
North Dakota State.
The next FCS champion.