Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The irony is almost too good.
The unbalanced schedule in the 10-team Missouri Valley Football Conference prevented its co-champions, Illinois State and North Dakota State, from facing each other during the regular season.
They will be dance partners in the end, however.
The two Missouri Valley teams will square off Jan. 10 in the FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
North Dakota State is the pre-eminent FCS program and will try to win an unprecedented fourth straight title with its stifling defense.
But Illinois State, in NDSU's shadow all season, has the size and athleticism to make this perhaps the Bison's toughest opponent in Frisco. The Bison beat Sam Houston State from the Southland Conference in 2011 and '12, and Towson from CAA Football to end last season.
North Dakota State has won the last three meetings, including 28-10 last season.
It's probably the matchup both teams wanted when the 24-team playoffs began Thanksgiving Weekend.
No. 5 seed Illinois State (13-1) 21, No. 1 seed New Hampshire (12-2) 18
Durham, NH - If ever there was doubt about the Missouri Valley Football Conference being the top conference in the FCS, Illinois State provided a reminder on Saturday.
The Redbirds rallied past top-seeded New Hampshire, 21-18, with two fourth- quarter touchdowns in the FCS semifinals and gave the Missouri Valley both national finalists - a first for the division.
The Jan. 10 title game in Frisco, Texas, will be a fitting end to the 24-team playoffs as it matches fifth-seeded Illinois State (13-1) against second-seeded North Dakota State (14-1), which will try to win an unprecedented fourth straight FCS title. The two teams were crowned Missouri Valley co-champions after not facing each other in the regular season.
Illinois State qualified for the championship game for the first time with a clutch fourth-quarter performance after being limited by UNH to only two field goals in the first three quarters.
Running back Marshaun Coprich scored on a 2-yard run in the first minute of the fourth quarter to pull the Redbirds within 18-13. Quarterback Tre Roberson then capped their next possession with a go-ahead 47-yard touchdown run with 7:55 left. When Jon-Marc Anderson ran in the two-point conversion, they had a 21-18 lead.
New Hampshire (12-2), the CAA Football champion, reached Illinois State territory on its next drive, but was stopped on downs with 4:08 remaining. Coach Brock Spack's Redbirds then converted two first downs to run out the clock.
The Redbirds lived dangerously in their first-ever meeting with New Hampshire after having come into the game with a 40.5-point average. Roberson, a junior transfer from Indiana, had accounted for 36 total touchdowns in their first 13 games, but was limited to one touchdown run while totaling 373 yards (278 passing, 95 rushing). Coprich had rushed for over 100 yards in each game and entered with an FCS-high 2,089 yards and 26 touchdowns, but he was held to 79 yards on 24 carries.
Under Sean McDonnell, who won the Eddie Robinson Award for the second time in his 16th season at UNH, the Wildcats had a 14-game winning streak and appeared to be in control of the game until Illinois State began to wear them down with bigger size and Roberson's dual-threat skills. Their two touchdown drives went for 84 and 89 yards.
Lechein Neblett was Roberson's favorite target with eight receptions for 147 yards. Defensive end Teddy Corwin led the defense with a career-best 12 tackles, while defensive tackle Collin Keoshian added six stops, a sack, a tackle for loss and an interception of UNH quarterback Sean Goldrich.
Goldrich was 19-for-33 for 214 yards, adding 17 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Nico Steriti rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, while All-American wide receiver R.J. Harris had six receptions for 68 yards, but was helped off the field twice during the game.
New Hampshire, appearing in the playoffs for the 11th straight season - the current active high - took a 15-6 lead into halftime after Illinois State was plagued by missed opportunities in the first half. The Redbirds reached the UNH red zone four times yet came away with only two field goals by Nick Aussieker, who also missed an attempt.
The big mistake came late in the first quarter when at the end of an 8-yard run Roberson fumbled the ball away to UNH cornerback Dougie Moss while spinning into linebacker Akil Anderson at the 1-yard line.
The Wildcats went on a 96-yard scoring drive from there and Steriti reached the Illinois State end zone on a 6-yard draw up the middle early in the second quarter. Andy Vailas then ran in the two-point conversion to put the Wildcats ahead 15-3.
Earlier in the first quarter, New Hampshire took a 7-3 lead when Goldrich scrambled into the Redbirds' end zone for a 3-yard score.
No. 2 seed North Dakota State (14-1) 35, Sam Houston State (11-5) 3
Fargo, ND - Sam Houston State might have won a national title or two and be headed back to the FCS championship game for more.
If, that is, the Bearkats' success in the postseason hadn't been occurring during North Dakota State's four-year dynasty.
The Bison did it again to Sam Houston Friday night as senior running back John Crockett totaled 232 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns in eliminating the Bearkats, 35-3, in the FCS semifinals at the Fargodome.
Next up for the second-seeded Bison (14-1) is a return to the national championship game in Frisco, Texas, where on Jan. 10 they will try to win an unprecedented fourth straight FCS title against fellow Missouri Valley Conference co-champion Illinois State (13-1).
The first two of North Dakota State's three straight wins in the national final came against Sam Houston. The Bison are a combined 57-3 over the last four seasons, and their senior class has the chance to finish with more national championships than losses in their career.
Only two other FCS programs, Eastern Kentucky (1979-1982) and Youngstown State (1991-1994), have advanced to four straight title games.
The visiting Bearkats (11-5) from the Southland Conference had hoped for a different result under their first-year coach K.C. Keeler, who had led Delaware to the FCS title in 2003 as well as two other championship appearances.
But the Bison, after playing poorly on offense in first half, ran away from the Bearkats behind Crockett (166 rushing yards, 66 receiving) and their powerful offensive line as well as a defense that slowed down Sam Houston's speed in the skills positions.
The Bison extended their playoff winning streak to 15 games and their home winning streak to 23.
North Dakota State managed only 99 yards in the first half while taking a 7-3 halftime lead, but the Bison nearly matched that total on their second drive of the third quarter when they began to take control of the game.
On the third play, Crockett went undefended coming out of the backfield for a 35-yard reception from quarterback Carson Wentz. On the next play, Crockett's backup, King Frazier, sliced through the Sam Houston defensive line for a 33- yard touchdown run which put the Bison ahead 14-3 midway the quarter.
On the first play of North Dakota State's next drive, Crockett went around left end to explode for a 55-yard touchdown run which extended the lead to 21-3 with 6:52 remaining in the quarter.
That margin is usually insurmountable for North Dakota State, but for good measure, Crockett scored on a 10-yard run early in the fourth quarter before Wentz connected with R.J. Urzendowski for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 3:18 left to play.
In the statement performance by coach Chris Klieman's squad, the Bison outgained Sam Houston by a decisive 217 yards to 49 in the third quarter and 398-338 overall to end the Bearkats' eight-game winning streak.
The Bison's improved offensive success in the second half was welcomed after they clung to the 7-3 halftime lead.
After the first three Sam Houston possessions didn't produce a first down in the first quarter, the Bison ran off a nine-play, 68-yard scoring drive for a 7-0 lead. Crockett caught a 31-yard reception on the drive and then went off right tackle to ease into the Sam Houston end zone from 3 yards out with 3:52 left.
Sam Houston quarterback Jared Johnson's 39-yard pass to Gerald Thomas to the Bison 11 on the first play of the second quarter set up the Bearkats for their only score, Luc Swimberghe's 22-yard field goal which completed a 15-play, 82- yard drive and pulled them within 7-3 with 13:37 left in the first half.
Johnson, facing great pressure by Bison pass rushers, was 20-for-31 for 227 yards and was picked off in the fourth quarter by linebacker Nick DeLuca (13 tackles), and he added another 66 yards on 25 carries. Wentz was 13-for-19 for 179 yards and one interception in the win.
Bison defensive end Kyle Emanuel, the 2014 Buck Buchanan Award winner, had a career-high 11 tackles with 2 1/2 sacks, tying the school's career record of 41 sacks set in 1974 by Jerry Dahl and tied in 1990 by Phil Hansen.