Durham, NH (SportsNetwork.com) - 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.
The Jan. 10 title game in Frisco, Texas, will be a fitting and ironic 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 this season after not facing each other in the conference's unbalanced scheduling.
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 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.
UNH quarterback Sean Goldrich was 19-for-33 for 214 yards and an interception, 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.