Philadelphia, PA – Sometimes what's standing in front of you is not so obvious.
Georgia Southern is bringing the No. 2-ranked rushing offense in the FCS - 334.1 yards per game - into Saturday's national semifinal against North Dakota State, which ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring defense at 13.7 points per game.
So the match-up would appear to be a showdown of GSU's vaunted triple option against NDSU's smothering defense.
No so fast, though. There are some big tree trunks on North Dakota State's offensive line who expect to have a say in how this game goes down at the raucous Fargodome.
If the Bison linemen can sustain their improving play over long drives, not only will they allow their offense to put points on the scoreboard, but they will keep GSU's offense, which held the ball for nearly 42 1/2 minutes against Maine in the quarterfinals, off the field.
That will change the game's dynamic.
"We like to think we're more balanced," Paul Cornick, the Bison's All-America right tackle, said. "We have a good quarterback (Brock Jensen) who can throw the ball around, too. We are a run-first team. It might not be as complicated as Georgia Southern's (offense). We're pretty confident. We'll take our chances, too."
"We're going to need to maintain the football on offense," NDSU head coach Craig Bohl said, underscoring the game plan. "I think it's going to be imperative that we stay on the field, that we chew up the clock, that we score points."
At 6-foot-6, 309 pounds, Cornick is the biggest player on an offensive line whose starters average about 6-2, 303 pounds. The Bison have had bigger lines in the past, but this year's is still big for the FCS level. In contrast, the starters on Georgia Southern's quick O-line go about 6-1, 274 pounds.
Cornick, whose anticipation and understanding of a defense sets him apart, is one of the veterans of the line with fellow redshirt senior Austin Richard (6-3, 314), the left guard who is about to play in his 50th career game. Richard has a physical side, if not downright mean streak, in which he will run over defenders in open space.
Sophomore left tackle Billy Turner (6-5 1/2, 292) and junior center Joe Lund (6-2, 302) bring athleticism to the line and sophomore right guard Tyler Gimmestad (6-2, 299), who came over from the defensive side of the ball, is physical, a trait in which the Bison program is built upon.
Redshirt senior Matt Veldman also brings 6-7, 257-pound size to the mix at tight end.
The starters up front, who all hail from the state of Minnesota except Richard, who's playing in his hometown of Fargo, pave the way for ever- improving Jensen, whose ability to pass on run downs has opened up the offense, and the running back tandem of Sam Ojuri and D.J. McNorton, who are both nearing 1,000 yards. The Bison are averaging 166.9 rushing yards per game, but it's 220 yards per game in the playoffs.
"The game's on the line, we'll leave our hearts out there," Cornick said.
"We went through some tough years a couple years ago. We kind of had a lot of guys that didn't really buy in as much as they could have. The 3-8 year (in 2009), we had as much talent as any team we've had, but there was just a lack of leadership, a lack of respect within the team. The last couple years, we've all just grown together. The seniors that have been here for five years, we're brothers, we love each other and we'll do anything for each other. I think the young guys have seen that and have incorporated it. That's what has gotten us this far, our togetherness on this team. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
Third-seeded Georgia Southern (11-2) is in the national semifinals for a second straight year. Second-seeded North Dakota State (12-1), the former Division II power, made its FCS playoff debut last season.
The third-quarter whippings that Montana and Sam Houston State have been administering underscore a telling dynamic with Friday night's semifinalists: not only do they have talented players, but their coaches are pushing the right buttons at halftime.
Montana (11-2) and Sam Houston State (13-0) have been devastating in the third quarter, with the Grizzlies outscoring opponents 138-51 and the Bearkats an even more impressive 177-24, including 35-7 in their two playoff victories.
"Give credit to both our players and the coaching staff," Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz said. "Our assistants have done an excellent job of coming in at halftime and making adjustments. And our players are smart and football-wise. They're very coachable and go out and get it done."
Likewise with the Grizzlies.
Montana's physicality and Sam Houston State's team speed wear on their opponents throughout a game, and both run-first teams have exceptional depth in the backfield.
Ask the Montana State Bobcats, who didn't even have to deal much with Walter Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) finalist Tim Flanders while quarterback Brian Bell, Richard Sincere and Torrance Williams were running havoc in their national quarterfinal. That depth extends to Keyshawn Hill and Ryan Wilson, too.
The Bobcats already knew how Montana, their fellow Big Sky Conference champion, gets productive rushing out of Peter Nguyen (825 yards), the Grizzlies' rushing leader, and Jordan Canada, quarterback Jordan Johnson and Dan Moore, who also all over 400 rushing yards.
AROUND THE NATION
The playoff seedings have held to form with No. 1 (Sam Houston State), 2 (North Dakota State), 3 (Georgia Southern) and 4 (Montana) reaching the FCS quarterfinals ... Bohl is in his ninth season as North Dakota State's head coach, while Jeff Monken (Georgia Southern), Robin Pflugrad (Montana) and Fritz (Sam Houston State) are all in their second seasons ... North Dakota State won its only series meeting with Georgia Southern, 34-14 on Oct. 7, 2006, and weren't enamored with the Eagles buying out their scheduled return game this year. "We were certainly disappointed at that time, but we have an opportunity to play them now," Bohl said ... Footballscoop.com has reported that Mississippi Gulf Coast head coach Steve Campbell has an offer to become the next head coach at Southeastern Louisiana ... Villanova lost 40-year-old defensive coordinator Mark Reardon, who had been in the program for 11 years, to the head coaching job at St. Augustine Prep, a New Jersey high school program. He cited a desire to be around his family more as a key reason for leaving Villanova ... Quarterback Dayne Crist, who is seeking to transfer from Notre Dame with one season of remaining eligibility, visited the University of Delaware this week ... FCS players will begin making postseason all-star appearances on Saturday at the HBCU All-Star Bowl in Atlanta and the FCS Senior Scout Bowl in Myrtle Beach, S.C. ... Hampton senior defensive back Micah Pellerin has been invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game, scheduled for Jan. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla. ... Furman All-America cornerback Ryan Steed is set to play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 28 in Mobile, Ala. ... The national junior college signing period for mid-year transfers begins on Dec. 21 ... The Sports Network/Fathead.com FCS All-America Team will be announced on Monday.
Last Week's Record: 4-1 (.800)
Season Record: 588-202 (.744)
All Times ET
NCAA Division I Semifinals
Friday, Dec. 16 (8 p.m., ESPN2)
No. 4 Montana (11-2) at X-No. 1 Sam Houston State (13-0) - The Bearkats' speed makes you go gulp. This isn't a typical team from the Southland Conference team, which hasn't had a national finalist since 2003.
Saturday, Dec. 17 (2:30 p.m., ESPNU)
X-No. 3 Georgia Southern (11-2) at No. 2 North Dakota State (12-1) - The Eagles were our preseason pick for the national title. The loud Fargodome is more than a bit intimidating for visitors.