Stop us if you’ve heard this one before; North Dakota State is one win away from going back to the national championship. Once again the Bison have done what they do best in December, reeling off a series of home wins and now they find themselves knocking at the door to Texas once more. Entering the ring with them on Friday night is a new challenger with one gargantuan task in front of them. Incarnate Word will try to succeed where countless others have failed in toppling the mighty Bison in the Fargodome. The only team that can lay claim to that feat is no longer in the subdivision (James Madison). Will the Cardinals finally rewrite the tortured history for visitors in Fargo or will NDSU simply add them to the ever-growing list of failed attempts?
The Quick Hits
North Dakota State (11-2) entered this tournament as the #3 seed but the chips fell their way to host every game up to this point. #7 seed Incarnate Word (12-1) is the furthest they’ve ever been in the playoffs after taking down Sacramento State last weekend in absolute thriller of a game. The Cardinals only loss this season came at the hands of Southland foe Southeastern Louisiana while NDSU’s two defeats came to Arizona (FBS) and South Dakota State. The Bison have a staggering 43-3 all time record in the postseason and have only lost one playoff game at home in their entire FCS history. UIW is new to the semifinal scene but is currently fielding the best team its program has ever seen.
Matt Entz has been leading the Bison for four seasons now and is seeking his third national title since getting promoted to head man in 2018. He has carried the torch passed on by NDSU coaches before him and has done it very well having strung together an impressive 48-6 overall record during his time in charge. North Dakota State is 11-1 in the playoffs with Entz in command and of all the coaches left in the playoffs, his trophy case is the most decorated. His teams are consistently defined by stout defense and a strong running attack and this year’s Bison are no different.
On the other sideline Friday night will be first-year head coach G.J. Kinne for Incarnate Word. Kinne’s run with the Cardinals has been very successful but that is also why it will be short-lived as he’s already accepted a job with Texas State once UIW’s season ends. He won 12 games with the team this fall including the program’s first ever quarterfinal win last weekend. Kinne was named Southland Coach of the Year and finished sixth in voting for the Eddie Robinson Award, given yearly to the FCS’ best coach.
North Dakota State Offense vs. Incarnate Word Defense
It never seems to matter who the Bison are missing; they still find a way to run all over opposing defenses. Right now, though, NDSU is without perhaps its biggest weapon with All-American fullback Hunter Luepke sidelined for the rest of the season after sustaining a shoulder injury. Luekpe, who is expected to be in the NFL next season, paved the way for NDSU’s championship run last season and had 621 rushing yards and nine touchdowns this year.
In place of Luepke on the ground, expect North Dakota State to look to Kobe Johnson and TaMerik Williams. The duo of running backs has been effective for the Bison all year with each rushing for over 600 yards and combining for 13 touchdowns. Two weeks ago Williams ran for 101 yards and a score against Montana while Johnson has put up 254 yards and two TDs in the playoffs thus far.
Quarterback Cam Miller can also take it himself if needed. Miller has rushed for 14 touchdowns this season and carried the ball 12 times against Samford a week ago. He is equally as effective as a passer, however, with 1,710 yards and 11 scores. Although he doesn’t throw the ball quite as often, Miller is spot on when he does with a completion percentage of nearly 70%.
Stopping the run will be vital for Incarnate Word’s defense and that will all start with linebacker Kelechi Anyalebechi. Anyalebechi is tied for ninth in the FCS with 112 total tackles this year, 63 of which have been on his own. He and defensive lineman Parker Steven have combined for 21 tackles for loss. If UIW ends up pulling off the upset, odds are you’ll be able to point to these two as a major reason why.
On the outside, look for NDSU receivers Zach Mathis and Joe Stoffel to get looks when Miller opts to pass. The two have been targeted the most of any Bison receivers this season and have combined for 627 yards and four touchdowns on 49 receptions.
Incarnate Word will counter with a ball-hawking secondary led by DBs Shawn Holton and Elliott Davison. Holton and Davison each have grabbed three interceptions this fall and have come together for 71 total tackles. Between them they have nine PBUs.
Incarnate Word Offense vs. North Dakota State Defense
When quarterback Lindsey Scott has the ball don’t blink because you may very well miss something. Scott is arguably the most electric playmaker in the FCS and he is a scoring threat via the air and the ground any time he gets a touch. The explosive signal-caller is one of only two FCS passers to throw for over 4,000 yards this fall and he leads the country with 59 touchdowns. Last week against Sac State, Scott slung the ball for 219 yards and four touchdowns. He can also do it with his legs, though, as he’s rushed for 710 yards and nine scores this year. All of that is why Scott is a finalist for this season’s Walter Payton Award, an honor given annually to the FCS’ best offensive player.
One reason Scott’s numbers are so off the charts is his talented receivers. Taylor Grimes, who caught the game-winner in last week’s contest, has hauled in 76 passes for 1,144 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s only one of two Cardinals receivers to have over 1,000 receiving yards this year, though. Pacing the team in that category is Darion Chafin with 63 catches for 1,211 yards and 17 scores. When Scott is throwing, odds are it’s one of these two on the receiving end.
Safety Dawson Weber will be NDSU’s best defense against the ultra-powerful passing attack. Weber has snagged a pick in each of the first two playoff games and has three total on the year. He also has forced three fumbles and registered five PBUs. Weber will be joined in the secondary by fellow safety Michael Tutsie. On his storied Bison career, Tutsie has come down with 11 interceptions and has authored 313 total tackles. The pair will have a tall order against UIW’s standout receivers and will play pivotal roles in slowing down Scott and company.
When it isn’t Scott running the ball it likely will be Marcus Cooper. Cooper and Scott were the only two to register carries last weekend and both ran it very effectively. Cooper has accumulated 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground this fall. He rumbled all over the field against Sacramento State last week for 176 yards and two end zone trips. Cooper now has six games under his belt this year in which he’s hit the century mark.
NDSU linebackers James Kaczor and Nick Kubitz will be tasked with slowing down Cooper. Kaczor leads the team in tackles (81, 45 solo) while Kubitz is right behind him with 58 stops (26 solo). Also playing a big role in stopping the run will be senior defensive end Spencer Waege. Waege has eight sacks this year as well as 15.5 tackles for loss.
The Special Teams
UIW doesn’t find itself kicking field goals all that often with the amount of touchdowns they score. When they do need to try for three, though, kicker Carson Mohr is the one that handles that duty. Mohr is 7-for-9 (77.8%) on his field goal tries this year with his longest coming from 38 yards (his career best is from 48). He’s attempted a whopping 89 PATs this fall and has connected on 87 of them.
Mohr won’t do the kickoffs, however. That job will fall upon Tony Sterner who has just as strong of a leg. Sterner has booted 39 kicks through the end zone for touchbacks this year. That will be big in keeping the ball away from NDSU’s RaJa Nelson who averages 19.1 yards per runback. When the Cardinals need to punt they’ll look to Keven Nguyen who averages 40.7 yards per punt.
In the return game Incarnate Word’s Kole Wilson is dynamite on punts with two run back for touchdowns this year. Dekalon Taylor and Ce’Cori Tolds will take kickoffs. Each has 10 returns this fall with an average of over 18 yards per runback. Wilson may also try his hand at kickoff returns as he has eight on the season.
North Dakota State kicker Griffin Crosa has only missed one field goal all year (8-of-9, 88.9%) and is a perfect 61-of-61 on PATs. The longest make of his career came from 46. Will Cardinal will take kickoff duties for the Bison. He has 30 touchbacks this year but has kicked four out of bounds. Kaedin Steindorf has punted 39 times with an average of 38.7 yards per boot. He has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 17 times this year and only has three touchbacks.
The aforementioned Nelson will take kickoffs as will Johnson. Jayden Price will field punts and is dangerous with the ball in his hands. He’s taken one to the house and has nearly 200 punt return yards under his belt this season.
This game is going to come down to how well NDSU can stick to their bread and butter: chewing up as much time as possible on long, sustained drives. That’s an easy thing to do when you’re playing teams like Western Illinois and Drake. It’s a whole different challenge against a group like UIW but the Bison will need to find a way because the best defense is keeping the ball out of Scott’s hands. They held possession for nearly 40 minutes against Samford last weekend and it feels like they need to do that again this time out. The Cardinals have the firepower to stay with and even beat NDSU but winning in Fargo is a whole lot easier said than done. There’s a reason only one team has done it in December since North Dakota State became an FCS program. It’s a fool’s endeavor to pick against the Bison at home in the playoffs.
Score: Incarnate Word: 31 - North Dakota State: 35
The game will kick off at 7:00 PM (ET) on ESPN2.