December 17, 2015

(STATS) - Of all that has changed over the course of North Dakota State's historic run of four consecutive FCS titles, its supremacy at the Fargodome remains constant.

The Bison plan to use that advantage once again after receiving an unexpected home game in Friday night's FCS semifinal against Richmond, though the Spiders are establishing a reputation as giant killers on the road.

Seventh-seeded Richmond (10-3) earned its first semifinal appearance since its 2008 national championship season with last week's 39-27 victory at Illinois State, halting the second-seeded Redbirds' 19-game home winning streak.

The 12th-ranked Spiders' reward was another road date with a Missouri Valley Conference powerhouse after third-seeded North Dakota State (11-2) kept its "drive for five" alive with a gritty 23-13 win over league rival Northern Iowa last Saturday.

Richmond is the only team to defeat two national seeds on the road this season, having previously topped fellow CAA co-champion James Madison in October. The Spiders' next road test, however, is surely their toughest yet.

The second-ranked Bison haven't lost a playoff game at home since their Division II days in 1991, winning 16 straight. They're 15-0 at the Fargodome in their FCS playoff history and own a 41-game win streak over non-conference opponents at the 19,000-seat indoor venue, where the decibel levels figure to pose a considerably more challenging atmosphere than what Richmond faced in front of an announced crowd of 5,356 at Illinois State.

The Spiders spent part of the week conducting walkthroughs in their basketball arena, where artificial crowd noise was pumped in to prepare for the anticipated raucous conditions.

"I think we've done everything we can do under the circumstances that you have," coach Danny Rocco said. "The best thing to do is advance the ball and put it in the end zone and then you won't get as much crowd noise."

The Spiders have done plenty of that in their two playoff wins. After rushing for 302 yards in a 48-13 second-round rout of William & Mary, they got the Bison's attention by gaining 557 total against an Illinois State team that lost by just two to NDSU in last year's championship game.

"We know how good Illinois State was when we played them last year, not only skilled athlete-wise but they were physical, they were athletic up front. And Richmond really owned the game," Bison coach Chris Klieman said. "Seeing them do it against a team that you're familiar with garnered our respect really quickly."

North Dakota State continues to win resourcefully in the absence of standout quarterback Carson Wentz. The Bison are 7-0 since the Senior Bowl invitee underwent wrist surgery Oct. 21, receiving efficient play from stand-in Easton Stick and relying upon a formidable defense and superior special teams.

The Bison held Northern Iowa to a season-low 221 yards, 71 in the second half, and never trailed after taking a 14-10 lead on Bruce Anderson's 97-yard kickoff return to begin the third quarter.

All-American punter Ben LeCompte later pinned the Panthers near the goal line to set up a game-sealing safety. Anderson also had a 100-yard touchdown on a kick return in a 37-6 second-round win over Montana.

"I thought (last week) was one of our best special teams games," Klieman said. "Ben was dynamite and obviously Bruce's kick return. For us to be successful and continue to play we have to win that phase of the game."

Wentz returned to practice last week, prompting speculation he could be ready for Friday's game. The NFL prospect would bring better balance to an offense that's been run-centric with Stick at the controls, averaging 281.4 yards on the ground during the seven-game win streak.

The Bison mustered a season-low 269 total yards against Northern Iowa, though King Frazier ran for 107 on 14 carries and Stick was not intercepted for a fifth consecutive game.

Richmond presents a more diversified attack with quarterback Kyle Lauletta coming off a 369-yard passing day to complement second-team All-American running back Jacobi Green's 137 rushing yards and four total touchdowns.

Green (1,563 yards, 21 TDs) is averaging 172.9 rushing yards and 27.4 carries over the last seven games, while wideout Brian Brown (71 catches, 1,362 yards) has five 100-yard outings over that stretch after gaining 141 on five catches last week.

The duo faces a stout NDSU defense that's yielded 209.0 total yards per game and a combined 19 points over the last three wins. Led by middle linebacker Nick DeLuca's 16 tackles, the Bison limited UNI's 1,000-yard rushing tandem of Aaron Bailey and Tyvius Smith to 91 yards on 34 attempts.

Takeaways have been Richmond's defensive forte, as the Spiders are tied for the FCS lead with 21 interceptions. They've been excellent against the run of late, permitting 89.8 yards and 3.3 per rush over the past four games.

"After the two back-to-back losses (to New Hampshire and Villanova from Nov. 7-14) we kind of got challenged by the coaching staff," Spiders defensive end Andrew Clyde said. "They wanted to see a more physical team, they wanted to see a team that could really shut down an opponent's run game and shut down what the opponent wants to do, and I think we've responded to that challenge."

Richmond is 4-0 all-time against MVC teams, including a win at Northern Iowa in the 2008 semifinals. NDSU is 3-0 versus CAA members, all coming in the playoffs. The schools have never met previously.

Friday's winner will face either No. 1 seed Jacksonville State or Sam Houston State in the Jan. 9 title game in Frisco, Texas.

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