FCS finalists see each other in the mirror
(STATS) - The general way to characterize Saturday's FCS Championship is it being a showdown of North Dakota State's physical style of play versus Jacksonville State's speed and athleticism.
But the finalists mirror each other in many ways, making their meeting at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, the toughest challenge of the season for both teams.
"That's kind of accurate," Jacksonville State All-America quarterback Eli Jenkins said of the general premise.
"But I feel like we're a real, real physical team," Jenkins added. "We try to be the most physical team on the field at all times, offensively and defensively. And North Dakota State, they have player speed, they have guys that can really run it and move around. Both teams have great players that can play football. So it's really not just North Dakota, they're just a physical team, and Jacksonville, they're just athletic, it's a little of both on each side."
Among the season averages that stand out for top-ranked Jacksonville State (13-1), appearing in the FCS Championship for the first time, are offensive yards (529.2, second in the FCS), rushing yards (311.7, third) and points (41.0, sixth).
North Dakota State (12-2), which will try to add to its record four straight FCS national titles, isn't far behind in those categories. Among 125 FCS teams, the Bison are in the top 25 in rushing yards (240.6, 12th) and points (34.8, 16th) and just missed in offensive yards (426.2, 26th).
NDSU's vaunted defense is top 10 in yards allowed (276.3, third), points (15.7, sixth) and rushing yards (101.4, seventh).
JSU, though, is in the top 20 in the same trio of categories: yards (294.7, 11th), points (18.7, 12th) and rushing yards (116.6, 16th).
"If you're able to run the football and able to stop the run, which they're able to do, and we've shown over the course of time that we've been able to do, I think that's a recipe for success," North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman said. "That's where I think both teams are really similar. They're extremely well-coached. Coach (John) Grass does a phenomenal job coaching these guys. You can tell they're a disciplined, well-coached football team."
Said Grass: "We want to be good up front O-line-wise and we want to be good D-line-wise. Those guys definitely, I think it starts up front with any great defense or any good defense. You've got good players up front D-line-wise and you've got guys that have high motors. North Dakota State, they've got the same thing. They've got guys over there that are very talented. The defense is only as good as your D-line can be."
Both finalists rank in the top 25 of the FCS in many other key statistics, including passing yards allowed per game, time of possession (NDSU is No. 1 at 36 minutes, 20 seconds), third-down conversion percentage, third-down conversion percentage defense, fewest sacks allowed, team passing efficiency defense, passes intercepted (defense) and fewest passes intercepted (offense).
The downfall of many North Dakota State opponents occurs at the line of scrimmage, but Jacksonville State appears to have the strength there to match the Bison.
NDSU's big offensive line, led by tackle Joe Haeg and guard Zack Johnson on the left side, averages 6-foot-5½, 308 pounds per starter. However, it must solve JSU's athletic defensive line, which features Chris Landrum and averages a healthy 6-2½, 275½ pounds.
Four of the five JSU offensive linemen earned all-Ohio Valley Conference first-team honors, including All-America center Casey Dunn, and the unit averages 6-3, 300 pounds per starter. NDSU's defensive line goes 6-3, 264 pounds per starter - a group led by end Greg Menard.
"Well, I'd say they're so equally matched," Grass said. "I think that both teams have good O-line and D-line, so we're good in the trenches. They've got really good team speed, and they're physical in the way they play the game. I think both of us try to play the game the same way. Play fast, we want to play physical, and hang our hat on that.
"They do such a good job with their guys just blocking and tackling, which is what we want to do and the game's never gotten away from that for us, it's blocking and tackling. I think you're going to see two really fundamental football teams play on Saturday."