NDSU title experience will pay off

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(STATS) - One of the first game tapes coach John Grass says he watched when he returned to his alma mater of Jacksonville State in 2013 was North Dakota State's blowout of Sam Houston State a season earlier in the FCS national championship game.

He wanted to see where the bar was set highest in the FCS.

Nearly three years later, it would be easy for Grass to wear out his remote control. The second-year head coach, who spent the 2013 season as Jacksonville State's offensive coordinator, can watch any of the last four national finals to find something similar - that North Dakota State's dynasty of consecutive FCS titles comes with excellent personnel and execution.

What doesn't show up on film when watching each game separately is the intangible factor that Grass can still deduct collectively. Many of NDSU's key players have the experience - some lots of it - of playing in the biggest FCS game of the season.

The Bison (12-2) will make the program's fifth straight appearance at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, while Jacksonville State (13-1) will play for the first time in the title game.

"Well, I think it definitely plays into the game. They've been there before, done it several times," Grass said. "I have the utmost respect for their program."

What Grass and the top-seeded Gamecocks are counting on is the tangible overcoming the intangible - that their squad's talent will make the necessary game-deciding plays in the biggest game of their lives.

That might not come right away, it make take the Gamecocks more time to settle into Saturday's game than their opponents from the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Bison simply know what to expect today, tomorrow, all the way into kickoff.

For the three weeks leading up to the game, the Bison have had an advantage of drawing off their previous trips to Frisco. It's not the usual weekly routine.

They've known how to pace themselves over the three-week break following the semifinals, building up their play and conditioning after a short holiday break and then implementing the game plan before flying to Texas. They know about the different functions during championship week and the shortened practice time in Frisco. They know how to handle nervous feelings as kickoff approaches.

"You know, the experience factor, I think where it would help us is just because we're familiar with the surroundings and familiar with where the practice fields and the hotel and that stuff," North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman said, "but I don't know how much that's going to help us at 11:00 o'clock (CT) on Saturday. It still comes down to executing against an exceptional football team."

The two finalists have provided the best possible matchup in Frisco. NDSU's consecutive titles streak is in serious jeopardy against an opponent that has been No. 1-ranked for much of the season.

Grass says more pressure is on NDSU as the reigning champ and that his team is trying to treat Saturday as just another game day.

It's not, of course, just as the Bison have proven in early January the last four years.

It's up to the Gamecocks to take away the advantage in experience.

"We just have to come in and keep preparing like we prepare every other week and play our game because it's really all about us," Jacksonville State All-America cornerback Jermaine Hough said. "That's what Coach Grass always tells us - it's never about our opponent, it's about us. If we do our part, we'll have a good opportunity."




No. 1 seed Jacksonville State (13-1) vs. No. 3 seed North Dakota State (12-2)

Site: Toyota Stadium (20,500) in Frisco, Texas

Kickoff: Noon ET Saturday

Forecast: There is a 20 percent chance of showers, with mostly cloudy and windy conditions, and temperatures dipping considerably from a day earlier to a high around 47.

Television: ESPN2 (announcers Anish Shroff, Ahmad Brooks and Quint Kessenich)

Series: Jacksonville State leads, 2-0 (last meeting: Jacksonville State won 21-17 in the 1989 NCAA Division II quarterfinals)

The Matchup: North Dakota State and the Augustana (Ill.) teams that won Division III championships from 1983-86 are the only programs in NCAA history to win four straight national titles, so the Bison (19 straight postseason wins) will try to stand alone after Saturday. Jacksonville State is appearing in its first FCS championship game - in fact, the No. 1-ranked Gamecocks are the first Ohio Valley Conference qualifier since Eastern Kentucky won the 1982 final over Delaware.

NDSU's dynasty has been built especially on defense, and middle linebacker Nick DeLuca has helped spearhead a playoff run in which the Bison have held Montana, Northern Iowa and Richmond to season lows in yards. The Bison rank third in the FCS in total defense (276.3 yards per game), and while they allow only 101.4 yards per game on the ground, they will be challenged by Jacksonville State's speedy rushing attack that averages 311.7 (third-most in the FCS). Still, the familiar Bison game plan often wins out: Be more physical at the line of scrimmage and keep the ball away from the opponent. The Bison, with King Frazier leading their power run game, rank first in the FCS in average time of possession (36 minutes, 20 seconds). But they figure to air it out more if quarterback Carson Wentz, sidelined by a wrist injury during the team's eight-game winning streak, is mixed back into action with redshirt freshman Easton Stick, the better runner. Place-kicker Cam Pedersen has struggled in the postseason (1 of 7 on field goal attempts), but punter Ben LeCompte is a first-team All-American and Bruce Anderson has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the postseason while Eric Perkins has one punt return for a score.

Jacksonville State's FCS-best 12-game winning streak includes three Top 10 opponents in the playoffs (Chattanooga, Charleston Southern and Sam Houston State). Unlike non-conference opponents that are usually overwhelmed by NDSU, the Gamecocks' offensive and defensive lines have the athleticism, size and strength to win in the trenches. The Ohio Valley Conference champs are averaging 606.3 yards and 53.3 points in the postseason with six rushing touchdowns, and they feature two 1,000-yard rushers in running back Troymaine Pope (1,757 yards, 19 touchdowns, 8.4 yards per carry) and first-team All-America quarterback Eli Jenkins (1,073 yards, 14 TDs). But the Bison also have to focus on JSU wide receiver Josh Barge, who has caught 90 passes and 11 TDs. JSU's athletic defense is outstanding, ranking 11th nationally in yards allowed per game (294.7). It's an aggressive unit, evidenced by a national-high 130 tackles for loss (defensive linemen Darius Jackson and Chris Landrum lead the way with 18.5 and 17.5, respectively). The Gamecocks feature three All-OVC first-teamers in the secondary (Brandon Bender, Jermaine Hough and Folo Johnson), and the unit manhandled Sam Houston State in the national semifinals. Place-kicker Connor Rouleau is 16 for 26 on field goal attempts but has made only 1 of 6 beyond 40 yards.

Prediction: It's ironic that the four-time reigning FCS champs haven't been No. 1 for most of the season, Jacksonville State has. The Bison want to have what they've always felt was theirs. North Dakota State, 29-24.

Season Prediction Record: 573-152 (.790)