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McFeely: Five things to watch in the Bison-Samford game

NDSU running game, Bulldogs' QB among the things on which to keep an eye

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Samford receiver Kendall Watson has 80 receptions for 961 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Chase Cochran / Samford Athletics
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FARGO — The good news for Samford: North Dakota State has been eliminated from the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs more times in the quarterfinals than any other round.

The Bison lost at Eastern Washington in 2010 and at Sam Houston in the COVID spring 2021 mess.

Winners of nine FCS national championships since first making the playoffs in 2010, the only other time the Bison didn't win a national championship during a postseason run was 2016 when they lost to James Madison in the semifinals at the Fargodome.

The bad news for Samford: The Bison are 5-0 against Southern Conference teams in the playoffs, including blowout victories in the quarterfinals in 2017 and 2021. The Bison beat Wofford 42-10 in 2017 at the dome and East Tennessee State 27-3 last year, also at the dome.

What does this mean for the Bulldogs, who play at NDSU on Friday in the quarterfinals? Probably nothing, other than the Bison have an impressive playoff history.

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But ...

Samford, the Southern Conference champion which sports an 11-1 record, is an 17.5-point underdog according to the betting lines and needs all the positive energy it can muster.

That 0-5 mark against the Bison for the SoCon includes two games involving Georgia Southern, an FCS powerhouse which had multiple NFL players on the teams that lost in Fargo in 2011 and 2012. It's unlikely these Bulldogs have that kind of talent or firepower.

It is more likely they are close to last season's East Tennessee State team in size, speed and talent — even if they play a completely different style and scheme. ETSU came to Fargo with an 11-1 record, several thrilling victories under its belt and some impressive offensive numbers. The Buccaneers left 24-point losers and were able to muster only 165 yards of offense compared to the Bison's 401.

The veteran Bison did just enough to win the game and not much more.

Can this NDSU team, with a raft of injuries and key transfer portal departures, skate by? Or will the Bison be fully engaged?

Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday.

Here are five things to watch in the Bison-Samford game.

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Stop the run, or else

This could well be all five things from Samford's perspective.

Stop us if you've heard this before.

The Bulldogs have to stop NDSU's powerful running game if they want a chance at winning.

That will be far easier said than done. Like saying, "I'm going to walk to Birmingham, Alabama." Sounds good. Can it happen?

Logic says no. NDSU has the best offensive line in FCS, even with two starters out for the season with injuries, and the Bison rush for an average of 277 yards per game. That's third best in FCS.

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North Dakota State's TaMerik Williams carries against Southern Illinois during their NCAA FCS second-round football playoff game last year in Fargo.
Michael Vosburg / The Forum

Even more than that, the last several games have shown what NDSU can do to opposing defenses.

The Bison rushed for 453 yards against a bad Western Illinois team, 170 against a solid Southern Illinois defense in tough conditions, 363 against a playoff team in North Dakota and 453 against Montana in the second round of the postseason. That's an average of 360 yards in the last four games.

Meanwhile, Samford's defense is 82nd against the run in FCS, allowing an average of 174.3 yards. The Bulldogs gave up 181 rushing yards (and 695 total yards) against Mercer in the regular-season finale and 348 rushing yards (and 521 total yards) in a playoff game last week against Southeastern Louisiana.

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The numbers aren't aligning for the Bulldogs.

Will Bison face QB1 or QB2?

The biggest ongoing story with Samford is whether starting quarterback Michael Hiers, the Southern Conference offensive player of the year, will be able to play against NDSU. Hiers was injured late in the Bulldogs' game against Mercer, left that game, and tried to play last week against Southeastern Louisiana but left after a handful of snaps.

It's believed Hiers has an injury to his right (throwing) hand or wrist.

The 6-foot-1, 221-pound senior is good. He's completed 331 of 431 passes for 3,317 yards and 35 touchdowns. He ranks sixth in FCS in passing yards and fourth in TD passes and leads all Division I passers with a 78.6 completion percentage.

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Samford receiver Judd Cockett has 32 catches for 217 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Chase Cochran / Samford Athletics

"He's the guy that got us here and there's a reason he's the player of the year. So not having him definitely hurts us," Samford head coach Chris Hatcher said.

If Hiers can't go, he'd be replaced by redshirt freshman Quincy Crittendon. He's a walk-on who began the season as the team's fourth-string QB.

But he's led the Bulldogs to back-to-back overtime victories over Mercer and Southeastern Louisiana, scoring the walk-off winning TD both times.

"He'd have a good pinch-hitting batting average if he was a baseball player," Hatcher said.

Against SELA, Crittendon completed 26 of 40 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 94 yards and a score on 20 carries.

Bison head coach Matt Entz said Crittendon brings an added running element to Samford's offense.

Battle of attrition, as usual

It's the time of year when FCS teams are often patching things together with chicken wire and duct tape. The final eight teams still playing are entering their fifth month of the season, counting fall camp beginning in August, and injuries are mounting. This will be the 13th game for NDSU and Samford.

In addition to the Bulldogs' QB question, Hatcher said his team is "banged up" coming to Fargo and wouldn't know until midweek if some players hurt in the victory over SELA would be available against NDSU.

"Like most FCS teams we don't have a whole lot of depth and when you lose a good player that backup is a backup for a reason," Hatcher said. "We'll just have to manage the roster and do the best we can."

NDSU's list of injuries to top players is well-documented. The Bison have lost three preseason All-Americans (fullback Hunter Luepke, tight end Noah Gindorff, defensive tackle Eli Mostaert), two starting offensive linemen (center Jalen Sundell, right tackle Mason Miller) and a key defensive end (Jake Kava) to season-ending injuries.

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North Dakota State head football coach Matt Entz exchages words with the Montana bench as trainers attend to Spencer Waege after he took a hit during Nick Kubitz's interception return in the NCAA FCS playoffs at the Fargodome on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.
Dave Samson / The Forum

"They have so many All-Americans that just having a couple going away isn't going to hurt them too much," Hatcher said, jokingly.

"It reminds a little bit of 2016," Entz said. "We had some big-time, marquee names go down that year."

In addition, NDSU had four contributing players (running back Dom Gonnella, cornerback Marques Sigle, receiver D.J. Hart and receiver Phoenix Sproles) enter the transfer portal during the season.

The hits didn't stop coming last week in a playoff victory over Montana. Tight end/fullback Logan Hofstedt left the game with a shoulder injury, starting middle linebacker Luke Weerts injured his ankle and defensive end Spencer Waege's back was injured when he took a shot from a Grizzlies player while sitting on the turf.

Waege and Hofstedt met with the media earlier this week and said they'd be ready to play. Weerts wasn't available, but Entz said in his Monday press conference that Weerts was jogging at practice.

Nick Kubitz, who split time at MLB with Weerts this season and replaced him against the Griz, would fill in if Weerts can't play.

The Eli Watch continues

Eli Mostaert, the preseason All-American defensive tackle, suffered a broken leg in a Week 2 victory over North Carolina A&T. An air cast was placed on his leg and he was taken off the field on a cart.

He hasn't played since, obviously, but hasn't been wearing a walking boot on his foot since early November when was boot-free on the sidelines at Western Illinois.

We, the jackal-like Forum Communications Co. media, have been asking Entz since then whether Mostaert was ready to return to the lineup, since the coach said shortly after the injury the junior could possibly return this season.

Entz in late November said Mostaert was running but not practicing. Entz said Monday he wasn't sure if Mostaert would practice this week.

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North Dakota State's Eli Mostaert (53) celebrates a sack on Illinois State quarterback Bryce Jefferson at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Ill., on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum

Mostaert's return to the defensive line, even in a limited capacity considering it would take him awhile to get in shape to play more than a dozen or so snaps, would be huge. He is a big body at 6-foot-3, 280 pounds and is disruptive in the middle of the line. The Bison struggle at times to stop the run, especially earlier in the season, and Mostaert would help.

That said, the young defensive linemen forced into action early this season because of graduation, Mostaert's injury and Kava's injury have improved. Redshirt freshmen nose guard Jaxon Duttenheffer has become noticeably more disruptive, while redshirt freshman tackle Kody Huisman and redshirt freshman end Kole Menz have made key plays in the past couple of weeks.

The head coach has preached patience with his young line all season.

"At some point the light comes on and you have to stay with them, keep coaching them. They'll mature at some point, you just don't know when," Entz said. "Fortunately we've had some d-linemen, some linebackers that have all really stepped up and have a pretty good idea of what's going on right now. Hopefully we can continue that trend."

California dreamin' or home sweet home?

We are entering dangerous territory by writing what we're about to write because we — cue the ominous music — are looking ahead.

If the heavily favored Bison (17.5 points as of Thursday morning) defeat Samford they would advance to the semifinals for the 11th time in 12 years.

But NDSU could be headed on the road for the semifinals for the first time in their Division I history.

No. 2 seed Sacramento State hosts seventh-seeded Incarnate Word in a quarterfinal game later Friday. If undefeated Sac State wins, a Bison victory would send them to California for a semifinal next week.

However, and here's the juicy part, if the Bison win and Incarnate Word wins the semifinal between those teams would be played in Fargo because NDSU is seeded higher than the Cardinals.

Since its FCS dynasty began in 2011, NDSU has been the No. 1 or No. 2 seed nine times. It was unseeded in the shrunken playoff field during the COVID-affected 2021 spring season and, of course is the third seed this season.

The only other time it was the No. 3 seed was 2015 ... and that's why the Bison have hope they could play at home for the semifinals.

More from the Bison Media Zone

It was 2015 when Jacksonville State (Ala.) was the top seed and Illinois State of the mighty Missouri Valley Football Conference was the second seed. It was expected NDSU was going to have to travel if it advanced to the semifinals.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Frisco. Seventh-seeded Richmond upset the Redbirds in a Friday night quarterfinal and the next day NDSU beat an uber-talented Northern Iowa team at the dome in a thriller.

The Bison would get Richmond in the semifinals at the Fargodome.

That game was a mismatch, with a voracious NDSU defense overwhelming the Spiders and NFL-bound quarterback Kyle Lauletta while Bison special teams scored two touchdowns. Final score: NDSU 33, Richmond 7.

Three weeks later, NDSU beat a supremely overconfident Jacksonville State team in the national championship game for its fifth straight title.

Sac State and Incarnate Word kick off at 9:30 p.m. Central, so if the Bison win their fans can watch (and cheer for the Cardinals if they want the Bison at home for the semis) the entire game.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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