A year ago, the Bison whipped the Eagles 35-7 in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals. North Dakota State was too big, too strong, too well-coached, and Georgia Southern made too many mistakes to have a chance.
“We played Alabama in our final regular-season game last year and then played (North Dakota State) in the playoffs in the semifinals,” Monken said. “They’re as close to Alabama as anybody we’ve played in the three years I’ve been here.”
A year has passed, and the Bison look similar to the 2011 squad that stampeded the Eagles and the rest of the competition en route to their first national championship.
But has Georgia Southern team closed the gap?
The fifth-seeded Eagles return to Fargo, N.D., tonight to meet top-seeded North Dakota State.
The winner advances to the national title game Jan. 5 in Frisco, Tex., against Saturday’s winner between Eastern Washington and Sam Houston State.
Georgia Southern (10-3) averages an FCS-leading 409.2 rushing yards and 35.6 points a game.
But Monken isn’t banking on the offensive production. North Dakota State (12-1) has allowed seven points or less in seven of its 13 games this season. The Bison rank first in scoring defense (10.8 ppg.), first in total defense (207.4 ypg.), first in pass defense (128.9 ypg.) and second against the run (78.5 ypg.).
“People don’t score many points against them,” Monken said. “I’m not delusional. It would be hard to go in there and say we’re going to score all these points and outscore these guys. It’s going to be a heavyweight slugfest, and we’re going to have to play a physical, tough football game if we’re going to hang in there.”
To put North Dakota State’s defense in perspective, Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon’s three touchdowns (18 points) in the fourth quarter against Old Dominion last Saturday were more points than 11 opponents scored against the Bison in any game this season.
McKinnon’s 98 rushing yards in the final period against ODU were 20 more than the average of NDSU opponents for an entire game.
Bison coach Craig Bohl sees McKinnon, a first-year starting quarterback, as one of the differences in the game this year. The junior ran for 171 yards and four touchdowns while rallying the Eagles past Old Dominion.
“Where last year it was more about defending the scheme, now it’s defending the personnel,” Bohl said.
Georgia Southern’s triple-option rushing attack produced 602 yards on the ground against the Monarchs. The Eagles have had more than 500 rushing yards in a game on four occasions this year.
“I think Georgia Southern has done a great job of staying the course and understands the triple option as well as anybody,” Bohl said.
But Bohl is as qualified as anyone in working against the option. He was the defensive coordinator at Nebraska when the Cornhuskers were among the nation’s best option football teams.
Last season, Bohl installed a scheme that limited Southern to 186 rushing yards – nearly 150 under its average. GSU’s seven points were its fewest in a playoff game since 1995.
A week ago, NDSU’s defense did not allow a point to Wofford’s offense in a 14-7 victory. The Terriers’ lone points came on an interception return for a touchdown.
Bison linebacker Grant Olson had 29 tackles against Wofford.
“(The NDSU defenders) move around a lot and give you different looks,” McKinnon said. “Everybody has to play his assignment, that’s the key to this offense.”
The Bison will have another advantage which will be apparent on the first snap. The 18,000-plus crowd in the Fargodome can make deafening noise on cue.
Playing last season in that environment should help Southern – a little.
“At least our veteran guys have experienced it, and they won’t be in shock the first time the roof starts blowing off the top of the place,” Monken said.