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Breaking Down North Dakota State, FCS Quarterfinals, 12/9/2011

The gap between the regular season and the Towson game was very long - a two week gap that seemed like an eternity.

The gap in between last weekend's 40-38 win against Towson and this weekend's FCS quarterfinal game against North Dakota State was shorter in terms of time - but, for obvious reasons, has seemed even longer than the two-week layover from the last game.

Almost forgot in this extraordinary week is the fact that there's an actual football game to be played in Fargo - a game against the most complete football team that Lehigh will have faced up until this point.

Below the flip, see my breakdown of the Bison, keys to the game, and Fearless Prediction.


Breaking Down the Bison
Offense
Going into last week's game against James Madison, the storyline with North Dakota State involved injuries. Would their offensive line, their star quarterback, and one of their star running backs be able to recoup in time from a hard-fought Missouri Valley Football conference schedule and be fresh enough to take on a red-hot James Madison team?

The answer was a resounding yes, to the tune of 26-14.

The Bison, like Towson, play a physical style of offense that emphasizes power running through a stable of running backs.  Like Towson, they benefit from cashing in on big plays, but unlike Towson, they have the extra discipline to line up and knock you straight in the mouth as well.  No drive said that better than last week's 10 play, 80 yard drive to give North Dakota State their first score that shaved 5:38 off the clock.

Last weekend, folks in Fargo were speculating on the health of 6'3, 222 lb sophomore QB Brock Jensen (2,104 yards passing, 16 TDs), as the big, mobile, dual-threat quarterback has suffered from a nagging "turf toe" injury.  The only thing that will make the "turf toe" better will be extended rest, though, and it has made Jensen more of a pocket passer.

In Craig Bohl's power rushing offense, the quarterback's role is to take advantage when teams cheat up against the run, often through play-action passing, and not turn over the ball.  Jensen has done this exceptionally well, with only 2 interceptions on the year (and one coming in a meaningless game against Western Illinois to close the season).

As for the running game, the Bison have two great ones that have been splitting time in the backfield, sophomore RB Sam Ojuri (842 yards rushing, 10 TDs) and senior RB D.J. McNorton (835 yards rushing, 181 yards receiving, 14 TDs).  Ojuri is more of a power north/south runner, and McNorton is more of a big play guy that can also catch the ball out of the backfield, but both have been extremely durable down the stretch.

Senior WR Warren Holloway (824 yards, 6 TDs) is the go-to receiver in those passing or play-action downs more often than not, with sophomore WR Ryan Smith (471 yards) and senior TE Matt Veldman (277 yards, 3 TDs) Jensen's other two big targets on offense.  Tellingly, no other starter this weekend (save McNorton) has more than 10 receptions.

With an offense like this, it all begins and ends with the offensive line, and this group could be the best one Lehigh has faced all year.  Anchored by 6'6 senior OL Paul Cornick, this unit has only given up 18 sacks on the entire season, and has allowed the Bison running backs to power this offense.  Averaging more than 300 lbs across, they will be tough to move.

Defense
The Bison play a multiple 4-3 that, while supremely talented and one of the best in all of FCS, is still surprisingly young.  With only four seniors on the squad, it's a frightening prospect for the rest of the Missouri Valley next year as well.

At defensive end, senior DE Coulter Boyer (39 tackles, 9 sacks) and sophomore DE Cole Jirik (38 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks) have been getting excellent pressure on the quarterback.  Seeing them against James Madison, the whole defensive line plays very fast, thanks to the speedy FargoDome turf that is a real boon for all pass rushers.

At linebacker, senior LB Chad Wilson (75 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble) and senior LB Preston Evans (68 tackles, 1 forced fumble) lead a "no-name" front seven that is notable in the fact that there are no real weaknesses with any one member.  The whole unit gets excellent pressure on the quarterback.  The linebackers tackle extremely well.

But it's the secondary where the Bison truly shines the brightest.

Sophomore CB Marcus Williams (42 tackles, 12 pass breakups, 7 interceptions, 3 returned for touchdonws) is the best corner Lehigh has faced all season.  He's a big play sort of guy that can electrify the FargoDome, and his speed and nose for the football makes him a superstar.

After Williams, though, there is a surprising amount of inexperience and depletion due to injury.

Lehigh may have caught a break when sophomore FS Colton Heagle, who did not play against the Dukes, suffered an injury, meaning junior FS Bobby Ollman (24 tackles) has taken his place.  And on the other side of Williams is a redshirt freshman CB Christian Dudzik (57 tackles), who has played well on the other side, but doesn't have a single interception.

North Dakota State's turnover margin is 7th in the country, but while Williams has been a monster in the secondary, their ratio is more thanks to their offense taking care of the ball and not turning things over.  In Bohl's world, the best defense is a good offense, certainly.

Special Teams

As inexperienced as North Dakota State can be in areas on their team, their special teams is loaded with talent and experience.  In all phases of special teams the Bison truly have it all, from punters to return units.

The punter, senior P Matt Voightlander, averages 40.6 yards a punt and is truly a weapon for the Bison on offense, while senior PK Ryan Jastram is 46-50 on extra points and is an eye-popping 4 of 5 on field goals beyond 40 yards, including a 53 yarder last weekend at home versus James Madison.  They are exceptional kickers at the FCS level, and you have to believe Jastram could be on an NFL roster next fall.

On kickoff returns, pick your poison: CB Marcus Williams (315 yards) or RB D.J. McNorton (148 yards) - Lehigh may, like they did against Towson, squib the ball on kickoffs.  On punts, too, WR Ryan Smith is averaging 10.9 yards per return - exceptional numbers.



LFN's Keys to the Game

1. Front seven discipline.  A win is going to require some more big Mountain Hawk stops on defense, and with North Dakota State's bowl-you-over, grinding running game, it's going to require a lot of gang tackling and hitting those gaps.  The play of senior LB Mike Groome and senior LB Colin Newtown in the linebacking corps is going to be a huge factor in this game.

2. Ball protection.  You know the Bison are unlikely to turn over the ball more than once, so not giving away points to North Dakota State on offense is also going to be critical.  Senior QB Chris Lum, with an interception-less game last week, will likely need to keep that streak alive this week to have a chance.

3. Use the Turf to Your Advantage.  On the thin AstroTurf, this game is going to be played at a faster pace than the grass fields that Lehigh has played on most of the year.  For Lehigh's passing game, that will be more of an advantage than a disadvantage.  Using that speed to add new wrinkles in the offensive gameplan could pay off with some big plays in the passing game.  It will be interesting to see what offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini comes up with in this aspect of the game.


Fearless Prediction

It's not a question of getting fired up.  Lehigh's fired up about the suspension, while North Dakota State is still fired up about the loss to Eastern Washington last year on a questionable fumble call.

It's not a question of pressure.  Both teams feel it: win, and they survive, lose, and they're gone.

Lehigh's had more distractions.  They've had to worry about the Dome, the travel, the suspension, the No. 2 team in the country.

Will all of that affect the team on gameday?  I don't think so.  They've come too far, and lived through so many ups and downs as a part of the football program, to let this derail them now.

Has North Dakota State faced a team like this one all year?  I don't think so.  The closest thing they've seen to this is Missouri State, and with all due respect to the Bears, this team is no Missouri State.

Has Lehigh faced a team like this one all year?  To an extent, Towson was similar, but I still don't think so.  Towson was tough, but young.  North Dakota State's defense sets them apart from the Tigers.

I think it's going to be a close game.  I think it will come down to the play of the quarterbacks.  And I think that it will come down to Lehigh making one more big play than North Dakota State.

Lehigh 27, North Dakota State 24

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