By Kent Schmidt
CSN West Columnist
College Sporting News
It is rare that a top seeded team that is also undefeated would be considered an underdog. But that is what Sam Houston State has had to endure ever since the playoffs started.
There is no way most experts thought that SHSU could move on after struggling to defeat Big South champions Stony Brook 34-27.
Most so-called experts have stated that the Southland Conference championsí undefeated season as a mirage especially after this narrow win in the teamís first playoff game. They would say as soon as they see some of the top competition from the so called better FCS conference such as the Colonial Athletic Association, Southern Conference, Big Sky Conference, or the Missouri Valley Football Conference, they would be ousted.
Well, I was one of the so-called experts last week that thought the same thing. Not only was I wrong, I was not even close. Sam Houston State not only defeated but they destroyed Big Sky co-champion Montana State last weekend and will look to defeat the other Big Sky co-champion Montana this Friday.
How did the Bearkats win the game over Montana State?
Sam Houston State beat the Bobcats 49-13 Saturday. It was a game that SHSU scored the last 21 points in a game that MSU had closed to within 28-13 in the third quarter.
SHSU scored the first of these points as Brandon Closner returned a kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown after MSU had cut the margin to 28-13.
Ryan Wilson scored from the one after Richard Sincere's 52-yard run. Torrance Williams added scores on runs of 56 and 21 yards earlier.
SHSU dominated the statistical category with 501 yards to 329 yards, with 437 of those on the ground.
How have the Bearkats won?
After last weekís win, SHSU has won 16 straight games dating back to last year.
Tim Flanders has rushed for 1,273 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, although was slowed to just 38 yards against Montana State, and also leads the team with 28 receptions for 404 yards. Sincere is the second-leading rusher with 913 yards and is third in catches with 25 for 449 yards.
Quarterback Brian Bell has thrown for 1,841 yards and 18 touchdowns, with just four interceptions.
Have Montana and Sam Houston State met before?
Yes, and in the same round of the 2004 playoffs. Back then, the Bearkats traveled to Missoula but were rudely welcomed as the Grizzlies blew out the Kats, 34-13. Earlier that season Sam Houston had beat Montana 41-29 in Huntsville.
The two teams have met three other times.
They first met in a 2001 Championships quarterfinal game in Missoula, 49-24 win for the Griz and then in the 2003 regular season in Missoula, another Griz win at 38-14.
Montana has been great during the semi-final round in its history. The Grizzlies are 7-3 in this round but just 1-2 on the road. The Grizzlies, however, did win their last road semi-final with a win over James Madison.
The one semi-final is all SHSU has had in their history.
With Montana coming to town, Sam Houston State will likely be played as the underdog again. But that might be just what Coach Willie Fritzís team will want. They can just keep winning in this role.
* * *
CSN WEST SEMIFINAL PREVIEWS
#4 Montana (11-2) at #1 Sam Houston State (13-0), Friday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern
Last week, Montana and Sam Houston State both blew out their opponents in the quarterfinal round, destroying respectively Northern Iowa and Montana State. These two teams are the hottest of the four remaining teams left playing. Montana has won nine straight, while Sam Houston State as mentioned is undefeated and the only FCS team this year that can make that claim.
For Montana, quarterback Jordan Johnson was key to the win over UNI, accounting for four total touchdowns (three passing, one rushing). A sophomore as well, Johnson rushed 10 times for 86 yards, and completed 13-of-20 passes for 196 yards.
As mentioned above, Sam Houston State will look to run the ball first and has several running backs that can lead the attack.
While both offenses have been very prolific, the two defenses have probably been more dominant. Montana, which ranks in the top 20 for almost every defensive category, has allowed just 51 combined points in its last five games or just over 10 points per game.
The Bearkats were ranked as the top-scoring defense before the start of the playoffs but slipped by giving up 27 points to Stony Brook in the second round.
Like most playoff games against teams that are nearly equal in talent, the turnover margin will likely come down to the winner.
Before the playoffs started, I predicted Montana to win their third national title and I really canít go against this pick right now despite the Grizzlies playing on the road. This game to me, however, is one that could go either way but I will take the Grizzlies by a field goal.
Montana 27, Sam Houston State 24
* * *
Georgia Southern (11-2) at North Dakota State (12-1), Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Eastern
These two teams were originally scheduled to play in Fargo in September but Georgia Southern backed out to get another home game. I believe the football gods really wanted to wait until the semifinal round to see which of these two teams are better, and not in September.
This should be another game that might go down to the wire. The key to me in this game is who will be better in their respective best weapons. Georgia Southern employs the triple option offense and NDSUís top side is their defense.
NDSUís defense shutout high scoring Lehigh last week in the quarterfinals in the Bison 24-0 win while Georgia Southern had the closest contest amongst the four quarterfinal games but still won rather comfortably 35-23 over Maine.
The Eagles held the ball over 42 minutes last week within their option attack that is led by quarterback Jaybo Shaw. He leads the Eagles with 14 touchdowns, while Robert Brown (72.1 ypg), Dominique Swope (77.2 ypg) and J.J. Wilcox (seven TDs) are all running backs behind him that will see carries.
NDSUís offense should be able to move the ball on the Georgia Southern defense but will need to hold onto the ball unlike last week where the Bison had three turnovers.
The Bison offense runs the ball first with running backs Sam Ojuri (75.2 ypg) and D.J. McNorton (73.9 ypg). But quarterback Brock Jensen can throw the ball when needed. He completes 68 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions.
The Fargodome should again be at near sellout numbers this week and will help the Bison with their noise.
Georgia Southern will likely be the best team that has ever visited Fargo. But as with my pick of Montana, I picked North Dakota State to get to the national championship game. NDSU has not shown me signs that it will stop this ride and I believe the home field will give the Bison the win. I like NDSU in another three point game.
North Dakota State 31 Georgia Southern 28