#8 Colgate (10-1) at #1 North Dakota State (12-0) 12 P.M. ET
Location: Fargo, ND
Stadium: Fargo Dome (19,000)
Live TV/Streaming: ESPN/ESPN3
What’s At Stake: A spot in the FCS Semifinals against the winner of Kennesaw State-South Dakota State.
Series History: First Ever Meeting
Colgate – 11th Appearance, 7-10 record, 2003 National Runner-Up
North Dakota State – 9th Appearance, 29-2, National Champions 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2017
Colgate – The Raiders entered the season as the preseason favorite in the Patriot League and easily lived up to expectations on their way to a perfect 6-0 mark in league play and a 9-1 overall record. Colgate played a 10 game regular season schedule due to a mid-September roadie against Furman being cancelled (Hurricane Florence). The strength of this Colgate team is unquestionably their defense (7.0 ppg allowed) which set numerous league records in 2018. As a result of Colgate’s historically great defense this season, the “O” has been a little underappreciated despite being quite productive (29.4 ppg). QB Grant Breneman and 5th year senior RB James Holland form one of the top backfields in FCS that no one knows about. The Raiders advanced to the quarterfinals to face the Bison via a thrilling 23-20 win over James Madison. Chris Puzzi’s 39 yard FG as time expired punched the Raiders ticket to Fargo. The Raiders stout defense forced Duke’s quarterback Ben DiNucci into tossing 5 interceptions. However, the ‘Gate offense managed just 3 points off those extra possessions. Sophomore quarterback Grant Breneman (14/23 190 yards 1 TD) had a bit of an up and down day in his return from a shoulder injury.
North Dakota State – To call North Dakota State the Alabama of FCS would be to discredit the Bison’s greatness this decade. While Nick Saban has amassed 5 national titles (’09, ’11, ’12, ’15, ’17) over the course of the last 10 seasons, the Bison have 6 with two different coaches (Bohl ’11, ’12, ’13; Klieman ’14, ’15, ’17) in that same time frame. The 2018 edition of the Bison could end up giving Bohl’s 2013 a team a run for their money in terms of being the best ever during the FCS era. The Bison have outscored their opposition this season by an average of 42 to 12. The offense is led by a pair of seniors, Walter Payton Award Finalist quarterback Easton Stick (2,180 yards 22 TD 5 INT, 405 yards rushing 11 TD) and running back Lance Dunn (806 yards 12 TD). Stick will be joining current former Bison quarterback Carson Wentz in the NFL next year. This year’s defense certainly measures up to some of the best ever in Fargo. The unit is led by Missouri Valley Football Conference POY Jabril Cox (46 solo tackles, 8.5 TFL). The sophomore LB has two fellow 1st Team All-MVFC selections joining him on defense; DE Greg Menard (7.5 sacks, 9.5 TFL) and SS Robbie Grimsley (39 solo tackles, 5 INT). The Bison used their patented physical rushing attack (407 yards) and smothering defense (12 first downs allowed) to easily defeat Montana State in last week’s 2nd Round game.
Colgate Offense vs North Dakota State Defense
Colgate’s offense will be facing their most difficult challenge of the season this weekend. The Raiders not only have to contend with the fierce Bison defense, they also must maintain their composure in the deafening Fargo Dome. James Madison’s personnel on “D” is definitely comparable to that of North Dakota State’s so Colgate won’t be overwhelmed from a physical standpoint. However, there isn’t a defense in the FCS that is more disciplined than the Bison’s unit. On the rare occasion NDSU is out of position Breneman and the Raider offense must make them pay. Breneman missed on two or three easy throws last week that likely would have resulted in touchdowns. Those missed opportunities can’t happen against the Bison. Colgate WR Owen Rockett (104 yards 1 TD vs JMU) has the quickness to get open against one of the top secondaries in FCS. North Dakota State figures to focus on Colgate RB James Holland (89 yards 1 TD vs JMU) and force Breneman to work from the pocket. The Raiders offensive line must be able open up enough running lanes that allow Holland to effectively run the ball. If the R-Sr. can grind out meaningful yards, the Colgate offense will be productive overall. The Raider “O” likely needs to manufacture at least 20 points to have any chance. The Bison defense surrendered more than 17 points once all season; 31 against Northern Iowa.
North Dakota State runs the traditional 4-3 defense to perfection. The four starters (DE Menard, DT Karcz, NG Steidl, DE Butler) along the defensive front accounted for a staggering 28.5 TFL. It’s not a very large defensive line (avg 6’3 260) but they’re extremely physical and disciplined. The Bison also go 2 or 3 deep at each position in the trenches. Derek Tuszka, Spencer Waege (MVFC Newcomer of the Year) and Stanley Jones are significant rotation players. The linebacker group is excellent. Jabril Cox is considered the most physically gifted while seniors Dan Marlette and Levi Jordheim provide tremendous experience and leadership. The secondary amassed an absurd 15 interceptions during the course of the season. The cornerback back duo of Marquise Bridges and Jalen Allison match up favorably against the Raiders solid, but not overly explosive receivers. Grant Breneman’s acute decision making will be put the test against this ball hawking unit. He’ll need to use his legs to extend plays in order to give his receivers time to get open. The Bison secondary is too good to get beat by a single read passing attack.
North Dakota State Offense vs Colgate Defense
It’s hard to find an offense in FCS that executes at a higher level than the Bison’s. North Dakota State deploys an offensive style that most would consider “old school” in today’s college football landscape. The Bison control the line scrimmage with a FBS caliber line that allows their stable of running backs (Dunn, Anderson, Brooks, Cofield) a plethora of running lanes. Once the ground attack is established, Easton Stick starts to decimate defenses with his precision passing. Stick is by no means a dink and dunker. The future pro has the ability to put pressure on all three levels of the defense with his talented arm. WR Darrius Shepherd (51 rec 846 yards 6 TD) is Stick’s favorite target while TE Ben Ellefson, 7 touchdowns on 12 receptions, is his ultimate “hidden” red zone weapon. Colgate’s stout defense will give up yards on the ground but they absolutely can’t surrender big pass plays. Everything the Bison get on offense must be earned through blood sweat and tears.
Colgate’s last two opponents (Army & JMU) should have prepared the Raider defense for the type of physicality they’re about to face in the Fargo Dome. Prior to Colgate’s trip to West Point in mid-November, the Raiders statistically great “D” (7 ppg allowed, 5 shutouts) feasted on varying degrees of poor competition. James Madison did have success running the ball (200 yards, 5.1 ypg) against a Colgate defensive front that was trying to adjust to life without NT Cam Rohr (6’1 315). The Bison will try to exploit the middle of the Raider DL that will rotate two defensive tackles, Jacob Escaro (6’4 280) and Chuck Moore (6’4 275), in Rohr’s absence. Colgate will need a big game from 1st Team All-Patriot League DE Chris Wheeler (16 TFL). The junior wreaked havoc in the James Madison backfield all afternoon. The Colgate linebackers in defensive coordinator Paul Shaffner’s 3-4 scheme are skilled tacklers, have very good range and are solid in pass coverage. The leader of the unit is Patriot League Defensive POY T.J. Holl (14 TFL, 3.5 sacks). The Colgate secondary is home to three 1st Team All-Patriot League performers; CB Tyler Castillo, CB Abu Daramy-Swaray and Safety Alec Wisniewski. The secondary is very sound in pass coverage and run support. Colgate figures to rotate coverage on Darrius Shepherd like they did with star James Madison WR Riley Stapleton last week.
These are two quality special teams units. Colgate has a slight edge in the kicking department while North Dakota State is a little more explosive in the return game. Chris Puzzi’s clutch 39 yard field goal as time expired last Saturday punched Colgate’s ticket to Fargo. The 1st Team All-PL kicker is now 15-17 kicking field goals with a long of 47. For the second straight Saturday Colgate must contain a dangerous punt returner. Last week, D’Angelo Amos’s 42 yard punt return in the 4th quarter set up the Dukes game tying TD. Now it’s North Dakota’s Darrius Shepherd who the Raiders must contain. The senior averaged 17.4 yards per return with a long of 69.
In order for Colgate to have a chance to pull off what many would consider to be the greatest upset in 1-AA/FCS playoffs hisory the offense must play the perfect game; think 1985 Villanova-Georgetown Title Game. Grant Breneman can’t afford to be off the mark like he was last week and the offensive line needs to have the game of their lives. The Bison defense does not believe in the bend but not break mentality that permeates through football these days. Colgate will need to earn every yard, every first down. Colgate’s James Holland is the type of running back that can grind out yards against any defense but that alone won’t score points.
Colgate’s defense matches up quite well against North Dakota’s offense. Youngstown State (17 pts allowed), Illinois State (28 points allowed) and South Dakota State (21 points allowed) gave the Raider staff a template to use that will hopefully keep the Bison “O” from running roughshod. The keys will be; one, surviving the power running game between the tackles and two, not getting beat over the top.
Top to bottom North Dakota is clearly the better team but not by an overwhelming margin that suggests this can’t be a competitive game; at least for a while. How well Colgate handles the environment will go a long way in determining if there’s some second half intrigue.
North Dakota State 30 Colgate 13