WHO: Wofford (9-3, 6-2) at North Dakota State (11-1, 7-1 MVFC)
WHAT: NCAA FCS QUARTERFINALS
WHEN: DEC. 8, 2012, 3 p.m.
WHERE: FargoDome, Fargo, North Dakota (18,700)
Preview: For the first time since 2010, Wofford finds itself in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs after getting a 24-7 win over CAA foe New Hampshire in the opening round of the 2012 FCS postseason last Saturday in Spartanburg.
The road gets a little tougher for Mike Ayers and the Terriers now, however, as they travel to meet the No. 1-ranked team in the country and the defending FCS national champions, North Dakota State.
It's the same North Dakota State team that ousted Georgia Southern from the postseason last year in the FCS Semifinals, as the Bison picked up a 35-7 win over the Eagles to move on to that championship game against Sam Houston State.
The Bison have once again put together a near-flawless season, with their lone loss in their 12-game slate having been a 17-14 home loss to Indiana State.
Wofford will face a North Dakota State team on Saturday that prides itself on its play on the defensive side of the football.
Coming into Saturday afternoon's quarterfinal showdown, the Bison rank No. 1 nationally in total defense (197.5 YPG), pass defense (134.2 YPG), rush defense (63.2 YPG) and scoring defense (11.0 PPG). Statistically speaking, the Bison are on track to field one of the best team defensive seasons in the history of the Football Championship Subdivision. The Bison opened their playoff campaign with a 28-3 FCS second-round win over South Dakota State last week.
Wofford has ranked toward the top in the FCS defensively all season as well, and the Terriers come into the contest ranking 12th nationally in total defense (309.5 YPG), seventh in scoring defense (16.8 PPG), 30th in pass defense (188.1 YPG) and 18th in rushing defense (121.5 YPG).
The Terriers will be facing a Missouri Valley Conference foe in the FCS playoffs for the second straight season, having lost a heartbreaking 28-21 contest to Northern Iowa last season.
Previewing The Wofford Offense: Wofford brings one of the top ground offenses in the nation into Saturday afternoon's clash with North Dakota State. The Terriers enter Saturday afternoon's showdown at the FargoDome ranking second nationally in rushing offense (357.0 YPG). Additionally, the Terriers rank 38th nationally in total offense (406.9 YPG), 32nd in scoring offense (30.6 PPG) and 121st in pass offense (49.9 YPG).
It's no secret that this offense is built around Walter Payton Award finalist Eric Breitenstein (266 rush att, 1,900 yds, 9 TDs, 7.1 YPC), who has once again been the key cog in this ground attack for a third straight season. Breitenstein has had quite a career in Spartanburg, as he is now the school's all-time leading ground-gainer, continues to ascend the SoCon all-time rushing chart with his 5,595 career ground yards and currently ranks second to only Georgia Southern's Adrian Peterson in career rushing yards in the league's history.
Breitenstein's 1,900 yards rushing this season are more than any other players' in the country heading into Saturday's contest at top-ranked North Dakota State. Breitenstein will face a defense on Saturday that has not allowed a 100-yard rushing performance this season, and a defense that limited the nation's second-leading rusher—South Dakota State's Zach Zenner—to just 46 rushing yards in the 28-3 win over the Jackrabbits last Saturday.
The closest a running back got to the 100-yard rushing mark against the Bison defense this season was Indiana State's Shakir Bell, who rushed for 96 yards on 26 carries, as the Sycamores handed the North Dakota State its only loss of the season in a 17-14 fashion at the FargoDome.
Breitenstein had a breakout performance in an early league contest against Elon, posting a 321-yard rushing effort in helping the Terriers to a 49-24 road win. In last week's win over New Hampshire, it was Breitenstein that rushed for 247 yards and three scores in leading the Terriers to the 23-7 home win. He comes into Saturday's contest with a string of 10 straight 100-yard rushing performances.
Set to start under center for the Terriers on Saturday will be veteran Brian Kass (18-of-43 passing, 345 yds, 6 TDs, 2 INTs/105 rush att, 317 yds, 5 TDs), and he's one of three starters to have started under center for the Terriers this season.
Kass has experience and leadership under center, and though his numbers haven't been gaudy this season, he has been effective and has come up big when the Terriers have needed him to this season, whether it be making the big throw late in a game or the big run.
His 52-yard TD pass late to Jeff Ashley in the third quarter of a tight game with archrival Furman proved to be the game-winning score, as the Terriers escaped with a hard-fought 20-17 win after trailing that game at the half.
The other two quarterbacks, sophomore James Lawson (15-of-25 passing, 178 yds/47 carries, 66 yds, 1 TD) and freshman Michael Weimer (9-of-12 passing, 76 yds/25 rush att, 257 yds, 2 TDs) have also been extremely effective under center for the Terriers this season.
Lawson, a sophomore signal-caller, has made two starts this season, while Weimer has logged action as a reserve in seven contests, and there's a chance that both could see time action in Saturday's FCS quarterfinal game in spot duty.
Set to flank Breitenstein at the respective halfback positions heading into Saturday's clash with the Bison are Donovan Johnson (62 rush att, 431 rush yds, 3 TDs, 7.0 YPC) and Brad Nocek (26 rush att, 202 yds, 7.8 YPC). Both Johnson and Nocek have played solid roles on the offensive side of the ball this season for the Terriers, particularly in terms of blocking for Breitenstein.
Johnson is a dangerous running threat on the perimeter and brings deceptive speed into Saturday's contest. If he gets free on the corner, he has the speed to take it the distance. Johnson enjoyed his best performance of the season against Western Carolina, rushing for 126 yards in the 49-24 win over Western Carolina. Nocek is coming off one of the best performances of his career in last Saturday's win over New Hampshire, rushing for 65 yards on eight carries.
The receiving options for the Terriers will be a pair of juniors, tight end Michael Harpe (4 rec, 69 yds, 3 TDs) and wide receiver Jeff Ashley (16 rec, 277 yds, 2 TDs, 17.3 YPR).
Both are sure-handed, reliable targets for the Terriers, and both have made big plays when called upon this season, with Ashley having a game-winning 52-yard TD reception to his credit, which came earlier this season against Furman.
Ashley is an excellent blocker on the perimeter and has the speed to be a factor in getting behind opposing defenses. Will Irwin (7 rec, 54 yds, 7.7 YPR) is also a speedster in the receiving corps that could see action on Saturday at wideout for the Terriers. Irwin has been primarily a threat on end-arounds, toss sweeps and reverses this season, as he enters Saturday's playoff game with the Bison having rushed the ball 10 times for 140 yards and a TD this season, averaging 13.3 YPC.
A couple of more reserves to keep an eye on in the Terriers' ground game on Saturday are reserve halfback Cam Flowers (38 rush att, 219 yds, 3 TDs, 5.8 YPC) and Octavious Harden (25 rush att, 116 yds, 4.6 YPC), who have run the ball solidly this season for Wofford. Both have excellent speed on the edge and have the ability to break the big run if they are able to find a crease.
Year in and year out, Wofford has perhaps the top offensive line in FCS football, as the Terriers seem to just seemingly reload at the position each season. This season has been much of the same along the offensive front from the Terriers, who enter Saturday afternoon's showdown with the Bison ranking second nationally in rushing and having four players along the offensive front garner All-SoCon citation in 2012.
The offensive front is anchored by right tackle Jake Miles, who garnered First-Team All-SoCon status this season while also earning All-SoCon Second Team praise along the offensive front, particularly for the trio of Jared Singleton (C), Calvin Cantrell (LT) and Tymeco Gregory (LG), according to the league's media.
Right guard T.J. White was the lone player not to garner all-conference praise by either the league's coaches or media this season. This quintet of starters along the Wofford offensive front this season helped pave the way for Breitenstein's record-breaking season and have helped the Terriers average 6.0 yards-per-rush-attempt this season.
Previewing The North Dakota State Defense: The Wofford offense will have its collective hands full on Saturday, facing the Baltimore Ravens of FCS football in terms of defensive prowess.
The Bison have put together a rather remarkable season on the defensive side of the football, as noted above, and have been among the stoutest contingents in an individual season in FCS football history.
The Bison even held FBS foe Colorado State to just seven points in a 22-7 win over the Rams early in the campaign.
The Bison will utilize a basic 4-3 alignment on the defensive side of the ball on Saturday against Wofford, and it marks the first triple-option that North Dakota State has faced in nearly a year, since the Bison notched a 35-7 FCS semifinal win over Georgia Southern last year. In that game, the Bison held the powerful Eagles offense to just 333 total yards offense—well under their average coming in—and also limited the Eagles to a meager 186 rushing yards.
Anchoring the Bison front four along the defensive line has been right defensive end Cole Jirik (42 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 9 QBHs, 2 FFs, 1 SAF), who comes into Saturday's contest as one of the top defensive ends in the Missouri Valley Football Conference from the 2012 season. Jirik is tied for the team's lead in tackles-for-loss this season for the Bison, while his 7.5 sacks this season leads the club. Jirik was an All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection and will be a key cog along the Bison defensive line on Saturday.
Jirik enjoyed his most impressive campaign, and his season was highlighted by a couple of superlative performances. In the final regular-season game of the season in a 38-20 win over No. 17 Illinois State, Jirik registered eight tackles and three sacks, garnering Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts in the win over the nationallyranked Redbirds.
Set to start at the other defensive end position opposite Jirik will be left defensive end Kyle Emanuel (39 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FR, 1 QBH), who has also had a solid season at defensive end for the Bison. Emmanuel ranked just behind his teammate Jirik in tackles-for-loss on the season, as he was just a half-a-tackle-for-loss behind the two team leaders.
The two defensive tackle positions for the Bison will be filled by Danny Luecke (16 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack) and Ryan Drevlow (20 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 blkd kick). Both Luecke and Drevlow have been solid enforcers on the interior against the run for the Bison this season.
Anchoring what has been a solid corps for the Bison this season has been middle linebacker Grant Olson (108 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FR, 1 FF). Olson comes into Saturday's game against the Terriers leading the club in tackles this season and has posted four double-digit tackle performances this season. Olson was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Player of the Week after his performance in Week 8 in a win over South Dakota State, collecting eight tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Flanking Olson at the respective outside linebacker positions on Saturday will be Travis Beck (67 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 3 FFs) and Carlton Littlejohn (62 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 FFs, 3 FRs). Beck had his best overall performance of the season in a 33-21 win over Northern Iowa on Sept. 29. In that contest, Beck registered five tackles, 2.5 TFL, two sacks and forced a fumble to garner CollegeSportsMadness.com National Player of the Week honors.
The Bison have maybe the top defensive player in FCS, and he highlights what has been an outstanding secondary all season for the Green and Gold.
First-Team All-America selection and Buck Buchanan Award candidate Marcus Harris (25 tackles, 5 INTs, 4 PBUs, 1.0 TFL) will start at cornerback Saturday for North Dakota State and has seen most quarterbacks stay away from his side the field over the latter part of the season.
Harris was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year and is the first Bison player to be named a finalist for the award since current Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays in 2007.
Harris has seven career TDs, with four INT returns for scores, a pair of kick returns and a lateral return for a score. In a win over Youngstown State in mid-October, Harris returned an INT 98 yards for a score. He recorded his 16th career INT last week in the win over South Dakota State, tying the school record in that category.
Harris teams with cornerback Andre Martin Jr. (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 5 PBUs), while strong safety Bobby Ollman (35 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR) and free safety Christian Dudzik (35 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 FRs, 3 PBUs) round out the starters for North Dakota State in the secondary. Harris has five of the team's nine INTs this season.
Previewing The Wofford Defense: Like North Dakota State, Wofford has been stout all season on the defensive side of the football.
Coming into Saturday afternoon's showdown at the FargoDome, the Terriers rank 12th nationally in total defense (309.5 YPG), seventh in scoring defense (16.8 PPG), 18th in rushing defense (121.5 YPG) and 30th in pass defense (188.1 YPG).
The Terriers utilize a unique defense look, one that North Dakota State is probably not accustomed to seeing in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, as Wofford uses a 3-4, slant-50 defensive scheme.
A slant-50 means that the defensive alignment slants toward the wide side of the field. The three down linemen don't line up as a true defensive tackle or true defensive end. It's been a defensive line that has really come of age as the 2012 season has progressed. Coming into the 2012 season, the Terriers had to replace all three starters along the defensive front, and it was a big question mark coming into the campaign.
One of those young players that has emerged into a star along the Terrier defensive front this season is sophomore Tarek Odom (20 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 TD), who garnered All-SoCon honors in his first season as a full-time starter at defensive end. Odom was sensational all season for the Terriers and recorded several superlative performances along the defensive front this season, including returning a fumble 40 yards for a score in the 38-28 win at Appalachian State late in the season. That play proved crucial, as it proved to be the game-winning score for the Terriers. Odom was a Second-Team All-SoCon selection according to the league's coaches.
Rounding out the starters along the Terrier defensive front on Saturday will be veteran Josh Roseborough (35 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FR, 2 FFs, 6 QBHs, 1 PBU) at the other defensive end position, while E.J. Speller (29 tackes, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 FRs) rounds out the starting trio along the defensive front. Roseborough is an experienced performer and has played well, while Speller continues to improve at nose tackle. You can bet Speller, who is following such predecessors as Nathan Fuqua and Katon Bethay, will be a good one, with the Terriers' tradition of greats at the position.
Throughout Mike Ayers' tenure at Wofford, the Terriers have always seemed to manufacture talent at both inside and outside linebacker. This season, Wofford has both experience and athleticism at the four linebacker positions, anchored by junior Alvin Scioneaux (65 tackles, 13.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 FFs, 1 FR, 7 QBHs) at outside linebacker and senior Mike Niam (47 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 1 FF) at inside linebacker.
Both Scioneaux and Niam entered the season as All-America and All-SoCon selections. Scioneaux has lived up to that preseason praise this season, while Niam has struggled with nagging injuries for much of the season.
Scioneaux is the biggest playmaker on the defensive side of the ball for the Terriers and will line up on the edge at times as a defensive end, giving the Terriers four down linemen.
For the second straight season, Scioneaux led the team in tackles-for-loss and sacks. Niam has been one of the more remarkable stories for the Terriers, overcoming a torn ACL at Wisconsin in 2009 and rebounded from the same injury in 2010. Niam was a Second Team All-SoCon pick in 2012, according to the league's coaches.
The other two starting linebackers for the Terriers on Saturday will be Mike McCrimon (69 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INTs) at the other inside linebacker position and Phillip LeGrande (36 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 5 PBU, 1 FF), who rounds out the four starters at LB for the Terriers on the outside.
McCrimon, a junior, is having an outstanding season for the Terriers, and he enters Saturday's contest as the Terriers' leading the team in tackles. LeGrande is Wofford's top coverage linebacker, leading the Terrier LBs with five pass breakups.
The secondary is an area that has been shaky at times early in the season, but the unit has really come together and established itself as a formidable unit in the latter portion of the season.
Wofford relies on veteran senior cornerbacks Blake Wylie (48 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 9 PBUs, 1 FR, 1 FF) and Stephon Shelton (52 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 7 PBUs, 2 FRs, 2 FFs, 1 blkd kick). Shelton and Wylie ended the season as one of the better tandems of cornerbacks in the SoCon, as well as being two of the more physical corners in the conference. Wylie was a Second-Team All-SoCon honoree in 2012, while Shelton currently ranks fourth on the team in tackles and is one of the hardest hitters on the Terriers' defense.
Finishing out the starting 11 defensively for the Terriers are Kendall Bratcher (24 tackles, 1 FF) at strong safety and James Zotto (64 tackles, 1.0 TFL , 5 PBUs, 1 FF), who will occupy the free safety position.
Previewing The North Dakota State Offense: Anyone who follows FCS football knows the value of having an offense that has veteran performers who have been through the playoff battles before, and that is especially case for the man lining up under center.
Perhaps the greatest asset the Bison carry into the 2012 postseason is the fact that six starters that played a key role in helping the Bison bring home a 2011 FCS crown are back, including the man under center, senior signal-caller Brock Jensen (176-of-285 passing, 2,045 yds, 16 TDs, 7 INTs/81 rush att, 195 yds, 8 TDs, 2.4 YPC).
Jensen and the Bison offense are far from being flashy or being characterized as a "big-play" offense, but are balanced and effective. If anything, it's an offense that errs on the side of conservative, with a defense that has been the stoutest in the nation.
Coming into Saturday's matchup with the Terriers, Jensen leads a North Dakota State offense that ranks 56th in the FCS in total offense (381.1 YPG), 10th in scoring offense (34.9PPG), 25th in rushing offense (198.7 YPG) and 81st in passing offense (182.4 YPG).
While it's a conservative attack, the Bison will pull out the occasional trick play to keep opposing defenses honest. In terms of comparison, the North Dakota State offense will most resemble the offenses the Terriers faced in SoCon play against Furman and Samford earlier this season.
Jensen is a sound, heady leader under center for the Bison, and like the offensive approach employed by the Bison, he's not flashy nor has he put up eye-popping statistics, but when it comes to winning football games, there hasn't been anyone better in the FCS over the past couple of seasons in the FCS. Jensen was a Second-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference performer in 2012 and is an extremely good decision-maker under center for the Bison, having thrown only seven INTs in 12 previous games this season. Jensen ranks second in program history in completions (454) and passing yards (5,519 yds).
Jensen and the Bison offense are an extremely physical unit, with one of the best offensive lines in the nation. And like last season, they have two running backs with nearly identical numbers, with each complementing the other in terms of running style. The bruiser of the Bison offense is Sam Ojuri (178 carries, 812 yds, 8 TDs, 4.6 YPC), while backup John Crockett (163 rush att, 859 yds, 8 TDs, 5.3 YPC) leads the team in rushing and is more of the speed option of the two, although both are blessed in the speed category.
Ojuri is the better combination running back, with a great marriage of power and speed as a part of his make-up as a running back. Crockett was selected to the league's all-newcomer squad in the Missouri Valley this past season. The third option, mostly in short-yardage and max-protect situations, will be fullback Andrew Bonnet (11 rec, 93 yds, 1 TD, 8.5 YPR), who, like his backfield mate Crockett, was a member of the league's all-newcomer team in 2012.
Crockett has three 100-yard rushing efforts this season, while Ojuri has two on the season and seven career 100-yard outings. Crockett enjoyed his best performance to date in the 33-21 win over Northern Iowa, garnering Missouri Valley Newcomer of the Week honors by rushing for 122 yards and a couple of TDs on 19 carries. Ojuri is the better receiving option of the two out of the backfield, with nine catches for 95 yards and a TD this season.
The top aerial option for the Bison this season has once again been veteran all-conference performer Ryan Smith (41 rec, 475 yds, 3 TDs, 11.6 YPR). Smith is reliable and has deceptive speed. He has come up with plenty of clutch catches in his career, and after only having played in nine games this season, he was able to garner Second Team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors. Smith had six catches for 88 yards in a win over Southern Illinois, while hauling in seven passes for 82 yards and a TD in a win over Youngstown State. Williams, who is also dangerous as a punt return threat, also had a 76-yard punt return for a score against the Penguins.
Smith will be joined by wideout Zach Vraa (36 rec, 507 yds, 3 TDs, 14.1 YPR) and tight end Garrett Bruhn (3 rec, 44 yds, 2 TDs) as the primary receiving options for the Bison on Saturday. Vraa has good speed and leads the team in receiving yards this season.
Like Wofford, North Dakota State brings one of the premier offensive lines in the nation into Saturday's FCS quarterfinal matchup. Anchoring the unit on Saturday against the Terriers will be First-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference selections Joe Lund (C) and Billy Turner (LT). Surrounding Lund and Turner along the Bison offensive front will be Tyler Gimmestad (RG), Josh Colville (LG) and Joe Haeg (RT). Colville was selected to the league's all-newcomer squad.
The unit allowed 20 sacks this season and helped the Bison average 5.5 yards-per-play and 4.5 yards-per-rush this season in what was a direct offensive attack for North Dakota State.
Final Prediction: Wofford knows tough environments in the postseason, as it has been to the UNI Dome, James Madison and Montana in the past five years in the playoffs, so the crowd at FargoDome will be crazy, but it likely won't throw the Terriers too much off course. A win Saturday would probably eclipse the Terriers' 23-22 win over Montana in Missoula in 2007. However, I don't think that will happen, but I do think the Terriers will put a scare into the defending national champs.
Final Score Prediction: North Dakota State 13, Wofford 10