In the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the National Champion is determined by a 24-team playoff through most of December. North Dakota State, the season-long #1 team, is the defending national championship, and have won six of the past seven titles. Eastern Washington, no stranger to postseason success in the FCS, has one championship of their own, after the 2010 season.
#1 North Dakota State Bison
The Bison have been ranked #1 since the beginning of the season after winning the title last year. Only a loss to James Madison in the semifinals of the 2016 playoffs has prevented them to win seven straight titles (though they could have lost in the finals that year). Including the playoffs, they are 14-0 on the season, including an 8-0 run through the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
In total offense, the Bison are ranked 16th, with just over 60% of their 470.5 yards a game coming on the ground. Their 285.9 yards on the ground place them in the top 10 at seventh, but they are 88th in passing offense (184.6 per game). No matter, though, as the Bison are 6th nationally in scoring average, averaging 41.7 points per game.
They are led by Walter Payton Award finalist Easton Stick, who has led the Bison to an overall record of 48-3 in his three years as a starter; a win today would give him the FCS record for wins by a quarterback. He’s helped his own cause this season, leading the nation in passing efficiency (playing three extra games helped) with 2,554 yards and 26 touchdowns (with only five interceptions). He’s also helped that 7th-ranked rushing offense, adding 556 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.
But he hasn’t been alone obviously. Senior running back Bruce Anderson has added 924 yards on the ground (with nine touchdowns), while fellow senior Lance Dunn has added 819 yards and 12 touchdowns of his own. On the receiving end, senior Darrius Shepherd leads the team with 940 yards on 57 receptions, along with seven touchdowns. Junior tight end Ben Ellefson has only 14 receptions on the season, but has managed to convert eight of those catches into scores.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Bison truly shine. Overall, they boast the 5th-ranked defense, surrendering only 284.4 yards per contest. They also have allowed an average of 11.8 points per game overall (2nd nationally), and only 10.3 points per game in the playoffs.
This is partially because they are so great at pressuring the quarterback, resulting in 43 sacks on the season (3.1 per game). Senior defensive lineman leads the Bison with 8 sacks, with junior Cole Karcz not far behind with 7.5. The team is also second nationally with 21 interceptions on the season, with two of those picks returned for touchdowns. Senior Robbie Grimsley leads the team with six of those interceptions.
Combined with six fumble recoveries, the Bison have had a net turnover margin of +18 on the season, which ranks second nationally as well. It’s no wonder that the Bison have been so successful this season, with only Northern Iowa scoring more than 21 points against them this season – in a game that the Bison won 56-31.
#4 Eastern Washington Eagles
The Eagles started the season ranked #9 after just missing the playoffs last season. They climbed to #4 by the end of the season as they were co-champions of the Big Sky Conference, and are currently 12-2 on the season including their three playoff victories. Unlike NDSU, however, the Eagles played two games this season against teams from outside the FCS. They opened the season against Division II for Central Washington (a 58-13 victory), and also served as a tune-up game for FBS opponent Washington State (a 59-24 loss).
The Eagles offense is ranked 2nd nationally overall, averaging 540.4 yards per game. They are fairly balanced between the rush and the pass, with 263.0 rush yards per game (10th) and 277.4 pass yards per game (17th). They averaged even more points per game than the Bison, racking up 44.5 per game, including two games where they score at least 70.
The Eagles relied on two quarterbacks to reach their lofty offensive heights. Sophomore Eric Barriere led the team with 2,252 yards and 24 touchdowns (and seven interceptions), while senior Gage Gubrud contributed 1,416 yards and 13 touchdowns (five interceptions), before being injured in the fifth game of the season.
The rushing attack was led by senior Sam McPherson, who ran for 1,352 yards and 12 touchdowns. Three other players, including quarterback Barriere, also rushed for more than 500 yards on the season, combining to score another 22 rushing touchdowns. Finally, senior Nsimba Webster led the receiving corps with 80 catches for 1,287 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Compared to the Bison, the Eagles defense is trash, ranking only 60th nationally in total defense. They surrendered an average of 385.6 yards per game – almost 100 yards more per game than NDSU – and 21.6 points per game. If you remove their non-FCS opponents, that average improves slightly to 19.2 points allowed per game, which is still almost 10 points worse than the Bison.
Nevertheless, those 21.6 points per game are still good enough for 20th nationally, and though they surrender a lot of yards, they keep teams out of the end zone. This is partially because of the team’s ability to get after the quarterback. The team totaled 35 sacks on the season, led by freshman Mitchell Johnson’s 4.5. They were also right behind the Bison with 20 interceptions on the season, with senior Josh Lewis nabbing a quarter of those (five) all by himself.
Their success on the season was helped by their 32 turnovers gained on the season (second nationally), though 21 turnovers on offense only netted them a turnover margin of +11. Nonetheless, there were only four games where they surrendered two touchdowns or less, and one of those games was against Central Washington, while another came in one of their losses (a 14-6 loss against Weber State).
The game will be played at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, with kickoff at noon EST/ 9:00am PST. The game will be shown on ESPN. The neutrals are expecting about 61 points to be scored, with North Dakota State favored by 16 points.
Keys to a win for each side
North Dakota State Bison:
- Control the pace of the game with the better ground game; keep the Eastern Washington defense on the field.
- Let your award finalist at quarterback do what he’s done for most of the past three years.
- Win the turnover battle.
Eastern Washington Eagles:
- Play at your pace, not your opponents. You have a stellar offense of your own.
- Control the clock so your defense doesn’t have to spend a lot of time on the field.
- Force turnovers like you have all season while protecting the ball when you have it on offense.
Enjoy the game everyone!