New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell was just getting started, rattling off a quick scouting report on a North Dakota State football program that has become the standard at the Championship Subdivision level.
A blue-collar juggernaut and two-time defending FCS champion, top-ranked NDSU carries an impressive 22-game winning streak into Friday night’s national semifinal (ESPN2, 8 p.m.) against UNH in Fargo. And that includes a season-opening 24-21 victory at Kansas State of the Bowl Subdivision.
McDonnell noted the Bison’s physicality on both sides of the ball.
Flashy? No, but NDSU (13-0) plays extremely hard. It is well-coached.
No quarterback has won more games at the FCS level than senior Brock Jensen, a three-year starter with a sterling 45-5 career mark.
“They play downhill,” said McDonnell, sizing up an offense that is averaging 38.0 points per game. The Bison also have the nation’s top scoring defense (11.4).
McDonnell calls Billy Turner, a 6-foot-6-inch, 314-pound senior who protects Jensen’s blind side, “the best tackle I have ever seen [at this level].” He had 12 knockdown blocks in last week’s 48-14 quarterfinal romp over previously unbeaten Coastal Carolina. A first-team All-American, Turner has an invite to the Senior Bowl.
Making its 10th straight trip to the playoffs, 15th-ranked UNH (10-4) earned its spot in the semifinals with road victories over Maine (41-27) and Southeastern Louisiana (20-17).
But the Wildcats have never experienced a venue that matches the festive, or ear-blaring atmosphere that is the 18,700-seat Fargodome, where NDSU has never lost a playoff game. In an attempt to simulate the noise, UNH piped in music while practicing indoors at the NH Sportsplex in Bedford this week.
Former Assumption head coach Cory Bailey, in his first season as defensive line coach at Coastal Carolina, said when North Dakota is on offense at the Fargodome, “you could hear a pin drop, it was eerily quiet,” he said via phone while wrapping up a recruiting trip in Florida.
“And when they were on defense, you could not hear yourself talk.”
North Dakota coach Craig Bohl, who will be coaching his final game at the Fargodome, said, “We feel like our fan base gives us an advantage.” Bohl will become the head coach at the University of Wyoming once the playoffs are over.
On the field, his Bison are simply old-school.
“They don’t spread you out, but they are very good at what they do, and extremely efficient,” said Bailey, a former All-Scholastic at Xaverian Brothers. “Even if we played our best game, I’m not sure if we could have beat them.”
McDonnell terms the matchup “a humongous task” for UNH.
And yet, the 15-year head coach and his resurgent Wildcats, on a 9-1 run after a 1-3 start, fully embrace their latest challenge.
There is respect, but no fear.
“At this time, in the national semifinals, you get this far, you’re not intimidated,” said the coach, who emphasized that the weekly grind of the rugged Colonial Athletic Association, the best FCS conference in the country in his estimation, has prepared his team well. The CAA is also represented in the other semifinal, with Towson (12-2) taking on Eastern Washington (12-2).
The script remains the same: don’t turn the ball over, play smart, and play hard.
“They have a scheme for everything,” said an impressed Bohl of UNH. “And what they do, they do very well.”
Offensively, that starts with sophomore quarterback Sean Goldrich, who orchestrated UNH’s game-winning, 14-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter drive at Southeastern Louisiana, capping arguably his finest performance as a collegian — 276 yards passing, 99 yards rushing — with a 2-yard plunge into the end zone with 47 seconds remaining, his third touchdown run of the game. The previous series, he had thrown a pick into the end zone.
“I didn’t let [the interception] bother me,” said Goldrich, who has made three straight starts after being hampered in the middle of the season with a bruised rib. “We had been struggling in the red zone. We just had to take one play at a time.”
McDonnell said his young QB “makes great decisions, that is why he started as a redshirt freshman.”
And that will be the approach against a Bison defense Goldrich calls hard-nosed and tough.
“They are very assignment-oriented, you will not find many broken plays,” said Goldrich.
So the ’Cats will attack through the air, targeting senior Justin Mello (71 catches) or junior R.J. Harris (71 catches in 11 games), or on the ground, with junior back Nico Steriti (1,021 rushing yards) and senior captain Chris Setian (5.2 yards per carry).
“You just can’t key in on one guy, we just find matchups where we have the advantage,” said Harris, who hauled in 11 catches for 110 yards last week.
“Goldy had a great game last week. He put the ball where it needed to be. We prepare ourself for all situations.
“This will be a new experience, playing in a dome. We’re looking forward to it.”