The task, on paper, is monumental.
Playing North Dakota State is difficult. Mix in a road game, at one of the toughest FCS venues in the nation in a playoff game. And, once you consider those things, add that North Dakota State has won nine of the past 10 national championships played during full seasons. The Bison lost in the semifinals in 2016 and fell in the quarterfinals during the abbreviated spring season in 2021.
So, to review, the Bison hardly ever lose at home and just as rarely in the playoffs.
Into this scenario, on Friday night at 6 p.m., in a FCS quarterfinal playoff game televised on ESPN2, steps a mature Samford team that simply finds ways to win without a bunch of rah-rah moments.
“First of all, when you think of FCS football, North Dakota State comes to mind,” said Samford head coach Chris Hatcher, whose team is 11-1 with the lone loss coming to Georgia. “We’re a find-a-way group. We’re excited about playing. We’re not going to back down from anybody. It’s like I told the team the other day, the Samford Bulldogs play really well on Friday nights in domed stadiums. We’re excited about the opportunity, we’re going to be ready to play.”
This is not a moment that is customary for Samford. Before last Saturday, the only other FCS playoff wins from Samford came in 1991, when the Bulldogs beat New Hampshire and James Madison before dropping a 10-0 semifinal decision to Youngstown State. The Bulldogs made the playoffs four more times, twice under Hatcher, but lost the first game each time. That streak was snapped last Saturday in a 48-42 overtime win over Southeastern Louisiana.
As a program, the Bulldogs hit a lull the past three seasons. Samford was 5-7 in 2019, 4-3 in the spring of 2021 and 4-7 last fall. In the fall of 2021, Samford lost five one-possession games with one coming in overtime.
A change was needed.
Hatcher used the transfer portal to help infuse his program with experienced talent. Eleven players in the current offensive and defensive two-deep were at different programs last season. All of them have played a key role. Fred Flavors, a Division III All-American at Huntingdon College, has been a playmaker at cornerback with a team-best 17 pass breakups. Safety Isaiah Richardson is the team’s third leading tackler and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Linebacker Drew Mims, a transfer from South Florida, is sixth on the team in tackles. Running back Jaylan Thomas, a transfer from Elon, combines with Samford veteran Jay Stanton to fuel the running game. Receivers D.J. Rias and Judd Cockett, both first-year Bulldogs, combined for 74 catches for 913 yards and 10 touchdowns. Linebacker Brayden Devault-Smith, a Vanderbilt transfer, made the biggest play in the quarterfinal win by forcing a fumble in the first overtime.
Starting quarterback Michael Hiers came in from Northwest Mississippi Community College. Nik Scalzo transferred from Kentucky to compete with Hiers but was lost for the season with a fall camp knee injury.
All of the transfers have contributed toward a no-nonsense roster, which will come in handy in the hectic atmosphere at the Fargodome.
“One reason we’ve been successful this year is we have been very business-like, week in and week out,” Hatcher said. “We’ve been taking it one week at a time. Week 13, we’re going to do what we’ve done all season to get us to this point. I think some teams play there, get intimidated by that atmosphere. I really believe our team is going to go in there and relish that atmosphere. How we play, I don’t have a crystal ball, but we’re excited and our guys are looking forward to the opportunity.”
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