Officially, it will be 11 on 11 when Samford's offense is on the Fargodome turf on Friday night in an NCAA FCS quarterfinal game against perennial powerhouse North Dakota State. If North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz has his way, though, it will be more like 11 on 19,011 when the Bulldogs have the football.
"I'll throw it out there. It would be great to see the Dome packed," said Entz of his team's home field, which has a listed football crowd capacity of 19,000. "A team that wants to go 1,000 miles an hour and run as many plays as they can, our fans can significantly impact how an opponent's offense operates. I think in the last four games, they averaged about 84 snaps, 500 yards and 41 points. We're going to have our work cut out for us."
Samford's tempo is concerning to Entz, who has been the program's head coach since 2019 and was the defensive coordinator for five years prior to that. He said the Bison defensive unit practices two or three periods daily against quick tempo. He said they have no idea when they will see an opposing offense playing fast but don't want to be unprepared.
This week, though, he knows what to expect when it comes to pace. Samford is at its best when they go fast. In late season wins at Chattanooga and Mercer, the Bulldogs ran 93 plays and 101 plays, respectively. Last week, in the FCS second-round playoff win over Southeastern Louisiana in overtime, Samford ran 86 plays.
The tempo changes how much a defense is willing to do in many cases.
"With what they do offensively, it's not like you're going to have a lot of [different defensive] calls," Entz said. "Otherwise, you're just going to confuse yourselves and hinder your ability to get lined up. We just got to play really smart."
North Dakota State's defense is accustomed to frequent substitutions, which won't be easy with the quick tempo of Samford.
"You don't know when that substitution piece can happen," Entz said. "What you'll probably see this week, it probably won't be as synchronized as it's been in the past. There's been a rep count, and we sub. Well, [in this game] it could be one play and four new guys go in on an incomplete pass. The last game against Southeast Louisiana, man, they went lightning fast. As the game unfolded, they kind of slow down and kind of get back into their main tempo."
Entz said the Bison can force some slower tempo by getting off the field defensively and grinding on offense. North Dakota State's offense is built on a ball control running game that produces 277.7 yards per game. They can grind it out and also provide explosive plays in the running game. In this case, the Bison hope the offensive success can help change the Bulldogs' offensive approach.
"If we can get off the field, and our offense can take advantage of it, all the sudden, teams like this want to slow down," Entz said. "If [Samford] goes three and out a couple of times, you're never going to get the ball back. This week, more than ever, complementary football is going to be in full effect. We're going to talk about it all week. We need to stay on the field from an offensive standpoint. We need to create third and [short], we need to be able to convert. Field position is going to be critical."
There are plenty of knowns for the North Dakota State defense when it comes to preparing for Samford. Entz said he's impressed with a group of Samford receivers that is led by Kendall Watson (80 catches, 961 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Chandler Smith (94 catches, 951 yards, 10 touchdowns). The Bulldogs also run the ball effectively with Jay Stanton and Jaylan Thomas, who combined for 1,347 yards with 12 touchdowns thus far.
Then, there is the unknown of Samford's quarterback situation. Junior Michael Hiers, the nation's most accurate FCS passer, managed just five plays last week because of an injured throwing hand. Redshirt freshman Quincy Crittendon, a true dual threat, responded by accounting for 408 yards and five touchdowns in the second-round win.
"I don't know the extent of the injury of the starter [Hiers]. He's a tremendous quarterback," Entz said. "Southeast Louisiana struggled on third down. A lot of that was the quarterback counter back to the other side. He's got a burst. He's got some juice to him. We've got to do a really good job [either way]."
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