The North Dakota State football team did what they do this time of year. The Bison found ways to grind out a 27-9 victory over Samford in an FCS quarterfinal playoff game at the Fargodome.
Samford stood toe-to-toe in the first half, got steamrolled for a bit in the second half, and kept fighting to the end. On Samford's final drive, the Bulldogs started at their own 3-yard line and were at the Bison 4-yard line when the game ended.
Ultimately, North Dakota State (11-2) proved to be more playoff-tested than the Bulldogs. The Bison, who have won 9 of the past 11 FCS championship games, fought through injuries and adversity to make big plays when needed.
North Dakota State generally wears teams down with the running game. On Friday, Samford did a good job against the run, with the Bison running for 166 yards on 48 carries. However, North Dakota State quarterback Cam Miller was close to perfect, connecting on 15 of 18 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown. His performance helped the Bison convert on 9 of 14 third-down plays.
Samford head coach Chris Hatcher chose to start redshirt freshman Quincy Crittendon at quarterback, with Southern Conference Player of the Year Michael Hiers still dealing with the effects of an injured throwing hand. Samford went three-and-out on the first three series before Crittendon and the offense settled in. Crittendon moved the chains with passes to Kendall Watson, Judd Cockett and D.J. Rias, eventually moving the Bulldogs inside the Bison 10-yard line. But a sack stalled the drive and a 34-yard field goal attempt by Zach Williams was blocked.
At the same time, the Samford defense was playing phenomenally. A fumble forced and recovered by Isaiah Richardson ended one drive, and a fourth-and-1 stop ended another.
North Dakota State finally broke through late in the half when Miller capped a 12-play, 69-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Joe Stoffel with 1:09 left in the half. The Bison forced a quick timeout and got the ball back at midfield. It appeared that Samford kept North Dakota State from padding its lead, but the Bulldogs were called for a personal foul penalty on an incomplete Hail Mary pass. That allowed North Dakota State to end the half with a 44-yard field goal by Griffin Crosa.
Hatcher decided to bring Hiers in the game in the second half, but the Bison got the ball first and promptly drove to take a 17-0 lead on a 7-yard touchdown run by TK Marshall. Hiers threw an interception on his first series, just his fourth of the season, and the Bison turned it into points. Miller wedged in from a 1-yard out to give North Dakota State a 24-0 lead.
Samford didn't fold. The Bulldogs allowed just a field goal the rest of the way. Samford's points came on a 28-yard field goal from Williams and a 40-yard pass from Hiers to Chandler Smith. The two-point conversion attempt failed.
Hiers finished 22 of 30 for 227 yards. Crittendon, the hero of last week's second-round win over Southeastern Louisiana, was 8 of 17 for 52 yards and had just 14 yards on six carries. Rias had nine catches for 48 yards, Watson had eight catches for 73 yards, and Smith had six catches for 120 yards.
The loss ended one of the best seasons in school history. Samford (11-2) had the second most wins in school history, trailing only the 12-win team in 1991. The Bulldogs finished unbeaten in Southern Conference play for the first time ever and won an outright conference for the first time since 1936.
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