Offensive lineman Donald Jackson III and safety Michael Wade are two of the 14 players on Sam Houston’s travel squad that will step on the field Friday night in the FCS semifinals at the Fargodome.
Both are first team All-Southland Conference selections this fall who also played major roles in Sam Houston’s last meeting with North Dakota State in Janaury, 2013, in the National Championship Game in Frisco, Texas.
The pair have first-hand experience going head-to-head with the three-time NCAA champion Bison who have hoisted the FCS trophy twice after victories over the Bearkats.
“It’s like a story book to be playing these guys to get back to Frisco,” Jackson said. “We’re excited to get another shot at them. They’re all that stands between us and the championship game. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The Bison defeated Sam Houston 17-6 in the title game on January 7, 2012 and 39-31 in the finals on January 5, 2013.
Key plays marked a turning point in both contests. Sam Houston led 6-3 at half in 2012. On a fourth-and-four punting situation at the NDSU 34-yard line, punter Matt Voigtlander tucked the ball and ran 27 points to the SHSU 39. On the next play, the Bison scored on a pass only two minutes into the third quarter. They never trailed again.
In the second meeting, a penalty turned the game. A holding call early in the third quarter erased a 37-yard Timothy Flanders touchdown run that would have given Sam Houston a 17-10 lead. The Kats had to punt and, on the next series, two-time Southland Defensive Player of the Year Darnell Taylor tore his ACL.
Wade, then a red-shirt sophomore replace Taylor.
“I was young and it was tough when Darnell went down,” Wade said. “I got thrown in and played a lot of snaps. It’s an experience you can never forget.”
Wade also is looking forward to the rematch.
“The first two times we lost to them in the national championship game really hurt,” Wade said. “It stings. Playing them to get back to Frisco, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Having played them a couple of times really has made me want to focus in.”
Both Jackson and Wade know the challenges Sam Houston faces against a North Dakota State team that has no apparent weaknesses.
Offensively, the Bison can move the ball both on the ground and in the air. Running back John Crocket is averaging 125.3 yards per game rushing. He has rushed for 1,754 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. Quarterback Carson Wentz is averaging 192.5 yards per game in the air and has thrown 23 scoring passes.
“They’re a very fundamental team,” Wade said. “They do everything the right way.”
North Dakota State ranks third in FCS statistics rankings in total defense and scoring defense. The Bison are led by All-America end Kyle Emanuel, this year’s winner of the Buck Buchanan award. He has totaled 29 tackles for losses and 17 quarterback sacks this fall.
“They’re technically sound and consistent,” Jackson said. “They hustle every play. With all the video clips we’ve watched, I haven’t seen anybody on their team take a play off. Their defensive line gets off the ball quick and they’re big and tough.
“I remember playing them the last time. It seemed like there were no holes no matter what we did. Even if we got movement on the defensive linemen, they would just fill the hole we’d open.”
Both players respect North Dakota State as an opponent. But they also believe that Sam Houston State can be successful Friday.
“We’ve had our backs ever since we lost the Northwestern State game and knew we had to win out to win the conference championship,” Wade said. “The same thing has been through through the all the whole playoff experience. We just have to be coachable and have everyone buy in on what coach tells us and the game plan.”
A victory puts the Sam Houston versus North Dakota State semifinal in the National Championship game Saturday, January 10, in Frisco, Texas.
“It’s a great feeling being one of only four teams still left in the playoffs,” Jackson said. “We got here with dedication and persistence. We have to listen to our coaches and just keep fighting.”
Kickoff is at 7:10 p.m. The game will be telecast on ESPN2.