NDSU returns to FCS title game with 23-20 semifinal win over Georgia Southern
FARGO -- The Bison are marching back to Frisco.
Junior quarterback Brock Jensen scored a 5-yard touchdown run with a shade over three minutes remaining at Gate City Bank Field.
That Jensen draw play lifted No. 1-ranked North Dakota State to a dramatic 23-20 victory against No. 7-ranked Georgia Southern in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision semifinals at the Fargodome before 18,484 fans.
"It's a great feeling," said NDSU sophomore linebacker Travis Beck, who had a game-high 15 tackles. "It probably won't set in until sometime tomorrow. ... That's a coin-flip game. They could have won that game easily."
The Bison (13-1) overcame a fourth-quarter deficit to earn a second consecutive trip to Frisco, Texas. NDSU will have a chance to defend its FCS national crown on Jan. 5 against either Eastern Washington or Sam Houston State, who play today. The Bison beat Sam Houston State in last year's title game.
"It's not by chance that we are here, but we are very fortunate to be here," Bison head coach Craig Bohl said. "That is one of the most draining games I have ever been a part of. ... This win was really, really hard."
The Eagles had a 50-yard field attempt blocked with 34 seconds remaining to seal the victory. Bison sophomore linebacker Carlton Littlejohn blocked the potential game-tying kick to whip the crowd into a screaming frenzy.
"That was the loudest I've heard it in here," Beck said.
"We lost to a great football team," added GSU head coach Jeff Monken. "That's a tough team. They run the ball. They stop the run. I admire that."
The Eagles have lost in the national semifinals for a third consecutive season. Monken had to leave the press conference room for a moment he was so overcome with emotion after he hugged a few of his players.
"It hurts," Monken said. "It hurts bad. When you care, it hurts. ... I'm just so proud of our team. I feel helpless. I wish there was something I could do."
Jensen's game-winning touchdown run came with 3 minutes, 5 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. The run came on a fourth-and-3 play and capped a drive that covered 53 yards in seven plays. Three consecutive timeouts were called prior to that play, building the suspense.
"We had the same play call on every time," Jensen said.
The Eagles took a 20-16 lead with 5:02 to play in the third quarter after GSU quarterback Jerick McKinnon scored on a 25-yard touchdown run. McKinnon rushed for a game-high 168 yards on 31 attempts. That was the second of three lead changes in the second half.
"We had some plays that we felt comfortable and good about," McKinnon said.
Junior running back Sam Ojuri gave the Bison a 16-13 lead early in the second half. Ojuri scored on a 53-yard touchdown run with 10:42 remaining in the third quarter. That run came two plays after NDSU junior linebacker Grant Olson covered a McKinnon fumble.
"I knew it was important to take advantage of all my opportunities," Ojuri said. "I saw the hole and made sure I didn't get caught."
Georgia Southern took a 13-6 lead with 12 minutes, 17 seconds to play in the second quarter after quarterback Jerick McKinnon tossed a 49-yard touchdown pass to Dominique Swope. The play came on third-and-6 and capped a 75-yard drive that took seven plays.
The Bison cut the Eagles lead to four points with less than a minute to play until halftime. NDSU sophomore kicker Adam Keller booted a 36-yard field goal with 25 seconds leaving GSU's halftime lead at 13-9.
The Eagles scored on their first drive, marching 17 yards on 14 plays. GSU senior JJ Wilcox capped the drive with a 4-yard TD run on a fourth-and-1 play with 6:23 remaining in the first quarter. That gave the Eagles a 6-0 lead after NDSU blocked the extra point.
Sophomore running back John Crockett scored the lone Bison touchdown in the first half with a 1-yard plunge. That tied the score at 6-6 with 46 seconds to play in the first quarter. The Bison had their extra-point try blocked after that score.
Georgia Southern gained 190 yards in the first half, including 113 rushing against a stout Bison defense. The Eagles finished with 271 yards rushing on 55 attempts.
"My hats off to them," Wilcox said of the Bison. "Hopefully, they go out and win the national championship game."
GSU 6 7 7 0 -- 20
NDSU 6 3 7 7 -- 23
GSU-J.J. Wilcox 4 run (Alex Hanks kick failed), 6:23
NDSU-John Crockett 1 run (Adam Keller kick failed), :46
H-Dominique Swope 49 pass from Jerick McKinnon (Hanks kick), 12:17
NDSU-Keller 36 FG, :25
NDSU-Sam Ojuri 53 run (Keller kick), 10:42
GSU-McKinnon 25 run (Hanks kick), 5:02
NDSU-Brock Jensen 5 run (Keller kick), 3:05
TEAM STATISTICS GSU NDSU
First downs 20 17
Rushes-yards 55-271 31-200
Passing yards 159 76
Comp.-Att.-Int. 5-8-0 9-19-0
Total yards 430 276
Fumbles-lost 2-1 1-0
Penalties-yards 13-103 5-40
Punts-Avg. 3-40.3 4-55
RUSHING: GSU, Jerick McKinnon 31-168, Dominique Swope 14-77, Darreion Robinson 4-23, Johnathan Bryant 2-6, J.J. Wilcox 1-4, Tray Butler 1-3, Willian Banks 1-3, Ezayi Youyoute 1-(minus 13). NDSU, Sam Ojuri 6-71, John Crockett 13-60, Brock Jensen 10-58, Carson Wentz 1-12, Team 1-(minus 1).
PASSING: GSU, McKinnon 2-5-0, 91; Youyoute 3-3-0 68. NDSU, Jensen 9-19-0 76.
RECEIVING: GSU, Kentrellis Showers 2-28, Swope 1-49, Bryant 1-42, Zach Walker 1-40. NDSU, Ryan Smith 4-29, Zach Vraa 2-19, Trevor Gebhart 1-14, Kevin Vaadeland 1-8, Derek Lee 1-6.