FARGO — Nobody ever said it would be easy.
North Dakota State closed to within one victory of winning a second straight Football Championship Subdivision title on Friday. But the top-ranked Bison needed to fight to the bitter end to hold off Georgia Southern 23-20 in the FCS semifinals.
Sophomore linebacker Carlton Littlejohn blocked a 50-yard field goal attempt by Drew Ruggles with 34 seconds remaining to allow NDSU to advance to the championship game for a second straight year.
Ruggles is a soccer player whom the Eagles recruited just this week to try to solve the kicking woes that have plagued them all season.
NDSU trailed much of the game, which featured dramatic momentum swings in either direction. It wasn’t until quarterback Brock Jensen’s 5-yard touchdown run with 3:05 remaining — on a fourth-down play, no less — that the Bison moved ahead to stay. Jensen, who struggled to find his throwing rhythm much of the night, made huge contributions with his legs.
Jensen carried five times for 46 yards on the winning drive. He finished the night with 58 yards on 10 carries. He completed nine of his 19 pass attempts for 76 yards.
NDSU’s vaunted defense struggled with Georgia Southern’s triple option, surrendering 430 yards, more than double the 207.4 they were averaging. But the Bison came up with big plays when they needed them most.
After stuffing NDSU on its opening possession, the Eagles put together an impressive 14-play drive that covered 79 yards in 7:26. The Bison looked like they might come up with a big defensive stop, forcing Georgia Southern into a fourth-and-1 from the 4-yard line. But the Eagles pitched the ball to JJ Wilcox _ a safety getting his first offensive carry of the season _ for the score. Christian Dudzik blocked the extra point attempt, keeping it a 6-0 game.
The Bison replied in kind, with a 10-play, 74-yard march. John Crockett capped the drive, scoring on a 1-yard run. Brent Russell blocked the PAT, leaving the game tied with 46 seconds left in the opening quarter.
The Eagles brushed that off on their next drive, scoring a rare passing touchdown. Jerick McKinnon faked a pitch and the play-action worked to perfection. He found Dominque Swope for a 49-yard score, making it 13-6 with 12:17 left in the second quarter.
Quarterback Brock Jensen finally began heating up on NDSU’s last drive of the first half, getting the Bison offense going. The promising drive bogged down, but did result in a 36-yard-field goal by Adam Keller. The 14-play, 69-yard drive left just 25 seconds on the clock, and NDSU went into halftime trailing 13-9.
NDSU turned the tide early in the third quarter. On Georgia Southern’s first possession Dudzik forced a McKinnon fumble, and Grant Olson recovered it. Two plays later, Sam Ojuri rumbled for a 53-yard score. That gave NDSU its first lead, 16-13, with 10:42 left in the third quarter.
The Bison appeared ready to build on that momentum, pushing Georgia Southern back inside its own 10 on a sack by Carlton Littlejohn and sending the Fargodome into a frenzy. But Jordan Champion was flagged for roughing the punter, giving the Eagles new life.
McKinnon came up with a huge third-down play, hooking up with Johnathan Bryant for a 42-yard gain. A few snaps later, McKinnon carried it down the right side for a 25-yard score, and the Eagles moved ahead 20-16 with 5:02 to play in the third quarter. McKinnon finished with 168 yards rushing on 31 carries, plus 91 of Georgia Southern’s 159 yards passing.
Jensen brought the Bison back. Jensen had a 26-yard run that would have been longer if not for a holding penalty. Then with NDSU facing fourth-and-3 from the 5-yard line, Jensen lugged it up the middle on a quarterback draw for the score. That touchdown made it 23-20 with 3:05 to go.
The Eagles burned two timeouts before Jensen’s run, the first to see NDSU’s formation, the second due to confusion. As a result, Georgia Southern was pressed for time on its last drive.
The Bison (13-1) will play the winner of today’s semifinal between Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington on Jan. 5 in Frisco, Texas. NDSU is making its first consecutive title game appearances since 1985-86.
GS 6 7 7 0—20
NDSU 6 3 7 7—23
GS—Wilcox 4 run (kick blocked), 6:23.
NDSU—Crockett 1 run (kick blocked), :46.
GS—Swope 49 pass from McKinnon (Hanks kick), 12:17.
NDSU—FG Keller 36, :25.
NDSU—Ojuri 53 run (Keller kick), 10:42.
GS—McKinnon 25 run (Hanks kick), 5:02.
NDSU—Jensen 5 run (Keller kick), 3:05.
Firstdowns 20 17
Rushes-yards 55-271 31-200
Passing 159 76
Comp-Att-Int 5-8-0 9-19-0
ReturnYards (-2) 0
Punts-Avg. 3-40.3 4-55.0
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 1-0
Penalties-Yards 13-103 5-40
TimeofPossession 33:05 26:55
RUSHING—GS, McKinnon 31-168, Swope 14-77,Robinson 4-23, Bryant 2-6, Wilcox 1-4, Banks 1-3, Butler 1-3,Youyoute 1-(minus 13). NDSU, Ojuri 6-71, Crockett 13-60,Jensen 10-58, Wentz 1-12, Team 1-(minus 1).
PASSING—GS, McKinnon 2-5-0-91, Youyoute 3-3-0-68. NDSU Jensen 9-19-0-76.
RECEIVING—GS, Showers 2-28, Swope 1-49, Bryant 1-42,Walker 1-40. NDSU R.Smith 4-29, Vraa 2-19, Gebhart 1-14,Vaadeland 1-8, D.Lee 1-6.