The North Dakota State Bison will face San Diego in the second round of the FCS playoffs this weekend at the Fargodome. San Diego went 9-2 in the regular season and won the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.
The Toreros come to Fargo riding a wave of momentum, having won their last nine games including a 41-10 shellacking of Northern Arizona in the first round.
“It’s no fluke what they did to Northern Arizona. They beat them in every phase of the game,” said head coach Chris Klieman. “We’ll have our work cut out for us coming up with great plans.”
It will be San Diego’s second consecutive year playing in Fargo. The Bison thumped the Toreros 45-7 last season, but their level of familiarity with the Bison has Klieman anticipating a much different game.
Georgia Southern, Sam Houston State, and Coastal Carolina all played playoff games at the Fargodome in two straight years during NDSU’s national title runs. “Those return trips have been four quarter affairs because of the comfort level those teams have. I expect the same thing,” Klieman indicated.
Anthony Lawrence’s sensational play at the quarterback position has carried San Diego’s offense, which accounted for 266.1 passing yards per game and scored at a clip of 39.2 points per game.
Lawrence has been incredibly accurate this season, completing 66.5 percent of his passes and throwing only two interceptions. The La Mesa, California native has thrown for 3,024 yards and 33 touchdowns as well.
Klieman believes that much of San Diego’s success offensively has been a product of the continuity their offensive line has developed. “They have their offensive line back. All the guys that played in the playoff game are playing right now,” the head coach commented. “You combine that with a quarterback that’s such a seasoned guy that doesn’t make mistakes and is playing with a lot of confidence.”
In spite of stellar running back Jonah Hodges’s departure, San Diego vaunted running game has not declined. True freshman Emilio Martinez has taken the reigns and made it seem as if Hodges never left, rushing for 1,011 yards and ten scores this season. He is joined in the backfield by junior Joseph Binda, who has gone for 447 yards and six touchdowns.
Senior wide receiver Justin Priest has formed an electric pairing with Lawrence. Priest’s 1,047 receiving yards are the twelfth most in the nation and make him one of just 17 FCS players with over 1,000 yards through the air. Priest’s 13 touchdowns are the fifth most in the nation.
Tight end Ross Dwelley is the second leading receiver for San Diego with 636 receiving yards and ten scores on 47 catches. The senior has been a versatile tight end for the Toreros, lining up in various positions and not always playing attached to the line.
San Diego’s offense plays along a similar vein as the Bison. “It’s more like us in the fact that you’re going to see a team that is under center. You’re going to see a team that huddles. You’re going to see a team with a lot of tight ends,” said Klieman.
The Toreros’ defense is anchored by defensive end Jonathan Petersen. The Buck Buchanan Award finalist has been dominant this season at disrupting opposing offenses. Petersen is first in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss, compiling 15 and 22.5, respectively. In total, opponents have lost 252 yards thanks to Petersen
“On defense, they play the game the right way. They play really fast. They play really hard. They know their fits. They know what they do and they do it well,” Klieman summarized.
Still, San Diego has been exposed in pass defense, allowing 268.9 yards through the air per game and 21 passing scores. It will be critical for the Bison’s offensive line to neutralize Petersen and keep quarterback Easton Stick on his feet to take advantage of a weak unit.
The Toreros faced very little difficulty en route to their tenth Pioneer League title, which will be to their detriment against the Missouri Valley’s top team. After two straight losses to UC Davis and Princeton, USD ripped off eight consecutive conference wins, not once allowing conference opponents within 16 points.
“They handled the Pioneer League so well. They didn’t really get challenged in that at all,” Klieman remarked. Despite their weak conference, San Diego is still an imposing opponent, as evidenced by their back to back playoff victories against Big Sky opposition.
“I think all of us would say they’d finish in the top two or three in the Big Sky. I mean, look at what they done to teams that have been in the Big Sky,” Klieman said. “They are a different level Pioneer team.” Most impressive is the fact that head coach Dale Lindsey has turned San Diego into a perennial winner without the aid of any scholarships.
The Herd enter their first playoff matchup amidst peculiar circumstances. Klieman announced in his press conference on Monday that senior Darren Kelley, and redshirt freshmen Henry Van Dellen and Sean Engel were removed from the football team. Additionally, tight end Dallas Freeman was suspended for the upcoming contest.
Klieman resisted multiple attempts by reporters to divulge further information regarding the circumstances of the disciplinary actions or if they were related, saying only that the four were punished for a violation of team rules.
The head coach did not express concern over his team’s ability to move past the incident, saying, “They’ll respond. They’re a resilient bunch.”
Exactly how the Bison will respond is uncertain, but with the streaking Toreros coming back to Fargo, there are other tasks at hand.