North Dakota hosts Richmond in FCS playoff debut
(STATS) – If North Dakota has any jitters about playing in its first-ever FCS playoff game, the comfortable surroundings of the Alerus Center should help alleviate that.
Richmond, meanwhile, has nothing but terrible memories of the Peace Garden State.
Saturday night will mark the FCS playoff debut for North Dakota, which hopes to stretch its winning streak to 10 when the Spiders visit for a second-round matchup.
While No. 8 North Dakota has experienced plenty of postseason success, all of it came during the school's Division II era before making the jump to the FCS level prior to the 2008 season. The Fighting Hawks went 20-12 in the Division II playoffs, winning the national championship in 2001 with another championship game appearance in 2003.
“It means a lot for us to play in the tournament,” coach Bubba Schweigert said. “It will mean much more if we get a positive result, we know that. We think it will help us in terms of exposure and recruiting. Our fan base will also be really excited to be part of that atmosphere.”
North Dakota (9-2) has been idle since completing its most successful FCS regular season with a 38-31 victory over Northern Arizona on Nov. 12. It was the ninth straight win for the Fighting Hawks, who finished unbeaten in the Big Sky Conference and went 5-0 at home to continue a longtime trend of success in Grand Forks.
North Dakota is 81-22 overall at the Alerus Center, including a 10-0 mark in playoff games there, and 13-3 at the indoor facility in Schweigert's two-plus seasons.
“We're excited to be home. It's an advantage if you play well,” Schweigert said. “If your crowd gets in the game, it can help you if you approach it the right way and come out with a lot of energy and you're focused.”
Richmond (9-3) knows all too well how difficult it can be to play in a loud and raucous atmosphere after it was routed 33-7 at North Dakota State in last season's national semifinals.
The 12th-ranked Spiders earned another trip to the state of North Dakota with a 39-10 victory over visiting North Carolina A&T in the first round Saturday. After two-year starting quarterback Kyle Lauletta suffered an ACL tear in the regular-season finale, Richmond removed the redshirt from Kevin Johnson and he passed for 315 yards and a touchdown to back a stout defensive effort.
“We were highly motivated Saturday at home, motivated to win. We were really highly motivated to extend our season,” Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. “These guys had a taste the last couple of years of the postseason, winning in the postseason, and there's something about going to North Dakota that I thought is really meaningful. We're working hard to find a way to beat a really good football team.”
While Johnson played well and redshirt freshman Deontez Thompson carried 24 times for 98 yards, the Spiders won with defense and special teams. They forced four turnovers, got a 92-yard punt return from Dejon Brissett and four field goals from Griffin Trau.
Overcoming adversity has become a theme for Richmond, which has lost a whopping 18 players to season-ending injuries.
“We've got a great group of guys who fight for each other every day and that's exactly what this is,” Johnson said. “We're excited for the opportunities in front of us.”
The Spiders are no strangers to success, having won the national championship in 2008 and standing as one of only five schools in the country with a playoff win each of the past three seasons. Last week's victory was Richmond's 42nd in the last five years, the eighth most in the nation during that span.
“I do believe our (playoff) experiences have helped us and we're a better program and a better football team for having been through the experiences we've had the last couple years, including this past Saturday,” Rocco said.
Johnson will find the going much tougher against a North Dakota defense that led the Big Sky and ranked seventh in the FCS, allowing 91.5 yards per game. That unit is anchored by safety Cole Reyes, the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year. Reyes finished the regular season with 58 tackles, a sack, three interceptions, eight pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.
A Richmond loss would mark the end of a brilliant career for receiver Brian Brown, just the second player in CAA history to have three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus receiving yards. He's the top target for an attack that led the conference with 279.6 passing yards per game.
The schools share one common opponent in Stony Brook, which defeated North Dakota 13-9 in the Sept. 1 season opener and rolled to a 42-14 rout of Richmond two weeks later.
This will be the first meeting between these programs, and the winner advances to the quarterfinals to face either 14th-ranked Central Arkansas or No. 3 Eastern Washington, which shared the Big Sky title with North Dakota.